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Empowered evangelicals - Rich Nathan and Ken WilsonRich and Ken do a good, thorough job of fleshing out the theological underpinnings and practical consequences of Vineyard’s self-proclaimed approach to Holy-Spirit dependent evangelicalism, challenging both traditional charismatics and traditional evangelicals to reconsider the theology behind their traditions. A good primer and a good reminder why we do what we do and why we believe what we believe. Always, the bottom line is Jesus with these guys, and that’s important– they’re so concerned not to fall into the errors of either camp. Tension, not balance.

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Come on all you ghosts - Matthew ZapruderOne of the NYT’s 100 best books of 2011. Except it’s 2010. Whatever. If I were to oversimplify I’d say most modern non-Language poetry I’ve read strikes me as either “Wide-eyed wonder at the amazingness of it all” or “Post-millennial confusion about being alive,” with a small slice of “I fucking hate everything, especially God.” Zapruder is there in the second category, again– as a simplification. This is better than most, employing an easy everyday voice to take you through not-so-everyday thought, mostly about life, some about poetry itself. Standouts include Minnesota, Paper toys, Global warming (“I have seen the new five-dollar bills / with their huge pink hypertrophied numbers / in the lower right hand corner and feel / excited and betrayed. / Which things should never change?”), and the title poem, which runs for pages and is about poetry and the interplay between the writer, the reader, and the dead. Found myself thinking what it’ll be like when (not if) I re-read this collection.

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For the relief of unbearable urges - Nathan EnglanderNine pretty amazing stories about being Judaism, being Jewish, feeling Jewish, loving and hating being a Jew. A writer comes up with his masterwork and is shot by Stalin in the space of a few minutes. A family of ultra-orthodox Jews narrowly escape the concentration camps by becoming ersatz acrobats. A schizophrenic Levite commits an unforgivable sin. An aging wigmaker steals the perfect hair. A gentile wakes up Jewish. A Jewish Santa Claus quits the mall in disgust and despair, knowing his wife will just send him back. A frustrated husband tries to circumvent the Law and receives in his body the consequences. I read it after the Millions admitted anticipating his second book of short stories, What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank. The ability to pack life and power into the short story, that’s a rare gift, and he’s got it. Plus they each do that trick of taking you in a direction you didn’t expect. And then there are the turns of phrase. Whew.

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The quest for the radical middle - Bill JacksonJackson’s history of the Vineyard movement, from John Wimber’s conversion, through Fuller seminary and “lab time,” the Kansas City Prophets, the Toronto Blessing, up to about 1998 or so. Lovingly done, and great to read about the many places the movement has been in its journey to the present day. Probably only of interest to insiders or sociologists of evangelicalism, but it filled in a lot of holes for me.

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The moon is a harsh mistress - Robert Heinlein“Weirdly ideological, but I couldn’t put it down,” I wrote on readernaut. “Actually one of his less insane novels, which is a good introduction. Still, he’s an entertaining, thought-provoking kind of crazy,” wrote Eric in response. A computer technician from the moon (an open penal colony, essentially) describes how a bunch of free-thinkers, with the help of a sentient computer, liberate their underground colony from the imperial grip of the economically oppressive Earthlings. Free thinkers as in its obvious who is Enlightened and who is not in this novel. Line marriages, p[ressure]-suits, Radical Jeffersonianism, artificial intelligence — the whole thing is like a strange Mary Jane where Heinlein just writes himself into all of his pet theories and wins the day. It was impossible to look away from for that very reason. Yet another surprise from my book club.

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Mockingjay - Suzanne CollinsMeet the new boss, same as the old boss. In which Katniss discovers that the rebel regime is in many ways as totalitarian as the nasty old regime, and in a fit of magnificent melodrama turns on her liberators with what turns out to be perfect wisdom. And then wraps up the love triangle neatly and lives happily ever after. Whoops, did I spoil it? All the good characters are either martyred tragically or succeed against all odds. All the bad characters reveal their true colors at the end, and die either miserably or gloriously, depending on whether you see this series as a probing and multidimensional political critique or a healthy slice of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too reality television masquerading as a political critique. But its miserable and glorious, for sure.

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Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy - John Le CarréThe trick is in making the stuffing so good, you overlook the skeleton of the beast. The spy-thriller-skeleton is all there — the subtle tips to “tradecraft,” “lamplighters,” “janitors,” and the lot; the parade of secondary characters being plied with drink to spill their portion of the narrative; the double- and triple-crosses — but the body of it is so good you just go along for the thrillride. Smiley is called in to ferret out a mole in British intelligence after a deep cover operation goes haywire in Czechoslovakia. I wanted not to see Gary Oldman (or Sir Alec Guinness for that matter) before I’d read this for myself. Le Carré seldom fails me.

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Reconciliation blues - Edward Gilbreath“When you’re privileged you don’t even know you’re privileged,” basically. Black evangelicals, get used to a life of checking your race at the door when you enter the world of white establishment evangelicalism. Gilbreath is kind and self-effacing about it, but that’s the gist. The issues considered in this book are right in my wheelhouse, and it was worth it to read the story of the black evangelical leader who had to suffer the white evangelical leader’s personal confession and apology for his and his race’s abuses. It doesn’t work like that, he told the teary-eyed confessor. Come over to my house and let’s grill out and get to know each other. Your absolution comes in relationship, not in ritual. There’s the takeaway, folks.

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Primal leadership - Daniel GolemanGoleman et al transfer their research in emotional intelligence to the realm of leadership, advancing the idea that leaders who create emotional resonance in their organizations through their mastery of certain emotional competencies will be better leaders than those that don’t. This task is “primal,” hence the title. It boils down to being smarter, emotionally, than the people you lead, which is sound principle but not quite so noble as the book tries to paint it. The competencies — self-control, influence, empathy, etc. — are sound. I finished it for integrity’s sake.

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Visioneering - Andy StanleyRead for our Church Planting Residency at Vineyard Columbus. A study on the book of Nehemiah, looking at what vision is and how to develop it, shepherd it, act on it and sustain it in concert with a faith in God. 13 or so building blocks for the creation and pursuit of vision; sound principles, and lots of timely grace for Zena and I as we consider what planting a church is going to look like. But it’s not rocking my world or anything.

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Catching fire - Suzanne Collins“We have to go back, Katniss. We have to go baaaaaaaaack!!!”

In which Collins contrives to send Katniss back into the hunger games, but this time as the icon of a burgeoning revolution, and we discover that District 13 lives. And of course she wins again, with a shot heard round the world, starting the revolution (hence the title, eh?).

Forgot in my notes on The Hunger Games to comment on the love triangle aspect (also completely contrived) to these books, which is prolonged here, and the outcome of which is a foregone conclusion. Teen fiction! Also, the awfulness of some of the sci-fi tropes, including the glaringly obvious and banal evolutions of vocabulary (“muttations,” “Peeta”)

I can see the appeal, and I’ll finish the series for completeness sake, and because its a rollercoaster ride, and out of a vague sense of anthropological duty to the teens of my era, but…

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The magician king - Lev GrossmanThe follow-up to The Magicians. Surely there’s a third in the works. In which Quentin is now one of the four Kings and Queens of Fillory/Narnia, and becomes disillusioned once again, and embarks on a quest to become a hero, and both succeeds and fails. Goes into the back story of Julia, the hedge-witch from The Magicians, and how she mastered magic without being admitted to Brakebills/Hogwarts. Touches on themes of myth and magic, and the capriciousness of the Gods, and how much you might have to give up in order to get what you don’t really understand.

Zena pointed out that this book will date quickly, with references to Google Street View and Harry Potter and the like. It’s probably going to need some kind of Appendix eventually.

The book suffers from some thinness in its attempts to justify Quentin’s moral awakening. He spends so much time being a self-involved jerk that I kind of don’t buy it when he briefly cops to wanting to help Julia. Suzanne says this book, and its predecessor, are both about depression. I disagree — I think if these are about depression then every modern novel is about depression. These books are about the disconnect between fantasy and satisfaction. Between desire and happiness. The fulfillment of the one does not lead to the other.

Despite its shortcomings, it sticks the landing. Count me in for The Magician in Exile or whatever the series closer is going to be titled.

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Deep church - Jim BelcherBelcher attempts to take the ecclesiology conversation beyond Modernism and Post-Modernism, beyond Evangelical and Emergent, to a Third Way (which he calls Deep Church), by defining some tenants where those two diverge, having a conversation with proponents of one and the other, and then trying to articulate an alternative to both. The definitions and conversations are valuable; the articulations are a little less so. Still, this was a worthwhile read for some background on the history of this growing division in the church, and a good stab at defining a way forward. I found particularly helpful the idea that the church needs to both make space to bring all people into Jesus’ orbit, and still help people move beyond association to true community and commitment.

What we see with Jesus is that thousands of people were invited into the community of Jesus. But once they joined the community, Jesus challenged them to not just be part of the community but to commit themselves to him… And many did. They became his disciples.

There you go. There’s a third way. Or a first way.

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The hunger games - Suzanne CollinsThe blockbuster page-turning series everyone’s talking about, soon-to-be-a-movie. I remember the reviews when this was first published, mostly centering on the bloodsport as reality-tv angle. Katniss, from a future Appalachia in a totalitarian post-nuclear society, wins (or loses, as it were) the lottery and must compete in The Hunger Games, a tool of the Capitol to keep the various districts in line by pitting their children against each other in a yearly death match. Of course, she wins, but she displays defiance that angers the government and ignites the imaginations of the country, with implications for Books 2 and 3. It moves like a bullet, but it’s pitched at billboard level. If you want to know where teens have been, psychologically, for the last 4 or 5 years, you should probably get through this series.

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The magicians - Lev GrossmanA group of college students go to Hogwarts, drink, sleep around, learn magic, graduate, and are transported (via a process strongly reminiscent of The Magician’s Nephew) directly to Narnia. Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, becomes so disillusioned by what happens to him there that he quits the scene entirely, content (sort of) to live his life turned down to about a 2 rather than up to 11. Essentially a mash note to fantasy for cynical 30 and 40 somethings who grew up on Narnia, graduated to Hogwarts, and now need some sort of new fantasy series to reflect their current era. I’ll be serving wine at my book club when we talk about it.

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A failure of nerve - Edwin H. FriedmanJeff Cannell recommended this as the best book on leadership he’s ever read; Jared Boyd thinks the same. I read it at the same time as Primal Leadership and this stands out as having stronger thinking underneath it. Friedman essentially challenges leaders to define themselves as over against the systems that will try to co-opt and oppose them — “preserve the integrity of the organism” is his call to arms, or better yet, preserve the self. A leader who cannot define and preserve his sense of self will perpetuate degenerate, regressive systems that will preserve the status quo. A leader who can preserve his self will elevate his organization by his very presence, without even having to directly impact every level of the organization. He readily admits that leaders who take his advice will seem cold, un-empathetic, and his examples of acting from his thesis certainly sound that way. But this kind of tough-love leadership has the ring of truth to it, and thinking in this way helps define whole swaths of behavior I’ve seen in organizational thinking that, by golly, perpetuate regressive systems. Really, a very helpful book in thinking about leadership and organizations.

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From this reddit thread:

When I was young my father said to me:

“Knowledge is Power….Francis Bacon”

I understood it as “Knowledge is power, France is Bacon”.

For more than a decade I wondered over the meaning of the second part and what was the surreal linkage between the two? If I said the quote to someone, “Knowledge is power, France is Bacon” they nodded knowingly. Or someone might say, “Knowledge is power” and I’d finish the quote “France is Bacon” and they wouldn’t look at me like I’d said something very odd but thoughtfully agree. I did ask a teacher what did “Knowledge is power, France is bacon” meant and got a full 10 minute explanation of the Knowledge is power bit but nothing on “France is bacon”. When I prompted further explanation by saying “France is Bacon?” in a questioning tone I just got a “yes”. at 12 I didn’t have the confidence to press it further. I just accepted it as something I’d never understand.

It wasn’t until years later I saw it written down that the penny dropped.

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The glass castle - Jeannette WallsThis memoir is inexplicably catalogued as “juvenile literature,” putting it in the ranks with J. K. Rowling and Beverly Cleary. Walls has a far more adult tale to tell, detailing her hardscrabble childhood with loving parents who also happened to be alcoholic, counter-cultural and almost pathologically irresponsible, unable to provide for her or her brother and sisters. Ending up (after many cross-country moves) as the poorest, most outcast family in a poor, outcast backwater of Appalachia, Walls and her brother eventually escape to New York City, following in the footsteps of her older sister. There she becomes a journalist and, ultimately, a memoirist. This is the memoir-writer’s memoir. Walls pulls off the fascinating trick of conveying the point-of-view and emotion inherent in her character’s chronological age, so that at the beginning of her narrative her life feels like an adventure with her wildly fun and loving parents. Only later does she come into the sophisticated awareness of her pre-teen and teen years, realizing that her parents are flawed, possibly dangerous, and that her circumstances are more “desperate” than “footloose.” I definitely see the appeal.

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Body politics - John Howard YoderChris “Englewood Review” Smith lists this as one title he regularly re-reads. Describing five practices of the life of the church with implications for the nature and efficacy of the church in the world: binding and loosing, which he contextualizes as the process of dialogue and forgiveness; communion, literally “breaking bread together”; baptism, with its inherent effect of breaking down social distinctions; “the fullness of Christ,” a reclamation of ‘charisma’ as equalizing, not elevating one member of the body over the other; and “the rule of Paul,” the uniquely New Testament way of coming to agreement in our meetings.

The believing body is the image that the new world — which in the light of the ascension and Pentecost is on the way — casts ahead of itself. The believing body of Christ is the world on the way to its renewal; the church is the part of the world that confesses the renewal to which all the world is called. The believing body is the instrument of that renewal of the world… It may be “instrument” as proclaimer, or as pilot project, or as pedestal.

It’s going on my wishlist.

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Sacred marriage - Gary ThomasMoving through aspects of marriage to tease out how they might bring us closer to God. Thomas’s writing isn’t anything special, but he does have a knack for getting right to the heart of the matter and communicating it well. He’s a little conservative; it’s not offputting. I was moved to take positive steps to bless my wife. What more could one hope for from a book like this?

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford - Ron HansenExtrapolating an entire history from the chorus of “The Man Who Shot Jesse James.” Hansen’s research is meticulous, and his real achievement here is creating an emotionally astute, mythological portrait of both men — the outlaw and the coward — with prose that is almost entirely observational and objective. Just the facts, but facts with such power to describe that you feel like you’re inside these character’s minds and hearts. Not to mention the austere and difficult life detailed here, in the south and the west. The film made from this novel isn’t bad, either.

