Potpourri (2)

Greetings! It’s a quiet Saturday evening, cold and dark outside but light and warm here in my room. On the floor beside me I’ve gathered some of the books I’m currently reading, and I wanted to share a few quotable bits with you.

“Long ago in Rome I saw a woman so ancient of flesh that she was kneaded and furrowed like God making the world.”

From The Confessions of X (Suzanne M. Wolfe)

“Not knowing how to listen, they read the poem but they do not hear it sing, or slide, or slow down, or crush with the heel of sound, or leap off the line, or hurry, or sob, or refuse to move from the self-pride of the calm pentameter no matter what fire is rustling through it.”

From Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (Mary Oliver)

“Rather than rest in the immutability of God, we point to our own calcified sin patterns and declare ourselves unchanging and unchangeable.”

From None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing) (Jen Wilkin)

“I had a pleasant evening on Thursday with Williams, Tolkien, and Wrenn, during which Wrenn almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversaton with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people. Tolkien and I agreed afterwards that we just knew what he meant: that as some people at school, coll. punts, are eminently kickable, so Williams is eminently combustible.”

From The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (Volume II)

 

Book Memories (2016)

Happy new year to you all! As I have done for the last two years, I wanted to share my year’s leisure reading with you. I’ve read some brilliant books this year–and some that were not so brilliant too! I have to say, though, I am a little embarrassed that I didn’t read more non-fiction.

As usual, I only list books that I’ve completed, so books that I gave up on or haven’t finished yet won’t show here, nor will books that I only dipped into. On the other hand, if I began a book last year, but finished it this year, it goes on this year’s list. Asterisks indicate re-reads. Links are to where I’ve written about the book on this blog. And children’s books count. Even picture ones!

 

Non-fiction

Orthodoxy (G. K. Chesterton) *

A Grief Observed (C. S. Lewis)

For the Glory: The Life of Eric Liddell (Duncan Hamilton)

Highly recommended.

The Cross of Christ (John Stott)

Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work (Brad Littlejohn)

Every Bitter Thing is Swet (Sara Hagerty)

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (James K. A. Smith)

Seasons of Waiting: Walking by Faith When Dreams are Delayed (Betsy Childs Howard)

An Experiment in Criticism (C. S Lewis)

The Four Loves (C. S. Lewis) *

The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (Nicholas Carr)

 

Fiction and Poetry

The Rosemary Tree (Elizabeth Goudge)

The Happy Prince and Other Stories (Oscar Wilde)

Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner)

Beowulf (trans. Seamus Heaney)

I am David (Anne Holm)

Highly recommended.

The Scent of Water (Elizabeth Goudge)

The Perilous Gard (Elizabeth Marie Pope)

Pity the Beautiful (Dana Gioia)

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

Highly recommended.

Rilla of Ingleside (L. M. Montgomery) *

Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate DiCamillo)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Parable and Paradox (Malcolm Guite)

Hay Fever (Noel Coward)

The Magic of Ordinary Days (Ann Howard Creel)

Disappointing.

Gentian Hill (Elizabeth Goudge)

The Awakening of Miss Prim (Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera)

In This House of Brede (Rumer Godden)

Tales from the Perilous Realm (J. R. R. Tolkien)

The End of the Affair (Graham Greene)

Highly recommended.

The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Highly recommended.

The Little White Horse (Elizabeth Goudge)

All This, and Heaven Too (Rachel Field)

I Saw Three Ships (Elizabeth Goudge)

The Heaven Tree (Edith Pargeter)

The Green Branch (Edith Pargeter)

So, yes, there was real book joy in 2016! I’ve picked out some of the best by labelling them as “highly recommended”, but there were others that I found excellent even if I haven’t given them that label. I do hope that you might find some new friends waiting for you in this list. Read with discernment, of course. I don’t recommend every book–or every aspect of every book–on this list. Lastly, if you have any book suggestions for me, do return the favour and leave a comment telling me what they are! Who knows what book joy might await you and me in 2017? Happy reading!

 

The Heaven Tree

“’I am your man. I swear, on this living heart, that I will remain with you and seek no other service until your church is finished. And if I play you false, you may have this same heart living out of my body.’

