Friday, September 30, 2016

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I knew from earlier experience (Ethan Frome) that Edith Wharton could be heavy and gloomy, so I braced myself for The Age of Innocence.

Sure enough, Wharton paints a vivid tale of the empty lives of upper crust New Yorkers in the 1880s. The story is written so well that it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1921 - the first time that prize was accorded to a woman.

Young Newland Archer is a rich, semi-employed lawyer (he doesn't really need to work, but he goes through the motions) who is in love with beautiful socialite May Welland. They are unquestioningly following all the conventions for their crowd when suddenly May's "bohemian" cousin, Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe.

Madame Olenska is fleeing an abusive husband and seeking divorce. Newland is persuaded by the family to talk her out of it since they want to avoid scandal and unpleasantness at all costs. As his relationship develops with Ellen he reconsiders all of his former values.

Wharton convinces the reader that throwing caution and convention to the winds is the surest road to happiness, but will our protagonist be brave enough to do it? As a believer in the sanctity of marriage vows, I was in constant agony throughout the book that he would leave his "dull"  wife and flee with the exciting cousin. Thankfully, Wharton does not give us a fluffy Hollywood ending. And, frankly, I was stunned by the clear-sightedness of the women in the story who had a firmer grip on reality than Archer, who thought his love for Ellen was the only "real thing."

I couldn't help but compare this book to Tuck Everlasting, a story in which a young girl chooses a prosaic life over one of adventure and it is seen as the more noble act. In Age of Innocence, the domestic life is seen as the cowardly choice.

This book is masterfully written, deeply disturbing, and surprising in its insights.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Year With G.K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wit, Wisdom and Wonder

I've written before that Chesterton is good in small doses. His genius is so far beyond me that I'm happy when I understand a tenth of what he is saying. So, a daily "bite-sized" devotional book is a clever, manageable way to become acquainted with his way of thinking. Each reading includes a verse, two short paragraphs from his writings (strangely, the source of the first one is never given) and a "this-day-in-history" entry showing what G.K. was doing on that particular day (lecturing, releasing a book, traveling, etc.)

A Year with G.K. Chesterton is not a typical devotional in the sense that it gives daily inspiration from Scripture. Because of his strong Catholic beliefs, his essays presuppose the existence of God. But many readings are critiques of writers such as Dickens, Milton and Bunyan.

So why read it? Frankly, because a daily dose of sparkling lucidity braces you to face the ever increasing foolishness of our culture and our world. Somehow the air I was breathing felt clearer after a page of  G.K. His fierce optimism and childlike wonder were a daily uplift. As was his beautiful language.

On the trinity: God himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and as open as an English fireside. This thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart.

On how fairy tales reflect the gospel: In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

A lovely book. If you adjust your expectations to this as a "devotional" (as something mentally rather than spiritually invigorating), it would make a great addition to your daily quiet time.

One of Chesterton's critic's described him well: His wordy rockets soar desperately into the dark, pause, break into a cascade of stars, and, there, to our astonished gaze, lie momentarily revealed the peaceful landscape of simple truth.

Friday, September 16, 2016

An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture by Andrew M. Davis

Who knew that this 30 page booklet would cause a quiet revolution in my life? For years I've been wanting to memorize poems and larger chunks of scripture, but the busyness of life kept me from taking steps to actually do so. Some books I read on memorization (featuring mnemonics where each word is an outlandish mind picture) didn't appeal to me because that system robbed the literary pieces of their beauty.

Enter Andrew M. Davis. In his book An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture, he gives tips for perseverance rather than mind tricks. With his system you choose a passage and decide how many days it will take to memorize it. (I chose Psalm 103 and scheduled in five minutes a day for 30 days.) You begin the first day reciting the first verse 20 times. The second day you recite it ten times and then add the next verse. So simple!

I have to admit I hit a wall with by verse 16 (of 22) so I spent an extra week on those initial verses before going on to the final ones. I'm still a bit shaky with the last six verses but I'm in phase two of the passage, which is to say the whole thing out loud for the next 20 days. I'm confident I will have it well in hand by the end of the month.

Like a good meal, a good workout, or a good book, Bible memorization leaves you feeling fortified, energized and satisfied. I knew it would be work, but I didn't realize how rewarding it would be. 

By the way, I've tried memorization before by placing a poem on my Kindle cover or in my purse to look at in off moments, but making the piece to be memorized a five-minute part of my daily devotions has made all the difference in going from haphazardness to consistency.

Worth every penny of the 99 cents I paid for it.

Footnote: For my own personal records I'm listing my completed projects: 
2016: God's Grandeur, Ps 103, Salmo 23
2017: Land of Storybooks by RLS, Phil 3:7-21, "string passage" from Jane Eyre chapter 23, Daffodils by Wordsworth, Luke 2:1-12
2018: Intro to Tuck Everlasting, When I Was One-and-Twenty, JW's prayer for New Year, At the Seaside by RLS, Psalm 1, Jabberwocky, Luke 2:13-20, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (first half)
2019: João 15:1-8, 'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (2nd half), Colossians 1

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Golden Road by L.M. Montgomery

The Golden Road (The Story Girl, book 2) cannot be read as a "stand alone," since Montgomery takes little pains to reintroduce the characters from the previous book. Many former adventures are referred to so it would be good to read Story Girl and Golden Road back to back.