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Godric - Frederick BuechnerMy book club pick! Given that no one ever finishes any of the books in my book club, and this one is about a medieval saint and written in a crusty dialect, I thought I was a goner. But no! They loved it. Great discussion. Godric’s life is detailed in a straightforward two pages of historical abstract at the end; the preceding bulk of the book is involved in fleshing that story out, including his childhood w/ his beloved sister and mother, career as a salty sea merchant, the spirits of dead saints who guide him toward faith, his apprenticeship in the cave of a near-mad hermit, and his years at the banks of the river Wear. Written in language that approximates medieval usage and cadence without ever actually becoming inaccessible. What a delightful book. Also: Jared Boyd‘s recommendation when asked, “Favorite books?”

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The making of a leader - J. Robert ClintonFocused on how experiences in relationship with others and with God help shape our competencies in leadership. Highly recommended by my pastor, and assigned in our Church Planting Residency. Clinton identifies a number of phases in a leader’s life, from Sovereign Foundations to Inner-life Growth, Ministry/Life Maturity, and finally Convergence (when one’s ministry, gifts and passions all coincide at the end of a life of leadership). By seeing challenges in any one phase as specific “process items” in leadership development, the thoughtful leader can help advance from one stage to another. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have plowed all the way through if it weren’t required reading, but there’s something of value in there.

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Sacred rhythms - Ruth Haley BartonA manual for contemplative Christian practice and an amazingly clear essay on the need for the same. In chapter after chapter, Barton lays out the case for establishing a rhythm of spiritual practice that pushes against the character-degrading tendencies of the modern world, and then walks the reader through an example of a particular practice (Lecto Divina, centering prayer, silence, sabbath). I think it might be hard not to be moved and/or motivated by this accessible book. Simple on the other side of complexity, which is worth its weight in gold.

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We the animals - Justin TorresZena heard the author read his first chapter aloud on the radio, and her description of the experience was compelling enough to move me to buy the book and read it on vacation. A powerful debut, packing all the ferocity and force of boyhood, poverty and familial love into one tight, abusive multi-ethnic family and then blowing it to smithereens. The three titular brothers really do come across as more creaturely than human, but their creatureliness connotes their humanity (does that make sense)? Highly creative writing. All the tension in the first 3/4ths of the novel comes from the relationship between the boys and their parents. Then, suddenly, the 4th part of the novel, all the tension is between the narrator and his family. It’s a jarring, daring transition. I was unprepared for the narrator’s (semi-autobiographical) character arc, but it’s been a while since a book surprised me like this. Not for the faint of heart.

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The jungle book - Rudyard KiplingRead this very slowly over a number of months to my kids on the iPhone. Surprised to see how many of the stories that comprised my cultural childhood originate here: Rikki Tikki Tavi, Mowgli, etc. Of course, the Disney animated adaptation is very different. There’s that British colonial fascination with India and Big Game and the anthromorphization of every kind of creature, which is wildly insensitive and strangely endearing at the same time. The story that sticks with me is the White Seal, who swims the ocean to find the Manatee and discover a secret island where his brothers and sisters will be safe from Man’s yearly clubbings. What a fascinating character. Kipling, I mean.

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The Lord and his prayer - N. T. WrightTom Wright sets the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”) squarely in the middle of Kingdom Theology, as a micro-declaration of all that Jesus came to be and do. My notes indicate that I was taken with Wright’s idea that our life in Christ, as indicated in this prayer, is to be the nexus where we hold the very real and excruciating pain of the world in tension with the all-redeeming presence of the Creator. Read this as assigned for an intensive weekend on Spiritual Practice, and it’s a useful little book for thinking about what following Jesus really means.

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Atticus - Ron HansenSecond time, because I recommended a friend read it and wanted to see if I remembered it correctly. I did. Much of the work he’d done, showing without telling, in The assassination of Jesse James, pays out here in his portrait of Atticus, an aging rancher with a (very) wayward son. In a sense, Hansen is taking the other work he did there — teasing a story out of a song — and recreating it here, though this time he’s asking what the Prodigal Son parable might look like in the modern era. I looved it.

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Siddhartha - Hermann HesseA buddhist seeks Nirvana, trying and trashing a number of paths to enlightenment before settling on… something. I understand the impetus, but I was vaguely unsettled by the answer–”All I can tell you is that I can’t tell you.” It’s like Gnosticism in a black box: he know something but he can’t communicate it. That’s an enlightenment without any light. Still, I appreciate the effort, and the reading is relatively effortless.

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Love wins - Rob BellHow can you discuss it if you don’t read it. Notable for the evangelical row it has started, with John Piper calling Bell an apostate. I kept waiting for Bell to write something shocking, but it’s essentially the Gospel with some provocative questions about God’s character sprinkled in there. He never even definitively says Hell will be empty. Some controversy.

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Moneyball - Michael LewisThe unlikely story of the Oakland A’s in the early oughties and their general manager, Billy Beane, who took a team at the bottom of the payscale to the World Series by buying low and selling high — essentially overruling his talent scouts and picking up players who looked bad on traditional metrics but had some overlooked and undervalued talent that plugged in to his overall team. Sat there on my father-in-law’s bookshelf and whispered to me. Really an interesting read — Beane comes across as egomaniacal, maligned, obsessive and kind of a genius. Probably a better book for casual baseball fans; I bet the hardcore fans already have an opinion.

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The orchard - Theresa Weir(This review originally appeared in The Englewood Review of Books Print Edition, Volume 1 Number 4 ["Ordinary Time"], 2011)

To properly communicate my disappointment with The Orchard, I’m going to resort to a spoiler right off the bat: at the end, they chop it down. The entire orchard, infested by coddling moth worms, is leveled after the falling action of this memoir. There’s nothing wrong with writing about a season of failure– it’s a document of fact, it could hardly be otherwise. That it was a failure of Weir’s insufficient environmental consciousness against the madness of generations of chemical farming and agribusiness practices– and that it comprised so little of the action of this story– was deeply disappointing to this reader, like watching the careful agricultural work of generations be first infected and then destroyed.

To be fair, Weir is better known for penning paperback romances and, under the pseudonym Anne Frasier, contemporary thrillers. It’s not realistic to expect something so far afield from her usual fare, and then fault her because she delivers something more like a paperback romance/thriller than an environmentally conscious meditation on pesticides. And yet… The Orchard is marketed as a coming-of-age story crossed with a Silent Spring-like screed against farming’s capitulation to environmental degradation. “Rejected by her husband’s family as an outsider,” reads the dust jacket, “she slowly educates herself about the isolated world of farming, even as she falls more deeply in love with her husband, a man she at first hardly knew. But when the increasingly dangerous chemicals used on farms begin to take a toll on the land and the people who tend it, the couple’s fragile love will be tested…”

Maybe I’m disappointed because Weir’s story has such a whiz-bang opening hook: an urban legend, always witnessed by a relative but never firsthand, about a pesticide salesman who pitches his product as “safe enough to drink” and closes his presentation by pouring it into a glass and passing it to his young daughter, who drinks it down. Weir follows this by detailing her own early acquaintances with death, failure, dissolution, and poverty, and so we’re primed to expect both a redemption story and a kind of mystery: is there something sinister behind the chemical culture on these Midwestern farms? And how do Weir and her soon-to-be husband Adrian Curtis, so broken at the start of this memoir, grow into the kind of people who might fight against it?

It’s this implicit mystery that motivated me to slog through Weir’s and Curtis’s whirlwind courtship and wedding. Maybe ‘slog’ is too harsh a word, but the emotional drama and mystery are definitely all squarely in romance novel territory. Much of the action of The Orchard involves the difficulties that Weir, a 20-something drifter who grew up with an emotionally abusive single mother, has adapting to married life with Curtis, a 3rd generation apple farmer married to his family’s land. Curtis’s mother, too, turns out to be emotionally abusive: her dislike of Weir drives much of the conflict in The Orchard, as does her almost pathological need for control over the orchard and her son. Weir’s uncle, who looks after her, warns her against the marriage, but she goes through with it. When she realizes that Curtis is not just getting home late from work but rather eating dinner at his parent’s house rather than at home with her, she tries to run away, ending in a car accident that leaves her physically and emotionally shaken. “I don’t know why you married me,” she tells him, angry. “Maybe I care about you,” he replies, conflicted.

Doesn’t this all sound much more like a relationship novel than an agricultural memoir? I haven’t even mentioned the midnight horseback rides, the antique silk nightgowns, the ‘saltiness of him on my lips.’ Where is the chemical culture, taking it’s “toll on the land and the people who tend it?” By chemical culture, I mean the spraying of crops with carcinogenic pesticides. Weir refers to it occasionally throughout The Orchard, noting the ever-present smell, a little like garlic. These chemicals are the boogeyman in the memoir, the silent antagonist to whom Weir pins the blame for the tragedies she experiences while adapting to farm life. That modern farming is both dependent on and crippled by petroleum and pesticides is not up for debate. Weir’s superficial treatment of the topic, though, serves only as a backdrop for the star-crossed love story that’s the real core of her memoir.

Weir does have some good insight into the complexity of the farmer’s relationship to the land. Her love for Curtis is partly tied up in her admiration for his attachment to his land, and the stability it requires. “Like a chant. Like rocking. A succession of days that were never questioned. Animals to be fed and cared for. Crops to be grown… Life or death. The ground was always there… There was immeasurable comfort in knowing that this would be the rest of your life. And there was immeasurable sorrow…” (p.182) And she ultimately has something important to say about the way both consumers and farmers romanticize agricultural life in order not to see the truth about how our food is produced. “They wanted to believe that the farms of their grandparents really existed,” she writes about city dwellers who don’t “want their romantic notion of farm life shattered.” (p.183) But farmers somehow live with the cognitive dissonance of tending the land and desecrating it at the same time:

“Farmers spent their days planning a year ahead, yet at the same time there was this feeling that they all lived in the desperate moment… Once the topsoil and subsoil were gone, they used twice the fertilizer… We might have been breathing poison and eating poison and drinking poison, but so was the rest of the country.” (p.182)

Weir’s and Curtis’s eventual awakening to the dangers of the kind of farming they’re involved in is precipitated by his father’s premature death, of cancer, and their growing concern for their two children. Curtis, after years of suggestion, agrees to move off the farm and to attempt to establish an organic orchard. He’s developed a new strain of apple (called the “Sweet Melinda” in the memoir), and they both feel a parental protectiveness over it. I’ve already tipped you to how these plans end; hopefully it won’t hurt you terribly if I tell you that Curtis, too, finally succumbs to the poison he’s been spraying over his family’s orchard for decades. Weir, freed at last from her long-ago hasty decision to adopt farm life, makes a point to let us know in minute detail how she gets the last word, dressing down her evil mother-in-law in front of the astonished workers in the cider mill as she shakes the dust off her truck tires and leaves the whole mess behind, for good. “We drove away and didn’t look back.” (p.222) The anger and unforgiveness sours the emotional weight of the loss. A coda, in Minneapolis, finds her a successful novelist attending a performance of her rock-duo children. The feeling of liberation is palpable, as if the time when she’d invested in fighting for environmentally responsible farming was just a bad gothic episode in the dimly lit past. “My new friends don’t know about my past, and when I tell them I used to live on a farm, they laugh and say, ‘Yeah, right.’” (p.225) Given that it encompasses less than twenty percent of the back end of this memoir, I’d say it’s more than that: it’s an afterthought.

Gosh, I’m not against a good romance, though I don’t generally feel the need to read one. But The Orchard is a bait and switch, promising a tale of personal awakening to the need for the marriage of farming and environmental stewardship, and delivering a revenge-laced romance only slightly less toxic than the chemicals the farmers spray on their dwarf apple trees. It sells itself using tactics much like those of the legendary pesticide hawker profiled in the opening chapter — professing to an ideological purity that it doesn’t actually possess. The shame is that this other story — the one I’d hoped to read — is so patently there beneath the one Weir wrote. A little time cultivating the soil, tending the slow and steady growth, and it might have come to the surface and borne a fruit without a worm at the core.

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Cutting for stone - Abraham VergheseA book club read that I strongly considered skipping. Is it improbable that it was both impossible to put down and not really an amazing book? I tried to explain at book club what I found lacking: it had momentum and it was interesting and even well written, but it lacked any plot. There was no unity of the elements. Follows the life of two twin Indian surgeons from Ethiopia, one of whom matriculates in America but ends up returning to his birthplace at the end of the novel. That doesn’t give the scope of it, really. Of interest are the descriptions of Ethiopian life, custom, geography, food, culture. There’s a strong John Irving / Wally Lamb thing going on — the author thanks Irving in his extensive end matter. All in all, the faintest praise I can give is, if your book club picks this one, go ahead and read it.

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Ship of fool - William TrowbridgePoetry all on the theme of the Fool. Catalogue of mishaps, misunderstandings, malapropisms, the fool always hopeful but always wrong, his luck always worse than bad, God and Satan both playing him against the middle. Sometimes he goes cosmic and overwhelms the world; mostly the world overwhelms him, catches him with his pants down, boils over in rage against him. Doesn’t exactly stand out against the crowd of poetry I’ve read this past year.

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Geometry - Summer Mix Series 2011

GEOMETRY. A Summer Mix Series 2011 Mix.

Parallelograms : Linda Perhacs :: An Arc Of Doves : Harold Budd/Brian Eno :: The Lengths : The Black Keys :: Pyramid Song : Radiohead :: Um, Circles And Squares : Dosh :: Triangles And Rhombuses : Boards Of Canada :: These Points Balance : Gregor Samza :: Small Planes : The Innocence Mission :: Draw Us Lines : The Constantines :: Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise : Sufjan Stevens :: Fractal Dream Of A Thing : Stereolab :: Parallelogram : Deastro :: Perfect Circle : R.E.M. :: Of Angels And Angles : The Decemberists

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C - Tom McCarthyBook club pick. Follows the life of one Serge Carrafax, amateur wireless radio operator born in the 1800s and alive through the industrial era. His adventures take him into the RAF during the First World War and ultimately to the late-Imperial era in Alexandria and Cairo, where he contracts some sort of virus in a tomb under a pyramid and dies on a ship back to England. The entire work seems to be some sort of meta-statement about fiction and the breakdown of communication — messages meet messy ends — but as a story it has a sort of weird momentum and dark overtone. Everywhere there are words that either begin with the letter C or one of the sounds C signifies, words that seem just a little too out of sync with the sentence not to be chosen on purpose. McCarthy owes more than a debt to Pynchon: he’s probably mortgaged over his head to him. From a statement on mirages comes this thematic statement: “..tricks of the light casting a flickering pageant of agony and remorse across a dense and endless sheet of matter.” A tour-de-force, but lacking redemption, and I’m tempted to point out that the Emperor has no clothes.

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Mansfield Park - Jane AustenMy first Jane Austen, read for my book club. It was a little tedious, but I think I tipped toward enjoying it overall rather than disliking it. The revelation of the class structure, the roles and mores and habits of the landed gentry vs. the ‘working class’ (I certainly gained insight into that term!), were all real positives for me. Austen had a steady hand at maintaining the tension over whether Fanny (the less-privileged cousin brought to Mansfield Park to live with her uncle and aunts) is too scrupulous, or whether she is right to stick by her guns and refuse Henry Crawford’s advances. It all wraps up in a (too) neat little bow, but I found it rather enlightening til then.

