Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Books I read in May

Here's a recap of the books I read this month. Again, I'm putting them in order of enjoyment: most pleasant to least pleasant. Sadly, I read an unusual amount of duds this month.

On Stories by C.S. Lewis (review forthcoming)
French Women Don't Get Fat (a joyful, sensible look at food and dieting)
Winter in Thrush Green by Miss Read (a nice surprise after several disappointing books in a row, review forthcoming)
Take and Give by Amanda G. Stevens (book 3 in a heart-racing series)
Creed by Winfield Bevins (the basics of the Christian faith for a biblically illiterate generation)
Death by Living - Essays on life by N.D. Wilson (I liked this, but didn't love it)
Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (reviewed here)
Reservations for Two by Hillary Lodge (Foodie/Travel romance. The first in the series was better.)
By Still Waters - vintage poetry by George William Russell
Bookshop on Rosemary Lane by Ellen Berry (very modern love story, NOT the cozy read implied by the cover)
The Real Adventure by H.K. Webster (100 year old vintage novel that helped plant the seeds of radical feminism in our culture, reviewed here.)


Friday, May 26, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My knowledge of Oscar Wilde was limited to his epigrams, and his fairy tales (The Selfish Giant, The Happy Prince, etc.) I had a vague idea that he'd lived a profligate life, but that didn't keep me from wanting to read The Picture of Dorian Gray. Maybe it should have.

The novel opens with Gray being painted by artist Basil Hallward. He is in the bud of youth and serves as a muse for Hallward, causing him to paint his best portrait yet. Hallward's friend, Lord Henry Wotton, wanders into the studio one day and meets Gray, enchanted by this perfect specimen of unspoiled manhood. He wonders how easy it would be to mold his character and begins to plant all sorts of half truths and sordid thoughts into the young man's mind.

It was at this point that I had to switch from the audiobook to the print version. Wotton's silver tongue and the honeyed voice of the book's narrator were too overwhelmingly convincing. I was hearing so many outright (yet wonderfully agreeable) lies that I was having difficulty dividing truth from fiction.

You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully.  When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will discover that there are no triumphs left for you. . . . Don't squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are sickly aims, the false ideals of our age. (p. 17)

It was easy to see how the impressionable young Gray became intoxicated with Hallward's hedonistic philosophy and plunged into a pursuit of worldly pleasures. His downward spiral was rather horrifying. Near the end of the novel, a few Bible verses were thrown in about reaping what you sow, but it was too little too late. I'm glad I can cross this off my Back to the Classics Reading Challenge once and for all. Not sure if I would recommend it. Wilde's writing is very, very good, but I felt emotionally and spiritually depleted after reading this title.

Next week, I'll be highlighting specific quotes from the book.


Friday, May 19, 2017

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson

Misleading Cover
I've written before that I enjoy D.E. Stevenson's novels for their good writing, friendly conversation and emphasis on comfortable romance (as opposed to goose bumps, sweaty palms and racing hearts). I picked up The Young Clementina because I was in need of a light-hearted diversion. The cover led me to believe it was written in the same vein as the Miss Buncle books, but I was quite mistaken.

The Young Clementina caught me off guard because 1) It is not light-hearted. Most of the characters have been broken by war, sin or loneliness. 2) The title is completely wrong. Young Clementina plays a part in the story, but is not its main focus. 3) It has a lot more drama than I'm used to in Stevenson's books.

Accurate Cover
The book opens with Charlotte Dean, a lonely spinster, who works in a stuffy London library. She is on the verge of making a huge life decision. Should she give up her quiet, orderly life and raise her motherless god child, Clementina? Since she has no one to talk to (all her friends and family are either dead or estranged,) she pours out her heart (in writing) to a stranger she met on a bus. She doesn't even know the stranger's name, but hopes that expressing her thoughts to a "friend" will help clarify her thinking. A pitiful scenario.

I dislike spoilers very much, so I will finish by saying that Miss Dean comes through her trials a stronger, better person. If I had known that this was Stevenson's attempt at a more serious novel, my expectations would have been different, and I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more.


