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Staff Picks: 'What Happened to Sophie Wilder'

Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, I learned to associate religious conversion with certain dramatic trappings: the altar call and sensational personal testimony, the decisive moment when you fell to your knees and asked Jesus “into your heart.”

These early experiences gave me a fascination for how faith – if I can put it this way – is acquired. How we find our way to God, or don’t. And what I often wonder about the most is not just that clarifying moment, if it ever comes, when the convert says Yes to God, but what precedes that moment – and what comes after. What about those who fumblingly find their way to God, turning to the divine not with one burst of affirmation but a more complicated and uncertain assent?

Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder grapples with such questions, and does so as compellingly as any contemporary work I’ve read. It’ an engrossing, self-consciously literary effort, the title of which cleverly intimates its theme. Its story is alternatingly told by two main characters, Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder, who first meet in a fiction-writing workshop at a liberal arts college. The novel follows their love affair, separation and reunion, writerly endeavors and striving in New York City, and, among much else, Sophie’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.

The delights of this novel are many, especially if – like me – you revel in the many declarations about books and literature and writing that fill its pages. But what struck me most forcefully about Sophie Wilder is its rather convincing account of Sophie’s turn to religion. Since I owe my discovery and reading of the novel to the late literary critic D.G. Myers, here is his description of Beha’s masterful portrayal of her conversion:

What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

I can’t disagree with Myers’s judgment, or improve upon it – I only can implore you to read the novel for yourself to see what happens next. Sophie’s conversion is not the end of the novel, and what follows her reception into the Church is so unexpected that even now, years after the novel’s publication, it would be wrong to hint too much about how the story unfolds. The final page contains a revelation that transforms all that came before it.

There are few greater compliments I can bestow on Sophie Wilder than to say that, when I finished it, all I wanted to do was read it again: to see what I missed, to understand its beginning in view of its end, and to dwell a little longer on the mystery of faith that this novel so persuasively explores.

Staff Picks: 'The New Jim Crow'

I’d heard a lot about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow before I finally got around to reading it—how “devastating” it was, how it would irrevocably change the way I looked at the world. And I saw a lot of it too, with people on the subway and elsewhere obviously absorbed by it. I became familiar with its haunting cover—two black hands clutching prison bars above the subtitle: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Alexander came around to writing The New Jim Crow out of her own skepticism about the severity of racial injustice. She was working for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in northern California when she saw a poster taped to a bus stop by “some radical group” that read: “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” She thought the characterization to be exaggerated, so she decided to look deeper into the history of the war on drugs. But what she found by digging through the fine print of the tough-on-crime bills passed in the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama years—and by reviewing the media campaigns against drugs—was that the poster had it right. The mass incarceration resulting from drug laws has essentially had the same effect as Jim Crow by creating and sustaining a racial “undercaste,” Alexander discovered, and like Jim Crow has also kept black Americans out of power. Since explicitly racist laws can’t be made, implicitly racist ones are. “It’s easy to be completely unaware that this vast new system of racial and social control has emerged,” Alexander told the New York Times shortly after the book’s release in 2012. “Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind.”

As someone who grew up in the “age of colorblindness,” I’ve experienced a sort of disembodied understanding of race, and I was taught that the United States had moved beyond a history of “racist” laws. Alexander’s book has led me to realize that it’s not only drug laws and mass incarceration that have created and helped sustained a new undercaste, but also the inaction of that part of America for whom the system works; by the complacency that comes with trust in the political system, they can help sanction injustice. Awakening to how I’ve been used in this way is freeing—things begin to make more sense when you understand why something you think is wrong is, in fact, wrong. Reading this book wasn’t as grueling as I expected it to be. Alexander’s writing is accessible and captivating. By the end, you feel galvanized.

