Books and Book Reviews: July 2004 Archives

Reading List

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I have honed my list down. That means that while there are dozens of unfinished books lying about, I've decided to try to focus on only three-to-five at a time. (The variation depends on how many book groups I'm reading for. I've finished the study for one book, so I've only got one group to read for right now.)

Founding Brothers--Joseph Ellis
Time of the Ghost-- Diana Wynne Jones (the bookgroup book)
Lancelot Walker Percy--through the aegis of a correspondent
Two Sister in the Spirit-- Hans Urs von Balthasar
Soul-Making--Alan Jones

Also in the background I am continually reading, studying and writing for the group study on The Ascent of Mount Carmel

The wonderful thing about running several books at a time is that when I am not in the mood or I'm bored, or I do think I really want to finish a given book, I switch off to something else for a time and I can usually return to the abandoned book. I'm surprised at my ability to retain much of what is going on. I'd abandoned Founding Brothers for perhaps as a much as a year now, but when I picked it up with the Quaker proposal to Congree in 1790, I remembered where I was quite vividly. As the book is comprised of six vignettes, my memory of the other two is not so important as of this one. However, I discover that I remember them fairly well also.

So my half-finished books on deck, as it were to fill the slots as they become available (you'll note that other than the book group slots, there are three--Fiction, Nonfiction, and Spiritual) include:

Christian Contemplation and Perfection--R. Garrigou-Lagrange (I'll be working on this for years, the Good Lord willing--it isn't precisely what one would call easy reading)
Michelangelo's Ceiling--Herbert Ross
The Science of the Cross--St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Abandoned for reasons far too complex to relate, but a wonderful, wonderful book--by far and away her most accessible.)

And those I haven't yet started but really want to read

A Woman of the Pharisees--Francois Mauriac (I have distant recollections of liking this)
The Desert of Love--Francois Mauriac
Thèrése Desqueyroux--Francois Mauriac I read this in a college-level French class and have almost no recollection of it at all. It was by far overshadowed at the time by Sartre's Huis Clos and de Maupassant's Boule de Suif and Camus's L'exil et le Royaume. I was mystified and horrified by the existentialist and thought for a time that I saw myself as the protagonist of L'etranger. Time has shown me to be wrong in that supposition.
Elizabeth Costello as well as other works by J.M Coetzee, a writer I've discovered recently and whom I like a great deal.

Okay, enough of this maundering on--you get the idea that I have an extensive (humongous) backlog and an attempt at a system for addressing it.

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The second book by Billie Letts (the interview at the end suggests that there may be a movie coming soon on this one as well). Pretty much second verse same as the first. Quirky characters come together in the small Oklahoma town of Sequoyah--In this case a paraplegic Vietnam War Vet, a Creek/Crow Indian, a Mother of a disruptive teenage daughter (same age as Noralee Nation in the first book), a Vietnamese man who is earning money for his wife to move over from Vietnam, etc.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon is the centerpiece around which these characters convene, emote, and general make mayhem and community for one another.

The prose is smooth, unblemished. The characters nearly uniformly likeable. The bad guy immediately identifiable, and though Letts tries to humanize him through his trauma, he is still one you hope gets what's coming to him.

And while I enjoyed and do recommend this book almost as much as the previous, I have to admit that my first reaction upon finishing it was--"Why did I spend the time on that?" Not that it was a poor book or a poorly written book. But I have had impressed upon me lately the necessity of serving the Lord in ALL things. Now, before I continue, I don't want to say that the message that follows is for everyone. It is NOT. However, I think we could all profit by pondering some of the things I came to realize in the course of thinking about this book.

We all know that our span on Earth is strictly limited--none of us knows how long it will be. If the purpose of our life on Earth is to worship God, then all things in life should be directed to that purpose. Now, things are good in their measure. There is certainly no harm in reading things that give us pleasure (assuming that the pleasure is derived licitly from the reading--that is, it does not appeal to the prurient). However, is it enough?

I think early in the Christian journey all legitmate and licit pleasures are good and should be gratefully accepted. However, as we grow in the faith, it seems to me that the things we take pleasure in should also advance. That is, that while we might enjoy light reading at the start of our Christian career, as our lives move into conformity with God, we might move on from this legitimate interest to more profound things. Perhaps Scripture reading replaces some of the light reading we do. Perhaps reading of Christian classics, theology, and other spiritual helps begins to move in.

I guess I'm suggesting that as we become conformed to Christ we are becoming new people--those new people should not be quite so involved with the old things as they were.

