Monday, December 2, 2019

A Literary Christmas 2019

A Literary Christmas 2019


brought to you by In the Bookcase

The Rules are simple – pick your Christmas reads for 2019, write a blog post about them, and link back to In the Bookcase.



I honor of the Magi, who brought the Christ child three gifts, I read three Christmas tales each December. This year I will be reading:

The Battle of Life by Charles Dickens 

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E. T. A. Hoffmann

At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov

Literary Christmas selections from 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018

Have a Blessed Christmas

The Wanderer

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Grace Awakening by Charles R. Swindoll

The Grace Awakening: Believing in Grace Is One Thing, Living it Is Another by Charles R. Swindoll


It is for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1 

Galatians 5 is sometimes called the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty. The Grace Awakening is a Biblical study on the subject.

I’d like to make this book required reading for all Christendom, but such an autocratic mandate is contrary to its premise, so instead I will just HIGHLY recommend it. It isn’t just for Christians. Non-Christians, especially those who find Christianity to be oppressive, overbearing, or unkind, may find it valuable as well.

Early in the book, Charles Swindoll, makes two broad applications for the principle of Grace: Saving Grace and Living Grace.

Saving Grace is the message that anyone, no matter how unworthy (and we are all unworthy), may enjoy God’s favor. We needn’t earn it, we needn’t work for it; in fact we can’t. The work has been done by Christ, and God is pleased to give grace (his favor) freely to anyone who wishes to receive it. And while I cannot overstate the glory of that message – it is something I settled long ago. I rest securely and irrevocably in God’s favor.

Hence, I found the second point – living by Grace – applicable to my own life now. I found it incredibly relevant and important for Christianity as a whole. Many Christians, once saved by Grace, slip into a life of graceless living. We reduce Christianity to a list of rules and standards of conduct, and often become judgmental of anyone, including other believers, who don’t live as we think they ought. This is not Living Grace.

Much of what we squabble over, much of what we judge, much of what divides us…is nowhere prohibited scripture. The Holy Spirit revealed to me some years ago, that Christianity is more about living by principle rather than a code of conduct. Christ was explicit; the two all-encompassing principles are: Love God, and love my neighbor.

The problem comes when I find a way to apply those principles that works well for me, hopefully even that the Holy Spirit has led me to follow, and then I insist that others follow the same path. That way of thinking isn’t scriptural, it isn’t spiritual, and it isn’t Living Grace.

I cannot do justice to The Grace Awakening in a few paragraphs. If I tried to list the major points, they would lose impact without the Biblical context and pragmatic application contained in the book. But I will highlight one example that was particularly powerful for me. 

At Corinth there was an issue dividing the church that had to do with the propriety of consuming meat that was left over from pagan sacrifice. (We don’t worry much about meat offered in pagan worship today, so feel free to consider contemporary issues such as: body art or piercing, dancing, going to movies, living opulently, dress and hairstyle, social drinking, rock music, Bible versions, contemporary Christian music, etc, etc, etc.) In the first century, this meat thing was the issue. You could buy the leftover meat at a discount. Some in Corinth believed it sinful to eat such meat, some had no problem with it, but there is no specific Bible prohibition. For some it violated their idea of Loving God, and in that case, they should absolutely NOT eat it, but they needn’t make a mission of ensuring no one did. Paul makes it clear that if others did not have a problem with it, they should not be prohibited…or judged. But what really stunned me, was when Paul, writing with Apostolic authority, said….
7However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do eat, nor the better if we do not eat. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. ~ 1 Corinthians: 7-9

Did you catch that? The WEAKER brother is the more CONSERVATIVE of the two. 

Just…let…that…sink…in…

Grace is liberating, not restricting. I think that is the major premise of this book.

Four Biblical Guidelines that Magnify Grace
1. Accepting others is basic to letting them be
2. Refusing to dictate to others allows the Lord freedom to direct their lives
3. Freeing others means we never assume a position we’re not qualified to fill
4. Loving others requires us to express our liberty wisely

About the author: Charles (Chuck) Swindoll is a Christian author and radio preacher (Insight for Living radio broadcast). I’ve listened to him intermittently over the years, and always appreciate his gentle and joyful commitment to proclaiming the Word of God. (he also admits of being fond of Shakespeare …gotta love that.)

A few excerpts: These excerpts lose their full force when taken out of context. Read the book!

…where grace exists, so must various areas of gray

Grace killers are notorious for a judgmental attitude. It is perhaps the single most un-Christlike characteristic in evangelical circles today.

