I read books.

Overdue Books

So I have not reviewed any books lately, but I HAVE been reading!

Since my last post:

Mere Christianity (again) by C.S. Lewis – my go-to argument for why I am a Christian, even on days when my doubts overwhelm me like the tide. How can Jesus be anything but God? And why do we always default to “that’s not fair” if there is no standard outside ourselves to which we refer? Even die-hard atheists have a hard time coping with that one. Yay for Jack Lewis.

No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith – fun, easy read about a clever woman in Botswana who sets up her own business and solves everyday mysteries using common sense. First in a series,  of which I intend to read more.

Clifton Chronicles 1 & 2: Only Time will Tell and Sins of the Father  by Jeffrey Archer – I loved these! Can’t wait for the third book to come out so I can find out who gets the money and who gets the girl…Set in the early part of the 20th Century in England, you’ve got your boarding schools, your class system, your labor law problems, and a good bunch of back stories that all weave together in surprising ways. Fast reading but surprising well developed story and characters. Recommended.

Standing Under the Rainbow by Fannie Flagg – this starts out lighthearted and fun but turns pretty melancholy toward the end. The characters are endearing, but I found myself getting a little depressed as the hero grows from his happy boyhood as the son of a homemaker/radio announcer and ends up old and sad! I think this one connected too many memories of my own small town life to be a favorite.

To be continued…

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Those Who Save Us (Jenna Blum)

Reopening book club in November with this offering:

This is an extremely well-crafted but disturbing first novel by Jenna Blum. It features a beautiful Aryan German girl who finds herself in a terrible moral dilemma: should she die at the hands of the blood-thirsty Nazis or do whatever it takes to save the life of herself and her half-Jewish daughter? Truly, what is a mother to do?

Anna’s own father is a part of the Fascist regime, and she only escapes his wrath because he is too shamed to confront her and leaves town when she turns up pregnant with a Jewish child. Taken in by the baker, Anna and her daughter Trudie find purpose in helping to smuggle food and messages to the prisoners next door at Buchenwald, the adjacent Nazi concentration camp. Anna hopes she is helping her baby’s father as she assists in this small way, but when they are discovered, she is confronted with a grave choice.

Blum provides graphic detail of the horrors Anna suffers at the hands of a Nazi officer, and it makes for very hard reading. Much of the story is developed as the daughter Trudy (no explanation for the spelling change) begins to research her own history while teaching at an American university.

Painful, poignant, powerful. Strong caution for graphic sexual violence and imagery. Recommended if you can handle it.

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A Thousand Gifts (Ann Voskamp)

Not often that a book completely changes my paradigms…but this book has done it. I started reading it a few days before the birth of my grandson Samuel Job, who is with Jesus for safekeeping until we meet him again in heaven. I had begun practicing eucharisteo, framing God’s gifts with intentional thankfulness, and thus my entry # 34 was Samuel Job, 4 lb. 13 oz.  A good gift that we did not get to enjoy on this earth, but another reason to yearn for heaven.

‎…Giving thanks is only this: making the canyon of pain into a megaphone to proclaim the ultimate goodness of God.” Ann Voskamp

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The Girl Who Played With Fire (Steig Larson)

I’m done with this trilogy after only two books. I was intrigued by the strange girl-woman in the first book, enough so that I braved another volume to find out what happened to her next, and what was her terrible past. But it’s not worth it. Gratuitous profanity, vile sexuality and completely pagan characters in a weirdly written novel (translated from the Swedish may be part of the problem)  all added up to a waste of my time. Boo. NOT RECOMMENDED.

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Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lampiri)

Did not love this short story collection about several different Indian families, although I did feel that I gained understanding of the culture by reading it. Everyone seemed hopeless and unhappy, and I don’t really like short stories because there is just not time to develop the story line and characters. Just when I start getting interested, it’s over. Well-written and believable, but just not my cup of tea.

Never had the book club on this one, but no big loss for me.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ( Steig Larsson)

Suspend your literary taste and just read this one for the plot. That was my reading strategy on this morbid thriller that started as a missing person investigation and turned unexpectedly dark about halfway through the book. This was not a book I would have chosen had I known the content, yet I found myself unable to put it down once I had started; I had to know how it would resolve!

I was particularly interested in the strange woman-child, Salander. I felt genuinely sad for her twisted little life. On p. 589 she is described  this way:
“She had no faith in herself. Blomkvist lived in a world populated by people with respectable jobs, people with orderly lives, and lots of grown-up points. His friends did things, went on TV, and shaped the headlines. What do you need me for? Salander’s greatest fear, which was so huge and so black that is was of phobic proportions, was that people would laugh at her feelings. And all of a sudden all her carefully constructed self-confidence seemed to crumble.

That’s when she made up her mind. It took her several hours to mobilise the necessary courage, but she had to see him and tell him how she felt. Anything else would be unbearable. ”

I won’t spoil it for those of you that haven’t read that far  yet, but suffice it to say it does NOT go well for her when she makes herself vulnerable to Blomkvist. I felt so sorry for her!!