I have said "we" here. What I really mean is "I." I felt a little cheated in reading a book so similar to another that I had recently read. But I also felt that I somehow cheated God of time that was more properly used in His service. For example, in the time that I read Honk and Holler I probably could have gotten through a chapter or so of Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans. I could have read several chapters of one of the least dense books by von Balthasar that I've ever set eyes on--Two Sisters in the Spirit. I enjoy these things as much as I enjoy Billie Letts, but the perusal of these works is also more conducive to moving closer to where God wants me to be, or so it seems.

So, I'm not saying that I shouldn't enjoy things. Rather, I should pick among the very best things to enjoy. If I would have equal pleasure from Agatha Christie as from Walker Percy, but Percy would lead me to think more about God's kingdom, isn't it more proper to read Percy? If all other things are equal, shouldn't I always choose the path that lead more closely to God?

Now, sometimes this might well be Agatha Christie. Perhaps I am overloaded and need rest to become once again the person I need to be. I would think this would be the exception rather than the rule. More than this, I look at the lives of the great Saints who did not indulge a penchant for popular fiction (indeed St Teresa of Avila accused herself of foolish indulgence in the chivalrous Romances of her time). Surely these servants were also seeking God and experiencing His pleasures in their time.

So it leads me to wonder if our indulgence in these pass-times isn't sometimes also a way of avoiding deeper commitment. I know that it can sometimes be that way for me. The matter of how to spend my leisure time is one that I should spend a good deal more of my prayer time and meditation time regulating properly. If God is not at the center, even of those things that I do for pleasure and recreation, then they simply are not worthy of my time.

What do you all think?

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Lady Windemere Fans a Scandal


Inspired by a note from a correspondent, I ventured over to Amazon today to look for Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans (a work I truly admired, and one which got me solidly interested in Christianity, after wandering through the wide world of religion.) Upon arriving at Amazon, my "recommendations" screen popped up and the first book listed was Clinton's My Life

Those who know me know that the last president I was truly interested in was John Adams, and I might conceivably venture forward someday to read a biography of Martin Van Buren or Andrew Jackson (though biographies of military and political figures generally bore me to tears--if they are after the revolutionary period). I don't read biographies of modern presidents I like, much less of one for whom I have to pray constantly that I do not enter into sin in thought, word, or deed when I turn my attention to him.

What led to this noxious recommendation? Well, according to Amazon, I liked Lady Windemere's Fan (a play by Oscar Wilde) so that led directly to Bill Clinton. I would certainly like to know by what convoluted road one arrives at Bill from Lady Windemere, but I suspect I would be terribly dismayed at whatever revelations lay behind that conjunction.

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The 9/11 Commission Report


I finished reading this last night as a form of penance, and penance it was. Not only for the events detailed, but as in any government report, the lapses in grammar, the turgid and unnecessarily obtuse language and the convoluted sentences indicating a lack of clarity about any of the conclusions.

We know much, much remains to be known, whether or not it can be none int he absence of the perpetrators remains to be seen.

The report is available online here

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Caught in the Trap of Our Making


Described beautifully by Charles Williams:

from All Hallow's Eve

She was about a third of the way down when from far off the sound of the Name caught her. She could hardly there be said to have heard it; it was not so much a name or even a sound as an impulse. It had gone, the Indrawing cry, where only it could go, for the eternal City into which it was inevitably loosed absorbed it into its proper place. It could not affect the solid house of earth nor the millions of men and women toilfully attempting goodness; nor could it reach the paradisical places and thier inhabitants. It sounded only through the void streets, the apparent facades, the shadowy rooms of the world of the newly dead. There it found its way. Other wanderers, as invisible to Evelan as she to them, but of her kind, felt it--old men seeking lechery, young men seek drunkeness, women making and believing malice, all harborers in a lie. The debased Tetragrammaton drew them with its spiritual suction: the syllables passed out and swirled, and drawing thier captives returned to their speaker. Some went a little way and fell; some farther and failed; of them all only she, at once the latest, the weakest, the nearest, the worst, was wholly caught. She did not recognize captvity; she thought herself free. She began to walk more quickly, to run, to run fast. As she ran, she began to hear the sound. It was not friendly; it was not likeable; but it was allied. She felt towards it as Lester had felt towards the cry on the hill. The souls in that place know their own proper sounds and hurry to them.

Without question, Williams is difficult and you must read nuance and symbol to get everything. But here, in characteristic fashion, he spells it out to all who are paying attention. "My sheep know my voice and they hear me."

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The Hundred Best Books


I wonder how many would agree with this list of the hundred best books. Frankly, any such list that includes the remarkably pallid and maudlin Wuthering Heights deserves to be looked at askance.

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Continuing my beach-reading reviews in a slightly differen vein. My wife informs me that this was made into a movie--I hadn't realized that fact, and I can't imagine it. They must have pruned out large swathes of it (or perhaps not) in order for it not to be entirely depressing. The book itself is NOT depressing, but I could see a very downbeat movie being made from it.

