Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse
by John Betjeman; edited by Kevin J. Gardner
(Continuum, 2005, 224 pages)
John Betjeman was appointed the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Betjeman was a practicing Anglican, and much of his poetry deals with his faith and his struggle to retain it. This anthology gathers together poems which reflect on the themes of God, death, belief, and national heritage. Betjeman’s faith is alternatively robust and wavering, and these struggles are consistently related to the Church of England and its place within English society. While Betjeman has much to say about the personal elements of religious belief, he is most concerned with the way that the faith functions within the broader society and the role that it plays in national identity.
I got interested in Betjeman after reading some of Philip Larkin’s essays and rereading his poetry. Larkin and Betjeman were contemporaries, and while Larkin had little time for most modern poets, he always maintained an affection for Betjeman. Both Betjeman’s and Larkin’s poetry is accessible when compared to most modern poets. Many of the poems in this volume are comical and written as light verse. This helps to make the collection accessible, as do the helpful introductions to each section by the editor Kevin J. Gardner. This is a great read for poetry lovers and anglophiles.
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
(Random House, 2014, 288 pages)
As soon as I heard that Dunham had a book coming out I knew I was going to read it. This book is a collection of essays broken up into five different sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work, and Big Picture. True to herself, Dunham doesn’t hold back in her essays. She’s very comfortable putting things out there and as a result it’s easy to read her work and realize not only is she smart, quirky, and funny, but that you would most likely really enjoy being friends with her… though you might only be able to handle so much at a time ;)
This is a book about her life experiences so far, and it’s pretty impressive to consider what she’s accomplished and what she still has in front of her. If you’re a fan of hers or just intrigued by her I’d recommend picking this up.
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 275 pages)
Tupelo Hassman has a gift for language and this is clearly seen in her novel Girlchild. I listened to this as an audiobook (narrated by the author) and while I enjoyed the book, I think I would have appreciated it and the writing more if I had read a physical copy. There are some books that are best experienced by reading the words on the page rather than being read to. Hassman did a good job providing the voice for her main character, Rory Dawn, but I don’t think the story itself was done justice.
Set primarily in the 1980s the book follows Rory Dawn from about the age of 6 to 16. She lives in a trailer in Reno with her mother, Johanna. Rory has come from a line of women who got pregnant early and her mother wants to save her from the same fate. Rory’s mother and grandmother want to see her get out of the trailer park altogether, they have high hopes for her and her talent in school speaks to her potential. A central aspect of the book is that Rory has always wanted to be a Girl Scout. Even though she can’t afford to join a troop she has checked out the Girl Scout Handbook so regularly from her school library that the librarian put it in the “sale” pile and made sure that Rory knew when and where to pick it up.
Rory’s life isn’t an easy one but she makes the most of it and her family does what they can to try and protect her. I’m glad I picked this up and would recommend it, but don’t expect it to be a “feel good” novel – appreciate it for the language and the talent of the author.
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
(Bloomsbury USA, 2014, 240 pages)
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? has been receiving buzz for a while now so I decided to pick it up when I saw it sitting on the shelf at my local library. I’m always a fan of graphic novels because I feel like they offer a unique way of experiencing a story. That’s definitely the case here. The subject matter of Chast’s memoir is the aging process and the death of her parents. Definitely a serious topic. I think by writing this as a graphic novel it allows the subject matter to come across in a way that’s slightly more “palatable” while maintaining the very clear message that what Chast had to go through was hard.
The reader sees Chast’s parents living on their own and while they have a hard time with keeping up with things like keeping the apartment clean, they have each other for support. As illness sets in and it becomes clear they can’t live alone any longer we see what goes into taking the next steps and it’s pretty heartbreaking. Interspersed in the book Chast has included photographs from her life and they offer a glimpse into the reality of the situation.
This was a well-written book about the gradual process of losing your parents. It’s hard to say it was an “enjoyable” read given the subject matter and the fact that I found it pretty depressing but Chast didn’t sugar-coat things. The reality of aging isn’t an easy one, but I’m glad I picked this up.
C. S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper
edited by Judith Wolfe and B. N. Wolfe
(T&T Clark, 2011, 208 pages)
C. S. Lewis is famous for his promotion of “mere Christianity,” a concept which eschews denominational particulars and focuses on the common conceptual framework of the Christian faith. According to Lewis’ metaphor, mere Christianity is a kind of hallway which leads into the various rooms of particular communions or traditions. To extend the metaphor a bit, the approach of C. S. Lewis and the Church is something like stepping back to view the entire house, looking through the windows, and examining the layout of the whole floor plan.
