Review of “The Prisoner of Zenda”

Anthony Hope penned the The Prisoner of Zenda nearly 125 years ago. Hope’s book was so popular it sparked an entire genre known as “Ruritarian Romance,” which are adventure novels set in fictional countries in Eastern Europe. The Prisoner of Zenda was received with eclat by Hope’s generation, who were delighted with the adventure and romance, political intrigue and sword fights, humor and tragedy. I confess to thoroughly enjoying this fast-paced, clever adventure myself, with a few reservations. This is a story for adults or older, mature teens.

THE STORY

Rudolf Rassendyll, both the hero and the narrator, is a dashing young Englishman who decides on a whim to journey to Ruritania for the coronation of the new king, also named Rudolf. Without giving away too much of the plot, a scandal is Rassendyll’s family’s past resulted in his bearing a close resemblance to the king or Ruritania, a fortunate coincidence when King Rudolf’s treacherous half brother makes a play for the throne. Rudolf Rassendyll acts decisively and honorably to save the King’s throne and life, but at the cost of a broken heart.

HONOR OR LOVE

This is simply an adventure story at heart, but what I found fascinating were the themes about honor and love, which were handled so differently a century and a half ago. Anthony Hope creates a story where Rudolf chooses honor over romantic love and passion. One overwhelming message about love in our culture is, “If it feels good, do it.” Heaven forbid in the twenty first century that anyone deny the impulses of passion. The Prisoner of Zenda offers a strikingly different approach to a conflict between honor and the dictates of our heart. Throughout the book, Rudolf wrestles with his love for the Princess Flavia, but mostly restrains himself from acting on it. Even when, in the final chapters, Rudolf falters in his determination to act honorably and leave the Princess to marry the King as she should for the good of her country, Flavia stands firm. She delivers a heroic refusal to compromise honor for love.

“Is love the only thing? … If love were the only thing, I would follow you—in rags, if need be—to the world’s end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing? … I know people write and talk as if it were. Perhaps, for some, Fate lets it be. Ah, if I were one of them! But if love had been the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell. … Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my House. I don’t know why God has let me love you; but I know that I must stay.”

A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY 

Rudolf struggles throughout The Prisoner of Zenda with his desire for the Princess and temptations to allow the King to die so he could seize the throne and princess for his own. I appreciated his distinctions between thinking and doing. He recognizes the crucial moral distinction between feeling a temptation and acting on it. In fact, his approach to confronting temptation is very close to St. Alphonsus di Liguori’s: do not focus unduly on temptation, but rather be grateful for grace to resist it. Rudolf explains:

“A man cannot be held to write down in cold blood the wild and black thoughts that storm his brain when an uncontrolled passion has battered a breach for them. Yet, unless he sets up as a saint, he need not hate himself for them He is better employed, as it humbly seems to me, in giving thanks that power to resist was vouchsafed to him, than in fretting over wicked impulses which come unsought and extort an unwilling hospitality from the weakness of our nature.”

What an awesome little explanation of human nature, grace, and temptation to find in an adventure story!

THE NEGATIVE

Although I appreciated the overall refreshing themes about honor and chivalry in The Prisoner of Zenda, this book is not without flaw morally speaking. There is a decent amount of violence, some of it committed by the hero himself. One of the most disturbing moments of violence is when Rudolf stabs a sleeping guard to death, an action that does not seem necessary in the context of the story. However, at least Rudolf later feels compunction about this decision to cold bloodedly kill the guard: “Of all the deeds of my life, I love the least to think of this.” The other motif I did not appreciate was a slight tendency towards misogyny in the hero. He comments at one point that “Women are careless, forgetful creatures.” However, to balance that comment, as I noted above, Princess Flavia is ultimately portrayed as the most honorable and principled person in the book.

IN CONCLUSION

If you or your older teens enjoy a good adventure, I find The Prisoner of Zenda to be an overall worthwhile read which provides a thought-provoking snapshot of a very different moral culture. I suggest it only for older teens and adults due to some moral dilemmas involving the proper use of violence, and some mentions of illegitimate situations and rape (in a negative light). I personally much prefer reading physical copies of books, but if you don’t mind Ebooks, this book is available for download free of charge on Project Gutenberg.

