The title of this blog borrows from a phrase used by the British novelist and Catholic convert, Evelyn Waugh: “There is an Easter sense in which all things are made new in the risen Christ. A tiny gleam of this is reflected in all true art.” It is a hopeful and worthwhile idea and aspiration to believe that the human creation of art is a refracting of the truth as expressed in the person of the risen Christ.

This blog serves as a place to comment on and explore literature – or any other mode of art, such as film, poetry, visual art, and the like. Although the explorations and reactions here need not be centered on religious structures or ideas, it is assumed that the foundational core of the responses is a belief in the power and truth of Catholicism. Rather than this having the effect of a narrowing of perspectives, as some may claim, this standpoint is in fact one of freedom, for freedom is found fully only in truth – while a detachment from this bedrock of veracity, even in hopes of finding objectivity, is bound to end in hollow and incomplete untruth.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Sympathizer: Viet Thanh Nguyen

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This brilliant novel is like a mash-up of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Brothers Karamazov, and Orwell’s 1984. The writing is fantastic; the plot interesting; the characters largely believable and engaging; and the “confession” conceit well done.

So why did I have a problem with it at various points, especially the end? I’m not entirely certain, but this is one take on my gut-reaction. It seems like the “heart” of the novel was ultimately didactic; it seems like the artistic trappings of the novel—the beautiful writing, complex characters, and multifaceted storyline—are all an attempt to make a rather specific ideological and historical point regarding the Vietnam War. In this sense, I felt a little cheated. Clearly Nguyen can write, but he seems to be using his art for a very didactic purpose. In the end, this made the novel feel too “complete." As Flannery O'Connor claimed and Dean Ready always reminded me, a good piece of fiction, while open to interpretation and literary criticism, ultimately resists a complete “interpretation.” This is because novels are art, not simple mouthpieces for the ideas of authors. It’s difficult for me to say of a novel that is clearly artistic that it “failed” at being art, but I think that’s what I’m saying.

Rating out of 10: 8.8

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett

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Red Harvest is one of the oldest hardboiled mystery novels, so what might read as cliché or derivative was actually original in 1929.  The novel was fun, and the writing (the sparsely worded action, the ridiculously delicious and dry metaphors, and the detective/gangster idioms) was really quite enjoyable.  But I found the constant action and revelations of new and important information unrewarding, if only because I had little time to form any connection with (and sometimes even an understanding of) the vast sea of characters.  I found the nameless detective/protagonist’s slow decent into the world of crime, and his newly acquired bloodlust, to be the only interesting psychological aspect to this story.


One final point: I just listened to a podcast that cast the hardboiled detective as a dark but morally centered character, a type of character contemporary culture doesn’t have.  But I didn’t find Red Harvest’s protagonist to have any moral center. Even the classic “loyalty” that seems to direct most hardboiled detective’s actions seemed relatively absent.  But this novel may be an exception to the rule.

Rating out of 10: 7.5

Monday, January 23, 2017

An Experiment in Criticism: C.S. Lewis

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I really quite enjoyed this long essay / short book. I particularly enjoyed Lewis’s early descriptions of the reading experience; I don’t think I’ve run across a more apt description of the pleasure of reading stories. In classic Lewis-fashion, the various distinctions he draws between the types of reading both ring true and prove enlightening. Additionally, Lewis’s approach seems a refreshing alternative to contemporary literary criticism, even if he is reacting to something quite different in his own times. (More on this below) For all the value of literary criticism (and I for one think there is some value), there’s something to be said for the more basic questions we should bring to a book: How and why does this story move us the way it moves us? If it works well, how does it work well?

Despite my absolute appreciation for much of what Lewis is doing here, I do have two criticisms. First, Lewis (unknowingly, I suppose) speaks very condescendingly toward non-literary readers. While I am tempted to agree with him on certain levels, I think my propensity is rooted in a rather subjective and prideful understanding of how much literary works are related to my own identity and how I see the world. I’d be quite hesitant to say all non-literary readers are lacking in something essential. Here is Lewis in his own words: “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” Cool up to this point. “We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend.” Possibly condescending turn. “He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world.” Ouch. Can he get more condescending? The answer is yes. “In it, we should be suffocated.”

