Tag Archive: Joseph

Cracking the Narnia Code

Suppose someone claimed to have discovered a secret code in one of the most wildly popular children’s series in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Moreover, suppose that this person claimed the code would unlock the architectonic structure of a series that, while certainly a modern classic, has often been accused of being written in a bit of a slapdash manner, with no clear guiding principle.  Then suppose that our interpreter further claimed that the author of the series intentionally used this code, but kept it a secret, only to be “discovered” nearly half a century after the author’s death.  You would think this guy was crazy, no?  These are precisely the claims that Michael Ward makes in his recent study of the Chronicles of Narnia, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.  Want to hear the most outrageous part?  He actually pulls it off!

Words fail to express the genius of this work, which originated as a doctoral thesis at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  Ward’s claim at first appears audacious, bordering on absurd.  The argument can be summed up briefly: each of the seven books in the Narniad (the scholarly term for the series) reflects the characteristics of one of the seven heavenly spheres of medieval cosmology (Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn).  Not only does each book reflect one of these spheres, though; each one actually embodies the spirit of the planet, from beginning to end.  The characters, the plot, the imagery of each book – all of these combine to establish an overall Gestalt corresponding to the book’s planetary symbol.  To take just one example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in the series, is imbued with the characteristics of Jupiter.  It is a Jovial book filled with kingly features, joyfulness, feasting, and the passing from winter into spring.  Aslan embodies many of these features, but so, in their own way, do the four Pevensie children, as do other characters and the very plot of the story.  This Jovial character explains appearances that have seemed anomalies to most interpreters.  Many critics, for example, argue that Father Christmas is out of place in Narnia and so was simply a blunder on Lewis’s part.  Narnia was a mishmash of various mythologies carelessly cobbled together (this was J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous criticism of the book).  Ward argues that the Jovial theme explains the appearance of Father Christmas: rather than an oddity or an incongruity, Father Christmas appears because he is the quintessential Jovial character in modern culture – both in the sense of jocularity, and in the sense of reflecting this and other characteristics of Jove, king of the gods.

The lion’s share of Ward’s book interprets each of the Chronicles along these lines.  Ward does not confine himself to the Chronicles, though.  In each chapter he also discusses the significance of one of the planetary spheres in Lewis’s scholarship, in his poetry, and in the space trilogy (the other work obviously influenced by Lewis’s fascination with medieval cosmology) before turning to the Chronicle that embodies the sphere.  With each successive chapter, the case becomes stronger and stronger, such that by the end the reader can’t help but agree with Ward that his discovery of the schema is definitive – not in the sense of closing off discussion, but in the sense of explaining the fundamental guiding principle behind the series.

Ward does more than offer a fascinating literary analysis, however.  He also opens a window onto Lewis’s genius, his broadmindedness, and his playfulness.  His thesis shows numerous connections between Lewis the scholar, Lewis the poet, and Lewis the storyteller.  Lewis lived and breathed medieval culture, and he synthesized it in a stunning way.  Moreover, Ward demonstrates the capaciousness of Lewis’s Christianity.  Like his medieval hero Dante (and the medieval spirit in general), Lewis did not disdain all things pagan, but rather intentionally drew upon the good, the true, and the beautiful in pagan mythology.  In short, he baptized the pagan gods and used them to represent different aspects of the Christian God he had come to worship.  Finally, the fact that Lewis could use such a schema and yet keep it a secret suggests an endearing puckishness on his part.  Ward suggests that one of the reasons Lewis may have kept the schema a secret was to see if anyone would get it.  The joke paid off, as it took nearly fifty years for someone to get it.

Planet Narnia is a breathtaking work.  It opens new vistas on this modern classic, and it deserves to become a classic itself.  I have long been a fan of both Lewis and Tolkien, but I always considered the latter’s Middle Earth the superior achievement.  While my loyalty still lies with Tolkien, Ward has convinced me that Lewis’s Narniad is no less spectacular.  For any serious fan of Lewis and of the Chronicles, Planet Narnia is an absolute must-read.

Seventeen down, (at least) thirty-five to go.


