Tuesday, April 10, 2012

from the book pile, 2012: Wendell Berry, Madeleine L'Engle, Brennan Manning

to see the book pile from 2011, click here

I've been working my way through the tower of books teetering off the antique writing desk that serves as my nightstand.  Working my way through reading and working my way through the thoughts and learnings each title provokes.

When I first started this blog in 2006 one of my goals was to nurture a forum that kept me accountable for the cultural goods I consume.  Of course, I didn't really know then to articulate the goal in those terms.  The truth dawns gradually: as in in worship so as in culture -- I did not make it, but it is making me.

Having also gotten quite clear with the truth that I will never be a professional book reviewer, I've let myself off the hook and changed up the way I document my reading.

Every new year, I consider making a number goal for books read in the coming twelve months.  It's never a good idea; rather takes away the enjoyment of arriving at December 31 and tallying up titles from the previous year.  Feels like an accomplishment no matter the number.  Hope you enjoy!


1Watch With Me: and Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie Nee' Quinch

Author:  Wendell Berry

Genre: fiction, short story

Published: Pantheon, 1995

General Impression:  
Whenever I visit the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky with Berry as my storytelling guide, something deep inside me stretches out and relaxes.  Even though his characters are not shallow, meeting their days with their own set of complexities, I feel like I can relax that truth will be told in the light of humor, humility and grace.  It's true that Wendell Berry tells his stories with a determination to protect the agrarian legacy of our nation, but his stories don't ever succumb to mushy sentimentalism about "the way it was" or, worse, back-handed sermonette between the lines of his character's dialogue.  (if only James Cameron had learned at the Wendell Berry school of storytelling!)

While, the stories of the kind, lumbering farmer Tol Proudfoot and his school-marm-turned-adoring-wife, Minnie, didn't capture my imagination quite as much as Hannah Coulter and her family, I loved every minute of time we spent together in these six short interweaving stories.  Actually, I sort of felt like I grew up knowing the Ptolemy Proudfoot sort of genteel, gregarious country men among my grandparents' generation.  And, really, Wendell Berry knows the basic elements of true romance, telling the story of Tol's unspoken admiration for Miss Minnie and his knight-in-shining-armor attempt to earn her attention, outbidding everyone for her pie at the school auction.  Who needs a super model leading man and woman with that kind of old-fashioned chivalry? Sigh.

Read this book to rest and delight in the ageless craftsmanship of good story-telling.

One of my all-time favorite character descriptions (an excerpt from chapter 1, "A Consent - 1908"):

"Tol was overabundant in both size and strength. And perhaps because animate creatures tended to get out of his way, he paid not much attention to himself. He damaged his clothes just by being in them, as though surprising them by an assortment of stresses and strains for which they had not been adequately prepared. The people around Port William respected Tol as a farmer; they loved to tell and retell and hear and hear again the tales of his great strength; they were amused by the looks of him, by his good humor, and by his outsized fumblings and foibles. But never, for a long time, would any of them have suspected that his great bulk might embody tender feelings."


Author:  Madeleine L'Engle

Genre: fiction

Published: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins, 1992

General Impression:  
A while back I set a goal to read Madeleine L'Engle's entire body of work.  I intend to keep at that goal, but am so glad I didn't get to k now L'Engle first through this novel, Certain Women.  I liked the protagonist, Emma, well enough.  She had the typical similarities to all of Ms. L'Engle's female leads -- intelligent, introverted, compassionate, slightly traumatized, artistic, introspective, and a little bit lonely.  Really seems like each one is just a re-interpretation of Madeleine's own self and own life.  

Unlike some of L'Engle's other tight-knit fictional families, though, Emma Wheaton's family is highly dysfunctional.  Her father, David, an American actor who has lived for 87-years modelling unhappy marriages, capricious affection toward his children and other selfish tendencies.  Also unlike other plotlines, this novel includes more familial conflict than in others of her novels, more real-life trauma than I've read yet.  And some of it rings true.  

What got me sidetracked was the complexity of all the names and relationships between the main character and her father's many wives and children (with the various wives).  It kind of reminded me of when I was a little girl and dreamed of one day having twenty children mostly because I wanted desperately to name all twenty of the children and give them twenty horses so I could name all their horses.  And then name their children and their children's horses, and so on.  L'Engle tried to tell a story that paralleled the biblical King David and his dysfunctional household, but I couldn't ever quite climb into the narrative because I was too buy trying to keep track of who was who and whether or not I really cared.

No worries:  I still heart Madeleine.  I just won't probably remember much from this story.


Author:  Brennan Manning

Genre: memoir

Published: David C. Cook, 2011

General Impression:  First things first, I love the cover of this book!  I wish I could show you some photos of some of my dad's family to explain how much similarity there is between Manning's face (especially those eyebrows!) and some of my second cousins and great uncles.  OK, now on to a more proper review...

It's been a while since I've read anything by this author who has had such a deep influence on my understanding of Gospel grace.  Over the past several months, I thought several times of pulling one or more of his titles off my shelf and re-reading.  A couple of weeks before my birthday, Brian and I were strolling through a bookstore about ten minutes before it closed.  I saw this on an endcap display and snatched it up without thinking twice, deciding it'd be a perfect early-birthday gift for me!

I read it one sitting -- until 2am.  Manning's story did not surprise me as much as help me connect all the dots between the bits and pieces of self-disclosure I'd read in his other books.  I was sad to hear so much suffering in his life, so much heartache, so many failures.  And I was a bit nervous to turn each page, afraid to discover the story that would ultimately discredit all that I'd learned from this alcoholic, de-frocked priest.  Instead, each sad story, each disappointing relationship, each new discovery of weakness served only to increase the man's credibility as a ragamuffin -- and now an aging, ailing man -- in need of grace.  His stark, naked transparency about his own history as a liar and a drunk made only one thing glaringly true:  all is grace, indeed.

An excerpt in which one favorite writer (Manning) quotes another favorite writer (Robert Farrar Capon):

"Some have labeled my message one of "cheap grace." In my younger days, their accusations were a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge. But I'm an old man now and I don't care...I have come across another [phrase] I would like to leave you with...I found it in the writings of the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon. He calls it vulgar grace...My life is a witness to vulgar grace -- a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief's request -- 'Please, remember me' -- and assures him, 'You bet!' A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father's side not for heaven's sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It's not cheap. It's free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough."


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