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)

 

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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 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.”

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)

In Ways We Never Dreamed Of

On 8 August 1953, Lewis wrote one of his many letters to correspondents. This one was to a Mrs Emily McLay in Durham. He had written to her five days previously, responding to an enquiry related to predestination and free will. She appears to have replied, and in his second letter Lewis writes about “dealing with the dark places in the Bible”.

I’ve struggled with these “dark places” myself, along with dark questions on issues such as suffering and predestination, all of which boils down to the haunting question “Is God really good?” An article I saw earlier this week included a quotation from Lewis’ second letter to Mrs McLay, which prompted me to look up the entire letter in volume three of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. I’d like to share a beautifully comforting paragraph in his reply about these “dark places”:

“The two things one must NOT do are (a) To believe, on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence, that God is in any way evil. (In Him is no darkness at all.) (b) To wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is. Behind that apparently shocking passage, be sure, there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one will see that [He] is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then, it must be just left on one side.”

Friendship: A Literary Medley

In honour of my friend Sarah, with whom I have been privileged to spend so many happy hours this past week.

The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

P. G. Wodehouse

“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.

Dinah Craik

We two have had such happy hours together/That my heart melts in me to think of it.

William Wordsworth, “Travelling”

 A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”, can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another”. The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

 

Book Memories (2015)

I can’t quite believe that it’s the end of the year. Where is the frost? The chilly nights? The cosy fire in the living room? But my calendar assures me that it is indeed the last day of December, and so I take it on faith that it is so. That being the case, I’m going to continue the tradition I began last year and share with you the books I’ve read this year. I enjoy browsing other people’s book lists, and I hope you enjoy doing the same with mine.

As I did last year, 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. Asterisks indicate re-reads. Links are to where I’ve reviewed the book on this blog.

Non-Fiction

The Screwtape Letters (including “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”) (C. S. Lewis) *

A re-read, apart from “Toast”, which was new to me.

84, Charing Cross Road (Helene Haff)

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (Helene Haff)

Planet Narnia (Michael Ward)

The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Alan Jacobs)

Chance or the Dance? (Thomas Howard) *

The Four Loves (C. S. Lewis) *

Reflections on the Psalms (C. S. Lewis)

The World’s Last Night (C. S. Lewis)

I skipped the “Toast” essay as I’d read it when I read Screwtape.

The Meal Jesus Gave Us (N. T. Wright)

The Dating Manifesto (Lisa Anderson)

A Dash of Style (Noah Lukeman)

The Good God (Michael Reeves) *

Highly recommended.

Teach Us to Want (Jen Pollock Michel)

Everlasting is the Past (Walter Wangerin Jnr)

Letters from the Land of Cancer (Walter Wangerin Jnr)

The End of Our Exploring (Matthew Lee Anderson)

Highly recommended.

Behold the Lamb of God (Russ Ramsey)

Fiction and Poetry

The Heart of the Family (Elizabeth Goudge)

The Silver Chair (C. S. Lewis) *

The Horse and His Boy (C. S. Lewis) *

Daddy-Long-Legs (Jean Webster)

The Magician’s Nephew (C. S. Lewis) *

The Last Battle (C. S. Lewis) *

Huntingtower (John Buchanan)

Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen) *

Pendragon’s Heir (Suzannah Rowntree)

Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens)

The Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey)

Lilith (George McDonald)

A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin)

Highly recommended.

Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery) *

The Singing Bowl (Malcolm Guite)

Anne of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery) *

The Blue Castle (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)

The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith (Bruce Marshall)

Four Quartets (T. S. Eliot)

Only forty-something pages, but it was packaged as a book, so I’m treating it as one! Also, I have almost no idea what it all means….

Kristin Lavransdatter (Sigrid Undset, trans. Tiina Nunnally)

Highly recommended. 

So, yes, there were plenty of good reads here. 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. (Almost everything by Lewis, for example!) 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 2016? Happy reading, and the happiest of new years to you.

Desert Island Book List

In the last month or so, two of my blogger friends have posted about what books they’d want with them on a desert island (see here and here), and I’ve decided to follow suit.

Of course, the Bible and a handy collection of survival books are a given. And the books I’m selecting aren’t necessarily my favourite books of all time. I love Perelandra, for example, but reading about the Un-Man perusing Ransom through the caves of an almost-deserted island, while marooned on an island myself, would be far from ideal. I’m also looking for books that can bear the weight of repeated re-reads, and even offer new insights with such re-reads.

Anyway, here goes.

