Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Approximately half of the books I read last year were prose fiction, and I would think that's about average for me. Of those, about a quarter were sci-fi/speculative fiction; about a third might be termed "classics" or at least "canonical" works; the remainder are either contemporary fiction (roughly speaking) or are hard to categorize. I also read more works of short fiction (three) than I have in recent memory.

It's probably no surprise that as a group, the "classics" were the most enjoyable. I cannot say enough good things about The Sin of Father Amaro. de Queiroz story is a magnificient example of naturalism with a more fully-realized psychology for its characters than I find typically in that school. The clerical class does not come off too well in this work, which is a complete contrast with Trollope's The Warden. The Warden is a sweet novel, full of humor and sentimentalism. It may not tower with the "great novels," but it's a quick read and a sure pick-me-up. Ellison's Invisible Man was by far the most difficult reading I did; a stylistically beautiful book, it is often brutal (though not so much as Native Son) and unrelenting in its social commentary. I'm glad to have read it, though I don't know I'll rush to read it again. Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall is social commentary of a much different sort: satire. The novel is funny, often bordering on farce, and not nearly as biting as some other Waugh I've read--Scoop in particular.

David Lodge is clearly a student of Waugh, and his Small World is in a similar mode as Decline and Fall. It too is very funny, and it seems to find charm in the characters' foibles. It is also much less satirical--and much nicer, I think--than Lodge's other academic satire, Nice Work. Lodge and Waugh are the most traditional novelists I read whose work appeared in the 20th century. At the other end of the spectrum, I'd list Leonid Tsypkin, Marguerite Duras and John Barth. Tsypkin, in Summer in Baden Baden, and Duras, in The War: A Memoir both use non-fictional stories as the engines for their fictional presentations. Tsypkin is mainly concerned with Dostoevsky and his trip (with his new bride) to Baden Baden. Amid the troubles and turmoils of their trip, Tsypkin tracks his own journey to a relative's house. Duras, on the other hand, fictionalizes her own experiences in World War II. Her character is thinly disguised, and the third person presentations often have the feeling of someone writing about something from which they need to distance themselves. Barth's Lost in the Funhouse is experimental in a different sense. Barth is identifiably "postmodern" in his concerns with the status of the text, with writing, with playfulness concerning character, theme and style. These early stories show Barth's interest in mythology as a source for his fictions. Several of the stories are very entertaining, and though they don't quite measure up to Chimera, these are clearly preparatory for that great work.

Along with Duras and Barth, the third work of short fiction I read was Joanna Russ' Zanzibar Cat. The stories in that anthology range from typical genre pieces to stories that have the biting feminism that she perfected in The Female Man. Christine Brook-Rose's Amalgamemnon combines Russ' interest in sci-fi feminism with Barth's interest in language and mythology (I don't know whether I think Brook-Rose is a feminist Barth or Barth a borderline misogynist Brook-Rose!). Sturgeon's More than Human is sci-fi from the Golden Age, and it still has an underlying hopefulness about humanity that seems largely gone from Russ and Brook-Rose. There are Golden Age science fiction books I enjoyed more (particluarly A Canticle for Liebowitz), but Sturgeon's is a fun read if such works interest you.

And that's it...one readers' year in review. Before my next post, I'll wipe the slate to the right clean and start counting again. Will I find more enjoyable poetry than last year? Will I discover another hidden gem like The Sin of Father Amaro? It's questions like those that keep me reading. Happy New Year to you, and Happy Reading!

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Since this year is the first time I've kept a reading list, I cannot be certain; however, I believe I read more non-fiction this year than I have since leaving academia nearly 8 years ago. All of the non-fiction books I completed were Christian (arguably excluding Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), which is not surprising to me. It was, truth be told, not by plan either.

My major accomplishment this year was finishing volume 2 of Kenneth Latourette's History of Christianity. I cannot say enough good about this book: it is extremely well-researched and covers not only the 2 millenia of Christian history but covers the entire globe as well. Clearly nothing can be covered thoroughly, but for a broad overview, I highly recommend it. I read a couple other works that would generally be classified as "textbooks:" Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath and Faith has its Reasons by Kenneth Boa. The former takes a broad look at theology in a topical manner; the latter is focussed on methods of Christian apologetics. Both are worthwhile for people interested in the subject, but neither is without weakness.

The remaining non-fiction books I read could roughly be labeled "spiritual reading." The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius are a classic, but I didn't realize how much of a handbook for a spiritual guide they were. The focus is more on the guide than the student. Richard Foster's Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home is just the opposite: a guide written for a student of prayer. I'd call this a "modern classic" and wouldn't be surprised if people were still reading it decades from now. Foster is so in-tune with the Spirit and prayerful responses that he is the perfect guide for deepening our prayer life. It is that ability to be in-tune with the spirit that makes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (by Annie Dillard) such a wonderful book. Dillard has an amazing eye for nature and a deep knowledge of its processes. Her connection with nature, and through nature with the Creator, is wondrous; the fact that she can convey it to readers in such living language is a sort of miracle.