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The help - Kathryn StockettEveryone’s buzzing about it; my sister and my boss both love it. I borrowed my boss’s copy and I’ll tell you this: it’s a page-turner. I’m of the opinion that this is a difficult book to evaluate on its own terms. The scars of slavery and the South are deep enough that no one alive today is equipped, I think, to address the subject of mutual master-servant appreciation without at the very least ambivalence from the other side. Especially not in each other’s voices. That said, the narrative is gripping and any book that implicates us in these crimes serves to wake our consciences to the deep racism still rampant in 2011, and that is valuable at *any* time. Hard not to enjoy — just… hard to evaluate.

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The Niagara river - Kay RyanThere’s no one like her. Her form doesn’t change, she just perfects it and perfects it. Short, rhymed observations– you can imagine her turning the word choices over and over and over until they’re just right. When she nails it, she nails it:


The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp–
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor’s chop.
Stride, stride
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.

I could read her all day.

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Red rover - Susan StewartStewart was recommended by a guest editor at Writes slightly oblique, language-loving poems, some in traditional forms and using traditional themes. Some really great meditations on The Garden of Eden, and a heartbreaking elegy for The Former Age. Playful in form, moving from one to another. I was hoping to read the poem referenced online, ‘Apple,’ but that must be in another volume. I’ll have to find that.

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Hannah Coulter - Wendell BerryThe life of Nathan Coulter‘s wife. When is Berry going to fail me? Not yet.

The stream and the woods don’t care if you love them. The place doesn’t care if you love it. But for your own sake you had better love it. For the sake of all else you love, you had better love it.

Hannah’s story of children growing and going to school and losing their way is food for thought, and not in any reactionary way. And her own treasures: family, life, quiet, the land well used– Berry just feeds something in your soul. Also, there was specific encouragement in here to make a house and improve it and care for it that is timely for me.

Unreservedly recommended.

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The man who was Thursday - G. K. ChestertonI’ve often been recommended to read this book, a metaphysical detective thriller in which a poet joins a secret police force dedicated to eradicating anarchy in London, and finds himself through a series of events appointed to a council of seven High Anarchists, led by the terrifying Sunday. The fantasia that concludes the book is worth the price of admission, and it’s an intriguing little narrative– easy to follow, easy to get hooked. Glad I did.

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Day for night - Frederick ReikenJohn Warner liked this story cycle better than A Visit From The Goon Squad, so. The multiple POVs, the interconnectedness are there. There’s a sense of mystery over this one, though, that’s tied into the nature of the Holocaust: the main character, Beverly, escaped Lithuania with her mother just before the Germans arrived. Many times a character speaks out of some depth you can’t penetrate and didn’t anticipate, and tells you something you almost grasp. Events of the magnitude of the Jewish Holocaust just beg to be interpreted in a larger framework, and Reiken’s story suggests the size of that framework–it’s definitely supernatural, and probably redemptive–without exactly detailing its edges. The characters in this one are also far more memorable. I want more.

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The silver nutmeg - Palmer BrownSoon to be republished by nyrb classics, which I’m sure is how it appeared on my radar. Illustrated by the author in a charming, primitive pen-and-ink style. A love-story/adventure/fantasy with a curious literal bent: Anna Lavinia is a little girl looking for a point of view who discovers a surprising upside down world accessible through pools of still water, and makes some new friends there.

You know, what’s interesting about it is that it maintains a narrative simplicity: Anna sings songs, fetches water, preserves paw-paws and onions, tends the menagerie of wild creatures that live around her house. Very little happens. But the book also hits so many interesting grace notes: a world where there is no gravity but where a wildly pleasant frisson keeps things grounded; the physics thereof and the problems it presents for donkeys on hills and footprints on wallpaper; flying acorns; gypsy babies; dew ponds; riddle poems a la ‘Alice In Wonderland; star-crossed, bowlegged lovers; an intrepid thobby (apparently, a kind of lizard). It kept our nighttime chapter readings both calm and compelling, which is exactly how a bedtime story should be.

And somehow, the story resolves into something just a little more than the sum of its parts, as Anna gains a new point of view and manages to quietly do some unexpected good. ‘I never knew about the underside before,’ she exclaims as she scratches a hedgehog’s belly, which is a good metaphor for the lessons learned here– that seeing the other side of things can broaden your horizons in the best possible ways.

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In America - Susan SontagI read this for a book club; that’s a first. An odd post-modern novel, a chronicle of historical events told in an array of voices and technical styles: monologue, 1st person, third person, letters, diaries. One section is written in the voice of the author as a ghost observer of the the historical characters. Actual historical characters appear occasionally: Henry James, Edwin Booth. A historicized Annie Leibovitz shows up, although the name and time period is changed. Concerns Maryna, a preeminent Polish actress who emigrates to America to start a commune; fails; and returns to the stage to become an American Star. It’s actually a novel of the dissolution of what makes a person distinct as she subjects herself to the leveling influence of the American dream. Finally, she abandons all love for fame and we’re given a picture of what she’ll become—her Faustian bargain—in a monologue from the loathsome Booth. She’s truly American. It’s an oddly lurching book. I agree with some of the critics, that it succeeds most when it is most historical, but it’s a hard book to love. I appreciated the insight into Poland, and into America, and some of the bits about acting resonated given my background. But ultimately, this is broad and not very deep: easy to splash around, not so easy to get lost in.

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Mariette in ecstasy - Ron HansenI’ve long planned to read this little novel about a postulate who receives the stigmata; there we were at my in-laws and I realized they had it on the shelf! The characters are split down the middle: some hate Mariette and think she’s faking, others are sure she has the very Hand of God upon her. Hansen does an excellent job preparing the field, as it were: building the case piece by piece for doubt, so that when the blood starts flowing, we’re ready to doubt ourselves. One can draw one’s own conclusions: I believe Hansen believes. The final lines are exquisite. Is there a finer Catholic writer working today?

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The Last Battle - C. S. LewisRead this to the kids at bedtime. Starts as a fable, assumes militaristic overtones, ends as an apocalyptic. Lewis’s racism is on full display here, although I could probably temper my dis-ease by remembering it was cultural; as a child, you miss this entirely. Encodes ideas about judgment and salvation, and about incarnating what you worship, that are hard for a kid to pull apart. But it has a lovely, lovely ending: “Further up and further in…

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A visit from the goon squad - Jennifer EganA co-worker suggested this. It’s about to go head-to-head with Franzen’s Freedom in The Morning News’s Tournament of Books (and most likely lose; I haven’t read Freedom). 13 chapters, written as intertwining short stories of varying form and function, detailing the lives of an aging record-executive-slash-ex-punk-rocker (Bennie Salazar) and his kleptomaniac assistant (Sasha), and the various others who orbit them. Rockets from the recent past to the near future, with virtuoso writing and a sense of risk. The goon squad is Time, the Destroyer. Small victories, big defeats. The damaged main characters grow up, grow older, settle down, look back with regret and panic and resignation. Difficult to describe, but compulsively readable. Might be a good starter if you don’t typically like short stories but like novels. Also, a chapter written in PowerPoint that brought me (and the rest of the blogosphere, apparently) to tears. But father-son reconciliations always do.

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Somewhere more holy - Tony WoodliefMy aversion to parenting books is the cause of some tension in our house. I lament my own fatherless childhood, and feel like I’m making it up with my own children as I go along. And yet, as my wife sometimes not-so-gently points out, I refuse to read anyone else’s advice on the subject. So Ann Voskamp has apparently recommended this book as a good parenting primer and, in the interest of both becoming a better and more intentional father and of correcting my own increasingly uncomfortable reluctance to read a darn parenting book, I ordered it.

It turns out not to be a parenting primer, per se, but a memoir. Woodlief frames his discussion around the many rooms of a house—kitchen, bedroom, dining room—and uses their functions to discuss various aspects of his life as a husband, and as a father of four boys. Woodlief wastes no time clearing the closet: he and his wife lost their toddler daughter to a brain tumor, before the boys were born, after which he spiraled into depression and self-loathing and took up an affair, though they’d since had more children. His life has obviously been salvaged from the wreckage—angry at God and sure he’d been deserted, his turning point came when God asked him if he’d ever abandon his own sons, if he’d ever not love them though they rebelled terribly. His parenting wisdom, such as it is, springs entirely from this fount.

Woodlief’s writing is really humorous. I think it’s how he copes with the memories of his own failure. But it makes this a highly enjoyable read, as a memoir. My own trouble gleaning parenting advice from his tale is probably just that: my own trouble. If I had to boil it down, I’d say that Woodlief champions the counterintuitive—that parenting is about erring on the side of grace over against the side of justice. Or rather, that mercy is justice, in most cases, and mess is justice, uncertainty is justice, creativity is justice, spontaneity is justice. I say counterintuitive because Woodlief admits to failing/falling on the side of rule-based parenting: impatient, angry. But he emphasizes that if we lived or parented only by “the rules,” then we should have to face those rules ourselves and be judged wanting.

But Woodlief isn’t so much dispensing parenting advice as he is working out, in conversation with himself on paper, the means of his own salvation. He’s wrestling with grace: recognizing where he’s received it by looking closely at his failures as a parent, a husband. In the closing pages he caps his framing metaphor, positing that an everyday life of grace makes a home somewhere more holy than it initially seems. I would say he’s trying to understand how a good parent can be salvaged from a sinful man. It’s a privilege to eavesdrop on that conversation.

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The alpine tales - Paul J. WillisNote: This review originally appeared in The Englewood Review of Books 4(8.5)

Remember childhood afternoons spent exploring the creek? Surely I can’t have been the only one to lose myself among waist-high ferns in my childhood, pretending to be the hero of a fairyland. One afternoon in particular, spent in the forest with distant cousins in Northern Michigan, comes to my mind unbidden again and again, growing more dreamlike as the years go by. The light, the ferns, the complete faith I had in the fantasy world I was building: how did those natural worlds become supernatural, those long afternoons years ago?

Paul Willis knows the answer. A professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, for over 20 years, he’s written chiefly poetry and essays (his second book of poems, Rosing From The Dead, was reviewed by ERB in June 2010). But the early 90′s saw the publication of the first two of these fantasy novels about three generations of mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest. He’s since made it a quartet, and the four are reissued here together as The Alpine Tales (WordFarm, 2010).

The Alpine Tales center in and around the fictional ‘Three Queens’ wilderness preserve, a specific and lovingly detailed country (with maps by Laurie Vette) anchored by three imposing mountains: South, Center and North. Willis has obviously worked long and hard imagining this wilderness, and his dedication puts me in the mind of Wendell Berry’s Port William. Or perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth would be the better comparison, as these are genre tales, squarely in the heritage of Tolkien’s landmark fantasy. The first Tale introduces William, an experienced climber who loves the challenge but cares little for the land; and Grace, a daytripper who’d rather be anywhere but on a mountainside. Both are in for a surprise when William’s climbing partner, the aged Garth (whose ancient ice axe is inscribed “TAKE ME UP” on one side and “CAST ME AWAY” on the other) performs a sudden incantation in a freak snowstorm and disappears—as does the known world, in favor of a pristine and supernatural wilderness. The forests are primeval and the highway at the trailhead is nowhere to be found.

The adventures that follow will feel familiar to readers of Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy novels, at least in part. There are powerful characters to meet—not least of which are three Queens, analogues to the mountains, their otherworldly dignity born of a sense of service to even greater powers, both evil and good. There are talking and/or talismanic animals—one species for each Tale—and everyday items with magical characteristics, especially a pair of totemic ice axes. There are ancient rivalries and curses and dynasties and charges. There are lava beasts and talking trees and noisome vultures and even a character or two out of Greek myth.

But where Willis breaks from the familiar is in his steadfast commitment to the idea of Wilderness as Supernatural. All four Tales exalt the land, lingering at every turn on descriptions of the forest, the mountains, the glaciers, the lakes. The villains tend to be those who misuse, abuse, or despoil the natural resources around them, through either ignorance or malice; the heroes are those who are at one with, and care for and enjoy, the natural world. Willis advances in every Tale the idea that our pleasure in the world around us, and our willing and skillful stewardship of it, is the true and highest calling we have toward the abundance of riches we’ve been given. And he advances this idea by the metaphor of his Supernatural world, parallel to our own, in which the natural world is Platonically perfected and the imperfect misuses of the land are washed (sometimes literally) away:

“[Ronald] felt a sense of home, deep beneath the giant trees and lacy needles, somewhere lost in a dim, damp canyon, pawing the earth like a lumbering bear. He had known such surprising contentment before—the sheer pleasure at times of standing on the nunatak amidst the swell and spill of ice… It was the simple happiness of belonging, of being there, a participant in something ancient, more grand and good than he could imagine.” (p. 247)

This is coupled with the recurring motif of mountainclimbing, a sport of quest and conquest, best practiced on unspoilt land and in communion with one’s surroundings. Since quest is the engine of the fantasy genre, mountainclimbing features centrally in each Tale, signifying the characters’ grappling with or against the Wildernesses, both literal and figurative, in which they find themselves. Only when the characters have truly abandoned themselves to the Wilderness do they find their climbing effortless, rewarding; those characters who haven’t the Wilderness’s best interests in mind (or heart) suffer greatly in their attempts to scale the Three Queens.

Poetry, incidentally, is central to Willis’s understanding of what it means to express the spiritual in the natural: the sincere effort to describe, to say what it is one sees, is part and parcel of good stewardship in Willis’s reckoning. Poetry laces every Tale here; all major characters speak it, memorize it, recite snatches of it. It informs the title of the first Tale, taken from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It regularly punctuates and animates the prose, as if the wilderness itself demands that the language break out of the valley and attempt to climb mountains.

Increasingly as the Tales progress, a second aim becomes apparent: Willis seeks to incarnate truths about the spiritual world in his magical world. A talking tree hints at Willis’s convictions in the second Tale, ‘The Stolen River:’

“What think you of this bondage to decay, daughter?” He must have seen a look of confusion on Jennifer’s face, for he sighed and continued, “I am hoping you may be revealed as such—as daughter to the Most High. Consider the cedar along with the lily—consider us well. Subjected to futility, you may think. But also, remember, subjected in hope.” (p. 250)

‘The White Fawn of Otium’ sees the Gospel most fully represented: the Fawn is sacrificed and reborn, and its bloody hoofprints provide a path up the side of an otherwise sheer and unclimbable rock wall for the two young protagonists. This has to be one of the most difficult, writerly tasks Willis undertakes: to make the spiritual seem at once fantastic and real, in the framework of this fictional world he’s created. Willis handles this challenge at least as admirably as any other writer of fantasy with similar ambitions, and better than some (I think of Young’s The Shack, though I know this is a contentious opinion).

