The Plague, Albert Camus

**** “Good Art; One-Dimensional Philosophy”


There are more things in heaven and in earth than dreamt of in Camus' philosophy; but it is a lucid dream, as far as it goes.  The story takes place in a drab town in North Africa. There is something dreary also about the narrator, who does not so much deny his heroism, as despise it.  (Like an alter-ego of the narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, who despises his villainy.)  One does not notice flowers or taste food much in Oran, and one gets the feeling that the buildings are gray.  One wonders if Camus knows any other kind of town, or any other kind of life.  The book is almost as dreary as 1984, and without the meadow where Orwell's lovers found pleasure.  But perhaps that is part of what makes it a great mood piece.

The novel's main weakness is philosophical. It seems to me that good philosophy, if not art, having assigned itself so sweeping a theme as the meaning of suffering, will try to represent positions it attacks truthfully. Solzhenitsyn understands his Marxists, and Dostoevsky his atheists.  It seems to me this is one place Camus falls short. I found something bizarre in the attack Camus waged against what he seemed to think was the Christian idea of suffering.  "There are more things to admire in men than to despise," he argued. "Everyone is more or less sick of the plague." "Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture."  What is bizarre is that Camus seems to think he is attacking Christianity here.  Actually, he is echoing some of the truths it has taught Western culture: man made in the image of God, original sin that one might call a sickness, the call of the prophets to rescue the downtrodden.

Camus' priest, who says that the townspeople should not fight the disease, is at best one of the straight men out of the book of Job, at worst a heretic.  The skeptical doctor, on the other hand, is a figure of Christ in one dimension. Like Rieux, Christians have always "fought against creation as we found it," because we follow a man who risked his life to heal. Like Rieux, Jesus was not too heroic to show fear or doubt, and also came to a moment of alienation from God.  In fact, some say the Gospel first caught on largely because Christians were the only people in the Roman Empire willing to nurse the sick during plagues.  By contrast, French existentialists come late to the healing profession.

The question that never seems to occur to anyone in this book, or in the reviews below, is, could the state of having no illusions Camus recommends be the biggest self-delusion of all? Considering my own life and those of people I know, the Gospels are more realistic than the Plague, precisely because in them, tones of black and gray fit into a larger pattern that includes more cheerful colors as well.  Miracles, the Ressurection, and the reality of a God who answers prayer, are in my opinion truths that must be faced by any person who wants to construct a complete picture of reality.  (Not to mention meadows with flowers, children opening presents at Christmas, the sound of cicattas after rain.)  Camus limits himself both by artistic design, There are more things in heaven and in earth than dreamt of in Camus' philsophy; but it is a lucid dream, as far as it goes. The story takes place in a drab town in North Africa. There is something dreary also about the narrator, who does not so much deny his heroism, as despise it. (Like an alter-ego of the narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, who despises his villainy.) One does not notice flowers or taste food much in Oran, and one gets the feeling that the buildings are gray. One wonders if Camus knows any other kind of town, or any other kind of life. The book is almost as dreary as 1984, and without the meadow where Orwell's lovers found pleasure. But perhaps that is part of what makes it a great mood piece.

The novel's main weakness is philosophical. It seems to me that good philosophy, if not art, having assigned itself so sweeping a theme as the meaning of suffering, will try to represent positions it attacks truthfully. Solzhenitsyn understands his Marxists, and Dostoevsky his atheists. It seems to me this is one place Camus falls short. I found something bizarre in the attack Camus waged against what he seemed to think was the Christian idea of suffering. "There are more things to admire in men than to despise," he argued. "Everyone is more or less sick of the plague." "Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture." What is bizarre is that Camus seems to think he is attacking Christianity here. Actually, he is echoing some of the truths it has taught Western culture: man made in the image of God, original sin that one might call a sickness, the call of the prophets to rescue the downtrodden.

Camus' priest, who says that the townspeople should not fight the disease, is at best one of the straight men out of the book of Job, at worst a heretic. The skeptical doctor, on the other hand, is a figure of Christ in one dimension. Like Rieux, Christians have always "fought against creation as we found it," because we follow a man who risked his life to heal. Like Rieux, Jesus was not too heroic to show fear or doubt, and also came to a moment of alienation from God. In fact, some say the Gospel first caught on largely because Christians were the only people in the Roman Empire willing to nurse the sick during plagues. By contrast, French existentialists come late to the healing profession.

The question that never seems to occur to anyone in this book, or in the reviews below, is, could the state of having no illusions Camus recommends be the biggest self-delusion of all? Considering my own life and those of people I know, the Gospels are more realistic than the Plague, precisely because in them, tones of black and gray fit into a larger pattern that includes more cheerful colors as well. Miracles, the Ressurection, and the reality of a God who answers prayer, are in my opinion truths that must be faced by any person who wants to construct a complete picture of reality. (Not to mention meadows with flowers, children opening presents at Christmas, the sound of cicattas after rain.) Camus limits himself both by artistic design, and by materialistic dogma, to show life from a certain, narrow angle, and does it well. But it would be a terrible mistake to impose that view on all of reality, as Camus invites his readers to do. Camus does not add to orthodoxy, but subtracts from it -- and from life.

Camus discovered death, and depicts it well.  If he had discovered life, he would have been a more complete philosopher; but perhaps he wouldn't have won the Nobel Prize for literature.  Read this excellent book, and let its truths sink into your soul.  Then reach for Chesterton, Dickens, or Wu Cheng En -- or even Solzhenitsyn, who went through worse hells than a plague and came out more cheerful -- and see what Camus missed.  

One minor complaint on the artistic side. How is it that Rieux's friends felt free to drop in on him at all hours during the height of a plague?  Considering the doctors I know, this seems to me almost as big a miracle as if he'd laid hands on them and they jumped out of their beds and went home.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter

**** “Well Done”


One must feel a little nervous writing a book about so picky and thorough an author as J.R.R. Tolkien. (A man so deeply conservative, one National Review commenter pointed out admiringly, that Shakespeare was too modern for his taste.)  But Carpenter creates an honest and enlightening portrait of the reticent scholar.  One glimpses the soul of Tolkien in his stories. Here, Carpenter introduces the childhood, school days, love, soldiering, friendships, and linguistic curiosity that helped frame that soul. The book was also somewhat helpful to me for a book I am planning on the spiritual and literary lineage to which Tolkien belonged, along with (I think) Wilhelm Grimm, Andrew Lang, and C. S. Lewis.

Like Lewis, whose friendship with Tolkien owns a chapter here, deep and lasting friendships defined different periods of Tolkien's life. Carpenter describes his school comrades and the interesting romantic story that led to his marriage. (After which the curtain is mostly drawn, no doubt to Tolkien's satisfaction.) One can see from where Bilbo and his dwarves, and Frodo and his comrades, draw their synergy. (And Carpenter also tells us the inside story of the Hobbit and LOTR.) One chapter that I particularly enjoyed was a kind of "day in the life of" walk through a day at Oxford.

I personally would have liked to read more about Tolkien's war experiences, as well as get a deeper feel for his family and spiritual lives. Carpenter touches on these, but perhaps material was not available for a more complete exploration. And no doubt that is what made this the authorized version. Nevertheless, I felt as if I got to know the man better in this well-written and thoughtful biography.


Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Robert Louis Stevenson, Chaucer, Leo Tolstoy, and Thomas Carlyle

**** “Mostly about Chaucer and Stevenson”


The title is a little deceptive.  In fact, this book is mostly about Chaucer and his era, 220 pages worth.  Stevenson gets a fair shake at 106 pages.  But Carlyle gets only 12 pages, and Tolstoy only four, and those a rather simplistic critique of his philosophy.  So only buy the book if you're interested in the former two writers.

As in most of Chesterton's biographies, the story of the subject's life is of minor interest here, compared to a philosophical and artistic description of the subject's works in the context of his time and "modern times."  Chesterton is interested in the writer as a thinker, as a creator, and as a moral agent.  In defending Stevenson and Chaucer, he argues for his view of Christianity, poetry, love, and artistic humility.  If you want his religious views in a purer form, go to the brilliant Orthodoxy or Everlasting Man.  If you want a detailed narration of the lives of the writers in question, look elsewhere.  And even for this style of biography, I think his book on Dickens was the best I've read.  But I found his opinionated description and defense of Chaucer and his times also very interesting.  And while he does not scatter brilliant sayings like rose petals at a wedding, as in his best books, (reading Everlasting Man, I wanted to copy every other sentence) a few blossoms do flutter down, like the following, which also explain Chesterton's method:

"The truly impartial historian is not he who is enthusiastic for neither side in a historical struggle. . .The truly impartial historian is he who is enthusiastic for both sides.  He holds in his heart a hundred fanaticisms."

"The greatest poets of the world have a certain serenity, because they have not bothered to invent a small philosophy, but have rather inherited a large philosophy.  It is, nine times out of ten, a philosophy which very great men share with very ordinary men.  It is therefore not a theory which attracts attention as a theory.

Rising Sun, Michael Crighton

*** “In case you missed his point”


I confess I read this book in a single day, skipping some of the sermons. I enjoyed the mixture of fast-paced narrative and paranoid vision of American decline. Crichton is intelligent and a good story-teller. But I wouldn't read it twice, as I with a really compelling story.

A haunting tale can be built upon a vision of pure paranoia, as George Orwell showed in 1984. When we open a novel, we are entering an imaginary world, or at least the world as the author sees it in some mood, so it does not do to be too thin-skinned. (As some below appear.  Literature must come from honest private impression, not the censored version of reality that is public convention.)  But in the best anti-utopian stories, the sermon is imbedded in the tale, and then explained by the narrator (That Hideous Strength) or some guru-like wise man (the Fishburne character in Matrix) or villain (O'brien in 1984, the cave-dweller in Well's Time Machine) late in the story. You feel the creepiness of the place before anyone explains it to you, and the impression it leaves comes from the images, in which exposition clothes itself.

Crichton is an overly intrusive author. His sermons about the danger of aggressive Japanese business practice and empty American self-confidence pop up so often they impede rather than add flavour to the story; I found myself skipping them. Crichton doesn't give his characters enough life of their own: they all puppet the party line. C. S. Lewis said of George MacDonald that his novels contained many sermons, and this was a relief because he was a poor novelist, but an excellent preacher. Michael Crichton, by contrast, writes an exciting story, but his preaching tends to be over-wrought. And why do nearly all his characters, professional or blue collar, male or female, swear like staff sargeants? Enough, already. Most people I know can get through a whole day without four-letter words, let alone a sentence.

As an American who lives in Japan, I think some of Crichton's points are merited -- Americans, by contrast to Japanese, can be yacky and whiny, we have too many lawyers, and service is not nearly as good. Much of what he says about the Japanese rings true as well; I'm not totally averse to a little Japan-bashing. On the other hand, Crichton's Japan guru, Conner, says some things that made him seem considerably less wise in my eyes. Japanese have "never been guilty or embarrassed about sex." Nonsense. He must be reading too much James Clavell. They "have no problem with homosexuality." Get real. Maybe 400 years ago. "No other country tolerates" the level of violence of the U.S. Untrue. Many countries have much higher violent crime rates than America. The U.S. "soon will be third in the world" economically, after Japan and "Europe." Didn't happen. Imagine how Americans are going to feel in ten years, when China, with a population ten times that of Japan, becomes fully developed. Or worse yet, when computers take over . . . Nor there's a thought to make a healthy man paranoid.

The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy

“Disbelief sometimes hard to suspend”


I enjoyed this yarn, overall, as I do most of Clancy's stuff.  But I wish he wouldn't put so many obstacles in the way of buying into his premise.  First, of course, by the time Ryan has saved the world this many times over, shouldn't he be wearing a cape?  Secondly, I'm having a real hard time imagining a Palestinian Gandhi right now; this part of his premise sounds so American.  Third, the idea that most everybody really wants peace, is hard to pretend to believe, not only after 9/11, but in view of what we have learned about Saudi pop and government culture.  Third, enough of this "all religions are equally well-meaning, to prove it I'll point out some bad Christians and some good Muslims" stuff.  The president has to say it, but Clancy's a smart guy; can't he shoot for a deeper level of analysis?