There was a long moment of silence, then Isambard walked slowly to the table and drained his own goblet and set it gently beside its fellow. ‘So be it!’ he said.”

With these words, Harry Talvace and Ralf Isambard conclude their agreement. To have free reign in the creation of a church is an irresistible offer for Harry. As he says to Isambard, “’If you were the devil himself I would abide by you for such a prize as this.”

Harry will discover, however, that while his master may not be the devil, he is a hard and passionate man for whom the only evil is the breaking of his word.

Were Harry as compassionless as Isambard, this might not pose any problems, but Harry is more than impetuous and impudent, more than a proud Talvace and an extraordinary craftsman: he is also driven to protect the weak, and unshakeable in the conviction that his own conception of justice is correct, even if it flies in the face of what is accepted as justice in the brutal Middle Ages. This protective instinct is one he cannot resist, no matter what harm may come to him as a result:

“Somewhere at the bottom of his heart he had always known that the last choice he made in the teeth of power and privilege and law must be mortal, and that nonetheless he neither could not would turn aside from making it.”

The Heaven Tree, the first in Edith Pargeter’s trilogy of the same name, is a brilliant novel. Its characters come to life as vividly as the statues Harry carves in stone. Pargeter’s writing is also a work of art. She writes of Harry’s church, for example, “Suddenly the very vault was full of reflected light that trembled over the slender, braced ribs like fingers among harp-strings, and all the round-cheeked cherubim in the bosses glowed golden and shouted for joy.”

The Heaven Tree does not always make for pleasant reading, reflecting as it does the brutality of the times in which it is set. Yet in the midst of cruelty, jealousy, and revenge, it also shows, powerfully and poignantly, what it means to sacrifice oneself for another, and what it means to love.

Pen-Pals

Almost exactly twenty years ago, when I was eight years old, my father put an advertisement in a Christian newspaper requesting pen-pals for me and my brother. We received a couple of replies, including one from a girl with blonde hair and glasses, who had the same name as me and was only four days apart in age. Sarah’s family didn’t subscribe to this particular magazine, but for some reason they received this copy at their red-brick house in Michigan, and the ad caught someone’s eye. So a letter winged its way over the Atlantic, and twenty years later we’re still writing letters.

I owe her a letter, I thought last week, as I caught up on some correspondence. And then I realised that this letter I needed to write would be the last I would ever send her under her current name, because Sarah is on the brink of getting married, and I’ll have the privilege of standing in the bridal party with her as she makes her vows.

And I wonder, who’d have thought, all those years ago, that we’d still be friends now? So many childhood friendships are outgrown or simply fade away. Ours could easily have done so: perhaps we would discover, as we grew older, that we had little in common other than our name and our age. Or we might realise, when we met in person, that the flesh-and-blood versions of each other were less appealing than the paper ones.

But in God’s kindness, neither of those things happened. Sarah and I share a love for the Lord, a love of literature, a love of beauty. We’ve visited each other over half a dozen times in the last two decades, and have become friends in “real life” too. She’s taken me to the sand dunes of Michigan, the windy city of Chicago, and through the streets of Paris and Dresden. I’ve shown her English gems like Oxford and Bath. We’ve prayed for each other in the hard times, and rejoiced with each other in the good times. And we’ve written lots of letters.

Hers are all there in the pine chest in the corner of my room, as mine are tucked away somewhere on her side of the pond. On one of her visits, she brought some of my old letters, and I dug out some of hers, and we had a fine time laughing at our old selves. Twenty years is a long time, after all, and the little girls we were then seem very different from the women we are now.

But through all the changes we both underwent, through all the hard times and the good times we’ve both experienced, through all the times we moved house (and between the two of us, we’ve moved house a lot), we never failed to take time to sit down, pen in hand, and write to each other, however slow our replies might sometimes be in coming. And in the age of Twitter and Snapchat, I think it’s rather nice that we’ve never entirely given up on a more tangible, treasure-able method of communication.

Here’s to another twenty years!

The End of the Affair

[Contains plot spoilers–although I don’t think it would ruin your enjoyment of the book if you read this first.]