Second, in attempting to free literature from the shackles of “evaluative criticism” and the bore of academia, I feel like Lewis actually removes some of the potential social value of literature, as it existed in the past and present. Lewis dismisses all readings that attempt to find in the literature a “philosophy of life.” Lewis essentially denies the artist the ability to be communicating something about his view of life or what it means to be a human person; or he at least says that a reader’s job isn’t about doing this, and discussing books in this way is in poor taste. I grant part of Lewis’s point: we shouldn’t take a story that is essentially a comic romp—even a comic romp done with wonderful artistry—and wring it out to find out what it’s “saying about life.” Not all, or perhaps even most, stories are attempts to demonstrate something about life or society. However, artists have historically engaged the world and society through their art, contemplating or exploring perspectives on important matters through their art—and some of the joy of reading these texts is the vicarious exploration of exactly these perspectives. I’m not speaking of didactic texts, which are rarely good art. I’m speaking of artistic forays into social issues, texts whose values are rooted both in their aesthetic qualities paired with their social values. Huck Finn, The Divine Comedy, and numerous other classic texts clearly engage the society they exist within. To tell the reader that they shouldn’t attempt to perceive the texts' social meaning (which isn’t the same as social “message,” i.e. a boiled down ideological statement) is to deny one of the great values of art, which is to engage the present culture in a meaningful way. There is a strong chance I misinterpreted Lewis’s section on this topic; and perhaps he was responding to a different sort of “reading” than I’m defending, a type of reading I don’t have immediate access to in 2017.

Lewis’s most important target for this “experiment in criticism” is the “evaluative critic,” the interpreter of texts who tells us which texts are good, which are great, and which should be avoided at all costs. Interestingly, this type of criticism doesn’t exist anymore—unfortunately this isn’t because we have taken Lewis’s challenges to heart. Whereas Lewis rejected evaluation is favor of understanding how to read and enjoy and engage meaningfully in texts, the contemporary literary world has rejected evaluation because of its claim to objectivity. We can’t judge a text because there are no objective standards. The cool bit (at least I think it’s cool) is that Lewis’s antidote—his “experiment”—would also help the contemporary literary world. Yes, we don’t proclaim texts objectively good or objectively bad anymore; but we’ve replaced this with a literary analysis that reduces all texts to ideological statements or material products of ideology. We don’t care about the beauty of the text or how it moves us; we care about it as a demonstration of market forces, or political ideology, or social naivetés, or social progressiveness. We could do well beginning with the fact that we human persons, or at least some of us, just really freakin’ like to read a good story. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami

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The majority of my experience reading this spectacular and surreal novel was exceptional. I haven’t been as thoroughly absorbed by a fictional world in a long time. Specifically, reading the first half was mesmerizing. The writing is simple, compelling, and multi-layered. The text so often naturally but unobtrusively functions on a literal and symbolic level.

Like his Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, I was less than thrilled by the way Murakami “landed” the dual narrative. It’s not that I wanted more explained; in fact, i may have wanted less. When people, narratives, and conflicts are mysteriously intertwined and the intertwining is done so well—and it’s done unbelievably well in this novel—it’s usually a let-down when the connections are explained. Additionally, the very end, while satisfying on certain levels, didn’t feel “resolution-y” enough to me.


Regardless of my criticisms, I loved this novel. I liked it more than Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which I really liked. It solidified my plan to continue reading Murakami in the near future.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reading in 2016: A Year of Books in Review

I fell quite short of my 40 book goal this year. I won't disguise my excuse: the birth of our third child, the lovely Lila Grace. Until her birth September 8, I was more or less on track; however, after September 8, I only completed one book. A little sad, I suppose. But new life is never sad.

I still read 27 books in 2016, and a number of them were fantastic and memorable. I read my first (and still my favorite) Wendell Berry novel, Jayber Crow. It was one of my favorite books of all time. Top ten, I might say---at least top 15. It was the tops of 2016, no doubt in my mind. Another Berry snuck into my Top 5 this year, A Place on Earth. Interestingly, two of the other three on my Top 5 list were by Tobias Wolff: his memoir A Boy's Life and his short story collection, A Night in Question. The last book, PD James's Children of Men, came out of nowhere for me. I was hooked immediately, and I remain entranced by the atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic world created by the British mystery writer.


Here is my Top 5, sort of in order:


Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry

A Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff
The Children of Men, PD James
A Place on Earth, Wendell Berry
A Night in Question, Tobias Wolff

Other notable/memorable books of 2016:


Wizard of Earthsea, Usula K. LeGuin

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami
Jeweler's Shop, Karol Wojtyla
The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
Pastoria, George Saunders
Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang

Interesting (or not-so-interesting) Breakdowns



female 30%
male 70%
Catholic 33%
Christian 48%
2000+ 26%
1990+ 48%
long 7%
medium 56%
short 37%
fiction 81%

literary 89%
short story 11%
drama        4%
pop 7%
scifi/fantasy 26%
memoir 7%
philosophy, etc.        4%
poetry 0%

I didn't reach too many of my other goals, although their presence did push me into areas I wouldn't have gone otherwise, e.g. I received Wendell Berry's name from the Image list.


