Christmas Critics

Matthew Boudway, Robert E. Proctor, Tiina Aleman, Keith C. Burris, Nick Baumann

Matthew Boudway

Two of the best books I read this year were both day-by-day accounts of long, unlikely walks. Apart from that, and their general excellence, they have little in common. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 241 pp.) has already been justly praised by many reviewers as a masterpiece. Partly on the strength of that praise and the author’s formidable reputation, the book has become a bestseller. The story’s setting, a postapocalyptic wasteland somewhere in the southern United States, may also have helped its popular appeal. In any case, this is as good as end-times novels get—and maybe as good as any kind of novel gets.

A boy and his father, both nameless, trudge through a sterile landscape of dead forests, fields of withered sedge, and burnt-out towns and cities. They are on their way to the southern coast, where they hope the weather will be better and the ocean still blue. Born just after an unspecified disaster that seems to have destroyed most life on earth, the boy hasn’t seen much natural color. He depends on his father for bits of information about the ruined world’s former beauty, as he depends on him for everything else. (We learn that the boy’s mother killed herself before the novel begins.) For his part, the man believes he has been appointed, by a god he no longer believes in, to protect his son—from hunger, from the cold, and from the few other survivors they find on the road. Most of these are thieves and some are cannibals, but even the innocent are to be avoided, since they all need food and the boy always wants to give them whatever he and his father have.

The man tries to satisfy his son’s curiosity with stories about the world as it used to be, but he rations his memories carefully, not wanting to burden the boy with too much secondhand grief or to expose remembered joys to too much consciousness: “He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.”

The Road is as sublimely bleak in tone as any of McCarthy’s earlier work; its ugly after-world of gray snow, charred bones, and sunless skies is beautifully described. But there is another note in this novel, a new suggestion—though still only a suggestion—of hope. Here stoicism, though noble and maybe necessary, no longer seems sufficient: it is enough to provide shelter but not nourishment. While the boy depends on his father for every material need, the father depends on the boy for a reason to continue; and that reason is found to be more solid, more real, than anything else we encounter in this story of phantoms. This is above all a book about innocence—innocence preserved or regained, innocence triumphant—and innocence is always a dangerous theme for a writer, since it curdles easily into mawkishness or false piety. Here McCarthy makes innocence work by convincing us that it does work, that it is active and strong, and that it survives.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (reprinted by New York Review Books, $16.95, 321 pp.) is the story of a very different kind of journey. In 1933, when Fermor was eighteen, he decided to leave London, where he had been trying to make it as a writer, and set out by foot across Europe toward Constantinople. He began at the Hook of Holland with only a rucksack and enough money for the first month. He intended to sleep only in hayricks, cheap inns, and youth hostels, and to consort only with “peasants and tramps.” In the end, he spent about as many nights in castles and mansions, the guest of aristocrats and dignitaries.

His youthful improvidence occasioned some of his most memorable encounters. After a bender at Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus, for example, Fermor returns to the city’s youth hostel to discover that his rucksack, together with his passport and diary and all his money, has been stolen by a fellow guest. He offers the British consul a report of his predicament and then a “prudently censored autobiography.” The consul has the passport replaced and asks the young traveler what he plans to do for money. He isn’t sure—maybe he can work as a day laborer in between stages of his journey as he waits for his next remittance to arrive. “Well! His Majesty’s Government will lend you a fiver,” the consul replies. “Send it back some time when you’re less broke.”

And so it goes, one brush with serendipity after another. But if Fermor was often very lucky, he could also be uncommonly resourceful. Perhaps his greatest advantage as a traveler, besides charm, was a gift for languages. Following the Rhine, he enters Westphalia with only a few crumbs of German; a few weeks later he seems to be proficient, able to trade jokes with some bargemen or discuss the finer points of ancient dueling customs with a young university student.

What distinguishes Fermor as a memoirist is also a gift for language. His prose is flexible and fluent, able to shift quickly from one subject and register to another. A story about how he and a couple of girls in Stuttgart ended up drinking his absent host’s best bottle of wine is followed immediately by several pages cataloguing the Latin, Greek, and English verse he would recite during long stretches of solitude on the road. Then it’s on to a long description of Ulm: “At the end of each high civic building a zigzag isosceles rose and dormers and flat gables lifted their gills along enormous roofs that looked as if they were tiled with the scales of pangolins.” Never mind the foreign languages and dialects he seems to absorb almost without effort, the real wonder is how the man could know so many English words, words for every detail of botany, geology, and architecture. But the virtuosity of expression is always tethered to a basic soundness of perception and judgment.

