Friday, August 29, 2014

Anon, Sir, Anon, by Rachel Heffington

Hello, friends and fellow bibliophiles!

Today I have an exciting book review for you all; a new novel by an up-and-coming indie author, Rachel Heffington, whose previous titles, Fly Away Home and The Windy Side of Care, have already delighted readers.

She's trying something new with today's book, Anon, Sir, Anon, and branching out into the world of mystery. Rachel very kindly sent me an advance review copy, and I'm thrilled to feature her work here on the blog!

The Book
The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.

In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.

When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.

Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.

My Thoughts
Since the story centers around Vivi and Farnham, their relationship is the key to the book's success, and Rachel wrote them with deft touches of sarcasm and banter that endeared them to me instantly. In a way, they're so opposite--old man, young woman, seasoned Shakespearean actor, young up and coming society girl who likes a good dance. But each has a personality that sets them apart from their circle of acquaintance and fits them perfectly together. They are a well-matched detective duo, combining steady wisdom and fresh daring, and I look forward to watching them partner together in further mysteries. The uncle and niece aspect added a unique touch.

And Farnham's prayers with his "liege Lord" were spectacular.

I loved the numerous off-hand references to the Bible. From the most dedicated Christians to the most hard-minded stage managers, they are subtly and yet boldly included. Rachel inserts hints of Christianity, but the characters are neither perfect nor unbelievable. They all have faults; some of them have flawed thinking; but she writes the story as a whole from a solid foundation, and that's how a good book should be.

Not only are the main characters well crafted, but the supporting cast is excellent as well. From gentlemanly Scotsman Doctor Breen to carefree Jimmy Fields, to brooding Michael Maynor and the various home folk around the town, they feel like the sort of people you've known for a hundred years even though you only just met them.

Anon, Sir, Anon, contains several instances of mild language. I don't like language and that didn't particularly enhance it for me, but all in all it could have been worse and wouldn't put me off from getting the next book or reading this one again. Also, those particularly sensitive to romance may not enjoy a couple of passages with Vivi's eager suitors; but they were appropriately handled. This book is written well for a variety of ages, and since it's mainly intended for young adult and adult readers, it includes mature content for such.

Rachel employs deft strokes of description between the creepy old Rowan walk, the appearance of the countryside, and the quirky atmosphere of the local talk. Part of what makes this novel is the attention shown to detail; descriptions are never lengthy, but they're enough to take the tale from an average thriller to a little step above. A literary mystery, if you will. "As cold and dead as a penny in a well" is just one example. For the most part, I was impressed.

The only complaint I had plotting wise was that the actual investigation took a little too long to get on its feet, and we got to see more of the dead-end ideas during the twists and turns than the Right Idea itself. Mysteries generally follow the method of either laying out everything for the reader to guess, or giving them a taste of the adventure and revealing the solution in a grand finale afterwards. Anon, Sir, Anon falls most definitely in the latter category. Since I like to keep a running competition with myself to guess the book's plot before the end, my ego was wounded that I didn't have enough to go on. ;)

The climax is spectacular. Surprising, deliciously suspenseful, and avoiding the common pitfalls that authors fall into. Rachel held just enough secrets from me so I could enjoy the suspense--and then, when the moment came for boldness, carried it off with aplomb. Bravo; well done!

Anon, Sir, Anon, shines all the way through on the various levels that make a book a pleasure to read, but by far, the point I took away most was the way she handled the murder itself. Most murder mysteries consist of an anonymous, not terribly sympathetic body that serves as a prop to show off the detective's prowess. The murder in this book is there for a cozy read, and also there to show off Vivi and Farnham's prowess, but at the same time, it's not just a body. It's a person. And the book loses none of its entertainment qualities for forcing the readers to think--shocking them a great deal--so that we're not just indifferent consumers.

Oh, yes. This is the type of book that gets me excited. Dominion-minded, and crafted with excellence. I highly recommend it.

On November 5th, this warm and endearing British mystery releases to the public. Mark your calendars for Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington, and in the meantime, keep an eye out on her blog, The Inkpen Authoress, for the cover reveal.

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Thunder, by Douglas Bond

I am back again, fellow bibliophiles! Thanks very much for your patience. I had a good and busy week visiting with dear friends, and now it's back to the reading and reviewing, starting off with Douglas Bond's The Thunder.

Bond is well known in homeschool circles for his Scottish novels, The Crown and Covenant Trilogy; its companion series, The Faith and Freedom Trilogy; and even for his ancient Roman stand-alone novel, Hostage Lands. So far I've read most of his fiction works, even a sampling of the Mr. Pipes hymn novels--and it's not hard to tell that his passions are Scotland and the Reformation.

Douglas Bond started off his literary biographies on the Reformation with a stellar novel about John Calvin, told from the perspective of one of his enemies, and continued on with a portrait of another great reformer, John Knox--told through the loving eyes of one of his students.

The latter is The Thunder. As a historical work, it's excellent. As a novel, it's a bit of a conundrum.

The Story
Told through the eyes of young George Douglas, The Thunder begins at John Knox's ordination during the siege of St. Andrew's Castle. John Knox and a bunch of stout reformers are hemmed in by the Queen Regent of Scotland, falsely accused of the murder of the local bishop, and outcasts for their Protestant faith. George, his brother Francis, and their cousin Alexander are all students of the intrepid Knox, along with many other men eager to benefit from his biblical teachings.