Staff Picks: 'All the Light We Cannot See'

Ten years in the making, Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is a remarkable achievement of historical research, storytelling, and character development. The story centers on a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy whose lives intersect in the walled city of Saint-Malo soon after the Normandy invasion. Their respective journeys to that town on the English Channel, and the people and events that shape their lives and destinies, are rendered in meticulous detail with a lyricism that is captivating and unselfconscious. Unfolding in short chapters and across a nonlinear narrative, All the Light We Cannot See is an exquisitely crafted work, with time, place, and people coming fully to life. It’s a novel that will stay with you long after you’ve passed the book on, as I have, to family members and friends.

Staff Picks: 'The Quiet American'

The continued relevance of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was made clear once more thanks to Seymour Hersh's latest article in the London Review of Books. Hersh cites a highly classified report prepared by the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency that undermines Barack Obama’s repeated assertions that there are moderate forces capable of defeating Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “The assessment,” he writes, “was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the U.S. was arming extremists.”

A mythical “moderate” force is at the center of Greene’s novel. France’s intervention to maintain Vietnam within its sphere of influence after the Second World War is coming to an end, and a few vanguard Americans are actively supporting an apparently benevolent “third force” opposed to both French colonialism and communism. Thomas Fowler is a cynical British war correspondent who befriends one of these Americans, Alden Pyle, an idealist who is determined to do good “not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world.” Pyle is the perfect foil to the world-weary Fowler. When Fowler discovers the truth about Pyle and his much-hyped “third force,” Fowler is forced to choose between remaining a jaded observer or participating in the conflict.

Within the geopolitical triangle, there is a love triangle involving Fowler, Pyle, and a local Vietnamese woman, Phuong. This adds an element of ambiguity to the characters and keeps the story from being a simple parable. But Greene does have a message: if you believe in the essential goodness of American intervention abroad, then it is easy, perhaps necessary, to think that there are significant local forces that will share American goals--never mind intelligence reports to the contrary. Greene responds to this imperial hubris in The Quiet American, and the epigraph indicates which side he is on: “This is the patent age of new inventions/For killing bodies, and for saving souls,/All propagated with the best intentions.”

Powder Treason

I had The Year of Lear for a Christmas present. This is James Shapiro’s extraordinary account of 1606, the year in which Shakespeare wrote Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. As he did in his earlier 1599, Shapiro puts the Bard in living context. I stress living in that the pressures, political, financial, religious and artistic that the critic discusses allow us to see Shakespeare as a working artist – as responsive to his times as say Miller was in writing The Crucible. The themes of the plays, the conflicts the playwright engages, in Hamlet’s words: “[hold] a mirror up to nature: to show...the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shapiro takes us into the expectations faced by Shakespeare and his company, the King’s Men. The Royal demand for entertainments stretched the repertoire of the players. Shakespeare broke years of silence to pen Lear in the context of James’ push for union between England and Scotland, and he wrote Macbeth in part as a response to The Gunpowder Plot.  The latter event had the king, as Shapiro notes, deeply distressed and frightened of further armed rebellion. How was he to deal with the violent discontent of recusant Catholics and the excommunication issued by the Pope? What license did the Pope appear to be giving to his Catholic subjects? That the playwright should find a form of exploration in The Scottish Play says much – about James’ concern for possession by the Devil, the torments of conscience, and the brutality of a mind reduced to the will to destroy.

Shapiro devotes almost two chapters to a consideration of the Gunpowder Plot. I had paid little more attention to this event than as the occasion of Bonfire Night and the epigraph of Eliot’s The Hollow Men.” But in Shapiro’s clear presentation of the conspiracy I realized that had the Plot been successful, the King, his chief ministers, Lords spiritual and temporal, virtually all those responsible for running the state, and thousands of attending citizens (Shapiro tells us that contemporaries saw as many as 30,000 at risk.) would have perished in an effort to restore Catholicism to the country and establish James’ wife, a convert to Catholicism, on the throne.

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Staff Picks: The Novels of Muriel Spark

My project for 2015 was to read all twenty-two of Muriel Spark’s novels in chronological order. I like reading an author who intrigues me from first to last. It’s a good way to see her evolution as a writer and the leitmotifs or phraseology that recur, and to hear how a voice may or may not change over time. As of this post, I'm on No. 16: The Takeover, from 1976.

