Required Writing by Philip Larkin
(Faber and Faber, 1983, 315 pages)
This is a collection of occasional writings and interviews from the English poet Philip Larkin. It consists of autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, essays on poetry, professional addresses, and more. Much of Larkin’s poetry has a gloomy and resigned quality to it, and these brief essays and interviews, while eloquent and often very funny, have a similar glum practicality to them. As the name of the collection indicates, most were written to fulfill certain professional requirements or requests. Larkin was a writer who wrote poems for the love of language, form, and feeling, but never felt pressure to churn out literary products for the sake of being considered prodigious.
Larkin continually denigrates the idea of talking too much about poetry or coming up with theories about poetry. In his famous Paris Review interview, he claims that explaining how you write poetry is “like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife” (71). And yet, he goes on to make insightful comments about the nature of poetry: “The poet is really engaged in recreating the familiar, he’s not committed to introducing the unfamiliar.” Larkin’s attitude toward poetry is devoid of pretension. He explains in “The Pleasure Principle,” that the poet must continually keep in mind that poetry should be written for the pleasure of the reader, not for the self-aggrandizement of the academic/poet. This sort of attitude is what has made Larkin’s poetry so popular, and it is nice to read commentary on poetry that is so frank and accessible.
Each of these essays are enjoyable in their own way, but it is in the reviews of jazz albums that Larkin seems to enjoy himself the most. Larkin was passionate about jazz, and these reviews are written without any sense of “requirement” about them. I particularly loved Larkin’s reflections on finding time to write even while pursuing an entirely different career (he was a university librarian). It is interesting to see how his “day job” not only informed his poetry (he wrote some wonderful poems about work), but also how his practical orientation toward work also carried over into his attitudes about poetry. These essays are very fun, and the Paris Review interview in particular may be the best literary interview you will ever read – both because of its insight and its humor.
Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
(Random House, 2006, 304 pages)
Novels that portray devoutly religious people and religious faith in a way that is both sympathetic and realistic are not terribly common. It seems that many authors have a hard time understanding, or at least articulating, how religious belief and a clear-eyed view of the difficulties and ugliness of life can coexist. Strout seems to understand, and she articulates this understanding beautifully. In part, this is because there is nothing sentimental about her depiction of what faith really is. She accurately and humorously portrays the foibles, pettiness, and downright cruelty of religious people without ever hinting that faith can be reduced to these shortcomings.
Strout tells the story of a young Congregational minister in 1950s Maine. His wife died one year ago, and Tyler Caskey is struggling to cope with his responsibilities to his congregation and to his two young daughters. Tyler had previously experienced his faith as a continuous sense of the presence of God. In the wake of his wife’s premature death, this immediacy is gone. As his sorrow deepens and he grows more and more distracted, his congregation slowly begins to lose patience with their formerly caring and attentive pastor. Tyler’s descent into despair somehow unveils the quiet despairs of his parishioners.
There is nothing terribly dramatic about any one of the plot points in this novel, yet Strout is able to imbue the rather mundane elements of life and relationships in a small town with a sense of drama and urgency. She believably and sympathetically portrays both the attractions and the disappointments of pastoral ministry. Tyler is continually meditating on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it seems that Strout’s reflection on such a sincere and profound theologian has manifested itself in a character whose faith is complex enough to make his a compelling character.
You can also read Julia’s review of this title.
In Plain Sight by Lorena McCourtney
(Fleming H. Revell, 2005, 311 pages)
In Plain Sight by Lorena McCourtney is the second book in the Ivy Malone Mystery series. I recently reviewed the first book in the series, Invisible, and decided to read this book to tie up the loose ends left over from the first book. In this book, Ivy Malone has gone into hiding from the family in the first book who is out for revenge. However, Ivy is unable to keep a low profile. Ivy discovers the dead body of wealthy divorcee, Leslie Marcone, who had recently hired and fired Ivy from a housekeeping job.
Ivy’s mutant curiosity gene kicks in as she tries to discover Leslie’s murderer. There are plenty of suspects to go around. There is Leslie’s ex-husband, her ex-business partners, her neighbor, and her lover to name a few. In Plain Sight also has its quirky characters which include a 260 pound dog named Baby.
