Prior to this summer, I can’t remember spending a week at the beach in July. I arrived on the South Carolina coast during the second week of July expecting sweltering misery and sunburns. I was disappointed on both counts: I had a wonderful time lounging on the beach and returned melanoma-free. I brought a small library of things I’d been meaning to read, however, and I finished four books with my feet in the sand.
The most fun book from my giveaway pile was definitely P.G. Wodehouse’s The Brinksmanship of Galahad Threepwood. I enjoy Wodehouse very much (and the Blandings books in particular), but I still plan to let this one find a new home at Mr. K’s or the next Skyland library book sale. Wodehouse novels generally contain the same elements as a Shakespearean comedy: mistaken identity, mayhem, mixing of classes, and at least two or three weddings at the conclusion. Brinksmanship was entertaining, well-written, and immaculately choreographed in plot (Wodehouse supposedly wrote detailed plot outlines for all his novels before writing the first word.) There are some familiar faces here, with slight variations and new names: a few feckless young men who quite innocently end up on the wrong side of the law, a competent and unassumingly pretty young woman, a writer forced to pay rent by banging out pulp fiction or children’s books, and an Responsible Agent of Order (in this case Beach and a policeman ally rather than the Efficient Baxter). Gally was a new character to me, and a pleasant variation on the theme of Bertie Wooster; in the end, however, most of the members of this book’s cast were a little less charming and a little more frustrating that those of, say, Leave it to Psmith. Recommended if you find yourself holding this book and needing a good laugh–but not recommended as heartily as what I consider the perfect Blandings book, Something Fresh.
The shortest book I read at the beach was easily Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, less than a hundred pages long. What fascinated me about this collection of loosely connected essays, anecdotes, and stories was its melding of styles. The author’s prose tends towards the Edwardian: long sentences, ornate diction, poetic descriptions of natural beauty. The stories, however, are something else. The author starts off by describing her childhood and transition to a Quaker boarding school in Indiana, then some of her career as a teacher and writer. This impressionistic autobiography comprises maybe two thirds of the book. The rest of it is what you might call fiction, both traditional stories and original ones, but is presented with no announced transitions and no familiar signposts that the author is leaving the story of her life and turning to someone else’s. Occasionally I would realize, a page or two into a new section, that the narrator was no longer Zitkála-Šá but the nameless protagonist of a new story. I can’t say I have a deep familiarity with Sioux storytelling conventions after finishing this book, but I enjoyed its different perspectives on narrative, history, and tradition. I won’t be holding on to it for a re-read, but I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about Native American stories and experiences.
There’s an old inside joke in my family: What is the capital of Yugoslavia? That’s it. That’s the whole joke. It’s not much funnier when you know the backstory, which relies on one party being repeatedly annoyed by other parties in the same way for eleven or twelve years. I picked up The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War as a sort of trump card for one of the annoyers; unfortunately, they didn’t want it at the time and I couldn’t get rid of it without reading it. (Have I mentioned that I have trouble letting go of knowledge?) I finally got through all two hundred and ninety-eight pages of Serbian names I can’t pronounce and political intrigue and endless acronyms for paramilitary organizations, and I’m glad I did. The Balkan conflicts of the 90’s are a little too old for me to remember, a little too recent for history books, and a little too localized for the rest of the world to understand, or to care much anymore. Journalist Misha Glenny’s narrative is fascinating: he starts the story with the debate over whether Knin properly belonged to the new people of Croatia or Serbia, and continues through the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the various attempts by external and internal parties to stop the bloodshed in the region. In addition to tracing the ethnic conflict back to its various historical roots–Serbian prominence under communism, atrocities committed by Croatians during World War II, the conversion of Bosnians to Islam under the Ottoman Empire, and more–Glenny points out the two major failings of the international response to the Balkan wars.
First, interest–Glenny highlights Slovenia’s entirely peaceful secession from Yugoslavia as the trigger of the conflict, not because of any ethnic tension there, but because it forced the other republics to dissolve their political ties sooner, and with less forethought and negotiation than they required. Also, Germany had a historic economic interest in Croatia, and German diplomats therefore pushed other countries to recognize Croatian independence. Which seems like a good idea, but there was still active conflict in Croatia at the time between the army and its large Serbian minority, who were concerned about the discrimination they were beginning to face under the new regime. . .and Macedonia wanted independence too and was politically stable, but Greece has long been concerned about Macedonia as a political and cultural threat, and Greece had pull with Germany, so Germany more or less badgered what would soon become the EU into recognizing Croatia and Slovenia but not Macedonia. . .but of course Macedonia has a small Albanian minority with some opinions of their own, and so on and so on.