Maybe I should stop complaining and enjoy the ride.  The story does pick up at the end.  But if Clancy wants us to suspend our doubts, he'd do better to encourage them less in the set-up phase of his next story.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

***** “Our Future?”


I blew a Saturday reading this book; I could hardly put it down. I wouldn't call it a utopia, like some readers; even the "Golden Age," when the Overlords rule a prosperous earth, seems from the first the beginning of a horrible and fascinating nightmare. And, I couldn't help thinking, one that might come true. Not that our Overlords will come from space; I suspect we may build them ourselves. Our computers won't need psychic abilities; they may float their thoughts across the Internet and become One. What they will do after that -- Clarke's may be as good a guess as any.

Clarke's other peeks at the future often seem shrewd and even inspired, but sometimes bizarre. The cosmic leap in evolution produces a collective entity with as little in the way of scruples or love of beauty as Big Brother; yet he seems to think it a step forward. His overlords begin their regency by ending cruelty to animals, and end it . . . All in all, a weird, psychedelic ride. When you get off, you might decompress by visiting the lovely utopia of C. S. Lewis' Perelandra, where also you can tell the devils and heroes apart.

Songs of a Distant Earth, Arthur C. Clarke

**** “Good Science, Excellent Myth-Making, Poor History”


Mankind has left the planet earth, about to be engulfed by the explosion of the sun, in spaceships that fanned out around the galaxy, the passengers sleeping for hundreds of years until reaching habitable planets.  A new ship with its cargo of a million Sleeping Beautys has reached the planet Thalassa (Greek for “sea”), an island surrounded by ocean.  This civilization enjoys all the virtues and the gentler vices of the South Sea islands, with neither God (belief in whom had done mankind "more evil than good") nor sexual jealousy. (Clarke goes to pains to emphasize his book is science fiction, rather than fantasy, but when it comes to human nature he allows himself a dose of utopian fantasy.)

There is not much of a plot here in the ordinary sense of the word. But the pictures Clarke evokes of the death of our planet, colonization of others in a slow-motion diaspora, of islands in a sea of potentially hostile blue, made the book well worth the read for me. Clarke's planet is less exotic and more ominous than C. S. Lewis' water-world of Perelandra; his literary and psychological imagination less acute, but more scientifically disciplined.

As a student of comparative religion, I was interested in how faith fared in Clarke's 27th Century.  Clarke allows vestiges of a vague deism among a specialist or two, but the idea of a God who answers prayer has long since been ruled out by "statistical theology," which shows that good things happen to good (and bad) people just as often as you would expect by the laws of chance.  This seems a bit feeble to me; I personally have had experiences that would take a tremendous number of unanswered prayers to flatten on the statistic curve.  Another interesting touch is that one of the refugees has brought with him a tooth of the Buddha, because he "founded the only religion that never became stained with blood." This was a nice touch, artistically.  But I get the impression Clarke, between writing novels and doing science, had little time left to learn much about the real religious history of East or West, as opposed to rubber-stamping popular prejudices.  Oh well....

And God Came in: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman, Lyle Dorsett

**** “Consistently Interesting”


And God Came In is subtitled "an extraordinary love story," and it is that. The story of the love between C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman is told mostly from Joy's point of view, and their love only occupies about a third of the book. Maybe the love the title refers to is not that between Jack and Joy, but that between God and Joy?

Dorsett begins with Joy's childhood in New York, tells of her years as a poet, then a communist propagandist. (Not glossing over the foolish things she said in defense of the Soviet Union.) He describes her relationship with her first husband, who does not come across as an ogre, though squarely to blame for the couple's troubles. He describes how Joy became disillusioned with communism, the growth of the couple's family, and her spiritual awakening.

Dorsett handles the "and God came in" part well. It does sound like it was God who took the initiative. Dorsett neither downplays the mystical side of Joy's relationship to God, or her apparent healing, nor sensationalizes either. Joy could still be a pill! The twists and turns make the story itself interesting. It is also interesting because of Joy's rough honesty, and of course interesting to us die-hard Lewis fans. Dorsett is a judicious and informed story-teller; not brilliant, but wise enough not to not get in the way of the story. Douglas Gresham's Lenten Lands
is a good complement to this book (I especially like the scenes that show Joy in her mother tigress mode), as, I expect, will be the third volume of Lewis' letters, due out late 2005 I think. Joy's Smoke on the Mountain is also still available, and pretty good, as I recall.


Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas

**** “Worth a Second Read”


I read and enjoyed this book as a youth. Later I read some of the Three Musketeers, was bored, and thought maybe Dumas had been a taste of adolescence.  But the second time around, I found this story still a great read. Monte Cristo is not a study in psychology or culture: it is an amusement park ride before Disney, an Indiana Jones film in ink: a heck of a way to spend a rainy afternoon. (And make sure your plans for the evening are flexible.)

The version I bought, Bantom, was too skinny, however. (Thus the missing star, also for typos.) Life is too short to read half of a masterpiece. Subvert the culture of instant gratification, and buy the unabridged version. Same goes for Hugo's Les Miserables, a similar bit of 19th Century French romanticism, even more rambling and magnificent in its un-cut version.

Deep River, Shusako Endo

**** “Deep, but a bit murky”


This is a story about loneliness, isolation and misunderstanding. It is a story about five Japanese, strangers to one another, who travel to India in search of something -- not quite sure of what.

Endo is also addressing, in story as people like Huston Smith have in essay, one of the great questions of our time: "How do the religions of mankind fit together?" The title of the book refers to the Ganges River, which as Endo describes is full of filth. The edition I read, ironically, featured a clear mountain spring on the cover. Endo's work has the merit, over Smith's famous descriptions of human religions, that it takes the surface ugliness and filth of religion seriously. At the same time, the depths of the book remain somewhat murky, as in fact does the question about religions, and the existence and character of God.

I was on my first and only visit to India during the period Endo describes in this novel. We were in New Delhi at the time, when the city became a war zone between Hindus and Sikhs. After the battle died down, I remember seeing a sign strung across a major thoroughfare: "We thank our Hindu brothers who saved the lives of their Sikh brothers." Clearly, the Good Samaritans of this world are not limited to one tradition -- that is why Jesus made his hero a Samaritan. Endo, in effect, retells Jesus famous story, at a place and time that adds a great deal of drama and suggestive meaning to the telling.

Endo does not appear to be aware of the best and most orthodox Christian solution to how faith traditions fit together, unfortunately. Like Smith and most modern writers, he never considers what I call the "fulfillment model." Jesus said, "I have not come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. . . I have come to fulfill." Great Christian thinkers like Paul, Clement, Origin, Augustine, Dante, Chesterton, and Lewis, have applied this approach to non-Christian cultures and come up with some amazing insights. In the context of Hinduism, I wish in particular Endo had read J. N. Farquhar's The Crown of Hinduism. That might have helped him see that the more one understands and loves the good things in Hindu (or Japanese or American) culture, the more one sees how Jesus becomes a "fount of living water" that deepens the holiest, and purifies the murkiest, of every stream of human spirituality.

Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

***** “A Novel you can put down – but pick it up again!”

A novelist broadens us by what he loves. What Frazier seems to love is the ways and rhythms of nature. In terms of plot, the book can be faulted. As one reader below notes, there is little sense of the movement of time or building drama -- the hero gets there when he gets there, and as to his thinking and plans and fears before then, the author is almost as terse as the characters themselves. But Frasier gives a rich and convincing portrayal of nature, showing keen observation, added to a deeply moral, though rather anti-clerical (but you can come by that honestly) feel for life.

A few quotes may help you decide if this is the book for you. "The smell of river hung in the air, about equal parts mineral and vegetable." It is a sensual book, in the sense that it engages vision and sound and smell extremely well. "Ada had tried to love all the year equally . . . Nevertheless, she could not get over loving autumn the best." There is an autumnal melancholy and fruitfulness to this story, a feeling of death, but also thankfulness for life. "He was a solitary pilgrim, strange in his ways and governed by no policy or creed common to flocking birds." That is of a heron, or the hero, or the author, depending on how you interpret it. "She told Inman. . . about weather and plants and . . . All the ways life takes shape. You could build your own life on the observation of it." Just so has Fraser built his tale.

If you like that kind of thing, read the book for its merits, even if it takes a while. If you feel comfortable with the pace of this book, but want to try something with a little more magic and a little less grey, I found George Macdonald's Lilith a good piece of mythological deprograming.

Lenten Lands: My Childhood With Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, Douglas Gresham

“A Charming Story”


Unlike some reviewers, I found Lenten Lands well-written, poignant, and honest, though it dies a bit towards the end. (As auto-biographies often do -- if the author doesn't die first, like Moses.) I am not sure why some reviewers complain that Douglas chose to tell his story, even if his memories of Lewis were not as full, say, as George Sayers, and he has lived a fairly simple, even blue-color, life at times. Greshem's descriptions of growing up, the houses he lived in, taking the boat to England, London and Oxford, and the Kilns, were all interesting to me, though as a fan of Lewis I was of course anticipating scenes of his life. Greshem brings nature, his feelings, the drama of watching his mother come to love C. S. Lewis and the love returned, then her death, to life. The scene in which his dying but still fiercely defensive mother confronts a trespasser with a shotgun, C. S. Lewis standing alarmed at her side, and yells, "Get out of my line of fire, Jack!", and the scenes that follow, made me laugh for a fair chunk of an hour.

I didn't expect this book to all be about Lewis; hasn't he had enough pure biographies already? I was pleased to learn much more about Joy, whom Douglas and "Jack" both greatly loved. (Having read her Smoke on the Mountain, I agree she had talent and insight -- though Douglas' claim that she was an intellectual match for Lewis should be described as filial, I think.) Lenten Lands seemed to me an honest and thoughtful story, and I found myself reading it very quickly.

The King of Torts, John Grisham

* “Surprisingly Awful”


If you enjoy playing with Monopoly money, like to count clam shells at the sea, are impressed by the beauty and fine worksmanship of a barbie doll, or can find nothing better to do in the evening than read old real estate listings, then this may be the book for you. The hero has a heart of paper, his number two squeeze was xeroxed from a fashion magazine by a machine that displaced what soul was left, and not a single interesting place or thought or person occurs anywhere.  Money shifts hands, and falls seemingly from the sky.  Lawyers lust over big airplanes.  Some get rich and drunk and argue.  People fly off to an island paradise that might as well have been a sand box at the local playground, for all the attention it sparks.  (No, I take that back. My boys found much more fascination in a sand box.)

I have enjoyed several of other Grisham's novels, and am surprised at how hollow this one turned out to be.  In his other books, he described a small town in the south through the eyes of a seven year old, and I was captivated.  He caught some of the charm of a city in northern Italy and could grasp what an alcoholic might feel when he found God.  I even enjoyed his grinch-like main characters and the bitter fun of Ditching Christmas.  But this one lacks all charm.

Perhaps Grisham wants to tell a morality tale about the seductive evil of vanity and riches. Problem is, his hero and heroine are as cardboard as the model he saddles the one with, and the blow-hard developer Dad he trussles the other up with.  Who cares what happens to them?  And the story ends as flat as it begins.  (Then Grisham throws one of his "I don't take my research seriously, why should you?" postscripts at us, to add insult to injury.)

One might I suppose salvage from the wreckage of this novel a bit of pity for the rich, and for the author.  As Chesterton observed, life is romantic because we are unable to control it; the rich, having the luxury of forming their worlds, often live in the lap of tedium. This story is terribly predictable.  And my dog has more personality than all its characters put together. But for any real enlightenment or even enjoyment, read Christmas Carol
instead: that's how to describe the decay of rich fools.



The Last Juror, John Grisham

*** “Beware, Sunday Driver!” 


As novels go, this one is a bit like Grandma's Oldsmobile, that she takes out for church once a week, or a convertible with its top down on a bumpy road. If you're in a hurry to get somewhere, it might drive you crazy. If you're willing to enjoy some scenery along the way, this might be the vehicle for you.