A Time of Gifts takes the reader as far as the Hungarian border. A second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, ends in the Balkans. Fermor, now ninety years old, is said to be at work on a third and final volume that will reach Constantinople. Let’s hope the series ends as well as the journey.


Matthew Boudway recently received his MA in creative writing from Boston University.


Robert E. Proctor

In doing research on the origins of the liberal arts, I’ve discovered that beauty played a large and well-recognized role. Here are some books that have deepened my understanding of this forgotten but, in my view, recoverable dimension of the liberal arts tradition.

Mathematicians and physicists have long recognized that beauty, understood as objective order and symmetry, points to truth. In his recent Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality (Yale University Press, $15, 203 pp.), physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne invokes the often-quoted remark of Paul Dirac, one of the founding figures of quantum theory, that it is more important to have mathematical beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit the experiment. “Of course,” Polkinghorne writes, “Dirac did not mean that empirical success was an irrelevance in physics—no scientist could believe that.” What he meant was that the failure of equations to fit the experiment might be traced to bad approximations or to faulty experiments themselves. “But if the equations were ugly,” Polkinghorne observes, “well, there really was no hope for them.” Dirac, he continues, “made his many great discoveries, including the existence of antimatter, by a lifelong and highly successful quest for mathematical beauty.”

The recognition of beauty as an objective constituent of reality may be a bridge between the sciences and the arts and humanities. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–88) made beauty a vital question for contemporary theology. Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Continuum, $29.95, 336 pp.) by Edward T. Oakes provides a highly readable introduction to Balthasar’s thought. Balthasar believed that ancient Greco-Roman concepts of beauty pointed toward what the Hebrew Bible calls the “glory” of the Lord. Oakes makes a formulation that I have used with great success in my teaching. A truly beautiful form, he maintains, has two characteristics: it attracts, and it is inexhaustible. Balthasar would say that in whatever medium—music, literature, painting, sculpture—a beautiful form captures the mystery and depth of being, and thus points to infinity.

The relationship between beauty and infinity is the theme of David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, $35, 554 pp.). Hart also pays tribute to Balthasar, whose work “genuinely inaugurates a new kind of theological discourse.” For Hart, Platonic metaphysics, postmodern philosophies (especially Nietzsche’s), and Christianity are all narratives. But where the Christian story persuades through the beauty of its gospel of the peace of Christ, other narratives persuade through rhetorical violence (a violence that can win over Christians themselves, Hart observes). The Christian story of Creation, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Eschaton, moreover, is the only narrative of being in which difference and particularity are not forcefully overcome in some overarching metaphysical totality, but rather are recognized as infinite variations in the gift of creation from a triune God. God is a dance of love; and for Hart, the beauty that creates infinite differences and harmonizes them peacefully is the Trinitarian “divine counterpoint” of the music of Bach, whom Hart provocatively calls “the greatest of Christian theologians.” Bach’s music, with its infinite possibilities of variation and resolution, points to the Christian “beauty of the infinite.”

And what about the beauty of human artistic creation? Eugene O’Neill’s Last Plays: Separating Art from Autobiography (University of Georgia Press, $39.95, 256 pp.) by Doris Alexander shows how O’Neill took the stuff of his life and transformed it in his dramas. Alexander has spent her career studying the creative process whereby the human mind gives birth to art—her previous books include Creating Characters with Charles Dickens and Creating Literature out of Life: The Making of Four Masterpieces—and is well equipped to explore the genesis of O’Neill’s famously autobiographical plays, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Alexander sets out to correct what she calls the prevailing “misinformation” concerning O’Neill’s life. “If there was anything O’Neill himself was clear on,” she writes, “it is that a literal following of the historical facts will never add up to a tragic revelation of the meaning of human life....No one can achieve emotional truth, much less philosophical truth, by reporting everything irrelevant or contradictory that falls within a particular set of facts. An artist of necessity selects his materials.”

For example, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene is present not only in the character representing his youthful self, but also in the personalities of the mother and father. In thinking about the emotional build or even the fundamental meaning of a scene, O’Neill freely adopted, adapted, changed, and invented events and attributes, Alexander points out, in order to develop material “better suited to the needs of his story.” The needs of his story are aesthetic. O’Neill’s plays attract through their inexhaustible portrayal of the human search for love. It is beauty—not autobiography—that gives them their truth.


