Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Heart of the Matter

Book two for my summer book study is Graham Greene‘s The Heart of the Matter. We’re supposed to read the novel two or three times. I just finished my first reading and while I doubted this could compare with Brideshead Revisited, this blew me away. From the start, Greene’s style impressed me.

Set in a sweltering unnamed British colony in West Africa, readers meet Henry Scobie, an average police officer who’s passed over for a promotion, which affects his wife’s social standing in this expat enclave. He is a loyal and sensitive husband who’s unable to help his wife, Louise, who suffers from the snobbish clique that is her only possible choice for friendship. The story seems like a simple slice of a humid, exotic life amongst expats, but it’s more.

I loved Scobie’s insights and thoughts about all the people around him, his own choices, Catholicism and God. And I respected how Scobie could always see more than one side of an issue, how he could put up with schemers, whiners, and losers. The only person he’s unable to forgive is himself, which leads to tragedy. The story of these rather ordinary people in a nothing town takes unexpected turns sparked by small changes and bad decisions.

An article in Sojourners magazine Deryle Davis illuminates Greene’s views:

Graham Greene always liked the idea of damnation. His contemporary George Orwell joked that, in Greene’s view, hell was little more than a “high-class nightclub” for distinguished sinners. Throughout the late English writer’s long career (Greene’s centennial was celebrated last year), he depicted many characters who viewed, and perhaps justified, their own sin as a vehicle for connecting to others. It was corruption that seemed to give the world a kind of identity, even a uniting principle. His characters lived and understood themselves in a fallen world where martyrdom was often the cost of salvation. No wonder Greene took French writer (and fellow Catholic) Charles Peguy‘s famous observation to heart that it is sinners and saints who best understand Christianity. In the existential landscape known as “Greeneland,” the two are inverses of each other, both attesting to the stricken state of creation itself.

The sinners far outnumber the saints in Greene’s work, however, and even those sometimes perceived to be saints, such as the policeman Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, are in reality very fallible creatures. (Greene himself said that Scobie had been “corrupted by pity,” a kind of misplaced compassion, that eventually led to his suicide.) Sin, for the novelist, was compelling because it was insidious and universal and had a kind of artistic appeal. If the lower depths of Dante’s hell were frozen, Greene’s were often damp, subtropical, and inflamed with the heat of human desire. His characters live out their purgatory in places like West Africa, Indochina, or Central America, exotic locales that offer both distraction from the pursuits of the soul and also enforced isolation with it.*

The ending is surprising and so masterfully done. Greene’s talent is that he can get you to care so much about people who don’t seem to be all that interesting. If you’d met these people in real life, you’d forget them after a week.

*Davis, Deryl. “Instruments of Grace.” Sojourners Magazine. 01 Jul. 2005: 38. eLibrary. Web. 30 Jun. 2011.

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Posted by on June 30, 2011 in British Lit, Christianity, classic, contemporary



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Posted by on June 29, 2011 in quotation


Two Cheers for Democracy

A character on MI-5 used E.M. Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy as a source for old time codes. I was intrigued so I got the book. Forster is such a good writer and this collection of essays, all written around and after World War II, contain lively insights which are still worth reading.

Topics covered include politics, arts, and places. The first section contains articles about the Nazism brewing in Germany and the prospect o war, which are interesting looks back into another era. In another essay he writes about the beginning of what would become one of London’s first libraries. I found the essay on Virginia Woolf interesting as he chastises her for being too aggressively feminist. Now that’s nothing new, but he seemed generally on the side of feminism, but he expected women would be completely equal by say 1950. Right, we wish.

There’s an essay on the origins of the London Library. If Thomas Carlyle could have easily gotten all the reference books he needed, perhaps it wouldn’t be. Carlyle was working on a biography of Cromwell and couldn’t easily cross town every time he needed some facts. Thus he found a patron for this library. This essay not only tells of the origins of the London Library but praises libraries in general as they serve to help all to increase their knowledge. Noble indeed.

On his first trip to America Forster writes of seeing vaguely familiar birch trees in the Berkshires.

“Was I in England? Almost, but not quite. That was again and again to be my sensation, and in the Arizona Desert I was to feel I was almost but not quite in India, and in Yosemite Valley that it was not quite Switzerland. America is always throwing out these old-world hints, and then withdrawing them in favour of America.”

Like Waugh and Greene, whose Heart of the Matter I’m now reading, Forster’s writing is superb. Forster is obviously a well-heeled man. Reading these essays is like befriending this incredibly well-rounded man who shares everything he knows about culture, politics, government, publishing.

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Posted by on June 28, 2011 in British Lit, essay, non-fiction


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Voice in the Wind

I received Voice in the Wind and the other two books of this Francine Rivers triliogy as a gift. That’s the main reason I read the whole book–not because I liked the story or writing style. It’s an okay book I suppose, but not my kind of book. I never connected with any of the characters.

Set in ancient Jerusalem, Rome and Ephesus in about 70ad Voice in the Wind tells the story of an early Christian slave, the family that owns her, and a Germanic gladiator. It was like reading a C.B. DeMille film, not his best one either. The emotions seemed stilted and dialogs contrived.

At times I felt the book was researched well in that it described various household items of the day, but that it got the zeitgeist wrong. In fact sometimes I got so doubtful of the accuracy that I sometimes stopped reading and went online to check out a fact. Not something one wants readers to do when reading historical fiction.