The focus of the story is less on one particular juror -- in fact, it is not even clear what the title has to do with anything in the plot -- as on ten years of a small southern town as seen through the eyes of the young man who buys the town newspaper. The journalist, who narrates the story, tells his adventures with moonshine, desegregation, small town politics, the invasion of soul-snatching malls, a lunatic and a drunk or two, remodeling a house, learning how to eat southern, and, yes, a murder trial and revenge killings. The hero here is a writer, not a lawyer -- does the change of roles mark the evolution of Grisham's consciousness? Anyway, I just finished writing a book myself, and was therefore in a leisurely, Sunday afternoon mood, and enjoyed the slow and meandering drive through town.


A Painted House, John Grisham

***** “Step into this World” 


I thoroughly enjoyed this story. While the narrator is a bit precocious, both in narrative cognition, and in his wide-eyed interest in sights that make my (almost) nine year old say, "SICK!," in general, his are a good pair of windows through which to peer at the passing world that Grisham evokes. Luke is a seven-year old son and grandson of cotton farmers. It is a busy summer: aside from endless cotton, it involves murder, storms, baseball, awakening puppy love, snakes, and other adventures and problems. One reviewer complains that the characters are thin. I don't agree. Grisham paints a world, as his characters paint a house. He paints with regret and sadness, but also warmth and kindliness. I find the portrait very believable. The story is episodic, a little like an Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows for adults, like them set in the rural south. I think it is worthwhile, as the world prospers, modernizes, and urbanizes, to remember this lost world; and I am grateful for the chance to walk through it for a few hours. I began reading Painted House along with about ten other books in the evening, but Grisham drew me into his world, and I finished Painted House first. A "waste of paper?" Not a chance!


Skipping Christmas,  John Grisham

***** “The Romance of the Hum-Drum”


In a chapter called "on certain modern writers and the institution of the family," G. K. Chesterton wrote: "The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.  To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial circumstances.  To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial circumstances, hence to be born into a romance."

Skipping Christmas
is a romance, hence about uncongenial circumstances. Of course Grisham lays it on thick (This is a satire, critics.  In satires, one exaggerates. Got that?), both about the dark side of Christmas, and about the Kranks' neighbors. (Whose ideosyncracies, along with the schmaltzy and exploitative elements of Christmas that Grisham so over-does, define the limitations that entrap the Kranks, and create romance.)

Personally, I love Christmas, and have never had intrusive neighbors. But I recognized just enough truth to enjoy the exagerations, and the dry, slightly dark humor, and "ho-ho-hoed" my way to the end. (Listening to the tape, read with just the right, slightly bitter, edge.) And being a romantic at heart, I was also pleased with the highly romantic, though this-worldly (this is not a fairy tale, as another critic seems to expect) ending, an apocalypse of goofy good will to all.

Maybe this book is not for all Grisham fans, or all fans of Christmas; perhaps it takes a certain humor. But I also appreciate the way Grisham explores the romance of limits, even the romance of a "hum drum" middle class neighborhood. To quote Chesterton again: "We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. Hence he comes to us clad in al the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of beasts."


The Testament, John Grisham

***** Serious thought & Good Plot


John Grisham does not have a reputation for being a great artist, but I thought he did well in this book in going beyond simple villainy and heroics.  There are no real bad guys in The Testament -- just people like you and I, who are overcome by their passions.  Resembling great writers in this respect at least, Grisham picks up a mirror and shows us ourselves, using the story to examine the nature of good and evil. This is a relief from a lot of modern story-telling, which would be embarrassed to admit any such bourgeois categories, or that heroism does not need a touch of the power of the Dark Side to be truly effective.

Grisham's missionary hero in this book has been criticized as too good, but I recognized real female missionaries I have met in his portrait of Rachel (see The Inn of the Seventh Happiness, To a Different Drum, or Goforth of China, for real-life examples).  Anyway, what is wrong with taking as your heroine a person who is not only strong (like Dirty Harry or Arnold Schwarzeneggar, who do not resemble anyone I have met) but also a really caring and virtuous person?

But Grisham's stories are primarily driven by plot, (he hasn't turned into Dostoevsky, don't worry) and the plot here is a doozy.  I planned to read a chapter or two a night, but scrapped that idea half way through the book.  All in all, I enjoyed the book very much. (Perretti's slightly darker, and slightly more supernatural, Visitation is good, too.)




The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Alan Jacobs

***** “At Pub with the Inklings”


Does the world need another biography of C. S. Lewis? Probably not. Jacobs admits even that he did not need to write one -- it was his agent's fault. Still, he does a generally excellent job in this book. As another life-long reader of Lewis, who had already read several biographies and almost everything by Lewis several times over, I learned quite a bit from this biography. Having sampled several Lewis biographies, like a fan of Hamlet who waits impatiently for Polonius to appear on stage, one gets to like and enjoy reading about other characters just as much -- Lewis' brother, Warnie (who wrote at least one pretty good book, too), the dramatic character he married, and all those incredibly bright friends he hung around with and swilled beer. (A reprise, perhaps, of Chesterton's friendships with Shaw & Wells etc.)

What I really liked about this book was the good sense Jacobs brings to the project, and his own deep reading in many of the works and people that inspired Lewis. He swerves nimbly around the road-blocks that tumbled Wilson. True, he might have consulted Sayer. But he more than makes up for the occasional error in judgement or lapse in biographical expertise by offering frequent insight into dozens of works that were so much a part of Lewis' thought world. One gets the feeling that Lewis would have enjoyed talking with Jacobs.

Jacobs is careful to maintain a critical distance from his subject, (some fail here) though he obviously admires him much, which keeps the book from becoming cloying. One area I did not think that worked was the rather tiresome pages in which he takes Lewis to task for (essentially) failing to conform to 21st Century orthodoxy on sexual equality. Some of us (like Lewis) go to the books of another era precisely to take a break from the stale pieties of our own. And it is ludicrous to identify Orual with Minto -- could any two women be less alike? -- Jacobs almost lapses into cheap psychobabble here. But if a writer sheds important light on a subject, and does so with style, I am inclined to forgive him a few such lapses.

An obviously well-informed reviewer below finds more to complain about. I agree the title is a bit deceptive: the book is only occasionally about Narnia. I didn't think Jacobs was that far off, or negative, on the later Tolkien relationship. Nobody can know everything. Jacobs knows a lot, and pours much careful thought into this biography. It's also a pleasure to read.



Snow White: The Silver Anniversary Edition, Paul Heins

***** “Ravishingly Beautiful”


I found a copy of this version of Snow White in the school library in Japan where I was teaching, and took it home to read to my boys. Later, I photographed the pages and showed slides to my Japanese students, using these illustrations to explain the surface, psychological, and spiritual meaning of the Grimm's stories. Of Grimm illustrators, I think Hyman is best, and while her illustrations of Rapunsel, Living Water, etc, are wonderful, this is her most inspired work.

First of all, the paintings take my breath away. Unlike the Disney figures, one can understand why the Mirror on the Wall thought these two ladies beautiful, and why the prince fell in love with Snow White! Hyman uses light brilliantly, beautifully, and with subtlety. Wow! My students liked them, too.

Also, Hyman seems to be one of those rare souls who picks up on the spiritual level of the Grimm tale. None of the other reviewers has mentioned the allegorical nature of Snow White, and I don't want to ruin the story for anyone. But if this interests you, pay close attention to numbers, temptations, candles, the mirror, especially the final mirror image, and the face of the King's Son. Hyman has drawn so subtly that it is possible to entirely overlook this quality and thoroughly enjoy her art, as an atheist may enjoy, say, the Chronicles of Narnia. Nor am I even sure she was a Christian. But she may have picked up on something intended by the Brothers Grimm. (For details, see Ronald Murphy's The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimm's Magic Fairy Tales
. Or see my upcoming article in Books and Culture, "How the Brothers Grimm Overthrew the Evil Empire.")

Lay all that aside, though, and this is still one of the most lovely children's books I have ever read.



The Battle of Corrin (Legends of Dune, Book 3), Brian Herbert

*** “Honestly, I thought it was pretty good!”


Admittedly, it's been about twenty years since I read Dune, and I haven't read the first two volumes in this trilogy. So I don't have the same basis for criticism as some other reviewers. (Some of whom seem to have a screen saver of the Herbert universe on their minds.) But I greatly enjoyed this book. (Or series of tapes, I should say.) I often found myself leaving the car running after I'd arrived at my destination, to hear more. The worlds were perhaps unimaginative -- no local color, really -- but this is a story about people and machines, not a galactic tour. But I still found myself drawn into this strange, yet familiar, alternate world. I don't recall that Dune was THAT much better. Maybe some of the other reviewers are just burned out.



The World According to Garp, John Irving

* “Lightly Philosophical Smut”


Irving is a good writer, and at times shows signs of being able to find some action more complicated and interesting than, say, a chemically stimulated beetle might think of to anchor his story.  But in the end, he tends to solve Middle Class angst with the usual unusual permutations of sex.  (I don't mean in the end of the book; I didn't get that far.) For all his good humor and skill as a writer (and the book does flow well), one would hope he would get a life, or at least find one worth telling about, before he foists another story on the world.  It's a pity to see such talent go to waist.

I would have given the book a better rating, anyway, but unfortunately read the preface.  In Irving's rambling introduction, he says he asked his son to review it for him, though he admitted a few qualms about having a 12-year old go through this manuscript.  Mostly, though, he was afraid the boy might not like the thing.   Irving had confessed to offering his son a glass of carcinogenic chemicals, or even a cigarette, I hope people would be troubled. Apparently it's no big deal, though, if you poison a child's mind with images of matings with old prostitutes, wife-swapping, and children coming in on their mother giving oral sex to one of her students.  This strikes me as a form of child-abuse.


Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

**** “Gloomy but Honest”


I have never read a book quite like this one.  It brooded like a ghost that haunts dwarf aspens growing along muskeg on a windy Alaskan afternoon.  Who cares about the death of foolish young man who selfishly forsakes all who love him to live in the wilds of Alaska by himself, and that without adequate preparation?  If God cared, why did he let the young man die so needlessly, so close to rescue, while his parents and others were praying for him?

These are some of the questions that came to mind as I read this fascinating, sad, and truthful story.  I am glad that Krakauer granted Christopher the dignity of telling his story. Krakauer's own "flash-back" scene of foolish outdoor escapades as a young man, itself a remarkable adventure story, helps explain his interest.

I grew up partly in Southeast Alaska, and sometimes confused it with heaven; Krakauer corrects that mistake.  This is more a Jack London Alaska, with a bit of Tolstoy thrown in. Tolstoy, too, was an idealistic, tormented man, driven to an ill end.

In some ways, this book could be described as an American Death of Ivan Ilyich.  (One of the books Christopher read in the wilderness.)  Krakauer doesn't follow up on the lead, but it strikes me that Christopher's final message, was one Ilych might have written, had he been able: "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord.  Goodbye and may God bless all!" Ironically, Christopher's suffering drove two people who loved him away from God.  But it seems Christopher himself may have had some kind of experience with God as he was dying, to make his story a bit less the tragedy and riddle for him that it remains for the rest of us.


“Dragons in the Water,” Madeleine L’Engle

*** “No Dragons, No Fire, Decent Story”


I didn't find any of the characters in this story really came to life. L'Engle told us what they were like, but didn't really show us, it seemed to me, so they remained undeveloped.

The basic plot is interesting, though as developed it tends to morander and jump, meander and jump. A young teenage boy, an orphan who lives with his old grandmother, is taken by a long-lost cousin on a voyage to Venezuala, where his ancestor lived with a mysterious tribe of healers, and his Indian lover. L'Engle manages to combine the "noble savage" tradition with a bit of "capitalist exploitation," without stereotyping too much on either side. One of L'Engle's strengths is her interest in science and the ecology of village life. The story goes at cruise-ship velocity at sea -- slowly, I mean -- and it would be helpful if the characters all wore name-cards, to keep them straight. All the elements for a good story are present, but fail somehow through lack of vivifying detail. Still, L'Engle does tend to see things differently, and that makes the story fairly interesting.