Review of “My Family and Other Animals”

I picked up My Family and Other Animals  by Gerald Durrell on a whim, hoping for a mildly interesting Ebook to pass the time while waiting for my youngest to fall asleep one evening. By the end of the first page, I was intrigued. By the end of the first chapter, I was captivated. By the end of the book, my ribs were sore from laughing and I had stayed up too late finishing it. My Family and Other Animals is quite difficult to classify, being one part travel, one part autobiography, one part natural history, and one part comedy, with a thread of descriptive language running throughout that sometimes raises it nearly to poetry. All in all, a real delight of a novel to read for any adult or older teenager.

Unconventional Childhood
My Family and Other Animals begins with the Durrell family deciding on a whim to escape a miserable British summer and take a vacation to the Greek island of Corfu. The Durrells enjoy Corfu so much they end up spending five years on the island, which suits young Gerry perfectly. His book is a memoir of a childhood full of sunlight and wonder, memorable animals, colorful Greek natives, and, of course, his ever-entertaining family. There is his oldest brother Larry, who “was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.” Next comes Leslie, whose sole interests in life were shooting and firearms. Gerry’s older sister is Margo, who fights acne and flirts with peasants. Last but not least, there is Mother, who herds her eccentric children around the globe lovingly, encouraging and placating in a most satisfactorily motherly way.

A Unique Education
Durrell offers an interesting critique of traditional education, though subtly rather than overtly. He describes how he was enthralled with anything related to the natural sciences, but otherwise uninterested in traditional education. If he had been confined to a traditional school setting in England, he very well may never have become the great naturalist he grew up to be. His mother’s decision to move the family to Corfu during some of his most formative years provided an atypical educational experience that allowed young Gerry to develop his passion for flora and fauna into a career as a naturalist. In his book, Durrell explains how all attempts at teaching him French or geography or arithmetic were quite useless until a creative tutor found ways to relate them to biology and zoology. He learned best by exploring the island, gathering specimens, and reading about them in his considerable collection of nature books. His mother wisely allowed him to spend most of his time exploring his passion for all things animal, and Gerry thrived on Corfu in a way that would not have been possible in a typical school. In many ways, I found My Family and Other Animals a strong case for homeschooling.

Delightful Diction
Durrell the grown up uses the most delightful diction in describing his childhood as Gerry. I will pay him the tremendous compliment of comparing his word choice to P. G. Wodehouse, the master of the English language. In fact, I recommend reading with a nature encyclopedia and a dictionary at hand if you wish to receive the full benefit of Durrell’s descriptions. Unless of course you know offhand exactly what diaphanous means or what a boungainvillaea looks like. The impressive diction used in My Family and Other Animals is one of the reasons I recommend this book for readers sixteen and older.

Local Color and Hilarity
Throughout his book Durrell scatters colorful characterizations, and sometimes caricatures, of local inhabitants, flora, and fauna of Corfu. He has a keen eye for foibles and humor both human and animal. You will laugh till you cry at his description of the misadventures of his mother’s sea-slug of a dog Dodo with the leg that pops out of joint.  His account of a battle between a mantid and a gecko is an epic in miniature. And the time his older brother opened a matchbox containing a snugly ensconced mother scorpion at the dining room table leads to a situational comedy of legendary proportions. These and other adventures of the Durrell family created a genuine problem as I read because it made me laugh so hard it woke my nursing baby repeatedly. Taken as a whole,My Family and Other Animals is a happy mix of P. G. Wodehouse’s humorous writing and James Herriot’s appreciation for All Creatures Great and Small which I wholeheartedly recommend as a worthwhile book.

Good Books for Catholic Adults

Moms and dads need fiction too! I firmly believe it is not only important but integral to a balanced life for parents to read books too. This list has a lot of readable classics, some fun mysteries, some historical fiction, some Catholic fiction, and some humor. I hope the books on this list inspire, refresh, and satisfy your thirst for the good and true and beautiful!

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.

In Port William, a love for the land and for neighbors create a tight-knit farming community in rural Kentucky. Wendell Berry‘s Hannah Coulter is a wise elderly woman’s reflections on her life and loves for both people and places. A touching, tantalizing, sometimes tragic picture of a way of life that is mostly lost.

I recently reviewed Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy , a truly beautiful story of conversion and redemption. Check out my review here: Review of “Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.”

Kristin Lavransdatter by Norwegian Catholic author Sigrid Undset is a beautifully-written trilogy about sin and its far-reaching consequences as seen in the life of a Norwegian woman from girlhood to death.

