Monday, March 5, 2012

Practical Spirituality: Lewis and L'Engle

OK, I've read a bunch of loooong dry books lately and needed some tried-and-trues, preferably under 300 pages. So I reread some of my very favorite books on, well, not spirituality exactly, but on applied spirituality. They're how-to guides with practical tips of living a good, a morally good, life, and the rewards of that kind of life.

One of my all-time favorite books (top five? top seven, certainly) is C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. It informs a lot of my beliefs about redemption. The last chapter gives me chills every time. Plus I think it's a great story: the damned who are sick of hanging around hell take a field trip to heaven. Cool, right? (Does anyone say "cool" anymore? No? Just me?) The damned get to stay in heaven if they want, but they mostly don't, because they've got some appetite or habit or need that has twined so tightly around them that the original building, the soul underneath the habit, has been entirely taken over. There's just not much of the person left to actually want salvation.

What I especially love/am terrified by is that many of these choking habits don't seem all that dangerous in the beginning. But what starts out as cynicism or self-sufficiency or pride in one's work or even possessive maternal life can, if not pruned and tended, suffocate the soul. OK I've carried this evil ivy imagery too far. Anyway. If you like Screwtape Letters, try Great Divorce - I think it's even better.

My other spiritual re-read was Madeleine L'Engle's Circle of Quiet. Here's my goodreads review:
 A Circle of Quiet (Crosswicks Journals, Book 1)A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a personal collection of reflections and journaling from Madeleine L'Engle, who, it turns out, is quite an interesting person. She's one of those authors I wish I'd grown up next door to so we could be lifetime friends. This book, the first of four "Crosswicks Journals," is starting feel its age -- forty years and some -- but there's so much that still grabs me. L'Engle talks about parenting, and Christianity, and punctuation, and small town New England, and she covers this range with earnestness, humor, and compassion.

I've read and reread this book since childhood, and this time through I realized how much it's influenced me. In it I was introduced to many of my favorite authors - Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, Josephine Tey. And my life motto comes from this book: a friend of L'Engle's, Hugh Bishop, said, "Love is not an emotion. It is a policy."

This book is ultimately about both: it's about the practical policy choices that lead to the heart of love. If you're a fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea, or Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, you might pick this one up and see what you think. And then let me know.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 1, 2012

what was I thinking?

There is no way I can read 200 books in a year. What was I thinking. I feel like I've done nothing but read for the last month (as my laundry pile proves) and yet Goodreads tells me I am 22 books (11%) behind my goal.

That is a lot of percents. Maybe I will start reading shorter books. Do backs of cereal boxes count?

The best book I've read so far has been The Submission, by Amy Waldman. It's great. It checks all my literary boxes: American perceptions of Islam, post 9-11 politicking, inscrutable characters you want to thwomp because they just don't GET it, and cairns. Which is my new favorite word.

Here's the cliffnotes of my review over on Goodreads, in case you, too, like cairns:

The SubmissionThe Submission by Amy Waldman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The Submission" is about all kinds of submissions. The first is a design submission for a 9-11 memorial, the winning submission, which turns out to have been submitted by a Muslim. The second submission is the place of Islam -- which in Arabic literally means "submission" -- in America, and the related debate that the winning memorial designer inadvertently launches. The third submission is how characters submit or not to this debate and its repercussions. This cast of characters ranges across the political and religious spectrums, from grieving 9-11 family members, to politicians on the make, to ambitious reporters, to a Bangladeshi widow living illegally in New York with her own secret. Dum dum DUMMM!

I wish I could give this book 4.5 stars. I can tell it's a linger-er that will stay with me. Both the characters and the ideas will, I think, take up permanent space in my brain. But the plot was a bit slow-moving, and I wonder if to someone with different political beliefs would think it unfairly caricaturing. (I'd love to know!) From my perspective, even the distasteful characters had really wonderful depth and richly-painted motives.

It's not a cheerful book. But it is an excellent book, well-written, intelligent, and evocative. Forget The Scarlet Letter - this is what kids should be reading in high school.

View all my reviews