Book Reviews [Spring 2013]

Well, it’s that time again: time to round up all the books from the past few months and make a quick record of my distilled ideas about them. I do hope you’ll join in with your own thoughts, and let me know what is the best thing you’ve read this year so far.

…because words have the power to change us…

LettersOfTolkienThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien) – 5 STARS – Tolkien’s son has put his father’s letters into a quite extensive collection that gives us a better feel for John Ronald Reuel’s own mind than any biography could do. It includes letters to Edith, to family members, to publishers, inquirers, scholars, fans of all kinds, and – my personal favorites – letters to his two sons, as they attended university and later fought in the Second World War. There are many letters that have to do with publishing hassles and squabbles and domestic arrangements, and the more or less monotonous life of a university professor. However, there are also deeply insightful family letters of advice and fellowship and yes, the thing most of us are hoping for: considerable information about the process and motivation driving The Lord of the Rings. This is not a book for those who are wishing to just pass the time, and feel it may be amusing to know a bit more about Tolkien. It is for those who wish to really know Tolkien, to the extent that he still can be known. Some more brief thoughts about the war letters are here.

Hudson Taylor [Volumes I and II] (Howard Taylor) – 5 STARS – This massive two-volume biography of Hudson Taylor and The China Inland Mission is not for the faint-hearted, but I found it to be a lasting delight as I read it over the course of almost two years. Written in that grand old tone of 19th century literature, the books dwells not as much on the external particulars of the ministry as on Hudson Taylor’s spiritual adventure – although, by the time it is complete, there have certainly been enough pages to touch on plenty of material details as well. I recommend it highly, and found it a most effective summons to awake to the urgency and fleetingness of life. Some favorite quotations below:

“His capacity for happiness was like that of an unspoilt child.”

“Surely to need much grace and therefore to be given much is not a thing to be troubled about, is it?”

“Should we not rejoice when we have anything we can give up for the Savior?”

“Light will be no doubt be given you. Do not forget, however, in seeking more, the importance of walking according to the light you have.”

“There should be only one circumstance to us in life, and that Circumstance – GOD.”

WHAudenThe Complete Poems (W.H. Auden) – 3 STARS – Well, in all honesty, I didn’t actually read the complete poems. However, I got well over half-way through this one before deciding I needed to take a really long break from Auden – as in, I’m done with this book. Auden’s writing includes many really strong pieces and I expect that several verses from here will stick with me for the rest of my life. However, my ultimate conclusion was that the man would be regarded far more highly today if he had burned up about half of what he wrote before it ever had the opportunity to be published. Nevertheless, there are some great compositions, in the middles of some quite dull and context-bound pieces, there are startling statements. A few favorite lines are below:

From The Quest:

The only difference that could be seen
From those who’d never risked their lives at all
Was his delight in details and routine;
For he was always glad to mow the grass;

Pour liquids from large bottles into small,
Or look at clouds through bits of colored glass.”

From At The Grave of Henry James:

All will be judged; master of nuance and scruple
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

From A Christmas Oratorio:

We are afraid of pain, but more afraid of silence.” 

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

What is real about all of us is that each of us is waiting.

“If we were never alone or always too busy
Perhaps we might even believe what we know is not true:
But no one is taken in, at least not all of the time;
In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night,
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all
To which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment.”

“…remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

From The Age of Anxiety:

“But the new barbarian is no uncouth
Desert-dweller; he does not emerge
From fir-forests; factories bred him;
Corporate companies, college towns
Mothered his mind, and many journals
Backed his beliefs. He was born here.”

Anton_ChekhovThe Complete Short Stories (Anton Chekhov) – 4 STARS – Again, I can’t say that I read the complete stories. But after I’d read over half of them, I felt it was enough. Here is another author who just wrote so much, and certainly not all of his work is created equal, although it all proceeds from the same spirit. Chekhov sees right through humanity, and is not a bit taken in. All of his characters are presented in their stark reality, with no whitewashing, and no redemption. There are not really any heroic characters in Chekhov’s stories. There are just people, behaving just as people generally do. And yet, despite all of this, Chekhov loves them, for a reason that perhaps is best articulated by a short paragraph in his story Frost:

“The old men sank into thought. They thought of that in man which is higher than good birth, higher than rank and wealth and learning, of that which brings the lowest beggar near to God: of the hopelessness of man, of his sufferings, and his patience.”

I think it’s fair to say that Chekhov’s stories are about suffering. And thus, by default, they are about love. (I’ve written some more detailed thoughts about this here.)

Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens) – 5 STARS – One of my favorite Dickens books so far – and I’ve read most of the major novels now. For me, this one rates right up there with Great Expectations and Bleak House. Nicholas Nickleby embodies so many aspects of the heroic ideal and makes honor and decency seem like new and flaming concepts; like aspirations that outweigh the balance of the whole world. While I’m fully aware of a number of serious deficiencies with the structure of this novel, I had to give it a five-star rating since it was among the most encouraging books I’ve read in months. (You can read my more extensive thoughts on this one here.)

OliverTwistCharles Dickens (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Chesterton on Dickens? It hardly gets better than that. Chesterton is the perfect man to write about Dickens, because he understood and shared so many of Dickens’ central ideas: Love of the free and simple man’s home. A fierce defense of the traditional family structure. A thorough understanding of Romance. A humble and unpretentious regard for the poor. A respect for the great Christian carelessness that seeks its meat from God. A relish for comradeship and serious joy. A hunger for the inn at the end of the world. Indeed, I feel this is one of Chesterton’s best books, and found fuller explanations in here for many of the themes that pervade his poetry. Dickens was exactly the stuff that Chesterton understood best, and Chesterton understood even Dickens’ literary weaknesses better than any other critic I’ve encountered. Ultimately, it is plain that Chesterton transcended the mighty Dickens because he did more than delight in the ideals: Chesterton actually lived by them.

My Utmost For His Highest (Oswald Chambers) – 5 STARS – At last I read My Utmost for His Highest for a whole year and all the way through. It feels like a growing up. And I know that in some ways, it is, because when I picked this one up a few years ago I found it intolerable and had to put it away. It wasn’t that I felt it was untrue, but only that it hurt my independence frightfully and spoke of things I was afraid to know about. Now I can call it one of the greatest masterpieces of truth that I have encountered. I expect to read it again and again and again, for I know there is still so much I haven’t attained to.

Deliver Us From EvilDeliver Us From Evil (Ravi Zacharias) – 3 STARS – I wanted to like this book more than I did like it. Ravi Zacharias is a great thinker and has much wisdom to offer. However, it seems like the book is not as well organized as it might have been, and the writing style employs quite a bit of unjustified circumlocution. In spite of this, it is also full of truth, which sometimes shines out with a glimmer of splendor.

The Love of God (Oswald Chambers) – 4 STARS – As with most of Chambers’ writing, this little book is full of staggeringly good stuff. Due to the fact that Chambers’ writings were mostly published posthumously, some of the text here is also included in other works, such as My Utmost For His Highest.

The ChimesThe Chimes (Charles Dickens) – 3 STARS – Just as in A Christmas Carol, Dickens attempts in this short novella to tackle social issues in the context of a tale set during a holiday season. However, he doesn’t pull it off quite as well in The Chimes. The characters are not as developed, and the plot line is shaped by his central theme of social injustice, rather than being worked into it. In spite of these weaknesses, Toby Veck is an endearing protagonist, and the catastrophic vision is quite moving.

“He delighted to believe — Toby was very poor and could not well afford to part with a delight — that he was worth his salt.”

TellingTheTruthTelling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Frederick Buechner) – 4 STARS – Buechner writes prose like poetry, and is a master at his craft, and so of course this book is beautiful, echoing so many of the things you know but don’t know how to put into language; so many of the things about fairytales and Story, and humanity and homesickness and hunger. As a note of caution, I did get the feeling Buechner was so caught up in his own lovely writing that he may have taken some unwise liberties with the character of God – nothing overt enough to prevent me from recommending the book to someone else, but certainly I’d want to tack this disclaimer onto any recommendation I make.

Tortured For Christ (Richard Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – Wurmbrand’s iconic account of persecution under communism in Romania covers much more territory than I expected. It’s a short read, but deftly addresses many aspects of the oppressed underground church throughout the world, and illuminates the simplicity of the devotion that goes to death for Christ expectantly, singing, singing, singing. As Wurmbrand says himself, “I have found truly joyful Christians only in the Bible, in the Underground Church, and in prison.” The church in the West would do well to attend…

WurmbrandFamilyThe Pastor’s Wife (Sabina Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – I read this one on Noel‘s recommendation. It gives a much more complete picture of the Wurmbrand family’s personal history and I especially appreciated how openly Sabina writes about their struggles, loneliness and isolation, as she tells a very real and honest story. Somehow the significance of their endurance becomes even more overwhelming as we hear about the darkness that veiled their sight all the way and sundered everything from everything else. I found their son Mihai’s story particularly gripping as he grew up relatively orphaned for several years and struggled not to lose his faith.

