What I Read in 2022

Read Alouds (18)

  • Ramon Quimby, Age 8, Beverly Cleary – A very dreary book, but Cleary still does what she does best: capturing life through a child’s eyes.
  • Half-Magic, Edward Eager – A favorite. The plotline about magic transitions into the plotline about family so smoothly it feels natural. And it’s refreshing to read a book where the children need a grown-up to come in and sort everything out.
  • Magic by the Lake, Edward Eager – Not as good as Half-Magic. Most of the adventures are based on other books, which feels like cheating, and they feel very disconnected.
  • The Borrowers, Mary Norton – Surprisingly thick descriptions. Norton seems to have taken pains over her writing. The story is good, but the ending may be unsatisfying to younger readers.
  • Flat Stanley, Jeff Brown – My father read this to us years ago and it stuck with me. My daughter seemed to enjoy it, too, though I hope not too much. I’d hate to find her on the floor under towering stacks of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald – A great old-fashioned tale.
  • The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis – The first half is edge-of-your-seat great. The second half plods a little.
  • Hank the Cowdog: The Case of the Halloween Ghost, John R. Erickson – I was worried the whole “unreliable narrator” thing would go over my five-year-old’s head, but she enjoyed my Hank and Drover voices too much to care.
  • Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo – One reviewer said each chapter is structured like a short story, which is true: beginning, middle, end. The overall book is a mixed bag. Too simple for adults, too slow for children.
  • The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting – Charming, but loosely plotted. I started with the 1948 edition and realized partway through I was going to have to navigate some pretty on-the-nose racism. Thankfully, the publisher, assisted by the author’s son, revised it 1988. The worst scene, when the Doctor turns Prince Bumpo’s skin white so that he will let them out of jail, was rewritten so that Polynesia simply hypnotizes the Prince. It falls flat, but they did their best. I hear the second Dolittle book is better than the first.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne – I enjoyed this more as an adult than I did as a child. The characters are petty and small-minded, for the most part, but Milne is usually able to portray them affectionately. At times, Pooh reminded me of Freddy the Pig. I wonder if there’s some connection there.
  • The House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne – For the most part, the stories are more tightly plotted than in the original. Piglet’s selfless act at the end always gets me, especially because it is immediately followed by another selfless act by Pooh. The very end, with Christopher Robin and Pooh at the beautifully named Galleons Lap, just barely stays this side of saccharine. But it does.
  • The Light Princess, George MacDonald – C. S. Lewis said that MacDonald was a modern-day mythmaker. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the bizarre scene of the snake drinking the lake dry by sucking on a stone teat. Bizarre.
  • Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Richard and Florence Atwater – An old favorite.
  • Treasures of the Snow, Patricia St. John – One of my favorites. Her portrayal of bitterness reminded me strongly of Lewis’s fiction.
  • Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry – Some good scenes, but not great.
  • Freddy Goes to the North Pole, Walter R. Brooks – You either love the Freddy the Pig books or you just don’t get them at all. My daughter, I’m happy to say, loved this one.
  • The Courage of Sarah Noble, Alice Dalgliesh – Short and simple.

Children’s Fiction (13)

  • Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool – Felt like the kind of novel that would get you an agent but not a publisher, if you know what I mean.
  • Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl – A lot of Dahl’s books have a mean streak, especially against adults. This one, the story of a boy who learns his dad poaches pheasants from a nearby estate, is legitimately heartwarming.
  • Across the Desert, Dusti Bowling – Forgettable.
  • Scythe, Neal Shusterman – Craft-wise, better than Unwind, but the characters were less likeable and the plot more unbelievable.
  • Word to Caesar, Geoffrey Trease – A zippy adventure with just enough historical detail to make it interesting. Henty-lite.
  • The Iron Tsar, Geoffrey Trease – Very similar to Word to Caesar. The characters are flat, but the plot moves. This guy could easily have been a screenwriter.
  • The Sinking City, Christine Cohen – Another good adventure from Canonball Books. The world-building in this one is first-rate.
  • The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, Jeanne Birdsall – I enjoyed this one much more than the first book.
  • The Boy and the River, Henri Bosco – Short and sensual. The descriptions of the river and its flora and fauna are so luxuriant they border on suffocating. I couldn’t help wondering if the touch is lighter in French. Posted a quote here.
  • The White Stag, Kate Seredy – Read like a fairy tale. I now know more about Huns and Magyars than I used to.
  • Henry Reed, Inc., Keith Robertson – A thirteen-year-old boy spends his summer in a sleepy town in New Jersey. Most novels that start this way continue with the boy discovering magic, solving a mystery, or making friends with a crotchety neighbor. Henry Reed starts a business. (This is one of the only kids’ novels I know about free enterprise.) The book is written in the first person, in the form of journal (not diary) entries, which provides a lot of humor. Henry is interested in almost everything, is smart and inventive, and is almost completely ignorant of how he comes across. It’s very amusing. I’d enjoy a chapter written from Midge’s perspective.
  • Hatchet, Gary Paulsen – When I was young, I somehow got the idea that this was a bad book. It does have divorce, heart attacks, starvation, diarrhea, moose attacks, and a dead body. But it’s not bad.
  • The Golem’s Eye, Jonathan Stroud – I enjoyed The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the Bartimaeus trilogy, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