Monday, December 29, 2003

One of the changes I made in my blog this year was to use it to keep track of my reading list. I've never tracked what I've read over a year before, and I find it's been interesting. I completed 21 books this year, and over the next few days, I'm going to do a "reader's year in review" covering the poetry, fiction and non-fiction I read in 2003. I'll start with poetry.

Overall, I have to say that I am a bit disappointed in the poetry books I read this year. Of the four books I read--Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley, Jackstraws, by Charles Simic, Poems and Ballads and Atalanta in Calydon, by A.C. Swinburne and Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke--only the last is a work to which I will return to read parts of it periodically.

Wheatley is a significant writer for the role she plays in American letters, but overall her poems are fairly derivative of other writers at the time, particularly continental writers. Still, she did introduce new subjects and a new type of subjectivity into wester letters: before Wheatley, readers had very little exposure to the voice of a female African slave. That she impressed such historically significant people as George Washington makes reading her even more interesting. But for the sheer love of poetry, I doubt I'd pick up that volume again. I was disappointed in Simic for different reasons. I found the book dry and almost completely unmemorable. I'd be willing to try something else by him, but I'm in no hurry to snap up his volumes.

I count my lack of enthusiasm for Swinburne to be one of the biggest surprises of my reading year. If you imagine a scale of writers that range from those who write very well but have little to say and going to those who have much to say but don't write very well, I tend to like the former more than the latter. Swinburne is definitely in the camp of writers who can put language together wonderfully but seem to have very little to say. But with only a few exceptions (like the poem that helped inspire "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") Swinburne's poetry just never grabbed me. I yearned to be swept up by his language, but it never happened.

Only Rilke managed to gather me up and take me to those heights that remind me why I read poetry. Even in translation, Rilke's bold imagery and forceful language are readily apparent. This is the first time I've read more than a couple poems in anthologies by Rilke. Reading the cycles together allow you to feel the intensity of his poetic vision. The "Sonnets of Orpheus" are justifiably considered among the highlights of 20th century poetry. I've already purchased another volume to consider my engagement with this amazing poet.

Monday, December 22, 2003

I got an email over the weekend from someone working as a "Secret Santa." The correspondent asked if I would consider linking up to an article over at Radical Congruency. The article, entitled "Moving Beyond the Worship Service" is well worth the read. Justin Baedar argues that we need to look more deeply into scripture and early church practice to revise our understanding of worship. Rather than focussing on the pastor-centered worship service as the only method of worship, Justin encourages us to look at other spiritual disciplines for ways to broaden and deepen our worship experience.

So go read Justin's article, and wish him a merry Christmas from his "secret Santa."

Friday, December 19, 2003

After all the votes were counted and re-counted, my uncle lost in his School Board election race. Still just 2 votes separated the candidates.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I've been reading 2 Kings recently, and thinking about the ways that Elisha is a "type" of Christ--that is, a pre-figuration of the Messiah. For example, Elisha heals Naaman's leprosy, raises a dead boy, and he feeds a multitude from a few loaves of bread, with some left over. But as with all "types" of Christ, he is different in significant ways. His miracles are smaller versions of Jesus's: he feeds fewer people, he must lay on the child to raise him, etc. What I noted this time though, is how Jesus never seems judgmental in his miracles or on calling on his immense powers. For example, after healing Naaman of leprosy, Elisha gives it to his greedy servant as punishment for his actions. Jesus never works this way. Though he talks about the judgment to come, during his time on earth he works only to improve the plight of people. He seems to be saying that judgement comes, and it comes for all, but not in this world. In this world, we are called to aid and not to punish.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

I would think that the capture of Sadaam Hussein is good news, whether liberal or conservative, pacifist or hawk. He was, by all accounts, one of the worst tyrants and human rights abusers in the world. The guarantee that he will no longer be able to perpetrate his crimes against humanity should be a relief to all who love freedom and human rights. It is my prayer that his capture will lead to a decrease of violence in Iraq. I am not naive enough to believe that all violence will cease, but with a leading symbol gone, perhaps peace in Iraq is something that can be realized in the near future.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

There is news in the continuing saga of my Uncle's 3 vote loss in the Loudon County School board election. A 3-judge panel has ordered a recount. He should know before Christmas whether the recount will change the election in his favor or not.

As if it needed to be said again: every vote counts.

