Monday, December 29, 2008

You Know You Are a Book Blogger When...

I was amused by Chain Reader's "Ten Signs That You Are a Book Blogger" and am borrowing her idea. As I celebrate my first “blogiversary” I have created my own list:

You Know You Are a Book Blogger When…
1) You can’t sleep in on the weekend because you want to link to your most recent post as soon as possible at Semicolon’sSaturday Review of Books”.

2) You are thankful your husband likes to do all the driving so that you can get in a few extra chapters on the way to anywhere.

3) You use an index card instead of a book marker so that you can jot down page numbers, quotes and thoughts on the books.

4) You are in a bit of a panic if you haven’t started a new book by Monday in order to have a post written about it by Friday.

5) You read responses to your book posts before you open any other mail and the feedback makes your day.

It’s been a great first year and I’ve appreciated meeting many likeminded readers!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Reading Year in Review 2008

I don’t like book challenges because my reading tastes are too eclectic to stick to one genre, but I had hoped that by joining the 100 Books Challenge (no specific requirements outside of the number of books) I would increase my reading in 2008. It didn’t happen. I actually read 54 books this year which fits the goal I set for myself 20 years ago of one-book-per-week.

I had hoped to increase my book intake this year, especially with audiobooks. (I raved about them in my “Best of 2007” blog), but several things happened to change that goal. First, I found that audiobooks are good, but never quite as satisfying as reading an actual book. Second, we moved and all the transitions to the new city TOOK TIME and made fitting in extra reading time a real challenge. And third, I discovered that I don’t like speeding through books to meet a goal or deadline. I want my “reading life” to be challenging, but not a chore. And rushing through a book is like watching scenery race by through a car window. I prefer to savor the view. Here are my thoughts on the books I read this year:

Book that required the most effort but gave the most pleasure: Middemarch by George Eliot.

Book that gave the most pleasure with the least amount of effort: Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris

Best audiobooks: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (through Librivox) and China Court read by Julie at Forgotten Classics

Most inspirational: Renew my Heart by John Wesley and Imitation of Christ by á Kempis

Biggest surprises (books I did not expect to like so much) Much Ado about Nothing by Shakespeare, Hard Times by Dickens, and Elijah of Buxton

Most comforting (excluding the Bible): Jane Eyre

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Elijah of Buxton by C.P. Curtis

Many months ago I was intrigued by Becky’s comment at DCR that “Elijah is about as perfect as a book can get”. Later when I saw the book featured at our school library I decided to find out what she meant. And I’m glad I did.

Elijah of Buxton is the story of an eleven year old boy living in community of freed slaves in Buxton, Canada. It’s told from his perspective in words that were appropriate for his age and time and place. I have to admit that reading a whole book written in slang was a stretch for me (I was an English major after all!), but it was well worth it. Rarely have I read a book with such laugh-out-loud-funny scenes that was at the same time so tender and poignant. (I cried like a baby over the final chapter and I NEVER do that.)

The author, Christopher Paul Curtis, does a masterful job of writing about a thriving community of freed slaves, all the while weaving in facts and stories about the horrors of what they went through before they were free. Chapter 11 has a powerful description of a family of runaway slaves that has just arrived:

Pa walked back over to the family and said the same thing we say to all the new-free folks when they first get to Buxton. It’s the way we greet ‘em into being free.

Pa pointed up and said, “Looky there! Look at that sky!” … “Ain’t that the grandest sky y’all ever seen?” Pa smiled and pointed out ‘cross the field. “Look at that land! Look at them trees! Has y’all seen anything that precious? It’s the land of the free!”… “Now look at you’selves! Look at ‘em babies! Has y’all ever looked this beautiful! Today be the first day don’t no one own y’all but y’all…. Today’ y’all’s truly set you’selves free!” Then he opened both his arms and said to the people, “And y’all chooosed the most beautifullest, most perfectest day for doing it!”

It was peculiar ‘cause it didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing or even if the sky was being ripped by lightning and thunder, we always tell the new folks that it was the most beautifullest, most perfectest day to get free. Far as I can tell, the weather didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. (p. 165)

Although its Newbery award (for excellence in children’s literature) was well deserved, don’t let that fool you into thinking this book is just for children. Adults have more to gain from it because their life experiences will enable them to empathize with the characters in a way that children cannot. I was deeply impressed by this book. The people are believable, the writing is exceptional, the setting is fascinating and the outcome is deeply satisfying. Thanks, Becky, for bringing it to my attention.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Charles Wesley's Birthday

John Wesley is credited as the father of Methodism, but his brother Charles played a major part in the movement as well. What John taught in his sermons Charles put into musical form. He wrote over 5,000 hymns before his death in 1788. Since the Wesley brothers initially reached out to the poor and illiterate, doctrinal teaching was facilitated by the singing of songs that were rich in theological truths.