Teaching (7)

  • Assigned for class: Aeneid, Virgil (translated by Stanley Lombardo); Watership Down, Richard Adams (what a book); Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis; Gilgamesh the Hero, Geraldine McCaughrean; The Golden Fleece, Padraic Colum
  • Responsive School Discipline, Chip Wood and Babs Freeman-Loftis – Practical.
  • Norms and Nobility, David V. Hicks – People in my circles don’t talk about this book, but they need to.

Theology and the Christian Life (15)

  • A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis – My third or fourth time through. Lewis was such a keen observer of humans, he’s insightful even at his most raw.
  • Papa Don’t Pope, Douglas Wilson – Surprisingly good. This felt like his older books—more gracious and less joking. Almost every chapter starts with some variation of “So I was talking to a Catholic friend of mine…”
  • Treasure in Clay Jars, edited by Lois Y. Barrett – An examination of the qualities that make a church “missional.” The authors (six of them) have a low standard of orthodoxy, but the qualities themselves are inarguable: Missional vocation; Biblical formation and discipleship; Taking risks as a contrast community; Practices that demonstrate God’s intent for the world; Worship as public witness; Dependence on the Holy Spirit; Pointing toward the reign of God; Missional authority.
  • The Peacemaker, Ken Sande – A helpful book about how Christians ought to resolve conflict.
  • Solomon Says, Mark Horne – Gives a helpful structure of Proverbs and draws out a few key insights.
  • Finding God at Home, Ernest Boyer, Jr. – A mix of good and bad.
  • Confessing the Faith, Chad VanDixhoorn – A helpful commentary on the Westminster Confession.
  • Hints on Child-Training, H. Clay Trumbull – Very good.
  • Mother Kirk, Douglas Wilson – A very solid handbook of church life and ministry. From my perspective, this is a sort of background text for a lot of what I did growing up.
  • Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, C. S. Lewis – Josh Gibbs once said that C. S. Lewis was a better anthropologist than theologian, and this book is a perfect example. His descriptions of the experience of prayer are great, as are his descriptions of the personality of the One we pray to, but the more theological claims made me wince. For example, to Lewis, the bodily resurrection apparently means the sensory resurrection, despite what the disciples saw and heard and felt when Christ walked through the wall. I’m surprised so many of my friends like this book so much.
  • Seven Days that Divide the World, John C. Lennox – An unusual book in some ways. The main point of the book is that Genesis isn’t specific enough to definitively prove the Young Earth position, so we should rely on scientific evidence, which supports the Old Earth position. Lennox’s argument relies on the historical debate between geo- and heliocentrism. Back then, he says, Christians eventually admitted, in the face of scientific evidence, that Earth was not fixed at the center of the solar system. The Bible passages that seem to support that concept were judged to be metaphorical. So it is with Young vs. Old Earth, and Christians need to stop being so stubborn about it. Lennox isn’t trying to rewrite Scripture, however. He takes the historic Christian position on the creation of Man (no ape ancestors here) and the death and resurrection of Christ. He wants to say no more and no less than the text. I appreciate that he takes this seriously and would love to see more books like this, but I have quibbles. For example, in arguing for scriptural agnosticism on this issue, Lennox is de facto taking an Old Earth position. There is no other reason to throw away centuries of Christian writing on the subject. I was reminded of a Sunday school class at a church I once attended which was meant to “explore the question of whether women should be elders.” Needless to say, the teacher had already decided that they should. He just needed to appear impartial in order to convince us.
  • Help for the New Pastor, Charles Malcolm Wingard – The word that comes to mind reading this book is “humble.” A simple guide for young pastors on what the ministry entails.
  • The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer – So trendy it was hard to stomach—”mindfulness,” “minimalism,” “follower of Jesus” (instead of “Christian”). I read it with a few friends, and when we met to discuss it, I was surprised to learn how much they both liked it. I guess it depends on where you’re coming from.
  • Gashmu Saith It, Douglas Wilson – A few good bits, but man, what a terrible title.
  • Decluttering Your Marriage, Douglas Wilson – I’d heard most of this before, in one form or another. I did like his point about correcting others. We prefer to ignore the sins of others when they aren’t getting on our nerves; it’s only when they start to annoy us that correcting them suddenly seems to be of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, that’s when we’re least qualified.