P.S. If you are a bit daunted at the prospect of tackling a work that began as a doctoral thesis, Ward has also published a more popular version of the work, The Narnia Code (also available on DVD).

An Upper Class British Bachelor

Many years ago a friend of mine recommended to me P. G. Wodehouse’s short stories about a British gentleman named Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves.  At some point I saw a T.V. episode based on the stories, and found it pretty amusing, but it took me a while to get around to finally reading some of the stories, which I did this past weekend.  Since a couple of Wodehouse collections are conveniently available as a free download for my Kindle (new toy), I decided to give one a whirl.

My Man Jeeves is a collection of eight short stories, most of which center around Jeeves and Wooster, but a few of which focus on Wodehouse’s earlier character, Reggie Peppers.  The stories present a comical window into the life of the pre-World War II social elite, and they are told from the first person perspective of Wooster.  In this collection Wooster, a man of considerable means, has taken up residence in New York City, in part to get away from the influence of his burdensome Aunt Agatha, who still lives in London.  Wooster’s world consists of being waited upon by Jeeves, enjoying NYC’s nightlife, and (with the considerable help of Jeeves) helping get his friends out of fixes.

The stories are somewhat formulaic – a friend approaches Bertie with a problem, Bertie asks Jeeves to help find a solution, hilarity ensues, Jeeves finally solves the problem – but are no less amusing for the familiar pattern.  Wodehouse’s characters – not least the title characters – are positively eccentric, the dilemmas they face, absurd.  My favorite story in the collection involves the Reggie Peppers character.  Peppers’s friend Freddie, in an attempt to be reconciled with his girlfriend, kidnaps a child he mistakenly thinks to be her cousin in the hopes of winning the girlfriend back by returning the child safe and sound.  Upon discovering that the child is not her cousin, he seeks out the child’s family for fear of being brought up on kidnapping charges, only to find the family quarantined with the measles.  Freddie and Reggie – two uppercrust British bachelors – are thus left to care for the child until the family has mended.

Another amusing feature of the stories is the dynamic between Jeeves and Wooster.  Though Jeeves is a more than able servant, he has his opinions about Bertie’s fashion and grooming habits, which often leads to tension between the two.  Needless to say, in the context of the master-servant relationship, the tension is all the more amusing, as the two seek determinedly to win a battle of wills over which tie or hat Wooster should wear.

On the whole, these stories are excellent light entertainment, particularly for Anglophiles like me.  Though it wasn’t my favorite book this year, it was certainly worthwhile and a nice light diversion, both from work and from some of the heavier books I’ve read.

Sixteen down, (at least) thirty-six to go.


Reflections of a Pedro Pan Kid

“The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me.”  With those words Carlos Eire begins the moving story of his childhood in Cuba, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy.  The incident that changed the world was, of course, Fidel Castro’s successful overthrow of the Batista-led Cuban government in January, 1959, and the change was a dramatic one.  The Revolution confiscated property, redistributing it to “the people of Cuba,” and would eventually tear children from their parents, as it did to Eire and his family.  Though he and his brother were eventually reunited with their mother, the last time they saw their father was the day they were put on a plane at the ages of 11 and 14, exiles from their homeland.

The majority of the book does not, however, dwell on this painful memory, but rather relates numerous tales from pre-Revolution Cuba.  Eire does not tell a linear story, but rather gives vignettes from his childhood, often interrupted by digression upon digression, as one memory leads to another, sometimes resulting in a lengthy trip down a rabbit hole, other times teasing the reader with hints of what is to come.  Through it all, Eire weaves a beautiful tapestry of Cuban life in the late 1950s told with poignancy and humor, often at the same time.  His was a childhood filled with eccentric characters and games that would make twenty-first century American parents swoon: a family whose house had a zoo of sorts, including a pet monkey that once bit Eire on the arse and a mynah bird trained to shout obscenities; a game that involved throwing rocks at one another, as the boys’ carefree father looked on, bemused; trying to blast a lizard into orbit with an enormous firecracker (a paltry English word for the explosives known in Spanish as cohetes, “rockets”); chasing after a pesticide jeep on their bicycles, grabbing on to the bumper, and hanging on for a ride, despite the DDT spewing forth from the truck.  These and other stories reveal the recklessness and zest for life that dominated Eire’s youth.

