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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Sampler

"And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God. Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength. They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased: so that the barren hath born seven; and she that hath many children is waxed feeble. The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them. He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the Lord shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed." I Samuel 2:1-10.

"In short, when it is a question of the righteousness of works, we must have regard not for the work of the law but for the commandment. Therefore, if righteousness is sought from the law we will in vain bring forward one work or another, but unceasing obedience to the law is necessary. Therefore, God does not, as many stupidly believe, once for all reckon to us as righteousness that forgiveness of sins concerning which we have spoken in order that, having obtained pardon for our past life, we may afterward seek righteousness in the law; this would be only to lead us into false hope, to laugh at us, and mock us. For since no perfection can come to us so long as we are clothed in this flesh, and the law moreover announces death and judgment to all who do not maintain perfect righteousness in works, it will always have grounds for accusing and condemning us unless, on the contrary, God's mercy counters it, and by continual forgiveness of sins repeatedly acquits us. Therefore, what I said at the beginning always holds good: if we are judged by our own worth, whatever we plan or undertake, with all our efforts and labors we still deserve death and destruction." Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter XIV, section 10

"You see, then, that the grace in the gospel is not mere persuasion and entreaty, but a powerful work of the Spirit entering into the soul and changing it, and altering the inclination of the will heavenward, whereas corruption of nature turns the soul downward to things below. The soul is carried up and shut to things below. We must have great notions of the work of grace. The Scripture has great words of it. It is an alteration, a change,  a new man, a new creature, a new birth." Richard Sibbes, "Glorious Freedom," p. 106.

Last week I quoted Calvin quoting Ambrose pointing out that we are like Jacob, approaching our Father dressed in our elder brother's clothes, to receive a blessing we do not deserve. I mentioned that I had never looked on the story of Jacob in that light. Today I read this in Sibbes: "In the gospel, faith works in us to see God's face openly, and to come boldly with...Esau's garments; that is, to come with Christ, and we cannot be too bold."

It is interesting how reading one book can open one's eyes to see something in another book. I have read both Calvin's Institutes and Sibbes' "Glorious Freedom" before, and never took notice of the mention of our story being like Jacob's story, and now I have seen it once in each book in the course of one week. That makes me eager to read even more: broadly, deeply, promiscuously.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett

This novella posits a reigning queen of England who comes to the pleasures of reading late in her life. One book leads her to another, and before long she has become an avid reader. Her course of reading enlightens, liberates, humanizes her; as she puts it in the book, 'tenderizes her.' For the first time she has sympathy for others, and learns to put herself in their shoes.

The story is pretty simple and straightforward. In reading it, I chiefly delighted in some of the descriptions of the reading experience.

"What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do."

"...but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up."

"Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to just wishes one had more of it."

"Once she would have let this pass, but one effect of reading had been to diminish the Queen's tolerance for jargon."

"...and she felt about reading what some writers feel about writing: that it was impossible not to do it..."

"And it occurred to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks, they were hardly jokes, that she had not even noticed before."

"Undisclosed" by Unnamed

A couple days ago I finished a book in which Oscar Wilde figures as a detective (!). Because of certain parts contained in the book, I don't care to review the book in the traditional sense. I did not want to acknowledge publicly that I had read it, nor did I want to ignore the fact that I had read it. Do not ask me why I read the whole of a book I do not care to acknowledge having read. I had my reasons, but, as they are probably not good reasons, I shall not share them.

The book did pique my interest in Wilde, though. I thought that in this blog post I would share some of Wilde's witticisms.

"A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction."

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally."

"Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there."

"Arguments are extremely vulgar, for everyone in good society holds exactly the same opinion."

"Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative." (That is for all my friends who are unregulated in their habits, as I am in mine.)

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

"I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself."

"I can resist everything except temptation."

"I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best."

"If one cannot enjoy reading a book again and again, there is no use in reading it at all."

"In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience."

"It is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned."

I suppose I should close with that, though I have found ever so many more Wilde witticisms worth remarking.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"The Double Comfort Safari Club" by Alexander McCall Smith

I can remember being disappointed with the first book in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novel I read several years ago. I believe I expected more thrill, more plot, more mystery than it contained. I have since come to value the series highly. The characters are believable, sympathetic and consistent. Each book is chock-full of sage reflections on human nature. From being disappointed, I have come to find comfort in reading these books.

In "The Double Comfort Safari Club," Mma Ramotswe tackles several cases: she is asked to locate a beneficiary of a will, whose identity is not known; a man and his wife separately ask her to find out if the other is having an affair; a victim of a ruthless woman enlists Mma Ramotswe's help in securing justice. In addition to all that, her assistant's fiancee suffers a terrible accident, and a member of his family tries to turn that into an opportunity to keep them from marrying. That's plenty for Mma Ramotswe to take on in one book, but she does so gracefully (for a woman of traditional build), graciously, and ably, bringing each one to a satisfying conclusion.

