Whew! It’s been a nutty six months since my last book update. And I’ve been doing quite a bit of interesting reading.
The year started off with required reading for a couple of classes I was taking. In eight weeks I had to read the following books and plays:
Eight weeks of reading nothing but Aristotle, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and Euripides while in the midst of a very nauseous first trimester, was quite the experience. Aristophanes’s plays are superb and thoroughly enjoyable. Clouds is so entertaining and every time I read it I’m more amused. Reading Prometheus Bound for the first time was enlightening. For some unknown reason I’d missed it in all my reading of Greek tragedy and suddenly literary references to this classic made a lot more sense. I loved the idea of a Greek god sacrificing himself for the betterment of those silly bumbling humans. And the idea that everything good in civilized life found its roots in the gifts of Prometheus was fascinating. I wasn’t so inspired by The Bacchae. This probably had a lot to do with the professor as I found his interpretations to be not only untenable but downright offensive. Isn’t it funny how a professor’s take on something can completely color a piece of literature? Well, this one is wrecked for me and it’s going to be a long time before I return to it and sort it out on my own.
On to the Aristotle. Eight weeks to read, in their entirety, his Apology, Nicomachean Ethics, Art of Rhetoric, and Politics. It was a bit too much, especially as these are texts that require pondering. Thankfully, my college classes in philosophy and classics ensured that I’d had some exposure before this inundation. Ethics was my favorite by a clear margin. Every single politician should have to read this book, as well as every journalist, finance manager, teacher, and person who interacts with other people. But mostly politicians. The discussion on intellect, morality, and virtue kept me busy with the highlighter. Rhetoric was also interesting to me in the attention it pays to the literary forms as well as dialectics. Politics, of course as the classic text on political theory, was fascinating. I realized when I purchased the book that it was the same edition I had in college and I so wished at that moment that I had kept my old copy with all its notes and margin scribbles. This was one of the books that I really needed more time to absorb. The discussions of political systems and cycles was fascinating in terms of the political culture of the world today. With its ever shifting seasons of political revolt and revolution followed by the formation of new governments, Politics showed itself both extremely insightful and pedestrian all at once.
Next up was Augustine’s Confessions. Again, a work that requires multiple readings and time to ponder. Since reading it back in February, I’ve had the opportunity to return to several of the larger sections multiple times and the more I read this book the more it impresses itself on my soul. Take this passage:
“What art Thou then, my God? What, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? Or who is God save our God? Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong, stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing, and bringing age upon the proud, and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. Thou lovest, without passion; art jealous, without anxiety; repentest, yet grievest not; art angry, yet serene; changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged; receivest again what Thou findest, yet didst never lose; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting usury. Thou receivest over and above, that Thou mayest owe; and who hath aught that is not Thine? Thou payest debts, owing nothing; remittest debts, losing nothing. And what had I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what saith any man when he speaks of Thee? Yet woe to him that speaketh not, since mute are even the most eloquent. Oh! that I might repose on Thee!”
There is something in this that recalls the best psalms of David. Fantastic!
Once I was done with those classes, I was so happy to have a chance to read for fun. Here’s the winners:
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather was a lovely break from the wordy prose I’d been reading. While not quite as sparse as many of Cather’s other works, Death Comes is a lovely story set in the deserts of the southwest. Her writing reflects the wide open spaces of this setting and it gives the reader room to breath, and space to get lost in the story. Garden imagery calls to mind lost paradises, the characters are all fully human in their goodness and frailty. This book made me want to re-read Cather’s other works.
Booked, Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior was probably the impactful book I’ve read this year. Prior is a book lover through and through and she knows how to write for other book lovers. Tracing the books that impacted her faith journey, Prior makes you feel as if you’re sitting in the best English class you’ve ever been able to take. Whether she’s reflecting on the life affirmations of Charlotte’s Web or the sexual mores of Gulliver’s Travels, Prior is unflinchingly honest in her meditations on how these books formed her soul. One passage that jumped out at me was her reflection on literature’s role in allowing her to understand God. “To respond emotionally to God directly is more than I can bear. So God in his goodness has bestowed the gift of literature. Literature is like the cleft of a rock that God has taken me to, a place from which I can experience as much of the glory of God as I can endure. Great literature allows me, like Moses, to see the back of God.” For anyone who has experienced this aspect of literature, this is a book for you.
Evelyn Waugh’s classic was the choice for my book club and I am so glad! Besides making me miss crumpets and tea, this book brought back so many memories of time spent in England, of a semester at Oxford (no, I did not recite T. S. Eliot in the college quad), of English sensibilities, and all things wonderful about the UK. And beyond that this book really is so much more than a treatise on the crumbling of the aristocracy. It’s both an apologetic and a critique of Catholicism, it’s an exploration of faith and grace, it’s a eulogy for a rapidly fading way of life. I loved every page!
The best thing about Rules of Civility is that its author, Amor Towles, is extremely well-read. The story of a young woman striking out on her own in NYC is a classic but Towles treats it differently and provides a depth missing from most coming-of-age in the big city stories. The references to George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation was amusing to me because that stiff little work by the young future father of our country was one I read quite a lot as a child. I found it fascinating but not to the extent that I was able to build a wonderful story around the idea of someone fashioning their life on these morés. Set in 1930s New York City, this is a book of scarcity and excess, decorum and coarseness, broad worldviews and sheltered existences. It’s a great beach read even if I thought it ended a bit weakly.
I love Ruth Reichl’s memoirs. From Garlic and Sapphires to For You Mom. Finally, Reichl is a superb storyteller. I think that her ability to make people feel at home at her table is part of why she’s such a good writer. She lacks all self-consciousness and simply opens her home and life to you in a way that is authentic and warm. Tender at the Bone is no exception.
I loved David James Duncan’s longer works, The Brothers K and The River Why, so I had high expectations for River Teeth, his collection of short stories. Ultimately, despite some poignant stories, it just does not stand up. There are so many talented novelists who simply cannot flourish as well within the bounds of a short story, and I’m afraid that this collection makes me think that Duncan is one. The short story, one of my favorite genres, is a very difficult beast. It takes immense skill to be able to distill an entire narrative within the bounds of a few pages and this collection left me wanting.
Reading these two popular fiction books at the same time provided a very fascinating study in contrasts. Both are books written from the perspective of a woman, but are in fact written by men. After reading both, I can say that Chris Cleave succeeds and Chris Bohjalian fails miserably. Little Bee sucked me into the story as it’s fascinating and well-developed. It’s set in England and concerns the struggles of a refugee girl and the woman who takes her in. Midwives is the worst book I’ve read in a long time. Poorly developed, awkward, boring. It’s just a must-miss.
Humbolt’s Gift by Saul Bellow is a modern American classic and was awarded the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Maybe it was all the Aristotle I’d been reading, but despite all the hype, I really did not find it engaging. It took me months to get through and, while I could appreciate some of Bellow’s observations about modern society and the hopelessness of modernity, I didn’t find anything particularly revelatory. Meh.
So, those were the literary highlights, and a couple of low points, of the past six months. On the to-read list is some Agatha Christie, more Amor Towles, and lots of Plato. What are you reading?