Three years ago yesterday I was arriving in Vienna on a rainy, chilly September afternoon. At the present moment, I’m enjoying an overcast afternoon with sister and cousins in New Jersey, on the eve of traveling back to Vienna tomorrow afternoon. To keep up tradition, here’s the past year in books!
This is the best book I’ve read in the last year! Chronicling the team of rowers who against the odds won their event in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the book also offers another angle on mid-century history. Not often have I found a biography/history book such a pager turner or the sort of book to make your heart race with the suspense!
The Supper of the Lamb (Robert Farrar Capon)
What a funny book! The author, an Anglican priest and chef, combines cooking, baking, and philosophizing about life and family and food with a wit and humor that are delightful. If you have an aversion to butter, don’t bother reading it. If you love to eat well and celebrate God’s goodness in the gift of palate and pen, you are sure to enjoy it.
“Are Women Human,” “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” and “Why Work?” (Dorothy Sayers)
These three witty essays are each a quick read. “Why Work?” is a wonderful meditation on the nature and purpose of work from a Christian perspective – quite a wonderful alternative (in my opinion) to Arendt’s belabored approach.
Home (Marilynne Robinson )
Last year I read Gilead, a novel shaped out of the letters an aging father writes to his young son. Home follows the same characters, but from another angle…an [all-too-]believable tale of misunderstandings and search for belonging.
Any collaborative pianist will appreciate the title of this book (in English, Am I Too Loud?). It’s the memoirs of accompanist Gerald Moore and an interesting inside glimpse into the career of the author himself and his collaboration and friendship with almost countless other musicians.
The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien)
Last year I read Hosseini’s more famous Kite Runner. His third novel (I haven’t tried the second) is not surprisingly a convoluted story line and not happy. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest the book, but I sort of like that he doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in a neat (or fairy-tale happy) ending.
The Diving-bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby)
A fascinating, short book by a young Frenchman who finds himself launched by a massive stroke from an elite fashion magazine career to a hospital ward. Reduced to communicating through blinking his left eye to signal which letter his typist should write, he crafts a sensory-rich, humorous, sarcastic, endearing glimpse into his shrunken physical world and the wider world kept open to him through one eye and a hopeful spirit.
Ehe (English Title: The Meaning of Marriage) (Tim Keller)
A small group of women from church read together Tim Keller’s book on marriage. Although I’d already read and appreciated it in English, it was a good experience to re-read it in German and to discuss the book with people coming from different cultural and church traditions.
Books for Study
There were several books I read this year that I probably would not have come across except because they figured into a couple of religious studies courses I was taking at the university.
Happily, one text seemed to cover about all that the professor for “Einfürung in Orthodoxe” (“Intro to Orthodoxy”) included on the oral exam at the end of the semester. Granting that it was a cursory overview of a branch of the Faith dating back multiple hundreds of years, it nonetheless gave a helpful overview of Orthodox church history, theological distinctives, liturgical practices, and particular modern-day theological and ecumenical topics.
For “Political Theology and Philosophy of the 20th Century” we read an array of essays and books, including one title each that we were expected to present on at some length in the seminar course. I chose to present on a title that sounded interesting, only to discover later that the author is the father of an acquaintance in Knoxville. Small world. It was an interesting read. Although I appreciated the author’s conviction that the life and teaching of Jesus express an ethic that has practical implications on the personal and cooperate levels, I was less convinced by his occasional leaps of logic.
The evocative title kept me wondering for most of the book what the title actually meant. After decrying how politics and religion tend to form a volatile mix (in mid-century Europe, for instance) and praising attempted separation of church and state (think post-Enlightenment secularist tradition), he ends up calling the secular state itself “the stillborn god,” an (in his mind, at least) noble attempt that may not be able to deal with modern political and social life.
This book apparently invented the phrase “political theology.” It’s a short, somewhat confusing read. According to the author, the authoritative political leader assumes the absolute authority of a divine figure, standing above law and convention in times of national emergency and acting in a sort of messianic role. The reader doesn’t have to wonder why the author’s ideas were appealed to by the Nazi party.
This short book was primarily made up of transcriptions of four talks and the ensuing discussion between four prominent philosophers, addressing religion in the public sphere. Quite interesting. I’d possibly be interested to read more by Cornel West, an African American philosopher who calls himself “bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas.”
The Human Condition (Hannah Arendt)
First off, I have to admit that I only waded through about half of this book. It’s still sitting in a manageable-looking Adobe Acrobat file on my computer. Perhaps if I hadn’t worked at reading it when I was quite so busy and exhausted, and if I hadn’t been reading from my computer, I could have finished it. As it was, the half I read seemed to do an excellent job of 1) parsing terminology and 2) assuring me that philosophy is not my cup of tea. She goes into great detail to describe how man uses and purposes his energetic output. Oh, dear, that sounds silly and confusing! But, what words are left when Arendt claims that man’s “work,” “labor,” and “action” are all significantly different categories that have deep historical and cultural ramifications? Eeks!