The Radical Cross (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – Tozer espouses a sane, Biblical, healthy, and uncompromising theology. I think it does even the most learned and mature among us a great deal of good to do this sort of reading periodically and take refreshment from the simplicity of things. This is not to imply that this book is in any way simplistic – it is in fact a sophisticated collection of thoughts on the meaning and significance of the Cross of Christ – but only that it is simple, with that perfect straightforwardness which characterized the life of our Lord.

LittleDorritLittle Dorrit (Charles Dickens) – 4 STARS – Little Dorrit doesn’t commend itself by one overarching idea but by the incorporation of a great many that are mingled together to construct one fabulous whole. We come away quite overwhelmed and satisfied by the humble constancy of Amy, the unassuming decency of Arthur, the pathetic conceit of Mr. Dorrit, the great-hearted practicality of Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, the devoted magnanimity of John Chivery, and the principles of the pitiable and many-faceted Mr. Pancks. This is Dickens doing what he does best, although not perhaps in his best way, since the plot feels a little stretched at times. Nonetheless, I class this among the author’s greater works, as definitely an exquisite novel and no weakly-veiled social pamphlet like Hard Times.

The BBC produced an excellent film version within the past couple of years, which I highly recommend. The mini-series clocks in at eight hours, and remains true to the spirit and text of the book. Indeed, in some ways it is arguably superior.

What I’m still reading:

Abandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland)
Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton)
The Father’s Tale (Michael O’Brien)
On Writing Well (William Zinsser)
The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis)
Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works
The Greater Trumps (Charles Williams)

What about you?

On The Importance of Being Smike

Nicholas NicklebySometimes a story smacks you squarely in the face with precisely the thing you need. So it was for me with Nicholas Nickleby last month, which I read over the course of only a week and which has been growing on me ever since, like a widening light.

Charles Dickens’ third published novel, Nicholas Nickleby is among the author’s earlier writings, and belongs very definitively to that set of his work that was the most Dickensian. That is, it is full of flair and hyperbole and drama and oppression and cold weather and child abuse and misery and heroics and ideals. Especially ideals.

Indeed, as with all of Dickens’ best work, Nicholas Nickleby’s strengths lie not in any unique plot twists or unusual characters, but in the incarnation of ideals, their taking on of flesh. Nicholas Nickleby is strong because its’ characters are ideals. And they take on flesh quite well – indeed, in 900 pages they have plenty of time to do so. The ideals are very fully fleshed out. But they are also very strong ideals, that have endured in the world since the genesis of Christendom. And if you love them already, you will find them splendid because Dickens makes them so, but mostly because they are splendid in their own right.

NicholasAt the heart of these ideals is the hero. This is Nicholas himself. He is not particularly original, but he attracts us because he is not merely a protagonist, but is, in fact, really a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. He adores justice and honor with a childlike simplicity and he takes on the miseries of life with a pure heart and cheery self-denial. Beside his fiery innocence, every contaminated sentiment and half-wrong seems horrible, and not to be endured.

All my days I have been seeking to be like him. Quite without knowing his story, at all, of course. Because Nicholas Nickleby is not a character invented by Dickens at all. He is the quintessential human hero, a picture of the man that men will follow, and that the world is not worthy of.

In Dickens’ story, Nicholas is afflicted by some rather prosaic difficulties when his father, a country gentlemen, dies unexpectedly, leaving the nineteen-year-old Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother in dire straits. They are forced to apply for assistance to the senior Nickleby’s brother, Nicholas’ uncle Ralph. Ralph is a ruthless and unscrupulous miser, who sends Nicholas off to work for pennies at a wretched boarding school in Yorkshire, and exploits Kate’s feminine graces to please his business partners. Their mother, while an amiable woman, lacks discretion, and cannot serve as a source of guidance for the two young people in their difficulties.

All told, the title character’s situation seems thoroughly unenviable. Fortunately, Nicholas carries something with him that turns the desolation of the world into an adventure: his stalwart decency. Thrust into scenes of unbearable degradation and injustice, his ideals of truth and righteousness do not falter, and cannot be co-opted. He is an honest man, and no one can take that away from him. This makes his life bearable and serves as a roadmap. You pity him in his hardship, but not too much, because you know he has a treasure of incalculable worth, and that he has what it takes to get to the other side of what is before him. Before his story is over, he will be the one turning the arrogant from their ease, and rescuing the downtrodden with remarkable flair.