Friday, December 12, 2003

There's always good reading over at Gutless Pacifist, but this post is particularly worth a visit. Be sure also to read the first comment for a very good insight into non-violence.
I've been toying with the idea of starting a new blog. I don't plan to shut this one down, as I enjoy the intimate nature of this space. What I'm thinking of is a blog that has news and commentary on human rights issues. It's an area I feel strongly about and one that doesn't get much emphasis here. My main concern is time: my blogging here is sporadic at best, so I don't know that I could do a good job covering the topic. That's where you, my handful of readers, come in. If you know of a blog that covers (either exclusively or just fairly copiously) human rights news and issues, I'd appreciate hearing about it. If it looks like the space is already well-covered, then I'd be less inclined to start one myself. Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I can now make an unexpected addition to my list of things I've experienced: an earthquake. Yesterday, at around 4:00 p.m., the first earthquake in Virginia in 30 years shook the area and measured a surprisingly strong 4.5 on the richter scale. My wife and I were working in our office. We felt two tremmors about 20 seconds apart. The first one caused us to look at each other and say "what was that? A big truck?" Then the second one hit and I said, "could it be our furnace?" We went downstairs and saw nothing amiss. My wife speculated that it could be an eathquake, but I doubted it. About 15 minutes later, my brother called to confirm that indeed it was an earthquake and asked if we felt it. Quite an experience, I must say, and I'm just thankful there was no damage or injuries.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Today is the birthdate of John Milton. Milton was a brilliant poet, a thorough and innovative thinker and, by all accounts, an unpleasant person. Nevertheless, Milton was a master of almost every form he touched; whether it was epic, song or sonnet, Milton left his mark indelibly on the form (despite Johnson's comment that Milton was "a genius that could cut a colossus from rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones"). Milton was, of course, deeply religious, and his faith often dictated the topics of his poetry--certainly of all his greatest poetry. To recognize his birth, then, it's worth recalling the poem he wrote on the savior's birth, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity", which opens:
This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherin the Son of Heav'ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

Monday, December 08, 2003

I've written before about how often my four-year-old teaches me and leads me spiritually. One of the ways he has developed over the last few months is in prayer. He has moved from simple, memorized prayers to spontaneously offering thanksgiving for whatever is on his mind--he'll be thankful for the food, or for his toys, or for his mommy and daddy...whatever comes to mind. In my own prayer life, I've been trying to mimic this spontaneity.

But my mimicry is but a pale shadow of what my two-year-old is capable of. He mimics just about everything, particularly things his big brother says. Recently, he's been stamping his personality on what he repeats, so he's copying, but with a difference that makes the copy uniquely his.

The other night, as we sat down to dinner, I asked if anyone wanted to say a prayer. My oldest wanted to start, and he thanked God for the food, and for friends. Typically, my youngest then says "God is great, amen. Daddy's turn!" This night, though, he surprised us by saying "God is great. Thank you tree. Thank you lights. Amen. Daddy's turn." By that time, though, my wife and I could barely speak. It was our turn to murmur nothing more than "God is great."

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

In my slow reading of the Durants' History of Civilization, I am moving from the section on pre-history to the earliest historical civilizations. I am happy to be moving on. The first section, it seems to me, is (perhaps necessarily) filled with far too much speculation and imaginative reconstruction of what "might" have happened in the development of our species from just another animal in the ecosystem to an animal capable of civilization. Their constant theme--that there is little difference between modern humans in our wants, needs and actions and those actions of prehistoric humans--is often strained, and often that argument proceeds more by metaphor than actual parallel. I'm also no expert on the dating of pre-historic remains, but it seems that dating of certain cultures and archaeological remains may have changed remarkably over the last few decades.

None of this is to say that I'm not finding the reading interesting, but I think I'll be far more interested as they survey the historic cultures that have left cultural and historical remains. At least then they will be interpreting facts and artifacts that exist, as opposed to the philosophical games they must play to answer questions like "where and when did language first arise?"

Monday, December 01, 2003

Over the holidays, I began reading John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. I am a fan of Barth--I think he can write like nobody's business--but his work is admittedly of uneven quality. I think Chimera is a masterpiece; Giles Goat-Boy I found less successful. Like Chimera, Funhouse is a collection of inter-related stories. Shorter than the novellas in Chimera, the short stories that I have read so far have tended to blend the fantastic nature that is common in Barth with the local-color of coastal Maryland that is also a regular feature of his work. Interestingly, in a preface to this edition, Barth notes that many critics complained that the unnamed narrator of the Frame Tale was a fish that ruminated on rather trite philosophy. He said that since the narrator wasn't a fish, the philosophy wasn't trite. It seems rather transparent to me that the narrator is, in fact, a sperm, though I don't know that such knowledge redeems the philosophy much.

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