J.R.R.T.

jrrt “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

     J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892 – September 2, 1973) was born 125 years ago today.  He has been singing at the throne of God for 40 years.

Brave & Forgiven

ebif A delightful book, full of clever dialogue (“Sorry I’m late.  There were Germans.”) and heartaches, about the beginning of World War II in London and Malta.  Cleave does a marvelous job of conveying a sense of oppression which must have been felt by the British before 1942:

“[Mary] loathed the way the newspapers printed maps with the stark Nazi symbol on a field of plain white, as if Hitler had sent armies of erasers.  Better to crowd the swastikas in, to have them jostle for space.  [For her class, she] drew them deliberately crooked.  Her swastikas were degenerates that leaned at sickly angles and resembled one another vaguely, the offspring of first cousins who had married against the family’s advice.

Finally, she drew Britain, being generous with the width of the English Channel and giving the British Isles three times the area on the blackboard that they merited.  She thought it unfair to expect children to understand that it was possible to resist, from an island the size of her hand, a tyranny that stretched the whole width of the blackboard from Brest to Bialystok.”

It is not really a book about the war, but about friendships, family relations and love affairs in the shadow of great uncertainty and disruption.

Highly recommended.

A Hard and Heavy Thing

26542105Matthew I. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing is the best novel I have read in 2016.

AHAHT is the story of three friends, two men and a woman, who struggle in situations dangerous, terrifying and mundane.  It is written with a gritty wide-eyed realism, but conveys deep compassion for the flawed characters.

No spoilers here, but the narrator (Levi) self-consciously looks back on his history with Nick and Eris, and the choices which led two of them to enlist in the Army.  The story lurches back and forth between third-person narrative and Levi’s direct discourse to the reader, who fills in for Nick.

The back-and-forth is purposely a little clumsy, which works beautifully to further the author’s artistic aims.

Highly recommended.

Silence & Beauty

9780830844593-194x300I am very much looking forward to reading  Makoto Fujimura‘s Silence and Beauty, which is described as using Shusako Endo’s Silence as a starting place for consideration of issues of suffering and faith.  Fujimura is a painter of great power and a believer.  I taught Endo’s book several times in my World Lit class.

I will let you know.

Between Mr. Coates and me

50c0c9d1dLast week I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015). Actually, I listened to it, and found it a powerfully unsettling book.

I had no knowledge of Mr. Coates and no preconception about the book except that in some sense it was about race. The book is (sort of) a long letter to his son about what it is like to be a black man in America. (“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”)

I say “sort of” because you have to put aside even that vague description very quickly. Mr. Coates would remind us that in any society there are those whose aspirations to achieve “the dream” will necessarily involve putting some people — identified by color, ethnicity, gender, language or some other characteristic — at the bottom of the well. I think he would say that in 2016 in America that characteristic is still often race.

Mr. Coates tells his son stories about his experiences and about those of his friends and acquaintances.  Some are touching and some are extraordinarily upsetting. No one could listen to his account of the death of Prince Jones without horror, shame and outrage.

One of the recurring themes is that the fragility of “the black body”:

We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. A year after I watched the boy with the small eyes pull out a gun, my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.

It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.

I am convinced that Mr. Coates is telling me truths I need to hear.  I am not sure that Mr. Coates tells me what any white American can do to ameliorate the evils he describes. It is better to hear truth than to block it out, of course, but that is not enough.

What is enough?

Mr. Coates declines to believe in any otherworldly justice, though he seems to concede that there have been times when the church has been one of the few refuges for the black body. As I listened to him in the midst of Passion Week, though, I thought that Jesus, certainly, voluntarily offered his body to be destroyed by the system of the world as a sacrifice for all of us.

This is not a “good read,” or an “interesting study.”  It seems to me to be an important book that has challenged my assumptions and beliefs.  I hope and pray that I will allow it to change the way I act and live, and that God will help me to understand what is enough.

 

 

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell, it seems to me, has a gift for conjuring a story-illusion, seducing the reader into the narrative, and then dropping the reader out of the dream abruptly.  I find myself initially frustrated (” . . . but I wanted to know what was going to happen to that character!  I liked her and I want to . . . .”).  Then within 2-3 pages, he has drawn me into the next dream.  He is very, very skilled at this.

Cloud Atlas (2004) wraps back on itself in a chiastic structure which is fun to sketch:

Cloud Atlas

The structures of Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House are unique, but Mitchell displays his maddening, enthralling, wonderful gift in each of them.

Thank you, Mr. Mitchell.

Dark Corners

Dark CornersDefinitely dark, this little book is well-crafted, if (honestly) ultimately unfulfilling.