The story centers around 17 year old Novalee Nation who is travelling across country with her boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens to make their fortune in California. Novalee is 7 months pregnant and desperately in need of a potty break when they enter the town of Sequoyah, OK. She spots a Wal-Mart and gets her boyfriend to pull over so she can buy some "house shoes." She enters the store and after taking care of the primary business goes up the register with a ten-dollar bill and gets $7.77 cents change. Seven is not a good number for Novalee, and she realizes that her boyfriend has abandoned her.

With this inauspicious beginning we are introduced to an odd array of characters who help Novalee make a life for herself:

--Sister Husband believes that reading the Bible is confusing. If you read a lot you you get very confused, if you read a little, you are only a little confused. So Sister Husband hands out Bibles a chapter at a time. When she first meets Novalee, she doesn't have any chapters to give her because she's just handed out her last Deuteronomy and two Lamentations because, she says, "I just stopped by the bus station and met a woman going to New Orleans. A woman going to New Orleans cannot have too many lamentations."

--Lexie--the friend with five children by four different fathers who seems never to pick the right man or the right diet. One of her notions for a diet is to stand up while eating McDonald's food.

--Moses Whitecotton--who introduces her to a love of art and vision.

There are others, of course, but this is a sampling. What I derived from the book is a powerful sense of the healing power of community and of selfless love that is still possible among people who have not gotten swept up into the "American Dream" of a Bel-Air Mansion and swimming pool.

I enjoyed the book tremendously (but then I'm a sucker for the 'I lived for a month in the Grocery Store without anyone knowing about it' genre). And I heartily recommend it (pardon the pun), for those looking for a charming, funny, sad, and sometimes moving exploration of human relationships. Billie Letts reminds me of Anne Tyler at her very best. I hope the other book I picked up The Honk and Holler Opening Soon is as amusing.

Recommended--good beach reading.

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Ice Hunt--James Rollins


Okay, so I've had a slew of non-beach reading, and I realized that I neglected to say anything about this book. (And speaking of it allows me to make another point in a different post, so bear with me.) This is DEFINITELY beach reading. I bought it while in Venice and started reading it while there, finished upon the return home. (I can't read much at the beach because I'm too active walking up and down the beach and looking out to sea--so while I understand the concept of beach reading, I must admit to not being a beach-reader.)

Anyway, this is another of Rollins's utterly fascinating thrillers. In this, an American Submarine in the Arctic ocean comes upon a huge complex frozen into an "ice-island" They surface through a convenient nearby polynya and begin exploring the base. They discover two different but subtly interrelated horrors frozen in the base. I don't know how much to tell you about these because much of the fun of the book is discovering what these wonders and horrors are. Suffice to say the name of the station is Grendel and what is there sufficiently lives out the name.

Rollins has from the beginning constructed elaborate and entertaining thrillers. This one is particularly interesting because of the setting, the sub-plots, and the amazing discoveries and ultimate purpose thereof. You will learn far more that you care to know about arctic ice, submarines, sonar, and illicit human experimentation.

This is light reading at its best--much action, many surprises, a love subplot, a revenge on the entire world subplot, and a conspiracy subplot. The action keeps you moving through it and the author's afterward gives you something to think about as you are considering.

Recommended for your sessions of light reading.

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The Martian Child


David Gerrold, a science fiction writer whose reknown stems prinicpally from various Star Trek episodes, most especially "The Trouble with Tribbles," has written an interesting and occasionally moving novel concerning his real-life experience adopting a child.

Dennis, the child, is labeled by the child-care workers as "unadoptable." He has ADHD, he's been in and out of foster homes since he was taken from his abusvie mother at the age of three. In one case, at the age of four, he had to testify against the person who abused him.

Glancing through a book full of potential adoptees at a "fair" for adoption, David happens upon Dennis's picture and realizes that this is the child for him. He starts proceedings. At the initial interview, all goes well enough until near the end at which time one of the social workers says, "Dennis thinks he's a martian." Gerrold comes up with a response to this that is at once sympathetic and delusional. And so the book proceeds.

We hear mostly about the good times. The bad times are mostly relagated to little intervals between the triumphs. Frankly, this is all to the good. I'd rather hear about the breakthroughs than about how very difficult it can be. And there are a great many breakthroughs.

The story proceeds along a trajectory that injects some vaguely science-fictiony elements into the mix. We meet (in retrospect) Ted Sturgeon (one of the great writers and theorists of the Science Fiction world), Steve Barnes, and other science fiction writers of note.