If Willis has any fault in The Alpine Tales, it’s that there’s an unevenness to the Tales’ treatments of plot, language and character. Plot points hinted at early on—certain characters’ fairie blood, for instance—die unheralded deaths. Garth, who starts off as a sort of playful wizard in the first Tale, changes abruptly to grave and somber in the following Tales, even after he achieves his heart’s desire and marries his long-lost true love. And the characters’ dialog grows steadily more elevated, approaching high classical by the fourth Book. I attribute these variances to different motivations Willis must have felt, writing each installment: the first, an innocent attempt at fantasy that expressed his sense of the supernatural in the natural world; the second, a perhaps-contractually-obligated follow-up to the first. (The paperback edition of No Clock In The Forest has a suggestive cover illustration, typical of mass-market fantasy, depicting two of the Three Queens in a manner worthy of pulp fiction. Willis makes a joke of it in ‘The Stolen River,’ self-consciously acknowledging the strange compromises that art and commerce make.) The third and fourth books appear to have been written much later, and so I should probably forgive the changes in style and tone I read there: Willis has progressed, grown, as a writer, and he is more in charge of his voice and his subject. His approach to the material doesn’t meander so much as it matures, and if a few details burn out here and there, is that so bad?

Because I believe the central theme—investing the Wilderness with a spiritual significance—is Willis’s aim in The Alpine Tales, I have to finally conclude that the Tales are a success. This focus is apparent again and again, laid down in generally satisfying, sometimes transcendent, and only occasionally florid prose. If the fantasy elements and certain other aspects of the writing are uneven, well… I personally am of the opinion that the fantasy genre’s attempts to follow Tolkien’s achievements are a fools’ errand. Other examples that claim ancestors earlier than Tolkien—English fairytales in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange, for instance—are still lighting out for the territories, but much else is simply celebrating (or even remembering) rather than innovating. Rather than transcend this limitation of the genre, Willis sidesteps. He’s not attempting to innovate, exactly, just walk where others have walked before, and he appropriates from all the examples he likes best. They’re all here: Oz, Narnia, Myth, Wonderland, Shakespeare, Redwall, Nimh, Northern Lights. And especially Middle Earth, from the beast belching fire from the depths of creation to the army of Trees advancing on the city of industrial woodcutters, with Garth as Willis’s Gandalf.

I think there’s some intention here: a sort of Literary Forest to parallel his Three Queens Wilderness. His final Tale marries a Mountainclimber to a Poet, sending them off beyond the end of the narrative to oversee and tend the Wilderness. Love of Nature and Love of Language: these are Willis’s gifts to the genre, and their Marriage is as apt a summary of The Alpine Tales as I can find. Let the Wilderness be more than natural, and let it only truly come to life in the language of Poetry. It apparently took Willis 20 or more years to finish this quartet. Having come this far, I can only hope he will go Further Up and Further In.

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Not the religious type - Dave SchmelzerA Vineyard pastor in Boston—can’t recall how this appeared on my radar. The text is a conversational presentation of Kingdom theology, but he has a winning voice. Focuses first on M. Scott Peck’s four stages of spiritual growth, from rule-agnostic to rule follower to rule breaker to a fourth stage, which acknowledges the intent behind the rules but begins to serve something beyond them. Then advances to the idea that listening to God and following his direction entails a destabilization of your life, but that in that counterintuitive step lies real freedom/fulfillment/joy, etc. A quick and easy read; I’ll tell you, though, I found much of this very encouraging at just this time of my life. The journey God calls me to may turn my life and all my wisdom upside down, but he’ll be faithful to me if I respond. Perhaps Schmelzer will speak to you, too.

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Consider the lobster - David Foster WallaceI tried this once before, when it came out, but couldn’t make it through the opening essay and its heartbreaking concerns. Skip ahead: the remaining essays prove superlative. Some observations:

1) Wallace writes sometimes about subjects he’s interested in, sometimes about subjects assigned to him. Always, however, he uses his topic as an occasion to wrestle with his own sense of moral imperative. For instance, when writing about his town’s reaction to 9/11, he focuses on the difference between him — cynical, worldly — and the old women in his church, who pray in innocence of the media exploitation happening before their eyes. When tasked with covering the Maine Lobster Festival, he cannot help but consider whether it is right to boil another creature alive, especially when one knows the creature would prefer not to be boiled, as evidenced by its frantic efforts to get out of the pot.

2) Wallace does this thing where he spends early parts of his essay defining terms, usually really amusing shorthand terms for things — like the 12 Monkeys, those be-suited avatars of the top media organs installed on McCain’s 2000 campaign tour, or the Book, the Arbitron rating report on radio station market share that’s used pretty much universally to determine advertising rates. And then, as his essays progress, he uses these terms again and again, but detached from their previous exposition, until by the end he writes whole paragraphs of what would be jargon except he’s managed to pack pages of meaning into two-or-three word (entertaining) nicknames, and suddenly he’s able to convey three pages worth of information in a mere three paragraphs. Which is genius.

3) Wallace’s neurotic focus on his own moral failures regarding the questions he chooses to address must have been hell. You get the feeling that he wrote about the AVN awards because he was a) interested and b) hated himself for being interested and wanted to see if he could tell himself the truth about what it really was that he was interested in.

4) What a writer.

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Winter's bone - Daniel WoodrellInterested, I think, because of the film, which I haven’t seen. Got it from ILL, promptly loaned it to a friend who needed it for a book discussion group. Got it back with strong recommendations; read it in two days. The narrative is relentless in pace. The sheer wild power of poetry is in the prose, and it gets momentum from the twin engines of drug use and abject poverty. The dialog is expletive-laden and highly colloquial, and jars against the beauty of the descriptive prose. The whole thing works together to make an addictive, readable novel that brands itself on you. Plus, the characters — Ree Dolly, the 16-year-old heroine, in particular — are drawn so tight you can almost have a conversation with them. Ree’s quest to find her (most likely dead) father to save her miserable little house from repossession makes for some of the best, spookiest, most mythical fiction I’ve read in a while.

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Public produce - Darrin NordahlPicked this up from the ‘new books’ shelf on a whim, in solidarity with my friends who are farming in Detroit. Nordahl argues for municipal planning and support of food-bearing plants in public spaces, freely harvestable by all citizens. Food security and food literacy are two of his rationales, but he’s generally advocating for a change of mindset in favor of justice for inner city residents who do not have access to nutritious, unprocessed food choices. It’s an inspiring, erudite, quick read on the subject — makes me want to plant an apple tree on the berm in front of my house.

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Farmer boy - Laura Ingalls WilderChapter by chapter, a bedtime read with the kids. I’ll tell you what, I want to be Almanzo Wilder’s father when I grow up: independent minded, responsible, decisive, strong willed, fully in command, loved by his children. I’d have to throw in a dash of Pa Ingalls’s compassion there, too, but boy oh boy, what those two were. Almanzo grows up on a farm in the 1800s — all he wants is a colt to break, but he’s not quite old enough yet. Here’s another thing about the Little House books: they’re like a manual on agricultural life. What to do when, what to plant, what harvest is like, what the animals need, what the hours are. Someone should write a book: “Agricultural approaches gleaned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.” I’m sure we’d be in her debt.

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Flamingo watching - Kay RyanI was so impressed with The best of it, I picked up this and another individual volume of Ryan’s poems. Ryan herself suggests this as a good starting point. Again — or ‘still,’ or ‘as indicated’ — she’s concerned with emptiness. This is from ‘So Different’:

A tree is lightly connected
to its blossoms.

If a big wind comes,
any nascent interest in fruit
scatters. This is so different
from humans, for whom
what is un-set matters
so oddly – as though
only what is lost held possibility.

But there’s a strong interest here, too, in what makes us human, as reflected (oddly) in observations of animals: the flamingos of the title, the ‘Turtle’ for which she’s justly famous. Ryan is the perfect suggestion for readers who don’t ‘get’ poetry. She’s so straightforward, and her approach is so consistent, that the reader gets to figure it out over the long course of the work — each poem leads you closer to understanding every poem, and yet each poem is a complete thing in itself, too. I love these.

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Eugene Onegin - Alexander PushkinRead this at the behest of my busmate Robert, who has written his own pastiche of Pushkin’s masterpiece. He suggested this translation, and who am I to argue? Onegin is a dandy and a ne’er do well who spurns the affections of a peasant out of, I don’t know, ennui or melancholy or some High Romantic affliction. She goes on to become the most beautiful countess in all Moscow, and when he does finally love her and pursue her, gives back as good as she got. It’s all quite depressing. Pushkin writes in a sonnet form of his own devising, called now the “Onegin Stanza,” which I recognize from similar approaches to poetry that must have followed his innovation. In fact, the voice here is really familiar, and I must assume Pushkin influenced all manner of world-weary commentary. I should note that Pushkin’s general inventiveness, his resourcefulness with, his ear for language in the confines of his poetic form is nothing less than astonishing. That an epic in this form is both readable and remarkable is an amazing achievement — hence Onegin’s inclusion in the canon. Realized a few days later that Mitchell’s Robert Frobisher must be, in part, based on Onegin. On to the movie (with Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler).

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The wisdom of stability - Jonathan Wilson-HartgroveThe invention of the automobile has afforded us the opportunity to travel to distances and at speeds previously unimaginable. I hope I’m correct in remembering it was C. S. Lewis who posited that this may not be in line with our nature: we may not be made to go so far, so fast. Being in the Motor City, where to work/eat/live is to drive, his words stand in opposition to the very reality around me, but they offer a glimpse of another life which offers more freedom — in the sense of my realizing my true nature — than I recognize in my current experience. This is the same sense I get from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The wisdom of stability (2010, Paraclete Press). Porting centuries of Benedictine wisdom into the 21st century inner city, Wilson-Hargrove’s work sets out to present, clearly and concisely, the case for stability and the truth about its practice, its rewards and its difficulties both.

Introducing our current mobile culture as spiritually descended from Jacob, propelled by ambitions and fleeing from failures, Wilson-Hartgrove goes on to suggest that stopping and staying in community is the corrective we need but do not sufficiently value. The Benedictine life involves an internalizing of the pilgrimage instinct, the spiritual journey, and this is practiced in community. Committing ourselves to one place and one people allows us to develop roots that in turn begin to protect us from the storms and trials that will still surely come our way. Stability also short-circuits our distracted relationship to time, allowing us to begin to see and hear things that we pass over with our disjointed attention spans. Ultimately, Wilson-Hartgrove says, stability’s fruit is the ability to hear others plainly and clearly, and to be a source of life and rest to other weary pilgrims.

I found Wilson-Hartgrove’s words immensely useful in helping me consider a life lived in one place, especially as I’m contemplating a long-term move into the inner city, where the culture and surroundings are alien to me and my habitual comforts are missing. His reassurance that there’s joy to be found in establishing a rhythm of community, prayer and work, and sticking with it for the long haul, give me a little more courage to take a step out of the world I’ve always known and seldom questioned. His honesty about the temptations inherent to a life lived this way — ambition, boredom, vainglory — is especially helpful, giving me a lay of the land and a preparation I would otherwise not have had. I’m grateful for the field report from one who has surveyed the land and knows its hills and valleys. I commend his report to you, too, especially if (like me) you swim in a sea of distraction and have difficulty contemplating another way.

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The truth squad - Dennis Schmitz I was in the stacks looking for books of a) poetry with b) illustrated covers. Very little there to recommend the verse inside, but I was very lucky with this one. Schmitz writes carefully ordered stanzas that build, one observant piece at a time, into rich descriptions of the oddest slices of life: graffiti artists watching their counterparts sandblast a bridge, a police officer wrangling a homeless woman with her child in a soup kitchen, “all three briefly / in step, sliding / over polyurethane trays slimed shiny / with beef grease & noodle loops … the loose earplug of his pocket / radio making a welt on her face.” His remembrance of childhood wars, childhood explorations of love take on new life as they’re interwoven with real wars, with dreams. He’s able, through his technical skill and the sheer ordering and invention of his words, to capture something of power in his poems, and this transmits to the reader: like the proverbial breath in a jar, waiting on the shelf for someone to open it and smell at last the thing preserved this way.

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Hereville - Barry DeutschA fairy tale, exploring (what I assume is) the inner life of a girl growing up in an Orthodox Jewish town. Goisch outsiders in Victorian mansions are witches, pigs are never-before-seen monsters, and the plot centers around the fantastic lengths Mirka must go to align her inner longings with the ritual and rule of her outer world. She would like to fight dragons– what will that look like in the context of her life? Ultimately she must rely on her wits alone — as her stepmother did before her, and perhaps countless generations of Jewish women did before that — to overcome in the battle between herself and the rule imposed by a holy God. They both win.

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Shop class as soulcraft - Matthew B. CrawfordPicked this up ages ago at John King Books in Detroit; the time finally came to read it. A dot.comrade suggested that there was too much philosophy, but I appreciated Crawford’s voice: a lettered philosopher who’d captained an academic think tank, he abandoned that life to open a motorcycle repair shop, and sets out here to consider why, exactly, that was a good choice. His insight into the value of work with clear frameworks of success and failure, work that cannot be outsourced and to which one apprentices himself for the value inherent in the work, is refreshing. I was moved to consider the ways I diverge from this vision of the good life, and to wonder how and in what fashion I might reclaim it. There is a kind of elitism in his view — he blends conservatism with a kind of defense of aristocracy, and the observant will see beyond this the leaving behind whole swaths of people — but his mixture of deep thinking and down to earth practice are rare. You could do worse than listen to this yeoman academician update Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the current moral climate.

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The adamant - Mary RuefleRead a review in Poetry of a collection of her work that piqued my interest, describing her ambition not to mean anything more than what she sees. This was the only title in my library, so I picked it up. Not a ton of what intrigued me in evidence here — it’s good, but not always.

from ‘An American Dream’

As I open the oven door I speak
in the lowest fashion.
An imprecation of love, I think.
All my life I have tried
to love God
without his knowing.

There are some Catholic concerns, with saints (Therese, Francis) and sins, Heaven, Satan, Jesus, that are worth their words. A concern with nature, and with being blunt about mundane concerns in opposition to evident wonders. It’s enough to keep me looking further: I’ll order another through the interlibrary loan.

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Room - Emma DonoghueA woman, kidnapped at 19 and kept in a shed for 7 years, raises a young boy to age 5 before escaping. She has maintained with him the fiction that their room is the entire world.

When Michael Cunningham blurbs that he “can’t compare it to any other book,” I don’t think that’s entirely true. I found it strongly reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident and Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, just off the top of my head, and of Faulkner, the trick of getting inside someone’s head and thinking of all the details of perception from the inside out.

It’s the conceit, I think — that’s what’s so powerful, the rigor with which Donoghue thinks through all the elements of what this would be like, for the characters, if this specific thing actually happened. I haven’t read any press on this book but I wouldn’t be surprised if she said something like, “Well, I read this newspaper article one day about a monster with a soundproofed shed in his yard…” and then she just started to think about what that would mean.

There’s an emotional punch in the consideration of ‘whose needs?’ Is the mother responsible to the boy for the world she’s created for him, once he must contend with the real world? Is she responsible to herself? Are the emotional disciplines that captivity made necessary, are they sustainable outside captivity?