Charles Wesley’s hymns have fallen out of fashion. You will hear his most famous ones at Easter (Christ the Lord is Risen Today) and at Christmas (Hark the Herald Angels Sing). Even I, who grew up Methodist, was only familiar with half a dozen others until a few years ago. While in seminary I was given a biography of the Wesley brothers and in the back were the words to over 100 of Charles’ hymns. I read them devotionally – one a day – for several years and was greatly enriched. Today in honor of his birthday I’m quoting a few favorite lines and stanzas. (Almost three hundred of his hymns can be heard at cyber hymnal.)

From Hymn 22
Talk with us Lord, thyself reveal,
While here o’er earth we rove;
Speak to our hearts, and let us feel
The kindling of thy love.

With thee conversing we forget
All time and toil, and care:
Labor is rest, and pain is sweet
If thou, my God, art here.

Hymn 75 starts by highlighting our “God of unexampled grace”. Later he writes “Thrice happy am I” because of the three blessings of salvation: pardon, grace and heaven. Hymn 108 reminds us that the “Sun of righteousness” appeared “to gild our gloomy hemisphere”.

Poetry is compact language and as a Christian and theology teacher I love it when a lot of meaning is packed into a minimal amount of words. Next to John Donne, Charles Wesley is my favorite Christian poet.

For Christmas it seems appropriate to conclude with the first stanza of Hymn 107:

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

One of my best friends from college was a Willa Cather fan and I’ve heard Cather’s name bandied about through the years as a “great American writer”. Naturally, I was prepared to be impressed as I dove into my first Cather book, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The book is about two Catholic priests who go out west in 1851 to revive the Catholic communities that have been unsupervised for decades. It takes place in real time with actual people and events in American history (Kit Carson, Gadsen purchase, etc.) and is apparently based on a true story Cather read of a cathedral that had been built in Santa Fé.

Throughout the narrative Bishop Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant come in contact with priests of every stripe, but most are corrupt and self-seeking. The contrast between these two devout men and the others is purposely striking. Their deep faith and friendship is the glue that holds the story together.

The book doesn’t have the normal story elements of conflict and resolution. Instead it is a string of anecdotes of life in early New Mexico. There are unforgettable incidents like the rescue of Magdalena, the feuding friendship between Father Martinez and Father Lucero, and the vanity of Doña Isabella, but no major problem surfaces that needs resolution. I am not accustomed to this type of realism in writing and I’m not sure I like it. Although I don’t like fluff, I do like themes of redemption, growth and, above all, hope.

Confused by the seeming lack of theme in the book, I did some research and found this quote in an article by Janis Johnson. “In totality, Cather’s fiction reflects the life cycle of hopeful youth, middle-aged despair and late-in-life reflection.” That pretty much sums up the book.

The writing was very good. Cather did a marvelous job of describing New Mexico in the mid 1800’s. And her descriptions were vivid enough for me to picture each person and place in the story. But as I read, I kept waiting for lightning to strike and it never came. This book failed to move me. Will somebody please tell me what I missed?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

I had the best of intentions when I went to the library to check out Bleak House. But as I saw it sitting there, clearly the thickest book on the shelf, my heart quaked a little. Almost unintentionally I reached over to the right and picked up its much slimmer neighbor, Hard Times . I had been looking for anything written about/during the Industrial Revolution so I figured Hard Times would fit the bill just as well. I was hooked from the beginning with the humorous school room scene and Mr. Gradgrind’s no-nonsense approach to learning. He was described as a “kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.”(p. 13)

I have expressed my dissatisfaction with Dickens on other occasions, but I am learning to like him. This book had some fine writing, a good variety of characters, plenty of British understated witticisms, and an intriguing story. But, frankly, I found it too depressing. Since Dickens wrote many of his novels as serials with weekly chapters in the newspaper he had to leave his readers hanging in suspense until the next chapter. I personally don’t enjoy having my emotions toyed with in that way. My favorite character from the beginning of the book had so much suffering heaped upon in him in chapter after chapter that I thought it was a mercy when he finally died. Emotionally I just couldn’t take any more.

The back of the book says it’s a diatribe against the havoc wreaked during the Industrial Revolution. That may be true, but it’s much more than that. The main conflict in the story is not worker against capitalist factory owner. The main contention is between head knowledge and heart knowledge. The contrast is drawn early in the story between the “facts only” Gradgrind school and the “uneducated, but full-of-heart” circus people.

Two of the major victims of the head vs. heart dilemma are Gradgrind’s own children. Tom’s feelings have been denied all his life and almost as soon as he leaves home he gives himself over to sensual appetites. His sister, Louisa, marries a man she doesn’t love because her father tells her it’s the sensible thing to do. His “proposal” to Louisa is heartbreaking in its coolness. So is her acceptance. Later she discovers that she does have a heart and that all her father’s educational principles had failed to prepare her for real life. Chapter 8 is the final showdown between the circus’ folks’ view of the world and Gradgrind’s. The shocking revelation is that without heart there can be no grace: It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain [agreement] across the counter. (p.283) Gradgrind discovers too late that his man-made, sensible world is a living hell that offers him no mercy when he most needs it.

A very intriguing book!