Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Ironic Christian's Companion

The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World
Patrick Henry (Riverhead Books, 1999)

"This book is about the grace of God, but not about magic, and certainly not about anything easy. It's about something simple, that God can be trusted but not taken for granted..."

Patrick Henry is a middle-aged straight white Christian religious scholar, the son and grandson of clergymen, but we ought not to hold any of that against him--he's still able to grasp the uncertainties and ironies of our walk in the world in a helpful way. He is not an elegant writer like Kathleen Norris, nor a scintillating story-teller like Annie Lamott, but he might well find a place near them on your devotional shelf.
In particular, Henry has overcome his background and training as a scholar: he has (by noticing that he needed to) recaptured the ability to experience the Bible as story, rather than as the object of hermeneutical autopsy. The Ironic Christian's Companion is full of stories, from God's challenging Moses with the faith of his father, to the early oeuvre of Dr. Seuss. Few of them are original or unique to Henry, but it matters not: this book is meant as a companion for the journey, and a commentary on some things we already knew but haven't noticed lately.
The other handicap that Henry has overcome is the temptation of certainty. "I have had to learn to listen to the God whose ways are not my ways, whose thoughts are not my thoughts", he says; (and later) "...but resistance to certainty has proved for me a solid ground of hope." Think how many of the things scholars have been certain of, that the scholars of other ages have found to be dead wrong. This is not a reason to believe nothing--there is plenty of fertile ground between a gullible (and perhaps impossible) certainty in pre-packaged truths, and the modern dogma of what-you-see-is-all-you-get.
That ground between is room for intelligent questioning, and for the kind of answers that widen the scope of the questions so that what seemed like opposing answers are dissolved in larger perspectives. Was Jesus human or divine? The answer is not one or the other; to say that He was both, utterly, enlarges the question to something like its proper magnitude as one of the central koans of Christianity.
I particularly appreciate Henry's notes on the life of the mind. If God loves the childlike, does He shun the thoughtful? Another koan. "I have at times experienced my mind as alien, as the nub of the contradiction between what I know and what I feel." But as Saint Augustine tells us, "we can truly know only what we love." It's not that knowledge is not valuable; especially by sharing it in community, we can often enlighten and encourage one another. It's just that any one seeker's knowledge is incomplete, and liable to error; and without love, it helps us not at all.
When we embody what we know in what we love, then our faith will give rise to acts of trust; love will give rise to generosity and gratitude; hope will give rise to prayer. All these things happen especially in communities of friendship, where we celebrate and share our various strengths and weaknesses, offering one another courage and a loving vision of hope.

June 2005

Friday, December 18, 2009

Slush Pile

I read quite a bit last month, but nothing that rose to the level of what I would normally commend to you. Here are some thumbnail sketches of the unsuccessful candidates.
This was fun to do, and somewhat enlightening; I think I'll make it a regular thing.

Life with Sudden Death: A tale of moral hazard and medical misadventure
Michael Downing (Counterpoint, 2009)
The two different books stuffed between these covers don’t cross-illuminate as much as one might hope, though the common chapter titles are a nice touch. The first half is a memoir of a Catholic boyhood, with bells on: Downing is the youngest of nine, and he was only three when father keeled over, dead of heart disease. His mother was a saint, of the usual difficult sort, and the memoir is a series of misadventures, amusingly told but disheartening.
In the second part, the family’s potential disposition to heart disease comes under the eye of the cardiac-industrial complex in Boston's Longwood Medical area. A genetic test leads to a defibrillator implant, which leads to a serious infection, followed by concerns about the wires that lead to the heart. Would Downing have been better off not taking the test in the first place? Maybe so: he quotes one surgeon as saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.” Ouch.

I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing
Kyria Abrahams (Touchstone, 2009)
Same song, different verse. Abrahams had a father in residence, but her mother is cut from the same religion-addled, child-abusing cloth as Downing’s. Abrahams married young to get some distance from her unhappy home life, only to come up with several other ways to be unhappy. Having been taught that attending a birthday party is as big a sin as adultery, Abrahams is not equipped for life in the World, with predictably dismal results, at least as far as the memoir runs. While I have sometimes wondered what life was like inside this particular sect and community, in the end, I didn’t really want to know.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames
David Sedaris (Back Bay Books, 2009)
This book of witty essays is rejected as review material because it fails the suitable-for-all-audiences standard, (though no doubt most of you are less touchy than I imagine.) These essays extend familiar Sedaris territory--his vices, his life in France, his dysfunctional family of origin, (which, to my relief, he makes genuinely funny.) You know if you like David Sedaris--enjoy.

Mother of God, a novel
Michael Downing (Simon and Schuster, 1990)
Downing’s second novel, Mother of God, was too hard for me, or I just didn’t like the characters. If you’re interested in his fiction, start with Breakfast with Scot, which is charming and funny.

December's email edition, 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

gods in Alabama

gods in Alabama
a novel by Joshilyn Jackson
(2005, Warner Books)

I can do no better, by way of introducing gods in Alabama, than to quote from the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: "1. Quarterbacks (Football)--Crimes against--Fiction. 2. Interracial dating--Fiction. 3. Women murderers--Fiction. 4. Chicago (Ill.)--Fiction. 5. Young women--Fiction. 6. Alabama--Fiction."

Irresistable, no? There's more. A more complete cataloging would have added a caption covering our narrator Arlene's crazy mother, and her terribly sweet cousin Clarice, and the most formidable aunt since P. G. Wodehouse handed in his dinner pail; and the mating habits of the small-town Southern teenager, a couple of decades back.

Also missing: the heading for "Culture Shock--Fiction", which Jackson introduces like this: "I didn't know a soul, having picked Chicago because it was the farthest place from Possett that had offered me a full scholarship. I really don't recommend moving from rural Alabama to a major Yankee city in one great bounding leap. It's like picking up a prairie dog and dropping him into the Pacific." The cure for homesickness, as it turns out, is an all-black Baptist (American, not Southern, but you can't have everything) church: "Every person I met and spoke with was soon relaxed and chatting with me about the weather or their children or Jesus." Arlene falls hard for the son of her first friend in the church, but she has justifiable qualms about taking him back to meet the home-folks.

There's an art to making those folks sound eccentric but not bizarre, and Jackson has hit it nicely. That art lies mainly in remembering that, to themselves, they sound downright normal--including the next-door lady with the pet chicken named Phoebe-- and letting the clashes fall where they may. It also helps to get the language right; and the food, the colors, and the smells; and Jackson does that, too.

Oh, and those women murderers, and the quarterbacks? Arlene confesses to knocking off a quarterback in the opening sentence; the tale of why, and what happened to the body, emerges over the course of the book. It's not so much a conventional mystery as a tangled tale; it took a couple of twists I didn't expect, while remaining true to the people involved.

October 2005

Walking a Literary Labyrinth

Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading
Nancy M. Malone (2003, Riverhead Books)

     Walking a labyrinth is commended as a meditative discipline because it involves a period of quiet concentration, together with enough activity to guide the concentration in meaningful ways; something about covering a longish distance in a smallish space (including changes of direction and apparent setbacks) seems to resonate with spiritual work.    
     In Walking a Literary Labyrinth, Nancy Malone says that it is much the same with reading. Whether or not we are reading explicitly religious books, we travel over ground that others have laid down for us in such a way that we spend spiritual time with ourselves, and deepen our interior conversation. By way of example, Malone cites certain favorite biographies: "each answers in its unique way the questions I am always asking when I am reading: What is it all about? I mean life, its meaning and purpose. And what do other people make of it, not only in their thinking but in their doing? What do they make of themselves, in both senses of the phrase?...Whether they are referred to God or not, these questions and the answers we give them are, finally, ultimate for each of us; they frame and guide the one life each of us has to live."
     This book itself has a labyrinthine quality: Malone gently wanders and meditates, within a discernable compass. An Ursuline nun for some fifty years, she weaves a memoir of her childhood and education, her religious and spiritual life, and her life in reading. I was interested to compare Malone's path with Karen Armstrong's, whose The Spiral Staircase also traces a life path whose outlines have only emerged with the passage of time. Armstrong left the convent as a young woman, with many of her educational and personal struggles yet ahead of her. Malone went to college before becoming a nun, which perhaps made her more resilient through great changes both in herself and in the institution--though her ignorance about the life she was entering was nearly as great as Armstrong's would be, some years later.
     Malone is a wonderful companion, especially for book talk. She recommends classics of theological and spiritual writing, but also biography, poetry, and fiction. She finds certain writers of the current age too dry and minimalist: "... I believe that language, in all its dimensions, articulates the human spirit. Language is grammatically complex because we are, our thoughts and feelings and relationships are, because life is. We don't experience ourselves, or life, simply, declaratively. We need subordinate clauses, compound-complex sentences to express the reality of who we are, to show what is more important or less important, just how one thought or feeling or situation is related to another." Her passion for clear language makes her writing a pleasure to read.
     My thanks are due to Jim Olesen, whose sense that I would treasure this book proved altogether correct. I found much to reflect on, and, in many places, felt terribly well understood: "You do what you were made to do. Some of us were made to read and write. Thanks be to God."