And of course, the challenge and the triumph of writing this from the perspective of the 5-year-old. Very, very affecting.

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Counterfeit gods - Timothy KellerKeller explicates his understanding that a good thing made an ultimate thing will always betray us, and that we will act out of our allegiance to this idol to the detriment of our lives and our relationship with Jesus. In the process, he walks through a number of common idols: power, success, money, romantic love, using an episode from the biblical narrative to display first the effect of the idol, and then the way in which the episode points to Jesus as the true resolution of the problem of idolatry. In the end, Keller says, we need to encounter Jesus intimately enough to replace the idol with his person. Jim Pool told me recently that in seminary, they’d taught that all preachers have about seven sermons which they preach habitually; this book constitutes two of Keller’s (idolatry, and the direction of all biblical episodes to Jesus). But they’re such good sermons…

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2010 is over, apparently. Since this blog has settled into my personal reading review journal, primarily, a recap is in order, if only to remind myself.

I easily achieved 52 books in 2010, finishing 79 titles by December 31st. Of those:

33 were Fiction (42%)
29 were Nonfiction (37%)
18 were Poetry (21%)

Of the Fiction, 8 were Children’s titles that I read with my kids at bedtime; 11 were graphic novels (mostly the Bone series); 3 were collections of short stories; and the remaining 19 were novels. Thomas Pynchon, David Mitchell and Don DeLillo were heavily represented, but I also read Colson Whitehead’s delightful The Intuitionist, David Duncan’s The Brothers K, and, for the first time, Treasure Island (what a yarn!). Barry Hannah’s Airships and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage were both remarkable, violent little collections, and I was more than pleasantly surprised by Sharon Creech’s two chapter books introducing poetry to kids, Love that dog and Hate that cat.

As for Nonfiction, the lion’s share went to books about God, Jesus or the Church (11, 38%), including James Smith’s Desiring the kingdom and Conrad Gempf’s Jesus asked. I reread The Reason for God and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek this year, and am not sorry. Chris Hedges’ Empire of illusion has stuck with me, mostly for his clear exposing of how in our self-centeredness we as a culture exploit women, as has the fundamental idea from John McKnight’s The Careless Society that you cannot pay someone to love another person.

But really, this was the year of poetry, beginning with Ed Hirsch’s How to read a poem and continuing through volumes by Bishop, Wright, Hoagland, Bly, Kay Ryan and Philip Levine. I feel like I discovered poetry all over again for the first time this year, and while some of the initial fervor has died down, I don’t think I’ll ever approach it the same way again.

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The silver chair - C. S. LewisA bedtime read with the kids. Eustace and Jill Pole are called to Narnia to rescue the aging King Caspian’s long lost son, Prince Rilian, from the Queen of the Underworld. I couldn’t help but feel, this time around, that this one is more a vehicle for particular arguments in apologetics — for instance, that just because something exists in the real world which reminds of God does not mean that we’ve imagined God out of our experience with the real world and not vice versa — and particular scenes from legend and fairy tale — for instance, The Fairie Queene and the bit with the Harfang Giants. The snake fascinated Abe. And Lewis’s clear-eyed picture of Heaven always tugs at my heart.

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Although of course you end up becoming yourself - David LipskyAlways interested in DFWnalia. This feels a little like what it is: the complete draft notes of the road trip Lipsky took with DFW on the tail end of his Infinite Jest publicity tour, which was intended to produce an article for Rolling Stone that never actually saw the light of day. There’s a lot of pop culture baiting, there’s some filler, but there’s some great stuff here about writers, and about the process of writing and publishing the novel, and about DFWs approach to his ego, which seems to be his greatest philosophical concern. His observations about the problem of handling your self-centeredness are the best and most searching, most complicated but most helpful ruminations I’ve read — there’s something about DFWs moral compass that’s immensely helpful to I’m sure not just me. A must if you loved DFWs writing, or if you’re just trying to figure out the problem with life in the 21st century.

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White holes - James Hart IIIA chapbook of poetry given to me by a friend, published in Detroit. Hart writes about his mother’s death, using the central conceit of an object which emits light and heat but which cannot be accessed. Motifs in the poem that start out expressing grief — needles, clouds, absence, phantoms — go on in later poems to become sinister, expressing death, as if the process were working backwards. If I had any critique, it would be the thinness of the images. But this is a worthwhile document of a personal grief.

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The hidden wound - Wendell BerryStarting the year off with Berry’s look into his own racism and the character and effect of racism on both white and black America. Reader, if it’s no longer 2011, remember that 2010 was a highly racist year, where three quarters of a century of anger began to bubble like hot paint in the hearts of racist men and women, in response to the combination of a black president and a financial crisis. Berry’s searing intelligence and powers of observation help him articulate what many of us feel but few can say — that there are layers of second-guessing that make it almost impossible to bridge the divide between black and white in the wake of slavery. But Berry also frames his thoughts on slavery in the context of his magnificent obsession with our relation to the earth, and he proposes that because we separated work and property, and assigned one to one race and one to the other, we have all been diminished in ways that make us less than fully human. And his central point is that the violence of slavery has been as destructive — and left as deep a wound — on the souls of white folk as on those of black. I was particularly taken by his description of ‘the empty space’ that the racist must shepherd in his heart to keep his conscience from crossing paths with his action, to deleterious effect. Berry praises the few black friends he had, as a child — his grandfather’s hired hands, and works tirelessly in this book to promote what they (l)earned by necessity that white men and women are poorer having never learned. An essential read in understanding the meaning and nature of racism in America.

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Inherent vice - Thomas PynchonPicked this up finally on the news that the director of Magnolia had optioned it for film. After the long hard slog of Gravity’s Rainbow, this felt like Pynchon Lite: all the strange obsessions, the evil conspiracies and capers, the fixation on the 60s, with none of the calories. A little forgettable: Doc Sportello is a hippie detective in California in the early 70s, chasing down a real estate tycoon who may or may not have been involved in both a drug-smuggling operation called the Golden Fang and a rogue police assassination squad that… aw, never mind. Beach book.

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Enter the story - Fran FerderFerder is a Franciscan Sister and adjunct professor at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, and a practicing clinical psychologist in the Pacific Northwest. Her aim in Enter the story shows real promise: that we would find in our life circumstances some connection to the greater story. “…Celebrating… feast days and holy days goes beyond commemorating someone else’s story… [and reminds] us of our own.” (p. xiii) Following an overview, she recounts in nine chapters significant episodes in the Gospel story – The Annunciation, The Incarnation, The Baptism, The Transfiguration, The Crucifixion, etc. – and reflects on their connection to our own lives. This falls squarely in line with Scot McKnight’s proposal in The Blue Parakeet: that the episodes in the Bible, and our own lives, are ‘wiki stories’ that reflect the greater narrative.

There is much good in Ferder’s contextualization of the Gospel narrative into current-day scenarios. Pregnant mothers, anxious fathers, cancer survivors, wounded men and women show up over and over in questions, propositions, sketches, all related to the scripture at hand. It’s good to see ourselves in the Story this way, and I often need the kind of help Ferder gives here, to put myself into the narrative successfully. Ferder knows her scripture, and is writing in a thoroughly Catholic context, as a Franciscan Sister in a centuries-old institution with a rigid power structure that has often been abused to the detriment of the powerless. Her strong desire to challenge readings of the Gospel that devalue or oppress women and minorities is noteworthy.

Ferder also consistently defends those who believe differently than she: openness, inclusion, tolerance are her keywords throughout the text. “Perhaps the greatest enemy of truth is too much certainty about it.” (p. 10) I know David Dark would agree. And yet, seldom does she acknowledge Jesus as Jesus – as a metaphor, an example, an avatar, yes, but as the center and goal of our yearning and still learning hearts, no. To advocate one without constantly pushing toward the other is to miss the core of the Gospel story and, I’d argue, our rightful place in it. Theologies are shaped by what of Jesus – his life, his mission, his understanding of himself – we choose to emphasize. In discussing the Magi, Ferder writes, “The narrative makes no suggestion that these sincere visitors are expected to change their faith, to pledge allegiance to Jesus, or to do anything more than what their journey to this place has already asked of them. Fundamental to the meaning and mission of Jesus is respect—respect for those who are different, acceptance of all whose heritage is not the same as ours.” (p. 63) It is true: Jesus does not demand adherence to a creed from those who seek him out. The seeking is evidence of the direction of the seeker’s heart. But I’d challenge the notion that the central point of the Magi story is respect and acceptance of differing heritages, (not, I should note, an unworthy notion in itself, and one may perhaps even reasonably draw it from the story as a whole). More to the point is this: Wise men follow the signs toward Jesus, and give their treasure to Him. Ferder’s focus here bends the story, and I’m not sure it needs bending before our own stories will fit inside it.

Ferder’s language betrays a disbelief in the historicity of the Gospel story; she says as much in her opening chapter. Instead, she holds that the Gospel writers engaged in ‘imaginative retelling,’ tooling the story to best convince their intended audience to believe in Jesus. “Earlier peoples… had no need to subject [their] narratives to tests of historical accuracy. If a sacred story… enabled them to move about the world with less anxiety and greater meaning, then it held truth.” (p. 3) Perhaps this is true of the Ancient World (I’m unqualified to say), but New Testament writers were concerned with the historicity of their Subject. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile,” says Paul (1 Cor 15:17). This is a recurring theme in Ferder’s text: “symbols… important less for their biblical accuracy than for their power to… stir our hearts.” (p. 54). In relating the story of Jesus’ baptism, she writes, “…memory of a strong spiritual experience associated with the baptism of Jesus likely circulated among the people. In time, this memory evolved into an oral tradition as it was told and retold. It became a story of faith, one designed to elicit belief that the Spirit of God was connected to his baptism… And to convey its genuineness over time, and assist in its retelling, a symbol was associated with the story. The tradition of the descent of the dove… resonated with each of them… inspired them sufficiently…” (pp. 82-83).

In trying to translate the story into terms applicable to our everyday lives, Ferder goes one step further and simply Changes The Story to suit a very human understanding of the world: “That doesn’t mean that, it actually means this.” She’s taken the initial premise – ‘Biblical Metaphors for our Lives’ – and instead presented the Gospel as a metaphor, a story describing earthbound realities in spiritual language. Resurrection is the name we give to the sense that Jesus’ influence increased after his death. Transfiguration signifies our changing understanding of God. The dove is the symbol we apply to indicate the spiritual magnitude we associate with baptism. For every welcome proposition (“Gabriel delivers a message meant for each of us,” [p. 33] she writes regarding the Annunciation), Ferder gives us another characterized by disheartening skepticism regarding the supernatural elements of the Gospel. Angels are merely the “still, strong voices within us.” The overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’s conception may have simply been the encouraging presence of God in an otherwise conventional intimacy between Mary and an unknown man.

Ferder suggests, using Walter Wink’s words, that Incarnation may perhaps be more reasonably expressed as our being made in the image of God, and as such we all reflect the Incarnation. “Jesus, as the incarnate God, is not synonymous with God… but over the course of his life, Jesus came to incarnate the holy, to become in his humanity the goodness and compassion that is also your task and mine.” (p 67). I have to work awfully hard to make that sound like less than a denial of Jesus’s full participation in the Trinity. She extends this understanding by casting His death in a purely political light – he was an offense to power and so had to die – while explicitly denying any propitiatory meaning in Jesus’ sacrifice (“Only a sadistic deity would require the death of anyone…”).

What’s heartbreaking about Ferder’s deeply felt understanding of the Gospel is that it’s unnecessary. The Story has its own power to enter into and change us, because of Whose story it is. Gosh, I want to afford Ferder every kindness. But underneath and behind the text I keep hearing her telling me that it’s wrong-minded to believe any of the Gospel narrative actually happened the way it’s told: to believe in Jesus as the fully Incarnated God, to believe in an actual Annunciation, an actual Immaculate Conception, any of the signposts of a Holy, Devastating and Otherworldly God Entering The Story. What’s left, spiritually, when you take that away, is only metaphor, and metaphor just isn’t as compelling as the real, Resurrected Jesus.

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Wordless Christmas

Talk talk talk. You’re tired of it. More Decking, less Yacking, that’s what you’re thinking this fine December. Ahem: this, my friend, is the Christmas Mix for you.

1. The Incarnation – Sufjan Stevens
2. Carol of the Bells – Mark O’Connor
3. The First Noel – Over The Rhine
4. Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy – Kirov Orchestra (Valery Gergiev)
5. Coal Train – Monk
6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – Vince Guaraldi
7. Jingle Bells – The Ventures
8. My Favorite Things – John Coltrane
9. O Little Town Of Bethlehem – Over The Rhine
10. A Little Lower Than The Angels – Monk
11. Sleigh Ride – The Ventures
12. Coffee – Kirov Orchestra (Valery Gergiev)
13. What Child Is This – The Vince Guaraldi Trio
14. Up North Here Where The Stars… 1945 – Linford Detweiler
15. Longest Year – Hammock
16. Adeste Fidelis – Bruce Cockburn

Now shut it, won’t you? Just shush.

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God is not one - Stephen ProtheroThe concept — peace is better served by knowing our differences than by pretending they don’t exist — is a breath of fresh air. Literacy in any area is always a better foundation for dialogue than illiteracy.

Religion’s purpose is to propose a solution to a problem — this is just one idea about the nature of religion. Most evangelical Christians and many Muslims would respond that they’re pursuing a relationship with the (in)effable rather than a theology that solves a fundamental problem. Many Christians I know would deny that they subscribe to a religion at all, although this is partly semantics.

The problem-solving approach may suffer from some necessary flatness — how do you objectively observe competing definitions of the human condition and its deficiencies without in some way equalizing, and thereby devaluing, them? But that *does* happen here: there’s a sense, in essaying each of these traditions, that their problem/solution propositions are all somehow diminished by comparison to each other.

But I did appreciate this book, and especially the compassionate and relatively fair-minded attempt to describe each major world religion in language that the probably-biased-toward-one-or-another layman could understand.

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Jesus asked - Conrad GempfPaperback Swap finally came through with this title, unavailable through my Michigan library networks, and long recommended by Jay Pathak at the Mile High Vineyard. I’d expected something different, a theology from Jesus’s questions, maybe, but this is actually a chapter by chapter dissection of every question Jesus asks in the Gospels. Gempf’s style is very colloquial, but his thought is challenging, revealing, interesting, and ultimately worth the time. While not coming to any overarching conclusions about Jesus’s intentions, he does point out that Jesus in most cases forces his subjects to take a side regarding Himself: to state their allegiance, or at least to consider where they might fall on the Question of Jesus. If you don’t want to know/reveal the answer to that question, avoid letting Jesus interrogate you. It’s harder than it sounds.