Like Invisible, In Plain Sight is a light, Christian fiction novel. It appears that there are only four novels in the Ivy Malone Mystery series. I’m not sure that there will be any more since the last one was written in 2006. If you like humorous murder mysteries, you might want to add In Plain Sight to your reading list.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
(Orion, 2009, 352 pages)
This is Where I Leave You is the first title up for discussion in the Between the Covers book club. The film version is about to be released in theaters and I’m excited to see it – I definitely think the book will translate well to the big screen, plus there’s a pretty impressive cast. Tropper’s novel revolves around the Foxman family after they’re brought together to sit shiva when the family patriarch dies. The majority of the novel revolves around Judd Foxman as he tries to figure out where his life is going. His father has died, he and his family don’t really work well when forced to spend time together, and he just caught his wife cheating on him with his boss.
The book is set over a period of seven days (the time frame for sitting shiva) and we learn a lot about the Foxman family as a whole. Parts of this book had me laughing to myself and I was always eager to pick it up and continue from where I’d left off. I can’t wait for the book club discussion. 🙂
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
(Harper Trophy, 2000, 248 pages)
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Caspian and his crew sail toward the eastern end of the world in search of the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia. Repicheep the mouse is another recurring character in this one, and Adelaide’s fascination with him continued. She was completely enthralled by the beautiful daughter of Ramandu, an old gray haired man who says he was once a celestial star:
“I like that Repicheep dived in the water, and that he said the water is sweet. I liked Ramandu’s island because of the stone knife of the White Witch’s. I liked Ramandu’s daughter because we both have the same color hair, and she is kind of a princess. I liked that the Seven Lords fell asleep. Three of them fell asleep and one joined.”
If you read Voyage, you’ll find out a bit more about Aslan the Lion:
“It’s really good, and you should read it. I also like that Aslan told us that he has another name.”
Once again, a little cryptic, but hopefully it’s enough to pique your interest.
The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges; illustrated by Erik Desmazières
(David R. Codine Publisher, 2000, 39 pages)
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel,” imagines the universe as a vast library “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries” (19). It deals with such expansive topics as the nature of rationality and the existence of God as it depicts a labyrinthine library containing every possible book. This edition pairs Borges’ story with equally imaginative etchings by Erik Desmazières.
Borges’ story could be considered a parable, a thought experiment, a fantasy, or possibly even a mystical vision. Whatever it is, the library galleries are described with concrete precision while trying to conceptualize the library as whole is dizzying. The appearance of rationality and order gives way to the possibility of endless confusion and incoherence as searchers try to find meaning and order amongst the library’s collection. It would seem that this paradox would make illustrating this creation an incredibly difficult task.
Desmazières handles the task well. His engravings, both intricate in detail and expansive in scope, depict the hexagonal galleries of the library and the tower like exterior of the building. They communicate the vastness and complexity of the library’s galleries, but they do not adhere to the precise layout and dimensions that Borges describes. As Angela Giral says in the book’s introduction, “Desmazières’s etchings are no mere illustrations of the writer’s words; they are the product of a parallel imagination, inspired to create in visual images his own, equivalent, universe” (9). While I initially read this story in Borges’ Collected Fictions, reading it again in this edition added a lot to the experience.
Back Story by David Mitchell
(Harper Collins, 2012, 336 pages)
I’m a huge fan of the English comedy Peep Show, a sitcom where David Mitchell plays the uptight and hilariously self-conscious loan manager Mark Corrigan. Mitchell is also the co-star of a very funny sketch comedy series with his partner Robert Webb. These shows, along with his frequent quiz show appearances and his series of short internet monologues entitled David Mitchell’s Soapbox, have made Mitchell a popular TV personality. In this memoir, he talks about navigating the unglamorous realities of fame – like being recognized while trying to buy underwear.
In the introduction, Mitchell explains that a few years previous he had begun taking daily walks around London to help his bad back. The route of these walks structures the book as Mitchell points out the architectural, commercial, and residential oddities of the city. As he comments on his surroundings, they prompt reflections on his life, including his days as an TV-loving child terrified of being “weird,” his time at Cambridge reading history and serving as the president of the Footlights comedy troop, his years of struggling to breakthrough in TV, and his success as a comedy writer and actor.