These essays look at the role that the Church played in Lewis’ life and writings, as well as looking at how he related to communions outside his own Anglican tradition. The various contributors come from Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical backgrounds. The overall quality of these essays is very high, but I found Judith Wolfe’s chapter, “C. S. Lewis and the Eschatological Church,” to be particularly helpful in understanding Lewis’ perspective on the Church. She offers a discussion of Lewis’ critical appropriation of Platonic ontology and shows how this leads to his emphasis on the eschatological or heavenly nature of the Church. This offers a very helpful explanation of Lewis’ approach to “mere Christianity” – if the earthly Church is only a shadowy image of its perfect heavenly form, then it makes sense that Lewis found the very temporal concerns of denominational identity to be of little importance.
Another essay worth mentioning is Kallistos Ware’s “C. S. Lewis, an ‘Anonymous Orthodox’?” Ware notes that, unlike many popular Christian writers in the West, Lewis holds great appeal for Eastern Orthodox Christians. Focusing on Lewis’ fiction, he goes on to draw out various elements of the stories that cohere closely with Orthodox emphases. Given that the cultural divide between eastern and western Christians is generally very wide, the fact that Lewis appeals so widely adds credibility to his claim to be a “mere Christian.” Overall, this is a great volume for those interested in the theological aspects of Lewis’ writings.
Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Reviews, 1952-85
by Philip Larkin
(Faber & Faber, 2001, 416 pages)
I read and reviewed Philip Larkin’s Required Writings not long ago. Further Requirements is another collection of essays, addresses, interviews, reviews, and transcripts of radio broadcasts. While Required Writing was the last of Larkin’s books published in his lifetime, Further Requirements is a posthumous release of similar material. Larkin’s self-effacing humor is evident throughout, particularly in the interviews. His literary reviews and book forewords reveal a frustrated novelist (Larkin wrote two novels in his early twenties and then found himself unable to write anymore) with a love for the form. His broadcasts for the BBC show a concern for the public appreciation of literature that is appropriate for a career librarian.
It is in Larkin’s comments on poetry, however, that the value of this collection really comes through. For someone who disdained talking about the process of writing or interpreting poetry, Larkin has some awfully good things to say about the subject. He explains the situation of the poet in this way: “The poet is perpetually in that common human condition of trying to feel a thing because he believes it, or believe a thing because he feels” (15). Larkin’s practical and unfussy approach to poetry comes through when he says, “I seem to have spent my life waiting for poems to turn up…writing isn’t an act of the will, all you can do is try to make sure that when something does arrive, you aren’t too tired or too busy or anything else to do it justice” (92). Larkin was not a particularly prolific poet, and his time was divided between his writing and his professional duties. I’m particularly grateful that he wasn’t too tired or busy to do justice to these wonderful pieces of writing.
Losing It by Cora Carmack
(William Morrow, 2013, 288 pages)
“New Adult” is a newer genre that focuses on those individuals who read and enjoyed YA books but are looking for a little more. It’s meant to serve as a bridge between Young Adult and Adult titles and the main characters of the books typically range in age from late teens to mid-twenties. There was an article in Library Journal recently that highlighted this genre and I decided to check out one of the titles. One that got good reviews was Cora Carmack’s Losing It.
Bliss is 22 and a senior in college and she can’t believe she’s still a virgin. How is it possible she’s made it this long without having sex? She and her friend Kelsey decide she just needs to get it over with and she’s more or less ready to take the plunge… When Bliss meets an attractive man with a British accent at the bar she decides he’s going to be the one to help her with her little “problem.” However, when they make it to her place and things start to progress she freaks out and leaves – her OWN apartment. It’s not until the next day that she finds out the man in her bed was her new Theater professor, Garrick Taylor. Bliss is mortified for a number of reasons, but she can’t help noticing the chemistry she and Garrick shared isn’t going away…
I was a little hesitant when I started reading this book, but it was a quick and easy read with humor throughout. I can certainly see the appeal. Despite the cover and the premise of the story romance does play a role. If you’re wanting to get a taste for this genre I second the recommendation to pick up this title.