Robert E. Proctor is Joanne Toor Cummings Professor of Italian at Connecticut College.



Tiina Aleman

One of the few advantages of a long daily train commute is the opportunity to read without the demands of cats, telephone calls, house cleaning, or the latest DVD delivery from Netflix. I prefer a good plump novel, and lately I’ve been enjoying novels having to do with perception—the difference between how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.

The Keep (Alfred A. Knopf, $23.95, 240 pp.), by Jennifer Egan, is a fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny novel, somewhat in the spirit of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. The story centers on strange events in a castle located in an unidentified Eastern European country. The castle’s new owner, an American named Howard, envisions turning the property into a New Age resort. The only hitch is that the previous owner, a magical crone who sometimes appears in the form of a young maiden, still inhabits the castle’s keep and refuses to leave. In a gesture of detente, Howard proceeds with renovating the rest of the castle, agreeing to leave the keep to the crone. He has enlisted a group of graduate students to help him, along with his cousin, Danny, a ne’er-do-well, nightclubbing New Yorker. Through Danny’s eyes we explore the castle and its mysteries, and learn about a childhood wrong played on Howard by Danny, which introduces guilt and repentance as driving forces in the action. Reading The Keep feels like delving into a set of Russian matryoshka dolls. Just as we get comfortable with the story at the castle, Egan transports us to a writing class at an American correctional facility, and a gritty, vivid narrative of prison life. And no sooner do we accept the interplay between castle and prison narratives than the next matryoshka doll is revealed. Which story is truly the main story? I was so intrigued that I missed my train station.

The award for this season’s most intriguing novel title goes to Old Filth (Europa Editions, $14.95, 290 pp.), by British writer Jane Gardam. “Filth” stands for “Failed In London Try Hong Kong,” an acronym the title character, Edward Feathers, coined to describe himself when, as a young lawyer long ago, he moved from London to Hong Kong. With a spare easy style, Gardam moves us deftly back and forth through time, as Old Filth, now an octogenarian widower living in retirement in the English countryside, reflects on his life. We travel through his traumatic childhood in Malaysia and England, to his years of success as a lawyer and judge in Hong Kong, then back again to his student days at Oxford, and forward to his return to England. Gardam’s style has been likened to that of Samuel Beckett, and while less abstract and severe, it is similarly oblique; the reader gets parts of the puzzle and is expected to fill in the blanks. Hints are dropped, via reminiscences, of a sinister event in Filth’s childhood, and of unspoken ghosts lurking in the shadows of his seemingly perfect marriage. All is eventually revealed, but nothing is said out loud. Such civility and tact are refreshing. And so veddy British.

Snow (Vintage, $14.95, 426 pp.) by Turkish novelist and recent Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, offers a vivid insight into the complexities of Turkey’s struggle between secular and religious life. Our hero, a poet named Ka, returns from Germany to his hometown outside Istanbul after a decade spent in exile as a suspected enemy of the state. Ostensibly, Ka returns to investigate the plight of the so-called Headscarf Girls, women who protest the secular state’s prohibition against the wearing of headscarves as demanded by the Qur’an. The Turkish government is attempting to curry favor with the West, but the women consider the headscarf an intregal devotion of their faith. When they defy the law, they are arrested and beaten; a number of them commit suicide in protest. Ka investigates the suicides—and as he does, we learn his ulterior motive for returning. His long lost love, Ipek, who had married another, is now divorced, and the poet spies a last chance for happiness. Taking up questions of love, religion, politics, and art, Snow is a densely packed book, much like the constantly falling snow that is described often and in great detail throughout. Ka uses the snow as a metaphor for God, for his own life, and for the metaphysical nature of the world around him.


Tiina Aleman is Commonweal’s production editor. Her translations of Estonian poet Doris Kareva will appear in the winter issue of Dragonfire.



Keith C. Burris

As we approach our fourth Christmas mired in the increasingly hopeless misadventure in Iraq, I am reading about war and politics—what we have done, and what we should do.

Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat (Penguin, $10.99, 272 pp.) is an apologia for that thin reed of hope known as the Democratic Party-and it’s an angry and oddly upbeat book. It will also make you laugh, sometimes out loud, a feature not available in most “how the Dems can win” books. But there is a serious point. Why don’t Democrats talk about the social contract when they run for office? Homegrown Democrat suggests that liberals ought not apologize for believing we are our brothers’ keepers. As in all of Keillor’s books, the tonic chord here is Minnesota, a place where all the old rules still apply. Don’t talk while you are chewing. Don’t interrupt when other people are talking. Don’t tell your friends what they should read. Don’t go to a party and talk only about yourself. In Minnesota, being a good neighbor is not just the point of politics, but of life itself. Keillor suggests that Democrats dig down beneath the surface of heartland community and rediscover their core beliefs.

Minnesota produced two great public men in the last century—Hubert H. Humphrey and Eugene J. McCarthy, who died just last December. When he spoke at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, McCarthy was introduced by former Senator Mark Hatfield, who held up a copy of McCarthy’s 1967 book The Limits of Power. In it, McCarthy argued that American foreign policy should be “more restrained and...more closely in keeping with the movement of history.” He urged the United States to treat international agencies with a “decent respect to the opinion of mankind”; to restrain our use of the CIA and our sale of arms abroad; and to empower the Senate to exercise its constitutional function to conduct foreign policy. It was, and is, a solid platform. When Bill Clinton eulogized McCarthy at the National Cathedral in January of this year, he remarked that every time a member of Congress asks if we have seen enough evidence to vote for war, and every time a president thinks twice before ordering the use of military power, McCarthy’s influence is felt. Isn’t this the least our leaders owe those sent to fight in war?

I am not sure that any book can fully convey what war is—maybe only film can come close. But two remarkable recent books strip away war’s veneer of glory. Jarhead, by ex-Marine Anthony Swofford (Scribner, $24, 260 pp.), recounts his demoralizing experiences in the first Persian Gulf war. Swofford is ruthlessly honest, and the psychological terrain he surveys is deeply unsettling. You have to keep putting the book down; it cannot be swallowed whole. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges (Anchor Books, $12.95, 199 pp.), is equally dark, the writing equally fine. Hedges was a veteran war correspondent for the New York Times. Like George Orwell, he believes that war is the most potent narcotic ever devised, and that mankind is addicted.

Were I teaching a course on war, I would begin with these two books, and then I would play Robert Shaw’s recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the most eloquent antiwar statement—and the most disturbing piece of music—I have ever heard. Britten inserts into the Mass the biting antiwar poetry of Wilfred Owen, a promising English poet who died in World War I. It’s not easy listening. Finally, I would take the class to see Flags of Our Fathers, the first half of Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima magnum opus (the second half, Letters from Iwo Jima, telling the story from the Japanese point of view, is scheduled to open in February). All these works of art, reportage, and confession present war without moral or theological assurances, without political certainty, and without easy justification. Did dropping the bomb on Hiroshima save the lives of even more Americans? Perhaps; but that does not nullify the evil of dropping the bomb. Evil is absolute and not divisible. Eastwood, Hedges, and Swofford are not pacifists, nor are they suggesting that heroism does not exist in war. Rather, they are insisting on the human costs of heroism—and not only for the dead, but for the living as well. Owen wrote that his subject “is War and the pity of War,” adding, “The Poetry is the Pity.”

Some weeks back, my newspaper published a photo that shook me so much, I cut it out and put it on our refrigerator at home. It was of two young men in one of the towns my paper covers. In addition to the standard teen outfit of T-shirts and baggy pants, they wore expressions of bottomless, dumb grief. They were, perhaps, nineteen or twenty years old, and they were watching a hearse bear their friend and classmate—killed in Iraq—to a local funeral home. One kid’s shirt bore a picture of himself and his dead buddy, with the words “Best Friends for Eternity.”

Robert Shaw said that Britten wrote his requiem to protest “youth massacred and innocence outraged.” War and the pity of war: the least we owe any nineteen-year-old we send to fight in a foreign land is some comprehension of it.


Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut. He is at work on a biography of Robert Shaw.



Nick Baumann

My current employers are the editors of a prominent magazine that has yet to satisfactorily recant its irrational exuberance about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I trudge to the office every morning dreading each new rationale for the war my colleagues never seem to tire of. The worst part of my predicament is that my coworkers’ daily doses of optimism about the quagmire in Iraq are always brilliant and well reasoned. Surrounded on all sides by the misguided, I was forced to retreat to the bookstore, where I scoured the shelves for some ammunition to use in the boardroom.

