The Year in Books

DSC_0543My makeshift stand-up desk for sustained reading

It was a year of Will and Winston. A year of drama, poetry, and history. A year of reading from my shelves, a year of reading aloud until I was hoarse, a year of reading with friends. A year of book podcasts. It was a good year for books.

Disclosure: I turned sixty (the letters aren’t as neon as the numbers). How did that happen? I’m happy to be old, really. But I push myself to get all I can from my remaining years. If I live four more years, I and my siblings will have outlived my folks. (My sister died at 67.) It would be helpful (so I imagine) to know how much time I have left. When will closure come?

How does this affect my reading? I toggle between two options.

1) Reading books to release them from my shelf. These are bookshelves groaning with books I own but haven’t yet read. Not many are books I need to keep. But I can’t let them go unread. I don’t want my books to be a burden on those who survive me.

2) Reading the most excellent books I can in the time I have left. Hence: Shakespeare, Lewis, Chesterton, Burroughs, Trollope, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Undset, Wodehouse. I find that having a big goal prevents me from being sucked into books from Kindle First or Free Kindle books or any vehicle that feeds me mediocre reading.

Back to 2017.

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The Literary Study Bible was my edition this year. Single columns, few cross-references made it a good one for reading.

I joined a group on Facebook group that read all of Shakespeare this year. I listened to Arkangel Audio productions as I read along. I treated this as if I were taking a class, planning three-five hours a week for unapologetic reading time. Daytime reading.  I discovered plays I’d never heard of (Coriolanus) and some I wish I’d never heard of (Titus Andronicus).  Marjorie Garber was a helpful guide. Overall it was a fantastic experience.


I’ve been trying to read from my shelf without being so squirrely that I make a silly vow to not buy a book this year. (ha ha!) One of my first rules for living is: Friends buy friend’s books.

I joined a Seasonal Reading Challenge. Each participant sculpts a list for intentional reading the next three months. In truth, this challenge usually adds more books to my TBR (to be read) list because I get so many enticing recommendations from friends.

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See all those Hank the Cowdog books? I’m reading Harry (Potter) and Hank (the cowdog) and passing them off to eager grandsons.

The other piece is audio books. I looked for audio productions of books I owned but hadn’t read. I discovered the Last Lion trilogy on audio and my husband and I listened together. Fascinating stuff! Then, it turns out that in 2017 three full-length movies were released about Winston. Win!

                   

As to podcasts, my affections have cooled for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s What Should I Read Next? Primarily because her recommendations don’t closely enough match my likes. There were a few episodes I loved. But, honestly, I’m tired of her pitching her own book.

I discovered Circe Institute’s podcast Close Reads where I have found my tribe. I started at the beginning and have listened to David, Tim, and Angelina discuss Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, Wodehouse, Kenneth Grahame, Austen, Marilynne Robinson, and Agatha Christie. I’ll be caught up soon; we start reading Howard’s End in January.

For the two people still reading this crazy long post, here is a link to my Goodreads list which includes fabulous food writing, new fiction, mystery, memoirs, and books on architecture, cultural studies, sailing, shepherding, and art.

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The Comfort of Bach

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Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. 1. That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death —
not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,
who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins
and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil;
that he protects me so well
that without the will of my Father in heaven
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, that everything
must fit his purpose
for my salvation.
Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life,
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
— The opening of the Heidelberg Catechism


When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book scratched two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo’s death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. A Bachophile, she listened nightly to a ‘Bach’s Variations’ CD as she fell asleep.

There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach’s chorales, cantatas, and arias while Stapert explained the structure and form, exposed the chiasms, and pointed, whispering See what he did there? I switched from being a reader to becoming a student, immersing — bathing in Bach. I discovered a whole realm of YouTube videos that opened up a kingdom of sublime, profoundly sad, and intensely joyful music.

“Over and over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy.”