September 2005

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spectrum Singers November 2009

Spectrum Singers

November 2009

Just a few notes about last Saturday’s concert by the Spectrum Singers, led by John Ehrlich. It was a crowded program, with two cantatas from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the Bach Magnificat, all of which followed a couple of significant Schütz works and an old favorite, ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’ by Jan Pietersoon Sweelinck.
Surely it’s churlish to complain of too much music, when it’s as good as this; it’s like telling a woman she has too many grandchildren--which one would you cut?
I don’t pass up chances to hear the orchestra of Emmanuel Music, and these soloists, performing Bach, but we got to 9:45 pm with another whole cantata to go, and I felt a bit weary. To say nothing of the orchestra doing so much work, back to back: Bach knew what he was about when he gave the trumpets three days rest, instead of five minutes.
Of course, they carried it off magnificently, as did the soli and the entire orchestra. Michael Curry’s cello playing was lovely and lyrical, especially on Thea Lobo’s aria in Part Six, and accompanying the ‘Suscepit Israel ‘in the Magnificat. Charles Blandy’s ‘Deposuit,’ in the Magnificat, had a particularly stirring accompaniment from the entire string section. The flutes, Jacqueline DeVoe and Vanessa Holroyd, shone in the ‘Esurientes’, which Ms. Lobo also sang beautifully.
Soprano Kendra Colton was warm and clear, as always. Baritone Donald Wilkinson’s extensive Bach resume was evident in his elegant Magnificat aria, and in the Oratorio’s recitatives, particularly his turn as Herod, when he said, chillingly, that he wanted to go and ‘worship’ (‘anbete’) the child. As the Evangelist, describing the Kings, Blandy gave a later use of the same word (‘beteten’) a veritable halo.
There was much to love about all that Bach--I was just left with a feeling that the very fine choral work in the first half may have been unjustly overshadowed. The Schütz German Magnificat was particularly lovely. Ehrlich deftly managed the changes of meter and color throughout, and the chorus’s excellent diction did justice to Schütz’ sensitivity to the text.
Congratulations to all involved.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cantata Singers November 2009

The Cantata Singers, led by David Hoose, performed a marvelous program at Boston's Jordan Hall Friday night, mostly very well. The group is honoring Heinrich Schütz this season, balancing his work with that of composers who are complementary in some way; Bach, Schoenberg, and Hugo Distler got outings in this program, to good effect.

The Schütz Musicalische Exequien, in fact, suffered by contrast. The piece is a German Requiem setting, consisting of biblical (and a few other) texts strung together, as chosen by the man it was written for, Count Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss. Schutz is highly attentive to the words, as always, from the first: "Naked I came out of my mother's womb" is sung by a solo tenor. In the first movement, which is most of the piece, the biblical words of consolation are typically sung by pairs or trios of soloists, from a group of six; the full chorus joins on chorale verses interspersed throughout, which are themselves handled contrapuntally.

It's a lot to pull together, and, by the lofty standards of the Cantata Singers, they did not quite succeed. Some of the solo groupings were not ideally matched, and the whole movement lacked a sense of continuity. The final movement is a Nunc Dimittis set for five-part chorus, set against two sopranos and a baritone singing 'blessed are the dead who die in the Lord' as a heavenly response. Two heavenly trios were placed in the balcony, appropriately; but the distance made the ensemble less than perfectly secure, which perturbed the serenity the piece should inspire.

Happily, the second half of the program had all the focus the first half lacked. Distler's 'Singet dem Herrn' was characterized by verve and urgency. The dense choral texture contrasts with the transparency of the Schütz, but Distler also loves the words: with only voices, he depicts the brilliance of trumpets and trombones, and the roar of the sea.

The instrumental forces of the Cantata Singers are one of the finest Baroque ensembles around, and Bach's Cantata 8, "Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?", plays to their strengths. Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte, on oboe d'amore, wound sinuously through the pizzicato strings in the opening movement, and Jacqueline DeVoe, on the flute, lent delight to Mark Andrew Cleveland's fervent bass aria. Sonia Tengblad's soprano recitative was particularly clear and lovely.

Arnold Schoenberg's mighty 'Friede auf Erden' closed the program. Closed it twice, actually, (as Hoose traditionally does with this piece) which gave this listener a fighting chance of absorbing some of its dark, lush textures and kaleidoscopic tonality. It's the least sweet, and most evocative, "Peace on Earth" I can think of.

Kudos, by the way, to Lisa Stiller, the outgoing Executive Director of Cantata Singers, for the season's program book, which is beautifully produced and full of erudite Schütziana.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Lust

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for every mood, moment and reason.
Nancy Pearl (2003, Sasquatch Books)

Oh, brothers and sisters--what a happiness. The trouble with most books is that they end; here we have a book that just goes on and on; it's a week-long lunch with the best librarian you know. Given a book you like, or a category (Ghost Stories; Girls Growing Up; Graphic Novels; Great Dogs in Fiction; Grit Lit; Growing Writers...), Pearl offers a dozen or more examples, in synopses of from twenty to fifty words. The 'Too Good to Miss' notes, on particular writers, are a particularly happy category. And if this ever wears out--of the eleven Books about Books Pearl mentions, I've only read three!
Not exactly a page turner, because I keep getting stuck, but my neurotic fear of running out of things to read is considerably eased. Thanks to John Hildebidle for recommending this, (and its sequel(!!), More Book Lust.)

Summer Reading 2005

The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair
Jasper Fforde (2003, Penguin)
The bookseller I bought this from issued a warning that its charms were stronger for bookish types; I assured him I qualified. It's the first of three (so far, I think,) books featuring Thursday Next, who operates in an alternative-history England as an operative with the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network, known as SO-27. The routine work of the division involves copyright infringement, but also extends to frauds and forgeries; Thursday moves on to face an adversary who can change a published novel by altering the original manuscript--he commits extortion by threatening to kill off Martin Chuzzlewit. That is to say, you don't have to have read Martin Chuzzlewit, but it's much funnier if you know he's a Dickens novel.
The alternative history took a little getting used to, for me; it is complicated by the ability of some characters to travel in time, which can be philosophically paradoxical, to a dizzying degree. Not a problem, really, in such light fiction, and I think it will leave plenty of scope for new plots in the series.
The pun in Thursday's name, by the way, is only for starters--she has a boss called Braxton Hicks, and there are chapter epigraphs by Millon de Floss. And isn't The Cheshire Cat a fine name for a pub? Just picture the neon sign.

Summer Reading, 2005

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Making the Grades

Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry
Todd Farley (2009, PoliPoint Press)

I love kitchen confidentials and attempted-sports-career memoirs; all the way back to the days of Nelly Bly, some of the best narrative nonfiction stems from a writer’s adopting a way of life, or a profession, and writing about it. Todd Farley has come up with a quirky job that would never have occurred to me: for over a decade, he read and scored the essay sections of standardized tests.

It wasn’t quite intentional: it’s just what Farley did for a living while waiting to be a writer. He had moved to Iowa City, so that if he succeeded in getting into the famous Writers’ Workshop, he’d qualify for in-state tuition; and the salt mines of the test-scoring business were the best-paying temporary work going. He hung with it long enough to became a consultant and trainer, eventually spending three years at the ETS in Princeton (an obscenely high-paying job, but hardly less boring than all the others.)

Assessing students based on answers marked in bubbles A through E has always been fraught with difficulty and hidden error. The addition of essay questions to standardized tests must have been intended as a reply to critics of multiple choice tests, but it has really just created a whole new set of problems. The first of these is the sheer volume of writing that has to be read: “The project was a war of attrition, but eventually we won, each of the 100,000 essays getting scored by two different people over the course of four weeks.” That’s a room full of one hundred people, (minus those who couldn’t stand the tedium and quit) reading an essay every two minutes, and slapping down a number.

Second, those numbers have to agree with one another. “The issue ... is not whether or not you appreciate or comprehend an essay; the issue is whether or not you can formulate exactly the same opinion about it as do all the people sitting around you.” Each day’s work begins with sample responses provided to the scorers, with the intended correct scores, and a set of standards, known as the rubric, on which they are allegedly (and ‘holistically’) based. This is followed by a roomful of argument: ”How can they give that a four??” The trainer says something like this: “It’s a 4. The range-finding committee says it’s a4, so it’s a 4. Makes sense.” No, it doesn’t, but that’s how it works. (And if it doesn’t, the supervisors will find ways to nudge the numbers into shape, individual results be damned.)

Third, the scorers themselves are a tremendously variable lot. Some of Farley’s funniest scenes are character sketches of his fellows in the trenches, who are there, at best, for the same mercenary reasons he is; those with any actual prospects usually move on quickly, leaving a disturbing remnant of genuine unemployables. As Farley rises through the ranks to group supervisor and then to trainer, he meets more and more people like ‘the guy who gave all ‘two’s’, or the man who believed that the essays he was reading were a psychological test being administered to him, not to mention the people who barely speak English. The work is just so tedious and annoying that you can’t count on getting reasonably sane, smart people to do it.

Farley disclaims any real interest in education as such, so he comes fairly slowly to some of the issues raised by his work. When the ETS adds an essay section to the SAT, he’s still pretty naive: “I imagined, given the enormity and importance of that test, there had to be some cadre of teaching professionals reading the responses.” Not so fast, there, Tonto, it’s the same cast of castoffs you’ve been training and working with.

When a scale has four or five possible scores, there’s (at least) a ten to twenty per cent chance that another scorer would have picked a different number; and the chances must get even higher out at the thin end of the wedge, because if a student happens to write a brilliant and erudite response, it’s not unlikely to be over the grader’s head. If the rubric says to look for ‘kind’ in the answer, ‘benevolent’ might be in line for a zero.