Other stories provide a fascinating snapshot of the melange of religious beliefs in the Cuba of the 1950s: a housekeeper who threatened Eire with voodoo curses if he should rat on her; a father who believed himself to have been Louis XVI in a previous life and his wife Marie Antoinette; the Christian Brothers who warned their students about the fires of hell and the dangers of dirty magazines at the age of 8.  Eire himself has a lively sense of the supernatural, but he’s not above discussing such matters with more than a touch of humor.  Take, for instance, his correction of Dante’s vision of hell:

“Dante was so wrong.  At the lowest point, at the nadir of the ninth circle of hell, Satan will be sharing eternally cold space with treasonous brownnosers who abandon their principles and do what is wrong for the sake of a good grade, or applause.  And these brownnosers will have to lick Satan’s razor-studded butt forever and ever, with their tongues.” (232)

Perhaps the most profound and moving aspect of the book, though, is Eire’s reflection on death in the last chapter, a reflection he gives in the context of describing his final day in Cuba.  Referring to that day as his first death, he notes, “There are many ways to die.  Only one kind is final, of course.  But before that one pulls you under, many others come along, like waves at the shore” (375).  If you read his story, you will understand what he means, and perhaps marvel, as I did, at his resilience in the face of such trials.  Perhaps you will also see the various deaths in your own life and resonate on some level with his experience.

I decided to read Waiting for Snow in Havana in part because my own mother emigrated to the States through the Pedro Pan program, probably around the same time that Eire did.  The book gave me a fascinating glimpse into the world of her youth and a deeper appreciation of how difficult this move must have been, a kind of death.  But as Eire asserts (and, indeed, shows through this beautifully written book), “Dying can be beautiful.  And waking up is even more beautiful.  Even when the world has changed.  Especially when the world has changed” (382).  Whether you have an interest in Cuba or not, I highly recommend this book, for the humor – I laughed out loud numerous times, for the deep insights into the human condition, and for the elegant prose.

Fifteen down, (at least) thirty-seven to go.


UPDATE: In the small world category, it turns out my mother knew Eire and his mother when they lived in Chicago!

At the risk of perpetuating the curmudgeonly image that several of my earlier reviews may have generated, this week I decided to pick up Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.  The book is a manifesto in defense of the importance of humanistic learning, both for its own sake and for the good of society.

Nussbaum, a philosopher who has taught at Harvard, Brown, and, most recently, the University of Chicago, provocatively begins the book, “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance” (1).  The crisis of which she speaks concerns not the economy, but rather education.  Every day schools at every level give less and less time and money to the humanities and more and more to practical disciplines.  Whereas once education was geared toward inculcating good citizenship and critical thinking, these days students are often encouraged – by parents, by society in general, by the economic crisis – to see their education primarily as a means to the end of making money.

Not for Profit argues against this trend on a number of levels, both philosophical and practical.  Nussbaum challenges the emphasis on economics as an indicator of a nation’s development with a shrewdly chosen example: the old South Africa under apartheid was always near the top of the development indices based on the amount of wealth the country generated.  And yet few people today would consider the old South Africa a nation worthy of emulation.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on productivity persists, to the detriment of our students’ full development.  Moreover, this emphasis poses an increasing threat to democracy, as the abandonment of things like literature and the arts can lead to a devaluing of the human person.

Following her diagnosis of the problem, Nussbaum offers a prescription for revitalizing education in the interests of preserving the values of democracy.  Education ought to be holistic, dealing not only with the life of the mind but also with the affections.  Students should be taught to have empathy for the outsider, to have genuine compassion for the other, and to think critically.  Nussbaum argues that the most effective method to achieve these goals is Socratic pedagogy.  Students must learn to analyze arguments and think for themselves, rather than simply regurgitate information.  Moreover, given the nature of globalization, they must be taught foreign cultures and the interconnectedness of economies, a foreign language, world religions, and philosophical theories of justice.  Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book advocates for the indispensability of literature and the arts.  Using the Chicago Children’s Choir as an example, Nussbaum relates various anecdotes about how music can break down barriers and generate mutual understanding among people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The imagination, she argues, is no less important a part of education than the other disciplines that receive more interest and funding.