Undset’s other famous trilogy, The Master of Hestviken, is less recognized in America, but she considered it her greatest work, and I agree that I found it even more powerful than Kristin Lavransdatter.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating mix of an apologia for Catholicism and a recognition of the imperfection of individual Catholics. In addition to his overarching theme of Catholic redemption, Waugh describes the decay of the English aristocracy around the time of World War II. This masterfully written classic is one of my very favorite books to savor.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is not fiction at all, but rather his autobiographical tale of true love, found first in his wife, then ultimately in God. This beautifully written and moving book details Vanauken’s love affair with his wife, conversion to Christianity with the assistance of C. S. Lewis, and strengthening of faith through the devastating loss of his wife.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a charming World War II story told in letters. Check out my full review here!

One of my favorite Steinbeck books, East of Eden explores themes of family history, free will, depression, truth, and more. Very dark at times with a sadistic female antagonist, the theme in the end is about forgiveness and the truth setting one free. For a shorter introduction to Steinbeck, try The Pearl, which is a heartbreaking story about greed and true happiness.

Desperate to make ends meet, small-town spinster Barbara Buncle writes a book inspired by her neighbors. General chaos and hilarity ensue upon publication of Miss Buncle’s Book. Clean, good, cozy fun!

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece both on philosophical and literary levels. My favorite Russian novel, this book deals with deep themes such as redemption through suffering, true happiness, and ends justifying means.

Chesterton wrote so many fabulous fictional works! In The Ball and The Cross, a Catholic and atheist find an unlikely affinity in their passion about their beliefs. Manalive is my favorite: a hilarious and thought-provoking apologia for a joyful life. The Man Who Was Thursday is one of Chesterton’s most famous works, a fast-paced adventure with a subplot of allegory.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is considered the very first detective novel ever written! Collins uses multiple narrators to tell an engrossing, well-written story. The Woman in White is also excellent.

In Corfu Trilogy, Gerald Durrell recounts his magical boyhood on a Mediterranean island. Check out my full review here!

Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel achieves the considerable feat of captivating the reader for a whopping 587 pages. Lengthy, yes, but still surprisingly readable, Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a futuristic story of a voyage from earth to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. The quirky, wise elderly narrator, Neal, is juxtaposed to the controlling, totalitarian government most obey blindly.

Till We Have Faces is a haunting and thought-provoking retelling of the Psyche story from Greek mythology. Psyche’s older sister sets out to write this angry charge against the gods who have ruined her life, as she sees it. But in the process she discovers her own faults and finds truth.

North and South is a novel of contrasts: the gentile South and the industrialized North of England, humanism and capitalism. British literature fans will enjoy this classic work by Elizabeth Gaskell.

G. K. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas are a wonderful balance of carefully researched history, theological and philosophical insights, and Chesterton’s signature poetic imagination. These biographies are memorable and well-worth reading.

In any contest about sheer hilarity and perfect use of the English language, I consider P. G. Wodehouse invincible. His Blandings Castle series will have you laughing until you cry with its cast of idiosyncratic English aristocrats, servants, and imposters.

In Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the decadence of ancient Rome and the passionate conviction of the persecuted Christians.

In stark contrast to Wodehouse’s levity, Flannery O’Connor‘s The Complete Stories are quite dark on the surface, often dealing with tragedy and ugly sin. But each story contains a lesson about human nature and motivations and insight into O’Connor’s Catholic vision which the discerning reader may discover.

Agatha Christie is the queen of the golden age of mysteries. Her plots are clever and thought provoking in more ways than one. Her most famous books, such as Murder on the Orient Express, feature eccentric Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Christie’s Miss Marple stories illustrate that crimes whether large or small can often be solved by a knowledge of basic human nature. Sometimes humorous, often tragic, Christie’s mysteries satisfy the human desire for justice, though her solutions strike a discordant note with a correctly informed Catholic view of morality. At times, she advocates solutions such as allowing a criminal to kill himself as a merciful solution.

Although Christie is the queen of mysteries, I personally prefer Dorothy Sayers, who is considered by many a close second in the lineup of golden age mystery writers. Her Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series feature aristocrat sleuth Lord Peter whose lazy manner masks a sharp intelligence. I am partial to Sayers’ books because in addition to producing a fine mystery, she also writes from a broad liberal arts platform, rife with references to other great literature and philosophical insights.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a thoughtful book about racial injustice in Africa. It’s a beautifully written book about the dignity of all people. Sad yet hopeful.

Jan Karon‘s Mitford series, beginning with At Home in Mitford, is a charming, calming collection. Father Tim, an Episcopalian minister, ambles amiably through life, accompanied by his eccentric parishioners. Funny and light-hearted.