When the castle falls, George and Francis are chained for nineteen months to a French oar as slaves, rowing a galley ship. (Yuck.) During their imprisonment, John Knox suffers the first illness that is to affect him all his life long. But Knox is convinced that God will deliver him to preach again in his native Scotland, and when he and the boys are delivered, sets his sights on delivering the poor people from the "idolatry of Roman Catholicism" to worship only "the evangel of Jesus Christ". Through poor health and raging queens; Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots; the death of his first wife, Marjory, and the marriage to his second wife, Margaret; John Knox worked tirelessly to train preachers, minister to the poor, and be a fearless herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He feared no earthly monarch, was gentle to the humble of heart and terrible to complacent church leaders.

And all this while, George Douglas faithfully looks out for his needs, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly, gradually coming to treasure the cause of the Reformation and make it his own passion, not just Knox's. A faithful, humble servant who has a deep love for his tutor, George himself bears many trials that he speaks little of. Love unrequited, hard work, fatigue, and living his whole life putting John Knox and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the forefront.

He's one of those characters that I didn't know how much he sacrificed, because he never said. It wasn't until after the book closed that I realized the full extent of his sacrifice, and loved him the more for it.

My Thoughts
It wasn't until the end of the book that I realized I had mixed up John Knox and John Huss together. Throughout the whole book I was rather dreading the burning at the end, and drew a blank when Knox (sorry for spoilers) dies in his bed with his family and friends surrounding him. That was actually a relief, since it was a better end then I expected.

While this book didn't have time to go into a complete treatise of Mary, Queen of Scots, Douglas Bond chose to take the route of guilty murderer and adulteress. When I first became acquainted with this lady through another novel, it was in a much more positive light; now I see that her life is perhaps as controversial and unknown as Richard III. I wouldn't have minded a more balanced, middle-road view of her life in The Thunder, but perhaps Douglas Bond saw good reason to take the absolute wicked scale based on his own research. It would be a point I must do more research on.

While The Thunder is a wonderful and detailed portrait of John Knox, it has some rather deep flaws as a novel. For one, any fictional characterizations are remarkably flat, and rather pointless to the developing of John Knox's life. George is known for bugging out his eyes and getting sick to his stomach on the least provocation, and Francis I knew even less about--besides the fact that he liked to dig his fingers into his brother's arm to keep him in line. George's only feelings were those that worked to support the reader's understanding of the Reformation. Most of what I loved about him I discovered through inference.

I'm not sensing the passion here. Passion for John Knox, yes. Passion for crafting story and character in an excellent, engaging way--not so much. The last few chapters get much better, and show inklings of what the book could be. I actually started to enjoy them, as George fully embraced his role as deacon, and also cared for Knox's little boys after Marjory's death. But former 2/3 of the book--I wanted to send it back to Bond and say "it's a good draft, but show me. Show me why I should care. Dig down deep, as deep as you can, and deeper still. Don't use the same descriptions and plot incidents you've used in years past. Be fresh--be passionate. Sweep me up in this man's life, and in George's life as well."

In other words, I wanted it to be like The Betrayal--fresh and original in both fictional plot and the Reformer's life.

As one Goodreads reviewer said, "A fascinating life bloodlessly told." It reads like a dry statement of facts. Bond occasionally tries to throw emotion in, but you get the impression that it's there for obligation's sake, since it's supposed to be a novel.

However, novel and plotting aside, it's an excellent biography. John Knox is the strongest character, as he ought to be, and his passionate love for Jesus and the people of Scotland, his hard work in spite of bodily suffering, and his faithful preaching even when he felt unable or afraid are all clearly portrayed. I loved his family life, and my favorite part of the book was his ministry in Geneva, when he spent time preaching with Calvin.

I learned much; before reading The Thunder Knox was a familiar name. Now I actually know facts and details about his life, and could carry on a conversation about him, as well as about the monarchs of Europe during that time period. I love it when a novel gives me a good education at the same time!

It's a hard book to rate. From a historical perspective four stars, possibly even five. From a novel perspective, three stars. But I will say, I enjoyed being able to read a book with no objectionable content, no swearing, and good, straight, clean theology. Those are important books to have around, and I enjoyed giving it a perusal and chewing over its flaws and its strong points. I'll probably read it again; and I'm glad to own Bond's Calvin/Knox collection.

Bond is still writing prolifically, and I can't wait to read his soon-to-be-released novel The Revolt about John Wycliffe, as well as his upcoming historical fiction Hammer of the Huguenots. They both sound intriguing, and he gives a valuable historical education in any of the time periods he writes about. Also, talk is in the works for a movie of Duncan's War. It will be fun to see where that goes.

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In Which I Take Leave of Absence

Hello, fellow bibliophiles!
I was not planning to take leave of absence this week, but in looking at my schedule it seemed a wise thing to do. It is wonderful to sit around the fire telling tales with the elves of Rivendell, but sometimes life in Hobbiton must take precedence! :)

I shall be back on Tuesday, the 26th. Thank-you so much for being wonderful and interested readers; you mean the world to me. :)

Lady Bibliophile

Friday, August 15, 2014

Answering Your Kids' Toughest Questions

"How could God be just when he's going to send Satan to Hell without giving him a chance to repent?"

"Was God just to Jesus by sending him to die for us instead of coming himself?"

"How were people saved before Jesus came?"

I run a Bright Lights girls' Bible study in my house, and the above are just a sample of the questions the girls bring to our meetings. We could be talking about how to have a good relationship with siblings, or gratefulness, or daily spiritual disciplines, and inevitably a hand will go up and out will come a question that first of all stuns me with its theological depth, and second, sends me right back to Jesus for some kind of answer.

Let it be known that young teen girls are capable of deep thought. They watch the world around them; they see the sin in their culture, in themselves, and in other people; they read the same Bible passages that older adults spend hours wrestling over. And they're not afraid to ask for the knowledge they need.

