Books and Book Reviews: September 2003 Archives

Via Mr. Teachout's blog, a wonderful, spirited defense of the works of Stephen King. I have many reservations regarding Mr. King's appropriateness for this award. I have many qualms about the quality of his work. I do resonate to some of what Mr. Bloom has to say about this. But Mr. Bloom asserts in a vacuum. He assumes popular=bad (which is often true, but not always). I used to believe this, and found that it was yet one more place I was wrong.

Whether Mr. King deserves the National Book Award or not is a moot point. I don't vote on it, most people have no say. The award shall be given. But it is vastly entertaining to see the merits of his work considered.

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Favorite Childhood Books

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Many have commented on this theme, and while I haven't seen the original post I thought I would post some of mine.

T.S. O'Rama reminded me of one that I truly loved as a child, though it is down on the list. Thanks for the reminder, I believe I shall look at it yet once again.

All-time Top of the List

Tom Sawyer Mark Twain--(I read it three times every year starting in third grade. Around age 35, I reduced it to twice, but still every year)
Alice in Wonderland Through the Lookingglass and What Alice Found There Lewis Carroll-- (once a year every year since grade 5)
The Lord of the Rings --J. R. R. Tolkien (regularly since grade 6)
A Light in the Forest Conrad Richter(?)
My Side of the Mountain Jean Craighead George
Collected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (I was a morbid little thing. Particularly liked "User" and "Masque of the Red Death"
The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine--Ray Bradbury 7th grade on.
A Tale of Two Cities Fourth grade on
The Collected Tales of H.P. Lovecraft (ditto Clark Ashton Smith, ditto Robert Howard) I told you I was a morbid sort.
Foundation Trilogy and Dune (Grade 6 on)

These (except for Light in the Forest) have remained on my current reading list since that early time. Naturally I read them somewhat differently now, but they are good friends, solid companions, and a source of a certain comfort that other books generally cannot provide--they stay with me to this very day and I delight in thinking about them. It is my hope that my own son develop a similar list and it serves him as well.

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A Tale of Heaven

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Title: The Five People You Meet in Heaven
Author: Mitch Albom
Recommendation: Highly Recommended

Yes, I know, at every turn this book is being foisted off on you. Go into any bookstore and you get 30% off. The tables at Costco (where I bought it for still less) are littered with copies of it and you are faced with the ominous promise, "Mitch Albom author of Tuesdays with Morrie.

Well, I liked Tuesdays with Morrie even if occasionally I felt as if I were being lectured. The same holds true for this novel. I like it. I like it a lot. But there were places where I felt that the tone was a trifle strident, a trifle overbearing. But to be honest, that is because I am so sensitive to "message books." And this obviously IS a message book.

The intent of the story is somewhat similar to It's a Wonderful Life in showing the interconnectivity of the entire human community. It is sort of summed up in the first "lesson"

from The Five People You Meet in Heaven
Mitch Albom

"You say you should have died instead of me. But during my time on earth, people died instead of me, tool. It happens every day. When lightning strikes a minute after you are gone, or a an airplane crashes that you might have been on. When your colleague falls ill and you do not. We think such things are random. But there is a balance to it all. One withers, another grows. Birth and death are part of a whole.

"It is why we are drawn to babies. . ." He turned to the mourners. "And to funerals."

The story is told in a series of episodes that cover the main character's life. Eddie is a maintenance man at a pier side amusement park who dies trying to save a young girl's life. He does not know if he is successful.

The premise is that once you reach heaven you meet five people who help you to understand what you life was all about. They might be people you knew intimately, they might not. Each of them has some important role in who you are and what you have become.

The episodes include Eddie's Birthdays, the people he meets, the lessons they share and some moments on Earth after Eddie's death.

The book is quite short and does pack a punch here and there. I'm not ashamed to admit that I got choked up three or four times in the course of reading--the sign of very effective writing.

Because the time commitment to this book is so small (an-hour-and-half to say three hours) I cannot help but recommend it. Yes, there is much ground that has been trodden before. Yes, I think there are some flaws with the theology and the vision of heaven. But all told, it does us well to be reminded that we are part of a community. "No man is an island. . . if a clod be washed from Europe, Europe be the less. . . ." This is always a salutary reminder, as we too readily sink into ourselves and into the "Pilgrim" experience of John Bunyan of every man for himself until you reach the shores of salvation. And it's much more like we're all swimming for the heavenly shore--millions and millions of us. Sometimes we're so close and crowded, we impede each other's progress, sometimes we are allowed to pull one who is floundering from beneath the waters and hold him or her up briefly--long enough to catch breath before we're swimming again. But in one way or another our success, while entirely dependent upon Jesusí sacrificial love is also dependent upon the broken creatures we swim with. We are all one body--and one body is not saved without its arms or legs--though it can be. It is against the nature of a body to allow these parts to go missing--and so we work with one another in our struggle to obey God.

