Books and Book Reviews: October 2004 Archives

Great interview with Neal Stephenson at Slashdot. Particularly interesting and relevant are questions 2 (literary) and 4--the fabled Stephenson v. Gibson.

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The Kaleidoscopic Book Bag

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On top of the Stack--

Bad Faith Aimée and David Thurlo (The first in what promises to be a series of Religious detective stories featuring Sister Agatha.)

Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh--I'm sure it's no new discovery to note that one should be extremely cautious in the quantity of Waugh one consumes at any one time. Cynicism and bitterness tend to be contagious.

Murther and Walking Spirits Robertson Davies. Dipped into, but never really started, this seemed quite an intriguing read for around Hallowe'en.

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson.

Background reading continues to be the remarkable translation of Anna Karenina

I've been debating reading The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Highly rated and well-considered as a work of twentieth century literature, its subject matter is such that it makes me wonder whether it is worthy of my attention. For example, I find the subject matter of Lolita so repugnant to my sensibilities that I have been hard-pressed to read any Nabakov at all. Yes, I know, a rather provincial prejudice, but it seems that some works come pre-tainted--that is regardless of how well constructed or beautifully written, one must wonder whether there can be any merit to them at all. I'll glance at a few more studies of Durrell and read a few more pages (I really do love the style) before deciding. Unfortunately Durrell, unlike Henry Miller, has real talent with words. Henry Miller I attempted to read in my youth because he was so "controversial" and "erotic." Fortunately, I was so turned off by the dreariness of the lives encountered in whichever of the Tropics books I happened to pick up, and by the relentlessly blocky, unstyled prose that I never fell prey to their temptations. Oh well, the dangers of reading. . .

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Through no fault of its own, this book brought me once again to the realization that as I grow older, I seem to have less time or willingness to bear with trifles.

The story concerns the exploits and background of one Mma Precious Ramotswe, a resident of Botswana and founder of the first ladies detective agency in the country. The novel consists of a string of cases, the most serious of which is a rather confusing tangle of an 11 year old boy whose fate I will not detail, but which ultimately remains obscurely or entirely unexplained.

In the course of this novel one gets delightful evocations of life in southern Africa. One comes to meet some fairly interesting people, and one is given an inside perspective on life in Africa today. Because of a kind of ingrained romanticism that stems from never having visited any part of Africa, I am always surprised to read about modern cities, expecting rather more traditional villages and communities. So it is good to upset those fixed notions from time to time.

But the book is ultimately a trifle, a puff-pastry, a delectable delight that once consumed leaves one unsatisfied. One can move on to other such works or resume more substantial reading. For one, I may consume one other such trifle, but then it's back to Davies, Waugh, and Tolstoy. (Not to mention Benoit Mandelbrot.)


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Languages for Work

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Sitting here sipping my redbush tea and reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith when I happen across this:

They taught us Funagalo, which is the language used for giving orders underground. It is a strange language. The Zulus laugh when they hear it, because there are so many Zulu words in it but it is not Zulu. It is a language which is good for telling people what to do. There are many words for push, take, shove, carry, load, and no words for love, or happiness, or the sounds which birds make in the morning.

I thought about this with the Wittgensteinian and Orwellian view that words shape reality and the reality shaped by this language. And then, dragonfly-like, having hovered for a moment over that concept, it occurred to me--what if Wittgenstein was even a little bit right? What if Orwell had enough understanding of human psychology to have identified a major factor in our lives?

Hover with me for a moment, glance at the reflection this thought makes, the ripples of our wings in the water. If this is so, even only slightly so, does it not reemphasize the need to speak aloud the words of the Psalms in prayers? Does it not argue that singing psalms and hymns and hearing the words God speaks to us through these inspired works creates a reality more conducive to giving ourselves to God? Isn't this the most important thing--shaping reality (by grace) to receive grace? Perhaps we should not have so many words "for push, take, shove, carry, load." Perhaps, just maybe, we should have more words for love and joy and God and worship and presence and union and, "the sound birds make in the morning."

Do you pray aloud? Do you hear and live in the world the words of the psalms make? Do you voice your reflections in the course of the Rosary, making them substantial and real.

Yes, I suppose it is unusual for a Carmelite to encourage vocal prayer. But St. Teresa of Avila would tell us that one "Our Father' prayed perfectly is worth any number of hours of struggling mental prayer. If one prays with one's heart what one's word speaks, one is already entering the realm of contemplative prayer. There's no trick--our attention merely needs to be on Him. Our words must be real and make the world a different place for us to live. A place that encapsulates everything God would have us be and do.

Enough of the ripples. Let your mind enter those things that are worthy and they will speak--even light entertainment can bring you closer to God if you allow it. I never fail to be amazed that the places God can find and surprise me. He seeks us everywhere.

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The Ever-Shifting Book-List


Having finished Nicolson's God's Secretaries the landscape of bookdom subtly shifted. Now I am in a new phase of the kaleidoscope that has the magnificent Anna Karenina as a background. I'll be reading this for several months in all likelihood. I am amazed by this most recent translation, and will share a couple of notes about it in due course.

But over this steady background there is a plethora of shifting interests. One of my book groups called for a reading of The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I'm a bit ambivalent about this series as it has a reputation only slightly better than Henry Miller's "Tropics" books. But glancing at a few pages, some of the prose is magnificent.

