Danté by Dorothy

Title: The Divine Comedy, Part 1: Hell
Author: Danté Alighieri
Translator: Dorothy L. Sayers
(Yes, the same one who wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey series)
Genre: Classic Narrative Poetry
Pages: 352
Rating: 4 of 5

In her translation of the Divine Comedy, Dorothy L. Sayers manages to closely approximate the terza rima of the original (rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC, DED, etc.). I love it when a translator takes this approach to narrative poetry. The original author chose a specific form (whether meter, rhyme, alliteration, or something else), and I want to experience as close as I can to that original artistry as I read the poem, even if it sometimes means a slightly less precise translation.

Danté’s journey through hell is much more than a morbid freak show of horrors, though that is all you might get out of it without some scholarly help. The poetry is accompanied by insightful notes explaining historical and mythological references, theological and philosophical concepts, and the allegorical/symbolic meaning behind the story. As with any literary analysis, some of the interpretation of symbolism is highly conjectural and probably says more about the commentator than it does about authorial intent. However, the overall understanding of “this is sin stripped of its glamor” and “this is the soul progressing toward repentance” do seem to fit very well.

I have read the entire Divine Comedy before, but this translations and accompanying notes have made it a completely different, more understandable experience. I come from a different theological viewpoint than either the author (Medieval Roman Catholic) or translator (Anglican), but appreciated some of the spiritual insights of the poem and commentary. I am curious if this will continue to be the case as I continue into the other two volumes where our theology diverges even farther (e.g. the existence of purgatory, the role of Mary, etc.).

Overall, if you are interested in The Divine Comedy, can’t read it in the original language, and don’t need word-for-word precision, I highly recommend trying this translation.

How Long, O Lord?

How long, O Lord, will covid continue to ravage and divide our world?
              Tens of thousands suffer and die.
              Each human contact must be weighed against unknown risks.
              Those who seek to help are branded fools, cowards, or conspirators.

How long, O Lord, will violence and injustice prevail on the earth?
              Each day brings news of further atrocities
              Justice measures with weighted scales.
              Deceit, slander, and malice fill our communications.

How long, O Lord, will your own people live with divided loyalty?
              We have subordinated the Golden Rule to the pursuit of “my rights.”
              The fruit of the Spirit withers as we embrace outrage and self-justification.
              We value the opinions of politicians and talk show hosts more highly than your revealed Word.

Arise, O Lord! Let your power and righteousness shine forth!
              Our Father, deliver us from distress.
              Holy Spirit, convict us of hypocrisy and empower us to live in love and holiness.
              Oh, Son, Our Redeemer and King, may you return quickly to make all things new.
              In you alone I hope and trust!

The Hero of Our Souls

Who has not heard   of the Hero of our souls?
Our almighty Maker   a man became.
Gladly foregoing   the glory he had,
In love, as a lamb,   came the Lion of Judah

To jealous judges   was Jesus betrayed.
His followers fled then;   in fear they scattered.
Submitting to malice,   no mercy was shown him.
In courage he quaffed   the cup of all woe

Thorned crown, fell cross   the Christ endured.
Cruel spikes, spear thrust   spilled his guiltless blood.
Man’s vilest vicious act   victory ensured.
The tempter trembled;   the triumph was not his.

God’s Son was slain;   savagely tortured.
His broken body   buried and guarded.
This hellish horror   our hope secured.
From wrath we were rescued;   our ransom he paid.

On Sunday the Son rose,   the Savior victorious.
Soon death will die;   done is his reign.
Freely by faith   our fellowship mended:
The glory of God   in grace revealed.

Encouraging Lament

When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent (Foreword by Mark Dever): Finding Hope in the Psalms by [Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever]Title: When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent:
Finding Hope in the Psalms
Author: Ligon Duncan
Genre: Theology/Biblical Studies/Poetry
Pages: 58 (big type, widely spaced)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The book of Psalms contains some brutally honest poetry in which the psalmist records his suffering and accompanying feelings of abandonment and despair. In this little book, Ligon Duncan shows how these laments can be a source of encouragement. He focuses on Psalms 88 (probably the bleakest of the Psalms) and 89.

I had one very minor quibble with his theology where he dips into the Reformed idea of the “covenant of grace” (a concept not directly taught in Scripture) rather than simply talking about the faithfulness and grace of God. That aside, this is a very encouraging read. It serves as a reminder that God’s children do not have to wear an “I’m a happy little Christian” mask all the time, but neither do we have to despair in painful circumstances. Highly recommended!

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Irony?

Title: Why Poetry Sucks:
An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry in English Written by Canadians for Canadians (or American Bodysnatchers) in the Early Years of the 21st Century with an Overly Long and Not That Clever Subtitle the Publisher Rightly Refused to Put on the Cover
Editors: Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 293
Rating: 1 of 5

Isn’t that subtitle hilarious? Let me point out that the reason it is humorous is that it is significantly longer than a normal subtitle, thus subverting your expectations of what a subtitle should be. Additionally, see with what genius the editors have introduced a subtle tone of self-mockery by acknowledging that the publisher was right to refuse to include it in full on the book’s cover. Only true artists could have used something as banal as a subtitle to craft such delicious poetic irony.