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Hate that cat - Sharon CreechThe sequel to Love that dog, this one follows the same general conceit: Jack writes letters to his teacher in free verse, commenting on the nature of poetry, and often trying his hand at it. While the story was tighter in Love that dog, this one succeeds in wrapping up the super-arc of the two by giving Jack a purpose for continuing to write poetry: he’ll document in his poetry the sounds of the world for his deaf mother. I admit, I shed a tear or two. Worth reading both of these to your young children; again, mine enjoyed the poems from Williams, Poe, Eliot, and Jack’s hero, Walter Dean Myers.

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Charlotte's Web - E. B. WhiteBedtime story for the past month or so. Charlotte is that rarest of creatures: able to be fully herself and yet fully bless another, both concerned with her own needs and fully concerned with the needs of another. The story is concerned with persons who can’t care for themselves — who takes care of the less able? In that sense, it really struck home: Charlotte is an archetype for mothers everywhere (in contrast to Templeton, who will only serve another’s interest if it intersects with his own). It’s also the perfect “pen is mightier than the sword” parable, and I love that the coup de grace is “HUMBLE,” Charlotte’s highest praise of Wilbur. I should also note that I read this with Strunk and White’s “omit needless words” constantly at the back of my mind. I’d say he generally does.

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Love that dog - Sharon CreechA friend, a teacher, who knows I’ve been reading poetry, passed this to me to read to the kids. Sharon writes as Jack, a boy writing letters to his teacher protesting his poetry writing assignments. The catch is that the letters are themselves awfully close to poetry, and over the course of the school year, Jack warms up to the task, inspires poet/author Walter Dean Myers to visit his classroom, and opens up emotionally about his dog, Sky, in a way that will almost certainly have your children asking you why you’re crying while you read the final pages of this affecting little book to them. Mine were pretty enthralled with the selection of poems included in the appendix, including Williams’s Red Wheelbarrow and Blake’s Tyger, which is (I think) what you hope for when you introduce this book. A must-read.

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Muslims, Christians and Jesus - Carl MedearisListed at the Mile High Vineyard as “to read,” I downloaded this to the Kindle and blew through it in 3 or 4 days. And immediately set to re-reading it. Medearis spent 12 years living in Lebanon, forging friendships and ties with his Muslim neighbors and generally relearning how to love people. He communicates that great love — and respect — for his brothers and sisters there, while simultaneously destroying everything you ever thought about how to share your faith. Maybe the single most important book I’ve read about truly loving other people in the name of Jesus, and an Islamic myth-buster to boot. You know who you are: read this book.

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Treasure island - Robert Louis StevensonFinally, finally made it all the way through this classic, after seeing both Disney versions and starting it numerous times with my kids. We read a chapter a night at bedtime over a number of weeks (more than 34), starting on my iPhone and finishing in print with pictures. All I can say is that this is still a cracking good tale, and the language is not as archaic as I feared. The pirates are dirty, deadly, dastardly. The honorable men are rigorously honorable. Long John Silver is deliciously self-interested, charming even when you know he’d kill you in a heartbeat. And Jim — I’m sure if I’d been introduced to this book as a child I would have wanted to be him. Worth your time, mates.

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Lucifer at the Starlite - Kim AddonizioAn impulse pick off the new books shelf, which turned out to be unique in that it is aggressively contemporary, using a vernacular voice closest maybe in my limited experience to Tony Hoagland, except darker. Addonizio is concerned with sex, death, and destruction, and these poems catalog often striking inhumanities done by and to her and the ones she loves. She’s fond of the list of declarative statements, one after another in repetition (“Some men are…,” “You were…”, “I love you…”). Easy to relate to, hard to love or even like, since they fly fast and furious right at your face. Plus, she’s obsessed with God and she hates him (see the title poem), so there’s that.

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American salvage - Bonnie Jo CampbellThis National Book Award winner was published at my own Wayne State University. Campbell writes about Michiganders barely making it, swimming dimly through the weird worlds of their own lives, hearts and minds, while navigating an external landscape that grows harsher and less compassionate by the minute. The wrecked marriages, ravaged bodies and raging addictions — as well as the strong and pervasive sense of goodness — propels the reader right through these tight little stories. It’s hard to pick a standout, though I was really taken with ‘The Inventor, 1972,’ ‘Family Reunion,’ and the closer, ‘Boar Taint,’ with its helpless and unskilled love and its sense of the creeping dread of hopeless poverty. Bravo.

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A poetry handbook - Mary OliverPurchased from my local used book store, Ferndale’s John King. I’d finished Hirsch’s in-depth intro to poetry; this slim volume seemed like a good coda. I’ve read and loved Oliver’s poetry — I’ve read others who say Oliver is a populist and far, far overrated. Oliver writes primarily for writers, but I appreciated her approach to meter, which encouraged me to scan but gave me permission not to look for a canonical reading. She spends enough time on each subject, but not too much, and gives good advice — especially that nothing can teach like time spent working. I think I made a good decision, adding this to the growing poetry bookshelf. Overrated, schmoverated.

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I’ve had this on my radar for a while. It got rave reviews, despite looking like it hung on a dubious conceit (stylized, not super-accomplished pencil sketches make up a large, wordless portion of the book), which made me curious (“Why are people praising this?”). Then Martin Scorcese snapped it up and intends to make a feature film out of it (“Why would Scorcese give this any attention?”). Having read it, I see the appeal. It’s an interesting little mystery about an orphan and a clockwork figure, and it ties closely into the life and legend of the early filmmaker/auteur Georges Melies. The drawings, then, serve a purpose as both homage and clue, arranged and behaving like frames in a filmstrip. Scorcese is obviously making a love letter to film, and the truth is, the book works almost in spite of itself and its highly constructed conceits. Or, to put it another way, I liked it in spite of myself.

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Pushed hard on the book club circuit. My wife maybe put it best, calling this an “issue book,” which twists the plot, characterization and language hard around the stick with which Cleave beats us. I never believed that the characters would truly do and say the things they said and did. Which is a shame, because they could have been truly interesting characters if not pressed into service of the issue at hand (immigrant/refugee treatment in 1st-world nations).

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Philip Levine - Selected poemsOur poetry book club pick for September. Largely concerned with place. I found the selections from and around the prizewinning collection, Ashes, to be particularly affecting. There’s a consistent regret for time wasted in dead-end work. I wish I had more to say in praise of this celebrated poet, but either I am not the right reader for his work or I have not given it sufficient attention to grasp its import.

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Rainbows end - Vernor VingeHumanities scholar Dr. Julie Thompson-Klein loaned me this one a few months back. A Hugo award-winner about the near future, where wearable networking equipment allows you to overlay reality with your own digital constructs, and the digital and biological definitions of ‘viral’ are beginning to overlap. Vinge is credited with the concept of the technological Singularity, when machines become self-conscious, and he explores that concept gracefully here, without ever once calling attention to his idea. Turns out the Singularity may be curious and fun-loving and completely amoral. A terrorist plot is foiled by a few bright high-schoolers and one rejuvenated octogenarian poet, who learns a few life lessons along the way. Vinge has plenty to say about how our relationship to technology can physically, psychologically, irrevocably change us. An engaging, though not earthshaking, novel.

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The lightning thief - Rick RiordanRead this one over the weekend at the lake; it’s a favorite of my nephews. Essentially Harry Potter, rewritten with Greek mythological figures rather than wizards. It had a bit of forced cool to it, but it was action packed and engaging, and I can see why it’s popular with the kids. When I say ‘essentially Harry Potter,’ I mean Riordan laid tracing paper over the Sorcerer’s Stone and colored in the edges.

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The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David MitchellThe much anticipated new novel from Mitchell, whose Cloud atlas I recently re-read. A meticulously structured novel about borders, both physical and cultural, and about good and evil. de Zoet is a Dutch clerk, laboring on Dejima, the tiny artificial island maintained outside Nagasaki for the purpose of keeping trade routes open and foreigners off the Shogun’s soil. His story comprises most of the first part of the novel, and we’re given a thorough introduction to his character, what he will and will not do, so that we can assess his moral response to challenges that test his conscience. The middle part of the novel moves deep into Japan, to an ancient monastery with hints of sinister goings-on, where a midwife of Jacob’s fancy from earlier in the novel has been taken hostage. She, too, is forced to make a difficult choice of conscience in the face of evil, and we begin to see what conscience in cultural context looks like. Questions arise: is there a common morality? Or do moral decisions depend on cultural realities? The third and final section returns to Dejima, where a blended culture must choose how to deal with the threat of yet a third outsider.

I found it wildly interesting to be revisiting, in fiction, the world that I first visited in Endo’s Silence, the feudal Japan that has outlawed Christianity and all foreigners. That novel was set some years earlier than this, but a significant chapter in Thousand autumns nods to Endo’s Japan, depicting the ritual trampling of the fumie while wrestling with very similar moral questions. Also, Mitchell is a master of voices and styles, and this novel leaps from historical fiction to romance to sci-fi to horror to poetry, taking a cunning and often brilliant stab at all of them. I plan to read it again, possibly within the next few months, to get a better feel for it.

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Mystically wired - Ken Wilson(Note: This review originally featured in The Englewood Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 31)

Ken Wilson’s Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer is either a practical manual for mystic prayer or a mystical manual for practicing prayer, depending on whether you emphasize the ‘Wired’ or the ‘Mystically.’ Wendell Berry might argue that applying language like ‘wired’ to our biology is a bad idea, since equating human beings with electrical systems is, at the very least, dehumanizing, and probably not the best theology. But Wilson is the pastor of the Ann Arbor Vineyard, a community squarely in University of Michigan territory. For strong left-brain thinkers, mystical prayer looks a lot like a neuro/genetic coping mechanism for anxiety and stress. It could use a bit of demystifying, and Wilson, a good pastor, is willing and able to extend grace to his community and see things through their eyes. His message to them (and us) is that a receptivity to what we commonly think of as mystical prayer is actually strongly supported by our neurobiology. He’s humanizing prayer—and by extension, faith—for the scientific set.

Wilson takes the ‘wired’ metaphor seriously: he places prayer in the Trinitarian reality, which he characterizes as a network of love:

“God is a connected and connecting Being. When we are brought into relationship with God through Jesus, we are, as Jesus said, grafted into a vine as branches are—an early network metaphor to describe the kingdom of heaven (John 15:1-17)… Prayer is a powerful way to put us in touch with the reality that we are profoundly connected, that to be alive is to be embedded in a network of connections.” (70, 82)

He backs that assertion up by referencing science—neuroscience, primarily. To cite just one example: Wilson notes that praying for our loved ones has been shown to strengthen neural pathways in the anterior cingulate cortex, “the portion of the brain that is activated when we see others suffer, enabling us to feel compassion” (p. 81). That is, prayer neurologically strengthens our capacity for compassion. Over and over, Wilson turns to research that suggests that what we feel when we pray is supported by our biology. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem: does reference to science tend to prove that what we feel as connectedness to God is really just neuro-chemical biology? Or does the underlying biology suggest that God has designed us to pray?

Wilson takes the holistic approach, asserting that our biology strengthens rather than repudiates the case for a loving God. Far from a Gnostic, Wilson continually characterizes himself as a regular guy, even spiritually reticent (“I consider myself a slow learner in these matters. Some of my intensely spiritual friends call me ‘slow fizz.’” 5). By explaining prayer in the language of neuroscience, he’s simply advocating the bodily-ness of prayer, giving us permission to be human beings while we pray. As a counterpart to the neuroscience, Wilson offers prayer practices, drawn from scripture, that activate those areas of the brain responsible for things like stress relief, compassion, and a sense of connectedness with God and others. He compares prayer to a golf swing, “one fluid motion with three components: the address (orienting your heart Godward), the backswing (making your requests known), and the downswing with pivot (pivoting your focus from the threat to the blessings present in the midst of the threat)” (92), giving unpracticed pray-ers a ‘how-to’ of sorts. He advocates, among other practices, holding loved ones in memory in God’s presence; focusing on one thing for a long time; and scheduling fixed-hour prayer. “Prayers that are entirely self-generated (the criteria for authenticity that least applies to Christian prayer) sometimes require enormous effort” (p. 123), he avers, suggesting the use of a prayer manual of some kind.

It’s this two-fold approach—the science of prayer coupled with suggested practices—that make this book so practical, especially for those who want to “kick the tires” before fully embracing mystical aspects of Christian prayer (as Wilson puts it). What I find especially refreshing about his approach is its obvious compassion for the specific community with whom he shares his life and faith. His love for his people has led him to explore and explain prayer in ways that are mutually beneficial. The nature of that community—theologically liberal, scientific, skeptical—leads Wilson to conclusions in the final chapters that may, I fear, sour many mainline evangelicals to this clear-headed book. That those conclusions are reached in the context of a practical love for a real, local community that has shaped Wilson’s thought and action is (I hope) an encouragement to the general reader to push through and digest what’s truly good about Mystically Wired.

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Indignation - Philip RothI’ve not read any of Roth’s classic works: the Zuckerman books, American Pastoral. I’ve only read Everyman, The plot against America, and now this, and I’d say the title and its concern encapsulates my feelings about Roth and his writing: he is a deeply angry man, incredulous at much he sees around him. He looks back in anger. Indignation follows the tragic career of a young co-ed at Winesburg College in Ohio during the Korean War, a Jewish Butcher’s Son who can make no sense of the traditionalism of White Christian America and is hard pressed to deal with the many stereotypes he finds there. He runs there from a suddenly overbearing father, and falls in love with a troubled, beautiful young woman, but cannot infer from her many cues that she’s been sexually abused. Everyone he meets there makes him angry. He jumps to wrong conclusion after wrong conclusion until he is expelled, drafted, and destroyed in the War. Roth seems to be dealing with the currently-fashionable anger over our ‘rights,’ and the bluster it spawns, and saying that we need to be careful what we get indignant about, since “banal, incidental… choices achieve the most disproportionate results.” I’m still curious about Roth’s earlier, well-regarded works, but I don’t anticipate that reading them will be pleasant.

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The best of it - Kay RyanRyan is the former Poet Laureate of the United States, and this book anthologizes the best of her small, sure, surprising poems from the past decade. She writes poems about leftovers, lacunae, empty spaces. Lost places. Limits—limited quantities, limited measurements, limited abilities—are all over these poems, as if she’s trying to describe what nothingness looks like, feels like. For instance:


Silence is not snow.
It cannot grow
deeper. A thousand years
of it are thinner
than paper. So
we must have it
all wrong
when we feel trapped
like mastodons.

You can see that the concern with limits is reflected in her spare style, her rationed syllables. Everything is stripped down to its essence, resulting in the surprising punch of the final lines, over and over, in each poem. Her sly humor comes out in this way, here and there, especially in the interior rhymes. Sometimes she approaches cleverness, but more often she tips over into the profound revelation, giving insight into something the reader has never spoken but always known. The terseness and sharp focus of her poems gives her voice authority: the poems come off like proverbs, or koans. This is enhanced by her refusal to use the first person, except in the rarest of instances.

These are wildly accessible and fantastic poems, so consistently revealing that they approach the spiritual. Her unique dedication to her form, and the quality and development of her themes, truly earn her work the designation: masterful.