Nussbaum’s final chapter reprises the warning that education is headed in the wrong direction.  Science, technology, and the almighty dollar have become gods (my words, not hers), and everyone seems to pinch a bit of incense at the altar.  Praising the schools of the Far East, President Obama noted in a 2009 speech on education, “They are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do.  They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career.  We are not” (138).  Careerism and productivity, it would seem, are the order of the day.  But do we recognize the cost?

I found much to agree with in Not for Profit.  Nussbaum makes a passionate and in many ways compelling case for the importance of the humanities.  As already noted, the chapter on literature and the arts was intriguing.  At the same time, I’m not persuaded by every element of her argument.  I was a bit put off by her regular denigration of “rote” learning, as well as her near blanket dismissals of tradition and authority.  I don’t at all mean to suggest that memorization is the be-all and end-all of education, nor that it can substitute for critical thinking.  Nevertheless, I do think that one of the more unfortunate trends in education is the demonizing of memorization. The latter is an essential skill, one by which we learn some things for which there is no other appropriate method.  Moreover, much higher order learning depends on the lower level skill of memorization.  Similarly, one cannot critique a tradition or an authoritative statement unless one first understands it.  I’m sure if pressed Nussbaum would acknowledge this, but I wish she had been more careful with her language.

Despite these quibbles, Nussbaum is a learned and passionate advocate for the lasting significance of the humanities, and thus I consider her an ally.  I leave you with the eloquent final sentences of her argument:

“If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money.  They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate” (143).

Fourteen down, (at least) thirty-eight to go.


Believe it or not, in the history of the English language grammar and glamour were once the same word.  Derived from the same Greek and Latin roots, the two were connected through an association between learning and enchantment.  In his recent book The Glamour of Grammar Roy Peter Clark seeks to re-glamorize grammar for a modern audience.  Clark is a man of many hats: medievalist, journalist, writing coach.  As the “About the Author” section notes, Dave Barry has said of him, “Roy Peter Clark knows more about writing than anybody I know who is not currently dead.”  If The Glamour of Grammar is any indication, he knows more about writing than a good many dead people, too.

The book is divided into five parts, moving from the most basic units to the big picture.  Part I focuses on WORDS.  No element of composition is too insignificant in a writer’s attempt to communicate with readers.  In Clark’s hands, such seemingly minor distinctions as the definite and indefinite articles (“the” vs. “a/an”) take on a much larger role than their small stature would suggest.  Using well-known examples, Clark shows how even the slightest change to a title can have a drastic effect on the feeling it conveys: for example, change the title of the classic movie The Godfather to A Godfather, and you have a completely different mood.

In Part II (POINTS), Clark discusses punctuation marks.  The preceding sentence most likely elicited a yawn from most readers, but Clark manages to show in an engaging way just how much work something as simple as a period – or a “full stop,” as the Brits call it (and as Clark prefers) – can do for one’s writing.  From the period to the serial comma to the sexy semi-colon to the exclamation point, Clark teaches how to bring one’s writing to life with these little jots and squiggles.

Part III (STANDARDS) addresses what grammarians commonly refer to as “rules.”  Clark eschews the tendency to reify these standards into unbendable rules, finding an elegant balance between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of language.  Writers must learn the “rules” of grammar before they can bend or break them to good effect.  The “rules” thus become “tools” that can be deftly applied in the hands of a skilled artisan.

The final two parts of the book (MEANING and PURPOSE) tackle the larger questions of writing.  In Part IV Clark explores what makes for a good sentence.  Along the way he challenges some of the most common pieces of writing advice – avoid the passive voice, never use sentence fragments – while at the same time demonstrating the wisdom of standards such as keeping subject and verb together.  Part V addresses the reasons for writing and the complex social, cultural, and political implications of word choice, dialect, taboo language, and a host of other decisions a writer must make.  The final chapter discusses new technologies, showing how even a 140-character Twitter message can crackle with elegance and style.