I can’t not want to be that guy.

But I’m not.

I spent all my childhood imagining myself as something of a champion in the making. Oh, the places I would go, and all of the rescue I would dispense! All of my dreams were about heroics. So the knowledge that I have been somewhat mistaken in my aim has been a long time coming home to me.

With Nicholas Nickleby, it came home a little more. Because beside even Dickens’ simple and clichéd ideal, I seem very unheroic indeed. And I know that there must be something besides the fruitless chase after championship.

And so there is.

At Dotheboys’ Hall, a stereotypically Dickensian hell-hole, where Nicholas serves as an assistant to the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, we meet another character. Smike is crippled, and hardly a boy anymore at eighteen. He was abandoned at the school six years ago, and has been exploited by the Squeers ever since, serving them as a slave in deplorable conditions and beaten continually. His ill-treatment and ignorance have given him a feeble mind and doubled his terror and helplessness. Smike has no ideals to nourish him, and no prospects or plans ahead of him. His life is a living death.

Smike4
Nicholas, enraged by the cruelty that Smike endures, is very kind to the drudge. This is something Smike has never experienced before, and something happens to him that he did not realize could happen:  it dawns upon him that there is a reason to live, and that waking up in the morning doesn’t have to be just the shock of death flooding his lungs. His reason to live is Nicholas, and the hope of Nicholas’ approval and the ambition of serving him.

The Squeers, who are evil, are annoyed by the sight of goodness thriving anywhere, and redouble their efforts to make Smike’s life a torment to him. Nicholas decides this additional oppression is just about the last straw, and he informs Smike that he is going to leave. In a wild fit of desperation, Smike abandons the disgraceful institution on his own that night. Lame and starving, he doesn’t get far before he is dragged back by the schoolmaster’s wife. The Squeers, who find it necessary to deal with the imminent threat of mutiny among the boys, decide to make a great spectacle of Smike, and to flog him severely before the whole school.

As this ordeal commences, Nicholas snaps, and descends like a hurricane upon the schoolmaster, administering a sound drubbing to the latter, before packing his little bag and quitting the place. As he sets out on the long journey back to London, impoverished and with grim prospects, he runs into Smike, who has been following him all the way. Smike drops to his knees at Nicholas’ feet.

 ‘Why do you kneel to me?’ Nicholas asks.

“To go with you–anywhere–everywhere–to the world’s end–to the churchyard grave,” says Smike in a wild supplication. “Let me, oh do let me. You are my home.”

Smike is a cripple all of his days. He drags his deformed limbs with him everywhere, and his weak mind is never made whole. Wherever he goes, people will stare and whisper and feel sorry for him. He will never be a specimen of perfection. But in spite of all this he is at rest, and at home. Because he is following Nicholas Nickleby , and consumed in a sort of slavish devotion to his hero. What he is is wretched indeed, but what he is is not important to him. For he is utterly wrapped up in worshipping a worthier champion. In himself, there is limitless impotence and fear. But in his master there is enough glory to satisfy him.

And when the full import of this burst upon me, I found it disturbing, like a call to wake up.  Because my Dearest Friend is the prince of champions, and oh, are all of my springs in Him? The grace that has set me free, is it enough for me? Or must I do something of my own to add to it, before it is sufficient to be happy-making?

Hudson Taylor wrote to his wife in 1869,

I now see that it is not in what He is to me, not in what He is working, or has worked, or may work in, for, or by me, but in Himself I am to rejoice;  in what He is and has in Himself absolutely. And this, it appears to me, is the only possible or even legitimate ground for constant, unchanging, full joy.

But to get at the joy that is only outside of ourselves, we must come to the end of ourselves. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said our Lord. Not because they are lesser or more wretched than their brothers, but because they know it. And theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For the life at the heels of Christ is not about being a hero, but about loving a hero. And the more you love Him, the more you are at home in Him. And when He is all that matters, it doesn’t matter that you are what you are.

Because He is what He is.

Books!

It’s been a long time since a post about books, and I think it’s high time, for I have been reading them, of course, though more sparingly and slower than usual. I listened to the whole of the Short History of England in Libri Vox recordings, while mopping the kitchen floor. Middlemarch was an adventure that sustained me through illness and chaos, and I keep turning back to The Rain In The Trees when I forget what heartbreak feels like; I keep trying to figure it out. Sitting on the carpet against the walls of the space museum in D.C., and trapped in the National Gallery of Art during spring protest marches at the Capitol, I read every one of the thin, color-splashed pages of Des Cars’ study of the Pre-Raphaelites.

