We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.
1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.
Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.
2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:
The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.
Read all of 'Signal Failure.'
3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:
The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.
Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?
We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:
Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:
The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.
Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,” Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy.
Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?
Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religions, and Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe.
See the full table of contents here.
On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:
Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.
Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...
Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.
Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:
I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”
Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.
Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.
I have a good friend who religiously reads or re-reads a Trollope novel every summer. Sluggard that I am, I have not read one since pre-pre-Kindle college days. That may now change thanks to a splendid and nuanced essay on the English novelist by Adam Gopnik in the current New Yorker. I resonated in a particular way to this reflection:
It’s a sign of Trollope’s gift for imagining the internal politics of large, self-approving bureaucracies that every one of his Barsetshire character types can be found in any American university. Trollope’s Low Church Bishop Proudie would today be a newly appointed university president, eager for online courses and increased enrollment; the High Church party of the Arabins would be found in the humanities faculty, distraught at having to prove that esoteric comp-lit studies are in any sense “profitable.” The Reverend Dr. Stanhope, the clergyman called back from a long holiday in Italy, is a professor summoned from a sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome and ordered to start teaching freshmen again. Even the condition of Trollope’s curates, like poor Mr. Quiverful, is exactly reproduced by those long-term adjuncts who teach semester to semester and live contract to contract.
Presumably, emeriti/ae are spared, being only destined to fade away, or as a recent Commonweal piece unsentimentally put it: "fall apart."
How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.
Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”
That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.Read more
This Sunday, the Guardian published a fascinating profile of the New Yorker's James Wood. In it, we learn that:
- Wood has a new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, coming out later this month. In it, he worries over the God-like omniscience that novelists claim to have over their characters.
- He believes that many--most?--great works of literature can't really be appreciated by younger readers: “It’s very difficult explaining The Portrait of a Lady to 20-year-olds, because it’s about choices and consequences, about the realisation that the world is smaller than it seems. Understanding novels requires wisdom, which it takes decades of living to acquire."
- Wood's two children have become "totally American" and don't appear to love reading as much as he did at their age.
Of most interest to readers of this blog, though, might be Wood's comments on the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of writing a great Christian novel:
I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels – To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway – and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying – though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.
I'd be interested to hear what other readers of Robinson think of Wood's characterization here. I, for one, think Gilead is a deeply if quietly funny novel. Think of the scene with the horse in the ditch, for instance, or the baptism of the kittens (which is, of course, also very serious). If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Robinson read/speak in person, you know that she has a great, great chuckle, and her novels elicit that same quiet, forgiving kind of laughter.
This week, the Man Booker International Prize announced their shortlist for the £60,000 award, and the only American who made the cut was the poet, novelist and essayist Fanny Howe. Howe was nominated for her sixteenth book of poetry, Second Childhood, released by Graywolf press. As if we needed another reason to be curious about it, it also made Anthony Domestico's list of the Best Books of 2014,
Howe is a Catholic writer. She encountered the faith through her second husband's mother, and converted after they had divorced. Adding any adjective before "writer" can be dangerous, as though it classifies the work in a pre-determined way, but be assured Howe's poems, essays and fiction don't tip the scales into annoying piety, and it is the opposite of didactic. Suggesting that she's a writer who happens to be Catholic would ignore how faith shapes her work's subject and its form. Liberation theology presses on her imagination (in one of her novels especially, appropriately titled Saving History). In her poetry, her sense of time is especially distinctive. In her essay, "Footsteps Over Ground," she writes:
The calendar year for daily working life is the same for all of us, but there is a second calendar: the church calendar that refers to the birth, murder, and resurrection of Jesus, which is an absolutely archetypal story, a poetic rendition of any human life. The Mass, with its readings from the Gospel stories, and the the Eucharistic rite, repeated for centuries, is an account of the cooperation of transcendence with the ordinary. If it is an opiate, all the better.
In the liturgy's repetition, Howe finds a place to return to outside chronological time. Time is not a straight line or a circle, as we often hear, but a spiral. She writes what she calls spiral or series poems that return to the same place from another direction, as though the reader and the speaker were disoriented in a forest. In her essay "Bewilderment" she explains that these poems come from "my experience of non-sequential, but intensely connected, time-periods and the way they impact on each other, but lead nowhere."