The Glamour of Grammar is a good read for many reasons.  Clark presents his instructions with a hefty dose of humor, and he often models the style he is teaching.  To take but one example, the following paragraph appears in the chapter on the question mark:

“But who was Question Mark?  And how did he become one of the godfathers of the punk rock movement?  And why am I asking these questions in a book about grammar and language?  The answer has to do with the extraordinary power of the question mark.” (89-90)

I also found Clark’s advice to be practical and balanced.  Challenging the “grammazons” (his lovely neologism for hardline grammarians), he affirms the usefulness of standards, but also the freedom a writer must have to buck the rules – but only once the writer understands them.  Perhaps more impressively, he manages to explain these rules effectively without relying on grammatical jargon, no doubt a necessary tactic to restore grammar to its state of glamour.

Finally, Clark is not afraid to wander into the realm of theology, grounding the beauty and richness of language not only in human evolution but also in the divine.  He manages to do so without coming off as preachy (a hard charge to stick to a man who uses the movie The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet as an illustration), and yet it comes across as genuine, and therefore genuinely moving.  The Glamour of Grammar deserves to be on the shelf of any serious – and not-so-serious – writer.  Read it for pleasure, read it for learning, but, most of all, read it to make your writing glamorous.

Thirteen down, (at least) thirty-nine to go.  (1/4 of the way there!)


A Curious Book

This evening I finished Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, recommended to me by a good friend.  I can honestly say it’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read, and in a good way.  Haddon tells the story from the perspective of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy with autism (actually, the book doesn’t specify what his behavioral problem is), which makes for an unusual and fascinating style: lots of stream-of-consciousness, lots of digressions, lots of literalism.

The story begins with a murder – well, to Christopher’s mind it’s a murder.   To others it’s simply the unfortunate killing of a dog, specifically the neighbor’s pet poodle Wellington.  Puzzled by the incident and fascinated with Sherlock Holmes, Christopher takes up the role of detective to discover who killed poor Wellington.  At first, the book seems like an unconventional murder mystery.  The reader is lead to believe that the point of the book is for Christopher to solve the mystery, and the first half of the story lives up to this expectation.  Christopher investigates (as best he can given his condition and his fear of strangers), looks for clues, and makes deductions, often with airtight logic.

Eventually Christopher’s father discovers his extracurricular activity and orders him to stop his investigation.  At this point the story takes an unexpected turn, as Christopher discovers information that throws him into confusion and calls into question his trust in his father.  Too frightened to stay at home, he sneaks out of the house in search of a new place to live.  His search sets him on a daunting journey longer than any he has ever taken by himself.  The trek involves overcoming some of his greatest fears: crowded places, loud noises, talking to strangers, using public toilets.  Through it all he perseveres and reaches his goal, only to find his new home is no better or safer than the one he left in fear.  Without giving away the ending, I will say that it is a happy one without lapsing into sentimentality.

Curious Incident is a remarkable book.  The (authoritative and always reliable) Wikipedia notes that Haddon did no research on autism or Asperger’s syndrome for the book, nor does he consider himself an expert on the subject.  In fact, he regrets that the term “Asperger’s syndrome” appeared on the cover.  Nevertheless, the book paints a vivid and realistic picture of the mind of an autistic child, at least based on the very little experience I have had with the condition.  Christopher fixates on things most people ignore, which makes him much more aware of his surroundings, but at the same time makes his life much more complicated.  He is uncomfortable with human contact, to the point of screaming if a stranger touches him.  Because of his fixation, however, he can also do things that baffle most “ordinary” people.  He knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057.  He can solve complex math problems – he even prepares to take the A levels math exam, an important element in the story.  He can beat most people at chess and quickly calculate the probabilities of various outcomes in a game of chance.

Another interesting aspect of the story is Christopher’s reflections on language.  He doesn’t like metaphors because they are “lies,” whereas similes are acceptable.  He doesn’t completely understand why words like “spazzer” are unacceptable, when kids can make the accurate word “special needs” into an insult.  An apocryphal story is simply a lie, because it describes something that didn’t happen.  His perspective on the world is strictly black and white, making it difficult, bordering on impossible, for him to lie.

