Thursday, March 15, 2012

Recently Read: Murder, Melding Worlds, and a Soothing Mug of Bush Tea

Here are a few of the books I've read purely for entertainment in the past few weeks. I've read, or am reading, others for more serious purposes, but I'll list them separately at another time.

Charles Todd an Impartial WitnessAn Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery (Bess Crawford Mysteries) 
and Legacy of the Dead (Inspector Ian Rutledge Mysteries),both by Charles Todd (who is apparently actually a mother-son team of writers). These are murder mystery novels set around the time of World War I in England, the protagonist of the first being a young nurse busy patching up the wounded behind the lines in France (but getting plenty of leave in England, which facilitates her sleuthing). The second takes place immediately after the war and features a Scotland Yard detective recovering from shell shock and suffering from guilt after having to shoot a non-com for cowardice during the long, dehumanizing slog of trench warfare. The personality of the dead man continues to haunt Inspector Rutledge and offers running commentary on his investigations. Both these series are well-written; the author(s) know how to add details, turns, and unexpected revelations in a way that seems natural and reflects realistic human psychology.
Stephen King Song of Susannah Dark Tower VI

The Dark Tower VI (Song of Susannah), by Stephen King, the penultimate in his Dark Tower series. I'm currently working my way through the series for the second time (I first read them about ten years ago), after reading a notice recently that King is about to publish yet another novel connected to this series -- not carrying on from the last one, but filling in details of a crucial period in the early life of the gunslinger, Roland Deschaines. This series (or serial novel) is a strange mixture of alternate universe sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and metafiction that seems to be an attempt on King's part both to get all of his stories out of his head and also to see how they all fit together, perhaps even to understand the nature of story-telling. I'm not generally a Stephen King fan (I find him crude and shallow), but there are a number of things about this strange saga that appeal to me enough to get me past the more distasteful aspects of his writing.
Big Tent Wedding Party, Alexander McCall Smith

Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party , the most recent in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series about Precious Ramotswe, the first and only lady detective in Botswana. Although the protagonist is a detective, these are not murder mysteries or even, really, crime novels -- Mma Ramotswe does not accept cases involving serious criminal activity, and she prefers to settle her cases in such a way that the evil consequences of wrongdoing are minimized for all parties involved (even the wrongdoer). I find her very warm and charming, and her faith in people very refreshing. Ultimately these novels are not so much about the cases being investigated as they are about the lives and foibles of the protagonist, her friends, and family. I like the sympathetic portrayal of Botswana and its people, very different from the impression given of many other African countries in news stories. I read the twelve novels in the series back to back, as they became available from the local public library, and was afraid when I read this installment that it would be the last -- a number of plot lines that have been drawn out over several volumes are finally tied up -- but it seems I'll get to enjoy at least one more installment, when no. 13, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, appears next month. Smith has several other series going, and I've read one or two from each of them, but find none of them as captivating as these stories of ordinary people, and the troubles they get into, in Botswana.
Almost all of these books I've acquired at no cost through the electronic lending arm of the local public library (which I love, not least because it's impossible to accumulate late charges). With easy access to the catalog of digital books available I can get a pretty good idea of what is popular among the general reading public (at least those who rely on the library), and I must say it's appalling what kind of trash many readers seem to prefer these days. The novels I've listed above are among the better offerings, however, and I would recommend them to others.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Poetic Imagination and the truth of God

What follows is a little essay I wrote for our parish newsletter/magazine, where it appeared this past Christmas. I offer it here because it discusses a book, The Heliand, that appeals to me on a variety of levels, and raises -- in my mind, at least -- the question of the poetic imagination, which I would like to deal with explicitly in some future post.
 