Adult Fiction (9)

  • Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini – Action-packed and fun, but a little too long.
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame – A beautiful book. It has its fans and its haters, and I understand both reactions. But the haters are wrong.
  • The Alto Wore Tweed, Mark Schweizer – Some downright terrible writing. But ecclesiastical humor always gets me.
  • Casino Royale, Ian Fleming – I was pleasantly surprised. Bond is disgusting, of course, but Fleming was able to make him human, too. The writing as a whole was not great, but occasionally Fleming caught me off guard with a particularly vivid sentence like this one: “He pushed the revs up and up, hurrying the car to eighty then to ninety, his huge Marchal headlights boring a safe white tunnel, nearly half a mile long, between the walls of the night.” Exactly the mix of poetry and pulp that you want in a spy thriller.
  • The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler – I read these in reverse order. Marlowe is much more sour in TLG; in TBS he seems positively chipper by comparison.
  • On Beauty, Zadie Smith – Smith is brilliant at creating characters and building scenes (funny, tender, awkward, tense, you name it). I’m not sure she’s very interested in plot, however.
  • Going Postal, Terry Pratchett – This was my third or fourth Pratchett and I’m finally starting to see the appeal. It helped that this one is about a reformed con man doing his best to save the outdated Ankh-Morpork post office. I’m a sucker for stories of people doing the right thing when the right thing is all but impossible.
  • Dune, Frank Herbert – Fine, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Non-Fiction (15)

  • The Years with Ross, James Thurber – All the humor of the New Yorker’s early years with Harold Ross as editor-in-chief. Some of the jokes were a bit too inside-baseball, but Thurber can really do one-liners.
  • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis – Lots to chew on.
  • The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande – A doctor I know told me that this is a controversial book in the medical community. I don’t know why. Gawande makes a strong case.
  • In the House of Tom Bombadil, C. R. Wiley – Some very good insights. I need to read LOTR again.
  • The Household and the War for the Cosmos, C. R. Wiley – Reading this felt like riding in the front seat of Wiley’s truck as he drove through a familiar town, making turns at random and occasionally doubling back on himself, pointing out various details, some of which were interesting, but most of which others had shown me a long time ago. In other words, my takeaway was a mix of “I’ve seen this before” and “Where did that come from?”
  • It’s Good to Be a Man, Michael Foster and D. Bnonn Tennant – Real bad.
  • Made to Stick, Chip Heath & Dan Heath – Very helpful for thinking about mission statements.
  • The End of the World is Just the Beginning, Peter Zeihan – Others have praised and critiqued this book, so I’ll just give my impressions: 1) Zeihan views the world through geographic and demographic lenses, paying particular attention to economies and resources. I’m really glad he does because I don’t, and someone ought to. 2) Because of the above, he misses a lot of what makes people tick. Not everyone goes to war because he’s hungry.
  • How to Think, Alan Jacobs – I’m familiar enough with Jacobs’s writing that not much in this book was new to me. I did think many times, however, of certain acquaintances of mine and how stubborn they can be in their thinking, especially online.
  • How to Keep House While Drowning, K. C. Davis – This is the kind of book I’ll forget that I read in a few years.
  • The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan – Provides some necessary political background for The End of the World. Specifically, it helped me understand why Zeihan is so sure the US will withdraw from the global scene in the next few decades.
  • The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis – Very good. I listened to the audiobook, so I didn’t take a lot of notes.
  • Deep Work, Cal Newport – One of the most immediately useful books I’ve read in a while.
  • Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull – Another audiobook, so I can’t remember a ton, but there were a lot of good ideas here.
  • The Half-Acre Homestead, Lloyd Kahn and Lesley Creed – A photographic tour of the authors’ home, garden, and studio, with commentary in the margins. Read kind of like a blog, with 46 years of experience behind it.
  • Hiroshima, John Hersey – Gut-wrenching.

