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.”

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)

The Little Prince

A pilot who finds himself stranded in the Sahara encounters a little prince from a distant star who asks him to draw him a picture of a sheep. This is the premise of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s exquisite story The Little Prince, translated by Katherine Woods.

I remember that we had a copy of The Little Prince years and years ago. I remember looking at it, and perhaps I read it. If so, however, I’d long forgotten the story. But I don’t regret not having my first meaningful encounter with it until adulthood: while ostensibly a story for children, its depths can perhaps be better appreciated when one is older.

To say that it’s a book that highlights what’s truly important in life, and that what is truly important is to love others and to be a giver rather than a taker in relationships, is a simplification, and also runs the risk of making this delightfully wise piece of fantasy sound moralistic. And as the narrator himself says, “I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist”. But yet, this little story (or “parable”, as the blurb on the back of my book calls it), is a gem for its insights into life as much as it is for its humorous and touching narrative.

Here are some favourite quotes.

“I myself own a flower,” [the little prince tells a businessman who is absorbed in counting stars] “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week … It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars…”.

The fox: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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

And last of all, and so beautiful:

“’All men have stars,’ [the little prince] answered, ‘but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they are wealth. But all these stars are silent. You—you alone—will have the stars as no one else has them—‘

‘What are you trying to say?’

‘In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You—only you—will have stars that can laugh!’”

A talking fox. Stars that can laugh. A hidden well. And a puzzling, but charming little prince. What are you waiting for?

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

 

All the Light We Cannot See

It’s August 1944. The small French town of Saint-Malo is besieged, bombs raining down from the advancing American forces. In the attic of a tall, narrow house, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure is hiding, clutching the jewel that the Nazi prowling below is so desperate to find, and which she herself, being blind, has never seen. Elsewhere in the town, eighteen-year-old Werner, a German soldier, is trapped underneath the remains of the Hotel of Bees.

Those six days in early August are at the heart of this Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Extended flash-backs throughout the story tell the tale of Marie’s and Werner’s respective growing-up years and the way in which, before they ever met, their lives had become connected.

At fourteen, Werner is unexpectedly given the opportunity to attend Schulpforta, a Nazi boarding school. As a talented orphan who is destined to work in the mines that killed his father, he sees this as a way to escape, an opportunity for a brighter future. While at Schulpforta, he becomes friends with Frederick, a quiet bird-lover entirely out of place in such harsh surroundings.

“Do you ever wish that you didn’t have to go back?”, Werner asks Frederick once, while they are enjoying a brief holiday, Frederick still bruised from being beaten up by the boys at the instruction of the commandant.

For Frederick, though, that’s not the question:

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

And Frederick replies “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.”

But it is Frederick, not Warner, who—when the boys are taken outside one winter day and given buckets of water to dump over a prisoner tied to a stake in the courtyard—refuses to do it.

As a result, the commandant and the other boys make Frederick’s life one of torment, ending with him being beaten up so badly that, some thirty years later, he still needs to be spoon fed, and spends his time drawing spirals on paper.

But the memory of Frederick’s decision comes back to Werner when he, too, must make a decision in Saint-Malo in 1944:

Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet—I will not—Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down. Werner who watched Volkheimer wade into house after house, the same ravening nightmare occurring over and over and over.

Bolstered by that realisation, he makes his choice too, but if you want to know what that choice is, you’ll have to read the book.

All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully-written, heart-breaking story. It’s not a book of neat, smiling resolutions. After finishing it last night, I sat in bed and cried.

It’s a poignant reminder of the meaningless loss of human life that war entails. Of the sickening brutality of the Nazis. Of childhood innocence destroyed. These are nightmares that hardly bear thinking about. But there is also the blessed relief of beauty, goodness, and love.  The beauty of the sea, the shells at Marie-Laure’s fingertips.  The tender care of a father for his blind daughter. Courageous decisions and self-sacrifice. It’s a masterfully-crafted book. But be warned: it’s a painful one too.

I am David

Twelve-year-old David has never known anything but life in a Communist concentration camp. He doesn’t know why he’s there or who his family is, and he doesn’t expect life to ever be any different than it is. But when a guard gives him the opportunity to escape, he must come to terms with a world he is unprepared to live in.

Anne Holm’s I am David is not so much an escape story (although it is that), but a story of personal transformation. At the beginning of the story, David mistrusts everyone. When the guard offers him a chance to escape, he tells himself that “[it was] certainly a trap”. Not realising that Italy, the country where he travels to first, is not a Communist country, he is suspicious of everyone. Everyone may be one of them, or if not one of them, liable to hand him over to them at any moment. As he experiences acts of kindness from strangers, however, he slowly begins to recognise and trust goodness.

Despite being on the run, David finds joy in the new-found, hard-won beauty and freedom that he experiences. But as the story progresses, he learns that beauty and freedom are not enough in order to be happy….

“He should never have entered the house. Maria … Whenever he had looked at Maria and she had made him smile, he had been aware that there was something he had forgotten, something important.

He had forgotten the most important condition that made it possible for him to go on living: that he should never again grow fond of anyone. When Johannes died he thought he would die too. But when he had recovered and knew he was not going to die, he realized that he must never, never care for anyone again – never. That was what he had kept in mind through all the years that followed – until he saw Maria.

