Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers, by Crystal Downing

I tend to read anything about Dorothy L. Sayers, so I was intrigued by this new volume (2020). When I was a parish pastor I often quoted Sayers in my sermons, and not just the theology! Murder mysteries are a great source for descriptions of what humans do. So this book seemed right up my alley.

I have to admit that I was seriously disappointed when I started out. I thought that it was over-simplified and didn’t quite do the depth of Sayers’ thought justice. I also thought it was really geared toward evangelicals. I told a couple friends about my frustration with it, and Joan Beck did a little research and listened to a recording of Crystal Downing at the book launch a year ago. It turns out it is geared to evangelicals, using Sayers’ to help them think a little differently about Christian faith. This really helped me read the book from a different lens.

Crystal Downing is, with her husband, the co-director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College where most of Sayers’ papers are housed. So she had access to many things I haven’t read, and I was very happy to have that resource. I did appreciate the last couple chapters on The Mind of the Maker and politics and religion. Downing did an excellent job of lifting up Sayers’ core thinking and putting it in context for the 21st century.

Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti Mysteries

When the latest Donna Leon showed up in my Kindle list the other day I realized I have never written about these books in this blog. Leon, an American who lived in Venice for a good portion of her adult life teaching English literature at a nearby university, wrote her first Brunetti novel in 1992 and has faithfully turned one out every year since. These are really good books. Inspector Brunetti is a likeable and smart police detective who reads Roman writers for pleasure. His wife, Paola, teaches English literature at the local university and loves Henry James above all else. They have two children, and through the years we have followed them as they grow toward adulthood. In fact, one of the loveliest parts of the these novels is her descriptions of Brunetti’s family life, which includes detailed reporting on the food! Delicious!

The Brunetti family gives interesting insight to Venetian life, as Paola is the daughter of a very wealthy long-time Venice family (her father is a Count), whereas Brunetti comes from a middle-class background. By setting her characters this way, Leon is able to give a broad view of Venetian history and its contemporary challenges.

Brunetti’s colleagues are entertaining and resourceful, and so these stories are really good. Venice is always fascinating, but these books give you an every-day look at this city, and I always learn a lot.

Although these have been translated from English into many languages, Leon has never let them be translated into Italian, which I think is rather lovely. She still wanted to enjoy her time there without being besieged by her neighbors about Brunetti and the possible crimes he solves! Venice is actually a rather small town.

So here is the list. Read them in order!

Death at La Fenice (1992)
Death in a Strange Country (1993)
Dressed for Death (1994)
Death and Judgment (1995)
Acqua Alta (1996)
Quietly in Their Sleep (1997)
A Noble Radiance (1998)
Fatal Remedies (1999)
Friends in High Places (2000)
A Sea of Troubles (2001)
Wilful Behavior (2002)
Uniform Justice (2003)
Doctored Evidence (2004)
Blood from a Stone (2005)
Through a Glass, Darkly (2006)
Suffer the Little Children (2007)
The Girl of His Dreams (2008)
About Face (2009)
A Question of Belief (2010)
Drawing Conclusions (2011)
Beastly Things (2012)
The Golden Egg (2013)
By Its Cover (2014)
Falling in Love (2015)
The Waters of Eternal Youth (2016)
Earthly Remains (2017)
The Temptation of Forgiveness (2018)
Unto Us a Son Is Given (2019)
Trace Elements (2020)
Transient Desires (2021)

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

My friend Joan Beck recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did. She knows I love words. She knows that because she loves them, too. And this is a book for word lovers. It’s a lexicographer’s novel.

Ever since Dr. Samuel Johnson published his influential dictionary in 1755, the fascination with dictionaries and word meanings has grown among English speakers. Perhaps the most famous ongoing effort, begun at the beginning of the 20th century, is the Oxford English Dictionary – the OED – which continues to be the standard for the language to this day. In the late 1970’s I joined the Book of the Month Club so I could get a free copy of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It came with a magnifying glass and it is still open on a dictionary stand in our study.

The Liar’s Dictionary is about the made-up Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, begun at the end of the 19th of century, never completed, and supposedly published once around 1930. When it began it had a huge staff of lexicographers all writing definitions and etymology on index cards to be sorted alphabetically and eventually printed. This fascinating novel follows one of the first staff people as he works on the book and alternately about a young woman who is one of the only two people left working on it in the 21st century. The last Swansby in charge is wanting to scan the book for a last attempt at publication. But they discover that someone one hundred years before had inserted made-up words into the whole operation. So it becomes the job of Mallory to go through the whole dictionary and find all the invented words.

The story is way more complex than all that, and the word play is amazing. And it is laugh aloud funny in many places. I once played a game of Scrabble with a friend where we decided to only use words that aren’t words, but had to follow all the rules that make words words. Harder than it sounds, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. P. Winceworth finds that to be the case in 1899 as he inserts fake word after fake word into Swansby’s dictionary. And a lot of other things happen along the way.