Making the Grades is funny, but less so, the more you think about it. The whole testing and scoring enterprise looks more and more fraudulent, not because of some evil genius somewhere, but because the System (including, in particular, No Child Left Behind) has generated a demand for Numbers, any Numbers; the evidence is that the numbers are at least partly unmoored from meaning, even in the superficial sense. Yet they have all kinds of consequences in the real world, from school budgets to college admissions. In his epilogue, Farley recommends that we look much more skeptically at all such numbers: “My default position about any test results getting returned to students, teachers, or schools is ‘I don’t believe.’”

On the deeper level, there’s this, garnered from Derrick Z. Jackson’s* appreciation of the late Gerald Bracey, a former analyst for the National Education Association, whom Jackson quotes saying this: “What say we take a moment to consider a few of the personal qualities that standardized tests do not measure: creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, humor, reliability, enthusiasm, civic-mindedness, self-awareness, self-discipline, empathy, leadership, and compassion.’’

What are we paying for? What do we want?

Email, November 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking Back

Found on the remainder table, no less valuable for being inexpensive--

Looking Back
Russell Baker (2002, New York Review of Books)

The reading I want to do being approximately infinite, I do appreciate someone else doing some of it for me (a service I hope I pass on to you, gentle reader.) Looking Back is an unusually juicy collection of thoughts about books, which the editor of the New York Review of Books apparently seduced Russell Baker into writing: "If Robert Silvers had asked for 'reviews', none of these pieces would have been written." Baker's fifty years of journalism included three decades of a 750-word regular column for the New York Times; he was intrigued by the chance to let his thoughts roam considerably farther afield.
For instance, in the course of telling us what David Nasaw had to say about William Randolph Hearst, he also has room to tell us what Hearst said about Teddy Roosevelt (who upstaged him in Cuba); and what Orson Welles cinematically alleged about Hearst in Citizen Kane; and what Pauline Kael, in the New Yorker, had to say about that. Baker himself began his working life as one of Hearst's twelve-year-old newsboys; he has considerable first-hand perspective on Hearst's pioneering of "the intermingling of news and entertainment for the mass market, which is to say, modern media."
Baker's career covering politics and power spurs him into books on the larger-than-life figures of his Washington days: "Goldwater, Nixon, Johnson, and Robert Kennedy were even more baffling than most. Did Goldwater ever truly want to be president? What would Shakespeare have made of Lyndon Johnson--Falstaff or Lear, Richard III or Bolingbroke?" Johnson and the Kennedys also feature heavily in Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, which Baker describes as "the one indesputably monumental book discussed in this collection."
I'd tend to agree, and that's the one I may be tempted to (re)read; for the lesser lights Baker discusses, I'm likely to consider his reading sufficient, but that's the way of it, especially in this busy season--ars longa, vita brevis.
Happy New Year to those observing Advent, and Glad Yule to all. May you always be blessed with the things that matter--Music and Friends (and of course, Books.)

Email Decemeber 2006

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank; Gringos

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier
Thad Carhart (2001, Random House)

Charles Portis (copyright 1991, published 2000, The Overlook Press)

In The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Thad Carhart takes us inside a culture where all business arises out of relationships. The eponymous shop is so discreet that the owner doesn't even admit to having pianos for sale, though his younger assistant lets on that if one had the proper references, things might be different. And behold, when Carhart says the magic word and wins admission to the back room, it's a sky-lit space a good deal larger than the shop out front, with forty or fifty pianos, of many makes, models, and vintages, in various states of completeness and repair. Of course. But one must have an introduction.
And so on through choosing and buying a piano to take home, having it delivered and tuned, and finding a teacher. Carhart has memories of teachers he loved, and of his recital nightmares from another teacher's studio, and he takes us to some rather magnificent master classes. Likewise, he introduces us to the basic steel, wood, and strings that pianos have in common; and we get to see individual instruments disassembled, put back together, and played, in all their unique glory. Carhart's curiosity, love of music, and brilliantly clear descriptions make this a rare and delightful book.

Thad Carhart is leading an enviably carefree life in a foreign country; the fictional narrator of Gringos, by Charles Portis, has to hustle a little more. Jimmy Burns puts together a living hauling things to people, and helping lost people get found; he's trying to stay out of the illegal antiquities trade, though opportunities for backsliding abound. We meet him on Christmas day, waking up at home in the Yucatan. "Once again there had been no scramble among the hostesses of Merida to see who could get me for Christmas dinner." But Burns is a man of resource, if not wealth; no sooner does he climb in his truck, then a friend flags him down and invites him for a feed, and he's off--running errands, doing favors, hanging out in bars, keeping up a running commentary on the characters around him. They are some characters, too--all kinds of reasons for coming to Mexico, all kinds of ways of staying there, and they all know each other's business, even if what they know isn't true.

These are the two most interesting books I've read this month, but at first they seemed so different that I wasn't sure it made sense to review them together. Most obviously, Carhart's book is non-fiction, of a particularly contemplative and personal sort; the Portis novel is boisterous and wide-ranging, and its narrator needs his friends to help him see himself. The common theme, in the end, has to do with the American narrators accommodating to the business and social mores of a foreign culture--especially as these turn out to be inseparable. They give us a lens by which to see community as the very business of life.

Email post, January 2006

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Altar in the World

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
Barbara Brown Taylor (2009, HarperOne)

For those of us with some ambivalence about religious matters, Barbara Brown Taylor brings a welcome message, framed as a paradox: If we go to church to be nearer to God, does that mean we get farther from God when we leave? Surely not, but then, what was the point of going? Taylor is an Episcopal priest, now working mainly as a teacher and writer*. In An Altar in the World, she does not deny or refute all the good that church can do, and be; but she argues against the tendency to look for God only there. Where, in the world, is the holy to be found?
Happily, another paradox answers the first. The stories of our holy traditions point the way: “God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes and complete strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.”
In other words, if we imagine we’d like to be more spiritual, maybe we need to start by being more embodied. Maybe it’s not so much about what we believe as what we do, after all; or at least, the two are not so separable as we’ve been led to believe. “The daily practice of incarnation--of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh--is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?”
This is heartening, and, naturally, frightening as well. We don’t have to wait for Sunday to wash our neighbors’ feet, in whatever way presents itself, and share our supper with them. “Reverence for creation comes fairly easily for most people. Reverence for other people presents more of a challenge, especially if those people’s lives happen to impinge upon your own.” Seeking the holy presence in all the others in the market or on the bus sounds like an inexhaustible practice.
Another simplest-and-most-difficult practice Taylor recommends is keeping the Sabbath. Can we really slow down enough to let the Holy catch up with us? These days, it’s a challenge. It’s also, she points out, a commandment. If the thought of a whole day of rest makes you intolerably nervous, she suggests, start however you can. “You could resolve not to add anything more to your calendar without subtracting something from it. You could practice praising yourself for saying no as lavishly as you do when you say yes.”
Brown writes unapologetically from a Christian perspective, but she’s entirely sensitive to the inadequacy of language, which is so often a way of distancing ourselves from the material realities she commends to our attention. What language does a snowflake speak, or a sunrise? And she knows plenty of people who are reverent without being particularly religious: “They do not want to debate anyone. The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seem to them. Angels reach down and shut their mouths.”
Reverence, rest, work, prayer; all good things, but they come with no guarantees, no promises. If we know anything, we know that we are not in charge. We don’t control when and where God knocks, but maybe we could get a little better at opening the door when it happens.
Hallelujah, and amen.

October 2009

*See also

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Death of Adam

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought
Marilynne Robinson (1998, Houghton Mifflin)

"History has a history, which is not more reassuring nor less consequential than the figures and events it records or constructs or reconstructs, or erases. Calvin, whoever he was and is, walked in the fires of controversy and polemic for centuries, flames of a kind that generally immortalize rather than consume. Yet Calvin somehow vanished."
Marilynne Robinson wants Calvin back--the substance of him, what he wrote and thought and believed, as opposed to what has been said about him by people who may never have read him at all. In what opinions did he follow Chrysostom, and in what, Augustine? (And what, in turn, did they say, exactly?) She points out, with justice, that reading all of what Calvin read would take a vast amount of time, to say nothing of reading all of what he wrote; but reading him in the original would tend to correct our impression that Calvinism meant primarily oppression and repression; Geneva was also the home of radical forms of democracy, and of scholarship and inquiry that spread to the enlightenment of the world.

She is not under the impression that historians ever arrive at an ultimate truth: "The idea that all history is parochial should be understood to mean only that all history is defective. It must not be taken to justify the very kind of error that makes the enterprise so often futile or dangerous, and surely not to suggest that the problem can be solved or avoided, rigorous as the attempt to do so must be." No, we must keep our critical apparatus as sharp for the errors of the present as for those of the past.

These essays touch on other seldom-touched touchstones of our past; their wisdom and lucidity is daunting. Robinson is serious on serious subjects, but we feel her compulsion to wrestle with them, and her joy in doing so. She is working to reclaim sacredness as a human inheritance, and with it, she hopes, democracy, learning, and civilization itself. No small hope, but dare we hope for less?

