What We’ve Been Reading
Here, five of the Curator editors each share a line or two about the last five books they’ve read. If you need inspiration for selecting your next read, you might find some here.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Having read most of Dickens’s early works other than this one, I wanted to read it. I’m two-thirds of the way through, and there are already a lot of good moments, particularly when the villains start to get what’s coming to them. Dickens makes every character unique and lovable (or loathable). What’s beautiful is to see a character with basically only one trait plus an amazing goodness of heart, like Newman Noggs or Miss La Creevey.
Lots of Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy Sayers. Since I read a lot of heavy literature for classes, I enjoy relaxing with a mystery story. My go-to used to be Agatha Christie, but I ran out of her books lately, and found Dorothy Sayers an excellent substitute. The books are character-driven and concern themselves more about the people than about the mystery. Lord Peter is a complex character—good-natured and forcibly light-hearted, with depths that he hides from nearly everyone, as a result of his WWI shell shock. What with his flippant speech, his chivalrousness, and his quaint culture, he is a striking personality.
The Iliad. An epic storyline told in a masterful poetic style, the Iliad is a lot of fun to read. It’s good to get to know “that great tactician, Odysseus” and his comrades. The story is a bit bloody, and not as fascinating as that of the Odyssey, which I have already read, but the Iliad is still a fruitful read. Unfortunately, I am only halfway through so far.
The Princess and the Goblins and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. MacDonald writes fascinating plots, particularly in his fantasy/fairy tale genre stories. I love him for his occasional off-topic sermons, which cut to the heart of a matter and continually demonstrate Christ’s more excellent way. I don’t usually like to hear preaching in my literature books, but I will take it from a man who believes in God as unswervingly as MacDonald does. These particular stories are about a young man who needs to stand off against evil machinations, wielding only his simple courage and goodness, along with some other mysterious aid. MacDonald is convicting and inspiring while being entertaining.
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams. I had tried reading this book before, and failed, partly because I was reading it in ebook format, and also because I didn’t give it enough of my focus. This book’s setting is a startling one—a dead woman named Lester faces a magician who wields death and blasphemy. With Lester, another young woman, almost dead, has nothing but her baptism and her love; however, in their story, love transcends death and breaks the bonds of power. The wisdom of this world and its kingdoms retreat under the assault of redemption. Williams has incredible insight into the mysteries of incarnation, and recognizes good and evil for what they are. I will be reading this book again.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, in which Gladwell shows, through a series of stories and research, that your instinct and intuition/reflexive mind can lead you to more accurate, or at least to equally accurate, decisions as logifying your way laboriously and thoroughly through all the data. Recommend to all logic oriented people.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, concerning cultural patterns and lifestyles of successful people in a variety of different fields. Telling their stories and drawing parallels to the things that overlap nearly all outliers’ lives. Pointing out that we are not “self-made men” but are gifted or hampered in so many behind the scenes ways. Recommend to everyone.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. A compelling combination of stories of the triumph of the underdog. How the perceived strengths of the “giant” are also usually his point of greatest weakness. And how the unexpected creative opportunities can be used to turn the tables in a previously uneven match. Recommend to people like myself who tend to feel that they don’t “meet the bar” of popular expectations, or are underdogs.
St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton. The biography of a saint who lived more than 500 years ago, about which there is much mysterious folklore floating about. Chesterton avoids these shadows and pitfalls and focuses on a few key incidents in Francis’s life that seemed to shape why and how he became the sort of man that he did. Recommend to those interested in history and big words.
Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny. Set in the wilderness of Quebec, and cloistering 24 passionately musical spartan monks, the monastery of Saint Gilbert Entre-les-Loups has taken the vows of solitude and silence, for hundreds of years already. The plot is built around Gregorian chants which they study, write and sing and which eventually lead to a murder and the massive barred door finally being forced open, secret rooms searched, and more things brought to light than most anyone expected.
The Crime detectives explore the deep crevices between the divine and the human in a somewhat oracular, contemplative way. Towards the end it becomes emotionally harrowing as tensions and rot are exposed on more than one level. Recommend to those who like moral puzzles and detective-type stories.
Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K.A. Smith. This is the first book of James K.A. Smith’s I’m actually reading for myself. I’ve gotten a good deal of second-hand familiarity with his work on the importance of cultural liturgies/formative practices, but this book steps back and examines philosophical assumptions, and his thinking here no doubt determines where he comes out practically. (Or would he say the reverse is true? . . .) I’m actually not finished with this one yet. So far, he’s done a good job of clarifying what Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault actually thought, in contrast to what popular simplifications (especially [understandably?] mistrusting Christian simplifications) assume they thought. Not being a scholar of any of those three thinkers myself, his clarifications seem entirely plausible to me, but I remain unconvinced that the clarified positions are as compatible with Christianity as he argues. It appears he does a more rigorous analysis in The Fall of Interpretation, which I think will address my quibbles, so I acquired that book as well, and hope to read it soon. I recommend this book to anyone who finished this review.
Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson. This is my favorite author right now. I actually have not technically read any of her books, but since I was doing a lot of driving, I listened to her books on Audible (Maggie Hoffman’s narration is Perfect). This is a story about a woman and some other women and a man or two. Also there is a very, very sharp knife. I liked the part about the preacher’s sweater. An odd marriage, and strangely ever after.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I must say again: This is my favorite author right now. I’m in the middle of my third time through this book in the last six months. That is not normal for me. Actually it’s the fourth time in the last six months, but the first time I was falling asleep. Not just back and forth between waking and sleeping, but I seemed to be continuously in a seamless state between sleep and nonsleep. That is only one of the many good ways the book can be read. Some of the moods and themes are transience and permanence, permeability of reality with memory and desire, the cold, surfaces and depths, aloneness, water, separation and reunion, cold blue, cold golden light.
I’ve also read and loved Home and Gilead, but not so recently. Robinson’s prose is beautiful like tangible thought, and her characters feel incomparably real. Her sympathy and judgment is generous and complex. I recommend her work to anyone who was once silent for awhile.
Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard. I have often struggled to know what we’re talking about when we say such things. Willard says many of us struggle that way. My questions remain, in some form or another, but this book somehow compelled me through those questions to a fresh openness. I count it one of the more important influences in my recent life. Particulars of my personal journey doubtless factor into this estimation. Philosophical but not speculative, with a strong strain of common sense. I recommend it to anyone, but especially fellow doubters.
The Giver by Lois Lowry. One I’d been meaning to read for a long time. A nice, sad dystopia. Relevant not least to artists. I don’t know how to interpret the ending. Deserves a better review, but famous enough I don’t need to give it one myself. Recommended.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck was very interesting and I recommend it for anyone unfamiliar or new to Steinbeck’s books. It’s a good starter, in my opinion, and should be followed up with “Sweet Thursday” and “In-Dubious Battle.” Steinbeck is always a pleasure to read with his real-to-life perspective and textured outlook. His conclusions may come as a surprise to anyone expecting a happy or successful ending but this is also one of the strengths of his work.
Bandersnatch is for those familiar or interested in the writer’s group named the Inklings. It follows the scorching creative processes and criticism that the Inklings provided each other, giving a glimpse into the personal writing styles and conversations that formed some of my favorite books such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.
Animal Farm by George Orwell is a humorous book that allows the reader to see political matters from an entirely different perspective. The animals on this allegorical farm take on a life of their own in hopes to prove they are equal with humans. Thus a long fought game of the wits begins as they make life difficult for the farmer and show their talents in working to overturn the oppressor. Creative and insightful.
My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman is one of the best faith-related books I have read in a while and is a must read. Through some of his most difficult life experiences he explores the idea of faith and gives a beautiful perspective of life and death. It is paradoxically both joyful and sorrowful, which is also the way I would describe life as well. Woven into his exploration of faith is some of his incredible poetry, adding exponentially to the value of the read.
The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. An exceptional exploration of relationships, love, and the connection of the spiritual to the unconscious of our mind. His clarity and precision is refreshing; it’s something I rarely find in psychology books. If you are even slightly interested in psychology this is definitely one of the clearest books I have read in awhile. Many of the quotes and thought processes from this book will stay with me for years.
The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander. A Catholic meditation on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Lyrical, potent, Christ-centered. This book sits with Mary as with any ordinary woman and asks what it must have been like for her to bear the burden of the Incarnation, and how through her submission, Christ is incarnate in the world and in His people.
The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick. Another great nonfiction about a disappointed artist who successfully passed off six of his own works as rediscovered Vermeers in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. When after the war he found himself facing charges of treason for selling Dutch national treasures to the Germans, he became the most eager witness in the case against the paintings’ authenticity. The story in itself is thoroughly entertaining and well-written, but it’s also good for its exploration of the psychology behind our perception of excellence and the influence of assumptions and peer pressure on our opinion of art.
Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. An obligatory classic that I’ve finally gotten around to. And, wow, I had no idea it was so, um, far from stuffy. Can’t say it is a favorite or anything, but I’m glad to have it under my belt at last.
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. A novel following several a group of women and their families who are all tied together in one way or another by the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl that took place several decades earlier. Moriarty has a touch for snappy turns of phrase and a breathless plot, but like most modern fiction, it’s a bit depressing. A study of women’s relationships with each other, their families, and their pasts, and a reminder of how little most of us really understand about those we think we know.
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. All of Cahill’s books on history are fascinating. Did you know that but for a collection of colorful book-loving Irish monks, many of the ancient classics may have been lost to the world? I especially loved the chapter on Columcille—St. Columba—and the story of a battle fought over a copy of a book. Only in Ireland.
Artwork: Constantinople, Ivan Constantinovich Ayvazovsky (1817-1900)