God is pleased with diversity.

The church is not a religious industry designed to turn out mass-produced reproductions on an assembly line.

Variety honors God.

Would you please give up your list of dos and don’ts for everybody else? Just keep it for yourself.

…two strong and very human tendencies: We compare ourselves with others (which leads us to criticize or compete with them), and we attempt to control others (which results in our manipulating or intimidating them).

Most folks, it seems, are better acquainted with their guilt and shame than with their God.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare 


His nature is too noble for the world. He would not flatter Neptune for his trident, or Jove for ‘s power to thunder. ~ Menenius regarding Coriolanus

Coriolanus is a tragedy by Shakespeare, written very early 17thCentury. It is about a Roman General, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, of the 5thCentury, B.C. 

Well…WOW! I loved this play, though it is a tragedy and doesn’t leave one feeling warm and fuzzy, but WOW!

I didn’t like it at first. I didn’t like the title character, but then it gets powerful quickly in the second act, and I admired the integrity of Coriolanus, and lamented his lack of political savviness. 

He is a general of great renown, bearing many scars on his body for Rome, though he is considered proud and aloof. As one officer describes him…
That’s a brave fellow; but he’s vengeance proud, and loves not the common people.

Coriolanus does not aspire to politics, he would rather defend Rome and win her more glory, but like many military heroes, he was urged into politics by his friends. One of them, Menenius, recognizes that Coriolanus may lack tact and diplomacy needed for politics.
His nature is too noble for the world. He would not flatter Neptune for his trident, or Jove for ‘s power to thunder.

Coriolanus himself detests the idea that he is judged by lesser men. He describes it as…
…the crows to peck the eagles.

Two rather contemptuous tribunes stir up discontent among the people towards Coriolanus – merely for his aloofness – though they spin it as more treacherous conduct. When a mob is ready to execute him by carrying him outside the city and casting him on the rock Tarpeian, Coriolanus answers…
No, I’ll die here. [draws his sword] There’s some among you have beheld me fighting: Come, try upon yourselves what you have seen me.

Coriolanus is not executed, but he is banished. He in turn banishes Rome, and makes his way to his previous enemy, the Volscians, and agrees to lead them against Rome.

The joy and beauty of Shakespeare is in the dialogue. The most thrilling speeches are usually made by main characters: Hamlet’s soliloquy, Antony’s eulogy of Caesar, or Henry V’s St Crispin’s day speech, but in this play, my favorite lines were by an unnamed guard, addressed to Menenius who has come to the Volscian camp to sue for mercy.
Guard: You are a Roman, are you?
Menenius: I am as thy general is.
Guard: Then you should hate Rome, as he does. Can you, when you have pushed out your gates the very defender of them, and, in a violent popular ignorance, given your enemy your shield, think to front his revenges with the easy groans of old women, the virginal palms of your daughters, or with the palsied intercession of such a decayed dotant as you seem to be? Can you think to blow out the intended fire your city is ready to flame in, with such weak breath as this? No, you are deceived; therefore, back to Rome, and prepare for your execution: you are condemned; our general has sworn you out of reprieve and pardon.

Or this shorter bit, when Menenius rebukes the cowering tribunes who have brought ruin upon Rome.
Why, so, – you have made good work! A pair of tribunes that have rack’d for Rome, to make coals cheap, – a noble memory!

Spoiler alert: Rome is not destroyed. I’ll spare you how it is spared, and the tragedy. 

This is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known, and less often enacted plays. But in the reading, at least, it is one of my favorites. 

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Saturday, November 9, 2019

Recap of Novels 131-140

Recap of Novels 131-140


Average rating of novels 131-140 – 3.9 stars (out of 5)



131.  ★ ★ ★ ½                 Picnic at Hanging Rock
132.  ★ ★ ★ ½             The Oak Openings
133.  ★ ★½                   The Day of the Triffids
134.  ★ ★ ★ ½                 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
135.  ★ ★ ★ ½                 Through the Looking Glass
136.  ★ ★ ★                 Coraline
137.  
★ ★ ★                 A Christmas Carol
138.  
★ ★ ★ ½             Dracula
139.  ★ ★ ★½                 The Universal Baseball Association
140.  ★ ★ ★                 Lost Horizon


Favorite: Dracula
Honorable Mention: The Oak Openings

Least Favorite: The Day of the Triffids

Best Alternate Title: The Bee Hunter – which I think is a better, though less commonly used, title for The Oak Openings