I started a new job in the summer, and have very little time to read anything these days, but when Flaubert said, “read in order to live,” he wasn’t far from the truth. In a culture of words where we are beset on every side with wasted language and so many lies, it is more than a wise option to deliberately confront ourselves with the beautiful and the good. It is a necessity, I think.

Here is some of what I have been reading. I hope you will share your own lists with me, too, because I don’t want to miss out on your splendid recommendations!

George EliotMiddlemarch (George Eliot) – 5 STARS – Middlemarch, like most writings of its time, is a lot of work. It is an investment. And it is a very good one. I read this one on Sarah’s recommendation, and I have to say that I think she was spot-on. Not being particularly thrilled by Silas Marner, the only other Eliot work I’d read, my expectations weren’t very high going into this one. But when the climax of the story had me actually in tears in the middle of the night, as I sat up late to finish it one weekend, I realized just how much power Eliot had packed into here. It’s difficult to share much about what I took away from the story without giving the story away, but I will say that the theme which moved me most strongly was the lovable portrayal of righteousness, even unnoticed and unrewarded. Middlemarch wants to teach us about the pricelessness of integrity of character, and demonstrates that nothing is worth having if it can only be got at the expense of what is right, and that no loneliness compares with the loneliness of the man who cannot be at peace with himself and his Dearest Friend.

A Short History of England (G.K. Chesterton) – 4 STARS – Chesterton’s highly opinionated summary of the history of England is both funny and disorderly in a masterful, Chestertonian manner. Much poetic license is taken with the narrative of the British Isles and Chesterton runs off on regular rabbit-trails, but some very enduring ideas are contained herein. I felt I wasn’t quite knowledgeable enough to really get everything out of this, and was painfully aware of some awkward gaps in my British history. The section that I found most helpful was Chesterton’s explanation of his admiration for the medieval era, a thing I never quite understood before, and which I expect to think about quite regularly for the rest of my life as I explore the workings of postmodern society and try to piece together the social philosophies of the past.

10 Books That Screwed Up The World [And 5 Others That Didn’t Help] (Benjamin Wiker) – 4 STARS – I was quite impressed with this one, actually. Wiker explores the writings of several destructively influential shapers of culture, from Machiavelli to Freud to Margaret Mead to Marx to Alfred Kinsey, and many others. He intersperses his commentary with quotations from the authors in question and equips the reader with vivid and sometimes shocking examples. His chapters are short and engaging and he doesn’t take long-winded philosophical detours, which makes this an excellent book to recommend to friends who want to explore worldview issues, and tackle the elephants in the room, but may not have the patience for Francis Schaeffer yet.

The Ward of Heaven and the Wyrm in the Sea
(Colin Cutler) – 4 STARS – It’s hard to put a label on Colin Cutler’s first book. The Ward is a brief and rich Christian reworking of Norse mythology, told from the perspective of a hermit in medieval Scandinavia. It’s historical fiction that morphs into sober, Bible-based fairytale. It reminded me strongly of reading Beowulf as a young teenager and it felt like a context for all of the dark mystery surrounding the mythology of Beowulf. While there were some issues with lack of polish and a few instances where the tales seemed to unfold a little awkwardly, I understand that this is an extremely difficult genre to work with and greatly respect Cutler for venturing out into these uncharted but promising waters.

PrayerWheelTickets for a Prayer Wheel: Poems (Annie Dillard) – 4 STARS – There is no question that Annie Dillard is a splendid writer. Like all good poets, she hallows everything and shrouds it in mystery. I just wish her mysteries weren’t so utterly impenetrable and gloomy, and keep hoping she will be unreservedly jubilant about something for once, rather than behaving as though the few visible parts of the mostly-veiled truth are not particularly gladdening. I feel I am getting only half of the story with her, and I want the other half wildly. That said, there were some sections in here that made me stop short and reread and reread and reread. Like this,

God am I smug when they talk about Belsen–
I’ve never killed anyone in my life!
I simply betray:

let the phone ring,
seal a typed letter,
say to the girl in the courtyard,
“I never saw him before in my life,”
call a cab, pull on gloves,
and leave. And leave you,
and leave you with the bill.

Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism (Laurence Des Cars) – 4 STARS – While there was nothing especially stunning or remarkable about Des Cars’ treatment of the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the book was concise and informative and a good simple introduction to the origins, philosophies and figures of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Lord, Teach Us To Pray (Andrew Murray) – 4 STARS – Murray’s thoughts on prayer make up more of a discourse than a book. Like so much Christian writing, this one is loaded with redundancies and blithely employs terms that mean more than any of us are likely to understand in the course of our days as earthlings. However, I don’t find this quite as annoying as I used to. Because as I begin to scratch the surface of the meanings of some things, I begin to learn about the heights and the depths of meaning in everything. And it’s OK if we don’t know everything, as long as we know that there is a very great deal to be known. To live will be a great adventure.

CyclopsThe Odyssey (Homer) – 3 STARS – Interestingly enough, I didn’t find myself liking The Odyssey quite as much as the Illiad. It has all of the good stories, yes, but I felt like the Illiad boasted superior craftsmanship and a stronger emotional appeal. And more unintentional humor, of course. The Odyssey seemed a little thin and rushed compared to the many hysterical chapters of the Illiad in which nothing happened at all except vicious bickering. However, the stories of The Odyssey are timeless, of course, and hold their charm even when you already know what is going to happen.

The Rain in the Trees (W.S. Merwin) – 5 STARS – I have to give this book five stars, even though I suspect if Merwin and I were to sit down over coffee, we would find little to agree on. There were portions of this book where the divide between our presuppositions was made very evident, but overall the poetry in this volume is about the human experience, which is more or less universal. In an era when universals and traditional imagery are frowned upon by many leading figures in the academic community, Merwin’s focus on nature and wide themes was like a breath of mountain air. It should be noted that there is deep sorrow coursing through the pages of The Rain in the Trees: the sorrows of things forgotten, things lost and, most of all, things without answers. It is a book to be read cautiously. Merwin is an author to whom we should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have.

Some favorite portions:

From Term:

they are on their way already
their feet are the feet of ghosts
watching them is like watching a ship
leaving the shore
and seeing that it will never arrive

From Before Us:

You were there all the time and I saw only
the days the air
the nights the moon changing
cars passing and faces at windows
the windows
the rain the leaves the years
words on pages telling of something else
wind in a mirror

everything begins so late after all

From History:

there was a note on a page
made at the time
and the book was closed
and taken on a journey
into a country where no one
knew the language
no one could read
even the address
inside the cover
and there the book was
of course lost

it was a book full of words to remember
this is how manage without them
this is how they manage
without us

I was not going to be long

A Book of Strife in the Form of a Diary of an Old Soul (George MacDonald) – 4 STARS – This volume is a collection of short devotional poems by MacDonald, one for each day of the year. Some are fairly hum-drum, but I copied down several pages of real treasures. A small sampling:

“Be for me then against myself. Oh lean
Over me then when I invert my cup;
Take me, if by the hair, and lift me up.”

“Give me a world, to part for praise and sunder.
The brooks be bells; the winds, in caverns dumb,
Wake fife and flute and flageolet and voice;
The fire-shook earth itself be the great drum;
And let the air the region’s bass out thunder;
The firs be violins; the reeds hautboys;
Rivers, seas, icebergs fill the great score up and under!
But rather dost thou hear the blundered words
Of breathing creatures; the music-lowing herds
Of thy great cattle; thy soft-bleating sheep;
O’erhovered by the trebles of thy birds,
Whose Christ-praised carelessness song-fills the deep;
Still rather a child’s talk who apart doth hide him,
And make a tent for God to come and sit beside him.”

“O Father, thou art my eternity.
Not on the clasp Of consciousness–on thee
My life depends; and I can well afford
All to forget, so thou remember, Lord.”

Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (George MacDonald) – 3 STARS – I took down several pages of quotations from this one, but the story-line was not especially intriguing.

Stories of GodStories of God (Rainer Maria Rilke) – 4 STARS – I have a love/hate relationship with this one. I love Rilke for being such a marvelous writer and for writing fairy-tales, and for loving children. I hate the irreverence of the book and the way it throws everything into a mood of insecurity and uncertainty and takes away from the eternal nature of fairy-tales.

Lady Susan (Jane Austen) – 3 STARS – A short, epistolary novel that Jane Austen wrote as a teenager, Lady Susan centers around the fate of an unscrupulous, conniving, flirtatious woman. As you would expect from something of this length and nature, it falls short of really drawing the reader into the story on an emotional level, and thus the climax is suitable but not remarkable.

David Elginbrod (George MacDonald) – 4 STARS – I got a lot of wonderful things out of this one, even though it did seem to go on and on at times, and MacDonald entered into a few too many sermonizing digressions. Hugh’s progress really did capture my interest and I felt the significance David Elginbrod’s far-reaching impact was powerfully demonstrated.

Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Anne Coulter) – 4 STARS – Anne Coulter is smart and funny and mostly right. She nails so many things squarely on their little heads that the pounding of hammers is sure to reverberate in the reader’s head long after the reading of this sarcastic, educational and entertaining book. However, like most people of her temperament, Coulter isn’t writing to convince anyone from the other side, and her wit is biting and overtly harsh, certain to turn away anyone who isn’t already more or less in agreement with her. I felt the chief value of this book was the numerous and vivid real-life examples that equip the reader with the context and organization necessary to argue the beliefs they hold but don’t know how to comprehensively defend. It’s also a great boost for those who feel their faith in conservatism wavering a little in the face of unrelenting outside pressure.

Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Annie Dillard) – 4 STARS – My feelings about this one were exactly expressed in my review of Tickets For a Prayer Wheel above.

Poetry HandbookA Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver) – 3 STARS – This small volume is loaded with some very useful advice for those who want to write poetry, and is beautifully written, as befits prose written by an author who is a poet. However, Oliver’s rejection of universals in poetry taints much of what she has to say and renders this a book that I would hesitate to recommend to someone else unless I knew they already had an understanding of the tension between the postmodern obsession with particulars and the traditional dedication to universal truth.

What I’m still reading:

The Complete Poems (W.H. Auden)
A Patriot’s History of the United States (by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen)
Hudson Taylor [Volume II] (by Howard Taylor)
The Complete Short Stories (Anton Chekhov)
Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens)
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

So, how about you?

2012 Summer Reading List and Books From Spring and Winter Reviewed

A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness.
— Madeleine L’Engle

Peace Like A River - Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson

The more interests I develop and obligations I take on, the harder it becomes to keep up with my ever-growing collection of books and find time to actually read all of those fascinating volumes that turn my head in the bookstore and induce me to plop the cash down on the counter. Unfortunately, when I neglect to maintain a varied reading list, the world becomes a narrower place and a less wonderful one with fewer things to ponder and fewer things that cry out sursum corda.

In no particular order, I’ve compiled a list of some of the books I’ve read over the past year, and a summer reading list of literature I’m enjoying right now. Hopefully you’ll find something here to send you on a trip to the library or the bookstore – or to your e-reader.

Peace Like A River (Leif Enger) – A – Novel dealing with an exceptional and quirky family plunged into tragedy and bewilderment by an unfortunate incident. Fair is whatever God wants to do,” writes Enger. Peace Like a River shares the experiences of one remarkable man – as seen through the eyes of his children – who seeks to come to grips with that concept. This is one of those books that is pleasant to even think on long after it has been read and returned to the shelf.

Bleak House
(Charles Dickens) – A – I’ve heard this book called Dickens’ most mature work. While I haven’t read everything written by the man, I have read a great deal, and, thus far, I’d have to concur. Although the title’s grim tone suggests a desolate storyline, I found Bleak House to be one of Dickens’ cheerier stories. This isn’t to say that the tale is not fraught with unpleasantness and even tragedy, but the strong and sweet character of the protagonist puts the grotesque aspects of the narrative into perspective.

Ernie Pyle’s War (James Tobin) – A – Wonderful biography of an exceptionally tenacious combat journalist in World War II. The book includes samples of Pyle’s most enduring columns covering the war.  While the work is biographical, its most enduring integral theme is that of the conflict itself and of the spirit of humanity under the pressure of overwhelming disaster. Pyle himself had a troubled personal life and the cloud of his failed marriage does hang over the book at times.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss) – A – Witty, engaging and unforgettable, Truss’ delightful book serves as a refresher course for issues of punctuation in writing and a helpful tool for anyone concerned that the digital age is robbing our culture of some of its finer points (no pun intended).

Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) – A – By far my favorite of Dickens’ books, Great Expectations has endured because it offers an answer to one of the most important questions that young people ask of the world: when I set about to orchestrate the best future I can manage for myself, what is it to be?

Talk To The Hand (Lynne Truss) – B – I picked this up because I found it on a clearance rack after thoroughly enjoying Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Truss is as witty and entertaining as ever in this little volume deploring our cultural rejection of etiquette, but she fails to end on a conclusive note or to provide any practical steps for action that would make this book more than an intelligent rant.

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) – A – One can imagine Ray Bradbury throwing his hands up and saying hopelessly and little pitifully, “I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.” This novel is a sinister and poetic warning about may come to pass. Lovers of literature and liberty everywhere will appreciate it.