Her poem "A Hymn" is an example, beginning with an epigraph by Dostoevsky that sets the tone for the bewilderment Howe is interested in.
When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.
I traveled to the page where scripture meets fiction.
The paper slept but the night in me woke up.
Black letters were now alive
and collectible in a material crawl.
I could not decipher their intentions anymore.
To what end did their shapes come forth?
Read the rest of the poem at The Poetry Foundation. It will be worth your (strange, out of sequence) time.
Critic James Wood once said about John Updike that “all of his books suggest a belief that life will go on, that it will be thickly unvaried, that things will not come to a stop." The "very form" of the Rabbit series, according to Wood, "incarnates a belief that stories can be continued.”
My colleague Kaitlin Campbell recently wrote on the topic of Facebook from the perspective of those introduced to it as teenagers. Those whose adulthoods compelled adoption – whether for social, recreational, or, in my case, occupational reasons – have probably experienced it differently. Back when I first had to set up an account for my job, plans for my twenty-fifth high school reunion were underway, unknown to me. But not for long: Within hours I was discovered by people I hadn’t been in touch with for decades asking if I'd be in attendance.
Reunions figure in Updike's work from the outset to the end, with "The Happiest I've Been" (1959) among the first to "The Walk With Elizanne" -- sexagenarian characters gather for a fiftieth high school reunion with few hatchets to bury or scars to heal but still holding a stubborn candle or two -- among the last, appearing in 2003 (life goes on…). I was much younger than Updike’s alumni. But I wondered whether my reunion – graduates of a regional high school in semi-rural western New Jersey that in (perhaps embroidered) memory shared similarities with Updike’s evocations of midcentury, small-town America – would be marked by similarly softened attitudes. After some indecisiveness, I went. Seven years later, it can feel like I never came back.
Facebook has kept in the here and now the past I assumed would return to its proper, designated place. The charitable view has it that being linked to people from all parts of your life creates the desirable illusion of having never left your idyllic hometown, even if it never existed -- a place where everyone knows everyone and the whole community comes out to celebrate a birthday or wedding or job promotion. That might appeal to some. I’d always anticipated leaving such a place, looking forward to wondering whatever became of a classmate with the assurance that no answer would be forthcoming. I could hold on to selected images from the actual past, but I could also conjure my own unfolding versions of unknown lives or allow mutable, perishable memory to do its thing. My choice, because a place and past left behind were supposed to stay there. It was part of growing up and getting older, then older still. Stories end: Part of what always made anecdotes from aging relatives enjoyable was the mystery that came in not knowing what actually came after.
This isn't happening. An infrequent Facebook user, I'm nonetheless current on the marital situations, career trajectories, workout regimens, familial relations, and hospitalizations of numerous former classmates I didn't know all that well in the first place. The gym-class bully posts photos of sunsets and spiked marlins and sometimes of himself, now with a kind smile and a pretty nice boat from the looks of it. The quiet girl from history class happily and regularly reports on milestones in her children’s lives. Some seem to have gotten religion, old-time and otherwise, with others carrying on elaborate and at times esoteric conversations about Obama, security software, or rare musical instruments. There are also those who upload photos of their homes and yards and cars or the homes and property and cars they’re thinking of buying, of the fun they're having here and abroad. Laying across it all is that quality of "unvaried thickness," with little sign of the narrative coming to a stop.
Could it be read as a sign of optimism, or of something else? Of course, what people share is the result of more-or-less considered thought: As Wood says about realistic fiction, "a certain level of well-selected detail [is needed to keep] the balloon of verisimilitude afloat.” How real the stories on display really are can be debated. Yet the stories continue, with details sufficient to ensure that, unlike Updike's protagonist nobly struggling to name the unrecognizable classmate brought before him, the pleasure and the occasional necessity of not knowing cannot be felt.