The End of the Affair by [Greene, Graham]

A modern classic, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene captures perfectly the anger and jealousy and emptiness of a man looking for love in the wrong places. The narrator feels his lover has abandoned him for God and sets out to learn why. Will he be transformed by his search?

Susan Fraser King recounts the life of Saint Margaret of Scotland in a fascinating way. Queen Hereafter tells the story of a young Margaret’s tumultuous life, highlighting her calm trust in God which carried her through her many trials.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a formidable volume, but really, it does move fast! This famous work by Alexandre Dumas explores themes of revenge and forgiveness in an unforgettable way.

Kate Morton writes wonderfully plotted multi-generational historical fiction mysteries like The Secret Keeper. I love how she keeps the reader guessing right to the end. I also enjoy her vibrant elderly narrators, who are often the protagonists of her works.

Yes, everyone has read Pride and Prejudice, but have you read all of Jane Austen?

If you have an appreciation for the classics, you will empathize with Samantha, the protagonist of Dear Mr. Knightley. A modern romance with many nods to classic literature. Check out my full review here!

The Brontë Sisters‘ major works are classic novels. Often dark in their themes, these are nonetheless important books with great insight into human nature.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written due to its picture of human nature with all its complexities and faults. This is a lengthy read, but fast moving enough to keep the reader’s interest.

Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt is a gripping historical fiction novel detailing the story of a Catholic priest secretly but faithfully performing his ministry to the persecuted English Church. An inspiring story of faith and love of Christ under trying circumstances.

Bleeder: A Miracle? Or Bloody Murder? by John Desjarlais is a well-plotted mystery in which a Classics professor finds himself playing detective to clear himself of a murder charge.

Tobit’s Dog: A Novel by Michael N. Richard is a creative retelling of the Old Testament book of Tobit, set in the deep south. I thoroughly enjoyed this fast-moving novel.

The Awakening of Miss Prim: A Novel is a delightful bestseller from Spain that is deeply Catholic in its vision while not stooping to being openly didactic. Read my full review here!

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a fascinating historical fiction novel set during World War II. Two sisters help the French resistance while struggling to survive the horrors of the war. So much depth to this novel; read my Review of “The Nightingale” for full details!

Good Books for Catholic High Schoolers Part 2 (Age 16 and up)

Here is the second part of my list of worthwhile fiction for Catholic High Schoolers. (Check out Part 1 here). I recommend these books for young adults sixteen and older either because of a more challenging theme or more mature content such as graphic violence,  situations involving fornication or adultery, or language. I will specify why each book requires a more mature reader to better assist you as the parent in determining what is appropriate for your teenager.

The three Bronte sisters each wrote a classic. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the fascinating story of a young woman’s moral and spiritual growth to adulthood through the tumultuous love affair she engages in with her pupil’s guardian. Mature content includes an adulterous affair, sensuality, and mature themes.

Emily Bronte’s single published book is Wuthering Heights, a book showing both a deep moral sensibility in its author and a shocking immorality in its characters. Themes about the havoc sin wreaks on the perpetrators and even an entire community are twined with a story about forbidden love and vengeance.

Ann Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is yet another book that is attempting to uphold morality by showing the consequences of sin in sharp, ugly detail. Alcohol use, illicit affairs, and adultery make this appropriate for a more mature reader.

I recommend most of G. K. Chesterton’s fiction for an older reader simply because his soaring imaginative genius can be better grasped and appreciated the older one gets. Manalive , was my favorite Chesterton book as a teenager, inspiring me to live each day with passion and purpose, rejoicing in being alive. On a more basic level, this is also one of Chesterton’s funniest works.

The Flying Inn: A Novel is another simply hilarious work about a band of madcap rebels resisting prohibition and arrest in a merry journey across England.

Chesterton takes on atheism in The Ball and the Cross. A passionate Christian and equally passionate atheist desire to duel over their differences, but find themselves unlikely allies when the government refuses to allow them to fight over their difference in belief.

The Paradoxes Of Mr Pond is a series of loosely connected mystery stories, thought-provoking and entertainingly recounted.

The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale is another collection of mystery stories, this time exploring the idea that a half mad poet may be the person best suited to understand and solve crimes committed by lunatics.

The Man Who Was Thursday is the book subtitled “A Nightmare” by Chesterton, and it is indeed a topsy-turvy, mind-bending adventure-mystery novel. Somehow Chesterton manages to combine allegorical and philosophical with fast-paced and exciting.