The Almighty Word at Christmastime

cat nativity
If Jesus had been God-made-cat,
rather than Man.
I find the “Christmas season” (that time of year that used to be Advent) irritating, but not for the reason you might expect. It’s not the wretched Christmas music blared in every public venue from Macy’s to Jiffy Lube, nor is it the crass commercialization that spawns such things as sermons on “What Would Jesus Buy?” and ads that show tinsel Christmas trees with small electronics as ornaments. Those are mostly products of a crass and cynical world that has little love for God, and are therefore not to be wondered at or, in my case, even noticed (I have developed a fine faculty for ignoring and avoiding such things). No, what I object to most is something that most Christians unthinkingly embrace: the cuddlification of Almighty God.
In the weeks leading up to the Church’s celebration of the Nativity of the Lord, Christian gift shops, greeting cards, and homes abound with saccharine images of Christ as a sweet little baby, designed to make you go all gooey inside, to want to pick Him up, cuddle Him, chuck Him under the chin, and murmur, “Who’s a sweet little babykins, then?” Now, I find babies just as endearing as the next person, but I don’t think God became Man so that we would want to pinch his fat little cheeks. It is a terrible irony that by sentimentalizing babies, our culture has trivialized them: if babies are important primarily because of the way they make us feel, then we are just as free to abort them when we find them threatening as we are to gush over them when we find them cute. Similarly, when our Christmas preparations focus too much on the cute little baby in the manger (and not His true identity), we sentimentalize the Nativity of God-Made-Man and thereby run the risk of trivializing Him. (This trivialization would explain the proliferation of Nativity sets in which the figures are all cats or cupcakes or VeggieTale characters.)
We need to remember that God did not become an baby so that we would find him cuddly; he became a man so that he could die. At the heart of the Nativity is the paradox of the Incarnation: that He who is Mighty deliberately became weak so that he could share our troubles, our sorrow, our death. For me, the power and wonder of Christmas has always been found in this paradoxical truth, that the Infinite became Finite, the Immortal and Eternal, for a time, made Himself small and vulnerable. This is a truth that has always been difficult to accept or understand, but some ages have dealt with it better than our own. Today we tend to avoid discomfort of any kind – witness the proliferation of pills and potions widely available to dispel all pains mental and physical – so we prefer the cute, cuddly baby God of Christmas to the Mighty Judge who, as Advent constantly reminds us, is coming soon (forgetting that the two are the same). In the raw Middle Ages, however, people had not yet trivialized God; perhaps for this reason my favorite Christmas images and carols come from that time.
          Lately, I’ve been thinking particularly of a poem of the early Middle Ages, The Heliand (or Savior), also called The Saxon Gospel, a ninth-century retelling of the synoptic Gospels as an epic poem of God the Warrior-King. This poem was written for Saxons who had been forcibly converted by Charlemagne but found it difficult to embrace a god whom they found weak. The Saxons were a Germanic warrior race, who fiercely resisted being conquered by Charlemagne or forced to become Christians. The monk who wrote the Heliand sought to show that Christianity was a faith that was not incompatible with Saxon culture and values, and apparently he was successful in convincing them that the God of Christianity, despite His becoming a man, was not a puling weakling but a mighty ruler, a crafty king who knew how to outsmart and conquer his wily foe, Satan.
The Heliand opens with a song of creation that presents the Creator as a master spell-maker, the great sorcerer who merely by speaking the words of creation brings all things into being – as a modern hymn says: “God, Whose almighty Word chaos and darkness heard, and took their flight.” All of Creation, time, and even Fate itself work together to do His will, until the moment is ripe for God’s ultimate master plan to unfold, when He will for a time appear weak, but only so that he can fool his foe and win the ultimate victory. In this telling, Christ was not born in the household of an insignificant carpenter, but was the foster-son of Joseph, the scion of a line of great kings, and in this poem the herald angels who announce the new King’s arrival appear not to lowly shepherds but to the groomsmen guarding noble Joseph’s horses. The Infant, at His birth, is clothed not in swaddling bands, like any village brat, but in jeweled clothes befitting a king.
"Dream of the Rood" by MrVisions
on DeviantArt.com
Later in his life, as any great Saxon king would have done, Jesus attracts a band of noblemen who become his comitatus, the thanes of the king who serve him by choice, for honor, rather than under obligation. In the great day of battle, when Christ takes on the greatest foe, death itself, even the noblest and bravest of his thanes, Peter, quails before the power of the foe and deserts his King, much as Beowulf’s thanes deserted him when he faced a fire-breathing dragon. The Lord, however, carefully keeps His true identity veiled, appearing weak, because otherwise the Jews and the Romans would never dare to assault so great a warrior-king. In this way, He allows Himself to be taken prisoner and bound to a rood, but just as the Foe believes he has conquered Him, He escapes his bonds, breaking the chains of Death and leaping up victorious. Thus, as a medieval Christmas carol acclaims, perdidit spolia princeps infernorum, the prince of Hell forfeits his victory, the spoiler is despoiled.
Antony Esolen, in a recent essay on TheCatholicThing.com, says that “[t]he soul of poetry is not so much to make strange things familiar, but to make familiar things strange, so that we can really begin to see them.” Perhaps this is why I find poems like The Heliand such a bracing corrective to the modern, sentimentalized version of Christmas. By making God just another cute and cuddly baby, we run the risk of forgetting that he is the Man Who was born to die, the almighty Creator of everything that is, Whose power and craft alone could save us from the wiles of the devil and inexorable death.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Waking the Dead: A Blogger's Return

