Saturday, December 31, 2011

Watch for the Light - Readings for Advent and Christmas

As I’ve stated before, I prefer to write about books I can heartily recommend and rarely mention books that I dislike.  However, I feel that the cover of Watch for the Light is deceptive and might fool you (as it did me) into thinking that it contains thoughtful, well-written, and inspiring meditations for Advent.

With names like C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Madeleine L’Engle and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the cover, I expected, at the least, that the book would be orthodox.  It didn’t take long, though, to realize that most of the writers were extremely liberal in their theology.   

William Stringfellow wrote of the “political character of Advent” while John Howard Yoder wrote of Mary’s Magnificat as “a revolutionary battle cry.”  Furthermore, the people walking in darkness (Isaiah 9:2) are not walking in the darkness of sin, according to J├╝rgen Moltmann, but are crying out for their human rights.  Dorothee Soelle wrote that the sick people in the Gospel of Luke had been made sick by political oppression and economic plunder.  Sadly, the book manages to squeeze sin and salvation into the very narrow molds of poverty and justice.

While I enjoyed the entries by John Donne, Brennan Manning and C.S. Lewis, the other chapters were too militant to be encouraging or inspiring.

Goals for 2012

I avoid book challenges because I don't like to be hemmed in by other people's book choices for me.  On the other hand, after reading other book bloggers' lists of "Best of 2011", I'm tempted to add a few titles to my list for the year.

To Kill a Mockingbird  by Harper Lee (because my son says it's one of the best books he's ever read.)
The Return of the King by Tolkien (because I loved the first two books that I read in 2011)
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (because my sister liked it)
Jeff Shaara's trilogy of World War II novels (because I found one of them for a quarter at the Goodwill and because I love WWII history)
Unbroken by Hilenbrand  (because it's about WWII and because almost everybody who read it said it was their book-of-the-year)
Gold by Moonlight by Amy Carmichael (Xmas gift from a dear friend)
The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge (because it's about time I've revisited this favorite author)

Other than that, I plan to "shop" my own bookshelves and the local university library, following my whims, while saving my Kindle books for when we return to Brazil next summer (Lord willing).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading Year in Review 2011

I managed to read 69 books this year, which is a bit over my “book-a-week” goal.  However, as I look over the list, I notice that I read fewer books in 2010, but many of last year’s books had more of a “Wow!” factor.  Each year is a reading adventure and I look forward to what’s ahead.   Summary of 2011:

Biggest disappointment: Watch For the Light - Readings for Advent

Best YA fiction: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Favorite biography:  Hitler by Albert Marrin

Favorite new author:  Jon Hassler (I fell in love with protagonist, Agatha McGee, and quickly breezed through four books in which she played a central role - Green Journey, Dear James, Staggerford FloodThe New Woman.) 

Favorite “old-time” authors discovered through Kindle: Maurice Le Blanc and Joseph Crosby Lincoln

Favorite re-read: Jane Eyre (almost a yearly tradition)

Favorite WWII book:  South to Bataan, North to Mukden (P.O.W. diary)

Most demanding, yet most satisfying: Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers by Tolkien

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Morpurgo

A few years ago I bought J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.   The original version was written in a 14th Century English dialect that has not survived and Tolkien sought to make the story accessible to modern day readers.  However, he strove to retain the poem’s original cadence and it seems somewhat stilted at times. 

Since our family is reading War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, Morpurgo’s name has been on our radar and my son found his children’s version of Sir Gawain. It seemed less intimidating than Tolkien’s version, and I dug right in.  At first, I read one chapter from Morpurgo and followed it with the same chapter in Tolkien.  But by chapter three I was so caught up in the story that I discarded Tolkien’s version and read Morpurgo’s straight through to the end.

The story begins with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table:

It was Christmastime at Camelot, that time of year when all King Arthur’s Knights gathered to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  For fifteen joyous days, after holy Mass each morning, there was nothing but feasting and dancing and singing, and hunting and jousting too.  Jousting was the favorite sport, each Knight striving to unseat the mighty Sir Lancelot – but rarely succeeding, of course.  And all was done in fun, in a spirit of comradeship, for they were happy to be all together once more at this blessed time. (p. 12)

The festivities are interrupted by a huge green giant who enters the banqueting hall.  He dares any knight to take up his challenge.  Gawain accepts and his adventures begin.  I don’t want to share any details because going into the story without knowing the particulars is what makes it such a page turner.  As Sir Gawain faces trials and temptations, will he be true to his chivalric code?  Will he survive the wrath of the terrible green giant?  Will he return safely to Camelot?

While I enjoyed the story very much, I was puzzled at this paraphrase for children because one of the subplots involves a woman who is more than willing to be unfaithful to her husband.  Maybe that’s why Michael Dirda calls this “an adult Christmas story”.   Anyway, I enjoyed Morpurgo’s translation very much.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Trying to review the Lord of the Rings trilogy is like standing in front of “The Pieta” and calling it “a nice statue.”  There just aren’t words to describe the combination of whimsy, adventure and manly virtue.   As I noted in my review of Fellowship of the Rings, Tolkien’s novel requires a tremendous amount of perseverance, but the rewards are rich.  It’s no wonder that those who love these books have a mystique about them.  The beautiful language and compelling story seem to demand a heart response from the reader.