Rivers is a well known, successful Christian writer so she wants to tell a story and to illuminate some aspect of this faith. She wanted to show that Christianity is the Way. Yet I’ve studied Roman culture, philosophy and literature in college and do think this aim came into conflict with an accurate portrayal of life at the time. For example, one character gets an abortion and the Christian slave woman disapproves. I don’t think that was a formal belief that Christians held in the early church. According to Wikipedia the earliest Christian writing against abortion appeared in 100 AD. From my studies, imperfect as they are, of Church history, the early church was not as highly formal and organized as it became after 1000 AD. As I understand it, the church was figuring out how to develop. There wasn’t a clear blueprint.

Also, when I learned about the history of birth control in Western culture in a college course, I know we learned that Jews accepted infanticide up to age three. The slave woman is a Jewish Christian. Now I don’t have my notes and I don’t know when that belief was held, but this sort of thing and the way Rivers describes Epicureans (she seems to see them only as pleasure seekers, but that wasn’t the case; they believed in taking a middle way between extremes) kept me from getting into this book. Yes, Rivers did a lot of research, but she didn’t talk to a Classics expert and she did not read Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things which is a wise book that Christians can certainly learn from.

A lot of the book seems to want to preach to modern readers about modern problems and attitudes. One character has an argument with her mother and she doesn’t want to be “judged” and throughout she seemed completely of our era not 70 AD. Yes, there were similarities, but it wasn’t a distant mirror.

What really irked me was that the book doesn’t resolve any of the ongoing conflict. Rather it ends with a cliff hanger so you buy the next volume. Novels in a trilogy should stand alone somewhat, while carrying some themes forward.

I couldn’t lose myself in this book. I did want to give it a try and made myself read 20 pages of this each day before I let myself read something else. That pretty much indicates my lack of pleasure.

I’m more of an Evelyn Waugh, François Mauriac or Graham Greene writer. I like their complexity and how the characters never come to easy solutions.

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Posted by on June 27, 2011 in Christianity, historical fiction


Inspector General

My book club’s play for June was Gogol’s Inspector General. This farce is a very quick read that lampoons corruption in the provinces of pre-Revolution Russia. In its day, it probably packed quite a punch. Now it seems too far-fetched. I could predict the ending right from the set up. None of the characters grabbed me. I could appreciate the boldness and importance of this play in a previous era, but it’s not as enduring as Chekov. I wish we’d have read one of his plays. I need compelling characters.

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Posted by on June 26, 2011 in classic, drama, Russian Literature


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At the Chicago Cultural Center, the old library

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Posted by on June 22, 2011 in quotation


Brideshead Revisited Background

I just love this book. I’m reading it for the third time and now want to know more about the references to history, wines, paintings, places and all. Imagine my delight to discover Book Drum’s collection of references of everything anyone would ever want to know about this masterpiece.

Thank God for the internet.

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Posted by on June 13, 2011 in British Lit


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The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Robert’s Rules of Orders

When two friends have gotten so frustrated on committees and due to disorganization and low productivity, they turned to Robert’s Rules of Orders. It’s a famous book that describes a system I was just a little familiar with.

I share an impatience for circular discussions and poor procedures. I have no particular need for Robert’s Rules now, but like a good scout, I believe in preparation.

This Idiot’s Guide has a clear format that does more than just explain how to fun a meeting. Robert’s Rules provide good guidelines for writing bylaws and starting a new group. In addition there are chapters on running e-meetings, whether they’re video conferences, phone conferences or online chats. Sychronistic or not. I think this is a helpful format that updates a tried and true method.

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Posted by on June 8, 2011 in non-fiction


Elegance of the Hedgehog

I had the strangest reaction to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I admired the virtuosity of the writing and the characters interested me, but they were so aloof that I never got to like them. I would read the book then put it down for a few days and pick it up again. It wasn’t a chore to read, but it wasn’t compelling either.

The novel alternates between the concierge Renée’s narration about her life in an upscale Parisian apartment building and the musings of a precocious 12 year old girl named Paloma who resides there. Though at different ends of the socio-economic scale. both characters are acutely perceptive and intelligent. They share a disdain for the upper class dolts whom populate the building. The book is very class conscious and I’m not sure to what end. I did want to tell Paloma and Renée to get over themselves.

The two characters’ lives converge when an elegant Japanese man moves into the building and the three realize they are kindred spirits. I enjoyed the references to Ozu films and Japanese culture, but also shook my head in disbelief when at the story’s climax the Japanese man imparts some psychological wisdom to Renée. It just didn’t ring true at all.

The ending comes out from nowhere. Very Deux ex machina. I rolled my eyes as I read it. Though the plot and characters weren’t well developed, the style and little social insights the characters have are entertaining enough.

I wouldn’t recommend it and I wouldn’t reread it, but I don’t regret reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

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Posted by on June 6, 2011 in contemporary, fiction



Writers at Work

Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series is like sitting in a room listening to an interview between a reporter and a great writer. This edition featured interviews with Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Miller and others of their calliber.

The questions are pertinent and serious; the responses trenchant and thoughtful. Readers can learn a lot about craft and how masters made the same early mistakes that novices do. Starting out Arthur Miller thought one could write a good play in six days. He soon learned otherwise. This book is like a 368 page MFA program. There are several others in the series.

From the archives

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Posted by on June 5, 2011 in essay, non-fiction