The book also opens a window onto the difficulties of raising a special needs child.  Despite his mistakes, Christopher’s father comes across as a patient and loving father.  The responsibility has clearly taken a toll on his life (as it did on his marriage), but he cares deeply for his son and does whatever he can to protect him, to a fault, as the reader discovers.

Curious Incident was a fun read and certainly one I would like to come back to at some point (but not this year :)).  If you’d like to learn more about the book, I recommend this interview with Haddon at Powell’s Books.

Twelve down, (at least) forty to go.


A Connoisseur of Fine Sentences

Recently a friend of mine sent me an article about a new book by Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.  Before I even read the article, I knew the book would be a must read.  Fish is a widely respected literary critic who has taught at UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who, more recently, has been a regular columnist/blogger for the New York Times.  While I don’t read his posts religiously, I do enjoy them whenever I get to them – both because he is a thoughtful man with an interesting perspective on the world, and because he is a consummate wordsmith.  If Fish has something to say about writing, it is worth listening to.

How to Write a Sentence did not disappoint.  Part how-to book, part literary analysis, and part appreciation of the art of the good sentence, the book leads the reader on a tour of some of the best-crafted sentences in literature and film, explaining how and why the sentences are so powerful.  Fish’s approach is considerably different than that of another modern classic, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (cf. the puckishly titled chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White”).  Rather than provide rules drawing on grammatical concepts foreign to many people today, Fish analyzes the logical structure of sentences, explaining the components essential to all sentences and then offering ways to expand on the basic unit.  He summarizes his approach concisely toward the end of the first chapter: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation” (11, italics original).  In order to write good sentences, one must understand and appreciate good sentences.  Going against received wisdom, Fish advocates imitation as an important way of learning to write well.

Along the way, Fish makes a number of important observations.  In the third chapter (wittily titled “It’s Not the Thought That Counts”), he argues that content alone is insufficient.  In order to write persuasive and compelling sentences, one must master the forms of writing: “It is true that you can’t get form from content, but it is also true that without form, content cannot emerge” (27).  Likening the writing of sentences about nothing to practicing musical scales, Fish recommends writing nonsensical sentences over and over again until one has mastered the forms.  Only once a writer has mastered the forms will he be equipped to convey his thought intelligently and eloquently.  By “forms” Fish does not mean the typical grammatical terms found in many books on writing, but rather the logical structures that make a sentence coherent and intelligent.  While these structures can be analyzed with grammatical terms, one need not understand the finer points of the gerundive or the pluperfect in order to put Fish’s lessons into practice.

The middle three chapters of the book explain and analyze three different sentence styles, the subordinating style, the additive style, and the satiric style.  Fish then moves on to discuss first and last sentences.  A final chapter before the epilogue focuses on “sentences that are about themselves.”  Throughout the book he treats the reader to some of the finest sentences ever crafted, thus delighting as well as instructing the reader.

What struck me most as I read How to Write a Sentence was some of the borderline theological implications of Fish’s argument.  My favorite sentence in the book, and one, in my humble opinion, that would be in good company with the sentences Fish analyzes, is the following from chapter four: “It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense – the world is one thing, words another – but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders” (37).  I know Fish is not himself a Christian (though his work on Milton has given him profound religious sensibilities), but the idea behind this sentence in many ways resonates with the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Moreover, it speaks to the potential language has, both for good and for evil.

Despite his erudition and eloquence, Fish manages not to take himself too seriously, making the book all the more appealing.  Any academic who can call his approach to learning to write a sentence “the Karate Kid method” and who draws examples not only from fine literature, but also from the essay of a fourth-grader, is okay in my book.  At a brief 160 pages, How to Write a Sentence is a quick and delightful lesson in the fine art of sentence craft.  To borrow the words of the anonymous child in St. Augustine’s Confessions, “Take and read.”

Eleven down, (at least) forty-one to go.


A Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land

Can a man who grew up in a climate of violence and hatred, whose father was repeatedly arrested and detained for years on end, who himself was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, escape the cycle of violence and become an advocate for peace?  Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of the memoir Son of Hamas, seems to be living proof that the answer to this heartrending question, thankfully, is “Yes.”