“The heaven-haunted music I hear in Bach can be found in any of his instrumental genres — suites, sonatas, concertos, fugues — as well as in his church music. But, of course, in his church music, words can lead us to places where there is likely to have been a special intention to try to capture something of what ‘ear has not heard’ and make it audible.”

My current favorite aria is from St. Matthew’s Passion.

The translation for Enbarme dich —
Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

Reading, studying through this book was one of the most profoundly comforting experiences of my life. Bach’s glorious music pierced me, the beauty often leveling me to sobs. But after the leveling was a lifting: it refreshed my spirit.

Hence, I have resolved two things:

1. To read the other four books Calvin Stapert has written. (Haydn, Bach bio, The Messiah and Early Church Music await me.)

2. To systematically listen through Bach’s canon. I’m not sure how I will sort this, but there are too many wonderful pieces I have never heard. Simply working through the cantatas might be a starting point. I don’t care about BMW‘s; it’s BMVs (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis — a number assigned to each known composition of Bach’s) for me! Do you have any ideas?

I could easily begin again at the beginning of My Only Comfort for a second harvest. I probably won’t right away, but the book will remain on my shelves (the highest compliment I can give these days).

Lila

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Wow. The audio edition read by Maggie Hoffman enshrouded me, made this not merely listening to a book, but an experience. I listened while driving, but when I was home, I found it difficult to do anything beyond listening. Setting the iron upright, drying my hands, leaving clean clothes in the basket, I basked in the cadences.


The writing is spare, the words short. This is a story of abandonment, of survival, of transience. Provision and grace make spattered appearances, but they are layered and torn and patched. Lila finds herself alone but she steadfastly refuses to consider herself needy. The story pivots when she steps into a church on a rainstorm.

Quotes that captured me:

I got shame like a habit, the only thing I feel except when I’m alone.

There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.

Most of the time she thought she understood things better when she didn’t try. Things happen the way they do. Why was a foolish question. In a song a note follows the one before because it is that song and not another one.

If I were leading a discussion of this book, we would talk about the knife; geraniums; gardens; charity; baptism; adoption; King James language; Psalm 22. And Ezekiel.

I was unmoved when I first read Gilead. What changed my response was hearing the audio. I can still remember what I was doing when I listened perhaps five years ago, it made so deep an impression. Now I want to return to the print book and read it with Lila still fresh in my mind.

The Education of Henry Adams

Henry_Adams_seated_at_desk_in_dark_coat,_writing,_photograph_by_Marian_Hooper_Adams,_1883What one knows is, in youth, of little moment;
they know enough, who know how to learn.”

The reader is subject to serial passions. One series is a fascination with the Adams family. After reading about John Adams, Abigail Adams, John and Abigail’s marriage, John Quincy Adams — the reader took up The Education of Henry Adams.  This was not her first attempt, but she was determined to see it through to the end. It took great determination; at the end of Disc 16, she let out a whoop of relief.

Henry Adams was a lifetime learner, an attribute that caused a small measure of affinity between the reader and the subject of the book. (The reader shall be named Lifetime Learner Carol, or LLC.) Adams scorned his formal education in Quincy and at Harvard College, claiming he learned more through travel, studies abroad, friends and mentors. He called this learning “an accidental education.”

Some parts interested LLC: the view of the War Between the States from England; his perspective on Henry Cabot Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt; his opinion of politics, the extensive travels. Other parts,  e.g. conflict between Lord Palmerston and Earl Russell, were snoozers. LLC lacked the mental agility to follow the philosophy of the Unity and the Multiplicity. How a man who was a Darwinian for fun, inclined towards anarchy, became enamored with the Virgin Mary…that confused LLC. The distance in thought between John Adams and his great-grandson Henry Adams — more confusion.

Henry Adams omits twenty years of his education, the most painful span of his life. In those decades he married his wife Clover; twelve years later she, in a bout of depression, committed suicide. Some are aghast that Adams does not mention his wife, but LLC believes the omission is consistent the clinical tone of the book.