The second major issue–ignorance. I accepted Glenny’s arguments because he knows the region extremely well, speaks the languages, won various journalism awards, and had substantial friends and connections in various parts of Yugoslavia, not to mention some excellent contacts in the US State Department. Twenty-five years ago, I might have read about the latest slaughter of innocent Bosnians and been outraged. Yet atrocities were committed often and everywhere throughout Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina; after reading about atrocity after retributive atrocity committed by various paramilitary groups, you start to realize that no people were unaffected by destruction, and that not many people were innocent. Some of them were just much savvier in manipulating the visiting camera crews.
The Fall of Yugoslavia was rather depressing but well written, insightful, and shows the futility and tragedy of trying to establish ethnically “pure” states in the Balkans or anywhere else. I still planned on letting it find a new home, but I spent enough time talking about Croatia during World War II that at least two more Flemings will have finished it within a couple of months. Recommended for anyone interested in the Balkans, geography, political science, or twentieth-century history.
I started reading Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There in high school but only made it halfway. When I pulled it off my shelf this summer and turned to my bookmark, I was utterly lost. So I started back at the beginning and pulled out a notebook for thinking, copying, and generally slowing myself down. My reading style is usually fast and careless, but I have never been particularly successful in speed-reading philosophy.
And that’s what The God Who Is There is: Christian philosophy. Meant as a discourse on apologetics in the postmodern era, the book delves into big questions of art and culture, epistemology, ontology, semantics, faith, and existentialism. Schaeffer launches early in the book into Hegelian dialectic, of which I remember the textbook summary and little else. Schaeffer isn’t very keen on Hegel’s thesis/antithesis/synthesis model: to him, it interferes with man’s ability to establish truth and non-truth, Aristotle-style. The further I read, the less sure I was that I really understood Hegel’s philosophy. (Do innovative ideas, wrong or right, perhaps take more than a sentence to summarize?) I think I’ll need to read some Hegelian philosophy to understand why Schaeffer was so opposed to dialectical thinking.
Once I got through that part of the book, however, I could only appreciate Schaeffer’s insight. Fifty years ago, he wrote about the perceived chasm–the “line of despair,” in his words–between the things we can know can know (e.g. that the earth is round, or that public parking here in downtown Charlotte is overpriced) and the “philosophic other” we can believe in (that God exists, or that someone loves you). Schaeffer’s primary argument is that, while our knowledge of the universe is limited and some things are easier to recognize than others, the leap of faith in God is “over a brook rather than into a chasm”: He is sufficiently (though not exhaustively) evident in our world and in our lives. Schaeffer traces the development of that chasm as it traveled from philosophy to art to music to general culture, and finally theology.
That main thesis took me some serious time and mental energy to work through; my grandmother cheered me up by telling me that she used to read Schaeffer with encyclopedias and dictionaries open on the table. The latter part of the book was easier to read and full of insights. I was especially interested when he got started on words and their meanings. He cites a number of instances of writers and artists (Dali, for instance) using the connotations of Christian symbols (a cross, a church, an image of Jesus) in their art, without intending meaningful correlation to what they represent. Schaeffer is right: religious symbols are part of the wider culture, whether or not you believe in them, and are therefore free game in a way for any artist, regardless of their beliefs. I can like, accept, or be interested in Dali’s art as art or his art for what it communicates–but I shouldn’t stop thinking about what art or music means just because Jesus is in it. The same goes for art produced by confessing Christians, too.
In a book about creativity I’ve been working through (The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron), the author encourages the reader to keep an open mind–not necessarily so that they will change their beliefs, but so that they will examine them. I greatly appreciate the ways that Schaeffer encouraged me to examine my beliefs in The God Who Is There, and recommend the book for anyone else who wants to think through their answers to life’s big questions.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Lithuania as part of Yugoslavia. Thanks to my grandfather for pointing it out–don’t write posts late at night, folks.