But these questions start before teenage years as well. While I don't have much contact with young children, I can guess with a little intuition that some of the theological questions 4-8 year olds ask make parents bite their nails with worry. What do you say when your six-year-old asks what a homosexual is? (And in today's culture, have no doubt, they'll be asking.) Do you talk about the possibility of sexual abuse and how to avoid it, or don't you? What about when their grandma dies, or their big sister, or their daddy? And an ongoing debate, which stories do you read them from the Bible, and which do you avoid?

Ministry, friendship, parenting is a weighty responsibility--and if you've ever been in a situation where you've been asked a question you don't know how to answer, I have a book for you. :) It's short, clear, simple--the perfect quick read. I read it in four days, and at this stage of my life, that's a bonus.

The content is amazing.

The Book
Jessica Thompson's latest offering, Answering Your Kids' Toughest Questions, delves into the topics that parents most fear discussing with their young ones. Co-authoring with her own mother, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Jessica offers reassurance, grace, and practical examples in each chapter; and slowly helps the parents feel--well, maybe not invincible--but at least that it doesn't all rest on their shoulders. Jessica takes eight challenging topics, spends the first half of the chapter laying a theological foundation for the parents, and then gives three practical dialogue examples for three different age groups--preschool, 5-10, and 11 and up.

Here are the topics she covers:

1. What is Sin?
2. Why Do People Die?
3. Who is Satan? What is Hell? (and demons, etc.)
4. Why Do People Get Divorced?
5. Why Does the Bible Say That? Difficult Bible Stories
6. Why and How Do Some People Sin Sexually? (pornography, homosexuality, and sexual abuse)
     *special note: this chapter is gently written, and not inappropriately graphic or explicit. It has information that preschool-11 would be able to handle.
7. Why Does God Let Natural Disasters Happen?
8. Why Do People Fight and Kill?

Full of practical wisdom, this book equips parents not to fear the day when such topics will come up, but to use them to point their kids to an all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving Jesus, who can sympathize with temptation and pain, and turn all things to our good and God's glory.

My Thoughts
While Answering Your Kids' Toughest Questions is geared towards parents helping their kids, the advice is applicable for ministry leaders, older siblings, aunts and uncles, and any responsible adult with little people in their care. Nor (in case any of my Bright Lights girls are reading this. :) are the answers only for 11 and under. Questions about sin, tragedy, God's goodness, Satan, and other hard topics are ones that young men and women and adults wrestle with as well. It's just, we start wondering at young ages and never stop.

As I read this book, I felt lovingly and gently guided. This book feels like a warm blanket and a cup of chicken soup--yet at the same time, it's not wishy-washy or shallow. It's deep and true, but simple and manageable. Jessica often stresses that we need to remind children we are sinners (it is our nature, not just our actions) and God is Savior (able to save us from our sinful being and our sinful ways). In stressing that, she's not condemnatory, but constantly points to a God who loves us all the time, and whose kindness is vast and unsearchable.

It answered a lot of my own questions. And it's a wise book to read for anyone who's trying to find answers for themselves on these topics, as well as to answer the questions of others. The multitude of Scripture references offers rich support to Jessica's words, and I highly encourage having a Bible handy as you read.

I've already put this book to practical use, and look forward to doing so even more in the future. Elyse and Jessica are a wise and loving mother/daughter duo who have written a real gem.

I hope I'll be able to use it with my own kids someday.

*I received this book for free from Bethany House in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.*

Lady Bibliophile

P.S. The Book Reviews tab has been updated this week--and I hope to update the Articles tab in the near future as well. :)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Strange Glory, or Strange Distortion?

*This post contains a discussion of homosexuality which young readers may wish to be aware of in advance.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a remarkable man and theologian. A conservative Lutheran who joined in the plot to assassinate Hitler, his multi-faceted and complicated life deserves quite a bit of study. Throughout the years, many biographers have stepped up to offer insights, and this year was no different with its offering of Strange Glory, by Charles Marsh.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life and what theology of his I've read have had a profound impact in shaping my own theology, and I gladly seized the opportunity to review the latest work about him.

The angle Marsh chose to take, however, was extremely disturbing.

The Book
Excerpt taken from the Amazon Book Description:

The scion of a grand family that rarely went to church, Dietrich decided as a thirteen-year-old to become a theologian. By twenty-one, the rather snobbish and awkward young man had already written a dissertation hailed by Karl Barth as a “theological miracle.” But it was only the first step in a lifelong effort to recover an authentic and orthodox Christianity from the dilutions of liberal Protestantism and the modern idolatries of blood and nation—which forces had left the German church completely helpless against the onslaught of Nazism.

From the start, Bonhoeffer insisted that the essence of Christianity was not its abstract precepts but the concrete reality of the shared life in Christ. In 1930, his search for that true fellowship led Bonhoeffer to America for ten fateful months in the company of social reformers, Harlem churchmen, and public intellectuals. Energized by the lived faith he had seen, he would now begin to make what he later saw as his definitive “turn from the phraseological to the real.” He went home with renewed vocation and took up ministry among Berlin’s downtrodden while trying to find his place in the hoary academic establishment increasingly captive to nationalist fervor.

With the rise of Hitler, however, Bonhoeffer’s journey took yet another turn. The German church was Nazified, along with every other state-sponsored institution. But it was the Nuremberg laws that set Bonhoeffer’s earthly life on an ineluctable path toward destruction. His denunciation of the race statutes as heresy and his insistence on the church’s moral obligation to defend all victims of state violence, regardless of race or religion, alienated him from what would become the Reich church and even some fellow resistors. Soon the twenty-seven-year-old pastor was one of the most conspicuous dissidents in Germany. He would carry on subverting the regime and bearing Christian witness, whether in the pastorate he assumed in London, the Pomeranian monastery he established to train dissenting ministers, or in the worldwide ecumenical movement. Increasingly, though, Bonhoeffer would find himself a voice crying in the wilderness, until, finally, he understood that true moral responsibility obliged him to commit treason, for which he would pay with his life. 