Brief Heroes and Histories

Brief Heroes and Histories

Barbara Holland (1998, The Akadine Press)

Hurrah! for Barbara Holland, who has undertaken the program that Marilynne Robinson commended in The Death of Aadm, of looking at the actual history of things we've grown used to thinking we know all about. Notwithstanding the understanding to be gained by the study of military, political, and economic history, I'm always hungry for the old-fashioned narrative sort. That is, story-telling: why did our hero do such a thing, and what happened next? (Or the villain, or course, but remember--nobody is the villain of his own story.)
And what heroes these are, when their stories emerge. Before William Penn was master of Pennsylvania, he was a thorn in his father's side: "Early Quakers were less concerned with modesty and humility than with defiance, and Penn could defy with the best of them." Or: "If the Transcendalist philosopher Bronson Alcott had taken the slightest interest in earning a living, we would never have had Little Women." And: "Heroicly speaking, the Marquis de Lafayette was a bright spot - and even he spent more time begging for boots than he spent in battle."
Hardly less interesting are the metastories of what has happened to the stories through the ages. "The real Pocahontas story is more interesting, but we can't tell the children because it shows our earliest settlers in a dim light. Heroic princesses are strictly optional; heroic settlers are basic education." Robin Hood's story has probably been improved by moving his dates to the era of Richard the Lion-Hearted, and casting him as Errol Flynn.
Not just human heroes and heroines, but institutions come in for Holland's story-telling mastery: the Algonquin Round Table, the jury system, the British Raj have their origins and their human quirks. Holland writes with economy and elan; her ready curiosity is a sure guide to the interesting bits of history. Enjoy--

March 2006

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men
A Hat Full of Sky
Terry Pratchett (2003, 2004; Harper Collins)

I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchett's work for adults, though I'm sure he doesn't make too much of the distinction, since his Discworld series is perfectly accessible to teenagers. The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky also take place on Discworld; they are marketed as children's books because their heroine starts out as a nine-year-old girl. Tiffany Aching lives in the high chalk country, analogous to the downs of southern England. It's a good place for sheep, if not much else, and she's a dab hand with the cheesemaking. She has also decided to grow up to be a witch.
The possibility of magic is one of the main differences between Discworld and ours (the other being, of course, that our world does not rest on the backs of four elephants, which are standing on the back of a giant turtle.) What Tiffany has to learn, to become a witch, is not so much how to do magic, but when to refrain from doing it. As Tiffany's first teacher, Miss Tick (Pratchett likes his puns, the lower the better) says, "Witches don't use magic unless they really have to. It's hard work and difficult to control. We do other things. A witch pays attention to everything that's going on. A witch uses her head."
Tiffany is more than half a witch already, it seems. That's why she's the favorite human of the Nac Mac Feegle, a gang of six-inch-high blue men, very strong, with red hair and pugnacious dispositions. They are not quite evil, but definitely lawless; very fast and very strong, they'll steal anything on the farm, from a needle to a ewe, though they're especially partial to strong drink.
Pratchett has a great gift for plucking the strings of stories we already know, and making new music with them. Tiffany herself has a questioning turn of mind toward the old stories. "...the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about 'a handsome prince'...was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called him handsome? As for 'a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long'...well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light!" When she meets a monster she's heard described as having eyes as big as soup plates, she goes and measures a soup plate (eight inches). My kind of girl.
These are tales of derring-do and danger, cunning and courage. If you know any eleven-year-old girls like Tiffany, you should pass these books along. If you were one, you'll want to read them yourself.

April 2006

Monday, August 31, 2009

Here If You Need Me: A True Story

Here If You Need Me: A True Story
Kate Braestrup (Little, Brown and Company, 2007)

Having committed the minor error of reading the jacket copy, I put off reading Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me, because it sounded like it might be a little sappy. It’s the story of a courageous woman who went to seminary after her husband, a Maine State Trooper, died in a car accident. She took up his dream of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, and emerged as chaplain to the Warden Service, the law enforcement agency for the woods and waterways of Maine. I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for lyrical descriptions of the beauties of nature, or heart-rending stories of the rescue of children lost in the woods. No worries, friends. Braestrup’s book is indeed moving, (too moving to read in public,) but there’s nothing sentimental about it.
For one thing, Braestrup is too self-aware for that. Being the human at the heart of a human interest story (“The Tale of the Plucky Widow”) gives her a perspective that is both engaged and detached. She finds all the human stories interesting, but she’s learned to avoid projecting her own fear into every potential tragedy. She will witness what happens, and stand by with prayers, hugs, and Kleenex; or sometimes just small talk to make the frightening time go by.
There’s also an earthiness about her daily round. Here are the glories of Maine, from a small plane: “I like to look at Maine from this new angle and from the sky rediscover its familiar features--seacoast, church spires, winding roads, huge tracts of forest, silver lakes, trailer parks, rolling meadows.” She loves it all, the trailer parks just as much as the lakes.
She loves the forest rangers, too. Her ministerial charges (shining though their disguised identities) are accomplished outdoorsmen, and great cooks. They are funny, generous, and tender-hearted. “I tend to listen more actively to the police radio than the wardens do, because I’m nosy and like to know what everyone’s doing, and because it pleases me to hear a familiar voice and hold its owner, however briefly, in the prayers of my heart.”
How does prayer work? What can Braestrup pray for, and count on God to deliver? It’s a big question. She can’t pray for the rain to stop and the clouds to clear (“I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We don’t do weather.“) She can’t change nature, and she can’t bring everybody back alive--even if she could, it wouldn’t be forever. She’s enormously respectful of the intimacy of asking people to pray, but she’s willing to risk it. Giving an invocation at a warden’s banquet, she muses: “In a civil society that rightly separates church authority from civil authority, I must tread humbly and gently when I speak to and for God here. I hope that my prayers are not experienced as an imposition or an irritant or as simply stupid. I hope those moments feel loving to the wardens, whatever it is they believe or do not believe.”
The whole book feels loving. Braestrup doesn’t tell people how to answer the other big question, at times of tragedy: “Where is God in this?” The wardens may have religious answers to that, or they may just, angrily, have the question. Her own best answer runs all through these stories. Over and over, in myriad ways, God is in the hearts and hands of the people who show up: the neighbor on the front porch with tears in her eyes and a still-warm pan of brownies; the ranger and his dog, searching the undergrowth; Braestrup herself, standing ready to show, by her faithfulness and care, what God’s love looks like.
Thanks be to God.

Email edition, September 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Man Without a Country

A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut (2005, Seven Stories Press)

My Vonnegut-reading days seem very long ago; I read most of what I have read before I went to college, so I was interested to pick up this slim volume and see what he's thinking these days, in his own voice. He writes --as in some ways he always did-- as an old man looking back. One of his distinguishing marks is a long memory for American history: Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and Eugene V. Debs also lived in parlous times, and I am glad to be reminded of what they had to say.
I think that Debs, in particular, ought to be more widely remembered for this: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I'm of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Nearly one hundred years later, where is the politician (let alone presidental candidate) who would stand up and say such a thing? Yet Debs won more than five per cent of the votes in the 1912 election, on the Socialist ticket.
These essays are a complex mix of anger and idealism. "It so happens that idealism enough for anyone is not made of perfumed pink clouds. It is the law! It is the U.S. Constitution. But I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been." There's a chance, Vonnegut says, that he is running out of jokes, overwhelmed by the awfulness of life. "It may be that I have become rather grumpy because I've seen so many things that have offended me that I cannot deal with in terms of laughter."
But then--his humor has always been largely a matter of being willing to see things truthfully, which can be a generous and tender thing to do: his first ideas for a book about the incineration of Dresden was for the kind of book that becomes a John Wayne movie, until his friend's wife "...blew her stack. She said, 'You were nothing but babies then.' And that is true of soldiers. They are in fact babies.... They are not movie stars. And realizing that was the key, I was finally free to tell the truth." So Slaughterhouse Five bears the subtitle, "The Children's Crusade."
And he still believes in the public library and the post office, little miracles of the age. One of the tasks in this book of wrapping up a lifetime's work is answering some mail. Vonnegut makes a supremely humane response to a woman worrying about what kind of a world she was just about to bring a child into. His first thought is pessimistic--who knows what will happen? "But I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society."
Amen, and hallelujah--

By email, May 2006

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Absolutely American

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point
David Lipsky (2003, Vintage Books)

In 1998, David Lipsky's assignment from Rolling Stone magazine was to spend a few weeks at West Point, for an article about a bunch of plebes. Finding that story incomplete, he wound up sticking around for their whole four years. He had unprecedented access, at a particularly interesting time: the Army was trying to train a new kind of leader for new kinds of conflict. Hazing was Out, Respect was In.
West Point accepts a wide cross-section of highly fit candidates. They are Eagle Scouts, class presidents, and varsity athletes; some are the children of soldiers, others are accepted from the ranks of the army. The Academy subjects them to a grueling four years of study and training, under constant scrutiny and assessment. Lipsky says, "The process of character-building is designed to be exhausting, and when it's not exhausting, to be irritating."
For the results, Lipsky turns a microscope an Company G-4, home to some cadets who look the part, and others whose resistance to having their characters built takes idiosyncratic forms. Will 'Huck' Finn sleep through another class? Will George Rash break 15:54 for the two-mile run? Who will get caught with drugs, or 'sharing a piece of furniture with a cadet of the opposite sex'?
On a larger scale, Lipsky introduces us to the culture wars, West Point style. In the late nineties, the Academy's senior authorities embraced Samuel Huntington's idea that they should be turning out 'professional' military officers, who would thus command the respect and stature that society gives lawyers and doctors. But, Lipsky asks, is that enough? "In the best cases, cadets choose West Point because of hopes and dreams, the chance to feel strung to something larger than themselves--their shot at a range of emotions beyond personal consideration. The moments cadets treasure in Army movies are the unprofessional ones."
The senior year of the class of 2002 was marked, of course, by yet another critical moment in the Army's history. These officers will be serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, sooner than later, and they'll be leading America's sons and daughters into hazardous places. Absolutely American does the country a great service by putting a human face on that fact. Reading it, you'll want, more than ever, to support our troops and bring them safe home.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pig Candy

Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: a memoir
Lise Funderburg (2008, Free Press)

Pig Candy is a memoir about being the daughter of a powerful, frustrating, and beloved man in his last year of life; the story is as common as middle age, and older than King Lear. Lise Funderburg and her sisters have their work cut out for them, tending their father in his passage from being a Force of Nature to being a Frail Old Man. It’s a demanding and exhausting job, as so many of us know.
George Funderburg compounds the difficulty, and gives the story its juice, by keeping two homes, one in Philadelphia, and one on a Georgia farm. In Philadelphia, he is a geriatric cancer patient; in Monticello, Georgia, he’s king of all he surveys, handing out fishing rights, naming his ponds and meadows after favored relatives, and hosting his neighbors at all-day cookouts. It’s easy to see why he prefers Monticello, but right from the first page (“We drive from their suburban retirement community to Philadelphia International Airport, then fly to Georgia, them in business class, me in coach”) the added burden on his daughters is plain.
Funderburg adds depth to her story with some history of the place, including the vexed relations of the races. Her father is black, her mother and stepmother are white, and the past is never past in Jasper County. Although he purchased the farm only twenty years earlier, modeling the house he built there after his Philadelphia retirement place, it represents a homecoming. George grew up as the son of Monticello’s black doctor, who had some social and economic clout, but was also rightly cautious: Doc Funderburg took his bank business to the next town over, because it wouldn’t have done to let his neighbors know too much of his business.
That’s a level of independence, and control, that George Funderburg has been at pains to maintain his whole life. At the same time, because the farm has been primarily a long-distance hobby, he is deeply embroiled in a web of local relationships, with neighbors, tenants, and employees. They are a colorful cast of characters, especially to Lise’s outsider’s eyes, but she does a nice job of depicting them as local, but not yokels. They know things, like how to pickle peaches or roast pecans, that she finds she needs to know.
The whole book is a learning adventure, in fact; oncologists, nurses, and hospice workers also figure in the story of George’s decline. Bedsores and strokes loom as large as the cancer itself. The three daughters have their hands full, practically and emotionally: ”I am always saying goodbye to him now. Each phone call, each visit, each trip down south. Each procedure or complication. I am recording his voice, his quirks, trying to etch them deep into the wax of memory. And yet memory is so faulty, such a poor recording device.”
Common, and heartbreaking, as the story is, Lise Funderburg’s clarity and specificity make it beautiful. She conveys the sweet and salty flavors, not just of food but of places and relationships. She’s working out her acceptance of her father’s passing, but it does not feel self-indulgent, because she’s paying attention. She carries on the family tradition of storytelling: “Key elements include self-deprecation, suspense, and endless marveling at natural or mechanical wonders....We depict each other and ourselves as characters who frequently straddle the line between haplessness and ingenuity, both of which are substantially embellished.”
Aren’t we all such characters, straddling that line? When all we have left are photos and stories, we’ll be glad we paid attention, and we’ll be lucky if we can pay attention like this.

August 2009 email edition

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Small Wonder

Small Wonder
Barbara Kingsolver (2002, HarperCollins)

This collection of essays by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver arose out of the events of September eleventh; hers is a voice we sorely need to hear, speaking of the possibility of peace. For what has war begotten, but more war? Is there another way, besides the continued sowing of deadly dragon’s teeth? In the opening essay, Kingsolver offers this vision: “... I’m emboldened by Medea to speak up on behalf of psychological strategy. It’s not a simple-minded suggestion; her elixir of contentment is exactly as symbolic as Jason’s all-conquering sword, and the latter has by no means translated well into reality.”
Kingsolver’s topic turns out to be something more, perhaps ‘Life on the Planet in Parlous Times’, and her purview is wide. She and her husband write articles about threatened habitats around the world; these share space with disquisitions on the joys of homegrown food--and sobering facts about our fuel-based economy, in particular the distance most of our groceries travel to our tables. It’s simply not sustainable, driving our dinner to the moon and back every year.
These essays are both luminous and illuminating; Kingsolver contrives to deliver terrible news in such a way as to elicit hope, not despair. “I’m not up for a guilt trip, just an adventure in bearable lightness. I approach our efforts at simplicity as a novice approaches her order, aspiring to a lifetime of deepening understanding, discipline, serenity, and joy.”
Actually, several lifetimes--her aspirations include teaching her children some of the authentic ways of the world that most American children don’t get much chance to learn. One of my favorite essays describes the domestic joy of feeding the garden’s hornworms and pigweeds to her five-year-old daughter’s flock of chickens, to be converted into Free Breakfast.
And when Kingsolver had to tell that little girl that yes, they were still having that war in Afghanistan, she had only such small specificities to offer by way of comfort. ”...I understood that day that we are all in the same boat. It’s the same struggle for each of us, and the same path out; the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life.”
Amen, and thanks be to God.

March 2003

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Artful Edit

For the second time in seven years, an outright pan:

The Artful Edit: on the practice of editing yourself.
Susan Bell  (2007, W. W. Norton and Co.)

     I thought I had a handle on this review: I would start with the spelling mistakes,
<< "Fitzgerald gave Gatsby the tick of calling people 'old sport'...>>
<< He wrote to the order of his muse and could not bring himself to edit the few precious words he managed to eek out each week.>> (Eek!)

move on to the errors of punctuation,

Daisy is distant from the reader because she is distant period.

and word usage,
<< The umbrage of former teachers and literary stewards was vital to Caponegro's writing life. >>  (I'm guessing Bell thinks 'umbrage' means something like 'sheltering shade')
<< The Catholic Church held strict rule over art for most of that time, and a suite of prudish popes and draconian Councils turned editing largely into censorship.>> (Suite?? How about 'succession', or perhaps 'series'?)

then turn my attention to the sentences--but there are so many breathtakingly bad sentences in this book, and they are bad in so many ways. A few failed more than one test for good sense. OK, deep breath.

     Susan Bell self-edited The Artful Edit, apparently, and the results are not a good advertisement for the practice. Since Bell has been editing others professionally for twenty years, I really hoped for better. One difficulty is that an editor should know a few things the writer doesn't know, which doesn't tend to be the case when they are the same person wearing two hats. What if neither persona knows where to put a comma, or what 'begs the question' means?

     Also, the ideal editor also stands at a dispassionate distance from the writing. Sometimes a writer can achieve this by putting a manuscript away for some period of time, and returning to it with a fresh eye, (perhaps in another room, with a printout and a colored pen.) So far, so good. Bell recommends this practice, and she puts in a good word for rooting out writing that merely retraces familiar ruts: "... writers may need to edit out favorite riffs to force themselves to really write--not merely record the verbal mannerisms stored in the brain."

     But she contradicts herself a few pages later: "When you edit yourself, the same danger exists; the writer in you may be intimidated by the editor in you. If you have the slightest suspicion that you are overediting, you, writer, need to stand up against you, editor." Then what, pray tell, was the editing for? Editing, whether for oneself or another, is not meant to throttle the writer's distinctive voice, but to let that voice be heard clearly. Why would the writer-self be opposed to that? If, as Bell implies, editing makes writing dull, you're doing it wrong.

     "When I go back into my text one too many times, a voice starts to rise in my head, a haunting litany that says, 'Don't fix it if it ain't broken.'" Oh, my dear Ms. Bell, it IS broken. Don't you see how hackneyed 'a haunting litany' is? --and you have the quoted expression backwards.

     Suppressing, for the moment, the urge to line-edit the whole book and mail it back to W. W. Norton, I will content myself with noting a few more of the peculiar contradictions I happened upon.          

     "Subtle is good, obtuse is not. Your reader should not tilt his head, squint, and say 'Huh?' because the relationship of one unit to the next is unclear or absent."  True enough, but that's exactly what's wrong with these: "Each word, not simply phrase, after all, means something. Every 'it,' 'at,' and 'for'--and where it gets situated--is a choice."  "In chapter one, we will learn to step back from our words to see them for what they are, not wish they would be." "Modifiers are often overused, vague, or superfluous, or all three. They mollify a sentence instead of strengthen it." "Details may be many or few,  but best not to shovel them in wholesale." Again and again, in the attempt to trim fat, Bell cuts sinew instead.

     Here's another good suggestion that Bell cannot seem to follow: "Commit to your ideas; be certain enough to write them without wordy precautions , announcements, or apologies.... The reader, by virtue of reading, wants those ideas, and not peripheral verbiage." Surely we could have done without 'by virtue of reading'.

     "Listen for whether or not your ideas sound organized or scattershot."  One 'or' or the other, don't you think?

     Now here's an idea-- "If you've written a bird's nest, then, untangle your ideas. Separate them into a few sentences. One small sentence, written well, can tell more than an expansive one that's gangly."  Aye, but it does need to be written well. "Structure, then, is not a straitjacket for your words. It is an architecture that moves readers through and allows them to pause, not randomly, but with direction."  Pause, with direction: stop reading, and breathe four times, slowly. Now resume reading.