And now nothing would ever be the same again: even if they were not looking for him, even if he could preserve his liberty and could avoid being too cold or too hungry. It would never be the same again, because he would always have to remain himself, a boy who belonged nowhere.”

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but I won’t give away the rest of David’s journey and transformation. I will say that I am David is one of the best children’s novels I’ve read. As a young boy’s perspective on a new and strange world, it’s masterful. The story is raw and real, but it’s also beautiful and poignant without being in any way saccharine. It’s well worth reading as an adult, so if you missed this in your childhood, you can make up for it now….

 

 

 

Crossing to Safety

I like books with happy endings. A marriage. A rescue. A homecoming. A battle won. Ends neatly tied up, and the illusion of “happily ever after” created.

This isn’t, however, Wallace Steger’s approach in his novel Crossing to Safety. The story begins at the end: with four ageing people, one of whom is dying of cancer. Through several extended flashbacks, Stegner traces the friendship between the two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, over the course of about three decades, before bringing the reader back to death’s shadow as the book closes.

The Morgans and Langs meet as young couples, when Sid and Larry are on the cusp of their academic careers. Sid and Larry appear not to have caught each other’s attention at the university, but when Sid’s wife Charity is introduced to the Morgans at a social function, it is impossible for the couples not to become friends, just like it’s always impossible not to do exactly what Charity wants. With her dazzling smile and her italicised speech, and with the best intentions in the world, she takes possession of the Morgans, and nothing is ever the same for them again.

It’s not surprising, then, that Charity is the focal point of the story, and both its sunshine and its shadow. At her best, she’s heart-warming, irresistible even, and at her worst she is absolutely infuriating. In both cases it’s for the same reason: she truly wants what is best for everyone and she will willingly make any sacrifice in order to ensure that what is best happens. The difficulty, however, is that she is always absolutely certain that she knows what “best” is, even in the face of evidence that is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

For Larry and Sally, Charity’s kindly-meant interventions are often blessings—poor and friendless, they may never have achieved the success and stability that they eventually achieved without her. But the Langs’ awareness of how much they owe to Charity does not blind them to the fact that her penchant for control causes misery to her husband, Sid. “She has to be boss”, Larry reflects to Sally. “Maybe she tells him when to wash his hands and brush his teeth. I don’t suppose she can help it, but she’s as blunt as a spitting maul.”

Crossing to Safety is a reflective novel, tinged with sadness. “Leave a mark on the world”, Larry muses. “Instead, the world has left marks on us. We got older. Life chastened us so that now we lie waiting to die, or walk on canes, or sit on porches where once the young juices flowed strongly, and feel old and inept and confused.” Life is hard, and Crossing to Safety doesn’t pretend that it’s not. When I finished it, I couldn’t help but think how pointless and hopeless life is without God. What is success, without Him? How does one face death, without Him? But looking back, I can see that the novel shows, too, how a difficult life can still be a good life, how something hard can even be “a rueful blessing”.

If you like novels that keep you on the edge of your seat, Crossing to Safety might not be for you. If you’re a die-hard happy endings person, it might not be for you. But if you like beautifully-written, thought-provoking stories, you just might like this one.

The Wounds of Love

In his beautiful collection of fables, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, Oscar Wilde strikingly contrasts self-sacrificing love with selfishness. “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket” highlight not only the ugliness of a self-centered life but the way in which our selfishness blinds us to the reality of our condition. “I hate people who talk about themselves, as you do,” says the remarkable rocket, “when one wants to talk about oneself, as I do. It is what I call selfishness, and selfishness is a most detestable thing, especially to anyone of my temperament,  for I am well known for my sympathetic nature.”

Selfishness is not only blinding, but self-defeating. In “The Selfish Giant”, Wilde portrays the effects of a giant’s refusal to let local schoolchildren play in his magnificent garden. His selfishness makes it a permanent winter in the garden, “and the north wind and the hail, and the frost and the snow danced about through the trees.” In seeking to hoard treasures, we loose them.

In “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose”, on the other hand, we see what it means to love and to give, even to the point of giving your own life.

“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” thinks the nightingale, when she learns that this is what she must do in order to provide the student with the rose he wishes to give his intended, “and life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the sun in his chariot of gold, and the moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet love is better than life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?'”

In both stories, the love offered goes unrecognised. The student’s lady love disdains the rose the nightingale has given her heart blood for, and the student in turn dismisses love as “not half as useful as logic” and “quite unpractical”. The recipients of the Happy Prince’s jewellery do not know to whom they owe their gratitude, and the town councillors simply notice that the statue has lost its lustre, and have it melted, while the leaden heart that will not melt is consigned to the rubbish heap where the prince’s companion the swallow lies dead.

But while their sacrifices go unnoticed on earth, heaven takes note, and in “The Happy Prince”, God accounts the broken lead heart of the Happy Prince, and the dead body of the swallow, as “the two most precious things in the city”, and His angel brings them home to Him.

It is in “The Selfish Giant”, however, that we get a glimpse of the love behind all self-sacrificing love in the wounded hands and the wounded feet of of the little boy who melted the giant’s heart.

“‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ cried the giant; ‘tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.’

‘Nay!’ answered the child, ‘but these are the wounds of love.'”

For it is only the love wounds of the Son of God Himself that can make us–selfish giants and self-centered rockets that we are–into nightingales who give our life blood for another, or golden statues who give their jeweled eyes for those in need.