Category Archives: Books

Indispensible Books

A friend recently asked, “If you could only have access to five books for the rest of your life, what books would you choose?”

I found it very difficult to answer. How do you pick from hundreds of great books to make a list of only five?

The Bible was an obvious first choice. Since I believe it is the Word of God, it is the one book that is absolutely indispensible. Do you know that there are still millions of people in the world who do not have a Bible translated into their first language? Do you know that there are people in the world who wish that they had a copy of the Bible, but they cannot afford one or simply do not have access to one? It’s sad, isn’t it?

My second choice is a book by George MacDonald entitled The Princess and Curdie. It is a fairy tale, but it is also full of biblical principles. It is meant for children, but this grown-up likes it very much.

My third choice would be the Poems of Emily Dickinson. I love her incisive wit and her keen observations. The crystal clarity of her poems is also a delight.

My fourth choice is a nonfiction book about the integration of Christianity and the arts, particularly about integrating Christianity with the craft of writing. It is called Walking on Water, and it was written by Madeleine L’Engle.

For my fifth choice I would really like to choose everything C. S. Lewis wrote, including his scholarly books on literature. However, since I only have a slot for one book, I would choose The Great Divorce, which brilliantly looks at the afterlife in a way that no other author really ever has. It can be read simply as a fantasy story, but it also elucidates great truths about God and eternity.

If I had more slots, I would choose Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.

Recommendations

Music

I must be the last person on the planet to hear about the unique musical group called Pomplamoose.  It consists of a man and a woman whose music has been described as indie jazz, which seems to be as good a description as any.  I understand that they have appeared in television commercials.  Whatever you call their music, I call it fantastic.  I not only like their thoroughly captivating sound, but their performances on video are immensely entertaining.

     Books

     I just finished reading two highly enjoyable books.

     The first is a novel entitled The Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith.  It is the second book in a series called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  I have not read the first book in the series or any of the others, but now I want to.  The book had several subplots that were masterfully and imaginatively interwoven.  It contained some nice, small surprises but no completely unexpected plot twists.  It presented African culture in a sensitve way.  In addition, there were several cleverly placed comments on modern Western society that were deliciously sarcastic but not overly sharp.

     The second is a book by Bill Bryson called The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.  Even if you are not particularly interested in the history of the English language, you might enjoy the book because of Bryson’s wittiness.  As entertaining as it is informative, this book will surely fascinate most people who give it a chance.  Although I have read several books on the subject and have taken a graduate level course in it, I learned a few things and had a few laughs along the way.

Book Review: Off the Leash

     A book with the title Off the Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont is sure to capture my attention, especially when the author is Helen Husher, whose book A View from Vermont I reviewed in January.  Husher has become one of my favorite writers.  She is in the same league as Annie Dillard or Anne Lamott in my estimation.

     I was born in Vermont, which makes Off the Leash particuarly intriguiging to me, but it is a book that everyone should read, whether born in the Green Mountain State or not.  It is a travel book but more than a travel book.  It is a collection of superbly written essays that are a treat to savor and ponder.

     On Christmas morning you open your presents, one by one.  You study the size and shape of each package.  You shake it.  Ah, yes, you think.  I know what it is.  So it is when you begin each chapter of this book.  You think you know what the topic is.  But then comes that magical moment when you are surprised to find something unexpected but delightful inside.

     Husher’s most impressive talent is her ability to weave together seemingly disparate threads into a coherent tapestry.  She notices connections where most people see none, but I always end up thinking how obvious the connections are and wondering why I did not see them myself.  I think that I don’t think deeply enough, but Husher inspires me to try harder.

     Even though the book appears to be about unusual landmarks in Vermont, it is really about art, life, truth, surprises, unfulfilled expectations, cosmic forces, and people.  Yes, it is especially about people.  It portrays people in all their glorious uniqueness and in all their equally glorious commonness. 