Just as I'm cutting back on my total book count, I'm also making my goals less ambitious. Hopefully this will help me not ignore them.


Goals


1. Read at least ONE book/author from "Image's Top 25 Contemporary Writers of Faith" List, found here

2. Read at least ONE book of poetry
3. Read at least ONE classic (pre-1900)
4. Read at least ONE book strictly philosophical or theological
5. Read TWO prize winners

Happy Reading!

A Place on Earth: Wendell Berry

Stories of Your Life and Others: Ted Chiang

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Goals for Reading in 2016

My overarching reading goal for 2016 is the same as 2015: Read 40 books. I read 41 last year, so I’m beginning the year confident.

But I’d like to add a few goals to my reading life in 2016. I’d like to propose a few category/genre “requirements.” I am most drawn to fiction—and “most drawn” is an extreme understatement. 90+% of my reading is what might is labeled “literary fiction.” Therefore, I’d like to push myself, slightly, out of my comfort zone. That being said, these goals are to be important suggestions to keep in mind. In the end, only my “read 40 books” shall have strong hold on my reading habits.

Some of these categories/genres overlap, which is intentional. If you add up each “requirement” the sum would be large; but the result is not the case if you consider overlaps.

Goal #1: Read THREE prizewinners from last year. The Pulitzer for fiction (All the Light We Cannot See) and the National Book Award (Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles: Stories) seem shoe-ins for me; but what should the third award be? Maybe Nobel Prize in Literature winner; maybe PEN/Faulkner winner in literature.

Goal #2: Read TWO books from 2016. I hardly ever read books in their year of publication. Last year, the only 2015 book I read was Go Set a Watchman. Listening to my literary podcasts will give me tons of choices.

Goal #3: Read at least FIVE non-fiction books.

Goal #4: Read at least TWO books of poetry.

Goal #5: Read at least THREE spiritual books.

Goal #6: Read TWO “classics”—one must be pre-1900.

Goal #7: Read TWO science-fiction or fantasy books.

Goal #8: Read at least ONE book of strictly philosophy or theology.

Goal #9: Read ONE book of American history.

Goal #10: Read at least TWO books from my bookshelves.

P.S. Goal #11: Read FIVE books from five new authors from "Image's Top 25 Contemporary Writers of Faith" List, found here


Reading in 2015: A Year in Review

2015 was full of ups and downs. It began with great gusto and promise. I read a number of books I really loved, and after a few months I felt I already had a number of my favorites of the year. Then I hit a rough spot, and I read quite a lot of books in a row I didn't form any attachment to and didn't rate at 5 stars on Goodreads. (I'm a high rater.) Then I ended the year with some strong books. This pattern offered me difficulty when attempting to vote for my top 5 books of the year. I was left only with two definite choices, but the next level was full of choices. So there's quite a lot of books under my heading "other notables books."

My reread of Tolkien's trilogy was beyond exhilarating. This time around, the basic action---the battles, etc.---didn't interest me much, but the quiet moments were full of depth and personal meaning. In short, I think I enjoyed the book more this time than any other time.

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one of the best pieces of nonfiction I've ever read. I think it easily makes my top ten books of all time. The prose, the philosophical musings, the imagery: entrancing.

I ended the year with 41 books read, exceeding my goal by 1. More importantly, 2015 stopped my trending reading decline, going from 55 to 40 to 33. In fact, 41 puts me at more books read (in recent history, at least) than any year but my monster 2012 year. I am more than pleased with my reading habits over the past 12 months. 

Here are my top 5 books of the year. They are sort of in order:

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
My Antonia, Willa Cather
A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helpin
The Prime of Miss Brodie, Muriel Sparks

Other Notable Reads (in no particular order):
A Canticle for Lebowitz, Henry Miller Jr. 
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Outside Enderby, Anthony Burgess
Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, Daniel Taylor
Father, Brother, Keeper, Nathan Pool
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Tobias Wolff
Civilwarland in decline, George Saunders
The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O'Connor
Dirk Gently's Detective Agency, Douglas Adams

Last, here are some interesting stats on my "reading year." I broke down my 41 books by looking at 4 categories: gender of writer, length of book, genre of book, and religion of writer. The last category is a bit tenuous: I went with what I knew, and put "other" down if I didn't know. Also, for someone to classify as a Catholic or Christian writer, I need to know they were practicing and orthodox---not perfect, just actually affiliated with a religious dogma.