     "When you edit, check to see that you're using the long, curvaceous sentence to say something, not as a catchall for the numerous ideas you've been unable to tease out and trim. In works by writers such as Dave Hickey, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James, convoluted phrasing, in essays or fiction, succeed at conveying  meaning as clear as glass."  Clear as glass! "As you edit, watch out for long-winded areas, where you lose track of and even interest in the content of what may be beautifully turned sentences." 
     Speaking of "may," this one should have been a 'might' (Chekhov having died nearly forty years before Walter Murch was born): "Chekhov may have appreciated Murch's method, at once esoteric and technical..."

     Here's one, alas, that applies to me today: "We often write two, three, or four times the ideas that our piece can effectively hold."

     "Avoid overwriting or pretention. Have you succumbed to a self-conscious choice of word or syntax? Does your work, or any part of it, feel artificial, effortful, irritating?"
     I'm sorry to say that the answer to those questions is an unqualified affirmative. Don't say I didn't warn you.

January 2008

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Negotiating with the Dead

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing
Margaret Atwood (2002, Cambridge University Press)
"...what is this writing, anyway, as a human activity or as a vocation, or as a profession, or as a hack job, or perhaps even as an art, and why do so many people feel compelled to do it?"
You may, like me, have a shelf of books about writing--at the practical end, dictionaries, style books, Strunk and White; Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead belongs at the other end of the shelf, the philosophical end. These essays originated as the Empson Lectures given at the University of Cambridge, and while Atwood disclaims scholarship and literary theory, ("any such notions that have wandered into this book have got there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways of the jackdaw...") she has read widely and well. Her jackdaw borrowings are no mere charm bracelet of quotation, but are turned over and reflected on in an orderly fashion, to Atwood's own purposes.
I'm especially taken with her discussion of the doubleness of the author--we (can) become, as readers, so intimate with the voice on the page that it's something of a shock to recall the human being who shares the name of that voice. Atwood tours through 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde', 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', Jorge Luis Borges, and Primo Levi, trying to reunite the shadow with the man. Most illuminating.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Virginity or Death!

Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time
Katha Pollitt (2006, Random House)

Virginity or Death! is full of news stories from the last five or six years that I would sometimes rather not think about, because sometimes it's just too much. The title essay, for instance--can you believe that a vaccine that would protect against cervical cancer and related diseases might be made unavailable on grounds of morality? Fortunately for people like me, Katha Pollitt is on top of those stories, and is appropriately, articulately, enraged. Her starting point is old-fashioned-but-never-out-of-style feminist issues, like decent pay for child care workers, and the rising inaccessibility of abortion services.
As in the work of Molly Ivins and Barbara Ehrenreich, however, such matters turn out to be intricately connected to --in fact, the human face of-- issues of freedom, justice, and community. "Despite the onslaught of negative media, and large audiences receptive to it, and despite the real-life opprobrium that can befall a woman perceved as uppity, promiscuous, or insufficiently shaven of leg, feminism persists because it fits the actual conditions in which women live." Bad as the news often is, I am heartened to read such witty, incisive reports on those conditions.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners

Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners: master the slippery rules of modern ethics and etiquette
Robin Abrahams (2009, Times Books)

Because I enjoy Robin Abrahams’ ‘Miss Conduct’ column in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine, and follow her blogs, I looked forward eagerly to Mind over Manners, and I am happy to say it lives up to my expectations. Abrahams writes in a
brisk, witty tone, grounded in her study of both psychology (Abrahams has a Ph.D. in human development) and theater (she has done standup comedy.) I always enjoy a good evolution-based theory, especially one flavored with commentary from current psychological research, and Abrahams wields these deftly.

This is not a compendious, rule-based etiquette book, another one of which there’s not much need of; it’s a philosophical inquiry into ethics, with a practical bent. There’s very little information about which fork to use, but quite a lot about how to avoid poisoning, disgusting, or starving your dinner guests, because with all the diets and allergies these days, who knows who eats what? “Needing food rules to keep us alive, we also find that they keep us together--and keep other people out. ...And once food rules take hold, they perpetuate segregation, because it is hard to eat with people who can’t eat the same things you do, or who eat things you can’t.” And so on through “money, religion, children, sex and relationships, health, and pets,” the hit parade of anthropology, and of manners.

Her point is that tribalism is part of our ancestral toolkit. Familiar ways of eating, worshipping, speaking, and so on, are attractive to us for good reason. “From an evolutionary point of view, fear of difference isn’t a bug, it’s a feature--we evolved to be suspicious of those we don’t know, those who look or act different, because such people may have bad intent toward us or be carrying diseases to which we are not immune.” Since our modern culture is, if nothing else, diverse, our confusion and skittishness is perfectly natural.

What to do? Abrahams commends a twofold policy: know yourself, and be curious about others. Chapter after chapter gives examples of clear communication, including how to ask for what you need, and how to ask questions without trampling on people’s feelings. This advice, (offered in the context of delicately asking if a friend if they plan to have children,) goes farther still: “Whatever answer you receive, accept it. ...When someone’s deep, existential choices don’t in any way accord with how you make sense of the universe, let it go.” Good news! Curiosity can coexist with courtesy; and news about the ideas and cultures of other people will not kill you.

Here’s another piece of good news: “ the past forty years or so, for the first time in human history, the modern West has signed on to the idea that courtesy should be extended to everybody.” Amazing, indeed: poke a little into any period of ‘the good old days,’ and you’ll find a class of people you would not have wanted to belong to, for whom being treated shabbily was the ordinary course of things. Abrahams goes on, “It may not be universal yet--this kind of monumental change can’t happen overnight or even within a generation--but the mere fact that the ideal of universal courtesy is accepted and not considered fecklessly utopian or an outright wicked assault on social order is itself astonishing.” Yes, and profoundly hopeful. All in all, it’s a good time to be alive.


See also:

Friday, June 26, 2009

Leaving Church; Home by Another Way

Leaving Church: a memoir of faith
Barbara Brown Taylor (2006, HarperCollins)

Home by Another Way
Barbara Brown Taylor (1999, Cowley Publications)

     Barbara Brown Taylor had a brilliant career as an Episcopal priest; she worked for ten years in a downtown Atlanta church, and for five as rector of a small-town church in North Georgia; she built a wide reputation as a preacher, and published several books of sermons.
     But Taylor's parish ministry was the victim of its own success. At Grace-Calvary Church in Clarkesville, she presided over booming church growth. The small church building was full for three services, then four, resulting in a catastrophic increase in demands on the rector's time and energy. Though partly self-imposed, the stress was crushing: "If I spent enough time at the nursing home then I neglected to return telephone calls, and if I put enough thought into the vestry meeting then I was less likely to catch mistakes in the Sunday bulletin."
     In 1998, depressed and exhausted, Taylor left the rectorship of Grace-Calvary. She was offered a position teaching religion at Piedmont College,which turned out to be just the life raft she needed. Leaving Church describes the remaking of Taylor's priesthood on the ashes of its previous form. No more collar, robes, ecclesiastical furniture, solicitous altar guild; no more saintly displays of patience, special status in the community, eight-day weeks. No more demanding parishioners; no more central role in the sacraments of the church. 
     Instead, Taylor goes into the wild darkness outside the warm lights of the church, to find that "faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul's health....While the center may be the place where the stories of the faith are preserved, the edge is the place where the best of them happened." She recaptures the meaning and practice of the Sabbath: "Today I will take a break from trying to save the world and enjoy my blessed swath of it instead."
     Taylor is a good writer and compelling storyteller, so I picked up a volume of her sermons as well. Home by Another Way covers an ecclesiastical year shortly before her career crisis, and I was interested to see that she was able to name her own condition, if not yet ready to hear the message. In a sermon about Jesus calling the fishermen to follow him, she talks about how we try to seize control of our own salvation. "If we will just work hard enough, we tell ourselves, if we pray enough and help enough and give enough, then God will claim us in the end....It is a form of idolatry..." She adds that our own call from Jesus might take a form particular to his relationship with us, including the possibility of doing less, and setting aside some of our busyness.
     By God's grace, as I think we must say, Taylor was offered a blessed respite from her clerical adrenaline jag. Accepting a softer sense of her own vocation, she makes room for a wider sense of God's presence in the world. Her authority to pray does not, it turns out, derive from the collar and surplice, but from the humanity she shares with everybody she meets. "If some of us do not know who we are going to be tomorrow, then it is enough for us to give thanks for today while we treat each other as well as we know how."
     Amen! and Alleluia.

By way of bonus for my electronic readers--a longish Fresh Air interview with Barbara Brown Taylor. I'm not a fan of Terry Gross, but BBT has some interesting things to say, and it's pleasant to hear her. (Thanks to Katharine for the tip.)
Streaming audio from this site:

September 2006

Monday, June 22, 2009

So You Think You're Not Religious? & From Literal to Literary

So You Think You're Not Religious?: A Thinking Person's Guide to Church
James R. Adams (1989, Cowley Publications)

From Literal to Literary: the Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors
James R. Adams (2005, Rising Star Press)

     James Adams is one smart man; he is deeply acquainted with Hebrew, Greek, and centuries of religious history. He wrote So You Think You're Not Religious? as a message of evangelism to other smart people, specifically people whose honest skepticism stands in the way of a relationship with religious matters. Skeptics, in his experience as in mine, can be too scrupulous about what they might have to believe if they want to express their longing for the divine in their life. They stumble over ideas like the Resurrection of the Dead and the Virgin Birth, as though by willpower they could accept those things as True, if only they could turn off their minds. Not being able to, they deprive themselves of what the church can offer in the way of community, ritual, and a meaningful life. But maybe there's a better way--

     In the first place, Adams says we could usefully recall that when, in reciting the Nicene Creed, we say "I believe", the Latin original is not "opinor", belief as one would believe that two plus two make four, but "credo", literally, to set one's heart on. It's the kind of faith one has in a spouse, or in the Constitution, compounded of longing, hope, and commitment. Within such faith, there's plenty of room for doubt, because finding out what's true by testing it against our experience can only bring us closer to what is trustworthy.