     Between its covers you will learn about a cemetery with exquisitely carved markers, a remarkable horse breed, the founder of a modern religion, a lake monster, a radical theater group, and some nearly forgotten sculpture–among other things.  The book is like a strange, miniature encyclopeia that you stumble upon in the library while looking for a more normal, less subervise book.  However, in its strangeness and subversiveness, it is so much more interesting than a straightforward encyclopedia.

     I was very pleased that Husher ended the book with a chapter on the Fenian Raids.  My great-great-grandfather participated in at least one of those raids.  As Husher points out in this book, few people, even the locals, know much about these actions by Irish American activists.  (My ancestor was on the side of the British in Canada but moved to Vermont after one of the early raids.)

Book Review: A Girl Named Zippy

     I don’t know if you have ever read a book and thought, I could do that.  After reading A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, that’s exactly what I thought.  It is a brilliant and funny memoir, and I started plotting my own memoir as I read it.  Kimmel shows how the ordinary can be interesting.

     She shows it first by her excellent writing style.   This woman has found her voice and it is simultaneously profound and humorous.  Her sentences are crystal clear and her command of her material is masterful.  If you like good writing, you should read this book, whether the subject matter seems aappealing to you or not.

     She also shows the ordinary to be interesting in that she honestly exposes her own quirkiness and eccentricity.  Most of us have probably had similar thoughts and experiences but are too embarrassed to share them openly.  I found myself identifying with her over and over concerning things that I did as a child that I would not necessarily like to tell other people.  Nevertheless, I thought that it must have been very cathartic for Kimmel to write this book and concluded that I could (and maybe should) write such a book myself.

     Kimmel does something that few people can do well.  She pokes fun at people without being mean.  I wondered how some of the people in her book must feel as they read about themselves, but I suspect that they actually enjoy seeming themselves portrayed as she does.  Her parents were weird, by most people’s standards, I think, but she paints them very lovingly and makes them very loveable to the reader.  Her love for her brothers and sisters is also very obvious and very endearing.

     The most important thing about the book is that Kimmel pokes fun at herself more than at anyone else.  That, I believe, makes the other pokes more acceptable.  She makes me think of some of the best stand-up comedians who refrain from hurting others but instead make themselves the butt of their harshest jokes.  In doing so she makes it easy for the reader to consider his or her own foibles and, I hope, to laugh at himself or herself.

     Kimmel shows people as people.  They are real, varied, unique, and fascinating.

     The only thing that I did not like about the book is that Kimmel uses some vulgar language.  I suppose she did it to lend authenticity to her story, especially since she is writing from a young child’s point of view.  Nevertheless, it is off-putting to me, because the author is now a well educated adult and should be able to express herself in more polite and pleasant language.  (I know I’m a bit Victorian.)  I cannot help feeling that she thinks that using common language is “edgy” like so many contemporary authors do.  I hope that wasn’t her primary motivation.  She is much too good a writer to resort to gimmicks.

     One thing I appreciate very much about the book is that Kimmel depicts her lack of Christian belief (during her childhood anyway) but she refuses to take potshots at Christians or at Christianity.  It’s so easy to do and so popular these days.  Instead she presents her church in a sympathetic light–as something she did not fully embrace but that she could admire anyway.  I find it refreshing and more intellectually honest than the plethora of Christian-bashing books that have come out lately.

Getting a Handle on Authenticity

     Have you gotten on the Authenticity bandwagon yet? I tend to dislike any bandwagon, but this one is more egregious then some of the others in my opinion.  In politics it means hiring a consultant or two to tell you what to wear, what buzzwords to say, and the exact moments to smile.  In music it seems to mean adopting a slightly new style to replace the old style that consumers are tired of–in order to have the next big hit.  In twenty-something culture it seems to mean wearing the same clothes and speaking the same lingo as other twenty-somethings–in order to be true to oneself. 

     In other words, authenticity means being inauthentic.  Existentialists must roll their eyes when they hear the word used that way.