Speaking of sympathy, none for that sick psychopathic killer. How does an author think this stuff up?? And this book won’t do anything to promote Swedish tourism! Usually when I read a book set in a foreign locale, it makes me yearn to visit there. Nothing about this country appealed to me, honestly.

Finally, I was struck through the novel with the stark absence of any spiritual life with any character in the book.

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The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis makes some very serious spiritual points with satire.  Wormwood, a demon-in-training, profits from the sage advice of his “affectionate Uncle Screwtape,” whose years of experience in sidelining or derailing true believers gives the serious reader pause. Yikes! I think I have fallen prey to most all of these satanic ploys.

1. “Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice toward his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day, and to thrust his benevolence out to the remotest circumference, to people he does not know.  The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”

This quote puts me in mind of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Too prejudiced to use the same bathroom as their colored maids, but taking up an offering for the African orphans.

2. “The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours–and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours.”

3.” …it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of his special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing.  One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth…we want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. (italics added)

You must have wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. ”

3. “Our cause is never more in danger, Wormwood, than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and askes why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

4. “All mortals tend to turn into the thing that they are pretending to be.”

5. “I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy…But flippancy is the best of all…If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know…It is a thousand miles from Joy: it deadens instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affections between those who practise it.”

6. “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

7.” …active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”

8. “His whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one… The Enemy will try to render real…the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair.”

9. The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity…Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. ..It is far better to make them live in the future. Thoughts about the future inflames hope and fear. ..Gratitude  looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead…We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, or kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

10. “The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. the humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they “own” their bodies.

Psalm 115: 3 Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

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The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (A.J. Jacobs)

In this compelling sequel to The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs has written a witty, but surprisingly convicting memoir about living Biblically, something many Christians know little about. Jacobs spends eight months in the Old Testament, and four months in the New, combing through the direct commands and trying to follow them as closely as possible. He disregards the ridicule of many of his friends and co-workers, as he researches and obeys. How many Christians have done that?

Jacobs shows remarkable open-mindedness as he visits various representative groups, including Orthodox Jews, the Amish, Jerry Falwell, and the Creation Scientists at the Tennessee museum and research center. But while he travels close to the edge of actual conversion, he reverts to his own ability to reason things out and concludes his book without a satisfying (to me) stake in the ground.

Memorable passages include:

In the Amish country:

“Amos talks slowly and carefully, like he only has a few dozen sentences allotted for the weekend, and he doesn’t want to waste them at the start. I read later in the Amish book Rules of a Godly Life that you should “let your words be thoughtful, few and true.” By adopting minimalism, Amos has mastered those speech laws I’m struggling with.”

On his ironic view of relativism:

“…one of my motivations for this experiment is my recent entrance into fatherhood. I’m constantly worried about my son’s ethical education. I don’t want him to swim in this muddy soup of moral relativism. I don’t trust it. I have such a worldview, and though I have yet to commit a major felony, it seems dangerous…So I want to instill some rock-solid, absolute morals in my son. Would it be so bad if he lived by the Ten Commandments? Not at all. But how do I get him there?”

On the irony of Judaism being influenced by Martin Luther:

On this journey, I plan to be mindful of the oral law. But I’m not going to follow it exclusively. I feel I have to try to puzzle out for myself what the Bible means, even if I take some wrong turns.

All this makes me realize: In a sense, my project is steeped in Judaism, since I’m spending a lot of time on the Hebrew Scriptures. But in some ways, it’s actually more influenced by the Protestant idea that you can interpret the Bible yourself, without mediation. Sola scriptura, as it’s called.

On Jonah’s relevance to serving at the soup kitchen:

I ask myself the question God asked Jonah “Do you do well to be angry?” I ask it out loud to myself. No, I don’t, I answer. So I got elbowed by a strangely competitive soup kitchen volunteer. The world will not end.

I should remember the modern-day Ninevehs where thousands of lives are in danger–the crowd of homeless out the door at Holy Apostles, for instance, or pretty much anywhere in East Africa.

There is such a thing as biblically acceptable anger–righteous indignation…the key is to pump up  your righteous anger and mute your petty resentment.

Interesting interpretation on stoning:

[I met Yossi] through an Orthodox outreach group. [According to Yossi] we don’t stone people today because you need a biblical theocracy to enforce the stoning…no such society exists today. But even in ancient times, stoning wasn’t barbaric.

“First of all, you didn’t just heave stones…The idea was to minimize the suffering. What we call ‘stoning’ was actually pushing the person off the cliff so they would die immediately upon impact. The Talmud actually has specifications on how high the cliff must be. Also, the person getting executed was given strong drink to dull the pain.”

Hmmm…I had never heard of this interpreation of stoning. Jacobs suspects some whitewashing, and so do I.

On humanism and the irony of atheism:

I feel tempted all the time–not so much by a cult to Baal, but by the lure of secular humanism. To face my demons, I decide to go deep into the heart of unbelief: the weekly New York City Atheists meeting at a midtown Greek restaurant.

