Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Quotes

Hunger is said to be “good sauce” for the appetite; but a still better sauce is cheerful thankfulness, and the food so seasoned is the most agreeable kind. (John Wesley from his sermon “The More Excellent Way”)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (The Bible - I Tim 6:6-8)

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Have you ever seen a TV mystery where the murder is clearly shown in the first scene and you watch the detective solve the case as the show goes on? That is how this amazing non-fiction book begins. From the very first pages of The Ghost Map we know what caused the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London, England. The next two hundred pages are dedicated to the sleuthing efforts of a young doctor and an Anglican curate who follow clues that not only solve the mystery, but help to change science forever.

Don’t read this book if you have a weak stomach. It starts with graphic descriptions of the human excrement that was piling up in 19th Century London (before sewage plants were even thought of there) which is followed by a description of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy with only a glass of wine for anesthesia (!) If you can get past that you’ll love reading about how John Snow stubbornly bucked the scientific standards of his day by going against the popular theory called “Miasma”, the idea that putrid smells were the chief cause of illness.

Johnson writes of Snow’s courage: It was, on the face of it, a staggering display of investigative work, given the manic condition of the neighborhood itself. In the twenty-four hours since he’d received Farr’s [statistics], Snow had tracked down intimate details of behavior from the surviving family and neighbors of more than seventy people. The fearlessness of the act still astonishes: as the neighborhood emptied in terror from the most savage outbreak in the city’s history, Snow spent hour after hour visiting the houses that had suffered the worst – houses that were, in fact, still under assault… Wherever cholera was present, there he was in the midst.

Although Snow was responsible for curbing the spread of disease and for ushering in a new scientific discovery, it wasn’t until many years later that he was given credit for his efforts. Johnson concludes: History has its epic thresholds where the world is transformed in a matter of minutes – a leader is assassinated, a volcano erupts, a constitution is ratified. But there are other, smaller, turning points that are no less important. A hundred disparate historical trends converge in a single, modest act. It’s not that the world is changed instantly; the change itself takes many years to become visible. But the change is no less momentous for its quiet evolution. (p. 162)

Overall this is an excellent book that presents a slice of life in 1850’s London. It is much more than a history book because it is loaded with human interest stories and accounts of scientific misconceptions and breakthroughs. (The author’s belief in the theory of Evolution comes through strongly and continuously – almost to the point of being annoying, but I would not let that keep you from reading a book that will introduce you to an amazing era in British history.) Now I plan to read some fiction based on that time period. Bleak House by Dickens was a book Johnson quoted a lot so I may try it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis

It took two months to get through The Imitation of Christ not because it was difficult reading, but because it was so meaty that I had to spend lots of time “chewing”. Two or three pages a day was my goal, which was enough of a nibble to keep me satisfied till the next reading. There is no question as to why this book has endured for six hundred years as a Christian classic.

Some might be tempted to think of the book as just for “Catholics” since á Kempis was a monk, but to assume that would be to miss the point of the book: Everyone who calls himself a follower of Christ must be willing to do and endure whatever God has called him to do. With joy.

An example from book four, chapter 10: What shall I give thee [Lord] for all these thousands of benefits? I would I could serve thee all the days of my life…Truly thou art worthy of all service, of all honor and everlasting praise. Truly thou art my Lord and I thy poor servant who am bound to serve thee with all of my might; neither ought I ever to be weary of praising thee…They who for thy love have renounced all carnal delights shall find the sweetest consolations of the Holy Ghost…Oh sweet and delightful service of God by which a man is made truly free and holy!

The introduction to my 1937 copy of Imitation said that book three (about Holy Communion) is left out of some versions of the book, possibly because of its “catholic” emphasis on the doctrine of transubstantiation. While I disagree with this particular doctrine I feel that we Protestants often go to the other extreme, removing all mystery from the act of coming to the Lord’s Table. For that reason I would encourage you to find a book that includes the communion chapters. You will envy á Kempis as you read of his deep love for this sacrament as a means of grace.

Finally, I want to add a note about a strong thread in the book regarding mortification of the flesh. I wholeheartedly agree that no price is too high to pay for following the Lord and that the Bible promotes a selfless way of living. But to imply that everything material is bad and that everything spiritual is good is gnosticism. While it is true that Christians must learn to love God more than earthly pleasures, the irony is that because we know and love Him we are able to enjoy life’s pleasures at a deeper level. The gifts have greater value because we love the Giver. But don’t let that caveat keep you from reading an extremely worthwhile book. Just as Adler’s book (reviewed here) sets out to build reading muscles, this one sets out to whip flabby believers into shape. I loved it!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

From page one of The Flame Trees of Thika I knew I’d stumbled across an incredibly observant and eloquent writer. Huxley succeeds in helping the reader taste, smell and see Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century. The following passage is just one example:

[On the shooting of a python:] Robin’s second shot was true. The head collapsed, the huge body writhed and lashed and threshed on the rocks, like some dark cauldron boiling over, like a monstrous worm of corruption spewed up from the caverns of the earth. The Kikuyu flung off their blankets and rushed naked into the stream to save it from falling into the river, but they did not touch it until the slithering coils lay still. Then they dragged it up the bank and stretched it out; and there in the middle, sure enough, was an enormous bulge, like a great bead strung on a cord. (p. 196)

It was a stroke of brilliance to write this book from the point of view of a small child. Obviously the book’s descriptions and insights into human nature are far beyond the powers of a child to communicate, but the child-as-narrator was a powerful tool because the author was able to report the conversation and actions of the adults without judgment. The same was true for her descriptions of the different tribal peoples who worked on or near her father’s coffee plantation.

So why didn’t I love this book? My heart yearned for character development and found none. Although the book was clean, there were implications of several extramarital affairs. I was reminded of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (reviewed here) who became less and less civilized as he moved toward the heart of the jungle. Here again were people who seemed less restrained by societal mores the farther they moved from their home cultures.

Still, I will always remember Huxley’s description of a sunset as “rose, lemon and the color of flamingo’s wings”. I turned that phrase over in my mind for three whole days! Would-be writers should read this book as a lesson in writing fresh metaphors. With all the distractions we fight against today I’m wondering if ANYONE still pays attention to details like this author.