Barbara's Random Thoughts

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton

This isn't as put-together as I'd like it to be, but it's what I've got, and things are gonna get pretty busy for me these next couple of weeks. So here you go.

First book of the year. I started it in Oxford, because it seemed like a good one to read there (sadly, I never got to read any of it while sitting in The Eagle and Child), and I finished it on the train to Scotland...just minutes before our train pulled into Glasgow. I love it when timing works out like that.

The story begins with Gabriel Syme, a "philosophical policeman" who is hunting anarchists, being invited to attend a secret meeting with the promise of it being an entertaining evening. By the end of the meeting, he has been elected to the General Council of the Anarchists of Europe. No, really.

The Council is plotting to destroy the world, or wreak as much havoc as they can along the way. Each member takes the name of a day of the week--the Council is headed by the mysterious and intimidating Sunday, and Syme replaces the recently-deceased Thursday. The bulk of the book follows Syme as he chases and is chased by the other anarchists and finally Sunday himself.

Though the book never seems to take itself seriously--mistaken identities, rather un-anarchic anarchists, a very comic duel, a lot of madcap rushing about the French countryside, and a chase scene which features several hansom cabs chasing a man riding an elephant--in the end, the story prompted some rather deep thought for me about the nature of God and my perception of him. One of my favorite passages:

"Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front--"

So, nothing is as it seems. It's that whole literary theme of appearance vs. reality that so often fascinates me. But here, for me, the theme got tied into man's perception of God vs. who he really is. And that was an interesting idea to kick around in my head for a bit.

As far as the plot went, I kinda did see the unmasking and suddenly-revealed identities coming, but I felt like the point of the book wasn't really to surprise in that arena. It surprised me in leaving me with questions I hadn't anticipated but greatly enjoyed mulling over.

More to come...three more already-read books to write about...

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| posted by Barbara | 9:03 AM |

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I’m always impressed by people who read a ton of books (read: significantly more than me) every year. It makes me feel a little inadequate. But then, this feeling is usually somewhat balanced out by friends who tell me they're impressed by my annual reading totals. In 2007, I read a lot fewer books than I usually do. I didn’t read nearly as much fiction as usual. I read a lot more good nonfiction. And, I continued my practice of rarely blogging anything substantial about anything I read. The last of these is the thing I’m planning on changing this year.

I often make reading goals and plans for myself. I often don't follow through. Because unless I’m reading for a discussion of some sort, or reading a book I’ve borrowed/been given and therefore must either return or report back on (ah, accountability!), my reading is largely governed by the mood of the moment. It’s really hard for me to get into (or through) a book I’m not in the mood for. I’ve had Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday on my shelf for years, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently, while traveling in Britain. I took it with me because it seemed like something I’d want to read in Britain. Oxford, specifically. It was. I loved it. I'm not always so successful in my choice of travel reading--which is why Atonement went to both Italy and South Africa (twice to South Africa!) before I finally read it. And loved it.

Reading is like music for me. It has to fit my mood. And I think I’m gonna (mostly) give up on trying to change that. BUT…I would very much like to be more disciplined in reflecting on and writing more thoughtfully about what I read. Posting at least something about each book I read this year will help me to do that. Additional benefit: I’ve been casting about as to what to do with this blog (I’ll spare you the half-written rambling post on that subject), and this gives me something to write that will (ostensibly) get me back into posting here.

It also means that I owe you four posts, one on each of the following:
The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton
Magic or Madness, Justine Larbalestier
In Search of Guidance, Dallas Willard
Journey to Myself, ed. Julia Landau

And soon:
A Stay Against Confusion, Ron Hansen


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| posted by Barbara | 7:33 AM |

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A couple weeks late

I came across this poem today, one I'd come across before and liked enough to copy out. Reading it tonight reminded me of the New Year's Eve just past and the feeling I had as I watched the last seconds of 2007 count down and disappear. I was sad to see 2007 go--it was an amazing year. I'm given to nostalgia anyway, but these last lines resonate: "...while something else / wonderful dies."

I'm usually unsettled when the calendar pages are blank, when the future is uncertain, when "No plans come to mind." I usually have far too many plans: many sets of options and contingencies, Plan A and Plan B and plenty of other letters after that. Lately I've been learning to "stand there with my hands out," open to receive what's next instead of grasping for it. I'm trying some things on, seeing how they fit. And I'll let you know.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Over our heads the words hung down
with giant sparkling margins.
I was try-trying again
every day of my life.
That's why I've been followed
by stacks of blank notebooks, why
any calendar page with nothing written on it
strikes me full of ravenous joy.

When a year changes,
the little stuffed man
pitches into the flames,
his paper-bag body fattened by
ragged lists, crumpled mail.
Between 8 P.M. when I scrawl
the vanishing year on his chest
and midnight, we fall in love.

His rueful grin, his crooked hat!

He burns fast in the backyard pit.
Then a deep quiet plucked by firecrackers
under a weirdly lit city sky.

No plans come to mind.
I just stand there with my hands out
in smoke while something else
wonderful dies.


| posted by Barbara | 6:20 AM |

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Reading 2007

Here's the annual reading list, a little late this year due to recent travels. I actually thought I might finish a couple more to add to this list while I was gone--but no. So here's this year's somewhat meagre total, broken down by category, with brief notes to follow. The titles with stars were ones I read for NCSA.

Fiction: (9)

Atonement, Ian McEwan
Perelandra, C.S. Lewis
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
The Magician's Assistant, Ann Patchett
The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter
The Club Dumas, Arturo Perez-Reverte
Wieland: or, The Transformation, Charles Brockden Brown
Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind

Children's: (7)
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
Forever in Blue, Ann Brashares
A City in Winter, Mark Helprin
The Wind Singer, William Nicholson
The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit

Nonfiction: (11)
*Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen
*Sub-Merge, John Hayes
*Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott
*The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman
*Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster
*The Shaping of Things to Come, Alan Hirsch & Michael Frost
*The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
The Allure of Hope, Jan Meyers
The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne

Wild Iris, Louise Gluck (yeah, I listed this last year, but I actually read through the whole collection this year)

*Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver

Read chunks of:
*Knocking Over the Leadership Ladder, Paul R. Ford
*Theology for the Community of God, Stanley J. Grenz

Grand total (including re-reads so I reach a nice round number but not including poetry or books I only read bits of):

Small thoughts:
I had a grand run of great fiction at the beginning of the year, with Atonement, Perelandra, and re-reading Cry, the Beloved Country and The Sparrow. The rest of my fiction reading for the year (with the exception of kids books, that is--HP7 was great fun) was more patchy and kind of "eh" overall. Then there was that disturbing run of novels having to do with murder and/or the occult. (Thanks, Anne, for that care package!) I'm proud of the increase in my nonfiction reading, due largely to NCSA required reading. Not that I'm complaining. Highlights of the year in that category (all NCSA stuff): Nouwen, Willard, and Hirsch/Frost. I feel like I've become a broken record when it comes to recommending and referencing Divine Conspiracy. But it's just so good. Read it.

On the off chance that you're interested, here are my lists from 2006 and 2005. I read fewer books this year all around, but I am proud to report that I also bought far fewer books. I made a nice dent in the category of books I've purchased and always meant to read. (That sentence just reminded me of a passage from Calvino and it's driving me crazy that it would require me sifting through 5 or 6 boxes in order to find the book to read and quote the passage. Argh.)


| posted by Barbara | 6:19 PM |