Friday, May 12, 2017

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Many classics can be read with delight, but The Scarlet Letter is not one of them. Yet even though it is not beautifully written, it is a compelling and powerful novel.

Most people are familiar with the story. Hester Prynne is punished for adultery by being forced to wear an embroidered letter "A" on her clothing, "to be a living sermon against sin." She refuses to divulge the name of her lover to the governing body of the Puritan community and alone suffers public humiliation and ostracization for her iniquity. The unrevealed lover suffers his own private agony because of unconfessed sin.

Even though I read it in college, I could not remember why it was considered the great American novel. So I was glad to find a study guide from my library to remind me. The guide helped a little, but emphasized the book's ambiguity more than anything.

What struck me most was that Hester calmly and coldly accepted her punishment, but never really seemed to repent. In fact, the book emphasizes that the more she withdrew from society, the more she "wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness." The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers - stern and wild ones - and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. (111) This leaves the reader to wonder if it was Hester's fault or the community's. If they had embraced her instead of shunned her, could she have been redeemed?

Here comes the ambiguity. In all her shame and loneliness, Hester visits the sick and the poor. The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on the nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness... (p. 91) She is even compared to the Madonna and child as she stands with her baby outside the prison.

How I wished I could go back in time and listen to my professor at Asbury explain this book to me. Freedom vs. authority, the wages of sin, and the role of community in regulating morality are just a few of the themes which Hawthorne offers as fascinating fodder for thought.


Friday, May 5, 2017

Joel Belz on Words (from WORLD Radio 4/26/17)

Mark Twain once said the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. Tis the difference, he said, between the lightening bug and the lightening…

When God called on Adam to name all the animals, our Creator was putting on a dual demonstration. On the one hand he was showing off the penultimate aspect of his incredibly imaginative handiwork. But on the other hand, God was also apparently eager to show Adam the critical importance of language and words as tools for the stewardship of the new creation. To this day both are wonderful gifts from God – creation itself, and the words to describe, analyze, understand, develop and enhance it. Words are intended to make distinctions. That’s why you need so many of them. For Adam aardvark meant one thing, antelope another, ant still another, and ant eater meant something radically different.

It is key to the human experience to use words to make distinctions. By contrast think about the distinction between words and other art forms. Great paintings, concertos, ballet performances and even baseball games are typically powerful not because of the specificity of what they portray but precisely because of their ambiguity. “I see this in it,” says one observer. “But I see something totally different,” says another. Words, too, can be ambiguous, but in the end are meant to distinguish, sort out, to help us to say “this,” not “that.” It’s the reason after all that we run for the dictionary. It is also why we crave wordy critics after visiting the art museum, going to a concert, watching a ballet, or going to a baseball game. Words crystallize the blur of our experience.

(Thoughts from Joel Belz excerpted from WORLD's daily news podcast)


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Books I Read in April

This month I'm listing the books in a different order - not sequentially, but experientially. The first is the one I enjoyed the most and the last the least. Almost everything I read last month was disappointing, but there's always a new month and new books to explore. Onward! Titles in blue were free for Kindle at the time of this posting.

1) The Singing Sands by Tey (reviewed here)
2) Lady Rose's Daughter - Mrs. Humphry Ward (vintage fiction with substance, reviewed here)
3) Be Reverent by Wiersbe  (commentary on Ezekiel, reviewed here)
4) The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne (I did not love this, but appreciated its important themes, review forthcoming)
5) The Cross of Christ by Murray (Maybe I was just too distracted to get into this title. I usually love Murray)
6) The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson (one of the few Stevenson titles I have not loved, review forthcoming)
7) On the Way to the Cross - Oden (just okay)
8) At the Time Appointed - Anna Maynard (vintage fiction, I put this near the end because I can't even remember what it was about. Not a good sign of a great book. Here's my review at Goodreads)
9) Love by the Letter - Jagears (Ugh, typical Christian fiction, reviewed here)