     In the second place, the form of religion often comes before the content. We submit to rituals that seem the best way to mark transitions, and gradually live our way into the realities these things represent. Perfect congruence between word and behavior is a rarity at the best of times, and sometimes the words come first. As for faith itself, maybe we're not naturally cut out for it. Adams cites First Corinthians thus: "If faith is a gift that not everybody receives, then nobody has a reason for feeling guilty about not having faith and nobody can be blamed for not having faith."

     And, in the third place, I was happy to learn, the idea of treating the Bible as a source of literal historical and scientific truth is a very recent development, little more than a century old. The strain of Christianity we know as Fundamentalism actually arose as a reaction to critical studies of the Bible, which in the eighteenth century began to unpack the linguistic and editorial history of ancient writings. We are inevitably working from imperfect translations, of works that originated in languages and cultures very different from our own.

     In his latest book, From Literal to Literary, Adams gives us some tools for delving back into the metaphors and images of biblical language; he also keeps an eye on the interests and prejudices of the recent translators whose work we actually have in our hands. Different occurrences of a single English word may conflate a handful of different ideas from the original language; it also happens that the translators get carried away with elegant variation, so that we lose the thread carried by a single original word. The evidence is compelling: Adams cites chapter and verse, and provides ample cross-referencing, and several useful indexes.

     Erudition aside, he is also still at his work of softening our tendency to get stuck in literalizing what were meant to be metaphors. "You can be a follower of Jesus without thinking that 'heaven' is a place, that a 'son' has to be a biological relative, or that 'dead' necessarily refers to the condition you're in when the undertaker comes for you." It is a happy paradox that introducing intellectual distance of this kind can bring us closer to the good news we can set our hearts on.

Voices, November 2006

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Between, Georgia

Between, Georgia
Joshilyn Jackson (2006, Warner Books)

A year or so ago, I raved about gods in Alabama, Jackson's first book, and I loved this one too. She has a great gift for storytelling, and for characterising both people and places.
'Between' is a tiny Georgia town, so called because it is halfway between Athens and Atlanta. It's a pretty little place, with a town square full of shops and offices, the kind of place where two sixty-five-year-old ladies can nurse a cordial dislike that goes back sixty years or so. Our narrator and heroine, Nonny Frett is the adopted niece of one of these ladies, and the natural granddaughter of the other, so she knows their battleground intimately.
Eustacia Frett, the mother who claimed Nonny from the foyer floor where she was born, was herself born deaf, and became blind in middle age, as a consequence of Usher's syndrome. Her sweet but intensely neurotic sister Eugenia lives with her, serving as her eyes and ears, and the two of them make old-fashioned porcelain dolls. Their older sister Bernese lives next door with her husband and children, and manages the doll business.
The Fretts are proud tee-total Baptists; Nonny was born to the teenage daughter of their neighbor Ona Crabtree, who drinks to excess and keeps vicious dogs. "The Fretts were meticulous, order incarnate. The Crabtrees lived in unimaginable squalor. The Fretts lived within convention and tradition, while the Crabtrees spread like kudzu, generating chaos and more Crabtrees, generally without benefit of marriage."
At the time of the novel, Nonny is working as a sign language interpreter in Athens, and waffling about dissolving a ten-year marriage to the sexy, but feckless and unfaithful, Jonno. A rise in temperature between the Fretts and the Crabtrees back home in Between proves a powerful distraction, and the story takes off from there.
Jackson shows great narrative skill, telling us things through Nonny's eyes that she can't quite see herself, so that the story unfolds in a way that rewards a second reading. She also shows how Nonny manages to integrate the two sides of her heritage--a task that falls to most people at some point, but not always out of such apparently diverse material. What the two tribes have in common, in the end, is a fierce dedication to defending their own; that's how feuds go on for so long, isn't it, but it also points the way to Nonny's heart's desire.
Happy reading--

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997)

Anne Fadiman has written a deep and fascinating study of a Hmong family in America, thereby illuminating a piece of American culture as well. It's the story of Lia Lee, born in Merced, California to a family that originated in the highlands of Laos. Her epileptic seizures, starting when she was three months old, brought the family into contact with a medical community that wanted desperately to treat her illness; but while the Lees viewed the doctors as cold and threatening, the doctors viewed the family as negligent and 'non-compliant.'

The medical catastrophe that is Lia's life as recorded in her hospital charts stands in contrast to her family's love and care for her, and what they view as the spiritual crisis of her illness; neither side has any way to understand how the other sees the situation. Fadiman's art is to trace the vast gulf in world-view between the family and the doctors, so that the reader can appreciate how much everybody wanted to do the right thing for Lia, even as her condition worsened over time.

We are not left with blame or polemics, but with a glimmering of hope that--partly through books like this--hospitals and medical students are beginning to be aware than they will sometimes have patients who don't understand or believe their explanations of health and illness. The Spirit Catches You shows how rich that understanding could be.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Through the Children's Gate

Through the Children's Gate: A home in New York.
Adam Gopnik (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)

There's a natural occupational hazard to this reviewing business, viz, other reviews. The Atlantic's year-end roundup says this of Through the Children's Gate: "A collection of the longtime New Yorker writer's essays about his family's return to Manhattan after five years of living in France. If you like your provincial cosmopolitanism delivered in flawless prose, then this charming, insufferable book is for you."

As we say at my house, 'Busted.'

No, but wait, it is for you--what's insufferable about it is merely that Adam Gopnik and his family are quintessential Stroller People, the yuppie generation who discovered child-bearing after making enough money to try to do it in the City: Minivan People, but with subways and taxis. (As it turns out, that very delay in marriage and child-rearing is part of what keeps New York economically viable: the city runs on young people who are willing to spend a decade or more in the mating dance, and who can't picture trying to do it in New Jersey.) Provincial cosmopolitanism, otherwise known as a sense of place, is just part of the deal. If you spend any time in New York, you have your own mental map, which you re-draw every time you use it; Gopnik has added some pleasing new features to mine.

In some cases, Gopnik is marking the end of something that once defined New York--who goes in for Freudian analysis any more? What was the World Trade Center before it was a symbol of financial imperialism? (A place you went for petty bureaucratic chores.) What ever happened to the Jewish comic tradition? "The fly doing the backstroke in the soup was part of a kind of chicken-soup synchronized-swimming event, as ordered and regulated as an Olympic sport: Jewish New York manners were a thing anyone could imitate to indicate 'comedy.' "--including the Cambodian cashier at the local bagel store, bullying Gopnik into increasing his Sunday morning order, just the way they do it at Zabar's.

Adam and Martha are raising city children: their daughter's imaginary friend is too busy to play with her, though sometime they bump into each other, hop into a taxi, and grab some coffee, in roughly the same way that the baby on "The Simpsons" drives a car. When Olivia's fish dies, it's complicated, because "Bluie was not really a fish at all. He was, like so many New York fish and mice and turtles, a placeholder for other animals that the children would have preferred to have as pets, but which allergies and age and sheer self-preservation have kept their parents from buying." Apartment life also means noise: a herd of elephants always lives upstairs from somebody, with the inevitable complaints and defenses; having kids puts Gopnik on the side of the elephants, who have to live somewhere, after all.

Gopnik's lovely prose is complemented by his grasp of how his topics fit together. After the Twin Towers are destroyed, his seven-year-old son, Luke, takes solace in competitive chess. "Life is like chess only because in life, too, you seize on a short-term tactic, stick to it, and call it wisdom, until it stops working and you have to learn another." Luke also becomes a Yankees fan. "Someday I will tell him about twenty-six, twenty-seven Series victories, but not just now. I want him to root for something that might not always work out." Sportsmanship; children trusting adults because they have no choice; the father trying to reign in his own competitiveness about his boy's games; and the importance of tactics you can be good at, to make up for the long run which you can never control--it adds up to ten minutes of reading you can chew on for days.