Spark’s novels span six decades. Her first, The Comforters, was published in 1957. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer who has recently converted to Catholicism. (Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954 and considered it a major factor in her becoming a novelist.) Caroline starts hearing the sound of a typewriter and voices speaking the words that she is thinking, and to complicate things more, her boyfriend, Lawrence, discovers his grandmother is a smuggler. It’s a dark tale of intrigue laced with irony and wit. (NB: Evelyn Waugh was her champion and instrumental in getting The Comforters published.)

Spark’s characters are rarely sweet and nice. Instead, they have sharp edges and ulterior motives, and sexual tension often plays a role. Several of her books are set against historical and political backdrops, including her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), which takes place in Edinburgh in the 1930s. The unconventional Jean Brodie teaches at a school for girls, where she fills the heads of her impressionable young students with lessons on love, art, and the greatness of Il Duce. The theme of conversion appears once again, when one of Brodie’s students, Sandy, converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun. Another excellent novel with a historical backdrop is The Mandelbaum Gate (1963), the title of which refers to the checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors of Jerusalem, and which takes place during the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. A half-Jewish Catholic-convert Englishwoman, Barbara Vaughan wants to go on a pilgrimage to the Christian holy sites but must pass from Israel into Jordanian-held Jerusalem, which is dangerous because of her Jewish roots. Spark vividly depicts the Jewish-Muslim-Christian tensions in a way that humanizes all sides (for better and worse), and it’s striking how relevant and prescient her insights feel today.

Spark’s own favorite was The Driver’s Seat (1970). It’s a slim, action-packed story of a woman’s descent into madness—confounding, diabolical, and hilarious. It’s also my favorite, along with The Abbess of Crewe (1974), a satire about the Watergate scandal set in England at the Abbey of Crewe, which is in the midst of an election for a new abbess. There are wire-tappings by nuns, break-ins by Jesuits, and clandestine payoffs in public restrooms. It’s a vivid picture of abbey life, presented with great humor and affection and a heavy dose of irony.

The bottom line? All of Spark’s novels have so far proven excellent, well worth reading and up to the test of time. The problem is that I have only six more to go.

Staff Picks: 'Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs'

I read a lot of book reviews, have edited quite a few, and written dozens myself. The best reviews convey essential information about the book under consideration, but more important, either the reviewer’s honest disappointment or passionate endorsement. Dwight Garner is perhaps the most engaging, and fair-minded, of the daily New York Times book critics. I always make a point of reading him, and after coming across his utterly smitten review of the celebrated photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, I went right out and plunked down $32 for the hefty volume. As usual, Garner was right. Not only is Mann an exceptional photographer, a fan of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Graham Greene generally, but she is also a remarkably talented writer with a gift for acute social observation and disarming personal confession. The woman writes one beautiful sentence after another. On the challenge of landscape photography, for instance: “Working in the inexhaustible natural pageant before me, I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might in fact hold the key to the secrets of the human heart: place, personal history, and metaphor.”

The daughter of an artistically inclined family doctor and a liberal-minded mother who ran a bookstore, Mann grew up in the 1950s and ’60s near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Her father was an iconoclastic atheist from a wealthy Alabama and Texas family, her mother from more cramped and unconventional circumstances in Boston. As was the region’s custom, young Sally was raised by the family’s desperately poor but immensely dignified black nanny, always known as Gee-Gee, whom Mann remained devoted to as an adult. A rambunctious child and rebellious adolescent, Mann once returned home boasting of how she had defied local taboos by giving a young black man a ride in her car. Gee-Gee wasted no time in making it clear that what Mann had done was not an act of liberal-minded generosity, but had in fact greatly endangered the young man.

In writing about both her Southern and Northern ancestors, Mann is perfectly attuned to local culture and customs, whether the racial politics of the post-Civil War South or the social hierarchies of Brahman Boston. She also paints a disturbingly vivid picture of the thwarted ambitions and shocking murder-suicide of her husband’s parents, who struggled to climb the greasy pole of one of New York’s tonier suburbs. Mann herself graduated from the progressive Putney School in Vermont, and attended Bennington, only to return to her beloved Virginia where she and her husband raised their three children in modest circumstances. One of the more touching, if not astonishing, parts of Mann’s story is that she has been married to the same man since she was eighteen, a record of constancy hardly common among us baby-boomers.   