Charles Marsh brings Bonhoeffer to life in his full complexity for the first time. With a keen understanding of the multifaceted writings, often misunderstood, as well as the imperfect man behind the saintly image, here is a nuanced, exhilarating, and often heartrending portrait that lays bare Bonhoeffer’s flaws and inner torment, as well as the friendships and the faith that sustained and finally redeemed him. Strange Glory is a momentous achievement.

My Thoughts
First of all, let me give Marsh the credit he deserves. His research is impeccable; the footnotes in the back, and the sheer amount of work he's poured into Bonhoeffer deserve their meed of praise. Even in the tiniest details about clothing, weather, and Bonhoeffer's travel notes, Marsh takes meticulous care, and the main text of this book is full of direct quotations in nearly every paragraph. Every biographer should strive for that level of integrity.

Second, the objective Marsh claims for writing this work is also a noble one; he wanted to write Bonhoeffer in an unbiased manner, something that Bonhoeffer's closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, simply couldn't do. While everyone has a bias, and Marsh certainly had his, it's a worthy goal to strip away some of the gloss that close connections tend to put on historical figures.

Thirdly, Marsh truly brought to life a time of Bonhoeffer's young adulthood that I knew little to nothing about. I smiled time and again as Bonhoeffer asked his parents to upgrade travel tickets to first class, sent laundry home by post to be washed and returned, and took trips with his brother, sometimes changing their route without giving his parents advance notice. He was a brilliant academic from a young age, and yet had a measure of obtuseness in his relationships that was a combination of endearing and exasperating.

These points, indeed, deserve their vote of merit.

However, as I continued further in the book, my reactions for the most part were an alternation between grief and frustration, so much so that after some serious prayer and wrestling, I decided to abandon the last two and a half chapters.

The complaints, as well as the merits of the book, are threefold.

First of all, as a reader I like to know where an author comes from religiously. I hold strongly to the belief that an author's religious leanings set the tone and conclusion of their work. It is simply inescapable--what or who you worship is your driving force, and it would be the epitome of blindness to deny that a man's religion does not bias his work, however much he wishes to be objective. After attempting to do some research on Marsh, I could not find where his religious beliefs lie. The acknowledgements at the back didn't contain anything of a religious nature, so I turned to the internet. He's a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia; that in itself doesn't clarify much, as religious studies run a wide gamut. There seemed to be some Christian leanings--but to what exactly they tended was impossible to determine. I couldn't tell if he was orthodox Christian, or all-inclusive to many religions, liberal or conservative.  That concerned me, though it's really the smallest bone I had to pick.

Secondly, a good deal of Marsh's commentary on Bonhoeffer's theology was simply inaccessible to the above-average intelligent reader. I don't have what I would consider an extensive vocabulary; at the same time, I'm no unschooled redneck either. But most of the time I drew a blank, especially in the sections where Marsh discussed the different theologians Bonhoeffer encountered in America. Comments on the Nicene Creed, comments on social reform--the majority left me at a loss. And Bonhoeffer is confusing enough in himself without the added confusion of complicated prose. Half the time I couldn't judge if Bonhoeffer's ideas were sound, because they weren't clearly and concisely stated. While I'm not a proponent of dumbing down hard concepts, there is such a thing as appropriate simplicity--and that's something this biography lacks.

"The greatest liberal theologian of the era, Friedrich Schleiermacher, would try mightily to rescue the reality of the numinous from the maw of a Kantian reality limited to the world as conveyed to the senses."

Go figure.

Thirdly, the major last half of the book contained a constant, subtle shifting of Bonhoeffer from friend, pastor, and fiance of a young woman, to closet homosexual.

While I do not wish to write this review as close-minded denial of any flaws on Bonhoeffer's part, I think it fair and honest to say that Marsh does seem to want to reach the conclusion of a sympathetic, tortured homosexual.

Right off the bat, let me say that Bonhoeffer may have struggled with homosexual attraction. I simply don't know, and it would be premature to say either way. However, I would take it a step further to say that even if he did, doesn't mean that he either liked it, or endorsed it. Committed Christians can struggle with any kind of sexual sin, and that may have been a legitimate thing he had to fight against. That doesn't tarnish what the man did theologically, and Trevin Wax wrote an excellent article on this point here.

At the same time, it would be wrong to say, based on the reading of this biography alone, that he did struggle with it. Marsh definitely slanted all Dietrich's affection towards Bethge in that light, and I took out a pencil and started underlining things that he mentioned. The section about Bethge's first meeting with Bonhoeffer had very little citation in the back on the homosexual point--I would have liked to see direct quotes and discussion from both sides, like Marsh used for other aspects of Bonhoeffer's life. Also, Marsh's commentary on the subject was filled with words such as 'must' in it's 'might' sense, and other qualifiers subtly put in place to guide the reader's conclusion. This sentence in particular disturbed me: "Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, as well as their children and their families, kept any reservations they had about the duo to themselves, and soon welcomed "Herr Bethge" into the family circle." Yet Marsh doesn't bother to document direct proofs he found that made him think the family had reservations in the first place. He simply puts the sentence in without citation.

Our current generation loves warping male friendships. You can't browse Pinterest without finding pro-gay gifs about Frodo and Sam. But not only were these fictional characters not gay, there are plenty of real-life, deep and abiding friendships that were what you could even call 'soul mates' without either man having sexual desires for the other. Luther and Melancthon come to mind, as well as David and Jonathan.