This series is also notable among recently published works for not containing explicit sexual content. Indeed, when my six-year-old (let us call her The Lawyer) asked if she could read the book, I said yes (not that I expect her to read it, but I did not feel that I must rush the book out of her hands, lest her eyes chance upon a sordid or lurid comment).

These books make for pleasant, philosophical reads. I would recommend them to my friends, and I will be searching out the ones I haven't yet read. I would keep them on my shelves (few mysteries make it there).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Sampler

I thought perhaps I could make a habit of sharing samples from my devotional reading on Sundays. Here's take one.

"And the angel of the Lord appeared unto the woman, and said unto her, Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son. Now, therefore beware, I pray thee, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing: For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." Judges 13:3-5.

It is interesting to me to notice how often, as the Old Testament saints waited for God to fulfill His promise of a Seed who should deliver them, God sent men to deliver them temporarily, and how often in doing so He opened a womb that had not before borne a child.

"For this reason, it seems to me that Ambrose beautifully stated an example of this righteousness in the blessing of Jacob: noting that, as he did not of himself deserve the right of the first-born, concealed in his brother's clothing and wearing his brother's coat, which gave out an agreeable odor, he ingratiated himself with his father, so that to his own benefit he received the blessing while impersonating another. And we in like manner hide under the precious purity of our first-born brother, Christ, so that we may be attested righteous in God's sight." Calvin, Institutes, chapter XI, section 23.

That is a view of the matter that I'd never considered before!

"Do consider what a loving God we have, who would not be so much in love with his only Son as to keep him to himself when we needed him; a God that accounts himself most glorious in those attributes that are most for our comfort. He accounts himself glorious not so much for his wisdom, for his power or for his justice, as for his mercy and grace, for his philanthropia, his love of man. Shall we not therefore be even inflamed with a desire to gratify him, who has joined his glory with our salvation: who accounts himself glorious in his mercy above all other attributes?...What a comfort this is to sinful man, that in casting himself upon Christ and upon God's mercy in Christ, he yields glory to God; that God has joined his glory with our special good; that here is a sweet concurrence between the chief end and the highest good of man!" Richard Sibbes, Glorious Freedom

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Tell Me, Pretty Maiden" by Rhys Bowen

A short post for an acceptable, but not exceptional, mystery. Molly Murphy is an Irish woman transplanted to New York in the early 20th century. She opened her own detective agency in order to make her way in the world. In this book she ends up working three separate cases, which she resolves by the end of the book. Molly was likable. The book is written in the first-person, which I don't prefer, but got used to before long. I thought that the lengths she went to in order to resolve the final case near the end of the book stretched my belief almost too far, except that they did seem in keeping with the somewhat impetuous character of Molly. I would be willing to read other books in the Molly Murphy series. I must commend the author for keeping obscene subjects offstage. Sexuality is present, but implicitly, not explicitly. It was a relief to read a book which contained merely implicit references to sex. A couple of the characters seemed to have suspiciously modern outlooks, but I'm no expert on what mindset most people might have entertained in 1903. As I said at the beginning, an acceptable, but not exceptional, mystery.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Unnatural Death" by Dorothy L. Sayers

Ah, nothing like a little Sayers mystery when one needs something clever but light to read. She is one of my favorite mystery novelists. I will admit that I had something of a crush on Lord Peter Wimsey, in the days before I got married. Now I think I would find him somewhat intolerable as a real-life companion. As a character in a book, though, he's great fun.

"Unnatural Death" strikes me as a bit unusual for a murder mystery, in that the culprit is correctly suspected from nearly the beginning of the book, even in the absence of any clear motive. The means of death, however, remain a mystery until near the end.

I was happy to catch a literary allusion this time which completely escaped me the first time I read this book, lo, these many years ago: Lord Peter quotes a line from "The Walrus and the Carpenter." "'I weep for you,' the Walrus said: 'I deeply sympathize.'" I suppose that's what one gets after years of reading aloud to one's children.

Sayers's writing is delightful. "She was (she did not attempt to hide it from herself) precisely the type and build of person one associates with the collection of subscriptions." As if those who solicit contributions to charity ran true to a specific physical type! And we admire Miss Climpson's modesty in not attempting to hide it from herself.

I take delight, too, in Miss Climpson's epistolary style, with all its underlinings and exclamation points. Her letters serve to illustrate her character.

"Mrs. Cobling turned out to be a delightful old lady, exactly like a dried up pippin..."