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HTML5 for web designers - Jeremy KeithOrdered this pretty much as soon as it was announced. A good, concise, readable, concise, short introduction to the elements of and thought behind HTML5. Did I say concise? It’s not really a liability, though– I think it’s clear that browsers aren’t there yet, and so Keith’s describing what will be rather than what is, and hence doesn’t have pages and pages of existing practical knowledge to relate. Really, just the spec and the new stuff, but it’s all very encouraging, and a good way to begin getting your head around what’s coming.

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Waking the dead - John EldredgeThough I was unmoved by the narrow Wild at heart, my friend Tim highly recommended this book, so I agreed to read it. Eldredge advances the argument that the life of Jesus actually sanctifies your heart, and so the belief that your heart is desperately wicked is a lie; and in fact, a chief aim of spiritual warfare is to recapture your heart from this lie so that you can experience life to the full. To this end, Eldredge recommends Four Streams, one of which is spiritual warfare and the others of which he details unremarkably. I felt like the central premise of the book was valuable- that we could do with a look at our self-loathing and begin to ask whether this is how God sees us. And Eldredge does a good job describing the ways in which our view of things plays into the Enemy’s schemes to keep us and those around us in bondage. Much of the “self-help” aspect of the book, though, I could do without. The verdict? Encouraging, not necessarily essential.

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Wild gratitude - Edward HirschAfter having so enjoyed Hirsch’s How to read a poem, I was curious to read his own efforts. Wild Gratitude shares a title with his meditation on Kit Smart’s ode to his cat Jeoffrey, which poem was featured in his book of appreciation as well. The collection swings between poems of this kind, poems of appreciation for grace and beauty in the natural world, and poems of striking anger, despair and fatalism. Most of them are formal, and you can appreciate the hours he must have spent conforming them to strict meter. They also skew longer than many I’ve read recently, and so the read is more challenging, though I welcomed the exercise. Hirsch is deft with image, and with plain-speak, elevating the everyday with his poetry, though often in the service of a dark view of the world. Slipped in the pages of this used-book-store-copy was a clipping from what looks to be The New Yorker, the last lines of which are a good example of the skill – and tenor – of the rest of the book:

Let five o’clock come
with its bandages of light.

A life buoy in bruised waters.
The first broken plank of morning.

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Self-portrait as Jerry Quarry - Vito AiutoWe played “But For You Who Fear My Name” at church this weekend, and I thought I’d order this book of poems by songwriter Aiuto and find out from whence he came. I think you’ll agree, given the Morrison/Tweedy/even-Dylan caveat that I had much to fear, but Aiuto is at worst an interesting poet and at best speaks the language of men in the refinement of verse. He has a delightful habit of enjambed lines that lead you to jump to conclusions, over and over, and that then double back and surprise you with a new association. His associations—the act of repentance is like being thrown from a crashing car, a panting dog drops a coin from its wet tongue and dies, “The lake shaking itself free from the dog’s coat / and hurrying back to the earth, eager not / to raise an eyebrow”—can be revelatory. Some of the poems are willfully opaque, but they have an quality of aggressive regret that’s disarming. The standout piece, ‘Horse Stories,’ examines his father and his childhood through the lens of the heavyweight fights his father watched on the TV, and is devastating:

You come back from work. There is silence, then
sleep, and still you do not want to talk. You
are not fully present. A part of you is always
catching up, arriving home
later, never really getting there. You
want very much to be idle, to want

You sleep on the floor after work, jeans
or work pants, T-shirt, white cotton socks.
You sleep on your stomach, arms outstretched,
Sprawled, spread-eagle, like a boxer knocked
out, a hero fallen.

This follows 14 other entries, one a particularly affecting villanelle. The poems that follow this are all equally accomplished, miles beyond most of the poems that precede it. It’s as if the book opens up in the last third. Worth the price of admission.

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American poetry - Robert BlyA collection of essays, poetry criticism and interviews, dating from the mid-sixties through the eighties. Bly laments the direction of American poetry as “away from the center,” lacking the life, spiritual intensity and connection to the unconscious of the Latin American and Spanish poets. He also thinks the contemporary era of poetry instruction is creating too many poets, and too similar to each other, poets who have learned at too little price and so can write nothing earthshaking. He loves, everywhere, this concept of the “deep image,” when the poet accesses the unconscious and writes something true from it. He praises: Neruda, Wright, Lorca, Levertov, Etheridge Knight, John Logan, Thomas McGrath. He tears apart Robert Lowell, James Dickey, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot. I find Bly both fascinating and a little repulsive. His poetry is good, and I was thrilled to be a fly on the wall for an extended conversation with this practicing and established poet. But he references psycho-spiritual nonsense as if it were established fact, and I was left with a weird feeling, as if the Sixties had overlaid the current decade, and Bly was the result.

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The light around the body - Robert BlyBly was a friend and champion of James Wright, the ‘friend’ featured in ‘A Blessing.’ I picked up and am reading a book of poetry criticism by Bly, and thought I’d read some of his poems; somewhere, this volume was suggested (it won the National Book Award). Bly is apparently a champion of ‘image,’ that poetry should be deeply concerned with looking inward and with a language of the subconscious. Often he titles his poems very forthrightly: ‘Watching Television,’ or ‘Listening to President Kennedy Lie About the Cuban Invasion,’ and then approaches the subject sideways through language. He imbues businessmen, accountants and politicians with natural, predatory characteristics— they bore into trees for grubs, their wings buzz fitfully. Many of these are protest poems, against the Vietnam War specifically, and Bly uses well an image of decay and darkness:

We long to abase ourselves

We have carried around this cup of darkness
We have longed to pour it over our heads

We make war
Like a man anointing himself

(from ‘At a March Against the Vietnam War’). As the book moves through five sections, it becomes steadily less concrete and more truly inward, until the final poems are all image and make little objective sense. But they are, all of them, striking poems. I find myself feeling contradictory about Bly—he’s a prickly fellow: reaching farther, maybe, than his grasp, but deeply invested in what he’s doing. I’m a little turned off by Bly’s criticism, so I had expected his poetry not to resonate, but I was wrong. As the poems steadily descend into pure ‘image,’ Bly proves he can navigate a forthright emotional poetry without lapsing into the vapid trippiness that characterizes some of his ideas.

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Cloud atlas - David MitchellI read this six years ago, right at the beginning of this meme, and dug it out again to loan to a friend who had read the casting rumors about the upcoming (possible) movie. Couldn’t remember more than that I’d enjoyed it, so I read it again. Imagines the death of Civilization through snapshots of its decline; our choices, good and bad, determine our outcomes, including the extinction of both our nobility and our species. The characters reincarnate from story to story; the stories form a nested V, bisecting each other one by one with the central story being farthest in the future and the novel’s beginning and end being farthest in the past, those two stories essentially mirroring each other to form a bookend. It’s ambitious, as is Mitchell’s determination to write in multiple voices and genres in a single book, and to make the entire narrative a sort of palimpsest of documents. Still a remarkable book, but I feel like I have perspective on its outlook that I didn’t have then. Frighteningly good, woefully unhopeful for humanity, desperately in need of a glimpse of Salvation. I highly recommend it.

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Unincorporated persons in the late Honda dynasty - Tony HoaglandA much, much stronger collection than the last one I read, What narcissism means to me. Hoagland exults, almost, in the space where guilt and desire meet in middle age. He bayonets everything awful about modern life, clear-eyed. But his core obsession is pain:

it is the old intelligence of pain
that I admire:

how it moves around inside of him like smoke;

how it knows exactly what to do with human beings
to stay inside of them forever.

(‘The story of the father’)


I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret


The final section turns elegiac, and ends on a wonderful poem, ‘Voyage’, in which he lights out with all his pain, his ‘marvelous punishment,’ and turns the hurting world somehow into something still hurting but good. Hoagland is a poet to celebrate; is three collections enough to justify a ‘Collected Poems’?

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Versed - Rae ArmantroutTroy Public Library sent over a signed copy of this 2010 Pulitzer Prizewinner. Armantrout is identified with the Language poets (Creeley, Silliman), who if I understand correctly intend to involve the reader in making the meaning of the poem. She gathers phrases from the ambient conversations around her and mixes them together to suggest meaning, but much of the work is mine or yours. The poems here are often delightful to read, simply because of the juxtaposition of words, often phrases or words from the world of common speech, but in surprising arrangements. Split in two parts (“Versed,” “Dark Matter”), the second apparently dealing with illness, cancer. Silliman says (in Gale’s Contemporary Authors Online) “Trying to read a book by Rae Armantrout in a single sitting is like trying to drink a bowl of diamonds. What’s inside is all so shiny & clear & even tiny that it appears perfectly do-able. But the stones are so hard & their edges so chiseled that the instant you begin they’ll start to rip your insides apart.”



And so I ask,
“Do you need both

I say keep
“jets” and “its”

I suggest
that you strip down
while remaining calm


It may be that
lessens the pressure

(or presence),

but there are still

to be considered,

no, not “considered,”
dealt with,

no, not “dealt with”

had, perhaps,

but with no rights
of possession,

no sense
of constituting

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Poems about God - John Crowe RansomRansom served as the editor of the Kenyon Review and mentor to a number of the poets I’ve been reading—Lowell, Jarrell, etc.—and I wanted to see what he did with his own hand: what he practiced of what he preached. I figured these poems, loosely “about God,” might be a good start, thematically. These aren’t all the greatest. There’s a strict, very strict, meter in many that makes me a little seasick, although I appreciate the technical skill required to get there. Perhaps this was just a fashion of the time, and I’m from a generation fully immersed in non-metric poetry? And having to collect only those poems touching even tangentially on the subject of God probably made for the inclusion of lesser poems (which Ransom all but apologizes for in the preface). But there’s a surprising bitterness that rises through the formalism, and it can be bracing at times:


The skies were jaded, while the famous sun
Slack of his office to confute the fogs
Lay sick abed; but I, inured to duty,
Sat for my food. Three hours each day we souls,
Who might be angels but are fastened down
With bodies, most infuriating freight,
Sit fattening these frames and skeletons
With filthy food, which they must cast away
Before they feed again.

This is probably the most extreme example, but you get the sense of what can be really good about his poetry— there’s something about the alliteration on the letter ‘f’ that makes this one particularly nasty. I have Selected Poems checked out, and may continue on to that.

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Selected poems - Randall JarrellI stumbled on this, confusing Jarrell with Detroit poet Dudley Randall, about whom I’d read in an essay on Detroit poetry. Turns out Jarrell is closely associated with Bishop and Lowell, and so this was a fair next read. Regarded more highly for his criticism than his poetry, now, still he remains popular, especially as a War poet; and his war poems are good. The standout, for me, was ‘The Lost World,’ a highly personal poem about childhood in Los Angeles that coheres, and a unique coda, ‘Thinking About the Lost World,’ which revisits the images and extends the feeling of longing and admiration for that period. The general criticism is true: Jarrell never quite stretches the boundaries of what language might do or say. One thing he does incredibly well, over and over, is document the liminal state and transition between two modes of consciousness—waking and dreaming, say, or daydreaming and suddenly coming to your senses. My friend Robert, on the bus, said, “Oh, Jarrell, yes. All very famous poems,” and “He once said of some poet, ‘He writes like a typewriter typing on a typewriter.’” My education continues.

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So when exactly will we visit next?
That Monday I’ll be driving up to Flint.
Then maybe on the Tenth? Mm-hm, you have
Your daughter’s boys. In that case, let me see,
We’re looking into June, late June, the kids
Are out of school. July. That’s settled, then.
I know. No dad you’re right it really has,
It’s been since August last.
Remember when
We visited in Tempe? Yes we talked
Divorce, I broached the topic there. You said
You felt in some ways all your life has been
Defined by that desertion. Did you say
Or did I dream? I cannot make it die
For decades now. My blood surges, I rend
the very
air and rip
the fibers
from the sick
and sucking
marrow of
the empty

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How to read a poem - Edward HirschI took this with me when I left the Westland Public Library, on the off chance I might be interested eventually. I’m interested now. Hirsch is a former Wayne State University faculty member, and answers the titular question by showing not telling—reading and then explicating a rash of exciting poems without utterly killing them. He argues for the writing and reading of poetry as a dialectic, with the reader as responsible to the final experience as the writer. Hirsch perhaps elevates poetry a little too high, spiritually, as he seems to reject any other basis for spiritual experience— when he reads that spirit’s themes are “night, sleep, death and the stars” he goes outside and stares at the sky, as if that were the pinnacle of spiritual exercise. I would argue that there’s more, and that indeed poetry is sustained by God’s Language and not merely by a sort of numinous materiality. Nevertheless, this introduction is thrilling, and truly the first formal tour I’ve taken through the world of poetry. More, please.

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MECHANICS: Spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors

“I like snaks,” he wrote to filibuster
a blank school day, his cobras coiled back home
in a lunchbox. Six seemed much too young to master
the silent e, an extra chromosome

slithering like subtext at the ends
of sense, and who could fathom -ght?
There’s violins, and then there’s violence,
two phone numbers, no bus some days, say please,

start at the top for l, n, b, and q,
but e starts in the middle, twists on its spine,
gets trampled by horses, beggarly as Pew
in Chapter Five. “I hope he dies,” my kind

boy hissed at story hour. He didn’t know
he’d known so well that Pew would perish, a plot
point drawn like an e already in death throes
before the horses come, as afterthought.

We read, Pew died, he sobbed. “Mom, I like TV
where you don’t care about the characters.”
I put down Treasure Island. He asked, “Where’s
dead?” but meant another word, without the e.

STYLE: Little or no sentence fluency; many repetitions; incorrect vocabulary; author does not communicate enthusiasm

For rote, read rot
For dead, read dad
For knotty, read naughty
For Hades, read had

For The It, read tithe
For heat, read hate
For write, read writhe
For meat, read mate

Desire is reside
Denude is endure
To seek is to hide
Fraction is fracture

ORGANIZATION: Introduction, body, and conclusion do not follow format

Miss Deference scores a line: The principal
is Mr. Long but he isn’t long, he’s short.
No one’s tuned to hear her hit the tact
nicely on the head. So unlike her,
said no one, as Greek gods bicker, social studies
of exclamation points. Under her desk
in wads of molded gum, her pencil pokes
the obverse of nipples or puts out Grecian eyes.
Is anyone under the radar under duress?
She’s testing blunt-nosed scissors. When they cut
her arms, she’ll starve and purge to get more edge,
less form. She’s cleared for future vanishing points
where Ares and Harpina can howl Olympic
obscenities in zero relation to her.

CONTENT: Does not address the essay topic

What I’m trying to say is that when you divide
something in half, you divide it into two

equal parts, yes, and Dennis wants to share
his snacks equally with Sara. Draw a line

on each food to divide it in half, they said,
so I bisected the apple, the cheese cube, the pizza

slice, the ice cream cone with my fat black
crayon, but when they said, “Now color

each half differently,” I could not do it. What
gods have joined, let no one put asunder.