These are domestic essays, not claiming any final answers, but I should let Gopnik have the last word: "Manners matter; children count out of all proportion to their size; and the poetic impulse, however small its objects, is usually saner than the polemical imperative, however passionate its certitudes."
Amen, and hallelujah.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion (2005, Alfred A. Knopf)

Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly on December 30th, 2003; their only daughter, Quintana, had gone into the emergency room on Christmas morning with a case of the flu, the beginning of a cascade of medical catastrophes resulting in months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Ten months later, Didion sat down to write "The Year of Magical Thinking", in at attempt to "make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief...."
To make sense of these things as well as Didion does here is a tour de force, especially since part of what she is describing is a disordered process in her own mind. "Of course I knew John was dead. Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible." Even after telling her daughter about John's death--three separate times, due to Quintana's own illness--even after the funeral, she can't give away his shoes, because he might come back and need them.
Quintana's illness takes Didion to Southern California, where she plans her daily routes to avoid the places she and John had frequented during the years they lived there, in an effort to exercise control over her memories. Naturally, it doesn't take more than a televised glimpse of the Malibu coastline to bring back the house where they lived when Quintana came home from the hospital. All trains of thought lead into hazardous territory; this uncontrollable quality is the insidious thing about grief.
"People in grief think a great deal about self-pity," Didion says. "We worry about it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as 'dwelling on it.' " Yet this condition that sound so shameful is the simple reality of the situation, of a loss that cannot be replaced or imagined out of existence. "There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back." The very impossibility of knowing for sure what her husband would have said about such and such a thing is proof that she didn't make him up, that he really was there across from her for forty years, and is no longer.
In due course, as the calendar no longer can say what Dunne was doing 'this time last year', Didion's life as a widow takes a new form. She has done a vivid, poetic job of capturing the transition from grief, something that happened to her, into mourning, something she did. May we all have the courage to follow that course, when the time comes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Grace (eventually)

Grace (eventually): Thoughts on faith
Anne Lamott (2007, Riverhead Books)

In this, her third (or fifth, depending on how you look at it) volume about her adventures in faith and fear, Anne Lamott reports on another few laps of her spiritual journey. Her son, Sam, is now a teenager, and she's not allowed to talk much about him, but of course she does; also about her friends and their biopsies, her addiction-ridden California town and her aging body.
I'm interested in Lamott's view of aging, as it happens to us all. She thinks that we are, at any time, all the ages we've ever been. "I'm very glad to claim the crone who is coming to life within me. I just don't want her to screech so loudly that she silences the little girl who is still around, drowns out the naughty teenager, or mutes the flirtatious middle-aged woman." It's a view that can lead to compassion, and joy. Looking at pictures of her younger selves, more beautiful than she could believe at the time, she asks, "Why did it take me so long to discover what a dish I was? ...And how crazy would you have to be, knowing this, yet still not rejoicing in your current looks?"
With her church, she visits a nursing home to sing hymns and hug people, and brings her son along; with another friend, she helps out at a dance class with the developmentally disabled. This is material not everyone could pull off without making me feel manipulated as a reader, but Lamott can, because she takes gives equal attention to the details of the situation that are awkward, sad, and funny: "One of the men was huge and reminded me of somebody behind a butcher counter: sweaty, with a moustache disorder, a big gut, a baseball cap." It turns out you can't be a helper without dancing, yourself. "Then you do a pivot turn. It's surprisingly hard. I couldn't do it right. I cheated. I just turned. My entire childhood flashed before my eye: trying and failing to learn cheerleading moves, water ballet, chemistry."
The ability to confess a thing like that is the wellspring of Lamott's humor, and of her spirituality. The bumps and boulders of her path become the material of forgiveness and acceptance, with a healthy quota of resistance: "It wasn't until her death that my mother stopped exhausting me. Then I didn't forgive her for a while. All her friends and a few relatives hassled me to let it go, to forgive. But I did it my way, slowly, badly, authentically...."
This is authentic spirituality, like a raw carrot with the dirt still on it. It makes me twitch less than the fluffy pink kind, and I'm grateful for it once again.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Barn in New England

A Barn in New England: Making a Home on Three Acres
Joseph Monninger (2001, Chronicle Books)
It's a little hard to figure out how this book got written. When did Monninger have time? It's a chronicle, more or less week by week, of the staggering amount of work that went into making a New Hampshire barn habitable by humans. I had not really considered why that is so: a barn is a deliberately porous structure, both so that the moisture exhaled by large animals won't cause it to rot, and so that hay can be stored without risk of catching fire. To make a barn a house, you have to insulate, cancelling out all that ventilation, or you'll never be able to heat the place. Monninger and his girlfriend, Wendy, also tackled the heating system itself (two giant stoves that consume wood or coal); a couple of serious problems with the foundation; a leaky roof; and three acres of gardens and meadow.
Again I say, all this before committing a word to paper? No, of course he was taking notes, and teaching his courses at a nearby college as well. Monninger gives us a full year of growth and change, rotating his attention among the barn itself, the surrounding acreage, and the family, which also includes a dog called D Dog, and Wendy's eight-year-old son, Pie. He expresses enthusiasm for this radical adventure without excessive sentimentality, repeatedly reminding us that there's always more wood to chop and split if the family is to make it through the New Hampshire winter. This labor of love is not everybody's calling in life, but it makes an admirable tale.

E-mail, August 2007

Friday, May 1, 2009

Alphabet Juice

Any Good Books, via e-mail
May, 2009

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
Roy Blount Jr. (2008, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The big dilemma about reading Roy Blount’s Alphabet Juice is whether to start at A and march all the way through to ‘Zyzzyva,’ or to succumb to the distraction of the cross-references. Blount commends the latter course: “If you read this book the way I would read it and the way I’ve written it, you will wear it out, thumbing back and forth, without ever being sure you’ve read it all.” And the very first entry, ‘a’, contains a pointer to an irresistible story about, among other things, Wilt Chamberlain and the drinking habits of the editorial staff of Sports Illustrated. On the other hand, it would be a pity to miss a drop.
Whichever course you take, you’ll soon meet some of Blount’s linguistic enthusiasms. The alphabet itself, for starters: “I don’t remember what I was like before I learned my ABC’s, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones. Where are we, at the moment? We’re in a the midst of a bunch of letters, and if you’re like me, you feel like a pig in mud.” Why yes, I am, and I do.
He likes the feel of words in his mouth, and finds meaning in it. One of the most passionate arguments in the book is this, against the academic linguists’ claim that the connection between sounds and meaning is ‘arbitrary’: “ a principle of English-language appreciation, at least, separation of sound from sense is audibly, utterly wrong....Even when words aren’t coined with sound and sense conjunctively in mind, the words that sound most like what they mean have a survival advantage.”
As you see, he knows his way around a sentence as well. “I hope this book will be useful to anyone who wants to write better, including me. I have written some of the clumsiest, most clogged-yet-vagrant, hobbledehoyish, hitch-slipping sentences ever conceived by the human mind.” But isn’t that one a beaut!
Speaking of beauts, how’s that for a subtitle?! It looks a trifle excessive, at first, but it’s actually spot-on. Here’s the entry for ‘spot-on’: “This word for ‘perfect,’ as in ‘His imitation of Huckleberry Hound if he were a pirate is spot-on,’ is widely used as I compose this book, but it does not appear in any of my print dictionaries. Books can’t keep up with the language. But where would the language be without them?”
Sweet, don’t you think, the way Blount can turn on a dime from a prodigiously silly example to a profound, and incidentally self-observant, remark. As a professional wordsmith, of course, Blount is pro-book: “Actually holding a double handful of a substance made from handy. It gets your whole hands involved. Reading from a monitor, instead of a book, is like playing videogame football instead of tossing a football around.” (I’m well aware that most of you are reading this on a monitor of some sort, and Blount is no stranger to the wired world of words. Some of the most interesting entries spring from “the invaluable if sometimes only barely literate”)
Don McConnell and Karen Mugler did a superb job of copy-editing and proofreading Alphabet Juice. I can hardly think of a bigger challenge along those lines. It’s also hard to imagine how an audio book version will work, but it would indeed be marvelous to hear Blount reading it. In any case--Enjoy!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Under a Wing

Under a Wing: a memoir
Reeve Lindbergh (1998, Dell)
I’ve always been a fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's books, and an admirer of both Lindberghs' accomplishments. Their youngest child's memoir rounds out our picture of the remarkable partnership between Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife, as fliers, writers, and parents. The five Lindbergh children who were born after their eldest brother's death were raised in a comfortable seclusion dictated by their parents' conservatism and yen for privacy, which counterbalanced their airborne daring: the family's old stone house on the Connecticut shore had a number of servants but no television, a milieu that was already old-fashioned then, and is now almost beyond imagining. Somehow I'm not surprised to find out that Charles Lindbergh bought only brass paperclips (because they're rustproof) and used only permanent ink; but I was mildly surprised to learn that after his death, Anne Morrow Lindbergh never finished another book.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness
Daniel Gilbert (2005, Vintage Books)
A successful popularization of mildly arcane research, in the vein of Freakanomics. The research in this case comes from psychology labs. Gilbert writes entertainingly about the ways our minds trick us into incorrect predictions about our future mental states, including what we'll enjoy and what we should dread. The common example is coming to the end of a meal so full you can't imagine you'll ever be hungry again--nearly everybody has had that thought, and has been wrong every time. Daniel Gilbert has the bones of several hundred studies in his end notes to support his views on why that is, but the reader can probably dispense with that and just enjoy his prose, which zips right along.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Angus Wilson (1956; reprinted 2005, New York Review Books)
If this novel is Trollope-like (Trollopian? Trollopezoid?), and I believe those who say it is (namely Jane Smiley, in her introduction to the paperback edition), I'm going to have to brush up on my Trollope. As it turns out, I like a nice page-and-a-half of dramatis personae, six of whom are dead, being gradually (and I do mean gradually: new characters are still turning up halfway through the book) whisked by Wilson into a single (if discursive) narrative. His protagonist, Gerald Middleton, is a sixty-something historian with a long-lost ex-mistress, a bizarrely whimsical estranged wife, and three rather complicated grown children. The social networks through which they move include a couple of different sets of the self-consciously cultured; the Historical Association of Medievalists; in a flashback, a land-owning family on whose estate a certain historical artifact was found; some faithful retainers and honest sons of toil; and a couple of gay or bisexual young men with a propensity for free-loading. Apparently Wilson was among the first 'respectable' novelists to include that final ingredient, but it fits perfectly well into the way everybody is related to everybody else--even Gerald, somewhat in spite of himself. High craft, a fair wit, highly recommended.