A Year in Books
Today I have lived in Vienna for one year. Rather than boring my readers or overwhelming myself with an attempt at a year’s summary, I thought that instead I’d review the books that have kept me company this past year. The list is roughly in order, and I’ve marked books I’d recommend with an * and books I’d really recommend with **. I have not spared my personal opinions or respected readers wishes not to know the ending of a book. So, read at your own risk! (And, my apologies. I said the next post would be shorter; what was I thinking?)
**The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (J. R. R. Tolkien)
You know you are reading a great book when you pull it out of your backpack even when you only have one or two stops before getting off the train. Not surprisingly, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King were great commuting companions, bedtime reading, and mealtime company. (Does anyone else feel that a book makes dinner alone a more civilized event?) I’ve already decided I’ll enjoy another read-through this year — but wait till the short days of mid-winter need a bit of cheering up.
One of the 11th grade classes I worked with last year was reading A Christmas Carol; and while they got understandably waylaid with Victorian English, I thoroughly enjoyed this tiny classic. Surely it was one of the books Mom read to us ages ago, but I more remember various film versions. However, well-worth the read (humor, Christmas nostalgia, redemption) for any Dickens lover. (And, if like a few people I know, Dickens’ verbosity is a bit much for you, A Christmas Carol is very short!)
In grad school in my least favorite class (I’d missed the subtitle of the class on opera: “Myth, Madness, and the ‘Other’ in Opera”), I wrote a paper about Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. So, finding Sir Walter Scott’s novel in the small section of English classics at the main Vienna public library, I figured I could give it a try. I guess I expect a tragic ending on the opera stage but find it rather disheartening in a novel. I should have known that the beautiful and lovable Lucy Ashton would go insane and that the gallant Edgar Ravenswood would meet a tragic end, but I wished it had been otherwise.
I read the first few pages of East of Eden perusing the shelves of Knoxville’s Central Street Books (dearly departed, I hear), intrigued by the way Steinbeck paints the thirsty Californian landscape of the Salinas Valley like Hardy is famous for describing the English countryside. When a friend at church here offered to lend me the book, I thought I’d give Steinbeck a try. Based on the title, it’s obvious that the book has Scriptural illusions — and certainly the characters, good and bad, seem to have been banished from Paradise and to be ripe for conflict. The two brothers who begin the story — Charles and Adam — share the initials of Cain and Abel for a reason, as do Adam’s sons Caleb and Aron. (I’m not sure quite where Cathy, Adam’s wife, comes from [besides the tempter himself]. The reason my * of recommendation is in parentheses is that she not only goes off the deep end, but the reader gets perhaps a fuller description of it than was necessary.) The book deals with universal themes, for sure — guilt, forgiveness, and free will. You might not find the orthodox answers you were looking for — certainly not neatly encapsulated in a happy ending — but it could be quite the book for discussion.
I enjoyed Animal Farm. I hadn’t expected to, but really it’s quite funny in parts. Orwell does a great job of caricaturing the worst in people when they either gain or lose power within a society.
Wow, after Animal Farm, one might expect a scathing review of the abuse of power, but perhaps not quite utter hopelessness. In 1984 Orwell paints a bleak picture not only of totalitarian governments dressed in the guise of the well-intentioned “Big Brother,” but also of the defeat of the individual. Although the reader commiserates with the protagonist Winston Smith throughout most of the book (because of and in spite of his weaknesses and sins), by the end he is pretty despicable. Orwell paints a picture at such a far extreme from “man is basically good” that his reader is left with the message that courage, suffering, and love are all subservient to the grinding power of blackmail, violence, fear, and self-interest. I’m reminded of Solomon’s statement: “Vanity, all is vanity.” I suppose from a theological point of view (I doubt Orwell’s) we get a sobering reminder of humanity’s depravity. But, there is no relief or redemption at the end — only a broken man pitifully singing the praises for the regime he once rightly hated. It’s not a book I’d recommend, and I wouldn’t call it appropriate high school literature (pretty risqué in parts, if you ask me).
Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
Oh, no! A teacher wants me to conduct an English lesson on one of the Hunger Games novels? I’ll admit, I was not enthused. Amazon says it’s for ages 12 and up, but I’d like to say that while it is a quick and even entertaining read, it’s not going to go down in history as great fiction (or something’s wrong if it does) and that it definitely raises some questions of what’s valuable content, especially for young readers. I was really glad that I read the synopsis on-line of the following book, because to whatever degree I was captured by the story, I’m pretty sure Collins ruined the series in book three.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)
I’m not usually much for modern light fiction, but this was a quick, fun read. The story takes place on Guernsey Island (off England’s southern coast) shortly after the end of WWII, during which it was occupied by German forces. The character development and plot are all conveyed through letters written by the various main and minor characters, which actually mostly works.
**Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Frederick Beuchner)
This is a strange and wonderful book. Strange, because you never know what the author is going to say, and sometimes it’s a little odd. Wonderful, because he says so much that resonates with the “already-and-not-yet” of the Christian life and because he is a master at telling stories. When was the last time you laughed out-loud at a retelling of the story that Abraham and Sarah were going to have a baby in their old age or that you considered Pilot’s question, “What is truth?” against the backdrop of a nicotine-stained office and the bored ennui of the local magistrate? The book was so good that I read it twice this summer.
Being a big fan of books written by Tim Keller, I borrowed this one from my mom for the summer. I think it’s probably better appreciated by married folks, but I found the critique of the typical Western approach to seeking a marriage partner in large part realistic — especially, that singles tend to write off others as “not potential” because they don’t strike us particularly interesting or handsome, forgetting that compatibility may have little to do with first impressions. Certainly, Keller’s description of the goal of Christian marriage — the long, arduous, joyous task of helping one’s spouse to be formed more into the image of Christ — is a good wake-up call for those married or single.
It strikes me as funny that I read Emma more or less at the same time as Keller’s Meaning of Marriage. Emma the match-maker has her own lessons in true compatibility, although everyone is happily matched in the long run. I don’t think Emma has quite as much appeal as Pride and Prejudice, but it was a great read on the beach in Spain. And, having much enjoyed on more than one occasion the long 2009 BBC version, it was gratifying to discover that the movie almost perfectly matches Austin’s novel.
*The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne)
Taking advantage of the big bookstore in a nearby train station, I spent part of two Sundays reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I didn’t know what it is about beforehand. although the title was familiar. Wow, not something to read when you’ve had a rough day! Nonetheless, a captivating story told from a child’s perspective. Only gradually do you realize that the setting is WWII era Germany and Poland, and I certainly had no idea that an innocent game of playing dress-up would lead to the books conclusion in a concentration camp gas chamber.
* Inside Story: The Life of John Stott (Roger Steer)
I enjoyed this book’s insight into the life of a famous pastor and church leader within the Evangelical church of the 20th century. What stuck out to me most was the author’s portrayal of a consistency of life and witness that spanned about 70 years of ministry. It was also notable that those who knew him best spoke of his humility, even though his writing and preaching and church leadership had made him famous around the world and he was a chaplain to the queen. …Now I should find some of Dr. Stott’s prolific writing to read!
This tiny book is a bit to wade through (a second time), but there is plenty of food for thought for the willing reader. The author uses the Nicene Creed (“I believe in one God, Creator; one Lord, incarnate, crucified, glorified; the Spirit; the Church; and the world to come”) to describe the inner life of faith worked out through the perfect law of love.
If you’re willing to work your way through a long biography written by someone with a broader English vocabulary than most, you will be rewarded indeed. But, don’t expect to avoid some participation in the struggle of God’s call to faith in action that Metaxas details through the life of this pastor, theologian, and subverter of the Third Reich. This glimpse (albeit a 550-page glimpse) into the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is certainly the single most beautiful and challenging biography I’ve ever encountered. I read it first the summer I was in Vienna in 2008, then started re-reading it months and months ago. I kept laying it aside and picking it back up, but finally I finish it for the second time this past week. The book offers a history lesson such as one never got in school and paints a picture of a man whose absolute dedication to Christ and His Church fostered rather than stifled an enthusiasm for music, art, travel, discussion, and a practical outworking of faith that led to his controversial and inspiring role in the conspiracy against Hitler.
What I’m currently reading:
The Way of a Pilgrim (translated by Helen Bacovcin)
An unusual book describing a Russian Orthodox pilgrim’s pursuit of how to obey the command to “pray without ceasing.” I’m not crazy about the book (some mixture of style, translation, and unfamiliar religious expression). However, the sincerity and devotion of the pilgrim who narrates the story reminds me of the genuine, persevering faith of the Orthodox acquaintance who gave me the book.
After a discussion with a colleague about the tradition of Name Days (like a second birthday, with cake and present, presented on the day of the saint whom you were named after), she lent me this book. Beloved Austrian Saints is a kids book — so, I can just manage to get enough of the German text for the enjoyment of sufficient comprehension. The book tells the legends associated with about 30 saints — from the four Evangelists to the mother of Francis of Assisi to a 10th century Austrian from what is now Voralberg. The tales are simplified for the young audience, but I’m enjoying the book for its linguistic value and insight into Austrian religious heritage. To someone who didn’t grow up within Catholicism, there’s some humor, too: Did you know that Christophorus is the saint for travelers by car, bridge-builders, and gardeners? Or, that Anna is a saint for all women (wow, that’s a big job), plus mountain dwellers?
…If you have made it this far, you must be a Voracious Reader! If you are Voracious Reader, would you be willing to share your reading suggestions? Thanks!