The stories around dictionary creation are fascinating. Watch the movie The Professor and the Madman on Netflix, or read Simon Winchester’s 1999 book of the same title. But in the meantime you can get hooked on words in the sometimes true, sometimes false, world of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

Sap Rising

This lovely commentary from the UK on the essential ennui of ongoing COVID restrictions and hope for the Spring came to my inbox this morning from my favorite print/design/card company, Cambridge Imprint. It’s worth the read, especially for these sentences: Now that it seems to be almost over, it no longer feels like letting the side down to admit that this was a hard winter. The third lockdown was a lockdown too many. The tank of resourcefulness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity had run low. People were no longer sharing photographs of bread that they had baked. Like Dylan Thomas temporarily abandoning poetry during the war, I would have preferred to spend the last two months lying in a hot bath, sucking boiled sweets and reading Agatha Christie. The ordinary routine of life was so unrelentingly the same. All this getting up in the morning only to go to bed again just a few hours later. The washing up from one meal seemed to run seamlessly into the cooking of the next. There were no landmarks to steer by and nothing to look forward to. What was the point? Here is the whole piece: https://mailchi.mp/cambridgeimprint/invitation-to-the-cambridge-imprint-studio-sale-4749833?e=b16c72a4de

Margaret Maron

I saw in the news the other day that Margaret Maron died at the end of February. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed her mystery novels set in North Carolina and featuring Judge Deborah Knott. I’ll need to get one of those off the shelf and do a little re-reading! There are 20 of these and I think I’ve only read six or so, so I have some catching up to do as well. She also has another series about a detective named Sigrid Harald. I haven’t read any of these, but I’ll put them on my list.

Maron was also a founder of Sisters in Crime, a group for women mystery writers. All of this seems just right on this International Women’s Day 2021! The Wikipedia article about Maron is good, and there you’ll find her book lists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Maron

Here’s a photo of the first Deborah Knott book:

Laurie King’s Russell and Holmes Books

I received my best Christmas present ever when I was 11: A two-volume set of The Complete Sherlock Holmes stories. I had already devoured all the Nancy Drew books, so this was the next adult reading step. It must have been a precursor of my reading habits, as mysteries are my favorite genre. But they have to be good ones!

Yesterday I started reading Dreaming Spies, the 13th novel in Laurie King’s series about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Mary Russell is the woman whom Holmes actually marries. She is a scholar in theology (as is King) and she makes a perfect companion for the curious, intelligent, crotchety, entertaining Holmes. Many people have attempted to enhance Conan Doyle’s Holmes legacy with books, plays, stories, and television series. But King came up with a completely new conceit in this fascinating character of Mary Russell, and these stories continue to delight and also broaden the character of Holmes himself.

Dreaming Spies has Russell and Holmes on a ship traveling from India to Japan. A ship is a perfect setting for mystery, and King makes the most of it. It makes me wonder if there are mysteries set on cruise ships! It’s kind of an expanded locked room.

I started reading this after I stopped reading something else. I had looked on my Kindle for something I had yet to read and found one that looked promising. I quit after about 20 pages. It was terrible! So then I tumbled to Dreaming Spies and I’m glad I did. I haven’t read King for several years, and I’m glad to be back to it.

Laurie King has two other series as well as stand-alone novels. You can read more about it all at http://www.laurieking.com

Here are the Russell and Holmes books in order:

  • The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994)
  • A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995)
  • A Letter of Mary (1997)
  • The Moor (1998)
  • O Jerusalem (1999)
  • Justice Hall (2002)
  • The Game (2004)
  • Locked Rooms (2005)
  • The Language of Bees (2009)
  • The God of the Hive (2010)
  • Pirate King (2011)
  • Garment of Shadows (2012)
  • Dreaming Spies (2015)
  • The Murder of Mary Russell (2016)
  • Island of the Mad (2018)
  • Rivera Gold (2020)
  • Castle Shade (June 8, 2021)

Diary of an Old Soul by George MacDonald

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the reflective season of Lent for Christians. We always change parts of our house decor for the various seasons, and Lent is no exception. This year we hung a print of a watercolor of a poem by George MacDonald from his book Diary of an Old Soul. MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish preacher, poet, and writer of fantasy. You may have read his stories The Light Princess or, one my childhood favorites, At the Back of the North Wind. MacDonald’s writing (he penned 52 books) was hugely influential on the work of both C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They loved his evocation of the North and all the myth that surrounded it.

Diary of an Old Soul is a collection of 366 sonnets – one for each day of the year – that MacDonald wrote toward the end of his life. I first learned about them through a sad story about Paul Rogness. Paul was a son of Alvin and Nora Rogness. Al was the president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1960’s. Paul had been studying in England. After he had returned to the USA, but before he had returned home, he was killed in an accident. The family found these MacDonald sonnets handwritten in his pockets and later traced them to the MacDonald book. Al arranged for the book’s publication by Augsburg Publishing in 1975, with a foreword about Paul. The poems have old language and sometimes stilted meter, but each one gives you good time and thought for reflection. They are excellent reading for this or any season.