Stephen King apparently said “No one surpasses Ruth Rendell when it comes to stories of obsession, instability, and malignant coincidence,” and indeed all the characters (but one) are either obsessive, unstable or malignant (or a combination of all three). Whereas it is common in certain types of fiction to be frustrated with a character’s bad choices, that only happens if we have established some sympathy for the characters.  I’m not sure that happened in this multithreaded plot.

But you may have a different opinion. Ruth Rendell, Dark Corners (2015). [amazon link]

The same God?

ScreenShot003Much has already been written about the Wheaton professor who — perhaps trying to make a mainly human rather than mainly theological point — prompted a furor when she asserted that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  The question is complex, and has been discussed profitably many times in the past.

Here is an excerpt from a thoughtful (and irenic) article by Timothy George, published in the aftermath of 9/11:

Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? The answer is surely Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the Father of Jesus is the only God there is. He is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, of every person who has ever lived. He is the one before whom all shall one day bow (Phil. 2:5-11). Christians and Muslims can together affirm many important truths about this great God—his oneness, eternity, power, majesty. As the Qur’an puts it, he is “the Living, the Everlasting, the All-High, the All-Glorious” (2:256).

But the answer is also No, for Muslim theology rejects the divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit—both essential components of the Christian understanding of God. No devout Muslim can call the God of Muhammad “Father,” for this, to their mind, would compromise divine transcendence. But no faithful Christian can refuse to confess, with joy and confidence, “I believe in God the Father. … Almighty!” Apart from the Incarnation and the Trinity, it is possible to know that God is, but not who God is.

Timothy George, “Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus? Christianity Today (February 4, 2002) (link).

Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning

Trigger-WarningI just finished Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015), and although I am not usually a fan of short fiction, I was intrigued to read a Gaiman Sherlock Holmes story (“A Case of Death and Honey”), a Gaiman Dr. Who story (“Nothing O’Clock”) and (best of all!) a new Shadow story (“Black Dog”).

Shadow is the main character in American Gods (2001), so it was good to remember that very original book a decade and a half later. Anansi Boys (2005) was the sequel and both were great fun, though Neverwhere (1996) is still my favorite Gaiman novel.

As usual with Gaiman, there is much to populate your dreams or nightmares (note the subtitle), so caveat lector.

Reflection on a Year’s Reading

One nice thing about this site is that it gives me a place to keep track of the books I am reading. It has allowed me to be a little more introspective about what I read. (I seem to require a couple of books a week to maintain my sanity.) About a third of my reading is re-reading, which makes sense to me, anyhow. Wouldn’t you want to go back and visit old friends in addition to meeting new ones?*

station elevenMy favorite newly-discovered author of the last year is probably Emily St. John Mandel. I read Station Eleven, then picked up Last Night in Montreal, and The Lola Quartet, and enjoyed all three. Yes, they are quirky and have some repetitive elements, but I liked Ms. Mandel’s writing and will continue to follow her.

indexThe best new** fiction I read this year includes (in no particular order) Andy Weir, The Martian (2014), Stephen L. Carter, Back Channel (2014), Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014), William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014), Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (2014), David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014), and Neal Stephenson, seveneves (2015).  All were well-crafted and enjoyable, but I will let you look elsewhere for reviews.  I usually pre-order anything by Gibson, Carter and Stevenson, and will probably add Mandel and Weir to that list.

51Qm5bXG9NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I read two excellent new** nonfiction books: Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit (2015); and Jeff Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison (2015). Mr. Smith was the most horrifying book I read recently,*** as it was an account of a politician who was sent to prison for a year for lying about a fairly minor campaign violation.

Rickey&RobinsonEric Metaxas’ Miracles (2014) was strikingly different from C.S. Lewis’ book of the same name. Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor (2014) was an encouragement about the significance of work.  Roger Kahn’s Rickey and Robinson (2014) was a great story about baseball and society by someone who lived through those important years when baseball was being integrated.

And how did I miss this one when it first came out: Cheryl Strayed, Wild (2012), a fascinating account of a troubled woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail? Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light (2013) (last part of WWII in Europe) was well worth the 900-page investment.

Caveat Lector.  It should go without saying that some of these will be uninteresting, unedifying, or even upsetting for some readers.  What I think I can assure you is that none of these books are poorly written.   Let me know if you have any thoughts about these or others on my sidebar.

*My favorite old friend this year was probably Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996), though I did love (again) the Sword of Honor Trilogy, Pattern Recognition, LoTR, and That Hideous Strength.

**Published since January 2014.

***This is saying a lot since I also read Michael Faber, Under the Skin (2000) and Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1998), two astoundingly creepy books.