Best Hero: Parson Amen from The Oak Openings
Best Heroine: Mina Harker from Dracula

Most Villainous: Count Dracula
Dishonorable Mention: Other Mother from Coraline

Most interesting/Complex character: Onoah, Native American from The Oak Openings

Best Quotation: Listen to them – the children of the night. What music they make! ~ Count Dracula referring to the howling of wolves
Runner Up: “You know,” he added very gravely, “it’s one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in a battle – to get one’s head cut off”. ~ Tweedle Dee

Best film adaptation: Coraline
There are pretty good film versions of all of these, except The Oak Openings and The Universal Baseball Association, which I don’t believe have been adapted to film. I believe I read somewhere that A Christmas Carol has been adapted to film more than any other work of literature.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to The Sherlock Holmes canon

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @ BooksAreMyFavoriteandBest

It’s not often that I’ve read the starting book, but since I recently read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it seems like a good month to join in
Adventures in Wonderland – There are two prominent rabbits in Alice’s Adventures: The White Rabbit and the Marsh Hare. Yes, I know one’s a rabbit and one’s a hare, so to be more precise, two different leporidae, and they reminded me of…
Watership Down – a dangerous journey, by a small group of rabbits, to find a new home. The journey is guided by Fiver and his sixth sense away from danger and to their new home and safety. Much like…
The Stand – another small group, humans this time, and a similar journey, guided by their dreams and visions to a place of safety. It is an epic contest of good vs evil, which reminds me of…
The Lord of the Rings – which is sometimes described as the gold standard of the fantasy genre; a genre that isn’t always afforded full respect among the classics. Similarly,…
Dune – the gold standard of Sci-Fi, and for no other reason than they are both Sci-Fi, Dune reminds me of…
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – There is a sentient computer in this Sci-Fi classic, designated a High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor Mark IV or HOLMES IV. Mannie, the main character, nicknames the computer, Mike, short for Mycroft, as in Mycroft Holmes. There are several other references to the Sherlock Holmes, so my final link is to the Sherlock Holmes canon. And that is how you get from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the Sherlock Holmes canon.




But wait, there’s more, just a serendipitous bonus. Mannie is apparently well read and often quotes the classics. At one point, he exclaims “curiouser and curiouser” – which is of course quoting Alice from Adventures in Wonderland.

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Friday, November 1, 2019

Lost Horizon by James Hilton (novel #140)

Lost Horizon by James Hilton


…he [Conway] often felt the invasion of a deep spiritual emotion, as if Shangri-La were indeed a living essence...

A small group of travelers evacuate from civil strife in India, early 1930s. British diplomat Hugh Conway is unofficially in charge of the group which also includes his subordinate Mallinson, British missionary Miss Brinklow, and American businessman Barnard. Some hours after takeoff, the passengers realize their pilot is not the man they expected, and their route is not to Pakistan, as expected. They have no choice but to await their fate as they are unarmed, while the pilot is armed and incommunicative. After a crash landing high in the Himalayas, the group is rescued by a group of locals and guided to a remote valley, and the lamasery of Shangri-La. The four travelers are thus relieved of immediate peril by the mysterious and hospitable monks; but how and when are they to leave? Will they be allowed to, or will they even want to? The valley, under the permissive influence of the High Lama, inspires an almost magical contentedness over its inhabitants – and guests.

I first read this as a teen, and I remember liking it very much, but I’m certain my comprehension of the philosophical points was greater with this reread. It’s a marvelous story, dangerous and exciting, thoughtful and meaningful. I liked the main character Conway quite a bit. The other characters, are rather cliché, but probably intentionally so in order to bring Conway into sharper focus. Mallinson the stereotypical imperialist who expects the world to bow at British command is comically incredulous when the preposterous monks do not. Miss Brinklow is politely disdainful of the heathen and confident she can show them the light. And the American is metaphorically something like a cowboy. Conway, is the least predictable, the most complex, the most captivated by Shangri-La
…he often felt the invasion of a deep spiritual emotion, as if Shangri-La were indeed a living essence, distilled from the magic of the ages and miraculously preserved against time and death.

The philosophy of the lamasery, in the words of one of its adherents:
I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds…

I’ll buy that. I think moderation can be a virtue, unless you take it too far. 