Comic Books and Graphic Novels (1)

  • Pearls Sells Out, Stephan Pastis

Plays (7)

  • Pride and Prejudice, Janet Munsil
  • Pride and Prejudice, Helen Jerome
  • Medea, Alcestis, and The Bacchae, Euripides – Three plays included in Adler’s Great Books. All odd in their own ways. Medea contains an extremely unpleasant, though understandable, protagonist. Alcestis has all the ingredients for a tragedy, but ends happily, thanks to Heracles. The Bacchae is nightmarishly violent, but also portrays a witty and charismatic Dionysus. More than most Greek playwrights, Euripides seems like he would have been at home in the 20th century world of theater.
  • The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie
  • Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie

Poetry (1)

  • Poetry I, ed. Richard Corbin

Total: 86

Moonlight

Henri Bosco’s book The Boy and the River is short and sensual. The descriptions of the river and its flora and fauna are so luxuriant they border on suffocating. I couldn’t help wondering if the touch is lighter in French.

I could pick any number of passages to illustrate his style, but I chose this one about the moon because it reminded me of a similar poetic passage in Watership Down:

The moon was a great help to me. Its brilliance lit my way, and its spreading softness calmed me not a little, as though by enchantment. For, more effectively than any other of the heavenly bodies the moon touches the human heart with magic. Its light is close. We feel that it is filled with concern and love for us, and, in the season of spring, its friendship is so tender that all the countryside grows tender, too. At those times, for children waking in the night, there is no more charming counsellor. Through the open window it shines into their rooms, and, when they fall asleep again, brings to them the loveliest of dreams.

Here’s the passage from Watership Down:

We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight. Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech woods at night. In moonlight, two acres of coarse, bent grass, undulant and ankle deep, tumbled and rough as a horse’s mane, appear like a bay of waves, all shadowy troughs and hollows. The growth is so thick and matted that even the wind does not move it, but it is the moonlight that seems to confer stillness upon it. We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. it does not reveal but changes what it covers. And its low intensity—so much lower than that of daylight—makes us conscious that it is something added to the down, to give it, for only a little time, a singular and marvelous quality that we should admire while we can, for soon it will be gone.

Lewis on English Majors

[English Literature as an academic discipline] directs to the study of literature a great many talented, ingenious, and diligent people whose real interests are not specifically literary at all. Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about? Hence literature becomes for them a religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, a psychotherapy, a sociology—anything rather than a collection of works of art.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Last fall I gave a talk on literary theory and in my research I discovered (or rather, I confirmed) that English Departments are an utter and complete sham. When I was in school, some of my professors and fellow graduate students loved stories and poetry—and at least one of my professors tried to bring that love into the classroom—but when it came to “serious” literary discussion (the kind that gets published in respectable journals), the conversation turned from the stories themselves to the religion, philosophy, sociology, history, or sex embedded within the story. I met a PhD student whose dissertation was not about literature but about the history of a particular book—the physical object, not the content. Nothing wrong with that, but doesn’t it seem like a task more suited to a budding historian than a lover of literature?

English majors pick projects like that because literature does not lend itself to the kind of scientific analysis required in the modern university. At some level, English departments are aware of this and it keeps the chair of the department up at night. Will his budget be assured come the morn? In his book on literary theory, Terry Eagleton describes the shaky identity of English departments when they first came into being in the 1920s:

The definition of an academic subject was what could be examined, and since English was no more than idle gossip about literary taste it was difficult to know how to make it unpleasant enough to qualify as a proper academic pursuit.

