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The Never-Receding Past

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.

A Brief Theory about Marilynne Robinson

“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.

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Eamon Duffy on Francis

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.

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Missing a Vocabulary of the Moral Middle

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.”

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Mike Huckabee, bard of 'Bubba-ville'

“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:

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Communion with Gornick, McDermott & Karr (and Eliot)

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.

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Writing Atrocity

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.

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Robert Stone, 1937-2015

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.

New Year's Day Morning

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.

Teaching, by the book (and movie)

It was only after finishing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie this fall that I realized it was the third straight work of fiction I'd read in which teachers and teaching figured prominently. (There was a similarly themed documentary film in there too -- see below.) I didn't consciously set out to sample the offerings; maybe headlines around that time like "Why Is American Teaching So Bad?" and "Rotten Apples: It's Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher" drove me to spend some hours with the profession's beleaguered practitioners, or maybe I wanted new insights into my own experiences at the front of a classroom. Never mind that none of the three books is about American teachers, or that none was published in 2014. What all reconfirmed is that there's inherently more (sometimes much more) to the teacher-student relationship than pedagogy, even if those doing the teaching are sometimes not inclined to act only in the interests of their students.
That's certainly true of in the case of Muriel Spark's best known work, with which Commonweal readers are probably familiar, and which doesn't necessarily do the teaching vocation any special favors--even if the title character's students learn a thing or two.
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Best Books of 2014 (Part 2)

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.

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Kent Haruf's high-plains novels

“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.

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Best Books of 2014

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.

Novels that were published in 2014 that I can’t wait to read: Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; Lars Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr.


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.

Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus. I wrote on this collection, which beautifully describes a life of religious vocation and many other things, here.   

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.

Books of poetry that were published in 2014 that I can’t wait to read: Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood; Mark Ford’s Selected Poems; Les Murray’s New Selected Poems; Christian Wiman’s Once in the West.


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.


‘Invisible Bridge’ and Reagan’s hold

June of this year marked the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan's earthly departure, while October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the speech thought by many to have signaled his political arrival. That address, “A Time for Choosing,” was his endorsement in 1964 of Barry Goldwater for president, and has in the words of Jonathan Chait “become a cherished relic in the Reagan myth,” not just for the mythic impish charm with which he delivered such lines as: “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” (This was some years before Republicans promulgated the coinage "compassionate conservatism.")

Between these bookends arrived Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, eight hundred and ten pages (not including index, but including a two-page note on sources--more on that later) detailing American life and politics between 1973 and 1976, spanning Watergate, the Ford presidency, and the Republican national convention in Kansas City. Or, as Perlstein contextualizes in the book’s subtitle: “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” a Robert-Caro-like framing that necessitates the marshaling of Caro-like amounts of fact, much of it predating the book’s ostensible period of examination.

The book is the third in Perlstein’s social history of the postwar rise of American conservatism, following Before the Storm and Nixonland, and the first to feature Ronald Reagan as a main player. I trace a personal fascination with Reagan to the fact that his presidency and personality dominated the period of my adolescence and early adulthood; I remember where I was when Reagan was first inaugurated, when he was shot, when he quipped that he’d signed new legislation outlawing Russia forever and bombing would begin in five minutes (August was the thirtieth anniversary of that), and when it became clear he would be absolved of knowledgeable participation in the Iran-Contra affair despite evidence of direct involvement.

But I was less familiar with the particulars of his rise and the interplay of political and cultural forces that, in retrospect, would seem to have made it foreordained.

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Christianity and Criticism and Culture and ...

Readers of dotCommonweal might be interested in a conference that is taking place at Villanova on November 13 and 14. The conference is titled "Christianity and Criticism and Culture and ..." and it will consider how the Christian intellectual tradition might help us to better understand the culture we live in.

The list of speakers is varied--scholars, journalists, poets, and novelists will all be in attendance--as is the list of topics: the fiction of David Foster Wallace and Alice McDermott, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and Amy Clampitt, the art of Marc Chagall, even the HBO series True Detective. Readers of Commonweal will be familiar with many of the presenters, including Paul Elie (a contributor to the magazine), William Giraldi (who has been written about here), Kaya Oakes (another contributor), Matthew Boudway, Scott Moringiello, and myself.

The conference is free and open to the public. For more information, visit the conference website:

Biggest literary influence on The Boss? Flannery O'Connor.

When we talk about the American "Catholic Imagination" in literature and the arts, the work of Flannery O'Connor is a sine qua non. Teaching on this subject, I often surprise people by juxtaposing her fiction writing not with Graham Greene or another great Catholic novelist, but rather with the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen.

Considering The Boss's oeuvre in this light is neither flight of fancy nor mere excuse to play music in class. The topic has been covered in the pages of Commonweal, the man effusively praised on the blog, and his stature confirmed back in 1998 by none less than Andrew Greeley, the scholar perhaps most associated with the analysis of the Catholic imagination.

Now it's true that Springsteen has cited Flannery O'Connor before, but I have not seen a quote as exquisite and evocative as this, from an interview in this weekend's New York Times. The reporter asks:

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

And then Springsteen, who had earlier in the interview already cited O'Connor as the first author to influence his career as a songwriter, offers this assessment of his top literary influence:

One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.

Perhaps he has the final scenes of the short story "Revelation" in mind, but really the quote encapsulates so much of what haunts O'Connor's world -- and thereby the American Catholic imagination writ large.

It is the mystery that does not confuse but halts through wonder; the experience of all life as both suffering and glory; the stubborn refusal to separate nature and grace.


A short story for the synod?

