Friday Blog Hop

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an idea that sounds like a good one. A bunch of book bloggers put their sites on a list and then visit each others blogs to see what others are reading and to read their reviews. I'm trying it for the first time today. Hopefully I'm doing this right and the list of blogs will appear here so that you can check them out if you are so inclined.

"Pascal's Wager"

Pascal's Wager by Nancy Rue

First of all, I love the cover, with it's metallic sheen and grunge look, and the title "Pascal's Wager". As often happens, the outside promised a little more than it delivered.

The story is based on something said by seventeenth century mathematician Blaise Pascal: "Either God exists, or He does not. But which of the alternatives shall we choose? Reason cannot decide anything. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun, which will come down heads or tails. How will you bet? Reason cannot determine how you will choose, nor can reason defend your position of choice. Let us weigh the consequences involved in calling heads that God exists. If you win, you win everything, but if you lose, you lose nothing. Don't hesitate, then, but take a bet that He exists."

The two main characters are a mathematician and a philosophy professor. The mathematician in trying to sort out her life now that she has to deal with her mother's illness on top of her research, class duties and office hours. The philosophy prof, who has taken the bet that God exists, would like to offer her some answers to the questions she's asking, but mostly ends up irritating her.

She is easily irritated, and quick to strike back. This may be the first novel I've read, written in the first person, in which I don't like the "I" at all. Sarcastic, cynical and cold, there's not much to like. Fortunately we begin to see her character develop early in the book and that makes the reader want to give her a chance, otherwise I might not have read the book at all.

The story contains some action, a bit of comedy and lots of academia, the latter always being an attraction for me. The characters are reasonably believable, the dialogue mostly realistic and it moves along at a good pace with the writing not getting in the way of the story. (Is it sad that I'm using the absence of flaws as a positive point?) As "Christian fiction" it impressed me with it's unusually down-to-earth "God talk". The lack of cliches gives me enough hope for this genre that I'd like to try another of the author's novels to see if it holds up.

I was looking for a quick and easy read, so I enjoyed this. I'd place it somewhere in the vast chasm between literature and fluff. I like literature, but sometimes want more escapism than it provides, and I don't like fluff but read it sometimes because I can't always find something in the middle ground. This one is middle ground, with a decent story line and a realistic look at some of life's bigger issues. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Christian fiction.

"In The Beauty Of The Lilies"

In The Beauty Of The Lilies by John Updike

I picked this up again and read a few more pages, but I'm not going to finish it. I just don't like it. I feel as though I should like it, but, alas, it's not working for me and I have stacks of other books I want to read, so I'm moving on. The only decision left to make is shelve the book or toss it?
Next up: Pascal's Wager by Nancy Rue

"Two Old Women"

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

This little book is the retelling of an old Indian legend. It tells of a tribe struggling to find enough food to get through a hard winter and making the difficult decision to leave behind two elderly women who were a drain on their dwindling resources. Why waste their precious food on people who were going to die soon anyway? It was expected the women wouldn't last long in the frozen wilderness; this was not the first time the tribe had been forced into this situation. But these two women decided not to lay down and die. If death was to come, it would have to fight for them. Their motto became "Let us die trying".

One of the woman was 75, the other 80. They made snowshoes and trudged miles to get to an old camp, sleeping in deep snow pits they dug for shelter. They hunted for their food, made coverings from animal skins, gathered fuel for fires and did whatever had to be done to survive. When they grew tired they rested, but they pushed each other to keep going.

The book goes on to tell how the tribe met up with the women again and how the old women dealt with the feelings of betrayal and the tribe with their feelings of shame at leaving them. The story of how they learned to trust each other again is an inspiring and satisfying one.

The way the story is written, I felt like I was sitting around a campfire hearing it in person from one of the Gwich'in people. It took only a couple of hours to read it, but I think it's going to stay with me for a long time. It reminded me how strong the human spirit is and how far perseverance can take you. Definitely worth reading.

"In The Beauty Of The Lilies"

In The Beauty Of The Lilies by John Updike

I'm trying to remember why I bought this book. I know I was interested in the authour, having heard good things but never having read anything of his before. And the title is a phrase from an old hymn, which has to be a good sign right?

I am in a quandary with this book. I'm half way through and honestly don't know if I want to finish it or not. I'm not really enjoying it. I find it too wordy, the sentences too long sometimes and not getting to the point without a lot of unnecessary description. Probably not the best choice after reading Hemingway, who says everything as simply as possible and seldom uses an adjective, which endears him to me no end.

I made myself read to the middle to give the book a fair chance, but now I have to decide if I'll keep reading or move on. This is not something I do very often; I hate not knowing what else happens to the characters and how it ends. But let's face it, there are a million books I want to read and I only have so many years left. I think what I'll do is read something else and then decide whether or not to finish this one. I'll try "Two Old Women" by Velma Wallis next. It's a book I found on Alibris, hard cover for $1.99. I do love Alibris.