Mann is perhaps best known for a series of photographs of her young children, many of them nudes. The book, Immediate Family, was published in 1992, and caused quite a stir, with critics suggesting the material was exploitative, if not pornographic. Mann’s defense of herself and her art is rigorous and persuasive, and the photographs themselves have more than survived the test of time. On this controversy and others, Mann is as feisty as she seems to have been hard-headed as a teenager. Another of the great rewards of Hold Still is Mann’s detailed commentary on the process of making art, both as a photographer and a writer. As she ruefully notes, failure is far more common than success, and success when it comes is mostly a gift.

My only criticism of Hold Still is that Mann and her editors do not know what the Immaculate Conception refers to. Readers should also be aware that Mann is as fearless in confronting, photographing, and writing about dead—and even decomposing—bodies as young and healthy ones.

Staff Picks: The Poetry of John Updike

A book I’m glad to have read this year is the Selected Poems of John Updike. It brings me back to a day thirty years ago, when I took a bus out to Seton Hall University to hear Updike read. In a smallish lecture room he stood behind a lectern and, in a quiet voice adorned with the slightest lisp, he read... poems. The audience was surprised and perhaps a bit restive. Turns out Updike had agreed to do the reading only on the condition that it be poetry and not prose.   

Famed as a novelist and story writer, Updike loved poetry; “verse entranced him from the outset,” Brad Leithauser writes in his preface to this book. Updike published a vast amount of poetry. Some of it belongs to the near-vanished tradition of light verse, nimble amusements laced with puns and witty rhymes. In assembling this selection, editor Chris Carduff has bypassed the light verse to showcase poems in which Updike assayed the lyrical, the elegiac, and the frank. Like his prose, Updike’s poetry—much of it written in variations on the sonnet—highlights his skill in noticing the world, and his life in it, in trenchant and surprising ways. The poems convey wry humor, exquisite attentiveness to daily life, and an abiding preoccupation with mortality and time.

Some of my favorite Updike poems aren’t here (“The Blessing,” eg., or “Summer: West Side”), but plenty are:  “Ex-Basketball Player,” presenting a proto-Rabbit Angstrom; “Shillington,” Updike’s ode to his Pennsylvania hometown (“We have one home, the first, and leave that one./ The having and the leaving go on together.”); “Vermont;” “The Great Scarf of Birds;” “Dog’s Death;” “To Ed Sissman;” “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” And I’m glad to encounter others, like “Enemies of a House,” that I didn’t know before, but that impress with a virtuosity so casual, it’s breathtaking.

Finally there are the magnificent poems of Endpoint, which Updike finished in the ten-week interval between his diagnosis of end-stage lung cancer and his death in January of 2009. These extraordinarily courageous last poems reverberate with gratitude and praise for the beauties of love, family and friendship–prayerful poems of thanksgiving and sorrow, which I confess I cannot read without weeping.

The selection is assiduously annotated with helpful notes by Carduff and prefaced with insightful remarks by Leithauser, an accomplished novelist and poet himself, who notes “the companionable familiarity” that Updike’s poems offer the reader, and the “great intimacy” that accumulates as you make your way through them. The book is a must-have for Updike enthusiasts. 