Swiftly Tilting Planet,  Madeleine L’Engle

***** “Near the top of Her Game” 


When Madeline L'Engle is on, her stories are both strange and familiar. Strange, because the plot involves -- in this case -- unicorns that ride through time and space, devils, psychic mixing of personalities, and the possible end of the world. Familiar, because the story is rooted in family, not the Simpsons or Archie Bunkers, but a loving home of scientists, artists, a tail-thumping black dog, (named Ananda -- not for the disfunctional Hindu sect of the same name) and a home that has its own, understated personality. If you read her autobiographies -- she broke the rule by writing more than one -- it turns out that a lot of this comes out of her own rich life of love and relationships. (Her husband, like one of the characters here, ran a country store.)

I liked this book. I liked the way the hero touches down in different epochs at the same place, the "star-gazing rock" and the surrounding valley and forest. We visit the place during the Ice Ages, early tribal periods, the colonial era, and earlier modern eras, following the story of a mixed and dangerously balanced family through time. As it happens, the fortunes of that family will effect the future, or lack thereof, of planet earth, and it all depends (as in Ray Bradbury's story of the butterfly) on choices made in the distant past, that perhaps can be unmade.

Admittedly, the book has a few weaknesses. I think L'Engle exaggerates how common witch hunting was in the American colonies, and mistakes how it was conducted. (As far as I know, professional witch hunters were rare; most of it came from hysterical teenage girls.) Also, making the villain with doomsday nukes a South American dictator seems a little odd -- where did any South American country come up with such a massive stockpile, presumably with all the missiles? And the "good" family line versus the "bad" line is of course a very problematic theme.

But L'Engle can be forgiven for letting her muse get out of control occasionally. Her descriptions of nature can be beautiful ("as each flaming sun turned on its axis, a singing came from the friction in the way a finger moved around the rim of a crystal goblet . . . and the song varies in pitch and tone from glass to glass"), her characters are likeable (it can't be easy to make a unicorn come to life), the story engages interesting ideas, and most of all, there is a purity or goodness here that makes me feel at home.



We Remember C. S. Lewis, David Graham

**** “Like a Brownie – hard to resist one last crumb!”


I've always been a bit surprised and suspicious of the C. S. Lewis industry: the fact that I like reading Lewis, doesn't mean I like reading about him.  (Though, if push comes to shove, I have to admit I do.  Just no slobbering, please.)  Fortunately this is a collection of essays by colleagues, students, and friends of Lewis who, even while writing about Lewis, have other things on their minds -- the purpose of English teaching, Oxford, redemption, even (in the gardener's case) his own bad jokes.  There are even a few critical stories.  Most of the essays are well written and insightful, and gave plenty of Boswell-like anecdotes not only of Lewis, but of other peculiar denizens of Oxford as well.  Graham could have saved himself the occasional bone thrown to evangelicals, though, as far as I'm concerned.  I really don't care how Bob Jones reconciles the work of the Holy Spirit and beer.  Billy Graham and J. I. Packer didn't seem to have much to say.  Also, the editor protested a bit too much about "hero worship."  There's no need to apologize for this book, otherwise.

The book arrived in the mail on Friday afternoon. By Saturday afternoon I was chewing on crumbs.

To me, one of the most interest comments was the suggestion by one writer that Lewis had been influenced by the marvelous chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" in G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.  I am beginning to suspect that Wilhelm Grimm was a very clever, and also successful, evangelist, and that there might be a secret link between the Seven Dwarves and Trumpkin. (Note: I later developed this whimsical idea in an article for Books & Culture, called “How the Brothers Grimm Overthrew the Evil Empire.”) 


The Book of Dragons, Mike Hague

***** “Two Claws Up!”


My boys love this book, which we got for them for Christmas.  Some stories are too hard for them (they're six and four), but even the younger one loves looking at the pictures.  "Why's this dragon happy?  Because he like to eat some people?"  "Look at this funny dancing dragon!"  "Daddy, this dwagon's cwying. Why?"  My older son can read some of the stories, a bit. . . But it might take a few more years to grow into all of them.  I enjoy them maybe just as much.  The authors are all first rate, and each story seems better than the last, and than the one after it, if that makes sense.  All in all, this book is a great idea, well-executed. I should add that I myself am a dragon, and find that the book's square, flat shape makes it an excellent fire-stop.



Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

***** “Great, with all it’s faults”


Long-winded and eloquent, tender and cynical, passionate and sane, Victor Hugo made literature by adding to life, rather than subtracting from it. Hugo sees life from many sides. He finds good in the revolution and the monarchy, the priest and the skeptic, but also roots of evil in each. Hugo is Humanist and Christian, pious and scornful, lover and long-winded story-teller whose acquaintance one does well to cultivate on a rainy day.

He is also preachy. This book is a series of sermons sandwiched between narrative. He is a poet who inflicts on his readers a maddening romantic history of the Paris sewer at a critical point in the plot.  Like Dickens, his coincidences defy all plausible odds.  I felt like docking Hugo a star for all these forms of "extravagance," but then decided, in the spirit of romanticism, to add an extra five and then take them away again, leaving a full complement.  Only a person who has failed to grasp this book's essential greatness would discount it on account of such failings.  Even the demerits of a work like this add something to its beauty, like the coloring in smoky quartz.

Hugo excels in description of character, mood, and aphorism.  Here are a few of the latter: "The girl who knows herself to be pretty is less likely to become a nun, the sense of vocation varying inversely with the degree of beauty."  "Skepticism, that dry-rot of the intellect, had left him without a whole thought in his head."  "Two riches which the rich often lack -- work, which makes a man free, and thought, which makes him worthy of freedom."  "They made the fatal blunder of mistaking the discipline of the soldier for the consent of the nation. These are the delusions that destroy thrones."

I took Hugo with me on a trip to China, and found him a very good traveling companion...


A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGrin

**** “Worth a short visit”


This is the first Le Grin book I've read for many years. WhileI don't remember the details of the earlier books, I do remember thefeeling I had entering her world. And the blend of moral insight, magical powers and occult dangers seems like a familiar and slightly disquieting scent.

Le Grin undoubtedly is a skilled myth-maker. Her protagonist is a young man who is learning to use his magical powers. Her world is sparsely but I think rather well realized. (Her maps are more real-looking than Tolkien's.) The outline of the book is rather similar to the great Chinese classic Journey to the West: a hero of great power overreaches himself and is forced to set out on a journey to learn (among other things) humility and self-control. Along the way Le Grin drops the reader thoughts to chew on for a while. "Magic consists in this: the true naming of a thing." (How does that apply to modern genetics?) "The price of the game is the peril of losing one's self." (True whether the game is business, the occult, or modern science.)

The ease with which Le Grin's hero, Ged, works magic, I think, threatens the plot and the imaginable quality of her world sometimes. Ged flits from island to island so easily that the world becomes rather too dream-like. He is in danger of becoming too strong to have adventures. The story is about his taming to good, like the Monkey King. Yet one gets the feeling that in Le Grin's world, evil is ultimately stronger. Perhaps this is why her world feels less real, and less enjoyable, to me than those of Tolkien or Lewis, based on a Christian psychology, or that of Journey to the West, based on a rather cheerful Buddhism. Nor do I think her insight or imagination can really be compared with Tolkien in Lord of the Rings or Lewis in Till We Have Faces. And her world seems to have less humor than the other three. While I enjoyed the creative realization of her story, and felt as if she were bringing me near to some depths of psychological insight, I felt a little dizzy from the journey, and was glad to be back on terra firma. But I'll probably take another short visit before long.


Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

**** “Out of this world”


Out of the Silent Planet is science fiction in the sense that, in order to create a fantasy for adults, Lewis had to send his hero and villains to a world far enough for a re-imagining, but near enough that they could plausibly go there from here.  Lewis not being a scientist, and this book being sixty years old, the plausibility of Lewis' idea of space travel wears quite thin by now, though of course he didn't mean to be taken seriously on that count even then.  A more serious problem Lewis set himself to solve was, "What might an unfallen world look like?"  And also, "What might a society in harmony with God and nature look like?" or "What is the nature of rationality and soulishness?"  I find some of Lewis' ideas unsatisfying. (Paradise and survival of the fittest are difficult concepts to reconcile; if the Malacandrians are all at peace, how did they evolve, as Lewis apparently thinks they did?  And how does the ecosystem avoid being overrun with critters?)  Still, this book is a great fantasy with many insights, and a lot of fun to read.  No one I know combines so fertile an imagination with such philosophical depth and psychological acuity as C. S. Lewis.  All these are in evidence here.

The planet is a beauty.  Among Malacandra's cauliflower highlands and tourquoise canyons, its philosopher bird-spectres and tribal seals, Lewis enacts an exciting story.  His readers will find some familiar images and themes: island paradise, the cultural dynamics of tribes and Greek philosophers living side by side (see Till We Have Faces for more), the wind-bag philosopher posing as scientist posing as philosopher.  (The passage in which Ransom translates Weston's defense of planetary imperialism and genocide into "Malacandrian" then, for our benefit, simple English, is a classic blend of linguistics and philosophy.  See George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, for an essay from that period that, in effect, explains what Lewis is doing with that deceptively simple passage, and why it desperately needs to be done.  See also Abolition of Man.)

This is the tightest and shortest of Lewis' three "sci-fi" novels.  You can read it in a few hours. Lewis was probably wise to shift to frankly supernatural means of locating his heroes to other worlds, in later fantasies.  Still, don't miss this wonderful tour of Mars for the world.


Perelandra, C. S. Lewis

***** “A Great Place for a Vacation!”


Shall we call Perelandra an ecological fantasy?  A psycho-drama?  A novelized philosophical symposium?  An illustrated Bible story?  Whatever it is, the undoubted "star" of the novel is the planet Perelandra.  There, Lewis creates not one world, but several distinct ecosystems: his unforgettable floating islands, (in Surprised by Joy and his autobiographical allegory Pilgrim's Regress Lewis describes how islands have been his symbol for paradise since childhood), the Fixed Lands, an undersea world of mermaids, an environment of caves, and finally the wonderfully complex world of the hero's shifting consciousness.  The inner dialogue before and during the climactic scenes falls nothing short of genius.

I agree with the reviewer below that the beauty Lewis imagines brings it out and makes us notice the beauty around us.  As one of Lewis' favorite writers, G. K. Chesterton, put it, "Nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales make the rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."  As I walk through the bamboo groves of Japan, or remember skin-diving in Hawaii or camping in the Cascades, the effect that the bubble trees and night smells of Perelandra have on me similarly brings out the wonder of the earthly creation.

As in all of Lewis' works, scene and plot are also the vehicle for the expression of philosophical ideas.  Lewis plays with speculation about the nature of primitive man, ideas about gender like the Chinese Yin Yang theory, and a scathing critique of monism. (If, like Jim Jones or the Bagwan Rajneesh, his villain were a real person -- if that is the right term for them -- I suspect he too might be quite popular.)

I note with amusement the complaint below that Perelandra is overtly Christian. Imagine that.  The famous Christian apologist allowing metaphysics to muddy up his sci-fi novel.  I wonder if people make the same complaints about Milton or Camus?  Not that I am comparing Lewis to them -- "the same wave never comes twice" and Lewis can stand on his own in any crowd.  Lewis may get a bit carried away at the end with his "cosmic dance" stuff; one of the book's few faults.  But if you are not interested in ultimate issues of right and wrong, God and human choice, why pick up a novel by C. S. Lewis?