Near the end of The Two Towers, Sam talks to Frodo about what makes an enduring story.

 “The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them.  I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say.  But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind… I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?

“I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales.  We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.  And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories.  Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits….”’ (p. 711-712)

Did Tolkien know when he wrote these words that he was writing a masterpiece that would be read and re-read for generations to come?

Again, nothing I write can do the book justice.  I loved the Ents, I loved Faramir, I loved the constant references to Galadriel, I loved Gimli’s guileless infatuation with her, I loved faithful Sam, I loved the gorgeous prose:

When Sam determines to go with Frodo till the bitter end: “Sam said nothing.  The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless.  And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.” (p. 638)

Or when Sam describes Galadriel as “Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight.  Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars.  Proud and far-off as a snow-mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime.” (p. 680)

The Two Towers is a literary feast that nourishes and delights.

P.S. I watched the movie a few days after completing the book and was disappointed with its portrayal of Gimli and Faramir.  Gimli brought comic relief in the film, but he was not a buffoon in the book.  Faramir is a much more honorable character in the print version, although he does redeem himself in the movie.  Oh well. We all know that films are rarely as satisfying as the books...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rumer Godden Quote

From Godden's China Court: "All our happiness is shot through with unhappiness and all our unhappiness is shot through with happiness." 

This quote came to mind as I mulled over various Christmas memories:

My grandmother passed away at Christmastime almost 30 years ago.  I remember the bitter cold of the graveyard, and the astonishing beauty of the ice-covered trees.

A few days ago, my father-in-law slipped into Heaven.  With one breath we were commiserating over our sense of loss, and with the other breath we were cooing over the newest addition to the family, one week old Benjamin.

Truly, life is a mixture of joy and pain.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Man for All Seasons - Worthwhile Movie #6

How can I convince you to watch a long, slow moving film with an unhappy ending?  I wasn’t enthusiastic about watching it myself, but planned to do it for my husband’s sake because he loves movies based on true stories.   We were surprised to be treated to some of the finest dialogue we’ve ever heard in a movie.  We laughed out loud over and over, not because it was funny, but because we were filled with delight at truth being proclaimed with such eloquence and beauty. 

Sir Thomas More was a contemporary of Henry VIII and was famous for opposing the king’s divorce to Katherine of Aragon (and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn).  A Man for All Seasons details his lonely stand against pressure to sanction the marriage.  Because More was a man of utmost integrity and honesty, false charges had to be trumped up against him and he was eventually tried for treason.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film when a man of faith was portrayed so well.  Paul Scofield does a superlative job in this 1966 Oscar winner.  By the way, Orson Welles plays a small part in the film as Cardinal Wolsey and he’s horrifically good. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Quote On Christmas by William Willimon

The Christmas story - the one according to Luke not Dickens - is not about how blessed it is to be givers but how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.  We prefer to think of ourselves as givers - powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people who are motivated to benefit the less fortunate.  This is in direct contradiction to the biblical account of the first Christmas.  There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.  Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we - with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities - had little to do with God's work in Jesus.  God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done.  We didn't think of it, understand it or approve it.  All we could do at Bethlehem was receive it.

William Willimon in Watch for the Light (reviewed here)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

Some time ago I read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure. Dirda is a Pulitzer prize winning book critic who writes for the Washington Post, and while I agree with him that many great books are overlooked, I disagreed with his definition of a classic.  Often the “pleasure” in his chosen titles was directly related to their bawdiness.   One reviewer at Amazon summed it up well: “Too many of Dirda’s picks seem to assume an inexhaustible taste for the macabre, decadence, vulgarity, sexual perversion, and/or cynicism, despair and psychosis”

However, since I’m ever eager to increase my knowledge of the Western Canon, I plowed through the book and obtained many mouth-watering tidbits of information. 

On Alexander Pope: “Thackery called him the greatest literary artist that England has seen”.

On Henry Rider Haggard’s book: “C.S. Lewis said, ‘What story in the world opens better than She?’”

On Georgette Heyer: “She’s as witty as any writer of the past century, as accomplished as P.G. Wodehouse in working out complex plots, as accurate as a professional historian in getting her background details right…. She composes superb historical novels, laced with comedy, intrigue, delightful characters, and yes, romance.  Clear-eyed realism lies behind all of Heyer’s work, no matter how giddy the goings-on beforehand.”

On James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “glorious, lyrical excess”

And, finally, his thoughts on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: “It conveys a wonderful Mozartean lightness and wit, an air of make-believe and festivity, tinged with real darkness.  It’s a perfect adult Christmas story.”

And, so, I’ve added to my constantly expanding list of authors/books to explore.  Although I did not agree with all of Dirda’s choices, I enjoyed his fine writing and his obvious love of good books.