The novel is about the power of love, and it is perhaps made more powerful by the fact that the events really occurred, that Mr. Gerrold's life is laid out for us, and that things have gone far better than one could possibly expect. The story is about the power of one attentive and dedicated adult to turn around the life of one very disturbed, very hurt, profoundly needy child. From this bundle of need emerges a person who is capable of love and attachment, a person who was always there but hidden by circumstance.

One caution for the scrupulous--Mr. Gerrold is a self styled "gay" or "bisexual" man. It plays remarkably little part in the story. but some may have objections. It did much to make me rethink any I might have been harboring.


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All Hallow's Eve


I've said before, and I do not think I will tire of saying, Charles Williams is one of the most unjustly neglected authors of recent times. Every time I dip into this book, I am once again convinced of the eerie power Charles Williams has to evoke the spiritual world and the kinds of battles that rage there. Much of his work is difficult, perhaps even obscure. I shared this work with the reading group I have and one person was completely confounded by it. The other enjoyed it but did find it a bit difficult.

One of the main themes in all of Williams's work is the battle that rages around us constantly and our inability to see it. So too here. We start with Lester and Evelyn whom we learn very early on are both dead. We follow them around through a kind of shadow London, the nature of which is not completely clear--though it seems a London in which it is possible to move through time. This becomes clear when we meet the Clerk--a Rasputin-like religious figure with an enormous power of a great many followers. He sends Betty, a rather lackluster girl, through shadow London on various missions. As it happens, Betty has connections in the past with both Lester and Evelyn.

I don't want to go to much into the mechanics of the plot here because it might dissuade you from reading this magnificent work. I think a better focus might be to mention that the book is largely about the neglected power of the sacraments. We see the transforming, indeed salvific power of the sacrament of Marriage in action in one character. In another we see the similar power of Baptism, even though the character was prevented from doing anything that would reinforce the initial sacrament.

One of the book group readers was fascinated and entertained by the powerful love story that provides the backbone for the book. All were intrigued by the various symbols in the work--for example, the two paintings of Jonathan that portray the Clerk and his followers and the "real" London. These symbols need to be carefully examined and "unpacked" for the story to have full effect.

While the book is short, it is NOT fast reading. You have to allow yourself the leisure to enjoy and understand it. While it can be read in one sitting, I'm not sure that is the most effective means of approaching it. Better to take it a little at a time and let it blossom, savoring the sentences, the meanings, and the symbols that come to life with careful examination.

Williams is an amazingly talented author. His fiction is uniformly as good as most of Lewis, and better than some. His prose is dense, an occasionally difficult thicket of words; nevertheless, it is so deliberately. It isn't an absence of cultivation that makes for obscurity, but, I believe, a deliberate attempt to slow the reader down and make them face the elements of the tale before them.

If you've read and enjoyed Lewis and Tolkien, you owe it to yourself to try the most difficult, and in some ways most interesting of the Inklings. (This is high praise indeed, if you only knew the great esteem in which I hold C.S. Lewis and some of J. R. R. Tolkien.)

Highly recommended--but not for beach reading.

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While this is a much more accurate, much finer story than Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, it still rates only about a three out of five. The primary reason for this is a too-long stretch of sexual healing through group grope that casts its jaded, gloomy shadow over the final portions of the novel. Absoutely unnecessary in every regard, this theme adds nothing and detracts considerably from a fascinating story about time travel, dinosaurs, and paradox. At moments, the novel approaches philosophy--as when one of the characters engaged in time travel refers to their actions as predestined. The predestination in this book seem rather like the Calvinist double predestination. However, as this can all be undone, it is not really predestinaiton at all.

The novel traces a band of paleontologists and paleontological groupies as they travel through time giving papers and visiting the lost vistas of the past. Time travel has been given as a gift from "The Unchanging," with the proviso that those using it do not introduce paradox into the time stream. Time travel is used exclusively for visiting the Mesozoic era and studying dinosaurs upclose.

We are almost immediately given anod to Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder," when one of the characters tells another, "You can step on as many butterflies as you want and kill as many dinosaurs, it has already happened."

Time travel is threatened by (what else) a reactionary group of fundamentalists who seek to destroy the whole notion for purposes that don't make any sense whatsoever, except perhaps that it allows the author to express his antipathy toward a group of people he obviously neither understands nor has any tolerance for.

Plot logic lapses such as this, and extraneous elements both detract from a neat and interesting story line. In the hands of a more controlled writer (I won't say more capable because Swanwick is truly a talented writer) this book could have been about a hundred pages shorter and a good deal less offensive to those who hold any sort of religious views.

It is worthwhile to read for the dinosaurs, the paleontology, and the inside look at some of the battles that rage through the scientific world. However, I must say that the negatives nearly overwhelm any positive aspects the novel may have. For most of y'all, I'd suggest giving it a big miss.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from July 2004.

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