Modern Fascism (Gene Veith) – A – With his usual brilliance and knack for cultural commentary, Veith examines aspects of the fascist theory that gave rise to Nazism and their alarming prevalence in western culture during the 21st century and throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

Reading Between The Lines (Gene Veith)
– A – This is an excellent primer for Christians embarking on the adventure of exploring great literature. Veith illuminates the murky and confusing panorama of Western literary history in a concise and readable style. Chances are you’ll come away from this volume freshly inspired to read more and read better books.

The Men Behind Hitler (Bernhard Schrieber)– A – A fascinating and chilling look at the culture of eugenics and racial hygiene that led to the Nuremberg laws and Nazism. This book presents an engaging account of a much-neglected episode in 20th century history. What’s more, it’s available for free online.

How Green Was My Valley (Richard Llewellyn) – A – Novel starring a Welsh boy growing up amidst hardship in a village caught between the old and the new worlds. Llewellyn’s writing soars with poetry and captures the exquisite beauties of a gone-by way of life.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters To His Children – A – An easy read, and highly recommended. This collection of Roosevelt’s letters to his children shows the man’s broad and varied fields of interest and how his great appreciation for knowledge and endless pursuit of wisdom caused him to be able to enjoy the world widely.

Amusing Ourselves to Death (Neil Postman) – A – A must-read. Reveals the sinister nature of the visual entertainment culture and the demise of literacy and rational thought as a result of the pervading medium of television and television-based communications. I probably took more away from this book than from any other book I read this year and find myself sharing its concepts in discussion with others on a regular basis.

Economics in One Lesson (Henry Hazlitt) – A – Despite the dry and uninviting title, this is a splendid introduction to classical economics and debunks eloquently and with common sense a slew of Keynesian myths and fallacies, providing the reader with a more realistic picture of the economic scene than would be offered by most economic textbooks. Note that Hazlitt’s book is based on Frederic Bastiat’s essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen” and written in the tradition of The Law.

The Chosen (Chaim Potok) – B –
Novel exploring Jewish-American culture during World War II, and examining the differences between the Hasidic sect and the Zionist movement. Informative and thought-provoking, but not indispensable. This book shouldn’t be attempted by someone who doesn’t have a general knowledge of Freud, and an understanding of his worldview, as Freud is a central theme.

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh) – C – My low letter grade for this book does not fail to take into account the sheer poetry and flow which makes it an enjoyable read. There’s no doubt that Brideshead is charming and even irresistible at times. Overall, however, I didn’t feel like it offered a strong enough point to redeem all of its ugliness. The novel seeks to portray the crumbling of the British landowning aristocracy in the 1920s, and succeeds in making fun of both the older and the younger generations. This “fun,” however, is, for the most part, too grim to be laughable. The sexuality and alcoholism become redundant and are not used to a good purpose but drag the book into one long episode of depravity. While last scene of the story involves the protagonist making a right decision, it isn’t put into enough context to really be meaningful.

Pigs in Heaven (Barbara Kingsolver) – C – Although there were several objectionable aspects of this novel about an abandoned Cherokee child and her adoptive family, I felt like the most destructive of these was the book’s central message: children from non-white cultures usually can’t be integrated into American adoptive families in a healthy way and must retain ties with their own people groups. While it’s true that cultural sensitivity and awareness is a must for families who want to be involved in international adoption, the notion that an orphaned or socially orphaned child’s best option is always that of adoption by his or her own ethnic group is a concept that has crippled international adoptions all over the world and continues to hold many children in conditions of extreme poverty and abuse. This book served in large part to reinforce that notion which I consider to be a very harmful one, and its storyline was mediocre at best.

The Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – A – One of my all-time favorite books, the Lord of the Flies is a masterpiece of fiction, dealing memorably with issues of original sin and the warped condition of humanity. He exempts no one from the tragedy of human fallen-ness, bringing children and adults alike under its yoke. Golding writes with an adroitness and command of language that stuns and his depictions of ugly things are heartbreaking rather than grotesque. Note that the book was not intended as some form of biblical allegory and should not be taken as such. Rather, it reflects certain truths about humankind in a loose but effective way.

Summer Reading List

A Concise History of the 20th Century (Martin Gilbert)
The Road to Serfdom (Friedrich Hayek)
What’s Wrong With The World (G.K. Chesterton)
Your God Is Too Safe (Mark Buchanan)
So Brave, So Young, So Handsome (Leif Enger)
The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)
Flannery O’Connor Stories (with Jonathan Rogers’ summer reading club – join us, perhaps?)

What are you planning to read this summer?