Friday, November 17, 2017

Best-Loved Poems by John Boyes

I'm always intrigued by any poetry compilation called "Best-loved." Best-loved by whom? Boyes writes that he made an effort in his book to choose poems which are best-known rather than his personal favorites. But I would beg to differ since I was unfamiliar with more than HALF of these poems.

Nevertheless, he has done an exceptional job of gathering together exceptionally beautiful poetry. I didn't enjoy all the selections equally, but there is a general elegance of language in his choices that makes the book a delight. (Walt Whitman's poems were a constant exception to this.)

Boyes separates the poems by category (Nature, Death, Love, Travel, Humor, etc.) My least favorite category was "Irreverence and Satire" precisely because its biting tone took away from potential loveliness. I was befuddled by the inclusion of George Herbert's The Pulley in this section since it is ironic, rather than satirical. I was pleasantly surprised by his section of poems about faith since they are often excluded from modern anthologies. Another treat was his inclusion of "Twas the Night before Christmas," which may not be great literature, but it certainly falls under the heading of "well-loved."

There is very little fluff here. Amidst classic sonnets by Shakespeare and family favorites like "From a Railway Carriage," you'll find many new poets to enjoy. At 600 pages, this is a book to read slowly, savoring a few poems a day.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield

I enjoyed this wonderful, non-syrupy testimony of God’s transforming power. Butterfield writes, In the pages that follow, I share what happened in my private world through what Christians politely call conversion. The word conversion is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God.

At the time of her conversion, Butterfield was a tenured professor of English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. Her specialty was Queer Theory. She was living with her female partner, was faculty advisor to all of the gay, lesbian and feminist groups on campus, and was writing a book against the Christian Right.
Sadly, the only contact she had ever had with Christians had been hate mail. So when she received a letter from Pastor Ken Smith, inviting her to talk about some of her opinions, she was intrigued enough to accept. Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert recounts her growing friendship with Ken and his wife, and how reading the Bible turned her world upside down. 

Because of her secular, feminist leanings, she seethed through every sermon by her pastor. How dare he use male pronouns? But oddly enough she kept coming back for more. Was I a masochist? I wondered. Or was I learning to forbear? I came to believe that my job was not to critique a sermon, but to dig into it, to seize its power, to participate with its message, and to steal its fruit. I learned by sitting under Ken Smith’s preaching that the easily offended are missing the point. I was learning to examine my gender politics against the teachings of Scripture. And I was learning that it was safe to do this.
The first half of the book is about her conversion and the second half is about the subsequent years of ministry, marriage and child-rearing. Her “secret thoughts” are negative opinions about people who put Bible verses up on their lawns, Rick Warren’s (and all mega church's) ministry, and homogenous churches; she has positive opinions about church membership, a capella psalm singing, the authority of the Bible over all of life, and the beauty of the body of Christ when it’s functioning properly. I agree with many of the reviewers at Goodreads who say the second half is weaker than the first. Butterfield may have felt compelled to add the post-conversion info because (as she states early in the book) she doesn't want to be mainly seen as a "poster child for lesbian conversion."

This is a very unusual testimony and a very important book for Christians who want to learn how to break down barriers that hinder them from reaching non-believers.

I've had this on my Kindle for two years and I'm grateful to the 2017 Christian Books Challenge for finally nudging me to read it.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland

Political correctness has made the study of classic literature a scary proposition. Now that all white male authors are taboo, what exactly are we supposed to read? Knowing the propensity of modern scholasticism to disparage traditional classics,  I went into this series with some trepidation, but, happily, my fears were relieved.

Professor John Sutherland covers 600 years of British literature in witty, bite-sized chunks and he isn't afraid to give each author his due. It's true that he occasionally gives a nod to political correctness, but for the most part I found him to be even-handed. He doesn't ignore the Bible's impact on literature. Nor does he try to portray Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë as ardent feminists.

One reviewer said the lectures were superficial, but what would you expect with a half hour lecture on Milton? Or Dickens? Several authors merited two lectures (Shakespeare and Austen for example), but most were given a brief overview - just enough to whet your appetite for more. Sutherland is so apt at drawing out the positive traits of each author that he made me want to read every book he mentioned (even the ones I've hated in the past.)

Sutherland extols the beauty of specific novels and plays, while at the same time using precise and lovely language himself. I enjoyed his description of the "verbal technicolor" of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and of a non-Spenserian knight (i.e. one without a pure heart) as "just another brute on horseback."

Another delight was the way he cited opinions of authors about other authors. One example was that the members of the Bloomsbury group (no paragons of virtue) spoke of James Joyce's works as vulgar. E.M. Forster said, "He covers everything with mud." This brings me to another plus: Sutherland's discretion. He describes sexual tawdriness in books (and in the lives of their authors) without a hint of crudeness, which is no easy feat.