Eagleton goes on to say that English departments survived thanks to the rise of nationalism in the 1930s. When your nation goes toe-to-toe with another, you’re much less likely to dismiss even the least significant aspect of your culture. English people suddenly became much more loyal to their own literature than they were before and its place in the university was assured.

Still, the problem of how to make reading for fun an “unpleasant” academic subject persisted. Lewis says it was solved by literary criticism.

Everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a university has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacle of other books. On every play, poem, or novel, they produce the view of some eminent critic. An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakespearian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Less and less do we meet the individual response. The all important conjunction (Reader Meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously. Here, plainly, are young people drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled by criticism to a point at which primary literary experience is no longer possible. This state of affairs seems to me a far greater threat to our culture than any of those from which the Vigilants would protect us.

Academics love it when an eminent professor writes a new book about Shakespeare because it gives them something new to focus on and they can debate the accuracy of his judgment. It’s much easier to analyze someone’s claims about a book than to analyze the book itself. None of this nonsense about the “literary experience.” No more reading for “enjoyment” or “beauty,” whatever that is. Swaddled in criticism, the English major is free from such messy topics.

Lewis’s solution to this sorry state of affairs:

I suggest that a ten or twenty years’ abstinence both from the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good.

I wholeheartedly agree.

A Good Word for Lit Teachers

We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.

CS Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Media Diary Update

You may remember that there used to be a link to my Media Diary up in the menu. A few months ago I waffled between making the page private or keeping it public and ultimately decided on the latter. Well, I reversed that decision. It’s private again and will stay that way.

My reasons are basically the same as the ones I included in my previous post on the subject (linked above). Reading certain books is a part of my job, but not one that I necessary want to advertise. The problem then was that, without the accountability of a public page, I wouldn’t update it.

Here’s my solution: in the menu there’s a link to my /now page, which is just a short list of the things I’m currently working on. (You can read more about /now pages here.) I’m going to add a list of books I’m currently reading. Whether or not I finish them, it will at least give me some accountability to keep track.

The Subterfuge of Realism

Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Peet

Bill Peet was a children’s author and illustrator who was also heavily involved in Disney’s early animated features. I found a copy of his autobiography at a library book sale yesterday and heartily commend it to you. His life story isn’t all that interesting, but I loved his anecdotes (some unpleasant) about working at Disney in its infancy. And the illustrations are delightful.

Bill liked to paint the ugly and gruesome…
…especially when it shocked ladies at art exhibitions.
Bill works as an inbetweener — a thankless job.
Walt at a pitch meeting

Media Diary

A few years ago I decided that I was done with Goodreads. Instead, I thought, I’ll keep track of my reading on my own blog, like film director Steven Soderbergh. A big part of my reasoning was that Goodreads pressured me to finish everything I read, whereas posting a daily update of the books I dipped into let me record what I was reading while giving me the freedom to lay down a book at any time.

I kept my Media Diary faithfully for many years. About six months ago it occurred to me that, since the page was public, people could critique my reading, watching, and listening on a daily basis. Normally I wouldn’t mind. But a friend might lend me a favorite book and be offended if I don’t start it till two weeks later. A boss might happen to see that I watched a movie in the middle of the week instead of keeping up with my grading. I decided to make the page private.

Since then, I’ve basically stopped updating it. I didn’t realize how much the public gaze (or rather, the possibility of the public gaze) motivated me to post every day. The invisible audience held me accountable. So, I’ve made the page public again, until I think of a better solution.

Newz

Someone on Twitter (maybe Joss Whedon – remember him?) once wrote, “I love it when my friends go internet-silent for a while, then suddenly reappear with some new project just completed.” Well, I have no major accomplishments to reveal (yet…), but here are a couple of news items from the world of Broken Bow.

  • I have essays coming out in two books this year. The first is called Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to Choosing the Best Books for Children. I contributed an essay on YA fiction. The second is called Movies from the Mountaintop: 100+ Films that Express God, Explore Faith and Enlighten Church. The editor of this book stumbled across my review of Spotlight on Film Fisher and asked if he could include it.
  • The third annual Psalm Tap Music Colloquium meets in Monroe, Louisiana, this June. Swing by if you can. As always, it is free.