Pilgrim’s Regress: An allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism, C. S. Lewis

***** “Plato Walks with the Monkey King”


While I wouldn't put it at the top of my list of Lewis' works, this guided stroll through Lewis' psyche on its dialectic course towards Christ is a pleasant and enlightening journey, full of off-beat humor and insight. Starting from Puritanica (what modern readers might call Fundie-town) and the dread of a black pit with snakes and scorpions for those who do not obey "The Landlord," the hero sets out in the other direction in search of an island paradise. Along the way, he meets a diverse and amusingly described panoply of personalized tempters. Some of these characters are a bit hard to finger, but many still survive as philosophical specimens. Lewis has fun showing cultural Christians, Marxists, and bohemian artists in a Medieval landscape, alongside dragons and giants. Reminiscent less of Bunyan than of Journey to the West at times, Lewis engages a self-depracatory and even slapstick humor to point to serious lessons. But to me, the most poignant scene in the book was a more serious dialogue of riddles between Lady Reason and a Giant whose glance revealed the sub-human underpinnings of soul, revealing horrors in every person. I understood that scene very well. The giant of reductionistic science still walks the land and holds many captive, and may have held me had Lady Reason not come to my rescue, too, with Lewis' help.

Reason defeated the monster with a few quick jabs, which go to the heart of the matter, but if you don't like allegory, Lewis develops his arguments more fully elsewhere. Those who would like to see the story of those years in prose, should read Surprised By Joy. (Pilgrim's Regress is not meant to be entirely autobiographical, I don't think.) For a didactic version of the confrontation with the giant, see Abolition of Man; if you want it in fairy-tale form, read Puddleglum's brilliant speech in The Silver Chair. Lewis was nothing if not a versatile writer.


Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

***** “Grows on You”


The first time I read this novel, maybe twenty years ago, I was a bit disappointed. From Lewis, I expected Christian fantasy or philosophy. Who was this pagan god of the mountain who came to love Psyche? What was going on in the confusing dream-like sequences towards the end? Where is God in all of this?

Now I love it. I've pushed it on other people, and found most "got it" faster than I. Some of my best Japanese students have read it in my first-year English reading class, and those who have, liked it. (I recommend it to them partly because of the brilliant way Lewis depicts ancient Greek and tribal cultures and thought.) Some appreciate the insight and sensitivity with which Lewis depicted his female leading character. (Thanks, maybe, to his love at the time of writing for a woman of a similarly realistic and strong temperament.) One noted that "This story will tell you how not just Orual but every mortal has an ugly soul." She told me that she'd been reading a bit about Greek philosophy, and the book was interesting for that reason, too. Another said she liked the single combat, admitting, "I know it isn't the most important scene, but I just like it." A relative, to whom I gave a copy of the book, told me she read the whole thing (it's not that short) in one sitting.

So I think there's a good chance you'll like the book, too. As for God, while He is hidden in this story, (as He often is in life) that hiddenness is another layer within the depth within depths that is this novel. I now tend to think Lewis deserved a Nobel Prize for writing it.


Surprised by Joy; The Shape of My Early Life, C. S. Lewis

***** “A bushel of insight and appropriate subjectivity”


The mark of a good teacher is the degree to which his students learn even when, or especially when, he goes off on a tangent. By that measure, Lewis ranked among the best, and the Medieval cornocopia of miscellaneous ideas that is this book is an education. You learn philosophy, English and Irish topography, education, jokes, a theory of language study, a theory of C. S. Lewis, and most of all, everything you did or did not want to know about literature. Actually, some of what he says on that subject assumes more knowledge than most of us are likely to possess.

Yes, there is also a story here also, about how Lewis searched for Joy and found Jesus instead. (The title is a pun, by the way, worth five stars all by itself.) And the interuptions and detours tend to enhance the reader's appetite for the story, rather than detract from it.

I don't agree with the reader below, or with the criticism in A. N. Wilson's biography which it parallels. Reason clearly played a central role in his conversion. In this book, however, he describes the effect of the reasoning on him, rather than recounting the particular arguments in detail as he has done in other books. He said the book was going to be subjective, even apologized for the fact in the preface! To speak subjectively is not to belittle the objective facts which act on the subject; to make that equation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Lewis' thought and of thought in general. For example, Lewis describes here how the "most hard-boiled atheist I ever met" came into his room one day and admitted that the evidence for the Gospels was "surprisingly good." Lewis describes his shock, and the effect this idea had on him. But if you want a fuller version of Lewis' reasoning on that subject, written just a little bit later than this book, see his brilliant and devastating little essay, Elephants and Fernseed -- which to my mind drove a stake through the heart of all Higher Criticism, including that written decades after his death, such as Wilson's silly biography of Jesus. Lewis also speaks of the effect the arguments of his Christian friends and the books he read had in converting him to Christianity, but again don't expect him to give you those arguments here.

My one criticism is Lewis ought not to have subjected his father to his satirical and rather cutting brand of humor as he does in a few passages.


The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 1

**** “Intermittently Interesting”


I feel a bit guilty reading this book. Since I "discovered" Lewis thirty years ago in a friend's basement in Alaska, his ideas, stories, logic, and humor have more than influenced me, they have become part of the furniture of my mind. Anyone who knows Lewis well, knows how little he would have liked having his mail read by snoopy Americans. Oh, well, where he is now, they can afford to be forgiving.

This volume is put together well. Walter Hooper is both thorough and judicious in his editing; the notes he adds at the bottom of the page are often helpful. I find myself wondering how in the world he tracked down some of these sources. The book is also physically attractive, as Lewis would have appreciated.

Most of the letters in this first volume are to one of three people: Arthur Greeves, Lewis' "first friend," his father, and his brother Warren. Especially with Arthur, who seems to get the most, the topic is usually books and the ideas contained in them, romance (in the literary sense, not sex, which is treated with a detached voyerism), philosophy, art and music, natural beauty. The "real world" also intrudes (school, war, college, a job) from time to time. Not all of this is interesting to me; often he's talking about subjects I know nothing about, in a way that sheds little light on them.

But from an early age, Lewis has already become a precise and perceptive writer, with wide-ranging curiosity. So while the material is not equally interesting, and some could have been excluded -- are the sexual fantasies of two post-adolescents really our business? -- I am finding it intermittently interesting to look behind the screen, and grapple with this new motherload of unsifted Lewisiana. But I wouldn't recommend volume one to anyone who doesn't (a) have a strong interest in Lewis AND (b) love Western literature. Volume two is broader in scope and correspondents.

While volume two is easier to read right through, I'm not sure I have found the right way to do the first volume yet. Straight reading would be like hacking a road through the Peruvian jungle. I have tried the "island hopping" method of General McCarthur, and the "pick up and read" method of Augustine . . . Compared to volume 2, this one may get more shelf time. But I am glad to have it, and will leaf through it from time to time. The paperbacks and garage sale hand-me-downs on my shelf seem flattered by such gentile company; though perhaps they worry that property taxes will now go up.



The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2

***** “A Rich Mine of Assorted Treasures”


The second volume of letters from C.S. Lewis is more varied and consistently interesting than the first, I think. For one thing, Lewis is writing to a wider group of people. While in the first volume most letters are addressed to father, brother, or friend Arthur Reeves, now he is ensconced in Oxford, mildly famous and cursed with more correspondents than he wishes (though he is always polite, and usually thoughtful). His father has passed away, his brother does some ghost-lettering, and Arthur still gets a few epistles. But this volume also contains leaves to Dorothy Sayers (an excellent match), Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, John Betjeman, poet and painter Ruth Ritter, the Catholic student of Hinduism, Dom Bede Griffiths (whom he warns, "I now believe that refined, philosophical eastern Pantheism is far further from the true Faith than the semi barbarous pagan religions"), and a few short letters to T. S. Elliot, interesting for their terseness and studied politeness.  (Besides not liking his poetry, Lewis was mad at Elliot for not contributing to a book for the widow of Charles Williams.)  Possibly the most common topic of discussion is literature, much of it by one or the other correspondent.  But lots more gets touched on.

Some letters are also written to help people with spiritual questions, "plot good" of some sort, or pray with people like his Italian priest friend, with whom he corresponded in Latin. (Given here in English and Latin.) You can also find many interesting observations on a variety of topics sprinkled about. ("Poetry I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual.")

But the adjective that may best describe Lewis in many of these letters is "fun-loving." To Barfield: "Did I ever mention that Weston, Divine, Frost, Wither, Curry and Miss Hardcastle" (the diverse villains in That Hideous Strength
) were all portraits of you?" To Sayers: "Mr. Bultitude (the lazy bear in the same book) is described by Tolkien as a portrait of the author, but I feel that is too high a compliment."  I especially enjoyed the faux quarrel between Lewis, pretending to be the middleman for a medieval prince who seduced his king's wife (one letter goes out in Old English), and Barfield, representing himself as agent of the king, demanding reparation.  Lewis understood that a person makes a bad bargain in growing up if he forgets along the way how to play.

Lewis' letters to Laurence Harwood, his godson, mark a change of style: now he writes with Narnian simplicity, not "talking down" to children but talking about things both still find interesting. (And I did, too.) "Yesterday the man who lives next door to us came into our garden when we weren't looking and cut down one of our trees . . . He is an old man with a white beard who eats nothing but raw vegetables. He keeps goats who also have white beards and eat nothing but raw vegetables. If I knew magic I should like to turn him into a goat himself; it wouldn't be so very wicked because he is so like a goat already!"

Much less interesting are the many "thank you" notes Lewis sends to Americans for "CARE" packages. Some of these are repetitious; Lewis seems uncomfortable, experimenting with new ways of saying "thank you." Later some of these correspondences develop into something more interesting. But since Hooper or Harper cut some, this would have been a good place to chop more more deeply. The best stuff needs to be quarried a bit. But like gemstones in a bedrock of fine granite, most of the other material is moderately interesting, though some is merely utilitarian.

Walter Hooper has done a phenomenal job with this series and this book in particular. His notes are useful and often enlightening -- especially when he explains what Lewis' correspondent said, as he often does. At the end of the book he gives graceful biographical sketches of about three dozen people who corresponded with Lewis. (Very interesting people.) He has done a first-rate job with these first two volumes, and I'm looking forward to seeing the third.



The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3

**** “Cleaning out the Attic”


On a windy day last fall I had the chance to visit the Kilns, the home of Jack and Warren Lewis, uphill from Oxford. One thing that caught my eye was how ad hoc and miscellaneous the house seemed. One could see how someone who lived in that house could write so ramshackle a novel as That Hideous Strength, and where the attic between houses in The Magician's Nephew came from, and (moving up the hill past the pond) why Dryads and Naiads bend in the wind, as they turn into maples and oaks. Like Ransom's St. Annes, or the Professor's in Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe this was a house with a personality, one that collects people, animals, and stories.

It is fitting that the final volume of Lewis' correspondence is also miscellaneous and ad hoc. Yes, there are more letters to T. S. Elliot -- studiously polite in the early years, more friendly (it seems to me) later on -- Tolkien (a few), Sayers, Roger Green, Griffiths. (The Washington Post reviewer gets a lot right, but I think misses Lewis' true tone here -- it seems to me he's worried about Griffiths move away from orthodoxy.) Half or more of the correspondents are writers. Others are children (Lewis seems to put his heart into answers to children) or pests to whom Lewis is trying to be polite, one guesses.

Not all the letters are equally interesting, of course. Some seem a bit pro forma. What struck me about Volume 2 was the enormous amount of fun Lewis had. I didn't laugh quite as often reading this volume. I think the reason is, Lewis is famous now, and writes often here from duty, rather than pleasure. On the plus side, we're past WWII, and the numerous "thank you" letters for ham from the States that take up so much space in volume two.

What would bring this volume to life would be more letters to and from Joy, her boys, Tolkien, and maybe with Warren to and from Irish pubs. Oh, well, there's still quite a bit of good stuff in here -- I found it more interesting than volume 1, less than volume 2, overall.

Walter Hooper does a magnificent job of collecting, collating, and explaining, without getting in the way. He always seems to provide a note just when you want one, and answer the right questions.



Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis

***** “Simply Brilliant”


I first read this book maybe 30 years ago. While its truths have probably helped me understand life better, it wasn't my favorite of Lewis' books. Maybe I felt some of the same ambiguity Lewis himself expressed about thinking from the perspective of the devil -- maybe I overdosed on Marx in college.