Staff Picks: 'Love's Work'

The best book I read this year was Love’s Work by the late philosopher Gillian Rose. Completed after Rose was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, it functions as both philosophy and autobiography. Rose’s primary passion as a philosopher is the ground (the “broken middle”) between ideas and their realization in life. For her, philosophy presents the possibility for consciously working within that gap. In her life, we see how that project reaches into friendship, politics, family, and romantic affairs, and toward her own failing body. “To live, to love, is to be failed,” she writes, and yet she commits to the attempt: this is the work of love to which the title refers. Originally published in 1995, Love’s Work was reissued by the New York Review Books Classics in 2011; this edition includes an introduction by Michael Wood and concludes with a poem about Rose by Geoffrey Hill attesting to the gift of her work and her person. Hill writes of both thusly: “There is a kind of sanity that hates weddings/but bears an intelligence of grief/in its own kind.” Rose was formidable. It’s clear from her self-description and the tributes included in this volume that while she lived, she comported herself with an intensity that burned away the chaff, her incisive and expert studies on Hegel and T. W. Adorno further demonstration of it. Small yet dense, Love’s Work is Rose’s most accessible book and an illustration of how her philosophical commitments translated to a difficult life fully lived. 

Staff Picks: 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes' & 'Mouchette'

Robert Louis Stevenson is justly famous for his children’s stories, but he also wrote some excellent books for adults. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is one them. Stevenson buys Modestine, his porter and companion, at the outset of his journey in Le Monastier and sells her twelve days later in St. Jean du Gard. During their short time together, man and beast traipse through some beautiful country, staying along the way in villages that had changed less in five hundred years than they would in the next fifty, when the railroads began to modernize and homogenize rural France. Stevenson anticipated the coming transformation: “[T]here are many proposals afoot and surveys being made, and even, as they tell me, a station standing ready built in Mende. A year or two hence and this may be another world.” During his brief sojourn at Our Lady of the Snows, a remote Trappist monastery, this Scottish freethinker develops an appreciation for a monk’s tight schedule: “[F]rom two, when he rises in the dark, till eight, when he returns to receive the comfortable gift of sleep, he is upon his feet and occupied with manifold and changing business…. Into how many houses would not the note of the monastery bell, dividing the day into manageable portions, bring peace of mind and healthful activity of body? We speak of hardships, but the true hardship is to be a dull fool and permitted to mismanage life in our own dull and foolish manner.”

Mouchette, by George Bernanos, is also set in rural France. It tells the story of a young girl who must bear too much too soon—too much poverty, too much loneliness and, finally, a rape. Spoiler alert: It ends with her suicide. But this is not a suspense novel, and there isn’t much plot. This is a book about chance, frustrated tenderness, and weariness unto death. As Fanny Howe writes in her beautiful introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Mouchette: “Suicide, like little else, makes people aware of chance…. One feels that it could have been prevented because it has the force of an accident (but whose?) in the trajectory of the person’s life. The whole plot got derailed. Someone lost the storyline. Who? The others around the suicide or the suicide herself.” Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is the more dramatic and conventional Catholic novel about suicide, but Mouchette is the deeper of the two.

Christmas with Richard Yates

If the prospect of your annual encounter with Dickens, O’Henry, or Jean Shepherd isn't providing the usual anticipatory joy this Christmas season, consider Richard Yates. True, spending time with the author of Revolutionary Road and other generally gloomy tales of domestic discord might seem counterintuitive. Even fans bemoan his projected self-hatred, with novelist Richard Russo (in the introduction to The Collected Stories) allowing that there “may be some truth to the charge” by critics that Yates revels “in the failures his characters must endure.”

Yet I’d submit there’s something to be gained, even or especially at this time of year, from reading two Yates stories in particular. One is “Fun with a Stranger.” It will probably resonate with anybody who can recall what it was like to be a child stuck in a classroom at this time of year. I actually hadn’t thought about “Fun with a Stranger” for a while, until my daughter recently complained that her seventh-grade class would not be having a Christmas party. So I told her an abridged version of Yates’s story, about a class of third-graders under the tutelage of the “strict and humorless” Miss Snell, a woman of sixty or so who “seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust.” She’s a recognizable type—“preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming... and, worst of all, coming to school without ‘proper supplies.’” The children fear and dislike her, yet “they could not hate her, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.... [they had] a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her.”

The story is driven by the teacher's promise of a classroom celebration on the last day before Christmas vacation, with a possible surprise in the bargain.

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Best Books of 2015

Book critics often start off their year-end lists by way of apology. It’s ridiculous to rank works of art, they say; I haven’t read enough to be an authority on the matter; there were too many (or too few) good books written this year; et cetera, et cetera.