“I have scoured the Internet,” a friend emailed me when Marilynne Robinson’s Lila had just been released, “and found not one critical or negative review of Marilynne Robinson.” Linda McCullough Moore's review in Books and Culture was a mild exception to that rule, while noting how rare qualms with Robinson’s work really are. With the subtitle “A Dissenting View,” the review begins, “One almost requires a handwritten invitation to take issue with the work of Marilynne Robinson.” Though it lost out on a National Book Award to Phil Kay's Redeployment, Robinson's novel was recently nominated for a National Books Critics Circle award.
Beyond her formidable literary talent (of which there is much to say, and I don't intend to detract from attention to it), I think there is another reason Robinson is so revered. In short: She refuses the categories which characterize how we publically interpret experiences, and it’s a breath of fresh air for everyone who is looking for wisdom on that score. There was a moment during the question period of Marilynne Robinson’s lecture at Yale Divinity School this winter that illustrated this well.
Robinson’s dense and subtle lecture was an argument against scientific positivism which reduces emotions and affective states to merely something you can quantify—just areas of brain activity lighting up on scans. This interest has animated her projects all long; she’s written about it in many essays, and in the pages of Commonweal. This has obvious implications for understanding how faith works, but it’s a bigger statement about relating to the self, our affective states, and our ability to see these states as distinct from other modes of understanding.Read more
In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, church historian and sometime Commonweal contributor Eamon Duffy has an excellent review-essay on three books about Pope Francis. I don’t think anything Duffy writes will come as news to most Commonweal readers, but he does cover a lot of territory with his usual nuanced approach to Catholic issues, in his customary elegant prose.
Duffy is perhaps best known for Saints and Sinners, a comprehensive but accessible history of the papacy. He made his academic reputation with The Stripping of the Altars, a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, a book that changed our understanding of the often misunderstood upheavals of that period by documenting the popularity and vitality of traditional Catholic practice and belief. A favorite Duffy book of mine is Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, a collection of essays that strikes the right balance between the inevitability of change in the church and the even greater need to rely on the resources of the tradition to guide those developments. “Faithfulness to that tradition is not a matter of uncritical obedience to authority; it is a shared labor of learning, in which we work together to draw new and surprising growth from the old soil,” he wrote. Tradition is “the trace of a complex shared life, rather than a clear-cut compendium of answers.”
In his NYRB piece, Duffy emphasizes the fact that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council. He does not pine for some allegedly lost, golden age when the church claimed to be a perfect society. Francis’s “commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors,” Duffy writes.
I think that gets at what is perhaps the most obvious nature of the change in tone and focus coming from the Vatican, and that instinctive commitment to the council goes hand in hand with Francis’s determination to encourage debate among the bishops and his sure-to-be-contested push to return real decision-making authority to the local church. Duffy also notes how different Francis’s idea of priesthood is from “the exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates.” He cautions that, although those in the pews are cheering on these developments, many of those ordained during the past thirty-five years are likely to have a difficult time adjusting to Francis’s often blunt critique of clericalism. Divisions within the church are deep and not easily bridged.Read more
Finally free of the imperative of manuscript editing, I actually am reading. Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, is a worthy sequel to The Shallows. The earlier book was a brilliant telling of the neuroscience of our brains in using the internet…. As opposed to, say, reading. (yes, this is a blog post, blah blah…) The current book is an exploration of the automation of processes of all sorts, from factory processes to self-driving cars to decision-support software employed by doctors and lawyers.
Carr’s books are attractive because he avoids turning them into a polemic on one side or the other of these questions. He doesn’t think automation is inherently bad (Frankenstein) or inherently good (the techno-futurists); indeed, he gives a nice history which shows that excitement about machines and anxiety about them have gone hand in hand from their inception. His books are really more about understanding something thoroughly.