I know many other reviews  of Strange Glory have stated the same thing, so I don't wish to parrot out repeated criticisms, but just because Bonhoeffer and Bethge signed their Christmas cards together and shared a bank account doesn't mean they wanted to be a couple. As one older gentleman said, who saw me reading this book and knew some of the controversy surrounding it-- "Lincoln shared a bed in his office. Doesn't mean he was homosexual. I shared a bed with my brother growing up, too." Which is a little beside the point, as Marsh never mentions Bonhoeffer and Bethge sharing the same bed, but he definitely insinuates deep feelings on Bonhoeffer's part.

That in itself was another source of frustration--if Marsh had enough legitimate proof to suspect that Bonhoeffer had homosexual leanings, then why not come out and say so openly? Why quietly slip in mentions of Bethge at every point of the last half of the book, along with half-veiled comments about Bonhoeffer's liking for him? Why not be honest and say, "While I can't prove this conclusively, I have good, solid reason to believe this to be the case?" Marsh left half of the accusation unsaid to niggle in the reader's mind, and yet he never let the reader forget that it was there.

Towards the end of the book, Marsh's focus on the Bonhoeffer and Bethge relationship started to undermine the biography's integrity, as far as I could see. Bonhoeffer's engagement to Maria received a passing mention, and Marsh used it to hint that Bonhoeffer engaged himself to cope with Bethge's marriage. There were so many other points of Bonhoeffer's life that Marsh could have illumined better. But because he kept harping on the one, he focused on the inconsequential and missed the utmost lesson in Bonhoeffer's life: how this pastor could reconcile being a pacifist and plotting to kill the Fuhrer.

Indeed, Bonhoeffer's participation in that plot receives very little screen time. His choices, his wrestling over spy ethics--Marsh rushes over them for details that in the end, struck me as rather unimportant. Indeed, though he offers a good bit of new detail, by the end of my time with the book, I realized just how little the sum total of the details seemed to matter--Marsh developed Bonhoeffer's theology in his younger years, but after a certain point, the theological information, as well as the extent of Bonhoeffer's work in the war, waned away.

In summary, Marsh's biography illuminates points that don't seem very consequential, and contains others that are downright speculation. Do they flesh out the man a little further? Yes. But while Marsh's research seems meticulous in most aspects, the end result is probably unnecessary for all but the most avid of Bonhoeffer scholars. Even then I think their time could be better spent elsewhere. And the subtle, constant hints at homosexuality will definitely be a deal-breaker for the majority of conservative Christian readers.

Suffice to say, Strange Glory is not a book I recommend.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Lady Bibliophile

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Aim of an Artist

A week ago I started putting some of today's concepts in The Great Conversation, but I quickly realized that they deserved a post of their own. This post is a companion topic to last Friday's thoughts, and further explores the art of conversing with authors as we read. 

I've never read Tolstoy, and I'm a little leery of using a quote when I don't know its context. But it suits today's article, so forgive my ripping it out of its original form and running with it.

Tolstoy isn't the first person I heard this idea from. A few weeks ago K.M. Weiland mentioned in an interview that "Novels aren't meant to provide answers, only ask questions." And as a reader and a bibliophile, it's been niggling in the back of my mind ever since. I'd never heard the concept before and wanted to reach some kind of conclusion on it. Is it true? Half true? All wrong?

In the end, it all seems to come down to which direction you take it.

First of all, it is true that artists must be about the business of painting life in all its manifestations, good and bad. Every author writes a scene to match a piece of reality--sometimes he makes it more beautiful, sometimes he removes the trash from the back alley--but in the end, the most compelling stories are those to which readers can relate to. Reality. Not the gilded Victorian sentiment, but the real, gritty, equipping-for-life, war games stuff.

Well, then, that begs the question--are realistic stories for the purpose of providing answers, or only for asking questions?

Yes to both. There are some times when a novel simply asks a question, and lets the reader seek out the answer on their own.

Why wouldn't we want to give clean-cut, nicely wrapped up packages of perfection?After all, we have every answer we need in Scripture. Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't disrespect your parents. I've thought about this with almost every book that has challenged me most. If Scripture makes it clear, then novels should make it clear as well, shouldn't they? Certainly ethics should be clear. Right is right and wrong is wrong and truth is truth, and every author worth their salt will say it clear and say it bold. That's a point that by the grace of God I hope never to back down on in my reading or my writing. However, Christians and non-Christians wonder, and indeed, most novels are centered around the main question: what happens when those around us deliberately disobey things they know to be true? How do innocent people deal with the consequences of sin in others, and how do frail humans deal with the consequences of yielding to the flesh? That's when the rubber hits the road, and we're faced with contradictions, and difficulties, and things we don't understand. And that's the stuff novels are made of.

We as readers like irrefutable resolutions, plots wrapped up nicely, and characters who see the light by the last page. But in the end, when we close a book with the character realizing everything they ever needed to know, we know that doesn't quite match up. In real life, we don't know how to fix things. Not all oldest sisters shape up. Not all lovers reconcile. Not every murderer repents of their sins, and not every broken relationship finds healing. And there is proper place for fiction portraying that--the open-ended struggle of living in a world broken by sin, that won't be fully fixed until all the saints get to heaven.

More on that in a moment.

It seems wise and true that all novels should definitely ask questions. They should be a quest--a journey--a learning experience for the reader. Then we can divide the questions into two categories: ones that should be answered, and ones that shouldn't

1. The questions that don't have to be answered.

After some thought, I would reword Tolstoy's quote a little bit. He's on the right track, but a little tweaking would make it even better: "The aim of a Christian artist is not to resolve a question irrefutably, but to compel one to love God in all His manifestations, and these are inexhaustible." [bold words are my changes]

The love of Jesus is vast and unsearchable (Ephesians 3:17-19). The wisdom of God is beyond our finding out (Romans 11:33). Sin and grace, mercy and sacrifice, questions about our future and pain and personality--these are all huge questions that we are told in Scripture we don't have all the details of--and in that case, it's perfectly acceptable to leave the message of "we just can't comprehend it" in novels.

