Friday, May 27, 2005

Halldór Laxness, Under the Glacier.

I came across this book because of a review in Salon that talked about one of the character's approaches to Christianity:
When Embi insists to Jón the importance of delivering sermons, at least at Christmas and other ceremonial occasions, the pastor answers: "Oh, no, better to be silent. That is what the glacier does. That is what the lilies of the field do." As Embi only incompletely and reluctantly realizes, Jón is a Christian mystic of the old school, convinced that shoeing and feeding horses pertains more to "the cure of souls" than preaching the gospel. In shuttering the church and turning to the outdoors, repairing farm implements and living off donated fish and bread, he is returning his religion to its ancient roots.
The line about the glacier being silent made me decide to read the book. I decided to love it when I read another line, later in the novel: "Whoever does not live in poetry cannot survive here on earth."

It's a weird book. A young man, a theology student, is sent as an emissary of the bishop (Embi) to investigate what's going on in the parish near Snæfells glacier, where the church is apparently borded up. The student is told to listen to the people, to ask questions, and not to argue--but mostly, not to make up his mind about anything, but merely to record what he encounters.

The people are very strange--from the house-keeper, who feeds Embi only cakes and coffee, to the poet who's a little to fond of modern kitchen counter surfaces, to the pastor who wishes to fix things, to the man who finds horses--only to leave them to go looking for others, to women who disappear, to almost-Buddhists, to new agers who believe in bioinduction... All in all, Embi is frustrated at every turn, to the point of falling in love with a mysterious & disappearing dead woman.

You will find this book odd, if you decide to pick it up. The sparse elegance of the characterizations and the dialogue kept me compelled by the book. Its odd subject matter is intriguing, and though it's hardly riveting in a traditional sense, it's a book not to be abandoned, and well worth picking up.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes, 2003.

Archbishop Williams gave the 2001 John Main Seminar Lectures on "the wisdom of the desert"--that is, what's relevant about the Desert Fathers for our faith today.

The book is the edited versions of those lectures, plus a Question and Answer session, that discuss four principal ideas with which the Archbishop engages: neighbours, silence, flight, and stability. Williams starts each lecture with a saying from the desert fathers, understands the saying in its context, and then deals with what it can impart today. As he goes through his lectures, he hits on ideas of vocation and ministry, of what it means to be a member of the church, and of what it means for one's decisions and attitudes to be a follower of G-d.

The Archbishop is compelling; each point he makes is hard indeed to refute, and I found myself increasingly convinced by his arguments. The one flaw of the book is that it feels like a series of talks rather than like a book: two many colloquialisms or standard modes of speech remain that should have been excised.

For people unfamiliar with the Desert Fathers, this book serves as a wonderful introduction, better perhaps than Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert--my copy of which I can't for the life of me find--at helping a newcomer to enter the tradition of the Fathers. It would be nice if the book had more of their sayings; readers are going to want to find a copy of Merton's Wisdom or Sister Benedicta Ward's The Sayings of the Desert Fathers if they want to spend some extended time with the thoughts of the Fathers.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Jon Fasman, The Geographer's Library, 2005.

Fasman's thriller blends two plots: a contemporary murder mystery, and the sinister recovery of a number of objects related to alchemy. Or, as the blurb from Penguin's webpage about the book puts it, "competing visions of an obscure professor's life take a young reporter from a sleepy New England town to the heart of an international smuggling ring that may hold the secret to eternal life."

The images that the objects provide, and their interpretations, may be the most intriguing part of the book, but the book takes far too long to read for those alone. The contemporary murder mystery is plodding and far from satisfactory in its resolution; the only compelling portion of that tale is the characterization--particularly of the main character, Paul Todd.

All in all, this book seems to be in the vein of the The Rule of Four and The DaVinci Code: it's chosen interesting subject material, and done not enough interesting story-telling around it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Stephen Coonts, Liars and Thieves, 2004.

More of the same from Coonts. Less good than the others.