A few months ago, though, I found the Screwtape tape in a local library. I don't know how much a compliment it is to say John Cleese makes a great devil, but he really does. He brings Lewis' brilliant insights to life all over again.

Screwtape is not a detailed philosophical argument. As Lewis says, a non-Christian can read the book with profit if he takes premise as an entirely literary device. One reviewer complains that he does not understand why God wants us to pray if he already knows what we think. Lewis actually answers this objection in Mere Christianity. A recent reviewer claims that Lewis makes "intellectual inquiry" out to be a sin, and that no one with a college education will find this worthwhile. That's silly. Taking his ideas with me to college, graduate school, and professional study of world religions, the "Jesus Seminar," and skepticism, I found his works the best possible preparation for understanding the most prestigious currents of modern human thought.

Lewis does not "prove" Christianity in this book; that is not his purpose. But neither does he "take it as a matter of (blind) faith." Lewis understood that Christian faith rests on reason, and gives reasons in other books; but what he does here, brilliantly, is reveal how devious not the devil, but we humans can be, giving a comic and deeply enlightening tour of the many subtle ways we rationalize, are lazy, hate, and deceive ourselves. Of Lewis' books, Great Divorce
and Till We Have Faces probably come closest as docudramas of ground zero in the human soul.

Those who enjoy Screwtape Letters
should read J. Budziszewski's What We Can't Not Know. His arguments on natural law may even surpass Lewis in content, if not style.



Resurrection, Tucker Malarkey

** “And do Chickens Really Act Like That?”


I am trying to decide how much slack to cut Ms. Malarkey. Not too much, I think. This is an historical novel, a piece of fiction that, like the Da Vinci Code, claims to be based on fact. She even gives a Brown-esque preface: "The historical, archeological, and biblical material is real." It appears, from reviews below, that some readers will buy this. So I'll review the book in two parts: briefly as a novel, then as a novel that claims to offer historical fact as backdrop.

The story itself I found moderately intriguing, and mildly well-written. The winding adventure gives a certain somnolescent pleasure at times. Knowing an MD who worked in London during the Blitz, I'm not as fond of her overbearing nurse character as everyone she meets in Cairo seems inexplicably to be. But the plot isn't bad, and some of the lines (when she's not talking about religion) show insight.

But would it hurt to get her historical facts straight? Malarkey has a hard time doing so. She repeats Dan Brown's error of quoting the "Gospel" of Philip as saying Jesus "kissed Mary often on the mouth." (In fact the text has a hole where "on the mouth" might go; no one knows where the original text placed the kisses.) She has her heroine read in 1948 how Clement "disclosed in the second century that there were two versions of the Gospel of Mark." (In fact "Secret Mark" would not be "discovered" until 1973, by the eccentric historian Morton Smith. And there is strong evidence he made it up.) Marcion did not choose the four Gospels; he chose Luke, and rejected the rest. Is it not true that "there were a number of well-known sorcerers at the time" who did miracles like Jesus; attempts to find them have turned up only imaginary parallels, like Hanina ben Dosa and Apollonius. The "Church Fathers" did not make the apostles "infallible" or "above sin:" the Gospels they chose show the disciples full of error and sin. (It is only Gnostic texts like the "Gospels" of Mary and Judas that put certain disciples up on a pedestal.) And Geza Vermes was not a second Century Christian as Malarkey proposes: he was born in 1924, and taught Jewish Studies at Oxford University.

These are minor errors; the big ones are coming up. And these she shares, not only with Brown, but also with Elaine Pagels, whom she thanks profusely in the preface of this book, and who in my opinion is one of the greatest sources of disinformation about early Christianity on the planet. (Pagels admitted to me that she had not even bothered to read critiques of her early-Thomas views by eminent scholars like John Meier and N.T. Wright, before proposing wild theories based on that text.)

I apologize if, in making some of the points below, I seem a bit peeved. I am. As a Christian scholar I am getting tired of being shot at by people too intellectually lazy to look at their target before shooting. It would be nice, for a change, to read an anti-Christian screed like this one and have to think a few moments before pointing out its errors!

One reader below calls the book "a refreshing and inoffensive perspective on the roots of Christianity." In fact, Marlarkey seems terribly bitter, and wears her heart on her sleave. Unlike Brown, who made a few feints towards balance, she does not have a single kind or even neutral thing to say about orthodox Christianity. Every comment she makes on the subject is vitriolic; almost every one is demonstrably false, and many are the opposite of the truth.

Before Irenaeus, the Gospels "were all considered equally authentic, equally valuable." Hogwash. At least one of the four Gnostic texts Malarkey choses for her alternative New Testament was not even written until after Irenaeus' time.

The evil Irenaeus "codified Christianity all by himself," and then "all others were ordered destroyed." In fact, Christianity wouldn't even be legal for 140 years after Irenaeus wrote!

One of Malarkey's favorite claims is the popular myth that women were "a threat" to orthodox Christianity, which suppressed them. In fact, most early Christians were women -- and became Christians not because they didn't know any better, but largely because the Church treated them well. Nor is the later Christian record so dark: the Gospel ended female infanticide, child marriage, widow burning, footbinding, and forced prostitution -- all in countries where the worship of female goddesses was popular! Even today, the status of women is far higher in countries with a Christian heritage. (Take a close look at the 1988 UN study on the status of women in countries around the world, for evidence.)

Malarkey's story requires us to take the "Gospel" of Mary seriously as source material for the life of Christ. In fact, of the four "Gospels" that her scholar hero suggests could form the basis of a new New Testament, even radical scholars only claim one has any historical information about Jesus, and that isn't Mary, it's Thomas. And even radical scholars only find two new sayings in Thomas they think are historical. And those two sayings don't say much!

Perhaps the most irritating error in this ignorant novel is the old "faith versus reason" trope which Malarkey repeats. The author puts it with comic book clarity: "(Christians) have been told to replace thought with faith. A good Christian does not question. A good Christian accepts what he is given. It does not matter if he understands it." Such a load of hogwash, from the pen of a writer as ill-informed as Dan Brown, is hard for someone aware of the facts to swallow. I know the Christian tradition, and what great thinkers from Justin to Augustine to Aquinas, Locke, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis have said about faith and reason. (See the anthology on "Faith and Reason" on my website, Uncritical acceptance of such ill-informed rubbish is what I call "blind faith," and something orthodox Christian thinkers do not recommended.

What I do recommend is a close reading of the Nag Hammadi writings. Having read them all, I happen to agree with Irenaeus that most of them are a "stupefying roar of bombast with little or no intrinsic value." But read them for yourself, and see. Pay particular attention to what they say about women, helping others, social compassion, or any reasons for believing any of this stuff is true.

Finally, Malarkey's villain is even worse than the albino in Da Vinci Code. I've been to hundreds of churches, and have never met anyone like this guy. If you want a psychopathic Christian murderer, at least make him coherent! Not a single word or action he partakes of even makes bad sense.

Other than that, it's a fine novel! Let no one henceforth say a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop can't describe a tour down the Nile River with a chicken named for a goddess!



Lilith, George MacDonald

***** “A Good Kind of Weird” 


This is the story of a man wandering through a dream-world -- or perhaps, out of our world of dreams. (Macdonald's story puts an interesting spin on the ancient Chinese riddle.) Whether dream or awakening, you may have to wander for a while before you get your bearings. The whole book works a strange magic on the susceptible reader, but it may take me a few more journeys to figure it out very well.

MacDonald tells his story, or weaves his magic, for a deeper part of the soul than most authors attempt to reach. There is a good kind of weird going on here: a raven who is a librarian, a moon that protects a traveler, a cat woman whose scratches heal. The villains in this book are nasty indeed, though Macdonald shows how pain and loss (which he embodies with some ghastly images) can bring about the worst person's redemption. (His thoughts on that subject bring to mind another image of hell, "the death room" of a communist prison camp where the Jewish pastor Richard Wurmbrand lived for two and a half years. "Fascists, Communists, saints, murderers, thieves, priests," he said, "none died without making his peace with God and man." So there is some empirical base for his hopes; though perhaps less Scriptural.)

This book is not for everyone -- it is not "science fiction," but fantasy, a genre some people cannot abide. A couple good companion volumes would be C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, and M. Scott Peck's The People of the Lie, both of which contain related insights into the nature of The Great Choice. (In fact, in the former, Lewis makes Macdonald his guide to heaven and hell.) ...


The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimm’s Magic Fairy Tales, Ronald Murphy

***** “A Link in a Long Chain of Grace”


It was while reading the story of Jorinda and Joringal, a tale not mentioned in this book, that I began to wonder about the spirituality of the Brothers Grimm. Jorinda, a beautiful maiden, is transformed into a nightinggale and taken captive in a castle by a witch. One day, her lover, a shepherd, finds a red flower with a drop of dew in the center of it. When he touches the witch with with the flower, it deprives her of her evil power, and Joringal's beloved is set free. I had to wonder: "Did the Grimms know they were talking about Jesus?" Murphy answered this question for me: they did, indeed.


If I were going to pick a word to describe the overall impression the author gives me, I think it would be "kindly." At first I sometimes got the feeling I was listening in on someone else's conversation: Murphy forgets his readers and his partners in academic dialogue are strangers, and need to be introduced. But once everyone is seated for discussion, Murphy is generous not only to the Grimms (he sometimes tells how good a writer Wilhelm is, when he should be showing), he treats other scholars with respect (not a universal habit in academia), and describes the ironic skepticism or sexual crudities of rival versions of these tales without downplaying those approaches, yet bringing out the special depth of the Grimm's mythical imagination and spiritual feeling.


The main subjects of this book are Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cindarella, and Sleeping Beauty. (But don't overlook Appendix A, a closer look at Wilhelm Grimm's New Testament, or Appendix C, the story of the Cross and the Christmas tree. It was the star on top of the latter that furnished the fifth star for this rating.)


The story Murphy tells is one link in a chain of grace that goes back thousands of years. Early Christian thinkers saw classical philosophy and myth as a "tutor" to bring the Western world to Christ. Dante and Michaelangelo picked up on the same theme in the Middle Ages. G. K. Chesterton described how, as a child, he learned reason and morality, and intimations of spiritual truth, from fairy tales, naming some of the stories in this book, but without talking about Christianity in particular. Later he wrote a book, Everlasting Man, in which he described pagan mythology in similar sympathetic terms. This is the book that helped C. S. Lewis, who would become the most influential Christian writer of the 20th Century, to conclude that the Gospel was the answer to the question, "Where have all the hints of Paganism been fulfilled?" Later Lewis brought the story full circle with his own redemptive fairy tales, the Chronicles of Narnia. So the story Murphy tells is of interest historically, as well as for the remarkable light it sheds on our favorite fairy tales. It is one link in a chain of grace that no man on earth can fully know.


For those interested in the bigger picture, let me recommend some good books: City of God (Augustine); Contra Celsus (Origen); Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy (Chesterton); Eternity in Their Hearts (Don Richardson); Jesus Through the Centuries (Jaroslav Pelikan); The Crown of Hinduism (J.N.Farquhar); and Discovery of Genesis. (with reservations - see my Amazon review.) Also, of course, my own books, Jesus and the Religions of Man, and True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.


My four year old boy spied the cover of this book, with its picture of Snow White and the owl, raven, and dove, and asked for an explanation. "The prince came and kissed Snow White and she came back to life," I told him. "Is (the prince) God?" He asked. Murphy shows that the Brothers Grimm still have the power to solicit deep spiritual questions from people of all ages.


The Second Coming, Walker Percy

***** “Laugh Yourself Near Sane”


You can often judge a book by the company it keeps. Looking over the thoughtful, enthusiastic words below, I hesitate to add another glowing review. It should already be clear not only that people who have read this book like it, but that it attracts a thinking audience. One thing at least I should add, though: this book is funny.

Percy was a "discovery" for me as well. Generally I prefer Russian, English, or ancient Chinese literature. In Lost in the Cosmos, I found a touch of the passion, self-doubt, and introversive acuity of Augustine, the farcical inventiveness of Zhuang Zi, the humor and good sense of Chesterton.

