Ambiguity in response to a novel rests with judgments that test values - literary, stylistic and ethical. I read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North ready to turn away from the page at the shock of his recreation of a WWII Japanese work camp in Burma; but I could not deny the power of the writing. The novel might cover the same territory as the Bridge on the River Kwai, but Flanagan’s account makes tactile the foul degradation and suffering. His characterization takes us into the minds of the Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors, in particular that of the officer Doctor Dorrigo Evans, the Aussie chief, and his counterpart, Captain Nakamura. On the one hand, the novel offers us the mentality of the Captain who can justify working men to death even as he demands they be beaten to insure their compliance; and on the other hand, the mentality of his opponent who encounters such treatment and yet does not collapse, rather finds the strength to accept cruelty, resist with caution, and remain generous. Such focus has little by way of sentimentality. The extremity of the situation is evoked in measured, unadorned prose. Flanagan gives us two men who reveal themselves in acts of self-justification. Each asks: am I a good man? Their answers lay out a moral spread that stretches from assurance to distrust. If a claim can be made for the novel’s stature, it is in its willingness to entertain such moral contrasts. This is fiction that takes us into dark places.Read more
This week, John Jeremiah Sullivan was among the winners of the Windham Campbell Prize alongside Geoff Dyer and Edmund de Waal in the nonfiction category — an honor that comes with $150,000. Sullivan is the Southern editor of the Paris Review, and an all around gem in contemporary literary non-fiction. If you're tempted to despair at the state of that particular genre, Sullivan's work is a counter-argument.
His long-form essays pop up everywhere from GQ, the New York Times Magazine, to the food journal Lucky Peach, and they're never boring or predictable. This owes a lot to his deep research and attention to detail which lets his subjects shine through in all their particular weirdness.
Take, for example, his profile on former star of the reality show The Real World, nicknamed "the Miz." Even only knowing that piece's premise, it is easy to see how Sullivan could have played his subject matter for laughs. "The Miz" is one of a host of reality television stars who make club appearances for a living after their show has aired, but Sullivan doesn't stand apart from the circus and point. The Miz comes across as someone you could have known once. Even more, Sullivan is willing to say more than the obvious about reality television — in all its staged feelings and produced hot-tub scenes — and its appeal, then go ahead and implicate everyone.
And I just get so exhausted with my countrypeople—you know the ones, the ones you run into who are all like, "Oh gosh, reality TV? I've never even seen it. Is it really that interesting?"...To me that's about as noble as being like, "Oh, Nagasaki? I've never even heard of that!" This is us, bros. This is our nation. A people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
Did I mention he's funny? He's really funny.
I particularly wanted to point out one of his more well-known essays, Upon This Rock, which also originally appeared in GQ. Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival — a curious event in itself — but about halfway into the piece's 11,000 words, we discover that Sullivan was once a creature of that vibrant evangelical subculture. So while the essay describes the bands, the Christian rock industry and its colorful fans, it's about confronting a faith that has died, but still haunts you. "I love Jesus Christ," he admits.
"...Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can't I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?
Because once you've known Him as God, it's hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won't slacken.
Sullivan is both faithful to his old faith, and his current disbelief. This might be a strange description of an 11,000 magazine article, but it's full of restraint. Toward the end, he concludes of his new festival-going friends, "They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were."
Theology is unique among academic disciplines. Although it is indispensible for a liberal arts education, its proper home has never been in the academy. The ultimate end of theology is reflecting on one’s relationship with God. It’s hard to imagine a chemist outside the lab or a historian outside the archives, but we can very easily imagine a theologian outside the academy. After all, Evagrius Pontus, the fourth century Egyptian monk, says that if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian. Thomas Aquinas, writing on the Apostles’ Creed, argues that “no one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” My two grandmothers taught me more about Catholicism than any of my excellent teachers have. And my grandmothers’ tools were rosary beads and lives of devotion, not the volumes of the Sources Chrétiennes.
