Till We Have Faces, A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was C.S. Lewis’s last novel and he used it to question about God’s illogical behavior, a subject he had struggled with all his life. The story is about Cupid and Psyche from the Roman novel, “The Golden Ass of Apuleius”. Psyche is beautiful and loved by Cupid. Orual is unattractive, bitter, critical of the gods, and the story sets her on the path of moral development.

The story is set in the fictional city of Glome and the occasional contact the citizens have with civilized Hellenistic Greece. Pagan myths are part of the plot, but introspection into personal failings and shortcomings lead to accepting that caring gods are present in human lives, but it doesn’t resolve the concern that God is impossible to understand. A partial answer comes with this comment: “Prayer doesn’t change God, but it changes me.” 

Orual examines her life, to give a just account of cruelties and injustices she has faced and believes she has suffered at the hands of the gods, but with that examination Orual begins to change. She sees her own love for her sister for the first time as the selfishness it really was; she sees in what she thought was only deprivation and pain to also be both the mercy and the justice of the gods.

Orual struggled with the question of “why”? “Why do the gods’ actions in men’s lives seem so incomprehensible and unjust. If the gods are real and good, why don’t they tell us so plainly, and just speak to us? Why can’t they simply reveal things to us, face to face, without leaving us having to depend on faith to believe, rather than to be able to simply see?” 

Lewis also uses the story to show that pride, doubt, anger against God, suffering, and selfishness all lead to lives where we make choices, and that those choices have everything to do with who we become in our lives, through our choices?

The conclusion is that to see the face of God, we must be free of duplicities, freed of our pride, freed of the gnawing flaws and poisonous self-centeredness that prevent us from seeing ourselves as we truly are. In the end, “Till We Have Faces” reveals the real challenge of the Beatitudes: “We must be pure of heart before we can see God.” Until we are pure in heart, and have learned from our choices, we won’t have faces that reflect who we really are.

Quotes

“I was with book, as a woman is with child.” 

“It was when I was happiest that I longed most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing...to find the place where all the beauty came from.” 

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” 

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that's all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.” 

“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.” 

“Are the gods not just? Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?” 

Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis

“Surprised by Joy” is C.S. Lewis’s book telling his own story and of his search for answers to his concerns. He said of this search, “It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Before I knew what, I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse was withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.”

Lewis felt he was suppressing his desires during the time he was an atheist, focusing instead on intellectual interests. Christian authors, such as George MacDonald,  the Scottish author, poet and Christian Minister, seemed to have awakened something inside him, and inspired him, but left him feeling sought after by God explaining: “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now, the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?”

The book is intended as a memoir but spends more time on the events of Lewis’s finding of feelings he calls “Joy” in his conversion to Christianity. Some details of his early life are included. The book is not ranked as one of Lewis’s best books, but it does tell us some of his feelings about his conversion and is important.

****See William Wordsworth's poem, Poem "Surprised By Joy — Impatient As The Wind" click here

Quotes

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” 

“The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.” 

“…the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects, we destroy his standards, perhaps for life.” 

 

 

The Firm by John Grisham

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John Grisham’s second book written in 1991 is still considered one of his best books. It tells what happens to Mitchell "Mitch" McDeere after he graduates from Harvard and chooses to join Bendini, Lambert and Locke, a small firm in Memphis, instead of taking offers from larger firms in New York and Chicago. The smaller firm’s offer was too good to turn down and maybe it was too good to be realistic.


Mitch and his wife Amy Sutherland, a school teacher, move to Tennessee to take the job, but they learn that two of the firms attorneys were recently killed in a scuba diving accident and in the past three other of the firms lawyers died of unusual circumstances. They are concerned and hire Lomax, a friend of Mitch’s brother who is in prison, to investigate to see if there had been any foul play. He learns that there were unusual circumstances in all three cases and reports that to Mitch but soon after that Lomax is murdered. 

Wayne Tarrance, an FBI agent, contacts Mitch, tells him they are watching the firm, and explains that firm is a front for the Morolto crime family’s money laundering operations. They have for years recruited young lawyers who came from poor backgrounds attracting them with the promise of wealth. 

Mitch and Abby secretly decide to leave the country and run. They don’t trust the FBI and feel they are being trapped. They manage to get the FBI to agree to take enough information to accomplish what is wanted, but in return expect $2 million and a prison release for Mitch’s brother. 