Wilkie Collins wrote two fascinating mystery stories, particularly notable for their use of first person narratives from a variety of characters to tell the story. The Woman in White is a romance, a mystery, and an examination of the vulnerability of English women in the nineteenth century. Mature content includes an abusive forced marriage.

Collins’ most famous book, The Moonstone, is both a captivating mystery and important from a literary perspective as one of the first modern crime novels.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a very lengthy, but worthwhile, novel treating an important theme about whether revenge brings real happiness or healing. Mature but not explicit content about an out of wedlock relationship resulting in a child, murders, and the main character having a mistress.

George Eliot’s most famous work is probably Middlemarch, but I personally enjoyed Daniel Deronda very much. Although long, this book explores many worthy themes about the importance of family, the Jewish people’s place in history, friendship, and true love being willing the best for the other person. Mature content includes illegitimate children, adultery, and domestic abuse.

C. S. Forester’s Hornblower Saga is a long series of books chronicling the adventures of a British naval officer beginning with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, set in 1793 during the Napoleonic wars, and following him to promotions, wars, and self-growth.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and North and South are two enjoyable and thought-provoking books, each in their own way. Wives and Daughters centers around the family, exploring personal relationships and human nature through a comedic lens. North and South, though also revolving around a romantic plot, takes on larger themes about capitalism and humanism.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work The Scarlet Letter is a compelling study of sin and its consequences. For a mature reader due to a plot revolving around adultery and an illegitimate child.

A familiarity with Homer is necessary in a well-read individual, so certainly have your teenager read The Iliad and The Odyssey.

I have two more C. S. Lewis titles to add to my recommended list. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is the story of Cupid and Psyche retold by Psyche’s plain sister. This is a masterful explanation of human emotions and motivations, and Lewis called it his best book.

The Great Divorce is an amazing allegory about heaven and hell, perfect scope for Lewis’ trademark clear distinctions and concise philosophical explanations. He raises questions such as are the gates of hell locked from the outside or inside?

The Betrothed: I Promessi Sposi , by Allesandro Manzoni, is a powerful story about the power of love and loyalty, as shown by a young couple who though separated for much of the lengthy book never swerve from their devotion to one another. A mature reader due to length.

Taylor Marshall has created a unique book that combines ancient legends about early saints with history and fantasy in Sword and Serpent. I found this book a very enjoyable look at the early church and how famous legends about Saints Blaise, Christopher, Nicholas, and George may have begun. A mature reader due to some sexual references and a truly disturbing look at evil.

Michael O’Brien is a modern day Catholic author of considerable talent. His Children of the Last Days Series begins with Strangers and Sojourners and continues with Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, Eclipse of the Sun , Plague Journal , Sophia House, A Cry of Stone, and Elijah in Jerusalem. These books are semi-apocalyptic in nature, and contain strong dramatic themes and occasional sexual references, though in a tasteful way. They are deeply Catholic, and should inspire Catholic teenagers and adults to face evil head on, knowing that Christ has already conquered.

Margaret O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka series is one of those books far too often considered a children’s book, when in fact it is more appropriate for older teenagers or adults. The classic story of daydreamer Ken’s coming of age through his love of a horse is beautifully written and utterly memorable. The sequel, Thunderhead, is also excellent. I recommend these books for an older reader due to the sexual content between the parents.

George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most famous books of the modern age, a real modern classic. This dystopian novel is both prophetic and disturbing in its vision of an increasingly totalitarian government which attempts to control every facet of life and brooks no individuality. 1984 is a powerful message not to hand all authority over to and place all trust in a centralized government. Sexual content and violence make me recommend for older readers.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a look at life for the natives of South Africa under white rule. Beautiful prose, almost poetic in nature, combines with an ugly story of desperation and desolation in an unlikely harmony of that makes this book a classic. Older readers due to violence and despair.

Quo Vadis by H. Sienkiewicz is an enduringly timely story set against the backdrop of Nero’s persecution of the early Church. A young patrician, Marcus, follows a circuitous path to converting to Christianity. Sienkiewicz provides not only a moving portrayal of early Christianity, but also an enlightening look at Nero’s court and ancient Rome. More appropriate for older readers due to sensuality and violence.

The Jeweler’s Shop: A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony Passing on Occasion Into a Drama is a play by Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. A beautiful reflection on matrimony through the lens of three different couples’ experiences.

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels leaves the reader familiar with the main characters and action of the Battle of Gettysburg. An entire novel set during the four days of the battle, this book delves deeply into the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the players in this decisive battle. For more mature readers due to violence.