For instance, the biggest "open-ended question" a story can show is perhaps found in the book of Job. He suffered horribly. He couldn't see the meeting between God and Satan, or the permission that God gave for him to suffer. Job only knew that his anguish was great and God seemed far away, and he sat in the misery of open sores and judgmental friends. The book of Job reads as a story of a man who never gets his question answered. We, thousands of years later, see that it is because God specifically allowed his suffering--but we're never told why, beyond the fact that we know from Scripture God works all things to his glory and out of love for his children. But at the end of Job, you always end with the question of why God allowed it at all--and are forced to conclude that you have to trust God for the answer.

2. The questions that do have to be answered. 

If Scripture is clear, then we can be clear as well. And we must be. When the character is ambiguous on any point where Scripture has made something abundantly clear, then we as the reader have to ask the question: Does the author expect me to use this character as a role model, or are they trying to show me that this character doesn't always make wise choices? 

If the former, then do a double take and seriously question whether the book was well written. Obvious role models are allowed to do wrong in a story on occasion, but it should be clear that what they're doing is not wise. Otherwise, the author is using them to send a message of false reality to the reader, that wrong doesn't really matter. That's not true artistry, to blur where things are clear, to make abstract things that we should be able to see the shapes of. Artistry paints things as they are--and doesn't alter the sun shining down clear and bright.

How it All Applies
Sometimes a character is there to show the reader that not everyone chooses the right thing. Stories are, after all, to paint a portrait of all aspects of life, and that includes sins and mistakes. Some authors are subtle in the way they show the consequences of wrongdoing, so take a minute to think about their worldview, their story choices so far, and the obvious ethics of the story before you decide whether or not they're taking it the right direction. After all, every good story expects and deserves a thoughtful reader. Good authors don't spoon feed readers with moral theses on every plot. The reader has to work and think and reason in turn.

Because Christian authors and readers look to Scripture as our highest example, there's a point we can take from it for novels we read and write. Everything happens in Scripture because God ordains it for a specific reason--and he works through the messy and the beautiful, the sin and the virtue of his people to accomplish his purposes. Novels can demonstrate the same principle. Sometimes, in a novel, it's very clear that the character has no idea where they're going or why. They're stuck in what they can see in the moment, and have to take things as they come. But the reader can tell that it's all leading up to a purpose, and no matter what mistakes the character makes, that purpose will be accomplished.

For instance, in the novel I'm writing, one of the themes I hope to make clear is Providence. While I don't state it explicitly, it should be fairly obvious over the course of the story and its sequel that the series of events happens for a specific reason. My character is put in a situation he has no desire to be in, and faces a lot of challenges that he doesn't know how to handle. Sometimes he chooses right, and sometimes not, and often he's confused about what his place is in it all. But in the end, it's clear that he's there for a purpose that he and no one else can accomplish, and for a lot of good, as well as a lot of hardship, that he wouldn't have faced otherwise.

I've chosen to make that point completely clear through the story itself. It will be there, for life will be there in all its manifestations. But I never come out and say it openly--or at least, I haven't yet. And not all authors do.

In conclusion, life is messy and complicated; therefore books can be messy and complicated too. As long as they are clear where God is, we can love the wonder of that which we aren't sure about due to our human limitations. Good stories are made, not of moral ambiguity, but of honest, worshipful wonder at the intricacy of our journey towards Christlikeness.

And any good story that adds to the wonder of our God is a beautiful thing.

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. ~Proverbs 25:2

Lady Bibliophile

P.S. The Movie Reviews tab is updated with three new films that I'd love to discuss by email with any of you! :)

Monday, August 4, 2014

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by Andrew Peterson

**Hello, hello! I'm posting early tonight because I'll be gone tomorrow working the elections. You are welcome to read it early or save it for the usual time. Enjoy!  :)

if you'll step inside this great glass elevator
it will take us up above the city lights
to where the planet curves away to the equator
i want to show you something fine
~"many roads" by andrew peterson

Junior B. looked at me with grave concern last night, and asked, "Schuyler, is that a silly book?"

Still mulling over that question, to be honest. And whether or not it's a good or bad thing.

I looked up Andrew Peterson sometime earlier this year, intrigued by the snippets of lyrics I saw here and there on Rachel Heffington's and Jennifer Freitag's blogs. From the line or two I read, he seemed to write truth in a wonderful, magical, soul-enriching way, and I wanted to see what the songs were like set to music. Since then, he's been on constant repeat while I write.

Songs about wrestling with God during hard times, multi-generational faithfulness, yearning for the last tear to fall, glorying in the magic of stories, wrestling to grasp the fierce and legendary epic of God's plan for the world--songs about marriage, and how it's like dancing in the minefields--beauty and peril hand in hand every step of the way. In the midst of a difficult year, Peterson's music was exactly the kind of soul-nourishing, God-glorifying playlist that I needed.

So when I stumbled across his online community, the Rabbit Room, and found he wrote a fantasy series, I ordered the first book from the library right away.

It's so outside the box of anything I've read before that I can hardly encapsulate it in words. But I'll try.

The Story
[From Goodreads:]
Once, in a cottage above the cliffs on the Dark Sea of Darkness, there lived three children and their trusty dog Nugget. Janner Igiby, his brother Tink, their crippled sister Leeli are gifted children as all children are, loved well by a noble mother and ex-pirate grandfather. But they will need all their gifts and all that love to survive the evil pursuit of the venomous Fangs of Dang who have crossed the dark sea to rule the land with malice and pursue the Igibys who hold the secret to the lost legend and jewels of good King Wingfeather of the Shining Isle of Anniera.

