There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loving "Mere Christianity" is almost a cliche among Christians, isn't it? Well, I guess I love it. Almost two years ago I read the chapter on charity during a drive with a cousin who loves it, and I was delighted by the similarity between Austen's conception of charity. Last spring I started MC, and got side-tracked, eventually reading several Narnia novels and "Till We Have Faces". The apologetics of the book are still what I consider its weakest element.* While my big questions about life do tend to be similar to Lewis'(the foundation and origin of morality), I realize today that atheism and secularism have broadened their objections and questions. Even as a Christian, I find Lewis' jump from the idea of an innate universal morality to the inspiration of the Bible jarring.

However, the sections dealing with Christian conduct and theology were so profound that I think every Christian (or person interested in Christianity) should read them. My copy is underlined and marked with comments: "Amen!", "Perfect explanation" and "Incredibly insightful, beautifully written, and yet painfully convicting." As a conditionalist, pacifist, and egalitarian, I certainly found areas of disagreement with Lewis' references to hell/death, his strong belief in just wars, and his reading of Paul's admonitions to husbands and wives. However, my disagreement simply made me read more closely and highlighted the beauty of the truths presented. Ultimately, the book presented almost no truths with which I was not already familiar, yet my experience of their convicting power was new. To paraphrase John Greenleaf Whittier, that which shares the life of God, with Him is always new.

*Honestly, I'm not sure if I fully believe in apologetics. Right now I tend to believe the most important argument for Christianity is its radical irrationality -- "Christ crucified", "foolishness" to those who rely solely on reason.

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Review: The Invisible Girls: A Memoir

The Invisible Girls: A Memoir
The Invisible Girls: A Memoir by Sarah Thebarge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While reading this book I became afraid to finish it, feeling that other books would feel narrow and unimportant following it. It is a book that contains such a sea of deep feeling and broad experience that it seems to contain everything a book and heart can hold. All this abundance of life is disproportionate with the age of its author. Sarah Thebarge was in her twenties, working on her second graduate degree at Columbia, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her feelings of abandonment by God, family, church, and boyfriend made me realize how quickly one may be cut off from comfort, to disappear in a horizon of pain. Like my favorite play W;t (which also deals with cancer and abandonment) grace comes through kindness, when Sarah meets a Somali family who are just as adrift in an American city as she was in her battle with death. Five rambunctious, foul-mouthed girls who don't know their own birthdays become her sisters. At first the indigent family couldn't seem more different from their Ivy League-educated 'benefactress', but Sarah soon discovers that their shared invisibility as girls in fundamentalist cultures can become a shared story of grace. My only complaint is that the book could have been more detailed. However, this seems to be due to the recent rawness of Thebarge's pain, as well as the fact that she published this book to start a college fund for her new little sisters. Thebarge's exploration of a Christianity freed from the fundamentalism that makes girls and women invisible is a subject dear to my heart, so it was truly serendipitous when my mom chanced upon this exquisite memoir.

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Review: Jane Austen

Jane Austen
Jane Austen by Ian P. Watt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although an old publication, many of the essays contained in this collection are invaluable and seminal. The collection begins with two Must Reads for every student of Austen: C.S. Lewis' "A Note of Jane Austen" and Virginia Woolf's "Jane Austen" (excerpted from The Common Room and an essay in the Nation). They are both simple essays, easily accessible and free from jargon, but getting to the root of Jane Austen's ethics and genius. Ian Watt's "On Sense and Sensibility" is also an insightful work that modifies the simplistic judgments sometimes formed during a first reading of the novel's seeming dualities. Several essays (Alan D. McKillop's "Critical Realism in Northanger Abbey"; Reuben A. Brower's "Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice"; Marvin Mudrick's "Irony as Discrimination"; and D. W. Harding's "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen") explore Austen's unique and complex use of irony in narration, structure, and dialogue. I'd wanted to read "Regulated Hatred" for sometime, but it wasn't actually as subversive as I expected (this is an old collection; a modern critical collection might include more politics and feminism). I think Harding's argument has some merit, as it relates to Austen's attachment to individuals to whom she is morally or intellectually superior, but it's liable to a reading that ignores both Austen's moral foundations and sense of fun. "The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse" by Mark Schorer was another essay I had wanted to read. Overall, it was one of the most fascinating of the essays that were new to me. It gave me several new ways of looking at my favorite Austen novel, although I'll need to reread it again to have a decisive opinion. I particularly enjoyed Arnold Kettle's essay on Emma, reminding us that "We do not 'lose ourselves' in Emma unless we are the kind of people who lose ourselves in life". As someone who considers Austen almost faultless, but occasionally feels a slight twinge about the class hierarchy ensconced at the end of that novel, I found the analysis unshrinking and relevant. Donald J. Greene's "Jane Austen and the Peerage" was a little hard to concentrate on late at night, but presented Austen's verisimilitude convincingly. I've saved the worst for last: As before, Kingsley Amis' "What Became of Jane Austen?" made me want to throw things out of windows.

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Thursday, 8 May 2014

Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there any greater pleasure than when a book one has harbored high expectations for, actually exceeds those expectations? I expected to like Wolf Hall: Having first learned Tudor history as a child through accounts of the English reformers, I first met Cromwell as a friend to the reformation; I was quite shocked by the caricaturization of him as evil in A Man for All Seasons. Secondly, after reading Mantel's controversial speech on Royal Bodies, I conceived a tremendous respect for her insight, intelligence, and compassion. To be honest, I put off reading Wolf Hall until now because I was reserving it as a special treat.

It didn't disappoint, but it did surprise me. My first surprise was that Cardinal Wolsey (or Cardinal Wolfsey, the Wiley Wolf, as the Tyndale in the first “Tudor-era” book I obsessively read as a child called him) actually had his good points. Yes, Mantel's speech had led me to expect in her this ability to see the depth of even the most hypocritical or shallow characters. I expected a sympathetic Cromwell, yet her portrayal was more than sympathetic, it was broad-ranging, personal, and touching.

At first I found the unclear antecedents before pronouns disconcerting, but after realizing that most instances of the word he referred to Cromwell, I found it added to the claustrophobic sense of his thoughts as the nucleus. One sees Cromwell in varied situations, always changing, yet still somehow the same. After 650 pages of intimacy, one feels that they should know him, but do not. His own acknowledgement that “my workings are hidden from myself” illustrates how he can be simultaneously vulnerable and intimidating, possess the milk of human kindness and still be the consummate politician.

A blurb on the back cover compares the novel to Middlemarch. Last year reading Mantel's wonderful blend of compassion and intelligence about the royals, I'd wondered if she was familiar with Middlemarch. ( ) While I still would rank the latter novel more highly, I recall that it took me a second reading to realize just how fearful and wonderful it is. I'm already hungry for a second reading of Wolf Hall. First, though, must come Bring Up the Bodies (delicious titular reference!). Again, I'm so excited I'm almost frightened to start.

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