Books Feed

Lev Grossman on Lucy and the Wardrobe

A very nice reflection on C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by Lev Grossman (whom I met once).  An excerpt:

But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.


The Unwomanly Face of War

The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alexievich interviews Soviet women who fought in the Second World War. Apparently many women did, in all sorts of roles. These stories had not been widely told before she set out to capture these stories in the 1980's.

This edition, which came out in 2017, includes material censored in the original publication.

This book was initially difficult for me to get into, in a way that her Voices from Chernobyl was not. But it soon became difficult to read. I have taken longer to read it than a book of its size should have taken me, because the material was so often difficult to read.

Today I was fewer than 100 pages from the end, so having the day off I decided to push through unto the end. And sometimes after reading a story, I was crying. At least once I yelled at the pain. One rarely is exposed to such evil and suffering.

Near the end of the book, Alexievich writes, "I don't see the end of this road. The evil seems infinite to me. I can no longer treat it only as history." I was glad to read this when I did, as I was feeling overcome.

Her final interview subject, Tamara Stepanovna Umnyagina, who was a junior sergeant in the guards, is one of her most eloquent and profound storytellers. She speaks of how after the war, the people who fought in it were looking forward to peace, for surely now people will be changed for the better and start loving one another. "People still hate each other. They go on killing. That's the most incomprehensible thing to me."

And she speaks the words that make reading this book and enduring the pain it reveals a worthwhile experience. She said, "Yet this must be preserved, it must. We must pass it on. Somewhere in the world they have to preserve our cry. Our howl . . ."

View all my reviews

American Primitive

American PrimitiveAmerican Primitive by Mary Oliver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Today I had the day off, so I spent the day reading a wide array of things, including this early volume of Mary Oliver's poetry. As always, there are some great lines and passages ("Joy is a taste before it's anything else"). And I admired where the homoeroticism was strong in this work and puzzled how even with that she was America's favourite poet for so many decades. Her ability to describe wild nature--in the outside world and in our own bodies--is exceptional.

We'll be doing a four week worship series based on Mary Oliver poems this summer, concluding with Pride Sunday. She was not only America's beloved poet, she was one of our greatest spiritual writers and greatest queer writers. So interesting that she combined all of those in one person.

View all my reviews

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As we were preparing this year's Lenten worship theme Kondo's show was all the rage, so we decided to draw on some aspects of it--tidying up, sparking joy, etc. I've read the book in preparation for Lenten worship and have found some handy tidbits to quote. And a few ideas to put into practice in my own life. But I can't see how this ultimately could work in a busy life, in a marriage with two people with very different attitudes toward stuff, and with a preschooler and dog. Plus, even if I found a place where everything belonged the husband, kid, dog, houseguest, or cleaning lady would move it.

View all my reviews

Philosophy and Social Hope

Philosophy and Social HopePhilosophy and Social Hope by Richard M. Rorty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some essays deserve five stars, for their engaging and witty explorations of pragmatism.

A few essays deserve one star. In particular I disliked "On Heidegger's Nazism." I have a negative view of Heidegger to begin with, but was open to being persuaded by Rorty. Not only did his argument not persuade me to change my mind about H, it confirmed my pre-existing opinion and made me think less of Rorty.

Reading Rorty I feel disabused of errors, but also left with very little. His social hope is that we will engage in incremental problem-solving and institution-building. On the one hand, this is what I spend much of my time doing as a minister, teacher, activist, and author. Rorty believes it is the only tool we have approaching a more egalitarian society. And it is fragile. But in these days of trouble (which he presciently predicted in the essay "Looking Backwards from the Year 2096") I wonder if this is enough. If Rorty is correct that social hope as he describes it is our only tool, then we are probably in for a lot of trouble.

View all my reviews

I Know What Heaven Looks Like

I Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age StoryI Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age Story by Lawrence T. Richardson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Lawrence speak at the annual meeting of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ. His vulnerability, resilience, and humor blew me away. He's coming to preach for us at First Central on Feb. 17, so I wanted to read his book ahead of time.

It is, at times, a harrowing read, as he recounts his childhood experiences of poverty, neglect, and abuse. But it is also a story of finding faith and a calling to ministry and how those brought healing and hope. Then it is also the story of a gender transition and the violent reaction that initially generates from family and his faith tradition.

This is a powerful book. I recommend it.

View all my reviews

Pensees

Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard ClassicsBlaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard Classics by Blaise Pascal
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I had looked forward to the Pensees, though as I began to read it I was struck by how awful it is and my recurring thought was, "Why is this in the canon?"

Of course the answer is Pascal's wager, so I eventually quickly skimmed/skipped ahead to that portion and read it. But even it is only okay. I then skimmed/skipped through the rest of the book.

Pascal is a bad thinker, overwhelmed with a religious fundamentalism and what seems either an inability or a refusal to see the wide variety of possibilities.

He is also overwhelming pessimistic, such as this line, "Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." I was surprised that he isn't more popular with the nihilists. There's this:

"When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair."

Egads.

I was surprised that this paragraph isn't famous:

"What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel this tangle?"

View all my reviews

Sisters in the Wilderness

Sisters in the Wilderness: The challenge of Womanist God-TalkSisters in the Wilderness: The challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally read this classic theological text after years of reading other books that discussed it (there are still many classic theology books I haven't read, as I spent graduate school reading the philosophical canon).

I was interested in the places where she argues for something (such as her criticisms of traditional atonement theory) that have since become standard. In this way you see the influence of her work on the wider discipline.

I'm drawn to the concluding remarks on the survival strategies of black women: an art of cunning, an art of encounter, an art of care, and an art of connecting. I would like further constructive theology on these, which I think would be helpful for pastoral care and preaching. A key point is that simply enduring is itself "an act of defiance, a revolutionary act."

View all my reviews

How the World Thinks

How the World Thinks: A Global History of PhilosophyHow the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since I began teaching philosophy in the 1990's I've tried to expand the canon and to include non-Western elements in my teaching. These movements have gained momentum more broadly in the academy in recent years, and so I've been trying to expand my understanding so I can be a better philosopher and a better teacher. I hadn't yet seen a good introductory text one might use for global philosophy.

And this book still isn't that, but it quite good. This is not a book one could assign in an intro class, because it requires some familiarity with philosophical traditions, but it is a fascinating exploration in comparative philosophy.

Baggini writes that the different philosophical traditions are different, with different emphases, ideas, and values. And that you can't just pick and choose from those traditions, you need to understand how the ideas hang together and have developed through history.

But he does believe that the various traditions can learn from each other and can see how one might think differently if different ideas are emphasized. Plus, he thinks this is the way the world is going anyway, with globalization bringing the various cultures into closer communication, such that in the future global philosophy will be a cross-cultural conversation with roots in the various traditions.

One feature of the book that was enjoyable was the way he discussed contemporary events--such as the election of Donald Trump or the policies of Xi Jinping--through the lens of their culture's philosophical traditions.

My only negative feedback is that some of the chapters and sections could have been edited and structured differently. And a few others could have been expanded.

But overall I found this a very helpful guide in understanding how our current world thinks and what it's primary values are.

View all my reviews

A Stranger's Mirror

A Stranger's Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014A Stranger's Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two things stand out about this poetry collection. First is the way that she works within a wide variety of traditional forms--sonnet crown, ghazal, glose, pantoum, etc.--yet does not write stuffy poetry. I'm rarely drawn to poetry this structured, yet hers has a vitality.

Second is the international flavor of her work. She is an American Jewish lesbian living in France who has studied Arabic language and literature. The new poems that begin this collection are written in response to recent upheavals, including the Syrian Civil War.

View all my reviews