The artist and St. Olaf College art professor Arnold Flaten (1900-1976) was given a copy of this newly published book in 1975. Flaten knew he had cancer and started sketching from themes in the poems and then did watercolors. They are lovely ways to engage MacDonald’s poem. (You can learn more about Arnold Flaten at http://www.arnoldflaten.com.)

I have copies of five of the Flaten watercolors. Here’s the one we put up this year. It’s the poem for January 14 in MacDonald’s book.

MacDonald’s complete title for the book was A Book of Strife in the form of a Diary of An Old Soul. Although the edition I reference is not in print, there are many editions available. I picked this cover because of the picture of MacDonald. It looks like he is flying At the Back of the North Wind!

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

I just finished a six-week study group with people from my church about this powerful book. Wilkerson has brilliantly articulated the powerful history of the layers of our culture and how they continue to pervade our politics and our society. This book is a lot more than just another look at racism. She pulls the curtain back from the real source of white supremacy and gives us all a good look at everything it is.

By using the concept – the reality – of “caste” to define the racial and class divides in the United States, Wilkerson helps us understand the variety of human disparity and dismissive behavior. She spends time comparing with the more familiar caste system of India, and the astonishing parallels illuminate our own situation. “Illuminate” is a good word for this book, for she is indeed shining light where there has been none. Along with India, her comparisons with Nazi Germany are horrifyingly real, and her comments about how Germany has gone about healing from that are important for us.

Although it is an easy book to read as to the actual mechanism of reading, it is not an “easy” book to read at all. Each of the seven sections led me to pause and reflect on where she had directed me. It has made me want to do everything I can to readjust my own thinking and acting and to talk with others about doing the same. I think I have learned more about myself and others in the United States from this book than from anything else. She intersperses her reporting of the history, all deeply researched, with her own experience as a black woman in our society. She is a clear and persuasive writer, and I am grateful for having read this book.

There is so much rich material here it’s hard to pick one selection to share, but I think these paragraphs towards the end of the book will do: [What is called for is] a radical kind of empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is looking across at someone and feeling sorrow, often in times of loss. Empathy is not pity. Pity is looking down from above and feeling a distant sadness for another in their misfortune. Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in. Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. [p. 386]

Brideshead Revisited

More books and television!

Brideshead Revisited came to the TV screen in 1981. Based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh and starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, it followed Andrews as the flamboyant Sebastian Flyte who befriends Charles Ryder (Irons) at Oxford. The story is funny at times, poignant throughout, and always a bit sad. Ryder is the narrator, and he tells us this story as he gets to know the very wealthy Anglo-Catholic Flyte family and maintains his often puzzling relationships with Sebastian and Sebastian’s sister Julia. His relationship with his very stoic, quite removed father (played by John Gielgud) contrasts sharply with the extravagances of Sebastian and the Flytes.

I write about this here as this is another instance of watching a television series and being drawn to read the novel. I found the series to be quite true to the novel and was glad to get this very British story from both types of media. This also introduced me to the music of Geoffery Burgon. Parts of his Requiem were the sound track for the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). That TV series drew me to read John LeCarre’s spy novels featuring George Smiley. Listening to Burgon’s music is very soothing in these troubled and unsettling times.

Reading is all about stories. And we can get those stories in so many ways these days. If you’re not acquainted with Brideshead Revisited do read and watch in whatever order! And you might check out Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well.

Books and Television

I’m sure many of you have been tuning into the recent TV adaptation of James Herriot’s (Alf Wight) All Creatures Great and Small. We’ve watched all the new episodes so far – I guess we have to wait until next year for Season 2. We really enjoyed it, especially the filming of the countryside. The Yorkshire Dales are so beautiful.

I asked my friend Sharon Swanson, who hails from Yorkshire, if she had started watching. She said she is still too attached to the 1978 version, too loyal to Robert Hardy (who played Siegfried Farnon) to start the new one. I was curious, so I’ve started watching the old series. I think it just might be the better one. Certainly funnier from my knothole, and the Yorkshire accents and so on are probably better. The new one has some interesting twists such as more of a back story for housekeeper Mrs. Hall and more drama around James and Helen getting together. However, I watched the first episode of the older one soon after watching the new one and the script was almost exactly the same.

I’ve been trying to remember if I read the books before I watched the TV series. The first volume was published in 1972, so it’s possible. But I think I started reading the books after I saw the first few TV episodes. It all kind of blends together. Sometimes watching a television adaptation of a novel can introduce us to authors we might have missed. Sometimes the television adaptations are of well-loved books. However it happens, being introduced to these stories and authors by whatever means is a very good thing!

There are many editions of the books still available, and each book is delightful in its own way. Here are the titles:

  • All Creatures Great and Small (1972)
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974)
  • All Things Wise and Wonderful (1976)
  • The Lord God Made Them All (1981)