I really enjoyed this book, particularly Mitchell’s description of his Cambridge experience. He explains that he largely ignored his studies in order to perform with and eventually lead the legendary Footlights troop. The fact that Mitchell was able to spend three years training for a career in comedy under the auspices of one of the most prestigious universities in the world shows how the English university system affords its students the kind of flexibility that only the best Division I athletes enjoy in the U.S. Mitchell’s reflections on his career are as smart and funny as his performances themselves. In addition to plenty of entertaining rants and one-liners, he also crafts some excellent prose. As an example, after describing the Footlights’ highly structured and sometimes tedious writing process, he reflects, “Brilliance will strike you, if it ever does, as a complete surprise sailing out of the clear blue sky of competence” (181).
I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum
(Touchstone, 2014, 336 pages)
Richard is an artist living in France with his wife and young daughter. There’s nothing wrong with his marriage besides the fact that things have gotten a bit mundane and predictable. Perhaps that’s what led him to start his affair with a young American. Despite breaking things off when Richard’s wife finds out the extent of the affair she doesn’t see how she can forgive him. Now Richard is doing whatever he can to try and get her back. It’s only now (and with the help of his parents) that he can truly see how wonderful his life was. He tries to figure out a gesture grand enough to win her back while at the same time reflecting on how he got himself into this situation in the first place.
This is a novel that looks at marriage for what it is. Obviously, cheating isn’t the answer, but what Maum gets at is that even though marriage can be difficult it’s the love between the two people that makes a marriage last. I enjoyed this and read it pretty quickly because I was curious to see how Maum was going to wrap everything up. I’d recommend it 🙂
Invisible by Lorena McCourtney
(Fleming H. Revell, 2004, 320 pages)
Invisible by Lorena McCourtney is the first book in the Ivy Malone Mystery series. Ivy Malone is a Christian, widow, retired librarian, and senior citizen. Ivy describes herself as a “LOL” (little old lady) with a mutant curiosity gene. When her best friend’s tenant disappears, Ivy knows something has happened and decides to investigate. When headstones are being overturned at a local cemetery, Ivy decides to investigate. The further Ivy digs into these crimes, the more Ivy puts herself in danger, but her curiosity won’t let her give up.
This novel is entitled Invisible because Ivy Malone notices that as she has gotten older, people don’t take much notice of her. When Ivy is standing at a service counter and no one helps her or she is sitting in a doctor’s office overhearing what should be a private conversation, Ivy feels invisible. Ivy tries to use that “invisibility” to help her gather information to solve the crimes.
I read this book because it was a free Nook download. In reading reviews, it must have been a free Kindle download too. Most reviewers thought the book was good or, at least, okay. Some reviewers felt that the book summary should have revealed that this book is Christian fiction. I thought the book was a quick read which has hooked me into reading the next book in the series, In Plain Sight, because there were a few threads left hanging in Invisible.
Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School by Andrea Raynor
(Howard Books, 2014, 320 pages)
I was drawn to this book since I also attended Harvard Divinity School – I couldn’t not pick it up. Raynor attended the school in the 80s but overall the experiences she recounted were true to my own time there. Raynor basically ended up attending Harvard Divinity School (HDS) on a whim, she became a religion major after her junior year in college and decided to pursue her masters degree. After applying to both HDS and the University of Chicago she was drawn to the atmosphere at Harvard. Her plan was to get her Masters of Theological Studies, a 2 year degree, but after a number of experiences that really spoke to her she made the decision to obtain her Masters of Divinity (MDIV), a three year program.
Raynor went into her studies believing that the last thing she wanted to do was enter the ministry but much to her surprise she felt called to take that path. While that isn’t the path that I took I loved hearing about her experiences at HDS – there were a surprising amount of similarities between our experiences and it had me wishing I could go back and do the program all over again. The primary focus of the book is on the author’s spiritual journey and I wish a little more time had been spent on the opportunities and exposure HDS offers to its students but I still enjoyed the read.
I think Incognito would appeal to those who appreciate spiritual/religious memoirs (that aren’t preachy, because this one isn’t that at all) and those who have pursued advanced degrees in religious studies. I really enjoyed having the chance to “relive” my time in Cambridge 🙂