     It’s not a new phenomenon.  Whether you “march to the beat of a  different drummer” or you “know where it’s at” or  you call yourself “authentic,” it all boils down to the same thing.  You are just like all those other people who are adopting the latest trends and fads in order to be authentic, too.

     I’m reading a book called Blue Like Jazz by  Donald Miller. It is an interesting book, although I am having a hard time relating to it, because Mr. Miller was young when he wrote it and I am middle-aged.    I told one of my twenty-something Christian friends, who has read Blue Like Jazz, that I am too old for that book.  He said that his father-in-law had made the same comment.  Then my young friend said, “The thing I like about the book is that the author is authentic.”

     The book is written in that rambling and disjointed manner that now passes for “style.” In my day we called it incoherent or sloppy. It is the literary equivalent of those TV shows in which the camera bounces up and down and flits about.  In the old days camera operators tried to ensure that they kept it steady.  Likewise, writers in the old days tried to connect one sentence to another and to devolop a theme across several coherent paragraphs.  Mr. Miller is too hip to do that, apparently.

     He is too hip to write metaphors and similes that make sense.  The title phrase, for example, makes no sense to me.  It occurs in a passage in which Miller describes the sky as being “blue like jazz.”  Does he have synesthesia?  It seems more likely that he has one of those sets of magnets with words on them that you can play with on the refrigerator–any two random words can make a clever figure of speech.  (I’m looking around me for a really clever example.  How about “pure like a telephone”?)

     Miller practices Christian spirituality rather than Christianity, though I still don’t really see how the two are different.  It’s like the hundreds of denominations who claim to be exclusively practicing “biblical Christianity.”  What do they suppose all the others think they are doing?  Miller judges evangelicals that are my age because we are. . .well. . .too judgmental.  He sort-of, kind-of believes in Jesus in a “Jesus is all right with me, Dude” way. 

     I could be completely wrong about everything I wrote in that last paragraph, since, as I said, I don’t quite understand everything in the book.  I think I am too old.  If Mr. Miller is an authentic Christian, as I hope I am, he will forgive me.

     I tried to imagine what my young friend meant when he said that Miller is authentic.  I don’t think my friend has verified that the author really thinks and does everything he wrote in the book.  I don’t think that he has confirmed that the book is factually accurate.  So what does it mean that Donald Miller is authentic?  I think it means that he is (1) appealing to people who are in their 20′s and 30′s and  (2) upsetting people in their 40′s and 50′s and (3) sounding like all the other people in the Emergent Chruch and Authentic Christianity movements. 

     Don’t misunderstand me.  Perhaps Donald Miller is exactly what he portrays himself to be.   He probably is.   Perhaps he has written his honest-to-goodness thoughts and feelings and accurately presented facts in his book.  Maybe he is the genuine and original article and all the other people in his movement are the imitators.  Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that all those young emergent Christians with spiked hair and leather chokers and tatoos and piercings and flip-flops are true to themselves by being identical to each other. 

     The writer of Ecclesaistes said that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  How true!  I remember the radical young Jesus People of the 1960′s.  Now they are gray-haired and have children and even grandchildren.  They own houses and minivans and sit on committees and invest in mutual funds.  Miller’s day is coming.  Some young writer of the future will put him in his place.  Then maybe he will chuckle at his younger self, and maybe I will, too.

Book Review: The Shack

     I read The Shack at the recommendation of two people that I respect. I generally avoid anything that seems too popular, such as The Purpose-Driven Life and The Prayer of Jabez. It strikes me that Christians are too eager to jump on bandwagons, and that they jump from one bandwagon to another to another. I tend to favor consistency myself–and independent thinking. Therefore, I avoided The Shack for a long time.

     Now that I have read it I can say that the book is neither as great as some people say nor as faulty as some people say. It is a good book with some flaws in it. I can see how it might inspire some people to seek God or a deeper relationship with God, especially those who have become disappointed or disillusioned with God.

     One thing that bothers me about the controversy surrounding The Shack is that many of its detractors have condemned things that are not actuallly in the book. Others have given somewhat accurate but slightly distorted analyses. I wonder if some of the negative reports have actually come from second-hand knowledge rather than from actually reading it.

