Book Memories (2014)

2014 has been a wonderful year for books. Many hours of entertainment, enrichment, and enlightenment have been woven into the pattern of my life this year through the books I’ve read. I love seeing what other people read, and especially getting ideas for books that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise, so I thought I’d share what I’ve read this year, whilst fighting against the temptation to feel smug. Sure, I’ve read more than some people read. But I’ve read less than other people read. And a lot of people have read much deeper, more challenging books than I have.

I have some rules for my tally keeping. I only count books that I’ve completed, so books that I’ve given up on or haven’t finished yet won’t show here, nor will books that I dip in and out of (usually poetry). On the other hand, if I began a book last year, but finished it this year, it goes on this year’s list. Lastly, books that I’ve read as part of my study don’t get listed. (I’m sure there’s a really good reason for that, but I haven’t figured out what it is.)

So, here goes. Asterisks indicate re-reads. Links are to where I’ve reviewed the book on this blog.

Non-Fiction

The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Autobiography of Flannery O’Connor (Jonathan Rogers)

The Problem of Pain (C. S. Lewis) *

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Barry Schwartz)

Not By Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith (Jon Bloom)

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Eugene Peterson)

Enjoy Your Prayer Life (Mike Reeves)

Excellent, but so short it hardly deserves to be called a book!

Literature: A Student’s Guide (Louise Markos)

Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World (Tsh Oxenreider)

A theme that fascinates me, but I found the book disappointing.

Miracles (C. S. Lewis)

The Prodigal God (Tim Keller)

Highly recommended.

A Preface to Paradise Lost (C. S. Lewis)

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully (John Piper)

Highly recommended.

Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up (Ian and Larissa Murphy)

Sketches of Home (Suzanne Clark)

Christ our Life (Mike Reeves)

Highly recommended.

A Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver)

Highly recommended.

Fiction

The Father’s Tale (Michael O’Brien)

Highly recommended, with some reservations as noted in my original post.

Peace Like a River (Leif Enger)

The Dean’s Watch (Elizabeth Goudge)

Highly recommended.

A City of Bells (Elizabeth Goudge)

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)

The Napoleon of Notting Hill (G. K. Chesterton)

Out of the Silent Planet (C. S. Lewis) *

Highly recommended.

Perelandra (C. S. Lewis) *

Highly recommended.

That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis) *

Highly recommended.

Glittering Images (Susan Howatch)

Not recommended due to an explicit scene. And neither the writing style, plot, or theme are good enough to make me say it would still be a worthwhile read despite the scene in question.

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson) *

Highly recommended.

Home (Marilynne Robinson)

Lila (Marilynne Robinson)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis) *

Plenilune (Jennifer Freitag)

The Warden (Anthony Trollope)

Prince Caspian (C. S. Lewis) *

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C. S. Lewis) *

The Bird in the Tree (Elizabeth Goudge)

Highly recommended.

Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge)

***

As I said, it’s been a good year, and these were almost all good books, many of them very good indeed. 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. (All the Lewis books were excellent, of course!) 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 aspect of every book here. 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 delightful or thought-provoking or moving or helpful books might await you and me in 2015? Happy reading!

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The Bird in the Tree

One of the best things about holidays is getting to sit down, in the middle of the week and during the day, and indulge in a good book without feeling that one ought to be doing something else. For my holiday reading this year, I bought (or, rather, my parents kindly bought for me) Elizabeth Goudge’s Eliot Family Trilogy. I’d loved reading The Dean’s Watch earlier this year, and although I didn’t love A City of Bells in the same way, I was still keen to delve further into Goudge’s corpus.

The Bird in the Tree is the first of the Eliot trilogy. Of course, I can’t make a judgement about the trilogy as a whole until I read the next two books, but The Bird in the Tree was a delight–a rather sober delight, but a delight nonetheless. Goudge excels at making you love her characters. None of her main characters are perfect–who is, after all?–but you love them all the same, and understand (even when you can’t condone) their flaws. And isn’t that how we should try to look at people anyway?

One of the things I love about Goudge, both in the way she paints her characters and in the way she paints her world, is that while she doesn’t pretend that sadness and wrong don’t exist, she doesn’t let such things become the predominant flavour of her writing. She’s full of insights about life, too (such as this: “… what is given to you you are always afraid will one day cease to be given but what you give you can give forever. Life had taught her that at long last” ), but insights that are so much a part of the story that they don’t feel preachy.

The Bird in the Tree has, on first sight, a fairly typical storyline: meet David and Nadine, two young people who fall in love, and whose family try to prevent what they consider to be a most unsuitable match. But true love will win, won’t it?

Well, it depends on your definition of love.

The Bird in the Tree is a powerful presentation of the struggle between passionate romance on the one hand, and duty and self-sacrifice on the other. I don’t want to spoil the plot for you any more than I have already (I’d like you to read it, after all), so let me leave you with a final quote from Lucilla:

“Creative love meant building up by quantities of small actions a habit of service that might become at last a habit of mind and feeling as well as of body. I tried, and I found it did work out like that. Feeling can be compelled by action not quite as easily as action by feeling, but far more lastingly. You may not believe me, but it’s true.”