Also on the list :

Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh--uproarious in parts. I'm reading it prior to seeing the film version directed by Stephen Fry (Jeeves in the series--about which I should blog also.)

The nonfiction read for the next several days will be the intricate, fascinating, multifaceted The (Mis)Behavior of Markets co-authored by Benoit Mandelbrot.

The home fellowship read continues to be Wilfrid Stinissen's magnicent Nourished by the Word. I've reviewed this before, and it has already touched the hearts and lives of at least one, and possibly several of the group members.

This is the reading list at least until my Saturday reading group meets at which time we'll decide upon another book to consider for future reading.

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You've seen enough of it here, I need hardly say more except to note how very much I enjoyed every aspect of this book. (But what is blogging but the art of saying more when nothing more need be said?) Nicolson gives us more a history of the time from which the King James Bible emerged. We get glimpses of a few personalities and some interesting asides here and there on historical figures.

Some things said were enough to make me want to reevaluate certain figures. For example, St. Thomas More's relentless pursuit of Tyndale is a bit off-putting. While Augustine and others relentlessly squashed heresies, this line from More is not what I really want to consider in the lives of the saints: "and for heretics, as they be, the clergy doth denounce them; and, as they be well worthy, the temporality doth burn them; and after the fire of Smithfield hell doth receive them, where the wretches burn forever." On the other hand, the man was a product of his times and subject to the foibles and failings thereof. As Mark Anthony says of Caesar, "If 'twere so 'twas a grievous fault and grievously hath Caesar answered it." It also forced me to reevaluate my esteem for Lancelot Andrewes who was a pious man but not a particularly saintly one. In short, it gave me a fuller picture of the fallible humans that God uses as implements in His work. I don't know that I will ever think less of St. Thomas More, despite his ferocity, but I do come to have a fuller picture of him as a man as well as a saint.

But the delights of this book were the little details, the subtle points about the fact that the Puritans who were to found Plymouth Plantation, while persecuted, really had it easier than any group in the previous 100 years in England. They were merely exiled to Amsterdam where they continued to do as they pleased.

I recommend the book highly to anyone who wishes to understand better the history of the King James Version. Most particularly I recommend it to those who think that the KJV was largely just a copy of Tyndale or the Geneva Bible. While Nicolson acknowledges those debts and even the shortcomings of the KJV, he also points out how carefully constructed and considered the phrasing of this magnificent work is. Whether we like it or not, the KJV resonate through our language like nothing else--even Shakespeare is a distant second. It is found in the rhythms of Faulkner's prose, it gave rise to the phrases of Martin Luther King's speeches and of Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." It is central to our understanding of our culture, of the United States, and of much of modern literature. It even influences the post-modernists and present-day literature. For a book 400 years old, that is quite the record.

Highly recommended.

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On Puritan Excess--Again


I love the puritan writers (some of them). I love the puritan spirit (some aspects of it.) The passage that follows details one of the things I love best about them.

from God's Secretaries
Adam Nicolson

It is easy enough to misinterpret men like George Abbot. He was stern, intransigent and charmless. He had no modern virtues and in a modern lilght can look absurd. Early every Thursday moroning from 1594-1599, he preached a sermon on a part of the Book of Jonah. That is 260 Thursdays devoted to a book which, even if it is one of the jewels of the Old Testament--a strange, witty, surreal short story--is precisely four chapters long, a total of forty-eight verses. Abbot devoted over five sermons to each of them. (He was not alone in that; his brother Robert was the author of a vast commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans of such tedium that it remains in manuscript to this day; Arthur Hildersham, one of the pushiest of the puritans wrote 152 lectures on Psalm 51: if the Word of God encompassed everything, as these men sincerely believed, then no balloon of commentary or analysis could ever be enough. The age had word-inflation built into it.)

Nicolson understands part of what he writes about here, but I suspect a post-modern sensibility cannot fathom the fact that, indeed the word of God is inexhaustible. I do not find it impossible that someone could preach so long on Jonah. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, in the pursuit of understanding, it is entirely conceivable that such a work could be undertaken, perhaps to the great benefit of all who would receive the word.

The word of God is utterly inexhaustible because it is God speaking not only about Himself (inexhaustible in itself) but also about His deep and abiding love for his creation. With this dual stream of inexhaustibilty, it is no wonder that people deeply in love with the word would wind up with what moderns would view as excess. If one were to compile all of the available extant sermons of those who have preached the word, it would come as no surprise to anyone if certain portions of the Bible had thirty, forty, or fifty sermons devoted to each verse.

In short, it is because we do not cherish this inexhaustibility, this comprehensive commentary on the entire world, that we are so lax at our own scriptural meditations. Let me make this more precise. It is because I do not keep an abiding sense of the every growing, ever fruitful, ever changing depths of the love of God embodied in His direct communications with His people, that I am not reading the Bible in the way it should be read. I read neither as frequently nor as thoroughly as the Word itself demands. Were I to do so, and to face the reality of that reading which also reads me, I would be in a much different place as a Christian. And so I think for many of us. Because Catholics have the supreme gift of Christ Himself in the sacrament of the Eucharist, there is a tendency amongst some to neglect other means by which one enters into communion with and understanding of Jesus Christ. Committed, daily scriptural reading and meditation are absolute essentials for growth in the love of Christ and in the imitation of Him that we are called to. If we are to be like God and to become as God, then we probably should spend some time finding out what that nature is.

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