Still, while I recognize the absurdity of all literary list-making, I love writing this post every year, in part because I’ve always loved making silly lists (I used to obsessively rank and re-rank the greatest center fielders of all-time, trying desperately to justify putting Ken Griffey, Jr. in the top two), but mainly because they are a reminder that, despite our sense of cultural decline, good books get published all the time.

So here is my list of the best new books I read in 2015.

Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child

Comparisons have been drawn between Tolstoy and Ferrante, largely because they both offer sweeping fictional sagas that move between individual lives and the historical circumstances that hem such lives in. For me, Ferrante is most like the Russian master in a different way, best expressed by Virginia Woolf: “Even in a translation [of Tolstoy] we feel that we have been set on a mountain-top and had a telescope put into our hands. Everything is astonishingly clear and absolutely sharp. Then, suddenly, just as we are exulting, breathing deep, feeling at once braced and purified, some detail — perhaps the head of a man — comes at us out of the picture in an alarming way, as if extruded by the very intensity of its life.” There is simply more astonishing clarity and sharpness, more intensity of life, in Ferrante than in any other writer I read this year. Every element in the fourth and final novel of the Neapolitan series felt both absolutely, painfully inevitable and absolutely, delightfully unexpected.

Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came

Spahr, like Lawrence Joseph, writes within history and to history. Her book straddles the line between poetry and prose, working by repetition and accumulation to explore the connections between environmental degradation and the degradations of global capitalism.

In one “poem about oil extraction in iambic pentameter,” for example, Spahr offers a Whitmanian list of the “variables” involved in deepwater drilling: “Various valves. Pressures. // Buoyancies. Bow spring. Top plug. Shoe track. Floatshoe.” These variables, Spahr writes, are “the / New muses of innovation, common // Vocabulary, that covers over the / Elaborate simplicity of this, // This well, Macondo well.” The poem, and much of the rest of the collection, is about our “Relationship to oil. Our oil”—how our political, financial, and personal lives are dependent upon a process that results in the destruction of the environment and, occasionally, in the deaths of those who work in the industry.

Spahr joined the Occupy movement in Oakland in 2011, and “Turnt” describes the exhilarating and precarious moments of community that this movement enabled: “Sometimes it feels like it is over and it’s not. / Sometimes it feels like it has just begun and it’s over.” In “Transitory, Momentary,” she echoes Eliot’s Four Quartets (“Only through time time is conquered”) in lines that represent what we might call an incarnational politics, one that finds meaning in the seemingly minor and material: “It might be that only through the minor we feel enormity. It might be that there is nothing to epiphany if it does not hint at the moment of sweaty relation larger than the intimate. For what is epiphanic song if it doesn’t spill out and over the many that are pulled from intimacies by oil’s circulation?” That Winter the Wolf Came is important reading for those interested in poetry, politics, and the relation between the two.

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty Is a Wound

Kurniawan, one of Indonesia's most celebrated young novelists, had two works translated into English this year. Beauty Is a Wound, published by New Directions, can be fantastical: its startling first sentence reads, “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years." Indeed, ghosts are a regular, spectral presence throughout the book. But Kurniawan uses these fantastical elements for a serious purpose: to explore the various forms of violence--colonial, political, ideological, sexual--in Indonesian history. Beauty Is a Wound is the most impressively plotted novel I read all year, and it introduces Western readers to a major global voice.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things

Another year, another brilliant book by Robinson. We’re getting spoiled. This collection exhibits her most serious and straightforward engagement with theology yet, with essays on Christology, "Christianity as an ethic and Christianity as an identity" (published in the magazine), and the importance of grace in Shakespeare’s plays.

