In his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Walt Whitman took comfort in what he called “the certainty of others”—his faith that subsequent generations would see what he saw and feel as he did. “I am with you, and know how it is,” he wrote. “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.”

In 10:04 (Faber & Faber, $25, 256 pp.), Ben Lerner’s evocative second novel, the unnamed narrator—like Ler-ner, a poet who has won major prizes—walks through Whitman’s Brooklyn, no longer sure this is so true. Whitman’s symbols of permanence and endurance have been hijacked and remade by the cultural shifts and technological ruptures of the twenty-first century: while cataclysmic storms, the result of climate change, threaten to destroy power grids, everyone seems blithely transfixed by the iPhones or iPads in their hands. As the narrator makes his own passage across the East River, hurtling in a metal subway car toward a city beaded with electric light while listening to Rihanna trilling tinnily on someone’s headphones, the reader must ask if Whitman’s “I am with you” is still a plausible reality. Lerner conjures a compelling vision of what it means to live now, examining our ties to the past and the forces that threaten to sunder us from it.

It’s safe to say most chefs don’t write about agriculture as well as they prepare food, but Dan Barber, James Beard Award–winning chef of Manhattan’s Blue Hill, is an exception. If Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma helped spark the farm-to-table movement by giving America a hard look at where our food comes from, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (The Penguin Press, $29.95, 496 pp.) shows how that movement might grow up. Barber demonstrates how the favorite meals of today’s supposedly progressive foodies—hunks of pastured meat and organic staple crops—aren’t environmentally or economically sustainable. Instead, he argues, farmers should “grow nature”—cultivate crops and raise animals that will sustain the land in the long run. If this means chefs must find out how to popularize obscure or unconventional foods, Barber’s ready to do it. In four sections—“Soil,” “Land,” “Sea,” “Seed”—he explores how ecological symbiosis brings out the most exquisite flavors from the world’s properly cultivated abundance, and holds the key to the future of agriculture. 

“You have no idea how shocking it is / to a small child / when something continuous stops,” writes Louise Glück in the title poem of her new collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 80 pp.). The poem’s speaker, a man looking back on his boyhood, is only describing how troubled he feels when his aunt’s sewing machine suddenly ceases. But it’s an emblematic detail: Here, Glück complicates the notion of death as a hard, end-stopped line. Voices speak from beyond the grave, if one learns to listen closely; death descends like a dream, and characters rise again with the sun. Certainly, Glück takes us on the journey to the end of something—the collection is filled with allusions to one-way travel, pilgrimages, and questions that haunt us in the night. We may not know where we’re going, but we get there. This is an affecting collection from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Wild Iris

N. T. Wright’s defense of the psalms as the authentic Christian songbook (The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, Harper, $22.99, 213 pp.) advocates weaving these texts into the spiritual fabric of every life. Wright explains that the psalms provide a door for entering into God’s world of time, space, and matter. Accordingly: the psalms are multilayered, and through their poetry and music, link the past to the present, calling humans to “live at the intersection of God’s space and our space,” and to stand in the temple of today as well as in the cosmic temple of the future. They celebrate the glorious physicality of creation, of matter, as Wright calls it. The personal and the pastoral come together in the final sections of the book, as Wright explains how the psalms are agents of change for those who know them and sing them in worship, a reflection of a covenant of faithfulness, God to human, human to God.

Roy M. Anker provides a series of essays on well-known films in Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Eerdmans, $27, 412 pp.), and a guide for study and reflection in Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies (Eerdmans, $18, 264 pp.). Well written and carefully conceived, both are useful helpmates to viewing films at home, in the classroom, or on retreats and in pastoral exercises. The films covered in both books are often (but not always) the same, but the treatments are different. In his essays, Anker works with the multiple ways that cinema, itself dependent on light, treats light, especially as it signifies grace and sustains revelation. Anker’s appreciation and knowledge of music is central to his essay on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993), but is also evident in many of the other essays in this collection. In Of Pilgrims and Fire, Anker moves from being a critic with a theological bent to being a teacher, carefully leading us through each of the films he discusses. Each entry concludes with post viewing comments, questions, and short synopses of work by other critics.

To read more Christmas Critics, see the whole list here.

Joe Fassler graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Brooklyn. He has written for the Boston Review, Electric Literature, and the Atlantic, where he runs the “By Heart” series. Margot E. Fassler is the Keogh-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent books are Music in the Medieval West and its accompanying Anthology (Norton).

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Published in the December 5, 2014 issue: View Contents
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