First, I had to do some background research. For this, I turned to How to Lose a Battle, a collection of short essays edited by Bill Fawcett (Harper, $13.95, 325 pp.). Fawcett and his contributors chart the course of military disasters from the crushing defeat of Darius of Persia at Arbela in 331 BC to the 1954 slaughter of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam.

The contributors explain how—and more importantly, why—Lee lost at Gettysburg, the Russians and Austrians were crushed at Austerlitz, and the Hessians were surprised at Trenton. The strength of the anthology is that every essay manages to be concise and fast-paced without sacrificing narrative drama. If we hope to make the right decisions about Iraq, we must understand why some battles are lost when they might have been won. Fawcett excels in offering the reader an understanding of these historical debacles.

How to Lose a Battle illuminates the full spectrum of calamity against which the Iraq war will be judged, but a layman like me needs more background. To begin to understand the modern Middle East, for example, you have to know something about Islam. In No God but God (Random House, $14.95, 310 pp.), Reza Aslan writes: to do so, it is best to start at the beginning, with a tiny, isolated cube of rock called the Kaaba and a man named Muhammad. This is a tightly woven, cleverly plotted, and impressively argued apology for Aslan’s religion. “An apology is a defense,” Aslan notes, “and there is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith.” His thesis is simple: what the Bush administration calls “Islamofascism” is a spillover from a conflict within Islam between reformers and reactionaries. While Aslan acknowledges that the September 11 attacks encouraged the spread of the belief in what Samuel Huntington has called the “clash of civilizations,” he sees in those events a catalyst for the Muslim world’s continuing reexamination of itself. In tracing the history of his faith from its beginning to the present day, Aslan concludes that reform and the spread of doctrinal relativism are inevitable and good. In its reformation, “Islam’s new false idols”—bigotry and fanaticism—will be cleansed from Aslan’s faith, just as more than a millennium ago Muhammad cleansed the Kaaba, the shrine in Mecca toward which the faithful still turn to pray.

Lawrence Wright is not nearly so optimistic. The focus of his The Looming Tower (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 469 pp.) is Al Qaeda and Islamic radicalism. This impeccably well-researched tome is as close as we are likely to come to an accurate history of Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, and the organization they founded. Wright conducted hundreds of interviews and includes hundreds of footnotes, but his book never lacks for readability. Thanks to a ceaseless string of personal stories and anecdotes, the reader finishes this book with the distinctly unpleasant sensation of actually knowing bin Laden and his cohorts. The same sort of personal accounts that make The Looming Tower so disturbing make Cobra II (Pantheon, $27.95, 603 pp.), by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, heartbreaking. Like Wright, Gordon and Trainor rely on hundreds of interviews and on extensive research—including access to thousands of pages of once-classified documents. This leads to revelation after conventional-wisdom-defying revelation about what happened during and following the Iraq invasion. Perhaps most sensational at the time of publication earlier this year was the authors’ conclusion that Saddam had lacked weapons of mass destruction for years prior to the invasion, and that he only pretended to have them to stave off rivals. The book’s narrative-driven sections, based on interviews with American soldiers, give Cobra II a poignancy and depth that go well beyond breaking news.

The crown jewel of any collection of Iraq retrospectives is Fiasco (Penguin, $27.95, 482 pp.) by Thomas Ricks. Perhaps the most interesting fact about Ricks, a military correspondent for the Washington Post, is his oft-repeated assertion that he “wants to win in Iraq.” As a consequence, his condemnation of the administration and the military is even more damning. While I disagree with the author’s conclusion that we have to stay in Iraq because every other option is worse, it was the information provided in his book about the failures at all levels of leadership that finally had me winning some arguments with my pro-war colleagues at work. Because he “wants to win,” Ricks has understood better than most why we are losing.

Perhaps the biggest lesson gained from my Iraq reading project was that I needed all of these books—the full spectrum—to begin to speak intelligently about the war. Reza Aslan’s apology for Islam, Lawrence Wright’s biography of Al Qaeda, Gordon, Trainor, and Ricks’s histories of the invasion, and Fawcett’s engaging and useful cartography of military disasters are all pieces of the same puzzle. No one author is going to be able to provide the definitive take on a subject as confusing and complicated as Iraq. If the Bush administration had only understood that reality, perhaps the authors of these books would not have needed to write them.


Nick Baumann, a former editorial assistant at Commonweal, is an intern at the Economist.

Read more: Christmas Critics from 2007, 2008, and 2009

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