Edith Pearlman, Honeydew; Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege; Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women

These are three very different collections from three very different geniuses of the short story form. Pearlman reminds me of Alice Munro in her ability to quietly telescope an entire life into a single paragraph; Williams reads like a Samuel Beckett of the American Southwest, with the same black humor occasionally interrupted by moments of lyricism; Berlin reads like no one I’ve read before. Here are some sentences from each. From Pearlman’s story “Assisted Living”: “And Muffy’s voice—there was nothing to it. It was as if she had once been almost smothered and then allowed to live only if she limited her vocabulary and breathed hardly at all.” From Williams: “She remembered the shepherd and remembered being, herself, good. She lived aware of happiness.” From Berlin: “There must be something the matter with my inner ear. My son Willie never calls.”

Danielle Chapman, Delinquent Palaces

I’ve written on Chapman’s collection before. Chapman moves through traditional lyric territory —love and loss, visions and terrors—and she does it with a complete command of form and voice. She is a remarkable poet, and this is a remarkable first collection.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven

Phillips's The Ground was described in Commonweal as "the best first book by an American poet ... in years." His second book, Heaven, is better. The forms and tones are more varied, the speculations more expansive, the ghosts of the poetic past--Homer and Dante, Stevens and Frost--more powerfully inhabited and transfigured.

Phillips shifts the meanings of "heaven" from poem to poem. In "Like a Bullet Shot Backwards Through Time," heaven refers to both sucess in sports and success in loving: "He prayed his team would win the World Cup. / She prayed he'd just care more. 'If that ever / Happens,' they both loved to say to themselves, 'It'd be like I'd died and gone to Heaven.'" In another, heaven is just, as the title puts it, "An Excuse for Mayhem." In many others, it is the imagination itself, echoing Keats's claim that the "imagination may be compared to Adam's dream,--he awoke and found it truth."

As an indication of the richness this collection offers, here is "Mirror for the Mirror," in full:

This night sky won't always be so Rothko,

Won't always be something you've seen before.

Otherwise, it would always be what it

Was in sheerest separation of is

And as: self separated from self, self

Unparadised, as though there were a place

Somewhere at the end of an endless bridge, 

A continent of light, called Paradise.

Happy reading!

A Visit to The Museum of Feelings

Two blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on a plaza facing the East River, behind a gleaming mall, sits a temporary museum. Or that is what Glade, a brand of SC Johnson, is calling it. The Museum of Feelings is housed in a small building with shifting colored lights projected on its white walls. Tuesday night, its opening night, a young man in black clothes ushers confused people inside or makes them wait at the door when it becomes too crowded.

The subway advertisements for the Museum promise only a URL, a street address, and the dates the exhibit is open. If your curiosity is sufficiently piqued by these ads or the Facebook event and you visit, the first thing you are cued to do is to create a MoodLens — a “living, emotional portrait that changes to reflect feelings,” the page explains. If you click “Get Started,” your computer’s built-in camera will photograph your face and with another click, your computer’s microphone can pick up your voice. This data is collected along with the weather in your current location and the “general feelings on social media in your region” to calculate your mood.

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Can Faith be Notable?

Last Sunday the front page of the New York Times Book Review carried a thoughtful review by Mark Lilla of a new book on Saint Augustine.  Congratulations to the editors, as well as to Lilla.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, something Augustine probably explained somewhere; and the Book Review’s good deed made me wonder, somewhat skeptically, if 2015 might be the year when its annual “Holiday Books” issue would break precedent and actually give some notice to serious books about religion. 

I am hardly the first to roll my eyes about the oddity of the “Holiday Books” almost ostentatious neglect of religion.  It’s long been an annual joke among many people who believe that religion deserves thoughtful, knowledgeable explorations beyond the usual pressure points where it intersects with (a) violence; (b) sex; (c) politics; (d) celebrity; and (e) greed.  Oh, and did I mention violence, sex, and politics?  

Granted, the “Holiday Books” issue is essentially a cash-cow, chockfull of ads and reviews for gifty-ish books in categories like Travel, Photography, Pop Music, Humor, Cooking, Gardening, and Hollywood.  “Holiday,” in effect, means hobby, avocation, entertainment, recreation, and so on.  It certainly doesn’t mean anything to do with the beliefs and sentiments that gave birth to these holidays.  Don’t imagine that anyone celebrating those holidays might be grateful for books addressing those very beliefs and sentiments.  And might shell out good money for them. 

