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.

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


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.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox: GK Chesterton: The Genius Rambling of Gilbert Keith

It must stated off the bat that there is not too much biography in this biography. Some of this is the fact that we don't know a whole lot about St. Thomas; some a result of Chesterton’s rambling structure, using points about St. Thomas as springboards to criticize of Chesterton's contemporary thinkers or personal ideas he saw as important – but they are wonderful ramblings: full of life and wit and lightheartedness and seriousness: in a word, a vibrant orthodoxy.

You get a flavor of Thomas’ philosophy from the book, but the taste, while succinct, is also thorough. In explaining some of the foundation of Aquinas’ philosophy, Chesterton states:

“To this question, ‘Is there anything?’ St. Thomas begins by answering, ‘Yes’; if he began by answering, ‘No’, it would not be the beginning, but the end. That is what some of us call common sense. Either there is no philosophy, no philosophers, no thinkers, no thought, no anything; or else there is a real bridge between the mind and reality.”

Particularly interesting to me was a view into Aquinas’ use of Aristotle to combat narrow Augustinian pessimism or Manichaeism: the idea that the natural world is corrupt and evil, and only the spiritual is positively good. Using Aristotle’s anti-dualism (the soul is not separate from the body as in Plato, but instead the soul is the form of the body), St. Thomas reaffirms the ancient Catholic truth that all creation is good. The physical and natural is real and holy and dignified, even if affected by the Fall: “Any extreme of Catholic asceticism is a wise, or unwise, precaution against the evil of the Fall; it is never a doubt about the good of the Creation.”

I fully recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Aquinas or philosophy, or Catholic thought. For me, more than inspiring me to go back and relook at Aquinas (which I should do) this book have reminded me to get back into the books and ideas and words of the genius of Gilbert Keith.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Giver, Lois Lowry: Simple Artistry

What a terrific, terrific little book! I was hooked right away, and the novel sustained my attention to the end. I read this on the heels of Collins’ Hunger Games, and wow, what a distinct difference. While there’s little artistry in the former, Lowry’s novel is delightfully artistic.

Here’s one simple example of narration. (Narration sets the tone and foundation for everything else: plot, character, conflict, etc. How something is told is often as important, or perhaps intrinsically connected to, what is being told.)

Hunger Games is written in first-person. Our protagonist is a spunky, inventive, selfless, and confused girl of about fifteen: Katniss. Since she is narrating the novel, we learn about everything from her. However, she is so intensely obtuse at times; for example, it is abundantly clear to the reader that the other boy character, Peeta, “likes” her in a romantic sort of way. We need only hear one story about their past and we know it. However, Katniss doesn't see this through the entire novel, and in fact, she still is a bit confused by the end.

Now, it’s OK for a reader to “catch” more in first-person narratives than the narrators themselves – up to a point. It must be subtle and complex. Hunger Games is neither. The effect is that Suzanne Collins, the author of the novel, becomes so increasingly clear: something you don’t want in fiction. It’s so obvious Collins wants us to recognize Peeta’s interest, even if Katniss doesn’t. And besides this unfortunate intrusion of Collins into the narrative, the situation also doesn't make sense, since we need to assume that Katniss is incredibly dumb to not see what we see; however, we know what one thing she isn't is dumb.

Comparatively, the narration in The Giver is so gifted and well done, despite the fact that the intended audience is younger than Collin’s. Lowry uses a third-person, semi-omniscient narrator. From this lens, the narrator could give us more info than our protagonist, the young and reflective Jonas, has. But there is such compelling restraint in the narration. Although Lowry uses the third-person, she uses free indirect style, and so we tend only to see from Jonas’ perspective – and we tend to only have the knowledge that he has in the moment.

For example, the narrator tries to explain an experience of Jonas’ in which he is throwing an apple around with a friend, but Jonas notices something changing about the apple. The narration is vague and confused, just like Jonas. Later, we learn that Jonas lives in a world without color, and that he has begun to see the color red: hence, the apple. It is so superbly done. I can’t even imagine the butchering involved if Collins tried to write this scene.

So while Hunger Games is in first person, it drifts so far from Katniss’ knowledge and perspective, in fits of un-believability and author-intrusion – while The Giver’s third person narration stays so much closer to the protagonist, opening the door to a more interesting revealing of the plot, not to speak of its ability to introduce irony and psychological depth.

But I drift off topic. The Giver was well-written, well-narrated, and well-constructed. It is one of the best young adults / children’s books I’ve ever read. It only took a sitting or two, so take the time and enjoy it.