But with two lessons. One, Carr is adept at noting how “this time it’s different.” In The Shallows, he persuasively makes the case that the internet is not just another in a string of “media” advances, from writing to the printing press to the telegraph to the radio. The combination of the actual processes (and limits) involved in use and the physical capacities (and limits) of the human person shape what a given media technology can mean and be for us. The internet combines a pace of extraordinarily rapid inflow and a virtually-unlimited storage capacity. This differs from reading. In The Glass Cage, he is out to show that the current wave of automation is different because of its capacity to mimic not just human physical processes, but human thought processes. One of the key claims of the book is that the ability to mimic processes is not the same as replicating the processes themselves – Watson doesn’t answer a Jeopardy question the same way a human does, nor does “Doctor Algorithm” go about diagnoses in the same way a doctor does. In some ways, the ability to process massive amounts of data via algorithms and probabilities is great; in other ways, it is very different from human thought and action, and introduces a different set of “errors.”Read more
“It is trying on liberals in Dilton,” reads the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” which could with tweaking aptly apply to the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign season for those maybe uninclined to vote for one of the score or so of potential Republican candidates. The GOP’s field of declared and undeclared are riding the usual hobby horses--Obamacare, “big government,” Obamacare, public schools, moral collapse, Obamacare—with some already honing their grievances into slogans, sound bites, and hashtags. Does “Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville” work for you?
Best-selling author Mike Huckabee thinks it will. Well, maybe not for you, but hopefully for the fractious choir he’s preaching to with his newest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “Bubble-ville” describes the population of Americans associated with the iniquitous and elite “nerve centers” of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.; “Bubba-ville,” everywhere else—“the flyover country” that “more often than not votes red instead of blue, roots for the Cowboys in the NFL and the Cardinals in the National League, and has three or more bibles in every house.” (The characterization invites debate, but, to use a construction for which Huckabee shows fondness: I digress.)
GGG&G, in short, makes use of a simple construct to capitalize on resentments by reaffirming the preconceptions and prejudices of its intended audience. Neither polemic nor screed, it’s mainly a book-length unspooling of commentary that’s also needlessly broken into chapters, though if it weren’t, then readers would be deprived of nominally edifying (if not necessarily organizing) headings like “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First” and “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” (this following one bemoaning “The Culture of Crude”). His musings are at times entertainingly wrought. In places he risks naughty ethno-religious offense: “I can see the look of horror on the faces of friends of mine who have spent their lives in New York City when I talk about owning a wide variety of firearms: It’s the look one would get announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory” (it’s an image he uses more than once). In places he’s more plainly insulting, as when contending that Beyoncé is unwittingly allowing herself to be pimped out by her husband, Jay-Z. Sometimes he’s hilarious:Read more
Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?
“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"
McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.Read more
In Thirty Girls, the novelist Susan Minot has set herself several tasks, all of them difficult. First, she wants to imagine the seemingly unimaginable: what it must feel like for a young girl to be abducted and effectively enslaved in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Second, she wants to lay bare the problems that confront the writer—and all of us—when faced with such atrocities. And third, she wants to dramatize both barbarism and our responses to it through the lens of a love story—the kind of fevered, haunting affair that readers of Minot’s previous novel, Rapture, will be familiar with.Read more
Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, among other novels, died on Saturday at the age of 77. William Giradli has written that "a lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all," and Stone, who spent his early childhood in a Catholic orphanage, proved the truth of this claim. His work was religiously inflected, politically serious, and stylistically adventurous. He will be missed.
Commonweal has featured writing on Stone on various occasions. Here are some highlights: Paul Lakeland on his last novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, published in 2013; R. Clifton Spargo on Stone's memoir of the 1960s; and Dominic Preziosi on Stone, violence, and political conflict by way of Oakley Hall's Warlock.
Whether or not you celebrate New Year's Eve, and whether or not you have recovered, turn on your local public radio station and listen to the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day Concert live from, well Vienna!
Last year, you may recall, Nicholas Clifford gave a head's up about it. The concert ends with the Radeztky March. That is also the title of Joseph Roth's melancholy novel of pre-WWI Austria (which was much larger than it is now). A volume of the Letters of Joseph Roth was in my Christmas stocking reminding me of the gap between Roth's story and the merry waltzes and high-stepping marches of Austria in the days of the Hapsburg Empire's dying grandeur.
This is the link to the local NYC announcement of the concert: 11 AM here; 8 AM in Arizona.
Mark Logsdon, who has been an essential part of our conversation of the Marilynne Robinson novels, suggested that we take a bit of a break before our discussion of Lila. I’m reading the novel for the first time now, and I’ve come to realize that it was, in the words of Rev. Ames, presumptuous of me to think I would have anything intelligent to say about the novel during a first reading. I’m also realizing that I should reread the Book of Ezekiel, and probably Calvin’s commentary on Ezekiel, before I tackle blogging about Lila. So I’ll start up again in the new year.