Yousef is the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders and leaders of the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas.  Son of Hamas tells the gripping tale of his upbringing in the midst of overwhelming suffering, his arrest and decision to work as a double agent for Shin Bet, the countless narrow escapes he managed as he gathered information for the organization, his secret conversion to Christianity, and his ultimate decision to abandon espionage and immigrate to America, convinced that the ordinary means would never bring a lasting solution to the sad problem that is the Middle East.

The story is filled with tragic accounts of the violence that plagues the Holy Land.  From an early age, Yousef witnessed the deaths of his fellow Palestinians, the periodic arrests of his father, the ostracism his family endured as a result, and the seeming impotence of Palestinian attempts to overthrow their Israeli oppressors.  Little wonder that by the age of eighteen he shared the same hatred for the Israelis that many (though not all) Palestinians feel.  And yet, despite this painful and traumatic childhood, in the midst of his trials Yousef realized that there was blame to be had by all, both Israelis and Palestinians.  At first this led him to give up his plan to use his cover as a Shin Bet operative in order to murder the people who had arrested him.  Yousef spent the next ten years collaborating with Shin Bet, in the process saving countless lives from terrorist threats.  Nevertheless, he eventually came to the conclusion that his spy work would never bring lasting peace to his homeland.  Part of what led him to this conclusion was his slow but gradual conversion to Christianity.  Gripped by the message of Jesus, particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, Yousef abandoned his ancestral faith and, at first secretly, embraced Christianity.  It was only after he left the Holy Land that he relayed the devastating news to his father.

Despite this dramatic change, Yousef maintains a deep affection for his father and the rest of his family.  To me, this was one of the most moving aspects of the book.  Yousef’s embrace of Christianity has not led him to vilify his past or his family members.  Throughout the book he reverently describes his father as a man of deep faith and integrity, a man he loves and respects despite their religious disagreements.  Happily, this love runs both ways.  As a leader of Hamas, if Sheikh Yousef were to disown Mosab, he would effectively be pronouncing a death sentence on his firstborn son.  Amidst the feelings of pain and betrayal, the elder Yousef has chosen rather to protect his son.  In a phone conversation between father and son after the younger Yousef had left for the U.S., the elder tells his son, “No matter what happened, you are still my son.  You are part of me, and nothing will change.  You have a different opinion, but you still are my little child.”

In a postscript Yousef talks about why he chose to write the memoir, addressing the common cynical evaluations of such books as bids for money, fame, and power.  He denies such charges, noting that he could have had more than his fair share of these had he stayed in his homeland, and that he has turned down similar opportunities since moving to the States.  Rather, he wrote the book as a sign of hope for those who despair of ever finding a resolution to the strife in the Middle East.  If someone as embroiled in an organization like Hamas as he could find a way out, then there is hope that some day that land may find a real and lasting peace.  For those of my readers who are people of prayer, may it be our fervent prayer that that day may come soon.

Ten down, (at least) forty-two to go.


Having recently read one award-winning author by the name of Berry, I decided to pick up a book by a very different, also award-winning Barry, namely Dave.  As many of you probably know, Dave Barry is one funny man.  A regular columnist for the Miami Herald for a couple of decades, Barry has also written numerous books in the categories of both non-fiction and fiction (including children’s literature).

Today I read his Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway: A Vicious and Unprovoked Attack on Our Most Cherished Political Institutions, and I laughed almost without ceasing for the four hours it took me to breeze through it.  The book is a hilarious send-up of the absurdity of American political institutions, with absolutely no claims to providing actual, reliable information.  On the contrary, as Barry notes in the introduction, “So if you were concerned about encountering a lot of actual information in this book, relax!  There’s almost none.  To compensate for the lack of facts, I have included a great many snide remarks.”

Barry begins with a brief and very tongue-in-cheek account of the evolution of government from prehistoric times to the arrival of the pilgrims in the New World.  The account itself is a riot, but it is made even funnier by the accompanying illustrations, many of them involving giant prehistoric zucchinis (a recurring theme throughout the book).  The rest of the book focuses specifically on the U.S. government: its ever-expanding size, the highlights of a trip to Washington, D.C., the process of presidential elections, and the typical shape of a modern political campaign.  The book closes with two chapters ostensibly on the 2000 presidential election, though the first chapter has more to do with the madhouse that is South Florida and the second with the indecipherable nature of legalese and the general incompetence of the media, esp. television.

