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 Dorian Gray, Pre-Raphaelitism & The Treason of All Clerks

Dorian GrayKnown for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, 19th century Irish author Oscar Wilde was one of the best-known personalities of his time. A lavish and expensive character, he tackled his personal life in a cavalier manner and his many homosexual affairs brought about his two-year imprisonment in 1895. An aestheticist and a worshipper of beauty, Wilde wrote in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,

Beauty is a form of Genius–is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.

These words he puts into the mouth of his character, Lord Henry, a luxurious, sensual, amoral, and dangerous dandy, who reminds the reader sharply and distinctly of Wilde himself. Indeed, Wilde is often identified with dozens of the quips and one-liners uttered by the cynical Lord Henry, who babbles incessant, destructive foolishness in a markedly eloquent manner.

But as Dorian Gray drags on, it becomes apparent that Lord Henry is the novel’s antagonist and the villain who is ultimately responsible for the tale’s tragic ending. Even Wilde, who created him in his own image, hates him. In fact, the end of Dorian Gray is a firm and frightful condemnation of everything its author stood for in the real world. It is as though this book is Wilde’s message to us from the other side of his own experiences. Like he is standing over there crying, “don’t come this way!” Crying, “it’s not what you think it is!” The author of Dorian Gray was full of wisdom.

Why, then, the absurd folly that followed him all his days? Why, when we know the truth, do we not go free? This is not a question that I mean to answer, but a question that is in itself an answer to the myth that knowledge is an answer of any kind at all.

The great end of life,” wrote Thomas Huxley, “is not knowledge but action.”

Poor old Oscar Wilde was vivid, devastated proof of the way that knowing, divorced of doing, is deceitful, is death. There are other examples, of course. And sadly, they throng in great numbers around the canvas and the colors, the paints and the pens, the poetry and the publishing-houses. Because art is a medium of theory, and one may hold a theory forever without doing anything about it.

found-rossettiIn April I had an opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and was fortunate enough to be there at the same time as a touring Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. A long-time Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast, I was looking forward to this exhibit eagerly, but even I was not prepared for the full splendor of the vibrant colors, fascinating imagery and deep symbolism portrayed.

All of the artists represented had crafted brilliant and meaningful representations of redeeming love in a number of varied settings. Their works were weighty with truth, sparkling with beauty, truly magnificent. And yet I knew well that none of them had lived up to the ideals they so devotedly espoused.

300px-William_holman_hunt-the_shadow_of_deathAt the bookstore, I purchased Laurence Des Cars’ informative, illustrated volume about the Pre-Raphaelites, and over the next two days of the trip read it in other, less-interesting museums. All of my preconceptions about the artists’ tumultuous personal lives were proven correct, as were all of my suspicions that their art (for the most part) represented the glory they refused to incorporate into their own lives.

There is, of course, something disappointing about this realization. But, what is more important, there is in it a grave warning for the world of “creatives” and writers and thinkers and every form of artist and everyone who deals regularly with theories and with thoughts. As Ann Voskamp says so memorably, “The words must always become flesh. Else they aren’t words but lies.”

The journals that have housed my thinking and my ponderings for many long years are wide with words. I have kept them in very good repair, have lovingly glued loose bindings and washed stains from their leathern covers and looked after them. Why? Because my soul is so easily unsettled, so quickly ruffled. Writing has been a way for me to anchor my anxious and wandering mind. “Nothing has really happened until it has been described in words,” said Virginia Woolf. I have lived according to this motto and have hundreds of pages of tiny calligraphic script to show for it. The books are beautiful to look upon, and my heart laughs when I read through them. And yet, like anything built upon an untruth, this habit of obsessive chronicling hasn’t been accompanied by satisfaction.

Because it isn’t true that things haven’t occurred unless we tell of them. (Indeed, the telling of a thing very often makes it other than it was when it happened.) On the contrary, the only time a thing does not occur is when we don’t do it.

Our 26th president knew this. “I have a perfect horror of words that are not backed up by deeds,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt. Theoretically, we all share his disgust with hypocrisy. And yet, is our horror deep enough yet? Is our horror so deep yet that we understand that the wretched innocence of ignorance is to be preferred over the deathly disobedience of the learned?

C.S. Lewis wrote, in a letter to Arthur Greeves,

It is a shock to realize that the mere thinking it may be nothing, and that only the tiny bit which we really practice is likely to be ours in any sense of which death cannot make hay.

What is everything going to look like on the other side of the rain-curtain? Will our art be enough to outweigh our days in the solemn scales of justice? Hardly.

W.H. Auden knew this well, and At The Graves of Henry James bemoans it hauntingly.

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.

What, then? What shall we do about this? Since it becomes increasingly evident that it is the doing which counts, after all.

Perhaps it is not as important as we thought it was that we publish ten books or express our inner struggles in pages of private prose or compose a symphony as stupendous as the Fifth, or paint a masterpiece that will endure for a thousand years.

Not to say that there is no importance accompanying these things, but only that there may not be. Because after a thousand years, what then? Because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?

The misused, deceived Dorian Gray gets the last word. He says it to his betrayer, Lord Henry, in defiance, in anguish. In his careless, offhand way, the story’s villain has told the tortured protagonist of an encounter he had with a street-preacher. Lord Henry says,

“I thought of telling the prophet that art had a soul, but that man had not. I am afraid, however, he would not have understood me.”

“Don’t, Harry,” says the younger man, the scales dropping from his artificial, gorgeous eyes, his evil eyes, “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect.”