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!
Middlemarch (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.
Tickets 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.
The 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:
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 rain the leaves the years
words on pages telling of something else
wind in a mirror
everything begins so late after all
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
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 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.
A 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?