This could be Percy's best work. (At least, the best I've read so far.) Lost in the Cosmos got off onto semantics a bit much, The Moviegoer started slowly for me; Love in the Ruins was just pleasantly bizarre. Here, most everything comes together. This is a work that searches for truth with integrity, finds it on different levels, and communicates it with delightful skill. Will Barrett's madly truthful "suicide note" was one of several highlights in the book for me. Like another reviewer, I found myself copying passages down.  



Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy

***** “Apocalypse, Farce, Fairy Tale – What is this thing?”



Is it a sci-fi tale about the end of the world, black comedy, novel of inner pilgrimage, or a southern small-town novel like To Kill a Mockingbird? All of these, and none, quite. You can catch snippetts of the plot and setting from other reviewers. But trying to squeeze this weird, topsy-turvy, yet familiar world into a few words is like trying to put the bubble bath back in the bottle. Ideas and images float up in flurries.

Or maybe we should define Love in the Ruins
by its characters? Each is as brilliantly drawn as a blade of grass in the first bright rays of morning. Not all are mad, in the conventional sense, though Thomas More, the drunken, philandering, brilliant, pious hero, who somewhat resembles the author, sometimes is. "Dear God, let me out of here, back to the nuthouse where I can stay sane. Things are too naked out here. People look and talk and smile and are nice and the abyss yawns. The niceness is terrifying." Percy also offers three lovely leading ladies, a tribe of black revolutionaries, "love" scientists, "Knotheads," a "scoffing Irish behaviorist, in whom irony is so piled up on irony, jokes so encrusted on jokes, winks and nudges and in-jokes so convoluted" that he has turned orthodox, and a pretty spooky Satan in flannel.

Maybe the best way to introduce this book, aside from saying that it often made me laugh outloud, and often made me think, is to quote a few more lines. If you like the taste, want to sup more on the strangeness of life (the quality by which reality so often surpasses mere novels), you'll probably want to read the book.

(1) "Max the unbeliever, a lapsed Jew, believes in the orderliness of creation, acts on it with energy and charity. I, the believer, having swallowed the whole Thing, God Jews Christ Church, find the world a mad-house and a madhouse home. Max the atheist sees things like Saint Thomas Aquinas, ranged, orderly, connected up."

(2) "Ethel's car is both Japanese and Presbyterian, thrifty, tidy, efficient, chaste."

(3) "The terror comes from piteousness, from good gone wrong and not knowing it, from Southern sweetness and cruelty . . . In Louisianna people still stop and help strangers. Better to live in New York where life is simple, every man's your enemy, and you walk with your eyes straight ahead."



Prophet, Frank Peretti

***** “Speaking Truth to Power”


History has often been changed by people who stood alone for truth against power: Solzhenitsyn hiding his writings from the Soviet secret police, Benigno Aquino stepping onto the tarmac at Manila International Airport, a lone Chinese man facing down tanks. Frank Peretti shows, in this prophetic novel, how such courage might affect a news anchor who meets God. Like the prophets in the Bible, "John" is in for a rocky road. Peretti does an excellent job of telling the story from a Biblical point of view (in particular, the writings of John the apostle), while presenting the skepticism and cynicism of worldly observers through the eyes of other characters.

Peretti also describes a family in conflict well: godly (but very domestic) parents with a worldly but loving son, and a grandson (Carl, product of a broken family), trying to sort things out. Sometimes a few people act out of character (and did Carl really need a haircut once he was saved?), but generally the characters are good. By toning the supernatural elements down, I think Peretti only makes his story stronger. He depicts conflicts in the newsroom well too. (A couple days after I finished, I found myself interviewed by a reporter from the station I think Peretti modeled Channel 6 on. I found it easier to feel for him as a human being.) Perhaps Peretti exagerated the dangers of abortion to the mother. After reading this story, I wonder if we would ever know.

Ultimately, this story is about truth, and how dangerous and unwelcome it is. "Men (and women) love darkness, because their deeds are evil." Peretti describes how love of darkness leads to sin, self-deception, cover-up, and hatred of those who call darkness by its right name. I find his description not only biblical, but true. I just finished writing a book on "Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus," and found a baffling miopia about elementary and obvious facts among many skeptical scholars. For a lucid and informed description of how sin and self-deception can lead to judicial and political injustice, I recommend the work of political philospher Jay Budzicewski.

Peretti challenges us greatly. He does not promise that everything will work out if we do what God calls us to do. But he shows the effect our choices have on forming who we become.

It was fun to see "The City" modeled on my hometown, Seattle. Some of the place names were changed, some not.  We do have very left-wing, "pro-choice" politics, and slanted news.  One change was a bit unbelievable, though: it is hard to imagine anyone here putting up with such a blow-hard governor.  Importing California actors to toot his horn wouldn't help, either.



The Visitation, Frank Peretti

***** “Is it all right to tell the Truth in Church?”


This story about a burnt-out pastor in a small farming town in Eastern Washington was the best I've read of Peretti.  He does a good job of evoking the quality of every day life in the early, "slow" parts of the book.  (I liked them the best.)  He also comes close (close the shutters, put the pastor on hold) to telling the truth about church.  Evangelicals feel his heat at times: "God was expected to follow the printed order of service and keep quiet like everyone else."  But most of his jabs come at the expense of his own, Pentacostal, wing of the church: "Nobody has ever taken a town for Jesus.  Not even Jesus ever took a town for Jesus."  Peretti might get a job as a professional skeptic, with his mad-cap (but oh so familiar) send-up of the up-tight church in Rainier valley and of the "Cathedral of Life."  Yet he also tells the other truth (turn out the lights) that (shhhh) God actually does answer prayer sometimes.  It's not always easy to hold two conflicting truths in one's mind at the same time, and do justice to both, but Peretti manages to be pretty real in this book.

The story threatens to slide into farce at one or two points.  Seventeen people die in a fireball, parenthetically.  Instead of helping the wounded, the hero and his friends run off to dig up the grave of someone who died months ago.  With hints of Voltairian absurdity, Stephen King demons, and the judgment scene from That Hideous Strength, the book threatens to go over the top, and lose the credibility it built in the early going.  But in the end, it comes down as a pretty well-told and emotionally believable story.

In some ways the book might even be read as a theory of (false) Messianic religion.  The anti-hero's personality reminds me in some ways of revolutionary founders like Mohammed, Hong Xiuquan, and Marx, and some Indian gurus.  The Bagwan Rajneesh, whose utopian commune was just one state down, same side of the Cascades, especially resembles these remarks.  The demon theory does not seem all that outlandish to me, in some of those cases.  But Peretti does a better job here than in his first books of keeping the focus on man and God, and that's a healthy switch.


Autobiography, Bertrand Russell

***** “Gossipy, passionate, and thoughtful”


One gets the impression, as one reads the brilliant character sketches Russell draws of the scholars and lords and ladies who made up his circle of acquaintances, that the English upper class was mostly mad, scoundrels, or geniuses, with a fair amount of overlap. (The author as an outstanding case in point.) The keenness of Russell's insight into character, vivid descriptions, and eye for the absurd, make many passages of this book a delight. "My advice to anyone who wishes to write is to know the very best literature by heart, and ignore the rest as completely as possible." "The past is an awful God, though he gives life almost the whole of its haunting beauty." "(Plato's) austerity in matters of art pleases me, for it does not seem to be the easy condemnation that comes from the Phillistine." Reading Why I am Not a Christian ..., I got the impression that he had a gloomy outlook on life. But here, I often found great joy in poetry, nature, and the wonder of life. "I had never, till that moment, heard of Blake, and the poem affected me so much that I became dizzy and had to lean against the wall." Tempered, however, by morbid thoughts, and fear of insanity.

One of the odder aspects of the book to me was Russell's "idealism." On one page, he speaks of a mystical experience in which gave him a universal compassion for all mankind: on the very next page, he relates how he "fell out of love" with his wife, and then, how he ditched her. Passing from the same Bodhissattva-like musings elsewhere, he relates, on the next page or so, how he tried to strangle a friend in a rage. He can be sympathetic and even kind, but for a would-be Boddhisattva and fighter for the rights of women, he seems to have hurt a lot of ladies, in particular, rather badly. Yet his friendships in general, with both sexes, seem warm and affectionate.

I docked the book a star because the version I bought (Bantom) seemed dishonest in its packaging. The front and back covers show an old man, though this version only covers the period to 1914. On the back cover, it promises "more exciting episodes than most novels, details more intimate than most exposes, and more intensity of emotion than most fiction writers would dare ascribe to a single hero." Largely hype. This is not Dumas, or Augustine. It's a different kind of story.

Someone else on the back cover calls Russell "a Genius-Saint." Genius, maybe, but the second accolade implies very low standards for sainthood. The book did make me think Russell a more balanced figure than I thought.  But part of that balance appears to have been something like madness, and something like cruelty.  Intellectually, Russell was a brilliant man.  Emotionally, he often strikes me as a lonely and bewildered child, angry at being abandoned, not sure where to look for love, and not sure how to give it.


Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien


I suppose there are two kinds of people who read these reviews: those ten or fifteen people who have never read Lord of the Rings, and want to know whether they should or not, and people who have visited this land many times and, feeling nostalgia, want to hear other reports of it. All I can say to the first group is, if you like to stay at home, safe behind VCR and keyboard, never read a book twice, and want manageable cliches to do the work of imagining for you when you do read a story, give this one a wide berth. If, on the other hand, you feel that this world is not quite your home, beware of Middle Earth, it may enchant you. It may not be heaven, but for those who can feel its incantation, it may awaken a longing that nothing on earth can quite satisfy.

Maybe that sounds overblown to you. Let me just tell you, then, it's a great story, and for some, it will be hard to find a better. Tolkien has taken the raw material of the human psyche and fashioned a world with it, and then put a story in that world that will fill your imagination with unforgettable images. I don't think I even noticed, the first several times through, the genius he displays for character and motivation or for linguistic invention, the story swept me off my feet so completely. After years of reading it, even the things I don't much care for -- some of the poetry, Sam's overly servile attitude, a bit of a slow beginning in Fellowship of the Ring, some rather clumsy map-making -- have worked into the whole and become a part of its charm.  Best not pick this book up for the first time without a very long block of free time ahead of you.


The Sunday Philosophy Club, Alexander Smith

**** “Relax!  Enjoy it!”


Enjoying the advantage of not having read Smith's previous works, I had few expectations coming in and found the story pleasant and interesting. (I listened to the tape.) One thing I liked was to see contemporary issues and life examined through past wisdom and insights; I think this lends a depth to the story. I also enjoyed the heroine's slow-paced social life, her kindly sense and humor, and the Scotch brogue with which the narrator on the tapes brings out the different characters. The heroine is a bit like G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, only using philosophy in place of theology, to understand the world and solve problems. (Indeed, I couldn't help but reflect that many of the principles in her "applied ethics" also came up in Sunday school. Apparently George Bush's favorite political philosopher was pretty versatile.)

Don't buy this book if you're in a rush. It is not driven by the plot; in fact, it is not driven at all. It is, rather, like a leisurely walk through gardened bourgeois alleyways, interrupted by a gossipy chat with the neighbor about current happenings, and a pleasant spring vista or two.



First Circle, Alexander Solzenitsyn

***** “The Perfect Novel”


The theme of this book is not prison camps: it is nothing more narrow than life itself. And it is almost as rich in characters and stories within stories (here Solzhenitsyn is very like Tolstoy) as life: constancy in love, artistic integrity, the whimspy of fate, literacy in Medieval Novgorod, the prison in the Count of Monte Cristo, snow, how to sew, the law of unintended consequences.

A few major abiding themes run like threads throughout the book, providing unity: First, the life of the "zek," the prisoner in Stalin's camps. Second, loneliness: not just of prisoners longing for a woman or lost loved ones, or of persecuted wives trying to make lives for themselves, but ultimately of each person. Every conversation carries a different meaning for the people involved. The author "gets inside of peoples heads" in an amazing way -- from the janitor Spiridon to the "Best Friend of Counter-Intelligence Operatives," Joseph Stalin himself. Third, and on a deeper level, integrity, both artistic and moral.

