Friday, March 16, 2007

A Shifting Stack of Good Books

In the last few months, my diet of regular reading has taken me all over the place. In no particular order:

Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes: Le Guin is best known for her Earthsea series of fantasy novels which are quite good. She has written a wide range of highly acclaimed fantasy and science fiction. She is counted among the best of the "soft" SF writers, meaning that she deals with sociological and philosophical questions rather than those dealing with the more usual sciences of SF. This book, more in a fantasy mode, is ideal for someone who hates airports and air travel in general. A woman discovers she can change planes (that is, dimensions) while waiting to change planes (that is, at the airport). All that is required is a terribly uncomfortable seat, a bellyfull of greasy fast food rotgut, and a few other specifics she never actually mentions. Chapter one relates her discovery of this mode of travel, then subsequent chapters go on to focus on one plane or another that she has had opportunity to visit. This is Le Guin's imagination at her best. Some of the planes are merely amusing (the Christmas™ plane) while others become powerful metaphors exploring human rites of passage, religious experience, family life, and more. Good, easy, fast read.

Annals of the Witchworld: Along with the Beastmaster series of books, the Witchworld series was Andre Norton's bread and butter. A visit to any used bookstore in the science fiction section will reveal a dozen or more books from one or both series scattered under "N". I read the first novel of the series, in which the main character escapes a deadly chase with Eastern European spy killers by stepping through an ancient doorway leading to who-knows-where. He ends up in "the Witch World", a place not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, brimming with interesting characters, nationalities, magic, and gadgets. Not the best stuff I've ever read, but since it's older than 1980, it's better than a lot of stuff out there. Another easy, fast read. Not sure when (or if) I'll bother with others from the series. Probably would take a solid recommendation from someone I'd trust.

Moby-Dick: You guessed it, the monstrous white whale tale of every high schooler's english class nightmare. I'm not quite all the way through it, but I've been working solidly at it for several months. No doubt why this hefty tome has the reputation it does: profound, interesting, provocative, amusing, and horrifying by turns. Melville can make our language positively dance, and can even make an entire chapter devoted to an allegorical description of a sperm whale's tail fin interesting. I'm about 370 pages through the 550 or so in my cubic paperback edition of the book, and we haven't met the book's fearsome antagonist. Great stuff.

A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: Four authors collaborated on this solid introduction to the Old Testament. Their aim was to produce a book which treats all the major areas of scholarship in the Old Testament with a broad brush, using the central task of understanding its theology as the unifying principle. I am working through this book slowly, letting the dense material make its way into the part of me that not only reads but comprehends and remembers. I can't recommend this one highly enough for anybody who wants to take the plunge into a fuller understanding of "the other half of the Bible" as Christians sometimes call the Hebrew scriptures.

Homer's Odyssey: I got a copy of Fagles' translation of Homer's Odyssey and read through the first four or five chapters. Fagles has a reputation for being not only a brilliant scholar of ancient Greek literature, but also a masterful poet, taking the difficult hexameter of Homer's greek text and rendering it beautifully into a powerful epic in english. All the concentrated beauty of poetry, the lyricism of language and vivid imagery in the service of a novel-length work. No wonder people have been reading this thing for 4000 years. Deeply rewarding.

Andersen's Fairy Tales: Classic fairy tales at their very best. I've only read a few from this collection, having picked it up several times between other works. Andersen stands at the headwaters of this tradition and has given us some of the stories which are nearly as much a part of our cultural consciousness as the Biblical stories once were. If you've got a dusty printing of this one laying around somewhere, go read "The Snow Queen." You won't be disappointed.

Missional Church: I've been revisiting this seminal work at the center of what's happening in American Christianity right now. Dwayne and I are re-reading it with our church planting mentors (this is their first time through), and we're finding a lot to discuss. This is another one of those works that has already become an important voice in shaping my thinking about the church and its role in the world, and I continue to ruminate on its theology. Can't recommend this one highly enough—this is one of the must-reads of our time.

Borges: I've returned to this gem of South American literature a half-dozen times since I bought it last year. This is some of my favorite literature of all time and I'm not even finished reading his Collected Fictions the first time through. These stories I savor, reading only one or two every couple of weeks. I want this collection of magic realism to last forever (and after reading his "Library of Babel", I think that, despite it's finite size, it just might).

Flights: Another great anthology to which I periodically return. I haven't read too many more since the last time I put it down, but I mention it here because I finally ran across something readable from Charles De Lint. He is a well known author of what is becoming known as "mythic fiction" though I think of him more as having taken fairy tale sensibilities and running through an inner city skate park. However, a De Lint story in Flights titled "Riding Shotgun" left me thinking about the story for quite a while afterward. It's good enough to make me actually pick up and look at his other novels again.

Treasures in Clay Jars: This is the "sequel" to the Missional Church. The same authors of the first volume take a set of well-defined criteria (a 40-page appendix in the book) and demonstrate how a selection of churches from varying denominational and cultural locations are living out a missional theology. Immensely more hands-on and practical than the first volume (which, in fairness, was almost exclusively theology), I found this book helpful and thought provoking. Not finished yet, but I'll be working back through some of its material for several church planting projects at Cascade Hills.

The American Fantasy Tradition: Another anthology, this one I picked up at random from the library. I've only read a few of its pieces, but it's a much different take on the fantasy story. The editor was looking for stories that uniquely illustrated what American authors have contributed to the genre of fantasy. A great collection with some well known works and some very good lesser known ones. I particularly enjoyed the compilation of stories surrounding Pecos Bill, a figure of American folklore that I'd heard of but never encountered in print. Excellent. I'll be returning to this book later with some further thoughts.

Strange Pilgrims: Lastly, I've picked up one of the authors with whom Borges is often compared: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another South American magic realist. This is a collection of short stories, and I've read a handful of them. They are all exquisitely written but slightly outside my area of interest. Good enough to finish, but a far cry from Borges.


James Wood said...

I remember loving to read - even loving to read books about theology and churchy stuff.

How long does it take for that to come back after seminary?

I think that when we get back to Portland we will need to have a standing apointment to get together for some coffee and conversation.

See you in May/June.

Ricky Pruitt said...

hey bro!
nice video! dad forwarded it to me. i hope it worked for your easter outreach! truly revolutionary. if you had leftover "flyers" as you call them, maybe we could erase the date and use them for us next year, if you can give us a discount price that is!
good to hear you are reading again. took me about 5 years till i really wanted to read again after grad school. right now one of the books i'm reading through is "simple church" by thom rainer and eric geiger. must read. i've got "simply christian" by nt wright (sp?) on deck! along with velvet elvis, and a couple of other books by mark attebery.
the most dangerous thing i've read through lately has been the gospel of john... followed up by the book of acts. positively dangerous. (even more so than "irresistable revolution" by shane clayborne... also a must read).
some of the books you've suggested look quite appealing, i may have to check one or two out!
again... sweet video.
ricky pruitt