I know a fair amount of atheists, seeing as I live in a relatively godless town. But…an atheist club felt oxymoronic, like an apathy parade. But against all odds, it exists. The gathering of the godless takes place in a back room with a long table. A big blue atheism banner hangs from the ceiling, right next to the Christmas decorations of cardboard silver angels, an irony several of the atheists point out.

I meet my neighbors. One is a compact woman with graying hair and a Darwin cap. How was she converted to atheism? “I grew up with a Methodist aunt who was basically a Victorian…I couldn’t say the word leg. I had to say limb. I once said the word constipation and got smacked. The hypocrisy was too much for me.”

Ken says his road to atheism began when as a kid, he figured out there could be no Santa Claus. “It was just not feasible to deliver all those presents. This was before Fed-Ex…I started to ask myself, what else are they telling me that not’s true?”

The religious lobby does not have to worry about the atheist lobby quite yet. It’s hard to be passionate about a lack of belief.

On speaking Biblically:

[It] requires a far more radical change than raising my diction a few notches. It requires a total switch in the content of my conversation: no lying, no complaining, no gossiping…In other words, about 70 percent of all conversations in New York.

On the Sabbath:

The doorknobs in our apartment fall off on an alarmingly regular basis…For the first ten minutes I try to escape…I’m trapped…By noon, something odd happens…perhaps for the first time I pray in true peace and silence–without glancing at the clock…This is what the Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minute pause, but a major pause. Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting. As the famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel put it, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time.

[When Julie finally returns home after four hours and opens the door] it’s kind of a shame.

There are multiple other examples of Jacobs’ wit and insight which I found challenging and memorable. In summary, this book impacted me more spiritually than a lot of things I have read by Christians…he is so earnest, and honest. Highly recommended.

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Wuthering Heights

I am realizing as I look at my copy of WH, that some of the quotes I marked are also noted in the front of the book…Perhaps I could have saved some time and just read the end flap. ha

Anyway, I liked the quote in Ch. XIV, where Heathcliff says to Isabella, ” I was a fool to fancy for a moment that she valued Edgar Linton’s attachment more than mine. If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years as I could in a day. And Catherine has a heart as deep as I have: the sea could be as readily contained in that horse trough as her whole affection could be monopolised by him. Tush! He is scarcely a degree dearer to her than her dog, or her horse. It is not in him to be loved like me: how can she love in him what he has not?”
I am wondering with you what exactlyl his worldview tells him that LOVE is, and how he fancies that he is so great at it.
Have you seen a movie of this book? I remember one with Timothy Dalton that came out when I was in high school, and I remember liking it. But I can’t imagine why I would have! Maybe I need to watch again. I just think that if Heathcliff is portrayed as he is in the book, he is one scary boyfriend.

Another of my favorite rants is Heathcliff describing his relationship with Isabella, where he declares that it was a “positive labour of Hercules” to make her hate him, because she continues to function under the “delusion…of me as a hero of romance.” I particularly like his use of the word “perspicacity.”

Not my favorite, by a long shot, but still…I am proud to put it on my list of books I have read.

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The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say. “

So says the preacher/philosopher Casy in Steinbeck’s novel of the Dust Bowl years. This sums up the worldview presented in this tale full of pathos and suffering, following the migration of the Okies to California in hopes of finding a job and some dignity. The Joads are the central characters, but they represent all the uprooted tenant farmers of the era, pushed off their land by economic depression and the increasing technology in farming. They find little to rejoice over when they at last arrive in California, where no labor unions yet exist to give them a voice against tyrannical landholders. So they slave over the peaches and the cotton, the grapes and the asparagus, battling for  the two-bit/ hour jobs that are better than nothing, but not much.

The “citadel” of the family is the mother, because the father has lost his self-respect and confidence through the extreme hardships the family has suffered.

“Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high, calm and superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. and since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. … Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgement as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall…”

And when they are turned out of their house, with literally no where to go, they must ask themselves this heart-wrenching question: ” How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” Answer: “No. Leave it. Burn it.” So with what they can cram into the back of a remodeled car with sideboards, they head west hoping for hope to return.

They continued to be guided along the way by Casy the “un-preacher”, who debates his role with the eldest son Tom, who was recently released from prison and breaking parole to travel West with the family.

Tom: “For a fellow that don’t preach no more—“

Casey: “Oh, I’m a talker!…No getting away from that. But I ain’t preachin’. Preachin’ is telling folks stuff. I’m askin’ ’em. That ain’t preachin’, is it?”

Tom: “I don’ know…Preachin’s a kinda tone a voice, an’ preachin’s a way a lookin’ at things. Preachin’s being good to folks when they wanna kill ya for it. Las’ Christmas in McAlester, Salvation Army come an’ done us good. Three solid hours a cornet music, an’ we set there. They was bein’ nice to us. But if one of us tried to walk out, we’d a-drawed solitary. That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it. No, you ain’t no preacher. But don’t you blow no cornets aroun’ here.”

In an ironic plot twist, Casy turns out to be the salvation of the family, in spite of renouncing his religious role.

Sad but memorable and beautifully written. Steinbeck’s poetic style lends itself perfectly to this melancholy tale Recommended, but with a warning for profanity.

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