In January 1946, Maurine Bendrix rekindles his acquaintanceship with Henry Miles. A year and a half before, Henry’s wife Sarah had broken off her affair with Bendrix and Bendrix has had no contact with either of them since. When Henry confides that he is worried about Sarah, Bendrix’s jealously reawakens, and he sets out to discover the new object of Sarah’s affections.

The End of the Affair is the story of God destroying the love between two people in order that they might learn to love Him. (Bendrix, admittedly, does not get as far as loving God by the end of the novel, but has made steps in the right direction.) It’s an extended commentary on what Lewis says in The Problem of Pain:

“Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. […] What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?”

In an article on First Things, which I found insightful thought I didn’t agree completely with it, Benjamin Myers writes “Sentimentality offers us the dubious chance to feel while bypassing the messiness of any real human engagement: not too much feeling but too thin an experience.” The End of the Affair is not sentimental, and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s a mainstream novel—and a classic at that—while most Christian novels today wouldn’t have a look in with a secular audience.

Sarah’s struggle is brutally hard. For much of it, she feels that she has given up Bendrix for God without getting anything in return—in other words, that she has thrown away human love, but that she still does not love God or feel loved by Him. At one point she writes, “While I loved Maurice, I loved Henry, and now I’m what they call good, I don’t love anyone at all. And You least of all.”

Because of such authenticity, when she does write of her love for God, it feels genuine rather than sentimental:

“Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You? Or was it really You I loved all the time? Did I touch You when I touched him? Could I have touched You if I hadn’t touched him first, touched him as I never touched Henry, anybody? […] You were there, teaching us to squander, like You taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You.”

The End of the Affair is rich in themes to explore–Sarah’s spiritual journey, Bendrix’s character development, the nature of love and hate, and the similarities between The End of the Affair and Brideshead Revisited come to mind–but this is long post enough. I’ll let Bendrix have the last, haunting word:

“For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you [i.e. Sarah]—with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell—can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won’t leap.”

What’s in a Name?

A year or so ago I scrolled through bestselling books on Amazon, and wrote a piece which I never posted commenting on some of their titles. I’d seen another blogger do something similar and I liked the idea. I never posted it at the time, but I’ve spruced it up and I present it now. I haven’t checked the bestsellers list again, so no doubt it is hopelessly outdated. If the bestsellers then are still bestsellers now, let’s just say that they’ve done well for themselves. (Disclaimer: I am judging these books on titles, not on content. In fact, I have no idea what most of them are about.)

Zoo

Unless this is a picture book for two-year-olds (in which case, you have my blessing), it just doesn’t cut it.

Elizabeth is Missing

This title manages to give away a lot and yet remain flat and stale. When Elizabeth Went Missing would be better—it would spark the question “What happened when she went missing?” and prompt readers to discover the answer.

The Sunrise

Em, yes? We have one of those every day. This is probably intended to be an evocative rather than a curiosity-inspiring title, and I’ll admit it’s pretty enough, but it lacks concreteness. How about Sunrise over Niagara, or something with a hint of sadness like The Last Sunrise? Can you feel the difference?

Finders Keepers

This title does make the potential reader ask questions (“Who finds what?” “Who keeps what?”) but to have a cliché as the tile of your book? I’m not convinced.

The Children Act

This is eye-catching because it sounds like a work of non-fiction. Then you realise that it’s a novel and you know that weighty things are at stake, even though you don’t know exactly what.

I Let You Go

You did? Why? Tell me more, and while you’re at it, please pass the tissues.

A Man of Some Repute

This is not only an intriguing title (why only some repute?) with an elegant, old-fashioned feel, but there’s a lovely iambic rhythm to it.

All the Light We Cannot See

Beautifully evocative and rhythmical, this makes me wonder what this light is and why we can’t see it….

 

In conclusion, dear authors and publishers, when it comes to the titles of your books, a rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, but if you’ve christened it a birthwort rather than a rose, I may never venture near enough to smell it.

Just Write

Autumn is here. I’m wearing long-sleeved tops now. Here in the living room we have our first fire of the season. Red, yellow, and orange sheens are appearing on the trees, signs that another year is about to die a gloriously vibrant death.

