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?

Sense and Sensibility

Last week I finished Sense and Sensibility. I had read and re-read all of Austen’s major works, but this was the one book that (gasp) I wasn’t sure if I’d actually properly read before.

As always, with Austen, the experience was such fun. Who could resist, for example, this description of Mrs Ferrars’ disinheriting first one son, and then another, and then reinstating one again?

Her family life had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward, a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again.

In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existence secure, till he had revealed his present engagement; for the publication of that circumstance, he feared might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before.

Austen scatters her satiric humour liberally throughout Sense and Sensibility, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a delight to read. But while, to borrow from Elizabeth Bennet, Austen relishes laughing at folly and weakness, she never laughs at what is good.

Sense, in the novel, is exemplified by the oldest Dashwood sister, Elinor, who is the only member of her immediate family to have “coolness of judgment”. The epitome of sensibility is her sister Marianne, who is “eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation”.

It is not accurate, however, to see the novel as contrast is not between a sister who doesn’t feel and a sister who does. Austen comments of Elinor in the opening of the novel, “her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them”. The contrast, then, is between sisters who both possess strong feelings but who do not possess like ability to control them.

And this lack of self-control is a serious failing in Austen’s eyes. It leads Marianne to disregard convention and duty, cause her family months of worry, and in the end nearly kill herself through self-neglect. Elinor, by contrast, keeps her feelings in check for the sake of others, even though, as she admits later, this was very hard to do.  Selfishness and Selflessness would be an apt (albeit a less appealing) title.

Despite painting such sharp differences between the sisters, however, Austen is successful in making both Elinor and Marianne likeable characters. Elinor’s wry sense of humour is one of the traits that saves her from appearing “goody-goody”, while Marianne is “generous, amiable, interesting”. We’re complex creatures, and Austen recognises this.

With such a combination of wit and insight, Austen is irresistible, and I was missing out by not reading Sense and Sensibility much sooner than I did.

I Write Like Whom…?

Has it ever happened that you’ve been reading a book—a lot of it in a relatively short period of time—and you find yourself adopting, whether consciously or unconsciously, the author’s writing style in some of your thoughts?

I’ve found that a couple of times. Last summer when I raced my way through Death By Living, my internal monologue started sounding, sometimes, like N. D. Wilson. While spending this week gulping down Persuasion as part of an English course, I’ve noticed the occasional Austenesque fragment in my brain.

It makes sense really. It’s like visiting friends in another country and coming home with a tinge of their accent, or starting to use a word that a friend or family member often uses.

So since I have had Austen on the brain, I thought I’d try my hand at a little bit of imitation….

It was some moments before Mary had gathered her thoughts sufficiently to leave the house, but when she had, she wasted no time in beginning the short walk to call on Mrs R–, an elegant and sensible young woman with whom she was acquainted.

Her eyes scanned the surrounding fields as she walked, but her thoughts, it must be confessed, were elsewhere, and of a nature to absorb her attention so fully that it was a wonder she kept on the right course.

She was thinking of the hat that she had seen in the shop window, but which she had reluctantly refrained from purchasing. Now, however, she began to regret having submitted to her better judgment, for what, she asked herself, is money for, if not to be spent?—A question which has no doubt often arisen in the minds of those whose sense is even less plentiful than their money.  

After writing this, I had the brainwave of copying the above text into I Write Like for some computer somewhere to analyse it and I had the satisfaction of being told that I write like Jane Austen.

Which, by the by, isn’t what it tells me when I insert a paragraph of my more normal writing! After trying out my Austen paragraphs, I copied a section of what I would consider to be good writing from a previous blog post of mine and was told that I write like Cory Doctorow. That doesn’t mean anything to me.

Then I tried a paragraph I liked from another post and was told I write like Leo Tolstoy.

At least I know who he is.

I take both of the above with a large pinch of salt, as this website and its method of analysis certainly has limitations! But I am pleased to have got its stamp of approval on my Austen imitation.

Writing style is quite a fascinating thing…. An author’s own particular flavour. Bite, and it tastes like Lewis. Or Dickens. Or Austen. I’ve thought more than once about blogging about different writing styles and trying to figure out how various authors do what they do–what it is that makes Austen, for example, sound like Austen–but it would definitely take time and effort, so I’m loathe to make a commitment about doing so! We’ll see.

In the meantime, perhaps I should try to hone my write-like-Austen skills. Should all other sources of income fail, who knows what millions may await me in churning out all the novels Jane Austen would doubtless have written had she lived longer.

But perhaps I’m getting carried away….

Mansfield Musings

I finished reading Mansfield Park last night. One Austen down, one more to go before the end of the month. The things I do for student challenges!

Although, really, reading one of my favourite authors is a pleasure, even if I have to bolt her work down faster than I normally would. I had to post some reflections on the student forum as part of the challenge, and I’m going to use what I wrote there as a base for my thoughts here.

Yes, Mansfield Park is a pleasure. But I find the end a little bitter-sweet all the same. I’m happy for Fanny and Edmund that they have each other and I know that they make a good match, yet I can’t help regretting what happens to Henry Crawford. He was a scoundrel to begin with, to be sure, and yet he did come to truly love Fanny, and he did truly try to reform, only to throw his reforms to the wind in the end, and reap a bitter harvest. Part of me wishes that Fanny would have married him, and that they could have been good and happy together.

I admit, however, that Fanny was right to reject him, based on her knowledge of his actions in the past, and also because she loved someone else. But there is sadness in the story of Henry Crawford…. He and Mary are both attracted, to varying degrees, to the virtue they see in people at Mansfield Park (“you have all so much more heart among you, than one finds in the world at large,” said Mary), but being attracted to virtue is not enough. Even reforming for the sake of the woman you love isn’t enough. Change has to go deeper. (And as Eustace found in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we cannot “un-dragon” ourselves….)

But while I think of Henry with sadness, I can admire Fanny. She is gentle, pliant, and self-sacrificing, and, in addition, her great outward nervousness and reserve conceals a strength of purpose that enables her to resist all the pressures that are put to bear on her to encourage her to marry Henry Crawford. She sees where others, even good men like Sir Thomas and Edmund, are blinded. Not only does she see, but she often judges wisely. This ability to see and judge where others cannot or will not adds to Fanny’s burdens and difficulties. She grieves, when seeing Edmund deceiving himself about Mary’s true character, not only because she loves him herself but also because she truly wants what is best for Edmund, and she knows that Miss Crawford is far from that. Burdened by what she sees, under-loved and undervalued by most of those closest to her, she has a hard part to play for most of the story and she truly deserves the reward that Austen eventually gives her.