There’s no war against Christmas here.  “Holiday Books” is just a seasonal expression of the Book Review’s normal practice. Which is to feature every commercial press’s Washington memoir or big-name fiction while ignoring any university (or especially religious) press’s significant probing into the relationship of faith and reason.  Last Sunday’s front-page review, I’m afraid, was the exception proving the rule.   

The “Holiday Books” issue is not all gifties, however.  It usually lists “100 Notable Books,” of the year, half from Fiction and Poetry, half from Nonfiction. Profound religious and spiritual questions always run like seams of rich ore through that Fiction and Poetry—and through some of the Nonfiction, too.  Such is the human condition. 

But in 2014 was there one book, one single book, of theology, or of philosophy of religion, or of religious history, sociology, biography, or art, worthy, in the eyes of the Book Review’s editors, to be listed among those fifty Nonfiction notables?  


Maybe 2015 will be different.  This is the season of hope.

UPDATE, November 28: The "100 Notable Books of 2015" has arrived, and I'm afraid the exception did prove the rule.  Augustine, the biography by Robin Lane Fox was on the Non-Fiction list.  The only other book that might possibly qualify was Witches of America by Alex Mar, "journalistic profiles of fascinating moern practitioners of the occult."  Perhaps readerss have their own nominees. 


What Makes These Writers 'Unprofessionals'?

Moby-Dick sold all of two copies in the United States in 1876, and a total of 3,180 by the time it went out of print in 1887, a tally of futility that in the words of James Wood soon “narrowed Herman Melville into bitterness and savage daily obedience as a New York customs inspector.”

Melville--along with custodian/postal worker William Faulkner, insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens, editor-teacher-single-mother Toni Morrison--came to mind when reading the table of contents and introduction to The Unprofessionals, a new anthology of pieces that originally appeared in The Paris Review. Editor Lorin Stein sets up a superfluous distinction between “professional” writers and those who appear in these pages. The latter are apparently unconcerned with commercial riches--as evidenced by their commitment to short forms of fiction, essay, and poetry--unlike the many MFA students whose idea of success is to “leave school with a six-figure advance.” By this criterion, they’re unprofessionals--never mind their awards, their novels and book-length collections, or their masthead positions at well-known literary magazines. I’d wager that Melville--to say nothing of the many lesser-known and anonymous adjuncts, high school teachers, working mothers, service-industry employees, and others who struggle nobly to place work in respectable but low- or non-paying publications--would welcome so modest a designation if it came with the chance to appear alongside fellow scribblers Ben Lerner, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Zadie Smith, to name a few. They could also reasonably wonder whether being published by The Paris Review in the first place makes one a professional .

In any case, don’t blame the writers featured here. The work is almost uniformly excellent.

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Paul Baumann on 'St. Paul'

Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),

wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders.

But the “famously inept equestrian,” Paul notes, was “a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still.” The headline of the review, courtesy of the Post: “Was Saint Paul Really Such a Jerk?” Read the whole thing here.

Two New Books on Catholic Social Teaching

Just to a quick note to mention two interesting new books on Catholic social teaching on the shelves. The first is by Daniel Schwindt, and is titled Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis - the subtitle is “Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si’.” I believe Daniel’s is the first attempt to incorporate Pope Francis’s vital contribution into a general treatise on the social doctrine—the publication date was June 19, a day after the encyclical was published! (Full disclosure: Daniel edited a book earlier this year called Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis; an Anthology of Visions for the Future, and I contribute a chapter.)

The second book to cross my desk is the latest by Angus Sibley, entitled Catholic Economics: Alternatives to the Jungle. It was published too late to include insights from Laudato Si’, but Sibley is always worth reading. I especially enjoyed his last book: The Poisoned Spring of Economic Libertarianism.

Bravo to both authors, and let’s hope we are entering a new springtime for authentic Catholic social teaching!

Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

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New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

Summer Reading

Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:

Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.

(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)

This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:

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