Yet autumn, that season of endings, is also a season of beginnings, at least for students. Pre-schoolers, sixth formers, undergraduates—they’re all sharpening pencils and hauling around books again. This year, I’m back in their number, embarking on a new beginning of my own: an MA in English Studies. Who’d have thought?

As I’ve been wrestling with my first piece of writing, I’ve been reminded again of how crucial it is for writers to just write. It’s not an original dictum, but it’s certainly one that’s proved true in my own experience. Do you feel that you have nothing to say? Write, and you will discover what to say. You will discover what you think. Do you cringe as you read that first paragraph, tempted to hit delete and start again, and then again, so that the screen in front of you is always white, pristine, perfect, empty? Write. What you write isn’t meant to be good yet. The time for pruning, for editing, for self-criticism, will come, but you cannot polish something until you have something to polish. Just write.

As an undergraduate, I could begin with a topic that made me groan, a topic about which I felt I had nothing to say, yet by forcing myself to write, however unpleasant the process, and then by shaping and editing, I would end up with an essay I was satisfied with. I know I’ll find that again as a postgraduate. I’ve had to tell it to myself already: just write.

My friend Sarah and I send each other weekly writing prompts. We wrestle, sometimes (often?), with our topics, produce pieces late and with apologies (“It’s not very good, I know”), but we make ourselves do it. We’re learning the importance of humbly embracing the fact that we’re not always very good writers—that we may never be the kind of writers we’d like to be—but that this writing process is good for us all the same. I believe it was Jennifer Trafton who spoke of how writing teaches you humility, and it’s true. It’s painful to see the disconnect between what your writing is and what you want it to be.

“If I can’t win, I won’t run!”, says Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire. “If you won’t run, you can’t win”, his girlfriend retorts. It’s the same with writing. The temptation can be to say that if we can’t write something amazing, we won’t write at all. But if we don’t write anything, we can’t write anything good. So let’s shut out the voices that shame us as we sit in front of our blank screens and just write.

 

The Awakening of Miss Prim

“’My dear Miss Prim,’ he’d said, ‘you may use all the labels you wish, of course you may. All I ask is that you don’t use the kind that glow in the dark. I don’t have anything against coloured labels, nothing at all, but I don’t think the sermons of St Bonaventure should be catalogued in lime green, or the works of Virgil in fluorescent pink.’”

I expected Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s The Awakening of Miss Prim to be a light, fun read of a book-loving woman falling in love with her eccentric employer. I didn’t expect it to contain deeper thoughts on education, marriage, and faith, or to be, in essence, a conversion story.

When Prudencia Prim takes a job as private librarian to a gentleman in the village of San Ireneo de Arnois, she is unaware that she has taken the first step in turning her life upside down. An intelligent, orderly woman, a lover of beauty and of what she terms “delicacy”, Miss Prim likes to think she was “born at the wrong time and in the wrong place”.

She tells her employer, The Man in the Wingchair, after she has been in San Ireneo for a while, “’I used to think I possessed a sensibility from another century. I was convinced I’d been born at the wrong time and that that was why vulgarity, ugliness, lack of delicacy all bothered me so much. I thought I was longing for a beauty that no longer existed, from an era that one fine day bade us farewell and disappeared.’

‘And now?’

‘Now I’m working for someone who effectively lives immersed in another century, and it’s made me realise that that was not what my problem was.’”

Miss Prim’s real problem, as the book makes clear, is her modern, secular mindset. With a premise like that, one would be forgiven for thinking that The Awakening of Miss Prim was an example of the mediocre kind of modern Christian fiction, rather than something that is, in fact, published in the mainstream market. To its credit, however, its spiritual elements feel integral to the story rather than being forced or garish.

Overall, the quality of writing was good, although I felt that the story sometimes lacked internal coherence, and I would have made some changes to the conclusion. That being said, Miss Prim was a fun, absorbing read, and satisfying too because of its serious treatment of things that matter.

In an interview with Foyles, Fenollera said the following:

“I wanted to write about two very different manners of seeing the world – from the viewpoints of tradition and modernity – and about the adventure entailed in asking oneself questions and looking for answers, searching for searching for [sic] truth, goodness and beauty.”