I'll let you know what I decide about the Updike book.

In Honour of Poetry Month

Because April is considered National Poetry Month (somewhere) I thought I'd post a few of my favorites. Do you have a favorite? Post it in a comment so we can all share. Happy Poetry Month!

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud
by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Sonnet # 30
by William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it's queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

She Walks In Beauty
by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o'er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o'er that brow
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,—
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.

by Bliss Carman

For a name unknown,
Whose fame unblown
Sleeps in the hills
For ever and aye;

For her who hears
The stir of the years
Go by on the wind
By night and day;

And heeds no thing
Of the needs of spring,
Of autumn's wonder
Or winter's chill;

For one who sees
The great sun freeze,
As he wanders a-cold
From hill to hill;

And all her heart
Is a woven part
Of the flurry and drift
Of whirling snow;

For the sake of two
Sad eyes and true,
And the old, old love
So long ago.

Much Madness Is Divinest Sense
by Emily Dickinson

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent and you are sane;
Demur, you're straightway dangerous
And handled with a chain.

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking
by Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching.
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

There's A Certain Slant Of Light
by Emily Dickinson

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt, it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything
'Tis the seal despair -
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, 'tis like the distance
On the look of Death.

"A Moveable Feast"

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

In his prologue, Hemingway says readers are welcome to read this book as fiction if they prefer and it does feel more like fiction than autobiography. Not that I think the story is made up, but it's written with a detachment and an admirable lack of self-promotion I haven't found very often in autobiographies.

Though I learned more about Ernest Hemingway from this book than I knew before, I don't feel I know him any better. He does talk about himself, what he did, where he went, how he spent his time, but there is nothing of his passions, fears, dreams, joys. The book's voice seems monotone, as though he experienced everything on one level with no ups and downs. It left me with more questions than answers about who he was as a person.

A Moveable Feast is an account of Hemingway's life in Paris from 1921 to 1926. It includes stories of his friendships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and other writers and artists of the day. For most of the years covered he was a poor struggling writer with a young wife who loved him and whom he loved. He was happy to be in Paris, happy to be married, happy to be writing; it was a satisfying time for him even without much money. There is a sort of sadness though that runs through the book; it seems to belong to his friends rather than to him. There's a vague pointlessness to parts of their lives, a drudgery. He doesn't express this outrightly, but in his manner of speaking about them, you feel it. His feelings toward Paris he is very clear about. He speaks of it as the best possible place for a writer to be writing. A quote from a letter written in 1950 to a friend says “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for it is a moveable feast.”

The real joy in this book is the writing itself. The clarity (which reminds me a little of C.S.Lewis), the effortless simplicity, the sheer brilliance of it! On every page there was something that I would stop and reread simply for the pleasure in Hemingway's arrangement of the words. It also helped that it's set in Paris; I am a pushover for all things French. I'd read even a mediocre book if it was set in France. It is my good fortune that this one has both the perfect setting and wonderful writing. 

Here are a few of my favorite passages:

  • “...I knew too that I must write a novel. I would put it off though until I could not help doing it.”
  • “...everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped.”
  • “ When spring came, even false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."
My copy of "A Moveable Feast" is old and yellowed and chunks of pages are falling out but I’ll stick it back together and read it again because I love the musty, authentic smell of it. A new clean copy wouldn't create the same atmosphere for reading and I will read it many times because Hemingway's prose is so good  it's almost poetry. Add to the wonderful writing this ingenious opening line “Then there was the bad weather” and how could you not fall in love with it?

"A New Kind Of Normal"

A New Kind Of Normal by Carol Kent

This is the story of how a happy, successful couple's life was shattered when their only child, a son who had never been in trouble before, was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole, for murdering another man. I have a son. It tore my heart out. Tears stopped me several times; that's not something that happens to me very often when I read. The pain these people live with every day is beyond belief. The way they live, and even thrive, in the midst of never-ending grief is a powerful statement about them, their faith and their God.

The book is hard to read, but the time and effort are worth it. The author is refreshingly honest about her experience. She talks openly about the bad days and how hard it was, and still is, to get through them. She talks equally openly about how God gives her the strength to face what has to be faced. There is no pretending she's got it all together now or that she can always rise above the pain; she admits she has good and bad days and, sometimes, days that are worse than bad. But she has found a way to continue living in the midst of the mess, a way to keep moving forward and that, to me, is an amazing thing.

A New Kind Of Normal is a well written book, but I really didn't think too much about writing style as I read it. It was the content, the story that got to me; the good writing is just the icing on the cake.