Image Bearers

I was thinking today about what fragile, messed-up people we are. We rightly speak of the wonder of each human being, and our unique status of being made in the image of God, but maybe we do not always grasp just how little the shattered pieces that are us resemble what a person was really meant to be—never mind what we will be one day, when Jesus makes us new.

We’re many weary miles away from being what a human being actually should be—we with our balding and our flab and our spots, with our easily-fuddled brains, with the amount we don’t know even about the things we know most about, with our short tempers and long-held grudges, with the friction in our relationships and the fears that bury deep within us, with our skeletoned closets and our favourite sins.

There’s a breath-taking passage in Perelandra which describes Ransom’s reaction at seeing the King and Queen of Perelandra—an unfallen man and woman in a sinless world.

“There was a great silence on the mountain top and Ransom also had fallen down before the human pair. When at last he raised his eyes from the four blessed feet, he found himself involuntarily speaking though his voice was broken and his eyes dimmed. ‘Do not move away, do not raise me up,’ he said. ‘I have never before seen a man or a woman. I have lived all my life among shadows and broken images. Oh, my Father and my Mother, my Lord and my Lady, do not move, do not answer me yet. My own father and mother I have never seen. Take me for your son. We have been alone in my world for a great time.’

The eyes of the Queen looked upon him with love and recognition, but it was not of the Queen that he thought most. It was hard to think of anything but the King. And how shall I—I who have not seen him—tell you what he was like? It was hard even for Ransom to tell me of the King’s face. But we dare not withhold the truth. It was that face which no man can say he does not know. You might ask how it was possible to look upon it and not to commit idolatry, not to mistake it for that of which it was the likeness. For the resemblance was, in its own fashion, infinite, so that almost you could wonder at finding no sorrows in his brow and no wounds in his hands and feet. Yet there was no danger of mistaking, not one moment of confusion, no least sally of the will towards forbidden reverence. Where likeness was greatest, mistake was least possible…. [H]ere, where His live image, like Him within and without, made by His own bare hands out of the depth of divine artistry, His masterpiece of self-portraiture coming forth from His workshop to delight all worlds, walked and spoke before Ransom’s eyes, it could never be taken for more than an image. Nay, the very beauty of it lay in the certainty that it was a copy, like and not the same, an echo, a rhyme, an exquisite reverberation of the uncreated music prolonged in a created medium.”

We fell so deeply back with Adam and Eve. We smashed hard when we landed. But one day, in and through Christ, we will be what human beings are meant to be. We’ll still be light years away from what Christ is—never more than reflections of His divine glory—but we wouldn’t want to be anything else. To be truly His image will be enough, and more than enough. What happy reflections we will be! What a beautiful hope to carry as we stumble along with the burdens of our own sins and sorrows and the burdens of those we love.

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:16-18)

My Ring

(A lightly edited version of an essay I submitted last month for my writing course.)

One evening last month, while we were sitting around the kitchen table after dinner, my younger brother and his girlfriend announced their engagement. After we’d heard how he knelt down on a hillside walk, after we’d laughed and hugged and admired the ring, Dad herded the newly-engaged couple into the living room for photos, while I retreated to my bedroom. No one seemed to notice that when I returned, donned my blue-and-white-striped apron, and started clearing up, my eyes were red.

I own only one ring. My parents gave it to me when I turned sixteen, so for the last decade it has circled my finger in a metallic embrace, a little above a freckle whose origins (unlike those of the ring) I can’t remember. It wasn’t a promise ring or a purity ring or anything but a birthday ring, but I decided that I’d wear it until I was engaged, then store it away for a daughter of my own to wear. In the meantime, I’d enjoy this glinting decoration, which became the one thing that glistened on hands otherwise bare of all adornment.

Every morning, I’ve slipped my ring onto my finger, and every evening, I’ve twisted it back over my knuckle and laid it down on my pine dresser. It stays on my finger throughout the day (unless I’m about to sink my hands into a bowlful of pastry) and it has the scuffs and scrapes to prove it. There’s a nick at the opposite side of the circle from the diamonds. When I run my nail over it, I can just feel the bump. When I run my finger over it instead, I can’t feel it at all. I’ve no idea how it got there—no idea which of the many events in the last four thousand days was the one which left this mark on my ring.

I do know that I was wearing my ring when I hugged my first sister-in-law-to-be as she and my brother came into our kitchen one dark November evening five years ago to show us an engagement ring. I was wearing it last month when I hugged another girl and admired another ring. I wore it when I slipped on a silky dress to attend my first brother’s wedding. I except I will wear it to next summer’s wedding too. It will remain on duty like a sentry waiting to be relieved—relieved by a comrade who seems to have fallen asleep at a post somewhere many miles away.

A decade of “in the meantime” has taken its toll on my ring. Its sparkle has dulled like a lamp that’s been turned down. It’s a ragamuffin compared to the princess of a ring that my brother presented to his girlfriend last month, but it’s a part of me now, and that’s reason enough to wear it.

 ***

My essay didn’t have a “happy ending”, because I don’t have one in real life yet. But as a friend reminded me earlier this week, I believe that after death comes resurrection. So one day, life and joy will come after sadness, even if it’s slow in the coming, and even if it doesn’t look the way I wish it did. It may not come in this life at all. But it will come, and it will be a glorious resurrection. 

Oh, for grace to believe!