I picked up these 48 lectures when they were on sale at Audible. Little did I know what a bargain I was getting. I look forward to revisiting them in the future. A lovely overview of many wonderful classics.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Books I Read in October

This was another month of so-so reading. I'm longing for a really good book that I can get lost in without, at the same time, having to say good-bye to my brains. (I hear Jane Austen calling me...) From worst to best here's the list:

Where Wildflowers Bloom by Shorey (reviewed here)
A Matter of Honor by Herries (only read half, my thoughts)
Refuge on Crescent Hill by Dobson (reviewed here)
On the Art of Reading by Arthur Quiller-Couch (lectures delivered in 1920, reviewed here)
June Bug by Chris Fabry (my thoughts here)
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Book Lover's Guide to Great Reading by Glaspey (Christian non-fiction reviewed here)
Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Christian non-fiction)
Classics of British Literature - 48 outstanding lectures by John Sutherland (from The Great Courses)

Books that are on sale this month: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury is $3.99, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy is marked down to $2.99. The Keys of the Kingdom by A.J. Cronin is $3.99


Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Lovers' Guide to Great Reading by Terry Glaspey

I thought I'd given up reading books about books since my TBR list is so long I'll need two lifetimes to complete it. And my tastes have matured enough that I no longer feel I have to read everything the "experts" tell me to read. But when this book lover's guide became available through PaperBackSwap, I couldn't resist. Glaspey shares my desire to be well-read and to be able to discern the important messages in both Christian and secular books.

There is nothing wrong with reading for entertainment. That is certainly one of its valid functions, and a noble one at that, because many of the very greatest books are extremely entertaining. But people who read only for entertainment are robbing themselves of one of the true pleasures of reading: that of expanding the mind, the heart, the soul, and the spirit. When we stop learning, we stop growing. (p. 198)

He begins the book with a list of Christian classics that everyone should read (Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress, Augustine's Confessions, etc.) , and follows that with several chapters on secular books with "big ideas" that are important for Christians to read and evaluate. (John Locke, Machiavelli, and Voltaire are just a few suggested authors.) Glaspey calls the gaining of insights from godless men "plundering the Egyptians" (from Exodus 3:22) and challenges his readers to be unafraid to dialogue with these thinkers.

I found his suggestions of specific translations of several classics to be very helpful. He recommends John Ciardi's annotated translation of Dante's Divine Comedy and Peter Kreeft's condensed version of Aquinas' Summa Theologica, for example.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will resonate with this guide to non-fluffy literature. Glaspey convinced me to try a few of the Greek classics, and he also encouraged me to try a few books I had ignored in the past as "not for me." I'll be reviewing them in the months to come.


Friday, October 13, 2017

Literary Quotes on Simple Pleasures

There’s nothing like a fresh page of a new book, a first date, or a patch of turned-over earth in the garden. All the possibilities! – from Small Kindnesses by Satya Robyn

No yoga exercise, no meditation in a chapel filled with music will rid you of your blues better than the humble task of making your own bread. - from M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. - May Sarton

Households that have lost the soul of cooking from their routines may not know what they are missing: the song of a stir-fry sizzle, the small talk of clinking measuring spoons, the yeasty scent of rising dough, the painting of flavors onto a pizza before it slides into the oven. - Barbara Kingsolver.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend

Can thoroughly evil men be redeemed? That was the key question for the administrators and lawyers connected with the trials of Nazi war criminals after WWII. Did they deserve spiritual help? Would they even want it?

Some wanted to exterminate them without a trial since their guilt was so obvious. But others felt a trial was important because it distinguished between revenge and punishment. Gordon Dean (press spokesperson for the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials) wrote, "The concept that guilt should be fairly ascertained is so embedded in the charters of civilized countries that we cannot afford to abandon it here simply because the guilt is great."

Based on the religious rights clause of the Geneva Convention, Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from St. Louis, was called to minister to the Germans on death row. He felt that God was the ultimate Judge and that the earthly guilt of his "congregation" was of no significance as far as he was concerned. His only duty was the care of souls. He asked God to preserve him from any prejudice against those who spiritual care had been committed to his charge.  Some wondered how he could comfort these Nazis who had caused the world so much heartache? How could he minister to the leaders of a movement that had taken millions of lives? He was even criticized for shaking their hands on their first encounter. But he was operating on the principle, "If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water."

What follows is a fascinating story of 22 men during their last weeks on earth. Thirteen of them attended Gerecke's daily services. Four attended Catholic mass and five refused all spiritual counsel. Some repented and some went to their deaths declaring themselves innocent of all wrong-doing.

Although the facts behind this book were gripping, the prose was often lacking.  (I have found this to be true with most WWII non-fiction.) Because the recorded spiritual conversations between Gerecke and the prisoners fill only about 6 percent of the book's 300 pages, Townsend had to put in A LOT of filler. He gives 150 pages of background (including the grades the chaplains got in college) before Gerecke actually meets his prison congregants. In Chapter 9 he meanders through his odd understanding of the Old Testament. In another chapter he writes extensively about the Lord's Supper.

Still, I'm glad I gave this book a chance. I was impressed that these men were given a fair trial in spite of the overwhelming proof of their guilt. I was touched by Gerecke's life and that he took the eternal destiny of these men seriously enough to dedicate himself to their care. Most of all I was amazed at the miracle that God did in the hearts of some of the men.

P.S. Exceptions to dry WWII non-fiction are Lauren Hillenbrand's Unbroken, Robert Edsel's The Monuments Men, Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow, and anything by Ernie Pyle.)