Saturday, July 12, 2008

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Let me start by saying that I could not do justice to this book if I labored for a week over a blog post, so I simply won't try. Just remember two things--(1) this book is much, much better than anything I am going to say about it, and (2) when I tally up the best reads of 2008, this book will be on that list.

My taste in books runs to character-driven books laced with philosophy, faith, and depth, and I already knew this book fit those criteria. Nevertheless, my first experience reading Wendell Berry was unexpected, and so I tried to set any pre-conceived ideas aside and just read, letting the book say what it had to say. Which turned out to be a lot.

Jayber Crow, the narrator and main character of the book, lived a life that could be summed up in a brief sentence or two. He didn't DO much of anything, so this book isn't about what he did. It is about who he was. And because no man is an island, it is about the people who lived and moved around him, making up the community he chose to live in, and for that, 350+ pages are barely enough.

There is a sometimes-told tale of a boy walking along a beach littered with thousands of stranded and dying starfish, washed ashore. He picks them up, one by one, and tosses them into the sea. A bystander asks him why is bothering, since his efforts will not really make a difference in the numbers of dying starfish. The boy reputedly looks at the one in his hand and remarks, "It makes a difference to this one," and tosses him into the life-giving water.

Jayber Crow is a book which earnestly speaks the message that a small life, lived in a confined place, makes a difference. Not to multitudes. Not to the world at large. Not even, perhaps to posterity or generations to come. But a difference. To someone. Perhaps to someone in very great need of the solace or friendship or listening ear that only one person is in place to provide. It is a book that illustrates, in some way, that when Jesus said giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty man, for his sake, was serving Christ himself, he really meant it. Not too many people believe that.

What did love have to say to its own repeat failure to transform the world that it might yet redeem? What did it say to our failures to love one another and our enemies? What did it say to hate? What did it say to time? Why doesn't love succeed?

Hate succeeds. This world gives plentiful scope and means to hatred, which always finds its justifications and fulfills itself perfectly in time by destruction of the things of time. This is why war is complete and spares nothing, balks at nothing, justifies itself by all that is sacred, and seeks victory by everything that is profane. Hell itself, the war that is always among us, is the creature of time, unending time, unrelieved by any light or hope.

But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here. We do not make it. If it did not happen to us, we could not imagine it....It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth.

Small wonder, I think, that Christ told his followers, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples..."

In Jayber Crow, every one of those acts of love is shown--both the positive and the negative.

I'm not going to minimize the book by trying to summarize the plot or story or Jayber's life in a few sentences. I said I couldn't do it justice, and I haven't, but you won't be sorry if you put yourself into Wendell Berry's hands--and Jayber Crow's life--for a while.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

I took a long, long time to read this little book. It contains a lot of big ideas in a very small package, and I just read a bit here and a bit there and didn't hurry through it, although that would have been easy to do with such a small book (81 pages).

I am definitely on board with Lewis' basic premise here, which dovetails rather nicely with other reading I've done. His main theme is that there are absolutes--principles of right and wrong that exist in the world at large--which are not the product of human imagination or belief.

His contention is that by refusing to acknowledge that foundation of the universe, and attempting to use some other method of determining a correct course of action (most often guided by the latest "scientific advances" combined with the most current ideology), we destroy the very thing--mankind--we are attempting to "save."

Naturally, Lewis said it much more eloquently and persuasively than I do. Another interesting feature is the appendix which is a collection of "wisdom quotes" from various ages and cultures, which, although very different in origin, reflect the general absolutes which Lewis is defending.

This book was written during World War II, and although only the most oblique references are made to Nazi Germany, it is evident to me that at least part of the the message is directed at what was happening there. However, the message was intended to be timeless, not timely, and the need of the world to hear what Lewis has to say is perhaps even more desperate than it was then.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Reading Log, June 2008

I almost feel like one of those faithful bloggers when I get my reading list posted on the first of the month. But we know better, don't we?

Jack and Jill by Louisa May Alcott -- (audiobook) (reread) It has been many years since I last read this book and I wasn't as impressed as I was the first time. If this were a modern book, it would be classified as "YA," although the teens in the book are referred to as "boys" and "girls," because "teenagers" hadn't been invented yet. The best part is the next-to-last chapter, in which the mother embarks on a new style of education for her children, which greatly resembles the style in which I homeschool my own children.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
by Tadeusz Borowski -- I did already write about this one. If I ever run across a Polish version, I will be very tempted to reread it in the original language.

A Strange Disappearance by Anna Katharine Green--(audiobook) This was a mystery of sorts--not too great, not too bad. It's written in an older style which I find rather stilted and unnatural, but it was okay to listen to while I was crocheting. I'll have to share later why I needed so much crocheting time this month!

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (a reread)-- Someone (not to mention names, but my 14yo daughter knows who it was) left this book lying around, so of course I picked it up and (re)read the whole thing. Every time I read it, I get more and more perturbed with Jane Austen for not arranging things better. Suppose all Henry ever did was flirt a bit with Maria, and did not run off with her (a situation I find very out of character)? Edward would have asked Mary to marry him...and then what? I think Jane was tired of them all after this long book and punished them instead of making everything work out better.

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin--a sort of vintage mystery/crime novel, first published in 1954. It won the Edgar Allen Poe award as best suspense novel of the year in the US way back when. Much of it is told from the perspective of the criminal, which is creepy, and you don't really know who he IS at first--great suspense, unexpected surprises, and horrific conclusion. If you like crime novels, you'd like this. I really object to crime novels from the criminal's perspective if the author tries to place you in sympathy with the criminal. I don't like having my emotions jerked around so that I hope they "get away with it." That's not the case here--you get inside the criminal's mind, but you don't LIKE him.

Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

--(audiobook) This was an amazing book and I'm glad I managed to blog about it earlier.

Summer by Edith Wharton -- I actually read this in May, but it doesn't seem to have made it to that list. Ooops. That means I read 11 books in May. This was a companion book to Ethan Frome, which was a winter story in a remote New England town, while this is a summer story (obviously) in a remote New England time, with a female protagonist this time.

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis -- I've been reading this one for a long, long time. Taking it so slowly, I had plenty of time to think about it, but I may have taken it *too* slowly, as I do feel the need now to reread it. Perhaps more quickly this time. If I get a chance this week, I hope to write a longer post on this one.

How did it happen, in a month in which I truly felt that I wasn't doing much reading, that I finished seven books? Now, true, some of them are audiobooks, but it still seems like quite a lot for a "low" month.