I think she did a good job of that, and I’d recommend The Awakening of Miss Prim as a delightful and enriching read. I’ll let The Man in the Wingchair have the final word (as he so likes doing):

“’Dostoyevsky, Prudencia? Dostoyevsky? If I were you, I’d start worrying.’”

Potpourri

Well, hello. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It’s been a busy summer, let me tell you. But that season has passed, and I’m hoping to appear on here again a bit more regularly now. I plan to have a book review here in the next week or so (I haven’t finished the book yet!), but in the meantime, I present you with a medley culled from recent reading.

“That morning when they woke and pulled up the blind, they saw the sun jumping out of the sea, all fiery-red with clouds about his head, as if he had had a cold bathe and was drying himself with towels.”

From”Roverandom” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (J. R. R. Tolkien)

 

“Down-stairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all:

  But in my solitary room above

I turn my face in silence to the wall;

  My heart is breaking for a little love.”

From “L.E.L.” (Christina Rossetti)

 

“Capricious fortune took it into her head sometimes to lay upon a wound a salve of such value that a man became positively glad of the wound…. Had he been able to choose his son, he thought, he would have had him in no wise different; and not every father whose son was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh could say the same…. But no, he did not believe in capricious fortune but in a carefully woven pattern where every tightly stretched warp thread of pain laid the foundation for a woof thread of joy.”

From Gentian Hill (Elizabeth Goudge)

 

 “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   

Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam 

And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” 

From “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” (Richard Wilbur)

 

And lastly, from the book I’m planning to review (and, in the meantime, am having a delightful time reading!):

“’What you mean is it’s like a fairy tale, is that it?’ she asked, intrigued.

‘No, of course not. The Redemption is nothing like a fairy tale, Miss Prim. Fairy tales and ancient legends are like the Redemption. Haven’t you ever noticed? It’s like when you copy a tree from the garden on a piece of paper. The tree from the garden doesn’t look like the drawing, does it? It’s the drawing that’s a bit, just a little bit, like the real tree.’”

From The Awakening of Miss Prim (Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera)

Of Wells

“’What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well’”.

That quote, from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s  The Little Princewas the second of three times that wells came to my attention last week. It arrived in my inbox from a dear friend, and was sent to encourage me.

But, as I said, it was the second time that week. The first time was in this article by Lore Ferguson Wilbert. These are the two paragraphs which stood out to me:

Christ knows

Though it is the living water we remember most Christ giving to the woman at the well in John 4, it is the words before he gives the water that comfort me in moments of sexual temptation. “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you are with now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” That Christ knows my struggle, my sins, my past mistakes, and my future ones, is a great comfort to me. My sin and temptation to sin are not hidden from him in any way. My thirst for water is not a sin, it is a physical need, and my thirst for sex is not a sin either. But it is a thirst that is intended to point me toward a better drink.

Christ provides

Christ offered the woman at the well living water, water that would satisfy her thirst for approval, for comfort, for security, even for a warm body beside her at night. Christ wasn’t offering to come into her home and offer his husbandry. He was meeting her at the well at high noon, in her shame, and giving her the hope of something better for the future. The woman would still go home—and this is conjecture—the assumption is she would go home to an empty house, that those longings might not be fulfilled in this lifetime. Christ’s promise is that she would find provision in him in the midst of the lack.

Lore’s words made me realise more than I had before the comfort in that passage, and think again of its promise of living water, of something that will truly satisfy. But it also gave me pause. So often, Christ doesn’t feel satisfying, doesn’t feel like thirst-quenching living water, and I don’t feel like I have inside me “a spring of water welling up to eternal life”.  So how does that work?

That’s where the third well appearance comes in. I was searching for the passage in The Great Divorce where Lewis speaks of heaven and hell working backwards, when I found another well quote which I’d forgotten. Or maybe it simply hadn’t struck me before. But last week, as I’ve said, wells were on my mind. This is McDonald speaking to the narrator (emphasis mine):

‘Ah, the Saved … what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.’

And so I can’t help thinking that this is the answer (or at least part of the answer) to my question about Jesus’ living water and why it doesn’t feel thirst-quenching even when we have it: we don’t always feel its clear liquidity now–we feel dry, dusty, parched–but looking back, we will see that the water was there, bubbling up inside us, all along….

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)