Adams closes the book, writing about 1905, “For the first time in fifteen hundred years a true Roman pax was in sight…”  Tragically, the twentieth century was the least peaceful period of history.

One element is memorable: Henry Adams writes his autobiography in the third person. LLC decided to mimic Henry in this review. If one wants to glean the pithy quotes, one does not need to read 505 pages or listen to 16 discs; look here or here or here.

LLC finds that one book completed yields two books to finish: Henry Adams’ Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres (and then it is good-bye Henry!) and David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris (but McCullough is always a hello!).

     

(photograph of her husband taken by Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams, 1883)

Flannery in Janu’ry

Flannery child.Flannery O’Connor, from her childhood home (picture by K. Harper)

I committed myself to reading Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories as part of Books and Movie’s “I’ve Always Meant to Read That” challenge. In the past few years, I’ve acquired everything published by Flannery (except for A Prayer Journal, just released in November). The Challenge gave me a needed push to dive in.

It was more a belly flop than a dive. I collared my young friend Matthew, who counts FOC as one of his favorite authors, and asked him why I should be reading this depressing stuff. His answer:

“Every Christian needs to read O’Connor, to get the pettiness and self-absorption out of their systems.”

And, you know, Flannery grew on me. The later stories made more sense, were more accessible. “More mature,” a lit major would murmur, cigarette dangling between his knuckles.

It has been a baptism by immersion. Two things helped me immensely: I read Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, which made me sympathetic to her and helped me to see her vision. I borrowed two audio books, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Every Thing That Rises Must Converge, which included many of the stories in The Complete Stories. I took 4 mile walks, listening and concentrating. When I had the time, I listened and read along.

No question, the girl was brilliant. I felt kinship with the reviews of her first novel. “They all recognized her power but missed her point.” Here’s an example: In one story, a grandfather is confronted with a woman who claims his grandson ran into her and broke her ankle. He replies, “I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him before.” A clear allusion to Peter denying Christ the night before the crucifixion. Sooooo. What does it mean?

Flannery herself described her stories as odd, disturbing, unconventional. And the irony? With Flannery, irony is a contact sport. Wickedly funny. But it seems her goal was to smack us in the face so we would see ourselves correctly. These stories have much more than entertainment in mind.

Now that I’ve read through The Complete Stories, I’m ready to read through Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose and The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being.

I hoped that O’Connor was filmed giving one of her lectures. I didn’t find that, but I found an audio track of her reading one of her most famous stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” This would give someone a taste of Flannery.

I found it interesting that Flannery substitutes “colored” for the n-word in this reading.

Reading Shakespeare

William-Shakespeare-007After what looked like yet another failed resolution, I’m making way with Shakespeare. In February I mapped out a plan: read one play a month, have all plays read by the end of 2015.

The excellent advice of my literature-loving sister-in-law—read through the entire play in one sitting—eliminated bedtime reading. I would fall asleep before I got through Act 2. The Big Gulp approach made sense to me. Who ever went to a play to watch Act 1 with a notice to come back to Act 2 next Friday?

I pulled out an old trick from my treadmill-reading days: read along with an audio version. The printed words help you listen and the audio helps you focus on the reading. The actors’ inflections grease the rails of comprehension. I could pause the audio to read a footnote, but not get dragged down too much in details.

After this epiphany, since November I’ve read/listened to The Tempest, Love’s Labor Lost, and Twelfth Night. My local library has about a dozen Shakespeare plays on CD; my internet library, using Overdrive, has them all. Even the sonnets. As the kids would say: Booyah!

 

 

You Are Welcome

DSC_5256Because you’re going to thank me for this!

Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) read in a Scottish brogue! A thick, rolling, textured brogue. Oh, man. It’s glorious.

Here’s what you do. Click on this link. The reader you want is Beverly Scott. In this group of short stories she reads 02 – An Unpremeditated Ceremony and 04 – Elizabeth’s Child.

Happy listening!