And even though that sounds rather cheeky, I am quite serious (though it does make me smile smugly). I’m not convinced it was Hilton’s point to champion the merits of moderation, at least not to the extreme levels of Shangri-La (again smiling smugly), but rather to point out that British values of action, results, and ambition, might benefit by a bit of moderation. That’s something I can agree with, and why, along with it just being a marvelous adventure, I give Lost Horizon…

My rating: 4 of 5 Stars



Excerpts:

Americans, Conway reflected, had the knack of saying patronizing things without being offensive.

Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue ~ High Lama

I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself. ~ Chang

Trivia 1: The U.S. Presidential retreat in Maryland was named Shangri-La by President Roosevelt. It was later changed to Camp David by President Eisenhower.

Trivia 2: Ayn Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged also has an idyllic society hidden in an inaccessible mountain valley [Rocky Mountains]. There are similarities so specific as to remove any doubt that Rand borrowed the idea from Hilton – though the ideals espoused by the two societies are as disparate as the mountain ranges that hid them.

Trivia 3: Lost Horizon was the first mass produced paperback novel.

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Monday, October 28, 2019

The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover (novel #139)

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover


[baseball] It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart ~ Bart Giamatti, former commissioner of Major League Baseball

As the full title states, Henry (J. Henry Waugh), is the proprietor of the Universal Baseball Association (UBA): a fantasy roll playing game of Henry’s own creation, ruled by dice and elaborate charts. Henry plays out entire seasons, and keeps meticulous records – alone, at home, on his kitchen table. But in spite of that rather pathetic picture, Henry is not the socially awkward loner you might imagine. 

But running the UBA is his greatest passion. In the middle of the 56thseason, a rookie pitcher completes one of the rarest feats in baseball, a perfect game*: no runs, not hits, no errors. To celebrate Henry visits the local bar, engages in playful banter with the barkeep, and has a tryst with one of the denizens. 

Henry is flying high, until a few games later, with the rookie phenom back in the lineup, successive rolls of triple six brings out the “Extraordinary Occurrences” chart and one more roll. But this roll, brings about an event so extraordinary, that it rocks Henry’s world.

The novel begins with the perfect game in progress that I thought was a real game. But, there were random references to Henry (wait, who’s Henry?), or the dice (wait, what?), that slowly reveal what is going on – brilliant! Throughout the novel Henry slips into his created world, and back to the real world. He has developed personas and drama in the lives of his players, and though he knows his creation is not real, he is personally invested. 

One of Henry’s few regrets is the inability to share his creation. There is no one to exult with over the perfect game – no one would understand. The games are real to Henry – not in a deluded sense that he thinks the players are living beings – but the games are real, the outcomes are real, determined by rules, probability, chance; they have integrity, tradition, sanctity.

So, Henry invites Lou, a friend and colleague from work to join him. Lou is a decent chap, but rather a simpleton. He finds the game complicated and makes irrational lineup changes, not respecting the realism that Henry observes – such as not starting a pitcher with only one day rest. Henry is exasperated by Lou’s ignorant and irreverent approach, and Lou leaves without completing the game. It was a painful and poignant chapter. I hurt for Henry. 

I really wanted to love this novel. I’m a baseball fan, and I love stats, history, records, and legends. I did love the story in the beginning. The game itself is impressive. It is an elaborate system of die, charts, records, bios, even a Hall-of-Fame. It truly seemed like a fair approximation of baseball. I wanted to play. But after the extraordinary occurrence, I was let down a little with the turn the story took. It’s very existential, contrasting creationism, determinism, randomness, and free-will (J. Henry Waugh is probably an allusion to Jawheh – the Hebrew name of The Creator). At a crisis point Henry struggles with the option to intervene – he has the power and the right as creator – or to let things play out according to the rules he created. I liked the struggle, but wasn’t completely thrilled with how the narrative depicted it. It is told mostly from the point of view of the fantasy players who reveal Henry’s rule of his universe. I wanted to learn more of what was going on in Henry’s life. Still it was an unusual and entertaining novel.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 Stars



I read this to coincide with the 2019 World Series.

Excerpts from The Universal Baseball Association:

And so, finally, he’d found his way back to baseball. Nothing like it really. Not the actual game so much – to tell the truth, real baseball bored him – but rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence. And no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history, so specific an ethic, and at the same time, strange as it seemed so much ultimate mystery.

*Perfect Game: In the real world there have been only 23 Perfect Games in 150 years of Major League baseball, or approximately once every 10,000 games. In 2010, Armando Galaragga of my Tigers was robbed of a perfect game, which inspired me to write the following about perfection: Splendid Failure

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