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 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.”

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)

Night: A Roundel

I’d been wanting to try my hand at a roundel ever since encountering one in Malcolm Guite‘s latest poetry collection. When I was pondering the writing prompt “night” from my friend Sarah earlier this month, I thought about the beautiful evening prayer in the Anglican prayer book and based a roundel on that.

This is the prayer:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

And this is my roundel:

 

Lord, give us light and shatter by your word

The thick black darkness of this dreadful night.

The gloom is hovering like a deadly sword:

Lord, give us light.

 

For in the night, our fears take form. The sight

Of walking horrors chills our souls. The world

Has lost her smile. We look around in fright.

 

Yet in the night, we cling to what we’ve heard:

That you are good, that all you do is right.

Lighten our darkness, we beseech you, Lord.

Lord, give us light.

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.”

Parable and Paradox

Parable and Paradox: Sonnets on the Saying of Jesus and Other Poems, is Malcolm Guite’s latest collection of poetry. As he did in Sounding the Seasons, Guite uses the Bible as a springboard for many of his poems, and as the title suggests, in this case it is Christ’s words, such as his “I AM’s” and his “hard sayings”, that form the basis of his poetic reflections here.

“When it comes to hearing the words of Jesus, our great problem is over familiarity”, Guite writes in his preface, and in his poems on Christ’s sayings, he intends, as he writes in one sonnet, to “peel aside the thin familiar film” and help us feel the force of Christ’s words again.

Guite does this both in beautifully comforting poems such as “Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled” (which you can read here) and in challenging ones like “A Sword”, which begins “Oh, you have come indeed to send a sword/We feel it in the keening grief that cuts/Through kinship, blood, and culture.”

The collection also includes some wider-ranging pieces (akin to those found in his The Singing Bowl) where Guite celebrates themes such as nature, wordplay, and—yes—decay (in which latter he praises the “old and mouldering” in the face of “the shiny new,/Persistent plastic choking out our life”).

As in his previous collections, I appreciate Guite’s spiritual insight, the beauty of his language, and his commitment—for the most part—to using poetic forms rather than free verse. Two of my favourite couplets show off his skill:

 

“Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.”

 

And

 

“For longing is the veil of satisfaction,

And grief the veil of future happiness.”

 

 

Let me finish with one of my favourite poems, which is a sequence of seven roundels mirroring the seven days of creation, while also tying in the theme of each day with the story of our lives now. The first, deeply satisfying, roundel begins

 

“Let there be light as I begin this day,

To draw me from the darkness and the night,

To bless my flesh, to clear and show the way,

Let there be light.”

 

Amen.

For the Glory

Tim Challies recently reviewed For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton’s new biography of Eric Liddell, who is best known for his 1924 Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres, after refusing to run in the race he’d planned to run in when to do so would have involved running on a Sunday. His Olympic story has been famously told, of course (with a generous helping of artistic license, it turns out) in the film Chariots of Fire. I bought a copy of For the Glory on the strength of Challies’ review and finished it last week. I wasn’t disappointed.

I took real pleasure in Hamilton’s skill as a writer. Biographies run the risk of being rather dry, but For the Glory makes for compelling reading, with the past coming for life through Hamilton’s careful and lively attention to detail, whether it’s the description of an old photograph, the thrill of a race, or the squalor of the civilian internee camp in China where Liddell lived out the final years of his relatively short life. As Challies mentioned in his review, Hamilton’s recounting of Liddell’s famous race is splendid. I knew what the outcome would be before I started reading, of course, and I’ve had the thrill of watching it numerous times in Chariots of Fire. Yet Hamilton tells it in such a way that I still felt excited simply by reading his prose.

I can’t resist mentioning my favourite line in the book, which is Hamilton’s description of the clothes the English athletes had to wear to the 1924 Olympics: “The team went to the chicest city on the globe in outfits that looked to have been cut by a myopic tailor with a grievous grudge against both them and the Games.”

But of course, what stands out so much more than Hamilton’s brilliant prose is the man about whom he was writing. As Challies says, “Hamilton’s telling of Liddell’s life is uniformly positive, perhaps because he simply couldn’t find any major blemishes.” To me, this is fascinating, since Hamilton certainly doesn’t seem to be a Christian himself. Furthermore, he’s written other sports biographies and so, one assumes, he did not set out to write a hagiography of Eric Liddell. And yet, not only does he fail to highlight any moral failings in Liddell, but his deep admiration for the man is evident throughout. It’s not that Hamilton is incapable of criticising people—the acerbic comments he directs towards the British Olympic Association and the London Missionary Society prove that he can criticise with the best of them—but simply that he does not feel that Liddell deserves any such censure.

Reading Hamilton’s account, I can only agree and stand in awe at such a man. No mere mortal is perfect, of course, but one can’t help feeling that Liddell was about as good as any sinful man could be. It’s not just the principled stand at the Olympics for which he is best known, or even that he left the possibility of further fame—not to mention all the money he could have made—for the mission field. It’s not even how he poured himself out for others from morning till night while imprisoned in the internee camp, thousands of miles from his wife and children. It’s that love, gentleness, humility, courage, and determination pervaded his life, in the small things as well as in the momentous ones. His final words, “It’s complete surrender”, were not spoken glibly. They were the story of his life.