Lila Ames is a theologian because she does what every Christian theologian must do: she tries to understand God’s word in Scripture and understand herself and her world in light of revelation.Read more
How should one approach Shadows in the Night, the new Bob Dylan collection of American standards once sung by Frank Sinatra? With curiosity, of course, or curiosity tinged with dread, or a roll of the eyes at the adoption of this latest persona. Or, if you're among the legions of indefatigable disciples and completists, with advance purchase and ravenous consumption. After a critic friend warned me a couple of months ago the disc would include "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, we traded emails trying to one-up each other with versions of the lyric "once you have found her never let her go" in imagined Dylanese (his winning entry: "Once yubba fondue Lehigh Lego glue"). Thus add ridicule to one of the possible prejudgments, though both of us should have known better than to underestimate Dylan.
Which isn't to say Shadows in the Night is a great record. Everyone has accepted that a new Blood on the Tracks or Desire, to say nothing of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, is not in the cards. But of the studio recordings it's no Infidels or Knocked Out Loaded or Shot of Love; four listens in, I can say easily and with relief that it's not an embarrassment. It's definitely weird; it may even be good.Read more
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.
Maria Bowler's excellent post below and Joseph Komonchak's post about Home have made me feel more guilty than usual that I haven't finished blogging through Marilynne Robinson's Gilead trilogy. I had planned on writing the posts in January. But I got busy with the beginning of the Winter quarter at DePaul, with two papers I had to deliver, with an (overdue) article I finally finished, with a radio appearance (?!), and with the normal craziness of life. I also read Phil Klay's Redeployment, Matthew Thomas's We Are not Ourselves, and John Williams's Stoner, and I hope to have something to say about all of them at some point soon. I do apologize for being out of touch for so long.
I have begun rereading Lila, which I first finished right before Christmas. And I think I'm now in a position to say that I'll post on the first 90 pages or so of the novel by this Friday. I'll write two more posts the following week (Deo volente) to finish the novel and finish the series of posts on the trilogy.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Thanks.
“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”
This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?
IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.
Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”
KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.
The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.
The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.Read more
The vivid expression “earworm” suggests a voice, perhaps a song, or some phrase or fragment, that plays unwanted in a continuous mental loop. Subliminal sometimes it may be, but persistent, even distracting, as we might wish to concentrate all our attention on a problem or text. I think that times of stress brings the voice on. I have heard inside my head my voice audibly repeating the short prayers that the nuns in grade school would unselfconsciously tell us were "ejaculations." Those moments when anxiety threatens to screech its nails down fearful chalk boards – then I am likely to repeat as litany Domine adjuvanda me festina.
I have lately been reading through three of Philip Roth’s novels from the eighties and nineties, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist. Each has its striking virtuosity of voice and of perception. The energy of the prose and dynamism of the plotting and the voices (heteroglossia of the first order) can sweep a reader along. I had to stop, however, over a passage near the conclusion of I Married a Communist. The chief narrator Murray records experiencing an ear-worm like obsession in a moment of great anxiety. Murray has just left his brother Ira in his rustic shack in Pennsylvania. Ira is despondent, angry, homicidal. Murray knows how violent Ira can be, and he fears that his brother will soon attempt to kill his estranged wife. On the drive back to his home, unconvinced that he has dissuaded his brother despite taking his knives and pistol, Murray recounts his inner turmoil. He maintains his stability, more or less, by repeating a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They are Feste’s words at the conclusion of the play: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Now you must know that Murray is an English teacher and an acutely sensitive reader. He is relating this experience to Nathan Zuckerman, his former student and now an accomplished novelist. Murray considers what his mind was doing with Feste’s words.Read more
We don't watch TV shows; we watch DVDs of TV shows on TV. As a result, we are working our way belatedly through a mess/mass of mystery/crime shows with detectives that are...that seem either dazed or crazed.