In the first book I laughed unkindly at the ever practical Felicity in comparison to the whimsical, delightful Sara Stanley. But in the second book I saw how important she was to balance out the wildly imaginative characters. Because she was less vocal in the second half of book two, it was too sentimental for my tastes.
But the humor was still there. One of Peter’s New Year resolutions is to refrain from unkind remarks to his sister, but what he does instead is laugh-out-loud funny.

And the beautiful writing: Our summer was over. It had been a beautiful one. We had known the sweetness of common joys, the delight of dawns, the dream of glamour of noontides, the long, purple peace of carefree nights. We had had the pleasure of bird song, of silver rain on greening fields, of storm among the trees, of blossoming meadows, and the converse of whispering leaves. We had had brotherhood and wind and star, with books and tales, and hearth fires of autumn. Ours had been the little loving tasks of every day, blithe companionship, shared thoughts, and adventuring. Rich were we in the memory of those opulent months that had gone from us – richer than we then knew.

We don’t really find out what happens to the children when they grow up except through the Story Girl's shrewd predictions. We can assume things will play out as she suggests, but the open ending left me a little sad. Maybe that was what Montgomery wanted to convey. The Golden Road of innocent and carefree youth must have its end.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Books I Read in August

Now that we've practically given up T.V., I'm reading two to three books per week. But since we've had a stressful year, I've read a lot more fluff than usual (free Christian novels). Here's a recap of August:

Guarded - Correll (superior Christian fiction for 99 cents)
The Recipe - Candice Culvert (a pleasant, short book which was free, but is now $2.50)
The Little Duke - Charlotte Yonge (YA vintage fiction, free for Kindle)
The Wedding Invitation - A. Wisler (okay Christian fiction, unappealing protagonists, but great sub-characters)
Wisdom and Wonder - Abraham Kuyper (a gentle introduction to "common grace", 99 cents)
Rasberry Jam - Wells (okay vintage mystery, free for Kindle)
The Story Girl by L.M. Mongomery (excellent vintage YA fiction, free for Kindle)
The Christian Book of Mystical Verse - Tozer (hymns and poems, some gems, $2)
The Golden Road - L.M. Montgomery (free for Kindle, sequel to Story Girl)
Humility - Andrew Murray (outstanding book on the beauty of a surrendered life, free for a limited time)
The Measure of Katie Calloway - Miller (far superior to most Christian fiction except for the unnecessary references to bodily functions, free for a limited time)

Titles in purple were (or will be) reviewed on this blog. All the others were reviewed by me at Goodreads.

Also, I post links almost daily on the Worthwhile Books Facebook page for free or reduced e-books.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Wisdom and Wonder by Abraham Kuyper

I'd have to write a very long post to do Wisdom and Wonder justice, but I'll be as brief as I can. 

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a Dutch theologian and political leader who wrote tirelessly on the necessity of integrating faith and life. One of his most famous themes was common grace: 

Common grace responds to the question: "How does the world go on after sin's entrance and how is it possible that 'good' things emerge from the hands of humans within and without a covenant relationship with God?" Common grace is God's restraint of the full effect of sin after the Fall.

Because of common grace, secular scientists and artists can honor God in how they pursue their fields. Kuyper's definition of science is broader than our present day view because in that term he includes all reason, knowledge, and truth. Divine thinking is embedded in all of creation. All things have proceeded from the thinking of God, from the consciousness of God, from the Word of God. God created in human beings, as his image-bearers, the capacity to understand, to grasp, to reflect, and to arrange within a totality these thoughts expressed in creation. The essence of human science rests on these realities.

Kuyper is occasionally dry, but he is never boring. He asks thought-provoking questions such as, "Would there have been art without the fall?" (Since the fall made a strong contrast between the beautiful and the ugly.) He breaks beauty down into three types: the perfect beauty of Eden, the marred beauty of this present world and the glorious beauty of Heaven. He says we get glimpses of all three kinds in our lives. Have you ever wondered why some things are so beautiful that it hurts? That is a glimpse of heavenly beauty that our human bodies can't adapt to yet.

In writing about art, he writes that it cannot be disconnected from specific standards, disproving the adage that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." According to Scripture, beauty cannot be separated from God. Glory is, in fact, nothing other than the highest degree of beauty. Art cannot be excused from following God's law, and art disgraces itself by seeking that freedom.

On the danger of less noble forms of art (in plays, books, music, or paintings) he says, Repeated exposure to such surface sensations leads our emotions into a discordant condition, weakens our capacity for genuine sensations, and ultimately damages our emotional life.

Not an easy read, but worth the effort to wrestle with these important ideas. Though $15 for the hardcover, it's only 99 cents for Kindle.