"Oh, gods of the wine-flask and the board, how long? how long?--it is a ham sandwich, Goth, but not an ordinary one. Never did it see Lyons' kitchen, or the counter of the multiple store, or the delicatessen shop in the back street. The pig that was sacrificed to make this dainty tidbit fattened in no dull style, never knew the daily ration of pig-wash or the not unmixed rapture of the domestic garbage-pail. Observe the hard texture, the deep brownish tint of the lean, the rich fat, yellow as a Chinaman's cheek; the dark spot where the black treacle cure has soaked in, to make a dish fit to lure Zeus from Olympus. And tell me, man of no discrimination and worthy to be fed on boiled cod all the year round, tell me how it comes that your little waitress and her railway clerk come down to Epping Forest to regale themselves on sandwiches made from coal-black, treacle-cured Bradenham ham, which long ago ran as a young wild boar about the woodlands, till death translated it to an incorruptible and more glorious body?"

I could go on, but you'd do better to pick up a Sayers book and read it for yourself.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"A Fine Balance"

"My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus' blood and righteousness..."

Reading "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry caused me to reflect on the nature of hope. His novel is set in India in 1975. Four people, from three widely disparate backgrounds, are brought intimately together for about a year under trying circumstances. They start by distrusting one another, and end up caring for one another. Several smaller characters feature in the story, as well (one reviewer described Mistry's work as being 'Dickensian' in scope). Mistry wrote believable, likable characters who have continued to live in my memory after closing the book. I am haunted by their troubles.

As the book goes along we hear of the unspeakably inhumane and cruel treatment that these four characters have suffered, and of the similar treatment the lesser characters have suffered. Misery abounds in the novel. Injustice is everywhere. The whole political system is rotten and corrupt through and through. Even those people who desire to be honorable and upright are forced, through their fear of their superiors, to be unkind to those under them. Anyone lacking authority or raw power has no reliable recourse to redress their grievances. Life is perilous. One's hold on the good things of life is tenuous.

One of the lesser characters, who appears only a handful of times in the book, is the only one to use the phrase 'a fine balance.' He speaks of the misery that lies on all sides, that afflicts every person he knows of or sees. He says the only possible response is to strive for a fine balance, between misery and hope. But the hope he offers is baseless. Given the almost constantly cruel way people treat one another, and the absence of power to achieve what one hopes for, there is no basis for hope.

And what is the object of hope? A crowded and uncomfortable residence instead of a crowded and uncomfortable pavement. A hope that someday one might encounter a truly kind person. A hope that Lady Justice will blind her eyes to the bribes being offered her on all sides. At best, a hope that one might not lose what one has, or that one might gain slightly better circumstances.

Contrasted with the eschatological hope of a Christian, based upon the finished work of Christ, I found the hope urged on the characters in the book woefully inadequate, without a foundation, and directed towards a trifling and temporary benefit. In the recent words of a friend, reading the book caused me to 'cry out to God for the human condition.'

On a side note, I must lament the fact that so many of the newer books (let's say 20 years or younger) which I read include so much gratuitous, sexually explicit descriptions, either of acts or of parts. Even the more literary works such as this one include them. I find such books marred by such descriptions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Few of The Tyrant's Favorite Books

Let us call 5th dear daughter (2yo) The Tyrant. The Tyrant has no shame about demanding that I read to her, no matter the day, or time, or place, or other-activity-already-engaged-in. The Tyrant has actually begun waking up, in the middle of the night no less!, with these words on her pink lips: "Read to me, Mommy!" I thought I would share some of my thoughts about the titles she requests over and over and over and over and, well, you get the idea.

"Welcome, Little Baby" by Aliki. This book offers simple, loving text and soft, sweet illustrations. The text is written from the parents' perspective and addressed to the baby. One of my very favorite illustrations in the book is of the new mom nursing her new baby. The Tyrant gets excited about that, too. 'Baby wants nigh-nigh!' she squeals every time we get to that page (nigh-nigh being our family term for nursing).

"McDuff and the Baby" by Rosemary Wells. This book likewise offers simple text, but with more colorful illustrations. The story centers on how a loved dog reconciles himself to the new baby in the family. My favorite part of this book is how the dog is illustrated: cute and very expressive, without being anthropomorphised.

"All Together Now" by Anita Jeram. This book tells how Mommy Rabbit came to have Miss Mouse and Little Duckling for children. The author illustrated her own book, and it looks just like "Guess How Much I Love You," because she illustrated that book, too. I've long thought this book would be good for families who have adopted children, on account of the subtle and implied support for adoption, as, for instance, when Miss Mouse and Little Duckling think 'It means, even if I don't look like a bunny, Mommy Rabbit's still my mommy just the same.'