  1. Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck (the abridged one-volume version). I began trying to read this, but gave up. However, I know it’s good, and if I were stuck on a desert island I’d want to be able to do some in-depth theological reading. And since there’d be so little else for me to be distracted by, I know that I’d actually finish it.
  2. The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis (edited by Don King). This is my favourite collection of poems. There’s beauty and wisdom and joy and wit and Lewis-ness in here, and I wouldn’t want to be without it.
  3. The Book of Common Prayer. I’d want to have words to pray for the times when I had no words of my own, and to be reminded that even in my lonely state, I was part of the church universal.
  4. Gilead by Marilyn Robinson. This one would help to remind me of the loveliness of life.
  5. Emma by Jane Austen. Because if I only have one Austen book, let it be a long one.
  6. Augustine’s Confessions. I haven’t read past the opening few pages, at most, but as with Reformed Dogmatics, I know that it’s worth reading. And re-reading.
  7. The Oxford Book of English Verse. I own The New Oxford Book of English Verse, but I have more than half a suspicion that this one would be the better of the two. There’s be plenty for me to enjoy here, and plenty for me to study. Memorising poems would also help to pass the time.
  8. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (volume II or III). I haven’t got far yet in reading these myself, but I’d choose a volume because it’s massive, so I’d get much more of Lewis’ prose than I would were I to choose a single book. Lewis was an excellent letter writer, so there’d be much for me to learn and delight in here.
  9. A Handbook to Literature (Harmon and Holman). I’d use this to help me study the poetry I’d brought, as well as to help me write my own.
  10. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Yes, I know this isn’t exactly (ahem) a single book, but in my defence it’s a series, each book is short, and—and—how could I possibly live the rest of my life, perhaps, without having the opportunity to read Narnia again?

What would your desert island book list be?

This Year. This Year.

I recently turned twenty-seven, which—let me inform you—means that I’m now as old as Jane Austen’s oldest heroine, Anne Elliot, and significantly older than the likes of Miss “I am not one and twenty” Elizabeth Bennett.

I spent part of my last day as a twenty-six-year-old in Oxford. I strolled down Christ Church meadows by the river, pausing now and again to look out across the fields at the college itself, in all its perfection of centuries-old stone. Even the weeds in the meadow and the cloudy sky didn’t detract from the beauty of the picture.

My real destination, however, was Magdalen College. I’d visited it before, but only in part, and I was eager, for Lewis’ sake, to see Addison’s Walk.  As I walked beside the field of grazing deer, I kept my eyes open for the Lewis poem that I knew was on a plaque somewhere, and I spotted it just before the path made a right-angle turn. It’s a round grey plaque with a poem engraved on it that begins like this: “I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:/This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.” It’s an achingly beautiful poem about the recurrence of hope when the year is young.

It’s amazing how persistently we keep on hoping, despite disappointment after disappointment. A new year, another birthday, and we find ourselves hoping that—this year, this year—things will change. Eric Peters sings:

This is the year when laughter douses charred and burnt-out dreams
This is the year when wrens return to nest in storm-blown trees
Is this the year of relocation from boughs of old despair?
This is the year to perch on hope’s repair

As I begin this new year of being twenty-seven, I’m hoping for so much. Frankly, I’m pleading with God for some things to change. And I cling to the hope that they will, because life without hope isn’t worth living.

I need to remind myself, however, that even if they don’t change, my life isn’t without hope. In fact, through Jesus Christ, it’s rich in hope, whether I choose to recognise that or not.

David says it so clearly: For you, O Lord, are my hope. And because of that, I really can hope continually.

Once is Not Enough

I don’t understand people who say they don’t re-read books.

Now, I know that there are books, and there are books.

There are some books I’ve read that I’m sure I’m never going to read again—they weren’t worth it first time round, or only barely worth it. Why squander any more time?

Then there are books of information that I might read once, absorb the information I need, and discard the empty carton. It did its job, I did mine, and the relationship is now over, thank you very much.

Some books of information I can’t possibly absorb in one go. I was fascinated by Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, but I have, unfortunately, forgotten most of it. Should I re-read it, I know I would find lots to learn and re-learn. It’s not a priority for me to re-read at present, but I’m not saying “never” either.

Then there are non-fiction books that deal richly, profoundly, with the spiritual life. I re-read them because my soul still needs food. Until they become so woven into me that I have absorbed their messages and am living them out, I will still need to re-read them. I have not yet learned all that Lewis has to teach me. I doubt I ever will. So I read him and read him again.

There are fiction books that were fun to read once. A bit like junk food, they may taste good but I can’t live on them. They lack substance.

And then there are the novels that I re-read because I want to be in that world again. I want to hear that music once more. I want to be with Ransom and breathe Perelandrian air again. I want to walk with Emma as she slowly, painfully, becomes wiser. I want to be refreshed again by old John Ames’ insights into life in Gilead.

I am not finished with books like these because I am not finished with beauty. I am not finished with learning. I am not finished with laughing. I am not finished with books like these because they carry more riches in them than my hands can grasp in one reading.

I am not finished with them because there are delights to re-reading that those who read books once can never know.

Listen to what Lewis says in his essay “On Stories” (emphasis mine):

The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness….  It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time…. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the “surprise” of discovering that what seemed Little-Red-Riding-Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness….

So here’s to re-reading books. Here’s to great wine.