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 Heaven Tree

“’I am your man. I swear, on this living heart, that I will remain with you and seek no other service until your church is finished. And if I play you false, you may have this same heart living out of my body.’

There was a long moment of silence, then Isambard walked slowly to the table and drained his own goblet and set it gently beside its fellow. ‘So be it!’ he said.”

With these words, Harry Talvace and Ralf Isambard conclude their agreement. To have free reign in the creation of a church is an irresistible offer for Harry. As he says to Isambard, “’If you were the devil himself I would abide by you for such a prize as this.”

Harry will discover, however, that while his master may not be the devil, he is a hard and passionate man for whom the only evil is the breaking of his word.

Were Harry as compassionless as Isambard, this might not pose any problems, but Harry is more than impetuous and impudent, more than a proud Talvace and an extraordinary craftsman: he is also driven to protect the weak, and unshakeable in the conviction that his own conception of justice is correct, even if it flies in the face of what is accepted as justice in the brutal Middle Ages. This protective instinct is one he cannot resist, no matter what harm may come to him as a result:

“Somewhere at the bottom of his heart he had always known that the last choice he made in the teeth of power and privilege and law must be mortal, and that nonetheless he neither could not would turn aside from making it.”

The Heaven Tree, the first in Edith Pargeter’s trilogy of the same name, is a brilliant novel. Its characters come to life as vividly as the statues Harry carves in stone. Pargeter’s writing is also a work of art. She writes of Harry’s church, for example, “Suddenly the very vault was full of reflected light that trembled over the slender, braced ribs like fingers among harp-strings, and all the round-cheeked cherubim in the bosses glowed golden and shouted for joy.”

The Heaven Tree does not always make for pleasant reading, reflecting as it does the brutality of the times in which it is set. Yet in the midst of cruelty, jealousy, and revenge, it also shows, powerfully and poignantly, what it means to sacrifice oneself for another, and what it means to love.

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.”

What’s in a Name?

A year or so ago I scrolled through bestselling books on Amazon, and wrote a piece which I never posted commenting on some of their titles. I’d seen another blogger do something similar and I liked the idea. I never posted it at the time, but I’ve spruced it up and I present it now. I haven’t checked the bestsellers list again, so no doubt it is hopelessly outdated. If the bestsellers then are still bestsellers now, let’s just say that they’ve done well for themselves. (Disclaimer: I am judging these books on titles, not on content. In fact, I have no idea what most of them are about.)

Zoo

Unless this is a picture book for two-year-olds (in which case, you have my blessing), it just doesn’t cut it.

Elizabeth is Missing

This title manages to give away a lot and yet remain flat and stale. When Elizabeth Went Missing would be better—it would spark the question “What happened when she went missing?” and prompt readers to discover the answer.

The Sunrise

Em, yes? We have one of those every day. This is probably intended to be an evocative rather than a curiosity-inspiring title, and I’ll admit it’s pretty enough, but it lacks concreteness. How about Sunrise over Niagara, or something with a hint of sadness like The Last Sunrise? Can you feel the difference?

Finders Keepers

This title does make the potential reader ask questions (“Who finds what?” “Who keeps what?”) but to have a cliché as the tile of your book? I’m not convinced.

The Children Act

This is eye-catching because it sounds like a work of non-fiction. Then you realise that it’s a novel and you know that weighty things are at stake, even though you don’t know exactly what.

I Let You Go

You did? Why? Tell me more, and while you’re at it, please pass the tissues.

A Man of Some Repute

This is not only an intriguing title (why only some repute?) with an elegant, old-fashioned feel, but there’s a lovely iambic rhythm to it.

All the Light We Cannot See

Beautifully evocative and rhythmical, this makes me wonder what this light is and why we can’t see it….

 

In conclusion, dear authors and publishers, when it comes to the titles of your books, a rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, but if you’ve christened it a birthwort rather than a rose, I may never venture near enough to smell it.

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)

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.”

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.

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?

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.