Sunday, March 08, 2009

Re-reading Soul Survivor

I've been re-reading Philip Yancey's Soul Survivor, and enjoying it as much as the previous time I read it. This time, I've just been looking for the most part at his chapters on writers: Chesterton, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Robert Coles, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
I want to read these writers all over again - apart from Coles, whom I had never heard of before Yancey introduced him. But I'd like to read him.
Not that I've read everything by these authors, not by any means. I've begun War and Peace twice and failed to make it very far (perhaps I was spoilt by the movie with Audrey Hepburn and co), but it's a book I'd like to get into some time. Apart from that, I've never even opened anything else by him. I've read some Dostoevsky, mostly back when I was a lot younger. And at a time when I probably didn't appreciate him for what he is. He definitely needs to go back on the list again. I read Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov (struggling through the Russian names to such a degree that I wrote them down when they first appeared so I could figure out who was who!), and perhaps one other. I've started others, but I think I wasn't ready for them at the time.
Dillard and Buechner are two more authors I'd like to read more of than I have. It's years since I read Dillard's great book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but I remember finding it a wonder. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what I've read of Buechner's, except that I know I have read several of his books. (Dillard's site, by the way, has a front page that is quite disarming. She says, amongst other things: Here is some information for scholars. I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.) Dillard doesn't always appeal: I didn't much enjoy her Writer's Life. In fact, I think I gave up on it.
And then there's Chesterton, whom I have read a great deal of. I also have a reasonable number of his innumerable books on my shelves. He's not always easy to read: Chesterton can burble along at a rate of knots making you think he's saying something of value when in fact he's just being Chesterton on a roll. And then suddenly out of the blue he'll turn something upside down and a whole world opens up. To read all of Chesterton would be an indulgence, I suspect. He's always great, but not always great to read. Even some of his best books have their downtime. But when he's on a rolll, no one can match him. In fact, few authors can match him even when he's not on a roll! He's like Dickens. There's an awful lot of him, and a case could be made for everything being absolutely superb. It's not, but it's a world that no one else has ever come close to creating.
To go from these masters to the book I'm presently reading to review is like coming down off the top of the mountain. The book is by John Cairney, who, if I'm not mistaken, is the husband of a cousin of one of my oldest friends. Cairney and his wife were both actors, and it looks as though he may still be.
Anyway, Cairney has written this strange book called flashback forward (no capital letters on the cover). If the blurb hadn't told me that something unusual was going to happen at some
point, I don't think I would have persisted with it. It takes a 100 pages for the odd thing to happen, and suddenly the story goes from being a fairly ordinary account of a family moving from Scotland to New Zealand in the late 19th century. The main character, Tom, is not particularly engaging.
And then Tom experiences the volcanic eruption that destroyed the Pink and White Terraces, and the book splits in two. Tom eventually goes back to Scotland and we next read of him as a 60-year-old or so. Tom number two wakes up after the Napier earthquake in 1931, 45 years after his previous disaster experience, and is still an 18-year-old. That's where I'm at currently, and certainly this part of the book has proved to be more effectively written than the earlier stuff, which could have been vastly abridged. No doubt more on it in due course.
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