In lieu of a discussion of Lila, I wanted to take up a suggestion that Dominic Preziosi made to dotCommonweal bloggers to list our favorite books of the year. Anthony Domestico has already taken him up on it, and I thought I would add some recommendations as well. (Rumor has it that your name does not have to end in a vowel in order to chime in. But maybe it helps.)
1. Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know. Not only was this the best novel I read in 2014, but it's the best novel I've read in quite some time. Unfortunately, apart from a glowing review by James Wood in the New Yorker, this novel has gotten very little attention. Rahman tells the story of two Oxford-educated friends whose families both hail from South Asia but who are otherwise worlds apart. The novel addresses the global financial crisis, the war in Afghanistan, philosophy, law, class, and the academy. Ultimately, though, the novel addresses central issues such as friendship and faith. Rahman’s erudition sparkles on each page, and, months after reading it, I can recall some sentences word for word.I look forward to reading the novel again.
2. Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. Officially this came out in 2013, but there was a paperback edition in 2014. Kushner’s novel addresses the New York City art world of the 1970s, Italian manufacturing, motorcycles, and revolutionary politics. The novel asks us what happens in the name of love when the personal and the political collide.
3. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Like The Flamethrowers, this novel came out at the end of 2013. Be sure to read Anthony Domestico’s review of The Goldfinch in that latest print issue of Commonweal. Of course, I agree with everything Tony writes there, and I would only add that besides being a fairy tale, the Goldfinch (much like The Flamethrowers) asks us to consider the relationship between art and truth. (In this way, its true precursor is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.)
4. William Giraldi, Hold the Dark. Dominic Preziosi has already reviewed Hold the Dark on this site. It is a superb and terrifying read. Be sure to check out Giraldi’s, Busy Monsters as well. That novel is as funny as Hold the Dark is terrifying. I got some strange looks on the CTA for laughing out loud while reading Busy Monsters.Read more
“Honey, listen to me,” one character urges another in Kent Haruf’s 1999 novel Plainsong. “You are here now. This is where you are.”
“Here” is Holt County on the high plains of Colorado, and it’s the setting not only of Plainsong, a National Book Award finalist the year it appeared, but also of its two predecessors and its follow-ups, Eventide (2005) and Benediction (2013). When I heard of Haruf’s death last week, at seventy-one from cancer, I couldn’t help but think of Benediction’s cold opener unveiling a potentially unpromising conceit—terminal illness:
When the test came back the nurse called them into the examining room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
Go on ahead, Dad Lewis said, say it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for you, the doctor said.
When they went back downstairs to the parking lot it was late in the afternoon.
You drive, Dad said. I don’t want to.
But the economy of language, the dispensing of conventional punctuation in dialogue, and the immediate clarity of characterization work to bring it off. Haruf seemed always to know where he stood, and what he wanted to do.
Places like Holt were home to Haruf when he was a boy, and though his family moved around a lot (his father was a Methodist minister) he absorbed the essence of these places which in composite became the vivid setting of his fiction. Haruf composed drafts blindly—he literally pulled a wool cap over his eyes as he typed—the better “to concentrate on the storytelling,” and judging from how believably Holt emerges across his books, it worked. “The ring of the [typewriter’s] return oriented him, as did the world he saw in his mind’s eye,” William Yardley evocatively puts it in his obituary of Haruf, whose wife, Cathy, is quoted later in the same piece: “ ‘He only got off home row a couple of times and typed gobbledygook,’ ” Mrs. Haruf recalled. ‘That’s not bad for all those years.’”
Few contemporary American novelists seem as successful as Haruf in linking people so closely with place, maybe because from the outset he dedicated himself to getting place right.Read more
Last week, Marilynne Robinson delivered a lecture at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. In his introductory remarks, the poet Christian Wiman declared that reading Robinson's Housekeeping was, for him, a soul-shattering experience, one of those reading experiences that gives you faith in the power of a book to reveal something absolutely true and beautiful about the world and about yourself.