"We're Going on a Bear Hunt" by Michael Rosen. This book is written with repetitive, poetic text, interspersed with fun sounds (such as 'squelch, squerch' to represent the sound of walking in mud). A father and four children set out on a bear hunt on a beautiful day, and encounter many obstacles along the way. This book lends itself well to changing one's voice to suit the mood of the page, even though the text is almost the same on every page.

"Aunt Pitty Patty's Piggy" by Jim Aylesworth.  This book has cumulative, repetitive text, and illustrations which evoke an earlier era. Aunt Pitty Patty buys a piggy who refuses to go through the gate into her yard. Aunt Pitty Patty entrusts Little Niece Nelly with the task of getting the piggy through the gate, while Aunt Pitty Patty goes on to make supper. Little Niece Nelly seeks help from many near her, who each in turn deny her request, until at last she finds one who complies, which causes a whole chain of events to occur, concluding with the piggy going through the gate. The Tyrant loves to chime in on this line: 'No, no, no, I will not go!'

The same author and illustrator team also wrote "The Tale of Tricky Fox," which is another favorite of The Tyrant, though not requested quite as often. Tricky Fox brags that he can steal a pig, if he can only trick a human into putting one into a sack for him. He succeeds in tricking a couple people in order to lead up to his final trick. He thinks he succeeds at his final trick, and carries off a bag heavy with what he takes to be a pig. To his 'sorry surprise,' he learns it's not a pig when he gets the sack home and opens it up.

"Circle Dogs" by Kevin Henkes. This book features not so much a story as a description of the life of two 'circle' dogs (dachshunds, I believe) throughout the day. The illustrations are bright, bold, colorful, simple, almost geometric.

"The Napping House" by Don and Audrey Wood. This book, in cumulative and repetitive text, tells how it comes to be that everyone who was napping gets awakened. The illustrations display a subtle shift in color from the beginning of the book until the end, going from a gloomy, rainy day to a bright and sunshiny day.

I could go on, and perhaps will another day, as The Tyrant does like yet more books. Strange, isn't it, that a two-year-old Tyrant should favor cumulative and repetitive texts?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Link to Burt Dow

A Short Note about the Books in the Picture

I selected the blog template I did because, of the eight or so choices offered to me, it seemed the most in keeping with my intended theme. I wanted to point out, however, that, in contrast to the pictured books, the actual books sitting on the actual shelves in my actual home have titles. The books pictured in the template appear to be wordless.

A Short Note about the Title

'Giggling Gull' is the name of the pet seagull of Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, in the book of the same name by Robert McCloskey. I decided to use it as the name of my blog because I thought it would help keep me from taking myself too seriously. My thoughts are nothing more than the giggles of a gull.

Calvin's Institutes

I have slowly been making my way through Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion' (slowly means I started a year and a half ago and am not quite halfway through). I do not count myself equal to writing a review, or even an opinion, of Calvin's magnum opus worth anyone else's serious attention. I thought, however, that I might share small selections of his work. Here is a paragraph I read this evening:

"That God has promised to be with believers in tribulation they experience to be true, while, supported by his hand, they patiently endure--an endurance quite unattainable by their own effort. The saints, therefore, through forbearance experience the fact that God, when there is need, provides the assistance that he has promised. Thence, also, is their hope strengthened, inasmuch as it would be the height of ingratitude not to expect that in time to come God's truthfulness will be as constant and firm as they have already experienced it to be. Now we see how many good things, interwoven, spring from the cross {the Christian bearing the cross, that is}. For, overturning that good opinion which we falsely entertain concerning our own strength, and unmasking our hypocrisy, which affords us delight, the cross strikes at our perilous confidence in the flesh. It teaches us, thus humbled, to rest upon God alone, with the result that we do not faint or yield. Hope, moreover, follows victory in so far as the Lord, by performing what he has promised, establishes his truth for the time to come. Even if these were the only reasons, it plainly appears how much we need the practice of bearing the cross." Book III, chapter VIII, section 3.

This passage is poignant to me at this time because of my decreasing ability to serve my family on account of my increasing pregnancy. This cross certainly is striking at my perilous confidence in my flesh.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My First Ever Blog Post

Well now, I can hardly believe I'm jumping on the blog bandwagon. I can't believe that I really have the time to start a blog. I guess we'll just wait and see how long I keep this up before I peter out.

I've been thinking about starting a book blog for several weeks now, mainly because I like to read books, think about books, and talk about books. I have few enough opportunities to discuss books these days, and hence the blog as a venue at least for monologuing about books, even if not for dialoging about books.

My dear husband is putting the children to bed right now, giving me a rare opportunity to sit at the computer without (too many) interruptions.

Now, to finish a book so I have something real to blog about!