It's Monday, what are you reading?
I see it's been a year since my last post -- but not because I've quit reading, or thinking about what I read. I simply got busy and lost the habit of writing, and have been reading too many things to keep up with, thanks largely to my Kindle eReader, which makes it perhaps too easy to be reading several different books at once. For instance, right now the "Current Reading" category on my Kindle (which I have come to prefer for reading, over physical books) contains 34 titles -- not all of which I'm actually reading at the moment -- spanning a range of categories from spiritual reading (St Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises and St Therese of Lisieux's The Story of a Soul), through some agrarian essays of Wendell Berry and historical novels of Louis de Wohl, to Stephen King's Dark Tower novel series. It's interesting that these 34 title represent almost exactly 5% of the 678 titles currently residing on my Kindle. If I'm stranded on a desert island with my Kindle in tow, I'll be at no loss for reading material -- at least until the battery runs down!

Since I first started getting interested in ereaders (just a few blog posts past, but now more than 18 months ago), devices for reading electronic books have gone quickly from being esoteric hi-tech to ubiquitous mainstream (or so it seems). Certainly, they are now available for half the price that a bottom-rung Kindle was fetching just one year since ($139 for what is now known as the "keyboard Kindle, which has been replaced as Amazon's entry-level ebook device by the bargain basement Kindle Wi-Fi with "special offers" for just $79), and now that public libraries lend many popular titles in both Epub and Kindle formats, it is possible to read a lot of books without paying another dime after buying a reader device.
 
Of course, the ease of acquiring, and toting around, many books has its concomitant dangers. In my early months of Kindle ownership, I fell for awhile under the thrall of "Kindle freebies," ebooks in Kindle-reader format available at no cost, through Amazon, in public-domain repositories such as the Gutenberg Project, or "e-publishing" sites, such as SmashWords.com. Who can resist free books? Well, I can, after months of snapping up every freebie that came my way and finding that many of these books (not all, by any means) were not worth the price. The wonderful world of e-publishing has made it possible for everyone & anyone to become a "published" author, without the pesky intervention of a discriminating literary agent or editor (or even a proofreader). So, for awhile I was like the proverbial kid turned loose in a candy store, and wound up with a bad case of literary bellyache. (Remind me, sometime, to address the ethics of reading bad books.)

Still, even after learning to restrain my impulse reading somewhat, I still found that, even after avoiding the more awful free offerings, I would be left with a disproportionate number of books that I would never have chosen if they were not being given away free. So, probably a high portion of the nearly 700 titles residing on my ereader device are books that I won't be reading soon or, perhaps, ever; still, it's very nice indeed to have my pick of free versions of books that I would otherwise could ill afford or might not even to find in print (the novels of Robert Hugh Benson, for instance.)
 
I've already got several of these classics in free Kindle format.

Anyway, the "new" has worn off my fascination with digital books and their devices, so in future posts I'll go back to concentrating on the works being read, rather than the physical or digital forms in which I find them.