     The first flaw that I found in The Shack is the writing style itself. I was bored by some of the dialogue, which is what most of the book is. The author, William Young, has great skill at description, but the dialogues did not always ring true to me. I also got annoyed at his many awkward sentences and his attempts to be clever–attempts that actually amounted to writing clashing juxtapositions that made no sense. John Grisham does the same thing, and I wish he would just write clearly instead. Trying hard to be clever usually results in a glaring cleverness deficit.

     I took some exception to a few of the statements that the author put in God’s mouth. Unlike John Bunyan’s characters, who quote actual Scripture, the members of the Trinity in The Shack say some things that one would be hard pressed to validate with Scripture. I’m not saying that Young is wrong, but I think if you are going to represent God, you’d better stick very closely to what He actually said about Himself in His Word. There seems to be a movement that doesn’t take the exact words of the Bible or long-proven doctrines as very serious or important, and that distresses me.

     Along the same lines, I thought that Young was just a bit presumptuous in writing about the Trinity at all. I don’t care that he portrayed God in a startling way. That’s no big deal, I think. I just wonder at the audacity of writing about a mystery that most people have had to admit is beyond human comprehension. It’s not something that can be simplified. He makes a huge mistake, for example, in having the members of the Trinity sometimes know what each other has said and done but sometimes not know.

     The two best things that Young does in the book is to deal with the Problem of Evil–why a good God permits so much suffering in the world–and with the difficult task of forgiving. They are hard topics, but Young has handled them in a way that should help seekers, strugglers, and skeptics deal with them. He could have written only those chapters, and they would have stood alone as first class sermons.

     In conclusion, I want to say one more thing that bothers me about The Shack. It bothers me when knowledgeable and experienced Christians say that the book has somehow transformed them or transformed their thinking about God. Huh? It’s a great book for non-Christians and for new Christians. However, anyone who has been a Christian for at least five years and has read the Bible through a time or two should be familiar with the principles presented in The Shack and should be able to articulate them clearly. Anyone who has grown up in church and gone to Bible college or seminary should consider the ideas in the book elementary.

Book Review: A View from Vermont

view-from-vermont     I can find fault with just about any book I read, but A View From Vermont by Helen Husher is practically faultless, as far as I am concerned.  Ms Husher is a writer’s writer, and her book is a feast for readers who love both ideas and the magical words that express them.  If you enjoy captivating stories written aptly and beautifully, then you should indulge in this brilliant book.  If you revel in the huge variety of people, places, and events in our vast world, then this book is for you.  I can pretty much guarantee that you will learn some new things, and that you will be happy that you learned them.  I was born in Vermont, but there were several remarkable things that Husher details in this book that I knew nothing about.

     You don’t have to be born in Vermont or live in Vermont or even visit Vermont (although you should someday) to love this book.  It is likely that on some level and in some possibly quirky way, you will be able to relate to or identify with people in this book.  If you find nobody like you, I think you will find at least one somebody that you will wish you were like.  This book explores many themes that find particular and unique expression in Vermont, but the themes are universal nonetheless.  As you read Husher’s insightful comments, you will find yourself sometimes thinking, Yes, I have thought that myself and sometimes thinking, Hm, I’ve never thought about it that way before.

     A Veiw From Vermont is part thought experiment, part trivia encyclopedia, part travelogue, part history text,  part social commentary, and part treatise on art and culture.  It is primarily, I think, the author’s celebration of the beautifully odd and the oddly beautifully.

     As I said, Husher’s writing is superb–comparable, I think, to Anne Lamott’s and Annie Dillard’s.  Here’s one sentence that I was particularly taken with:

[The typical image of Vermont] leaves out the cold hard cider that runs in the veins of the state, the astringent, surprising, and mildly intoxicating aftertaste of violent thunderstorms, peculiar place-names, insular gossip, and muddy roads.