A parting word:

"Sacrifice. . . you made one. I made one. We all make them. But you were angry over yours. You kept thinking about what you lost.

"You didn't get it. Sacrifice is part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices. A mother works so her son can go to school. A daughter moves home to take care of her sick father. . ."

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On Miracles and Simplicity

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In this passage, Mr. Longenecker makes some incisive and interesting points:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

To speak plainly, the main problem for sophisticated people is not that miracles are incredible, but that they are an error in taste. To profess belief in miracles takes one perilously close to faith healers, the souvenir stalls of Lourdes, and lurid pictures of Jesus with googly eyes. There is a breed of spiritually minded people who reduce Christianity to the highest form of aesthetics. Beauty us to Truth, but beauty without truth is false, and that which is false and beautiful does not remain beautiful for very long. If the faith is no more than a pretty face, then the aesthetes are also atheists. Since miracles are an error in taste, it is far more subversive and therefore far more Christian to accept the miracles. It's also much more fun--rather like wearing a hideous hat on purpose.

If Benedict's biography gives the sophisticated soul miracles to stumble over, Thérèse's story gives tasteful grown-ups an even bigger obstacle. To find Thérèse, the modern soul has to climb over the stumbling block of her style. We modern-day pilgrims are presented with a nineteenth-century teenage nun with a pretty smile and schoolgirl enthusiasms. She speaks in language that seems archaic and sickly sweet. Among other sentimental touches she calls herself a little flower of Jesus and a little ball for the child Jesus to play with. She thinks God is her "Papa" and likens herself to a bowl of milk that kittens come to drink from. It's easy to turn away such greeting-card spirituality in distaste, but this is precisely the first test. Thérèse swamps tasteful people with sentimentality and sweetness, and only when they survive the taste test can they begin to appreciate her wisdom. She is one of the best examples of the secret Catholic truth that says the tasteful cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. (p. 46-47)

There is so much more profound and interesting insight on these pages that I must encourage you all to get the book if you can. This passage continues and says many wonderful and remarkable things about the style and what Thérèse was and what she was trying to do.

I think style is the biggest complaint I hear about Thérèse; how people can't push themselves through the sticky images and the sweetness and light. And I sympathize--greatly. Up until the magisterial translation offered by the ICS, I had similar feelings. The Beevers translation and earlier works were just dreadful and incredibly off-putting. I couldn't find any spirituality for all the treacle. When the Carmelite Group proposed reading this piece of school-girl drivel I just about went mad (although, truth to tell, I was instrumental in proposing it.) But when I read it, and really searched it to find out what the Church saw here, I was truly astonished at the depths that opened up before me. What was school-girl drivel suddenly became something else entirely. I can't explain it. All I can say is that this person who prizes above much else elegance of language and expression, sophistication of writing and idea suddenly discovered the elegance of saying precisely what was right for the person who was writing. It opened a door to riches beyond imagination. From saccharine schoolgirl, my image of Thérèse transmuted into Great Saint, perhaps one of the very greatest of Saints--a true Doctor in the sense of conveying in language anyone who wished to could understand profound truths about prayer and our relationship with God.

And in fact, I think Longenecker has hit upon a key point. Entry to Thérèse means submitting with great humility to the fact that a teenaged "silly" schoolgirl has something profound and life-altering to teach those of us who have been in the world approaching twice as long. Surely this babe in the woods could not know anything we have not already learned. And the barrier that demonstrates approach with proper humility is the ability to get past the language and the image. Until then, you are not really permitted a glance at the profound wisdom and truth that is offered through the writings of this unlikely nun.

Thérèse presents more than anything else a challenge to our sensibilities and our aesthetics, a challenge that offers a small taste of the meaning of detachment. We must detach from our own preferences, our own sense of style, our own love of the high language and great art of many of the other saints, and accept a story-book saint--flat, wooden, and girlish. And as in some fairy-tale story, when we do so, she comes alive and tells us truths that will change our lives and our relationship with God.

(Oh--one additional tip for the hopelessly stymied--for whatever reason, all of this that is so off-putting in English, is greatly subdued if you read it in French--this discipline is finally what allowed me to enter the door and sit for a while at this great teacher's feet. Praise God!)

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All Consuming


From Chirp, this link to a site that seems to harvest references to books. Looks like it may be interesting.

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Torgny Lindgren Revisited


I'm still reading Light. (I switch off books so often that I don't complete anything all that quickly. Keeps me on my toes and entertained juggling plotlines in my head.) And the more I read the more impressed I am. Lindgren has a near-obssession with the subject of incest as it makes up a main theme in both The Way of a Serpent and Light. I think it's a subset of a larger concern with internal family struggles which most interestingly develops full-blown into Sweetness the story of two brothers who have lived as long as they have because they are kept alive by wanting to see the other one dead. If Mr. Lindgren is an accurate chronicler, Sweden must be a most unpleasant place to live.