When I first heard the title of the book it was a little like getting elbowed in the ribs. At this point in my life I don't seem to be adjusting to my "new normal" very well and I keep putting off facing up to that. There's too much truth in this book to ignore though; it was a not-so-subtle kick in the backside that I've been needing.

Kent says that she and her husband Gene "have to decide every day that we will choose life in the middle of devastating circumstances instead of giving in to emotional death, depression, discouragement and defeat". Not an easy thing to do. When she wakes up in the morning she has to face the fact that her only child is in prison, that he will always be in prison and that any hopes she had for a future with family gatherings or grandchildren are gone. She has to accept that her beloved child is living every day in a place where he can be beaten, raped or killed. She says she had to "learn a whole new way of living or fold up my cards" and she challenges readers to look at their own painful circumstances in a new way, to take a chance that your new normal might "offer benefits you never expected". That sounds harsh, even cruel, and everything in me wants to reject it. Why can't we experience those benefits without the pain and the loss and the grief?  With kindness and grace she convinces us of what we already knew but do not want to face: that we all have to decide every day to choose life, no matter what that life may look like now.

What will make this book effective in helping others deal with their own pain is the author's candor. She talks about the everyday things: "I couldn't imagine having to make small talk when the news of our son's arrest for murder was burning like acid through my brain and heart". Saying that in words gives other people freedom to feel the same way. When she tells you that the first step to regaining hope is to choose living over withdrawing with your grief and pain, you're willing to at least consider considering that she might be right. She's fought her way through horrible circumstances and that gives her words credibility.

I recommend this book. I can't see how anyone could read it and fail to be encouraged. It's a great choice for book clubs (each chapter ends with a list of questions for discussion) or for anyone who has to learn to live, and not just exist, in situations they never imagined possible.

"Reading Lolita In Tehran"

Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I never appreciated so fully the country I was born in till I read this book. I expected from the title that it would be about a women's book group, and it is, but it is also much, much more than that. My eyes were opened to realities that I wish were not true, but they are, and I find I'd rather know the truth than have only some vague idea about life being difficult in other parts of the world. An impressive and moving story, this is Azar Nafisi's life in Iran and how she and "her girls" tried to find expression for their anger and frustration through a series of book studies.

I wish Reading Lolita In Tehran was required reading for all North Americans. I think it's an important book. Anti-Arabian sentiment is growing on this continent; our nervousness may be the inevitable fallout of the 9-11 attack but I'm afraid we're becoming paranoid to the point of racial prejudice. We need some insight into the other side of the story. In this book Nafisi tells us about people who are trapped and abused inside their own countries and who are as much the victims of Islamic fanaticism as those targeted by terrorists. It's important that we understand their innocence.

There is no freedom for anyone in Iran, but life is especially harsh for women. They are punished for things we don't even think about here: wearing make-up or nail polish, letting their hair show, speaking to or even looking at a man in public who is not a relative. Books that we take for granted are banned, people disappear and are never heard from again. There is flogging or imprisonment for imaginary infractions like "biting into an apple too seductively". Nafisi and a male friend were in a cafe one day when one of the "morality squads" raided the building and they had to separate quickly so they wouldn't be found together and risk arrest or worse. If the lives you and I live on this side of the world were suddenly transported to Iran, we would all be arrested a hundred times a day for what we consider trivialities.

The book looks at the struggle of women to hold on to some kind of personal identity and not drown in the feeling of irrelevance that comes with being forced to completely cover yourself in public and having every activity strictly controlled by law. The authour says that losing her freedoms, she "felt light and if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe". She gathered as many books as she could before the bookstores were shut down and private libraries raided. She says "If I turned toward books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat."  Studying some of the world's great novels with other women gave substance to their lives in a place that was trying to make women invisible.   

She started weekly meetings with several of the women who had been her students when she taught at the university. They met secretly in her home, reading books that were now illegal, and in discussing the characters in the books found an outlet for their own fears and resentment. The girls' families and backgrounds are written into the story with enough detail that the reader develops an attachment to them and begins to appreciate what they were going through. There were times when I was so grieved by the injustice and suffering they faced that all I could do was turn the book over in my lap and sit there till I could accept what I had just read.

The story takes us through the years of war with Iraq, so in addition to the horrors of Islamic rule, there was the frequent terror of bombs falling around them and worry for the safety of their families and homes. And there was always the relentless question in their own minds of whether they should try to leave and make a better life somewhere else or to stay and try to improve things in the country they knew and loved.    

The book moves back and forth from one time to another in a few places and that had me a little lost at one point, but only for a moment. It's well written, organized into sections according to the authour or title they were reading, and at the end there is a series of discussion questions for book groups. I think it would be a terrific book for a book club or for anybody at all. We need to hear what this author has to tell us. Go out and buy this book. Right now.