Gender of author: 76% male; 24% female
Length of book: 34% short; 61% medium; 5% long
Religion of author: 44% Catholic; 12% Christian; 44% other
Genre: 39% novel; 5% novella; 10% science-fiction; 7% fantasy; 22% short stories; 2% poetry; 2% young adult; 12% non-fiction

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 In Review

In 2014, I undershot my goal of reading 40 books by 7, but I'm still happy with my overall effort and production. I believe having 2 kids now cramps my reading style a bit. Moving forward, I will maintain a 40 book goal for 2015.

I read 56 books in 2012, 40 in 2013, and 33 in 2014. I hope to buck the trend in 2015. I may not get back up into the 50s, but I think I can get close to 40.

I read a number of terrific books this year: some were classics (Heart of Darkness); some are on their way to being classics (a bunch of Flannery O'Connor's); some were published this year (Lila); some were non-fiction (Pieper), which is shocking for me; some were rather obscure (Shusako Endo).

Top 5 Books I Read in 2014 (in order of when I read them)

Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Shusaku Endo's Silence
Marilynne Robinson's Lila
Joseph Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Other Notable Reads of the Year (in order of when I read them)

Ron Hansen's Nebraska
Ron Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried
Franz Kafka's The Trial

Hitler's Niece

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Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Review

I began this year with an implicit goal of reading 50 books. I came up 10 short. However, considering we had a baby and I was taking classes at Drew that didn’t require reading as much as writing, I am very pleased with 40. Moving forward, I think this will be my yearly goal. Perhaps down the road I can increase it, but life is awesome and full and 40 books a year sounds good to me.

Three of the five for this year are Catholic novels. This reflects my deliberate jump into serious Catholic fiction. (How awesome would it be if every year 3 of the 5 were Catholic novels?) In particular, I want to give a shout-out to Ron Hansen. He’s one of the best contemporary prose writers I’ve encountered, up there with Marilynne Robinson.

Here are my top five, in no particular order:

Moby-Dick: Herman Melville
Waiting for the Barbarians: JM Coetzee
Mariette in Ecstasy: Ron Hansen
Morte D'Urban: J.F. Powers
A Good Man is Hard to Find (and other stories): Flannery O'Connor

Here are notables that didn’t make my top 5.

Skellig: David Almond
Desperadoes: Ron Hansen
In Cold Blood: Truman Capote
Don Quixote: Miguel de Cervantes

2012 in Review

For the sake of preserving my own memory, I want to list my favorite books from the previous year. Perhaps the year in between gives me a more honest assessment. Perhaps not. But here are my top five, in no particular order:

Gilead: Marilynne Robinson
Suttree: Cormac McCarthy
Out Stealing Horses: Per Petterson
A Confederacy of Dunces: John Kennedy Toole
A Handful of Dust: Evelyn Waugh

And here are two notable mentions that didn’t make the list:

How Fiction Works: James Wood
Chronicle of a Death Foretold: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gilead: Marilynne Robinson

This is all I'll say for now: This book is the best novel I have read in years, and I think it safe to say it is on my "top 10 novels" list---perhaps "top 5." Read it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Short Story Selections from Flannery O’Connor: There is Little Easy Comfort Here

“The Geranium,” “The Displaced Person,” and “Judgment Day”

I’m fond of saying I love Flannery O’Connor; I am also considering using some of her work in my dissertation. However, I must admit that I haven’t read enough. What I have read has been terrific: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is still one of my favorite short stories.

What I was reminded of as I read these three O’Connor stories yesterday was the intricate craftsmanship in an O’Connor story. I think it was Hemingway who said something to the extent of, “In a good story, 90% isn’t stated.” Well, if this is the real judge of good short story writing, then Flannery O’Connor is one of the best. Almost every one of her lines says more than it says – or, perhaps, they all do more than they simply say.

If you’ve never read her before, be prepared to meet spiteful, hypocritical characters that are hard to like; be prepared to be shocked by the bursts of violence. Don’t expect to be coddled; don't expect to find stories with trite, happy endings. Don’t expect to be comforted – well, at least not in the normal sense. In worlds of egotistical and myopic characters, worlds of bitter labor and little reward, the hand and grace of God (mind you, not in any overt or saintly way) is at work – and this should be comforting.