Fourth, and I don't know if this was the conscious intent of the author or not, the book reminds us of the unity of Western civilization. Aside from mentions of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Pushkin, and Lermontov, (which, I might add, also describes the company Solzhenitsyn belongs in, with honor), the book is honeycombed with references to the great thinkers and artists of European civilization -- from the ancient Greeks and the Gospels, to Dante, the Holy Grail, Bach and Beethoven. The Marxist Rubin even quotes Luther. Primarily, no doubt this is a reflection of the fact that the prisoners in the "sharashkas," the top-secret scientific work camps, were educated men, unlike, say, the hero of his shorter novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (The contrast Solzhenitsyn draws to their well-paid Neanderthal captors is just one form of the irony that is his most distinctive and powerful stylistic weapon. But even the Neanderthals, including Stalin himself, are portrayed not as cardboard villains, but with insight and imagination.) These references also remind us that, as much as Solzhenitsyn has been accused of being a "Slavophobe," as if that were an insult, the Russian culture he loves is an integral part of Western civilization. This iconic dialogue of the ages, similar to the works of great Chinese painters, also adds another layer of delight to the book.

The final and greatest thread that unifies this work is the idea of achieving humanity, of becoming what a person ought to be, of heroism. The prisoners are poets, eccentric, and philosophers (though there are also scoundrels, and everyone is tempted that way), beaten down by life and the forces of dissolution within, trying to preserve their souls, or civilization, from the barbarians who are their masters. In describing the simple heroism of some of his characters, Solzhenitsyn achieves brilliance. In my opinion, First Circle is the greatest of his works, and one of the most powerful pieces of writing of the 20th Century, at least. And it is not about the Gulag, primarily: it is about what it means to be human, and the choices we all face.

Aside from the characters and stories, many of the scenes are wonderful (again like Tolstoy): of Rubin standing in the courtyard at night in the snow when he hears the train whistle, of the party at the prosecutor's house, of the arrest of the diplomat. If life is sometimes too strange for fiction, (and it is) there are also pieces of fiction that seem truer than life. First Circle is a marriage of style and substance made in heaven, or at least, the highest circle of hell.


***** Oak and the Calf, A Memoir, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

“St Al & the Dragon”


I had been reading this book, off and on, for a few months when word came that Alexander Solzhenitsyn had died. What an improbable miracle, that he died outside Moscow at the age of 89, of old age! Surely he would have been glad to know that would be his fate, as a young captain heading west to engage the German invaders, as a new inmate in the belly of the Gulag (like Agent Jones -- or was it Smith? -- being swallowed by the insect at the end of Men in Black), as a cancer patient a few years later -- or during the period covered by this memoir, a knight in the shining armor of truth, facing Leviathan with nothing but the "sword of the spirit," as St. Paul put it. (Or even later, in exile in Vermont.)

It was a deliberate, considered engagement, as Solzhenitsyn shows, though he did not always follow what he saw as his own best instincts. The world knows him best today for two books: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
(check Amazon sales), and The Gulag Archipelago. (My favorite is First Circle, however.) This memoir is more or less framed by the publication of those two works -- the first of which made him famous, the second which forced the dragon to cough him out, and finally brought that dragon to its knees. (I prefer not to compare the Soviet Union to a bear -- I like bears.) Solzhenitsyn describes the contest blow-by-blow, guessing what various aparachniks are thinking (to the extent he gives them credit for so exalted an activity), "allies," in particular the poet and publisher Tvardovsky, described with consummate humanity, and his own chess game, played as it was with most the opposing pieces hidden.

I'm not sure that this book is meant for "foreigners" like myself. The writer is dialoguing, if not with himself, or his inner daemon, with the Russian people of his day. This may be why I haven't devoured it, as with one of Solzhenitsyn's novels -- which are written for Russia, too, but also for the ages, for man as man -- but take it in pieces. It's a long book, too -- not light reading, but meaty reading, and with lots of tangents.

One of the glories of Solzhenitsyn's writing is the sense that ghosts surround him -- a passion of duty, Hamlet but sane because the Holy Ghost is also there, he is not speaking or living on his own behalf, but on behalf of those who died, and of a nation whose soul was lost. He seems to hear the voice that Socrates heard, as he was waiting to die: "The most important thing is not life, but the good life . . . one must not give way or retreat or leave one's post . . . Do not value either your children or your life or anything else more than goodness, in order that when you arrive in Hades you may have all this as your defense before the rulers there."

Not in Hades, but in heaven, for whatever his sins may have been, I think he will hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

He was also a great writer, by the way!


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

***** “This makes up for the shoe-banging incident”

Ivan Shukhov is a soldier, trademan, and prisoner in Stalin's Gulag.  One Day is the chronicle of a single, more-or-less successful winter day of his term in prison.  Ivan awakens, eats slop, runs errands for other prisoners to supplement that slop, and works with his team to build a wall.  Among his fellow prisoners Solzhenitsyn has placed individual representatives of the various types that inhabited the Gulag: members of inconvenient nationalities, intellectuals, communist hacks (unflatteringly incarnated in the parasitical figure of Fetiukov), a few genuine criminals, and an evangelical Christian named Alyosha.  (If the views of the latter on suffering seem a bit different from those you hear from American Christians, especially of the health-and-wealth variety, so much the worse for us, perhaps.)

In this, his first published work, Solzhenitsyn revealed the brilliance of a great Russian novelist.  Human nature is tested by the most adverse conditions and comes alive. Ironically, tyranical policies often did have the positive effect both in Russia and in China, of breaking down barriers between intellectuals and the plebes to reveal the common humanity of both -- in the end, to the sorrow of the regime.  One subtle and ironic example of Solzhenitsyn's realism is the pleasure his presumable "enemy of the working class" hero finds even in work in a Siberian slave labor camp.

While First Circle is my favorite of Solzhenitsyn's books, and Gulag is one of the most powerful works of our time, One Day is a small gem, a perfectly realized portrait.  Actually it is not a picture of slave labor, or even communism; like all great literature, it is about life itself, and what it means to be a moral being.  For an interesting contrast to Solzhenitsyn's bitterly ironic but ultimately life-affirming chronicle, read One Day in tandem with The Plague, written by fellow Nobel Prize lauriette Albert Camus.  Camus' novel about a town that has become prisoner to bubonic plague takes place in a larger camp, but in my opinion a smaller universe, than the world of Ivan Denisovich, still less of Alyosha.

Khrushchev may have threatened us over Cuba, and banged his shoe on the table in the UN, but he also permitted publication of this novel.  Here's to his health, wherever he is.

(After-note: see my review of The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn’s story of, in part, how this book was published.)


Roughing it, Mark Twain

***** “A Rich Pocket Mine of Humor and Observation”


No need to beat around the sage brush: this book is fantastic. The funny passages are falling-down funny (the story of the coyote, the cat that fell asleep in a mine shaft, getting "lost" in a snow storm, the mad minister in Hawaii -- on and on it goes). But the bulk of the pleasure this book delivers, in my estimate, lies in Twain's brilliant descriptions -- and they're also a good part of the humor. Partly because behind Twain's humor there often seems to lie a sadness -- and at times a touch of cynicism. When he describes beauty, such as the sunrise over a layer of clouds from the top of a volcano in Maui, he forgets himself, and seems happy. If you know some of the places he visits -- silver mining country near Reno, Lake Tahoe, Mona Lake, San Francisco, the Big Island of Hawaii, Oahu -- it's all the more fun, to compare what has changed, and what hasn't. (According to Twain, he helped change some of it, accidentally starting a forest fire on Lake Tahoe.) The book is long, and almost too rich in humor and interesting anecdotes.

Twain begins by promising not to teach his readers anything. Despite his best efforts, quite a few interesting facts -- about silver and gold mining, eruptions at Kilauea, the Hawaiians, the real Old West -- do creep in, and I can't say they make the book any worse.

I listened to this book on CD, which added another dimension to the fun. Twain is brilliant at mimicry, and the reader matches that brilliance by providing distinct voices for each character that perfectly fit how Twain describes him -- the falling-down-angry drunk, the drunk-to-just-the-stage-to-tell-meandering-stories drunk, the ernest minister who talks about turnips and his correspondence with Horace Greeley, the dying vagabond who can't die without repeating Nevada's national anecdote, and so on.

If I can find the taped version (don't see them here), I'll probably get a copy or two to give away as Christmas presents -- a great way to wile the hours away on the road, especially if you're following in Samuel Clemens' meandering footsteps.



Cry of Justice, Jason Pratt

****  “Brave New World!” 


The first few chapters of this book worried me, frankly. The author is intelligent, well-read, and imaginative, but does not always edit sharply, and the beginning of the book seemed to threaten too much melodrama and introspection for my taste. In retrospect, I wonder if those chapters are intended as a challenge . . . they are meant to tease, but for me at least, they also demanded a certain commitment.

Pratt ultimately rewards that commitment. His world is richly imagined and intelligently patterned, both internally and (as what Tolkien called a "sub-creation") with our own tribal and magical past. There is some humor, irony, and clever changes of perspective. More dispassion might improve the prose at times. Some of the characters seem irritating at first -- I wanted to smack Jian on the head a few times -- but they grow on you. (What may be irritating about his relationship with the Amazon in charge is the lack of mutuality -- is this masochism? -- but things become more nuanced and interesting later on, and she less of an Amazon.)

Probably the simplest and most honest thing I can say about this book is that I enjoyed it. I was doing a lot of other reading at the time -- research, mostly -- and I was overseas, in a dorm room a long ways from home. Mikon -- if that's what the world is called, Pratt doesn't often give lectures on the geography, fauna or history, he lets you try to figure things out as you go along -- became a comfortable place to refresh the mind.

Like The Golden Compass
, this is a novel of ideas, though of course quite different ideas. (And also, of course, it's not intended for children.) I recognized "the Eye" as a (rather spooky, with Sauron in the back of our minds) tribal appelation for God right away. I'll be interested to see how Pratt develops his demonology and supra-mundane levels of reality in later novels. One of the good things about this book is that the author doesn't make things too explicit.


Candide, Voltaire

**** “Cynicism as Poetry”


Diamonds, they say, are made from graphite. Voltaire has here written a gem of a story from the unpromising material of cynicism and farce. Don't try this at home -- apart from genius, it will fall flat -- but Candide ripples with wit.

Leibnetz, it is true, is hardly a household name today. But I expect Candide was also meant to be a sword-thrust into the soft underbelly of theism, the "Problem of Pain." While orthodox Christians do not claim this to be the "best of all possible worlds" (rather, a fallen one), the chaotic and apparently senseless troubles in it seem to a lot of us, too, to be the best argument against our faith. Voltaire twists the knife well. I was glad to see that though he excels, and delights, in mockery, the story functions ultimately as what may be an honest question, like that of Job or of Solomon. (In fact, ironically, the book Candide most reminds me of is Ecclesiastes.)

In one regard, at least, Candide is less true to life than the Biblical point of view, however. Thousands die here, but no one is begotten. The insanity of life is celebrated to the full, but its beauty and wonder are not squarely faced. The one-sidedness of Voltaire's approach lessens it as a work of philosophy, in my opinion. I couldn't help but reflect that many in the 20th Century went into the hell-holes of communist prisons, where every horror Candide and his friends experienced occurred, and more (the atheists of the 20th Century were also, in their own ways, ingenious), yet emerged with a strong belief in God.  (Even some, like Solzhenitsyn, who went in as atheists.) Why is that?  Philosophy, it seems to me, needs to face all sides of a question. This Voltaire hardly pretends to do: the book is a question, not an answer. But as satire on premature answers, it sizzles.

If all Voltaire's books contain canabalism, libel, bestiality, and philosophical arguments based on slapstick humor, I can hardly blame the authorities for burning them.  Being something of a Puritan myself, I docked Voltaire a star.  Let that be a lesson.