I didn’t quite have one of those reading experiences in 2014. (The last one for me happened in late 2013 with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower.) But it’s been a very good year for books and a very good year for reading. Here is a short list of some of my favorite books of the year:
Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation. I read this book, the first in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, while staying by myself in a big, empty house in Chicago this summer, and I was scared out of my mind. Vandermeer is an accomplished writer of “weird fiction”—a generic term used to describe works that blend, among other things, tropes from horror and science fiction—and Annihilation is weird in all the right ways. The whole series deserves to be gulped down (I’ve passed along my copies to three different friends already, and all of whom loved it), but Annihilation stands apart.
Ben Lerner, 10:04. Lerner’s second novel is a singular work, and this despite the fact that it displays so many characteristics—a Brooklyn setting, a writer as protagonist, a comic scene set at a sperm bank—that we have encountered before. Many times before, in fact. 10:04, which centers on a Ben Lerner-like narrator’s journey from irony towards sincerity, is deeply intelligent, just as deeply funny, and ultimately quite moving. Plus, it’s the only novel this year to talk about Back to the Future AND Walter Benjamin with equal insight.
Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels. I’d read some of Ferrante’s earlier, slimmer works before, but this was the year that I cracked the longer novels in the Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. These books follow the lives of two girls, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, both born in Naples in the 1950s, both brilliant, both trying to find a world that is bigger and better than their own cramped and poor city.
Marilynne Robinson, Lila. Any year in which Robinson publishes something new is a great year, and this novel lived up to the achievements of Gilead and Home, complicating these earlier novels in meaningful ways.
Jeffery Renard Allen, Song of the Shank. This novel deserved more attention. Allen tells the story of Tom Wiggins, a blind, young slave and musical prodigy who became world famous in the years before the Civil War. Put out in a typically lovely edition by Graywolf, Song of the Shank contains intoxicating prose that at times recalls Faulkner.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric. I have a column featuring this book coming out in the new year, so I won’t say much. Rankine’s book mixes styles (lyric poetry, prose-poetry, cultural criticism) and media (text, photographs, paintings), all in the service of a devastating analysis of race in contemporary America. It might be the best book I read all year, period.
Joshua Mehigan, Accepting the Disaster. Likewise, I wrote about this collection for the magazine. At times, Mehigan reads like Robert Frost; at other times, he reads like Elizabeth Bishop. But throughout, his poetry displays incredible formal skill and a patient exploration of what it is like to live and work in the twenty-first century.
David Bromwich, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke. Bromwich is a true public intellectual, someone who is worth reading not just on literature (he’s a professor of English and a wonderful critic of modern poetry) but on politics, culture, and history. This biography of Burke displays Bromwich’s many virtues: a lucid style, a generous mind, a deep familiarity with the archive, and a clear sense of the broader contours of intellectual history. Conservatives regularly cite Burke as a kind of patron saint. Bromwich shows that this philosopher and political theorist was much more interesting—and much more complex—than such ideological deployment suggests.
Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch. I taught Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time this fall, and so it was delightful to read Mead, a writer for the New Yorker, on how much Eliot’s masterpiece has meant to her. This smart, lucid book is a fantastic entry into the world of Eliot and the world of her novel. (Mollie Wilson O’Reilly wrote on the book here.)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. To my mind, Lee is our best living literary biographer, and her treatment of Fitzgerald was typically brilliant. As a bonus, the publication has caused a rebirth of interest in Fitzgerald’s work, which is much to the good.
Hilton Als, White Girls. Als has an omnivorous imagination, and the braided essays in this book touch on Richard Pryor and Eminem, Flannery O’Connor and Michael Jackson, Truman Capote and Malcom X, gay experience and black experience and American experience. Als has the essayist’s most important gift: the ability to surprise, to have a piece or paragraph or sentence begin in one direction only to veer, unexpectedly and delightfully, in another. (This technically came out at the end of 2014, but I'm including it anyway.)
Books of non-fiction that were published in 2014 that I can’t wait to read: Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses; Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New and Collected Essays.
Best Books That I Read for the First Time This Year That Weren’t Published in 2014
Everything by Amy Clampitt; Millicent Bell’s Meaning in Henry James; Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword; Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest; Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.
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