My Thoughts
On the Edge of the Sea of Darkness is equal parts disgusting, hilarious, and original. And I mean high doses of all three. The evil Fang lizards eat the most horrible food I have ever read about, and Peterson takes as much delight in describing it as a ten-year-old boy would. But Oskar the bookseller's constant quotes, Peterson's laughable footnotes (which would make Tolkien roll in his grave at the idea that anyone could take creating a fictional world so lightly) and his creative appendices, names, and geographical locations help to balance it out, albeit some of the names are just plain silly. (Yes, Junior B. You were right.)

It's been a long time since I've read this flavor of children's literature, so much so that my sense of dignity was left rather flabbergasted here and there. This, my fellow bibliophiles, is not Little Lord Fauntleroy. But as I read it, I wasn't offended by Peterson's bold and boyish way of expressing himself. On the contrary, I got the impression with this book that it was written for the sheer joy of it. It doesn't hold the anguished passion of man who has to give his message to the world, or the careful crafting of an author who lives in their own universe for decades--it reads like a dad who's having great fun writing a book he would have loved to read as a kid. I like reading a story like that--the good macaroni-and-cheese of literature, as Suzannah Rowntree likes to say.

And that's the best way to describe this book: macaroni-and-cheese, with ketchup on top in some places, just the way kids like to eat it.

You won't find any language. You won't find any sex. You'll find plenty of gag-able scenes, and I took the liberty of pausing my perusal so I could actually enjoy the Angus Philly cheesesteak my nice brother treated me to for supper last night. On the Edge of the Sea of Darkness is perfect for boys, and the 8-11 range is probably just about right, though girls will enjoy it as well, and it might be a great read-aloud, depending on the parent's personality.

The family theme is strong--Nia's character as the mother is very strong. She's a mature single mother trying to instruct and protect and sacrifice for her children. Sometimes she kisses them, and sometimes she scolds them, and she's a beautiful picture of the security every mama tries to be to her young ones. And the children find great security in and try to deserve the good opinions of their mother and grandfather.

One of Peterson's greatest charms is that he writes with the maturity of an adult without forgetting what kids like. There's plenty of high suspense, just enough blood to be interesting, and dogs and creatures and dragons in plenty. He always makes sure the adults fix the problems, but doesn't deny the fact that kids sometimes go off adventuring on their own when they're not supposed to. In other words, he doesn't write his young characters with same the moral maturity as their parents. Janner doesn't always like the fact that his mother and grandfather impress responsibility on him, and Tink goes exploring in places he knows he shouldn't. But Peterson makes right clear from wrong at the same time--the ethics are a little situational here and there, but I hand it to him that he captures the way kids think.

The combination of beauty, normalcy, childlikeness, and maturity is entirely his own. I think I'll look up the next one eventually. But for now, I'm going to return to my new, large Bonhoeffer biography to recover.

Lady Bibliophile

P.S. And here is the link to Andrew Peterson's YouTube channel. It doesn't have a lot of his songs, but it will give you a little taste of what he's like. And if you'd like to listen to "Many Roads", check it out here.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Great Conversation #1--Introduction

photo credit

This week I've been studying words--how to speak wisely. I've also been thinking about writing--how to portray characters who make mistakes without giving readers license to do the same. And today, I've been thinking about reading--how to have the Great Conversation with every author that I meet.

Generally, when bibliophiles pick up a book, they have one of two reactions, and both make me smile. About half of the bookworms will read a novel from cover to cover, swoon over the dark-haired Mr. Handsome, squeal over the climax, and finish by saying "I love that story!!!!!!!" [insert all caps]. The second group will read the book like they're going through a buffet line, picking out all the things they like, telling the other assembled guests rather loudly what they don't like, and ending up by giving it a stringent evaluation as if they were trained chefs grading a student's work.

Both personalities are valuable--it's good to read a story with emotion, and we don't have to sit in a circle holding our paperbacks like wizened old gnomes. So by all means, keep the enthusiasm or the connoisseurship as you prefer, but don't be afraid to take the evaluating as deep as you can go.

I'll fully admit that I fall into the latter group described above. I use exclamation points as little as possible (it is a deeply held principle on my part), and I love using a little snarkiness when I find something I don't like in a book. But ever since May, I've been reevaluating that method of reading, because, left to itself, it's a little prideful.

It all started when I bought The Great Books Reader at our annual homeschool convention. So far I've only read the introduction, but the introduction was so rich and deep and stunning that I had to stop there and think on it for a while. John Mark Reynolds, the general editor, said:
Furthermore, separation from our ancestors has made us prejudiced. It's easy to love the familiar, but past ages come to us in new ways. For instance, they bore or disturb us. The dead say things we would or could not say and in ways that appall, bless, and startle us....
We must turn to books and be willing to have open minds as we do so. They're like us in their humanity but different in their time. This difference sometimes will make no difference, but at other moments it will allow [the author] to speak prophetically. The best revelation of men as they are today often comes from men long dead....
Most of us simply do not pursue the Way, the dialectic, "the Great Conversation" long enough. What do we mean by the Way? Reasoned discourse in a community. The path of knowledge. Following the argument moved by love in pursuit of God. Embracing anything that is good, true, and beautiful, and thinking on those things. -The Great Books Reader, Edited by John Mark Reynolds, Introduction
And I realized when I read this passage that often, entirely too often, I'm prone to have a one way monologue with the books I read, and miss the entirely deeper meaning. This year, I'm realizing just how much is out there in the literary world that I don't take the time to understand.