And here two other elegant sentences that illustrate Ms Husher’s skill:

Because Vermont summers are short, the smell of autumn can be caught around the edges of the breeze by Labor Day.  This scent–a mix of hay bales, ammonia, and coffee grounds–arrives obliquely but unmistakably after the first cold rain, and within a week a few trees, usually the stressed ones, will display a flash of yellow fingernails.

Do not let my excerpts fool you into thinking that the book is primarily about the seasons or the weather, although those topics are important in the book.  I simply did not want to give away any of the marvelous surprises that await you if you treat yourself to this superb little volume.  As I said, you are bound to learn something new and be very glad to have learned it.

Socialiizing the Kids

     Do you think that an eighth-grade literature textbook should promote a living, aspiring politician?  A mother in Wisconsin doesn’t think so, and I tend to agree with her.  The book in question is a literature book published by McDougal Littell, and it includes a twenty-page section with material from one of Barack Obama’s autobiographies and his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.  I have a few questions:

     Why would twenty pages of a literature textbook contain something that is not a tried-and-true work of literature?  There is so much great classic literature out there, that I don’t see how a literature textbook can justify putting in something that has not yet stood the test of time.

     If they wanted to be multicultural, why did that require them to use material by Barack Obama?  There is plenty of great literature by black authors, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Walter Dean Myers, and Alice Walker, just to name a few.  They did not have to promote a rising political star in order to include material by a person of color. 

     If they wanted to include material by a politician, then why was it a far-left one?  Why not balance the textbook by including material from a rightist or centrist, too?  Bobby Jindal’s story would have been both multicultural and a good contrast with Obama’s, for example.  So would the story of Condoleeza Rice, and they would have had a token woman in the book as well as a token black.  (I am not insulting women or blacks–just conveying the apparent mindset of the textbook editor.)

     In fact, why does multicultural mean black?  It should mean Jewish and Native American and Asian and Irish and Amish and Armenian and Arab, etc., etc. etc.  Publishers now describe books as multicultural  simply because they throw in a few selections by contemporary black authors.  I’m not sure they understand what the prefix multi- means.

How to Start a Novel

     I’ve gotten pretty good at starting novels.  In fact, I’ve started five or six.  To date I haven’t finished one, because finishing a novel is hard.  My current unfinished novel starts out:  As far as anyone could remember, there had never before been a murder in the town of Samuelton.  Pretty good, eh?

     I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite opening sentences of novels, starting with my very favorite and working downward.  Can you name the source for each one?  Which one do you like best?  Which one(s) would you add to the list?

#1  “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

#2  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

#3  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

#4  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

#5  “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

#6  “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”

#7  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

#8  “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”

#9  “The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.”

#10  “I am an invisible man.”

For the sources of the opening sentences. . . Continue reading

Jane Austen’s Best Characters

     This is a post for the Jane Austen fans out there.  I would like you to vote for the best characters in Jane Austen’s novels.  By best I don’t necessarily mean nicest, as you will see from the list below.  I have placed two names in nomination for each category, but feel free to choose a different category.  My favorite is the one that comes first in each category.

     Have at it.

Most Ineffective Father

  • Mr. Bennett
  • Henry Woodhouse

Most Ineffective Mother

  • Mary Dashwood (mother of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret)
  • Mrs. Price (mother of Fanny)

Most Annoying Woman

  • Augusta Elton
  • Mrs. Bennett

Most Annoying Man

  • William Collins
  • Sir John Middleton

Most Wicked Woman

  • Fanny Dashwood
  • Lady Catherine DeBourgh

Most Wicked Man

  • George Wickham
  • Mr. Price (Fanny’s father)

Noblest Man

  • Colonel Brandon
  • Edmund Bertram

Most Interesting Woman

  • Marianne Dashwood
  • Elizabeth Bennett

Most Perfect Woman

  • Jane Bennett
  • Anne Elliot

Most Appealing Man

  • George Knightley
  • Mr. Darcy