The firm becomes suspicious and then they confirm that Mitch is working against them. The wrap up is exciting and intense, and the finish is worth putting the time in to learn about. 

                                  Quotes                                    

“Any lawyer worth his salt knew the first offer had to be rejected.” 
 

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Both Stephen King and John Grisham had the good fortune to have their early works made into movies informing those audience of their genre.  King's book, Carrie, and Grisham's book,The Firm, were at the beginning of their successful careers.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, is the story of a bookstore and the events that lead to A.J. owning it, and his life from that point on.

Key characters in the plot are A.J. the bookseller, his first and second wife, a 2 year old little girl left in his shop with a note, and the  New England Bookstore, It is obvious that the author, Gabrielle Zevin, knows the bookselling business and bookstores, from the sales representatives selling to them, the store owners and right down to the nuts and bolts of the store.

A.J. drinks too much grieving the loss of his first wife. He is opinionated about customer’s literary tastes and seems in the beginning to be a man with few customers and even fewer friends. His life changes for the better when a 2-year-old girl is left in his store with a note attached to her, about the same time his most valuable possession, a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane” worth as much as $500,000, is stolen. Even with the financial loss, and his recent years of grieving, the little girl changes his life for the better.

About this same time, he meets with a publisher’s lady sales rep and that leads to even more life changing events. The tone of the romance that follows is like the conversations that take place throughout the book and seem to be laced with book references. A.J. claims to have a disdain for book clubs, cute little events, and gimmicks but the book is full of how these fit into his life.

A.J.’s relationship with his daughter Maya is special and is something we didn’t get enough of and the sudden grim changes that happen to some of the characters do feed some narrative that the author may have wanted more than we did.

The focus is on love and the joy of living with characters we care for and with humor that compliments the plot.

Quotes

“You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?” 

"We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on”

“We are not quite novels.
We are not quite short stories.
In the end, we are collected works.” "Remember, Maya: the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.”

 

Author Gabrielle Zevin, 

The Shining by Stephen King

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The Shining, Stephen King’s third novel, published in 1977, established him as the preeminent author in the horror genre. The key character is Jack Torrance, a teacher and aspiring writer. Wendy is Jacks wife and Danny is their five-year-old son. Jack has a drinking problem, even worse, he becomes violent and can’t control his temper, even at times when he is sober.

Jack hurt Danny, breaking his arm, when he was drunk and then with other problems he stopped drinking. Just going on the wagon wasn’t enough to stabilize him, and at school he lost his temper with a student, hit him, and has lost his job.

A past drinking partner, who has influence at school and owns part of a winter resort, helps him find a job where he can get away from his problems. The Overlook Hotel, in the high mountains in Colorado, closes each winter and a job is open to stay at the hotel taking care of it’s sensitive boiler heating system and the hotels other needs. Jack gets the job.

He can take Wendy and Danny and they feel Jack will have the winter to have the time to do some writing and stay sober. The hotel is where the real trouble starts. Danny meets a Hallomann who is working on the hotel staff for the summer.

Hallomann recognizes that Danny has “the shine”, like he does but much stronger. The “shine” is the ability to see what other are thinking and see the future. Hallomann also knows that the hotel is evil, and that Danny will likely need him, so he tells him to send a message in the coming months if that happens and he leaves for Florida.

Everyone leaves, and the real problems begin. It is the hotel itself that is evil.  In the decades of it’s history many people have lost their lives in the hotel and terrible things have happened. All the events seem to be coexisting in one place and time and the hotel wants Danny and his powers. Jack is influenced to help them, and he is taken over by them, or probably more accurately stated, by the hotel itself.

It is no surprise that King brings a variety of scary situations to the plot. In the end Danny reaches out for Halloman’s help and evil is confronted.

Quotes

Stephen King said that "When he went home from the hospital he watched the Titanic and he knew his IQ had been damaged" No one can say that King's Horror Genre doesn't make you think. The problem is often what you wind up thinking about!  .... (this quote used in the essay on Stephen King a Literary Influence in that section)

“Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.” 

 “This inhuman place makes human monsters.”

“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.” 

 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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The title, Catch-22, is so well understood that it alone could serve as a simple review for this book. Even those that have never read the book understand the title, which can be found as a dictionary entry for what the book implies.

"Joseph Heller’s Catch-22," and "Voltaire’s Candied" (see review) are both focused on satirizing the idea of optimism. Events in both allow the author to interchange tragedy and comedy. Both books are literary icons , but Catch-22 speaks loudly to today’s readers, even though it was first published in 1961. 