Last night it was "The Bridge," a girl detective in the El Paso police department is definitely dazed and obsessive (aspergers?). Finished with "Homeland" (season 3) where our heroine is crazed (bi-polar). Before that, puzzled over "True Detective's" "hero," an alcoholic with intuitions; more dazed than crazed.
Since our chronology is not "real-time" watching, are the dazed and crazed copy-cat portrayals? Or is this a trend?
UPDATE: Alessandra Stanley has something to say on this subject. See Comment @10:21, 1/22
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.
“Cradle Catholic” has a muscular connotation for me - the learned response to the stimulus of the Holy Name. I nod my head down in a perfunctory bow. Half-conscious, almost automatic gestures are part of a legacy, and so are profound orientations, habits of mind. We don’t choose these ways of thought and action; sometimes they grab us and point a way.
Dennis Lehane has used his Irish Catholic background in very successful detective fiction set in the Boston underworld. He writes spare, realistic dialogue and his books translate easily to the Big and Small Screens. (Mystic River, Shutter Island, episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) Characterization is always strong; it appears that his understanding of motivation draws easily on the “Cradle Catholic” mentality of his saints and sinners.
The Drop, his latest novel and screen play, is a case in point. The anti-hero, Bob, is an observant church goer, a loyal parishioner of St. Dominic’s, soon to be closed in a diocese-wide consolidation of poorly attended churches. Bob seems at first a suffering-servant, the bar-tender helper of his wise-mouth, lowering Cousin Marv, who is indeed Bob’s cousin. He is the apparent owner of the bar called after him. Bob is a dog’s-body, almost obsequious in has toleration of Marv’s barbed put-downs. Bob has no friends, no girl, and despite his ability to negotiate the Mean Streets, he is honest and thoughtful. His quiet strength will show itself in ways that puts him at odds with his church-going self. As we discover, Bob and Marv have a history barely hinted at but finally revealed. The plot winds its way through a long-discussed disappearance of a patron, a Chechen Mafia threat, the rescue of a Pit Bull and romance for Bob and Nadia, whose concern for the dog set them at odds with a psychopath. But the plot of the story turns on a revelation by way of a Cradle Catholic habit of mind.Read more
The nation's hairs on fire. Sony Pictures cancelled the release of "The Interview" after every movie chain in the country cancelled its opening on Christmas Day (talk about "for chrissake"!).
Hackers said to be North Korean apparatchaks invaded Sony computers and released gossipy e-mails, future movies, new songs, and lunch orders from famous people. They then threatened to blow up any theater showing the movie. The two buffoons who made the movie seem amazed that the assassination of NK's Kim-Jong Un, by blowing off his head, should cause such a stir (it's only a joke); so too are movie critics, pundits, and the president of the United States. Those North Koreans have no sense of humor! Guess not.
I have been waiting for someone to write, "And while I am all for bold creative choices, was it really important that the head being blown up in a comedy about bungling assassins be that of an actual sitting ruler of a sovereign state?" David Carr (NYTimes) finally did along with a long analysis that brings me to conclude that these buffoons along with many other Hollywoodites are as much a national security threat as North Korea. North Korea scares us but the buffoons make us stupid.
UPDATE: "CloudFlare, an Internet company based in San Francisco, confirmed Monday that North Korea’s Internet access was “toast.” Retaliation? More buffoonery? Battery shortage? Toaster overheated? Story here.
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
Anyone who has taught in high school realizes that instruction runs a tough second (or third or fourth) place to adolescent relationships. Hormones, evolving identities, developing sexuality, and competitive self-assertion – being “bloody minded” as the English say - make the years emotionally fraught. Friends are everything. To be “in” or to be excluded often appears a matter of life and death. Tana French, the Irish author who has had great success with who-done-its? such as Broken Harbor and In The Woods, uses the antipathy and idealism of teenage friendship-groups to ground her latest thriller, The Secret Place. Ms. French has an unerring ear for dialogue, of teenagers in sulks or power displays, or raw Dublin detectives bantering with each other in deadly earnest. The characterization by voice is remarkable.