Take Scripture, for instance. We read it through our very modern eyes and understanding, and often miss what God really intends to say because we don't understand the culture or the time of its writing. I once had the privilege of listening to Ray Vander Laan speak. He's a Christian speaker, who went through the process of being ordained as a rabbi so he could have a better and more Jewish understanding of the Scriptures. Vander Laan illuminated many passages of Scripture as he spoke, but one in particular was Psalm 23. In the verse where the psalmist says "He maketh me lie down in green pastures", we Westerners often think of a fat white sheep in lush, green alfalfa. But in reality, when you go to Israel, the area where shepherds pasture sheep is very dry and barren. The sheep have to follow the shepherd from one little tuft to the next, each tuft of grass just enough for a couple of bites. On the stark hillside, one bite at a time, one step after another, the shepherd leads the sheep. Just enough for the next bite. So "He leadeth me" doesn't mean that God promises us a smart phone for each person in the family, and high speed internet, and a closet full of name brand clothes and a nice price on beef at the grocery store. It means he gives us just enough to live, one step at a time, as we follow Him. I wouldn't have known that with just a straightforward reading.

We bibliophiles, just like we read the Bible through 21st century Western eyes, also read literature through 21st century Western eyes as well. And sometimes we do ourselves a disadvantage as we do so, because we're bound by our limited knowledge. We're quick to think we understand. Quick to condemn wrong. Quick to applaud the faintest hint of right. But it would serve us well to be much more thoughtful, and to look at reading as having a conversation with the author.
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: James 1:19
Instead of being quick to judge, it's good to think over things, to say Why does the author think this? and then, even more important, What circumstance in their life caused them to think this way? What was their culture, and their history, and their motivation for writing this way? 

Most readers are afraid to have conversations with the author, and I freely admit that I'm one of them. For one thing, what if I fall into error? I don't want to believe something wrong for a single second, and therefore it's a lot easier to keep literary judgments on a surface, moralistic level. But sometimes the Lord lets me wrestle through things--sometimes he waits for a few months before he reveals the right answer. And if in life, how much more in reading. If we immerse ourselves in Scriptures and prayer as we read fiction and nonfiction alike, then the Lord will faithfully make things clear to us. But it may take time, and we have to be patient.

 For another, in this age of whirlwind activities it's just plain easier to make a snap judgement and move on than to take the time to really chew over it. But if we really love reading as much as we say, then it is vital that we learn not only to listen respectfully to the different viewpoints we come across, but also to patiently wait until the Lord reveals a concept in full to us. We're not entitled to be wise gurus in our Christian walk by the age of twenty. And being a true, thoughtful bibliophile takes years of work and effort.

The author may have faced circumstances we have never seen, and put forth a lifetime of study that we haven't even started. The authors may have lived during different times that caused for different methods and means of expressing themselves. The meanings of words change, and they might want to express a very different meaning than we understand the words to speak today. Take crude words for instance--they evolve over time, and words that were perfectly acceptable in the 17th century may be extremely offensive today. But just because a 17th century author used them doesn't mean he intends to be crude. In the same way, theological terms have different connotations now than they have in the past, and it's harsh to dismiss a man for believing a concept that you have grown up believing differently about, simply because he lived in a different time period.
Seest thou a man [that is] hasty in his words? [there is] more hope of a fool than of him. -Proverbs 29:20
However, we don't want to go to extremes in being open minded. Some books are quite obviously trash and quite easy to throw aside. Over thinking is not a sign of increasing maturity, and if something's real broke, then it ain't worthwhile. :) We as the reader should be respectful of the author--but we should also be opinionated ourselves. Know your Weapon, know your ground, and if you're entering enemy territory, then be on guard accordingly. Conversations should not be ambiguous; they should be purpose-driven, and reach an ultimate conclusion. Christians have a clear and absolute standard of truth in God's Word. We should not compromise it or leave it behind when we pick up books by other authors. We should take it with us, and evaluate every book we read under its light.

The goal here is for us bibliophiles to converse rather than debate; to take time rather than making snap judgments; to think before we speak. To respect that which is respectable, and respectfully disagree when it is not. God has made his truth available to all human hearts, and though not all authors are redeemed, every author has access to beauty and truth if they will choose to accept it, and we should seek to find it in the books we read.

Some bibliophiles, as they read, prefer to taste the first year's harvest. It's sweet; it produces the same kind of fruit as another year; it's perfectly satisfying. But truly wise bibliophiles will take a book and read it, cultivate the thoughts in their mind, read it again multiple times, and think over the concepts it presents as they grow in maturity and the knowledge of the Lord. And then, after time has passed, they taste the deep fruit of personal reflection, and make wise and sure conclusions about a story's ideology and an author's spiritual understanding when he wrote it.

I'm excited to try out some of these principles I've talked about today with the literary selections in The Great Books reader. Thus, as I read this book, I'll be blogging about it under the name "The Great Conversation" and labeling the posts by numbers. Each chapter is designed for the reader to write a little bit about what they discover, and I hope to do that here. The posts won't be going up in any scheduled order; I have a great many books to read, and I'm content to pick it up a little here and there over the next months, and maybe even years. But I'll be sharing the journey with all of you.

This blog, for me, has been an opportunity to start the Great Conversation--with fellow bibliophiles, with the various authors I have read, with God, and with myself. Oftentimes I wrestle out a book as I write reviews. Sometimes I have deeper insight later on--sometimes I feel like I really hit what the Lord wanted me to say in short order. But in the end, if you scroll back through old blog posts, old reviews, old articles--it's all a conversation and a journey. A journey of learning to be quick to listen, patient in processing, and slow to speak.

It's a journey that I hope I'll continue for the rest of my life.

Lady Bibliophile

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