…and that (with a few more academic buzzwords) is more-or-less what it’s like to read this book. The editors’ answer to “Why poetry sucks” is that it is perceived as being too deadly serious. To combat this perception they take us on a tour of experimental “poetry” they deem humorous, explaining exactly why it’s funny. For example:

Cabri’s poems provoke laughter at the place where the materiality of language meets its social construction, by estranging language from its “natural” usage to abstract it to a point where it might ironically do a better job of describing social/political/economic realities. (p. 81)

You know that’s going to be funny stuff! The “poetry” itself is as pretentious as it comes: replacing all the nouns and most of the verbs in a paragraph with the word needle, taking random facebook statuses and attributing them to various poets, posting a meme about experimental poetry and then presenting the resulting comments as experimental poetry, seeing how many puns you can make on an obscenity in a short paragraph, etc.

In my opinion, this whole book is the prime example of why we Philistines think that (pretentious) poetry sucks. Irony?

Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

Heroism, Greed, & Betrayal

Title: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor/Commentator: Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Narrative Poetry (plus tedious commentary)
Pages: 377
Rating: 4.5 of 5

J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of Norse poetry is that it “aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning…” In this retelling of the tragic Volsung/Rhinegold legends Tolkien’s terse, alliterative poetry does just that. He interweaves strands from The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, The Volsung Saga, and The Nibelungenlied, smoothing out discrepancies while adding a few elements of his own invention.

Tolkien’s most interesting innovation is providing Sigurd the dragon-slayer with a “special function.” For all of Tolkien’s insistence that he prefers the pagan, pre-Christian version of the story, he gives Sigurd some elements of a Messianic/Christ character that are not present in the original:

If in the day of Doom
one deathless stand
who death hath tasted
and dies no more
the serpent-slayer
seed of Odin
then all shall not end
nor earth perish.

(cf.And I will put enmity between thee [the serpent/Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) and “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8b) and “I [Jesus] am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:18))

The copious explanatory notes by Christopher Tolkien are an oddly organized jumble that cover plot, vocabulary, use and alteration of sources, and possible historical origins of the legends. If you are already acquainted with the Volsung stories these notes can be a bit tedious and repetitive, but they contain some interesting elements and may be of help to someone new to the Volsung legends.

Despite Christopher’s rambling notes, this is one of my favorite books. This tragic tale of heroism, greed, and betrayal illuminated by the flashing lightning of Tolkien’s poetry takes the reader on an intense journey back to the heroic age.

Restoration

Happy Resurrection Sunday! I hope you enjoy my attempt at blank verse poetry. I wrote this for Easter one year after reading Paradise Lost.

Perfection reigned in Eden’s beauty new.
The man and woman lived in blissful love,
At peace with God, in fellowship divine.
One rule alone they had, a test of faith:
To trust the loving heart of God and live
Or doubting eat and thus give birth to death.

The tempter sowed the seeds of doom-filled doubt:
“True love would not forbid a thing so fair.
This wondrous fruit will make you just like God
Who holds you back from glory, not from death.”
Deceived and proud they ate, defying God
And bringing death upon the human race

And so death reigned o’er Adam’s sinful race
Until the coming of the Lord of Life.
Though God the Son He laid aside His crown,
Came as a servant to this broken world.
He felt its sorrows, wept in grief and pain,
Faced all temptations, yet he did not sin.

As both eternal God and Son of Man
He paid man’s debt in infinite degree.
His guiltless soul was charged with all man’s sins,
And, suffering the Father’s wrath, he died.
Now all was finished; sin was overcome
And death defeated as he rose again.

For those in Christ the fear of death is gone.
Their faith in Him comes ringing down the years:
“In Adam all men die; in Christ they live.”
“For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
“Although they kill us, they do us no harm.”
“One short sleep past we wake eternally.”

One day the blessed hope will come to pass:
The time of restoration of all things
When Jesus Christ returns the dead are raised,
The earth made new, the Kingdom come at last!
No pain, no grief, no death forevermore,
And so shall we be always with the Lord.

– By Joel E. Mitchell

Christmas Reflection

 

El-Gibbor: The Mighty God
Will rule the earth with an iron rod
The Son of Man, worthy of praise
Dominion receives from the Ancient of Days
The Word was God, Creator of all
The Word became flesh, helpless and small
Born in humility, swaddled in cloth
A newborn infant asleep in a trough
The gift so great no words can tell
God with us: Emmanuel

by Joel E. Mitchell
(References: Isaiah 9:6-7, Psalm 2:7-9, Daniel 7:13-14, John 1:1-3, John 1:14, Luke 2:4-12, 2 Corinthians 9:15, Matthew 1:22-23)