Whether the moment was merely fortuitous or more shrewdly considered, the New Yorker is featuring a short story this week that makes for timely reading during the current synod. It’s called “Ordinary Sins,” and it’s by the young writer Kirstin Valdez Quade, whose story “The Five Wounds” appeared in the magazine in 2009 and whose debut collection is due early next year.

The title “Ordinary Sins” presumes the presence of ordinary sinners, and though such characters could be said to inhabit any piece of fiction, they are rather more clearly etched as such here, beginning with the third-person narrator/protagonist Crystal, a teenager seven months pregnant with twins and working as a parish assistant. There is also Father Paul, pastor of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, “benign and solicitous and eager for approval”; Father Leon, newly arrived from Nigeria and “traditional” (in the hesitant assessment of Father Paul), who to Crystal’s dismay preaches not of “love and brotherhood and the primacy of conscience” but against homosexuality and the tolerance of sin; and Collette, the parish secretary whose bad temper is “democratic in its reach” but also at times “very entertaining.”

Crystal and Paul comprise the key thematic pairing in a piece that features several (the unborn twins; Leon and Collette; a young, soon-to-wed couple waiting in the parish office for a “premarital-counselling appointment” with Paul; and, offstage and unseen, the vanished father of Crystal’s children and the bishop whom Paul believes to have delivered a threatening signal with the assignment of Leon). The story unfolds over the course of one Monday-morning hour, with some small and seamless expository flashbacks, but plot is secondary to the ordinary interactions among characters: the petty slights and venial offenses, the well-intentioned if misguided gestures, the willful misunderstandings and hurtful words, the impulse—often reluctant—toward trust, compassion, and forgiveness. Crystal’s pregnancy, obviously, and Paul’s gradually revealed failings provide the backdrop against which this is all depicted. When Paul’s kindness—“unconditional, holy, and inhuman,” so reliable she can afford to disdain it—is suddenly pulled away, Crystal to her astonished relief learns she “could be the kind of person who might meet another person’s need.”

Such reversals are nothing new in fiction, and a casual reading might leave the mistaken impression that “Ordinary Sins” is an ordinary story, with its plain language and seemingly too accessible emotional landscape. But there’s more at work here, like how ordinary people engage with and are engaged by the church on an everyday level, and how that might affect commitment and belief. Quade speaks to this in a brief interview accompanying the story (read it afterward), noting Crystal’s coming to grips with the church as a “human edifice” and the conflicts that this might yet create for her.

But what’s also worth noting here, I think, is that such a story would be featured in a publication like the New Yorker at this moment. Though it was probably conceived prior to last year’s conclave and obviously completed before the synod, could its subject and timing be indicative of “the Francis effect” at work in contemporary fiction?

Reading Lila with Scott

In case you all needed further reason to join Scott Moringiello in reading Marilynne Robinson's new novel, it has just been announced that Lila made the short list for the National Book Award. The other nominees include Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman, and Phil Klay's Redeployment.

But top priority should be given to Robinson. Lila is as good as anything she's written before, and it's very different, stylistically, from the other two Gilead novels. Happy reading, everyone.

John and Glory and Lila

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

As usual, Paul is onto something. We should all spend more time thinking about things that are true and honorable and lovely and gracious and excellent and praiseworthy. I'm sure you all know by now that Marilynne Robinson's new novel Lila comes out tomorrow. The New York Times ran a Sunday magazine piece on Robinson yesterday, and the paper did a review of the novel in the Book Review section. The New York Review of Books has its review in the latest issue. There was also a piece in the Atlantic. Commonweal will soon be running a review by Paul Elie, as well as an essay about Robinson and her work by Anthony Domestico.

Lila is Robinson's third novel set in Gilead, Iowa in the middle of the 20th Century. The title character is the wife of the Rev. John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor, whom we met as the protagonist in Robinson's Gilead. Robinson's Home focuses on Glory Boughton, the daughter of the Rev. Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian pastor, who is John Ames's best friend. Gilead and Home have quickly and rightly become American classics. (I would argue Gilead, along with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is one of the two best American novels in the last 25 years or so.) Even though I haven't read --and don't plan on reading -- reviews of Lila until after I read it (Tony's piece will be an exception), I have no doubt Lila will be just as good as the previous two.

The official publication date is tomorrow, and although I'm not sure I'll be able to get to a bookstore tomorrow, I plan on reading the novel soon. (For my own dotCommonweal posts on Robinson, see here and here.) And I'm wondering if the dotCom community would like to join me in reading all three novels.

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William Giraldi's supercharged novel

How charged was the last novel you read?

The question is borrowed from novelist William Giraldi, who borrowing in turn from Ezra Pound (“literature is language charged with meaning”) posed it in the course of an infamous takedown of another young writer’s work in the New York Times Book Review a couple of years ago. Writers, Giraldi said then, have a moral obligation to write well, “to raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew”--a demanding standard, formulated not just to wield against the subject of his critique but against which to hold fiction in general. Thus it seems only fair to ask: Does Giraldi himself meet it?

Giraldi won praise for his 2011 debut, Busy Monsters, a voice- and language-driven novel that prompted critic D.G. Myers to call him “the bastard literary son of Evelyn Waugh.” Giraldi’s latest is Hold the Dark, which could be described as a literary horror story set in snowbound Alaska, but that would sell it short. It’s not the supernatural but the nature of evil that Giraldi investigates, commencing with an opening line that could inspire envy among genre writers who’ve made their names hooking readers from the start: “The wolves came down from the hills and took the children of Keelut.” There’s little evidence of Waugh but signs of Cormac McCarthy, whose own Child of God opens “They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning straw” and whose Blood Meridian Giraldi seems to have consulted (perhaps along with a Pekinpah film or two) for just how to compose scenes of explicit but dramatically effective and thematically relevant violence.

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