Heller’s writing style is perfect for a story in the military, as is the military the perfect medium to convey the absurdities, suffering and irreverence that make this novel so interesting and humorous.  Even with the tragedies, which are serious, comedy comes through. 

Yossarian is the key character and he is the one that champions our frustration and we love him for both his strengths and flaws. The book has dozens of characters who all are important and interesting. The essential plot for Yossarian is that he does not want to fly any more missions, but that is the core issue of what Catch-22 is. Pilots can stop flying if they are insane but if they declare to those in charge that they are insane and request to stop flying it proves that they have cognitive abilities and are considered sane. It will just lead to them flying more missions. Yossarian is trapped in “Catch-22”: “Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t

Other forms of Catch-22 are throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. Even those accused cite the provision and one character explains that "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."

The book presented situations that were insane but then they weren’t. The book is worth reading more than once.  

Quotes from Catch-22

If he flew the very risky military missions, he was obviously crazy and then didn't have to; but if he didn't want to and said he didn't want to go, he was sane, and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is. 

“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.” 

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” 

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” 

The Art of Stillness, Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer

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Pico Iyer wrote “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere” and tells us he did it as “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

His decision to find and write this message followed his life spent as a travel writer, over several decades, arriving at a time in his life when the pleasures of slowing down and being in one place, especially if it is inside ourselves, was considered the real adventure.

As evidence of this conclusion he points out that today people are going faster and faster in search of contentment and meaning. He tells of a thirty-year study of time diaries where “two sociologists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we did in the 1960s, but they felt as if they were working more. He says we have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.”

Iyer adds that “We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.”

Our educational institutions tend to tell us the point of life is to get somewhere, not to go nowhere. But nowhere can be just as, or even more interesting.

This conclusion sounds good, even though it does seem that if he hadn’t been traveling for all those years as a travel writer before he came to this conclusion, that it may ring a little truer. Years of travel suggest stillness but what about the "homebody" is stillness the best for them? Perhaps he redeems himself when he adds to his conclusions that “Too many of us see going nowhere as turning away from something rather than turning towards something” and “Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

Iyler quotes Shakespeare who says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This isn’t a new truth that how we respond to our experiences is more influential in our lives that the experiences themselves.

Even though it is a short book, Iyler’s quote by William James, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another,” with two more words added, “slow down”, would have been enough.

Quotes

“Be still Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity” 
― Lao Tzu  

“There is nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart
like the eye of a violet.” 
― D.H. Lawrence

“The inner is foundation of the outer
The still is master of the restless
The Sage travels all day
yet never leaves his inner treasure” 
― Lao Tzu

Moby-Dick: by Herman Melville, A Review

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Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, was rated by “The Guardian” as #17 in the top 100 best novels ever written. Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “Why Read Moby-Dick”, claims that he read the book more than a dozen times, adding that he thinks this is the greatest American Novel ever written. It is too bad Melville didn’t get this feedback during his lifetime. Nathaniel Hawthorne and several well-known writers in that day told Melville that they also saw the book as a masterpiece, but even with that it didn’t even outsell Melville’s earlier books. 

The story begins, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago-never mind how long precisely-having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particularly to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

Ishmael is the narrator and it is Captain Ahab that enters the Pequod ready to sail. It takes 135 chapters to tell the story of his search to revenge himself on the great white whale that had bitten off his leg. He plots and plans and chases the “hooded phantom” across the oceans and he feels as though he is fighting the God that becomes part of the symbolism of the whale. The story becomes an investigation into the meaning of life. 

As the Pequod and crew chase the great white whale they meet other ships who advise on where the whale was last seen. They do kill and process several whales. Sperm oil is cooled to congeals and then squeezed back into liquid state; blubber is boiled in pots on deck and warm oil is decanted into casks, and then stowed in the ship. Whale meat is eaten, and we learn more than we ever expected about whales and even squid which is a key food for the whales. The book is rich in technical information about whales which in a day when so much of the world needed and depended on whale oil was important.

Much has been written about the philosophy and meaning conveyed by this story. Ahab believes that Moby Dick is evil because he bit his leg off and that he needs to learn why it happened. He assumes he will learn a great truth. This may lend to the idea that symbolically the “whiteness” of the whale meant something, but Melville denied that it did.

