Christianity, Reviews, Writers/writing

“Fierce Convictions” by Karen Swallow Prior – a book review

Book Cover for Fierce Convictions        I have just finished reading “Fierce Convictions —  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I knew a little about Hannah More (1745 – 1833) prior to reading this book, particularly that she was one of the Clapham Sect http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/119725/Clapham-Sect, with William Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England. But “Fierce Convictions” makes clear that there is quite a lot to know about Hannah More.

Dr. Prior has done a marvelous job of writing a thorough, balanced biography of Hannah More, who accomplished so many feats  in her lifetime that it’s mind boggling. One should remember that she did all these things: write acclaimed poetry and plays and a novel, start a school for women, speak persuasively to the upper classes of England about abolition of slavery and reach out to the poor of her area by starting Sunday schools which were vehicles for literacy, at a time when being a woman was a liability to doing any public work at all. Astounding.

Dr. Prior has given us a wealth of finely researched information about Ms. More’s successes and charming ways, but she also tells us about her failures and her blind spots, thus helping to form a better, more complete, more believable picture of the subject. We are also kept aware throughout the book of the historical and cultural period in which Hannah More lived, which for 21st century minds, had some very perplexing and troubling customs. As far as the readability of the book goes, there are quotes from writers of the mid 18th century that are challenging to be sure, but Hannah More’s life is so interesting, and Dr Prior’s writing is so engaging,  that it is worth the reader’s effort to work through those passages.

After reading this book, I have compiled the Top Ten Admirable Attributes of Hannah More:

  1. She was bright, articulate and witty.
  2. She was from humble birth, was modest and self-effacing.
  3. She was a Christian who grew in her faith, and changed her manner of living to reflect that growth, including modifying her opinion on the cruel treatment of animals.
  4. She wrote a play in 1763 at age 18. It was published in 1773. By the mid 1780s had sold 10,000 copies.
  5. She was unstoppable in her efforts to end slavery and to bring about moral improvement in England.
  6. She was able to cross societal boundaries, both to the upper classes and lower classes, with grace; she was able to cross religious boundaries with an open mind and heart.
  7. She was able to survive great personal setbacks and attempts to destroy her good name. She didn’t recover quickly, but she didn’t quit living her life.
  8. She was generous to a fault with her time, talents and money in her efforts to help those in need.
  9. She had great friends: Dr Samuel (“Dictionary”) Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Edmund Burke, Elizabeth Montagu, William Wilberforce, John Newton, John Venn, and many,many others.
  10. She wrote her bestselling, most imaginative, most widely read works after age 60.

You can read all about this amazing woman in “Fierce Convictions — The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I believe that this book should be on the reading list of every young woman. I have asked our local library to purchase a copy for their shelves, and will encourage them to include it on the list of suggested books for Women’s History Month 2015.

This is Dr. Prior’s second book, the first being “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.” I look forward to reading many more books from Karen Swallow Prior.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was sent an Advance Reader’s Copy of “Fierce Convictions” by Nelson Books for the purpose of reading and reviewing the book. My comments and opinions are completely my own.

Am I smarter now?, Family Life, Uncategorized

Music, minor miracles, and more

My cousin Randy Plut (pronounced “ploot”) came for a three day visit last weekend – it has been twelve years since his last trip to Minnesota. Randy has always been an amazing guy. He is the oldest of my close-in-age cousins. His brother Rick and sister MaryAnn made up the trio of cousins with whom my sister Margie and I spent most of our time. Randy, Rick and MaryAnn had myriad talents, not the least of which was a great sense of humor – among the cousins, it was always thus. Their dry wit, an eye for weird comic situations, and impeccable timing made being with them a whole lot of fun. It was at my cousins’ home that Margie and I met many of Randy’s high school pals, one of whom was John Swartzwelder, who would become the legendary writer of the animated sitcom, The Simpsons. I think an off-kilter sense of the comical is part of what drew Randy and his friends together in high school. I recall great conversations and laughing many an evening away with my cousins and their friends in Aunt Lillian and Uncle Bob’s living room.

Greater than Randy’s talent in humor is his talent in music. Before he was ever a witty teenager, Randy was a serious and accomplished musician. His instrument is the piano, which he plays like a wizard, shape-shifting without a pause, by memory alone, from classical pieces to country western to ragtime to the Beatles, the tip of his tongue poking out between his lips from time to time, the only evidence of the intense level of his concentration. It has always been thus for Randy, with family members and friends watching and listening in wonder over the years.

Randy is also amazing for having recently survived a cardiac arrest that was as near fatal as it could be. He survived it because, by the grace of God, just as Randy collapsed, his sister MaryAnn came to his house, understood the situation and called 911 for help. Randy spent quite a while in the hospital and has no recollection at all of the entire month of January 2013, the month his heart attack occurred. In fact, it was a great surprise to him to learn, as he improved during his hospital stay, that he had a new job! He had applied for, and won, a new position just prior to his heart event. Randy now has a pacemaker, an incredible invention in its own right, and one that should help Randy avoid another cardiac collapse, may it ever be thus.

We spent the last night of Randy’s visit to Minnesota at the home of one of my nieces, Michelle Rogers. Michelle and her husband Bill  graciously invited my husband, John, Randy and me for dinner.On entering Bill and Michelle’s home that evening, Randy noticed the piano in the living room, so after we enjoyed a delicious meal together, he offered to play the piano for us. We were all delighted to be a part of the audience, and Randy did not disappoint – he was phenomenal! It is a very rare thing to witness the level of skill and creativity of an artist like Randy, say, at a concert hall or on TV or the internet, but to experience performance mastery of Randy’s kind in the intimacy of a family home is mind-boggling. Bill and Michelle made sure their three children were part of the experience, and the kids enjoyed Randy’s playing along with us. Randy asked them if they had any songs they would like to hear, which he then played for them without hesitation, sheet music or batting an eyelash. We adults were astonished at Randy’s skill, whereas the kids took things in stride. What? Wait a minute – wasn’t this a minor miracle occurring before our eyes? But kids are kids. How could they gauge how remarkable Randy’s performance was? I know I was pretty oblivious to Randy’s immense talent when I was a youngster. I took his proficiency at the piano for granted and had no way of knowing the rarity of Randy’s gifts. Understanding of this kind only comes with maturity. It has always been thus, I believe.

There was another member of the audience who did seem to understand the unique quality of the evening, though. Max, the family dog, knew something special was happening. He sat by the piano, listening attentively while Randy played, and a after the recital was over, he left one of his favorite toys at Randy’s feet as a token of his appreciation. Is this a typical occurrence? Has this always been so, that dogs are aware of and admire the finer things of life?

On the ride home from Bill and Michelle’s, after saying our farewells to Randy and wishing him the blessings of health and happiness for the future, I thought about the wonderful evening we had shared, about the passage of time, and the sparing of Randy’s life in 2013. Life is an extraordinary gift, and the gifts God gives to us as individuals are also extraordinary. This is something that I want to grasp more completely. But perhaps one has to pray for the ability to comprehend this, … perhaps it has always been thus.

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” Psalm 139:6