The story is set in St. Kilda’s, an exclusive Dublin girls’ boarding school. A student from the neighboring St. Colm’s School for Boys has been killed, his murder unsolved for over a year. A new piece of evidence suddenly triggers Detective Stephen Moran’s reopening of the case. Moran also has to prove himself to a tough woman homicide detective, Antoinette Conway – a lady who has felt the full sting of male prejudice. She also was in charge of the investigation that earlier failed to find the killer. Egos are on the line for the adults as well as the children.
The plot unfolds through exhausting interviews of eight girls in the course of one day’s investigation. The eight form two rival groups of four who spar with each other and the detectives in the give-and-take that eventually exposes the murderer. One of the eight is the only one who could be responsible for the picture of the murdered lad with the legend, “I know who did it.” that has appeared on the The Secret Place, a Kilda’s bulletin board that gives the novel its title.Read more
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. 2 Pt 3:8-14
Faith, hope, and love. These three. We’re told that love is the greatest, and that it alone will abide. Even on this side of the eschaton, everyone has faith in something and everyone loves something. Hope, though: that one is difficult. How do we distinguish it from optimism? What can we hope in? Now, I’m no optimist. I’m always wary of talk of progress. The news of last few weeks should temper anyone’s optimism and make anyone question “progress.” Captive Israel can’t be ransomed again soon enough. But I try to remain full of hope. Rereading Home during Advent has helped. In this space we’ve talked about faith and love, and our discussions have helped me realize that Home is a profound meditation on Christian hope.Read more
The big news in the world of opinion journalism—where Commonweal swims unobtrusively alongside much bigger fish (or sharks)—is last week’s mass resignations at the New Republic, long the flagship intellectual journal of American liberalism. First the editor, Franklin Foer, and TNR’s longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier, resigned. The next day, in a very impressive act of suttee, most of the senior editorial staff and virtually all of the magazine’s well-known contributing editors threw themselves onto the pyre. I’ve been a journalist for more than thirty years, and that sort of personal and professional loyalty (Commonweal excepted!) is about as common as a typo-free newspaper (or magazine). Or a money-making journal of opinion.
Foer obviously was a much beloved and respected boss, and Wieseltier, who had edited the back of the book for more than thirty years, was an intimidating figure, a notorious champion of both critical seriousness and critical severity when it came to book reviewing and literary journalism. He is also a terrific writer, and a fierce polemicist, in his own right. I, for one, have always felt compelled to read just about anything he writes, especially if I’m inclined to disagree with him. In recent years he has written scathingly about the shallow and trivial nature of much of the “journalism” found online, and about the dangers the relentless demand for “content” presents to reasoned political debate, literary standards, and our public culture. Amen, I say.
So it is not much of a surprise to learn that the implosion of the New Republic was caused by a fundamental disagreement over the digital direction in which the magazine’s new owner, multi-millionaire Chris Hughes, was taking the venerable magazine. A little surprising is that the upheaval occurred just a few weeks after TNR celebrated its hundredth birthday with a big gala in Washington, D.C. The principal speaker was Bill Clinton. (He’s no George Mitchell, but still a pretty big deal.) News reports suggest that the antagonism between ownership and editorial staff was barely concealed during the dinner. Ouch. How awkward to announce a divorce right after an anniversary party.
The thirty-one-year-old Hughes, who made his fortune as a college roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, bought the magazine in 2012, and has spent millions upgrading its digital presence and reorienting and redesigning the print magazine. One of his first steps was to do away with editorials, which should have sent a clear signal about the value the new owner placed on the historical weight of the New Republic’s “voice.” More recently, it was announced that the magazine would cut the number of issues from twenty to ten a year, and that TNR was no longer a magazine, but a “vertically integrated digital media company.” At the same time, Hughes hired a more web savvy replacement for Foer. He did not tell Foer he was being ousted. Whatever an integrated digital media company is, it does not appear to be very good at actual communication.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.