The Epilogue offers us a quote from Job 1:14-19, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee…..” Job it seemed had lost everything but on the Pequod who was that last survivor who lost everything?  The Epilogue seems to tell us that it is Ishmael? Whether Ishmael was just an imaginative character or a real one isn't totally clear but he was the narrator of the story. He tells us that "It so chanced....that I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman."

It seems like both Job and Ishmael survived their ordial because, as were told, they escaped so someone would be left to tell us the story.

 

 

Quotes from Moby-Dick

“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” 

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”   

“Ignorance is the parent of fear.” 

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.” 

“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men ”

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

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The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, published in 1912, is a book that seems to defy deep meaning, or perhaps it just shouts out that it must have some deep, deep, meaning, to justify having been written? Knowing something about the author and attempting to understand him may be a way to approach the book.

Franz Kafka’s writings inspired the word, “Kafkaesque”, which by definition is the “characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Kafka’s fictional world.”

(“the blend of absurd, surreal and mundane which gave rise to the adjective "kafkaesque)

He was Jewish living in Czech Prague, surrounded with anti-Semitic pressures, and working each day failing in his profession in the shadow of a father figure who was a successful business man. It was the world around him that lead to his destruction.

We see Kafka in this book as the character, Gregor Samsa, who lives with his parents and sister, and works as a traveling salesman. One day he comes home from work, goes to bed, and wakes up as a giant disgusting ugly bug who just to look at is a puke-inducing experience. 

He sees what he has become and then thinks of his past miserable life. His first thought is to realizes he has overslept and he knows his boss never accepts his excuses. His mother knocks on the bedroom door and is concerned because he will be late for work but when he tries to answer his voice is very weak. Then his sister, who has been and continues to be a back stabber, whispers through the door and begs him to open it, but the office manager shows up to check on him. He tries to get out of bed by rocking back and forth but his body falls to the floor. 

The family just accepts what has happened and he lives in his room being fed from a saucer each day. He decides he likes his new body and learns how to crawl on the walls and ceiling. Without Gregor’s income as a salesman, the family must take in some boarders. After an argument with his father Gregor returns to his room and dies. The reasons for the death are unclear. The family comes to feel it was best.

Quotes from The Metamrphosis

“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.” 

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” 

“Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.” 

“the blend of absurd, surreal and mundane which gave rise to the adjective "kafkaesque” 

“Calm —indeed the calmest— reflection might be better than the most confused decisions” 

 

Us Against You: by Fredrik Backman

Us Against You: by Fredrick Backman

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“Us Against You” starts out telling us “It’s Going to Be Someone’s Fault”. Then it asks and continues, “Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We’ll end up saying that violence came to “Beartown” this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy that is seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else.”

The characters in “Us Against You” have evolved since we first meet them in Fredrik Backman’s book “Beartown”. We may have thought we knew them, but "Backman’s" writing style adds layer after layer of details and that take us deeper into the truth of both towns, “Beartown and Hed”. 

Reading “Us Against You” doesn’t seem like a continuation of the first story, even though that is exactly what it is. It seems like we finally really understand the characters who all seem much more a part of the story.

A couple of new characters show up. A local politician manipulates both towns and a lady coach bring out new concerns and challenges. The town is headed for a new tragedy. Some, who we see as bigots and bullies, turn out to also be generous and selfless sometimes. The all-important hockey culture seems pure and able to stay out of all the issues but then it does inspire violence.

Violence has moved into the community and the competition of the game serves to inspire it at times and then defuse it at times. The author writes that, “When guys are scared of the dark they’re scared of ghosts and monsters but when girls are scared of the dark they’re scared of guys.” Margaret Atwood said it better and with more authority decades ago with her quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

This is a good book. I think it is important to have read “Beartown” first but I do think that “Us Against You” is the better book, because of “Beartown”.

Quote from Us Against You

“He’s twelve years old, and this summer he learns that people will always choose a simple lie over a complicated truth, because the lie has one unbeatable advantage: the truth always has to stick to what actually happened, whereas the lie just has to be easy to believe.” 

“Everyone is a hundred different things, but in other people’s eyes we usually get the chance to be only one of them.” 

“Unfairness is a far more natural state in the world than fairness.” 

“Exclusion is a form of exhaustion that eats its way into your skeleton.” 

“Sometimes people have to be allowed to have something to live for in order to survive everything else.” 

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Swedish Novelist Fredrik Backman

Click on Book Covers, Bear Town, A Man Called Ove, and And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer and Longer above to link to Reviews