I purposefully do not set the context for the piece below, because I think it is what is said here that is important and I don't want to spoil the book for all of you who will rush out to get it because I've said it's a great read. (:-D)

That meant: He was a suicide and they used to bury them out in the forest. It was Borne who would have to do it.

"No one does anything entirely by himself," said Könik, "there's nothing so insignificant that you can do it solely by your own strength."

What that meant even he didn't know.

Nearly every sentence of this tightly constructed book resonates with meanings. Like a simple harmonic, each new iteration of the theme swells the progress of the whole. Remind me to tell you the sory of Boltzmann.

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In Memoriam


In remembrance of the day, this:

from My Invented Country
Isabel Allende

Until only a short time ago, if someone had asked me where I'm from, I would have answered without much thought, Nowhere; or Latin America; or, maybe, In my heart I'm Chilean. Today, however, I say I'm an American, not simply because that's what my passport verifies, or because that word includes all of America from north to south, or because my husband, my son, my grandchildren, most of my friends, my books, and my home are in northern California; but because a terrorist attack destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and starting with that instant, many things have changed. We can't be neutral in moments of crisis. This tragedy has brought me face to face with my sense of identity. I realize today that I am one person in the multicolored population of North America, just as before I was Chilean. I no longer feel that I am so alien in the United States. When I watched the collapse of the towers, I had a sense of having lived in a nearly identical nightmare. By a blood-chilling coincidence--historic karma--the commandeered airplanes struck their U.S. targets on a Tuesday, September 11, exactly the same day of the week and month--and almost the same time in the morning --of the 1973 military coup in Chile, a terrorist act orchestrated by the CIA against a democracy. The images of burning buildings, smoke, flames, and panic are similar in both settings. That distant Tuesday in 1973 my life was split in two; nothing was ever again the same: I lost a country. That fateful Tuesday in 2001 was also a decisive moment, nothing will ever again be the same, and I gained a country.

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The Man Who Was Thursday

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This is supposedly the next book for our religious/spiritual book group and I am finding the same difficulty with it that I had the first time through--the writing is stilted, uneven, and even just plain bizarre--or so it seems. Compared to close contemporaries Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells it lacks a polish and an immediacy these others have. He fails to engage me in any meaningful sense. I always feel inadequate when I admit this because so many speak so highly of Chesterton's work. But I'm afraid that it just doesn't resonate with me. Some of the nonfiction prose is more interesting and better composed, but frankly I rather spend the time with Greene, Waugh, O'Connor, or Percy, all of whom present their own problems and flaws, but who at least never fail to be interesting from the point of view of a writer.

I would love to have some encouragement in this reading--so if there are any who really, really like The Man Who Was Thursday I'd appreciate hearing from you, and I am certain others in the blog world would profit from it as well.

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More On Philip Yancey


Some time back I blogged extensively about a Yancey book that I was enjoying enormously. Subsequently I have tried many others. I don't find them nearly as compelling even though all are written quite well. The attraction of Soul Survivor for me must have been the literary world and the figures he chose to represent it.

Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own had a similar attraction for me. I learned much about four figures who I stood some chance of understanding and whose vocations (in the Earthly sense) spoke to me. I suspect that I will get more out of Isabel Allende's My Invented Country than I am likely to harvest from any further reading of Yancey, and so until I hear word to the contrary, I'm likely to retire Yancey, or read him only in small bits. This is not to denigrate his work or suggest that it isn't entirely worthwhile and wonderful. It simply is an acknowledgment that aspects of it lack appeal for me, even though it is very fine in many ways.

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No profound insights into Neil Gaiman's novel for children, but a few pointers. I never fail to be amazed at the cleanness and beauty of the prose. There are points throughout the novel that hint at deeper riches. Don, who initially recommended the piece with some reservations, had noted the use of Bible verses in the mouth of a very unsavory character and wondered what Gaiman might be saying. The wonderful thing about this, is that it little matters what his intent, again, as Don points out, it may leave a funny aftertaste in adult mouths, but the story is ultimately about good and evil. The use of the Bible verse very readily explained by the fact that not everyone who quotes scripture is worthy to do so. (A digression: how many of us are?)

The story and prose are simply enough--probably easy enough for a homeschooled child of seven or eight, or a public-schooled child of ten to read. The novel provides plenty of goosebumps with very little in the way of anything objectionable. I don't know that I would share this with youngsters, but I do recommend it to the attention of adults both because it is short and because the control in the writing is absolutely perfect. The pitch and the ear for dialogue and description superb. Quiet, menacing, and thrilling without ever going over the top. In some ways this small book reminded me of the splendid movie The Others. The chill is similar, the end result quite different. And, as usual with Gaiman, there are moments that are quite amusing even amid the creepiness. As we approach October, but this on your fall reading list.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from September 2003.

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