Despite its obviously humorous character, the book offers some perceptive criticisms.  Take for instance, Barry’s explanation of how people vote for presidential candidates:

“I believe that how a candidate looks and sounds is way more important to the voters than his position on anything, which is why the public periodically decides that it likes some politician who totally disagrees with some other politician that the public also likes.  The public to this day is crazy mad for John F. Kennedy, not because of his policies – nobody has a clue what his policies were – but because… he had class!  He was handsome!  His wife was beautiful!  He was President Beatle!”

Surely nothing like this has gone on in recent elections </sarcasm>.  Barry also has some hilarious (and yet borderline practical) suggestions for improving presidential campaigns, such as regularly injecting candidates with truth serum on the campaign trail, and requiring them to wear donor logos like NASCAR drivers.  There’s no doubt that these changes would make the campaigns more transparent, as well as more interesting.

One of the funniest sections of the book for me was his description of South Florida.  He devotes nearly an entire chapter to this description in order to make a case for kicking South Florida out of the Union.  His account is hysterical and his case strangely compelling, particularly for those who have spent any extended amount of time in the greater Miami area.

If you are even half as cynical about politics as I am, you will enjoy this book.  Though it was published ten years ago, it (sadly) still rings true today.  My only advice is not to read it in a library – you will be laughing too loud and people might look at you funny.  Other than that, enjoy, and keep an eye out for those giant prehistoric zucchinis – they sneak up on you.

Nine down, (at least) forty-three to go.


We suffer because of the way we are.

Back where C and I did our graduate studies, the name of Wendell Berry was often invoked, at least in some of the circles I ran in.  Despite his ubiquitous presence, I had never read a word by him.  Because of the contexts in which I heard the name, I typically associated him with essays advocating for agrarianism and sustainable agriculture.  I discovered in looking for something by him to read that he is also a novelist, and so I decided to pick up his first novel, Nathan Coulter, because it met one of my requirements (or at least preferences) for reading during the school year: it’s short.

The book is a coming of age tale told from the perspective of the title character.  The Coulters work on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, and their life evinces the joys, fears, and tensions that mark most families.  Early on in the story, Nathan and his brother (whom he normally refers to as “Brother” rather than his name “Tom”) lose their mother to an illness.  Because their father can’t raise them and till the land on his own, they move to the next farm over to live with their grandparents and uncle.  The story develops a number of themes, but the one that struck me was that of Nathan’s continually changing relationships with each of his family members, as well as the inner dynamics of the Coulter family in general.  These dynamics strain under the difficulties most families face: sibling rivalry, the desire to strike out on one’s own, transitions, death.  Through it all Nathan learns how much his family means to him, as well as the fragility of day-to-day life.

For the first chapter or so, I had a hard time getting into the novel, perhaps because it was somewhat foreign to my experience.  A product of late twentieth century suburbia, I initially had a hard time relating to the rural way of life Berry describes.  But gradually he won me over.  His writing style has an elegant simplicity that reflects the pace and values of a simpler time.  Moreover, at points Berry writes with poignancy about the difficulty of moving on.  One paragraph toward the end of the story particularly moved me.  Upon realizing that Brother has left for good and will not be coming home to stay, Nathan reflects:

“I could have cried myself.  Brother was gone, and he wouldn’t be back.  And things that had been so before never would be so again.  We were the way we were; nothing could make us any different, and we suffered because of it.  Things happened to us the way they did because we were ourselves.  And if we’d been other people it wouldn’t have mattered… we’d have had to suffer whatever it was that they suffered because they were themselves.  And there was nothing anybody could do but let it happen.”

Despite the somewhat depressing tone of this passage, Berry also highlights the simple joys of time with family, but almost always with a reminder of their fleetingness.  I suppose what I took away from the book is the importance of savoring precious moments with friends and family, because before we know it, they’ll be gone.  Not a bad reminder.

Eight down, (at least) forty-four to go.