Julie Sheehan. Parnassas: poetry in review, volume 31, nos. 1 and 2, pp. 307-309. Please don’t sue me.

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I’m sure I’m the last person to realize that the spate of high profile suicides at Foxconn in China are connected with the factory that makes component electronics for Apple. But it’s true, and incontrovertible, and what am I going to do about it?

To some extent, it’s impossible not to be implicated in economic injustice. My new shoes, for instance, are made in China, and I doubt the workers who assembled them are making anything like what I would consider a living wage. Foxconn was paying its workers a maximum of $150 a month; in the wake of international scrutiny, they’ve increased that to (after a trial period, a possible maximum of) $300. Their workers eat and sleep on campus in massive dorms with multiple roommates, are submitted to demoralizing drills, and regularly work far more than the government regulated maximum of 38 hours monthly overtime, putting in upwards of 12 hour days for weeks when there’s a big order (say, the iPhone 4?).

I know that Aldi, where I buy most of my groceries, is a private company, and thus exempted from revealing details of their balance sheet; and that the price advantage they enjoy cannot come entirely from their utilitarian approach to product placement. It’s likely that they, too, commit economic injustice. I’m sure I don’t need to speak about my complicity with Big Oil like BP— I live in Detroit, where to live is to drive. And as far as complicity with injustice is concerned, I remain in America, which is currently suspending habeas corpus, prosecuting two meaningless wars and advocating for the summary execution of at least one of its own citizens without due process.

But there’s a difference between these, which have to do with circumstance of place and time (I live in the post-agricultural America, and cannot entirely avoid the evils of Empire and Oil), or with economic necessities like food and clothing, and the luxury purchase of an iPhone, a status symbol with little intrinsic value (locked into a commercially inferior voice network, no less), made by a boutique company knowingly contracting with a Chinese factory that commits economic injustices that drive its workers to suicide.

I would pre-emptively argue, against those who would point out that I will hypocritically continue to use my MacBook and multiple other electronic devices equally tied to unjust labor practices, that the only escape from being a hypocrite is to give in to evil. Just because an action is not comprehensive does not mean that it is wrong, or useless.

Is there any reason I shouldn’t let my contract expire and quit this farce?

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Geography III - Elizabeth BishopI read this to supplement the ’69 Complete poems, and because the two poems in Hirsch’s How to read a poem—’One Art’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’—are in this collection. When she misses (I am not crazy about ’12 O’Clock News’ or the poem for Joseph Cornell), she misses. When she hits, as in ‘The Moose’ or ‘In the Waiting Room’, she knocks it out of the park. I was also particularly taken by the introduction, which is almost a collage poem made of found texts:

From “First Lessons in Geography,”
Monteith’s Geographical Series,
A. S. Barnes & Co., 1884


What is Geography?
A description of the earth’s surface.
What is the Earth?
The planet or body on which we live.
What is the shape of the Earth?
Round, like a ball.
Of what is the Earth’s surface composed?
Land and water.


What is a Map?
A picture of the whole, or a part, of the Earth’s surface.
What are the directions on a Map?
Toward the top, North; toward the bottom, South; to the right, East; to the left, West.
In what direction from the center of the picture is the Island?

In what direction is the Volcano? The Cape? The Bay? The Lake? The Strait? The Mountains? The Isthmus?
What is in the East? In the West? In the South? In the North? In the Northwest? In the Southeast? In the Northeast? In the Southwest?

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Bishop is introduced early in Hirsch’s How to read a poem, and she wrote comparatively little over her career, so I picked up this omnibus which turned out not to be so complete— she published one more volume, Geography III, before her death in 1979.

It’s hard to focus on each interior collection as a collection in a retrospective like this; I’m sure Questions of travel would be richer given more attention on its own. The early poems seemed muddy to me, but later she breaks into a precise richness, observing and describing and, through this, somehow imbuing her subject with meaning not initially there. ‘Roosters,’ ‘The Fish,’ ‘View of the Capitol,’ ‘Squatter’s Children,’ ‘Filling Station,’ … I’m sure aficionados are all well versed in these, but they’re a pleasure to me. ‘Arrival at Santos’ plays with language on the page such that even I laughed out loud.

I guess Bishop gets more attention now, and some think she doesn’t quite earn it. I don’t know; I wouldn’t turn many of these poems down, and I bet her critics wouldn’t either.

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Light boxes - Shane JonesThis review initially appeared in The Englewood Review of Books, Volume 3, Number 21

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: HarperCollins, 1998 [1974]), Annie Dillard relates her childhood encounter one January with the Polyphemus moth, “…beautiful… one of the few huge American silk moths…,” which her classmate brings to school, still in its cocoon. She and her peers pass it around, feel it jump inside its “spun silk and leaf”; look it up in a book to see what it will be when it emerges. Finally, they put it in a mason jar to mature. The heat of their hands has woken it to its purpose, and it struggles out, “a sodden crumple,” and breathes, still, under their gaze.

“He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried, and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a Mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsions.” (p. 62)

The children and their hapless teacher would be benign lords to the doomed creature: they want only to see it become everything it is created to be. Yet by their very attention they consign the moth to a short life characterized by suffering and unfulfilled potential. Despite their intentions, they succeed in ensuring that it will never fly.

Shane Jones, too, has coaxed a creature from its cocoon — his debut novel, Light Boxes (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 500-or-so copies of which were published in 2009 by the tiny Publishing Genius Press. Jones promoted his fledgling work relentlessly by every meager means available, till the unthinkable occurred: Spike Jones (Where The Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich) optioned it for film, and Penguin Books picked up a second printing for the national market.

Jones recounts a handful of inspirations for this novel— eccentric balloonist Thaddeus Lowe, who “did surveillance on the South” from the skies and was the “most shot at man during the Civil War” (from an interview in The Faster Times); and endless winters in the Northeast. “I used to joke around with friends in college that February was coming and it kind of took on a persona.” (from the Bookslut interview)

Hence this tale of February, the personification of the month, with his own priests, who makes war on humanist everyman Thaddeus Lowe and his town of flight enthusiasts. The snow is endless and flight is banned — balloons fall, references to flight are ripped from library books and burned. Bad enough. But when children start disappearing, including Thaddeus’s own beloved Bianca, Thaddeus begins to consider the invitations of a group of top-hatted, bird-masked resistance fighters calling themselves ‘The Solution.’

“We’re starting a rebellion, a war, said a yellow bird mask, against February and what it stands for.”

“A war, repeated Thaddeus.”

“Yes, a war, a war, a war…” (p. 11)

Jones continues from there, in what David Dark would call the poetic mode, using a language of imagery that aims more directly for the gut than the head. Light Boxes is a whimsical fable with a dream logic: Jones skips from image to image, sometimes without rational connection — owls, scraps of parchment, scarves, kites, honey and smoke. It hearkens to many other literary predecessors. I found the sudden appearance of a Professor, who explains certain factual elements of the town’s history, reminded me of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, and indeed this narrative, though fanciful, affects a prosaic matter-of-factness that echoes that drama. The novel’s episodic nature and multiple voices recall Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams or Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, and it especially shares its gradually rising tension and innocent-but-darkening tone with Dunn’s novel. As February grinds on and the resistance fails to stop his machinations, the townspeople begin to despair, finding it hard even to move.

The intervention of a mysterious ‘girl who smells of honey and smoke’ begins to break the spell. There is some ambiguity as to whether she is an ally to February — she apparently lives and relates easily with him — or an adversary, perhaps a traitor, to his war on the town below. February, too, is given some sympathetic treatment: lists found in his pockets relate regret over his actions against Thaddeus and his friends. Is his malignancy that of a spiteful God, or is he simply a depressed and self-loathing Man?

These clues eventually uncover a metafictional twist that suggest the latter interpretation. February’s intentions, it seems, were originally to bless and not to curse. But Jones dramatizes the problem at the heart of all good-intentioned attempts at Godhood: like Dillard’s grade school naturalists, we are unable to handle or even account for the details involved in new life. Even when we mean only to do good, we do evil, for we cannot control the evil in us and we were not made to impart life to other creatures. Evil works its way out into our best intentions, makes monsters of our creations and perpetuates nightmares. We are not made to be God.

Jones’s image-heavy approach to language works in favor of this theme. Like all poetry, it speaks primarily to the spirit, or the Spirit, in us, so that while we may not be able to make sense of it cognitively, we yet know more fully somewhere lower down inside ourselves what it means when we read about: children in underground tunnels, holes in the sky with feet dangling through, rivulets of blood becoming vines and flowers, mouths crammed with snow, boxes of daylight.

February, both the pro- and antagonist of this tricky little novel, ultimately must reckon with the evil he has done, and though the girl who smells of honey and smoke herself attempts to wring some good from the violence that ensues, neither she nor he, nor Jones himself, can quite keep the tale from spinning uncontrollably into a vaguely dystopian future, replete with “naked babies with flowers wrapped around their throats… walking from the horizon towards us.” (p. 145). The threatening surreality that colors the end of the novel leaves us without resolution: we do not know whether the town will find peace, or simply a different kind of misery. We sense that they, the story, the very novel itself has been irreversibly ruined in some fundamental sense – February has taken away its ability to fly, permanently, mangled its wings and cemented them in place that way. They’ve been given their freedom, but it’s a mutilated freedom: just like Dillard’s moth, released in his crippled body to heave himself “down the asphalt driveway by infinite degrees… still crawling down the driveway… hunched… on six furred feet, forever.” (p. 62-3)

Jones’s fable should resonate with many. Its surface action – a good and life-affirming people fighting desperately against a cold and evil religiosity – is easy to project oneself into. That the religious evil turns out to be simply the outworking of that same good and life-affirming impulse should give us pause. Ultimately, the knotty problem at the core of the novel will remain food for thought – both the head kind and the heart kind – long after the reader has closed this slight and deceptive little book.

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One superintends
The canvas, observes, orders the acts:

Body, bag, ball or ball,
Body, bag. One

sees or
not, sees
and orders
or does
not see
and orders, over
and over.

But, a bellows blowing alight a terrible heat,
An arm enchanted
Blowing down the line. The ball
Blows past each sere and reedy man,
Till but one stands, and One superintends.

All night, Jacob
Struggles to do good work,
Wrestles the man
Till the man must touch
His thigh to make
The dumb and stubborn struggle die.

And seeing wrong,
One blows out
The Light; the eye,
The arm,
The thigh,
The harm.

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The rules have changed.
The slick season of grief,
Countless midnights fuel enough
And raw material,
Transmutes the law.
You must honor a father and mother,
A new father, a new mother.

You’ve weighed this seedling’s prospects—
how sure? how long
will it go on?
how pure?

Now do what you must do
To meet the dear imperative
This heart makes plain:

Stand just here,
Accompany her.
Bells, ring.
Honor them and fulfill all
The new laws.

You are far from the homestead
Of your brothers and sisters.
You haven’t a cent.
These cataracts of measureless joy
Carry you inexorably to the watershed.
You are in another country,
A new world, heaving up in the spray,
Preparing a covenant.

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The branch will not break - James WrightWright began as a formalist, but broke ranks and pushed into new territory with this one, writing free-form lyric poetry, often at the limits of abstraction. The review I noted when reading To a blossoming pear tree said that this is his masterwork, and it is full of power. There aren’t the prose poems that fill Pear tree; there are those heart stopping moments when a poem breaks open the world.

I’m not sure I’m the best reader, yet, for the more impressionistic poems. My friend Robert on the bus says that most people ask the wrong question of a poem, “What does this mean?” He says that ‘the idea’ has a place in poetry, but it’s less like ‘the point’ and more like the walls of the court in which the game of poetry is played. I find it hard to just let myself go to an abstraction of language and appreciate it for what it invokes — I want there to be reason. But I defer to my predecessors, who praise these.

That’s not to say that all of the abstractions fail to reach me. Sometimes there’s reason in the form, the arrangement, that slips past:

‘Lying In A Hammock At William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

That last line is like a smart bomb.

I am very happy here, now, among James Wright’s children. And not ready to leave.

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Two years ago around this time we visited ‘The top 200 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users. Bold the books you have read, underline the ones you read for school, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish.’ (I’ve personally added “strikethrough the ones you’ll never ever read in a million years.” via scrivenings)

What’s interesting is the *kinds* of books that fall in each list, and what they say about what you like to read vs. what you don’t like to read, or what you thought you should read but didn’t have the stamina to endure.

I have since finished a number of titles that were unread last time, including Gravity’s Rainbow, The Once and Future King, Dubliners and Brave New world. The numbers indicated the number of Librarything users who have tagged that title ‘unread.’

If you would, please recommend to me one book from the list of titles I *haven’t* read, the one book I should read first if I were so inclined.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (263)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (240)
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (213) (Multiple times…)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (212)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (186)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (179)
The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien (177)
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (172)
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (170)
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (155)
The Odyssey by Homer (153)
Ulysses by James Joyce (151)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (150)
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (150)
The Iliad by Homer (148)
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (145)
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (144)
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville (144)
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (140)
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (139)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (139)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (138)
Dracula by Bram Stoker (137)
Love in The Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (135)
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (134)
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (134)
Emma by Jane Austen (133)
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (129)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (124)
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (124)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (121)
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (120)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (120)
Middlemarch by George Eliot (119)
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (119)
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco (118)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (118)
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (118)
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (116)
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (115)
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (114)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (114)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (113)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (112)
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (112)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (110)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (110)
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (109)
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (109)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (109)
Inferno by Dante Alighieri (108)
Dune by Frank Herbert (108)
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (108)
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson (107)
Atonement by Ian McEwan (105)
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (105)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (104)
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (104)
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (103)
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (103)
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (102)
Dubliners by James Joyce (101)
Persuasion by Jane Austen (101)
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (101)
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare (100)
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (100)
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (100)
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (100)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (99)
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (98)
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (98)
The Once and Future King by T. H. White (98)
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (98)
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (98)
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (97)
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (97)
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (96)
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (95)
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (94)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully… by Thomas Hardy (94)
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (93)
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (92)
Watership Down by Richard Adams (92)
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (92)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (92)
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (91)
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (91)
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (91)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (91)
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (91)
Collapse by Jared Diamond (91)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (91)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (91)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (90)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (90)
The Aeneid by Virgil (89)
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (89)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (88)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (88)
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (87)
Tender is the Night: A Romance by F. Scott Fitzgerald (86)
The Plague by Albert Camus (86)
Possession by A. S. Byatt (86)
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (85)
Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (85)
Underworld by Don DeLillo (85)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (85)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (85)
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (85)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (84)
The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien (84)
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson (83)
Uncle Tom’s cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (83)
Beloved by Toni Morrison (83)
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (83)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (83)
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (83)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (83)
The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien (82)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (82)
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (82)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (82)
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (81)
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (81)
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (81)
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (81)
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (81)
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (81)
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (80)
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (80)
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (80)
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (80)
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt (79)
The Trial by Franz Kafka (79)
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (79)
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott (79)
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (79)
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (79)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (78)
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes… by Neil Gaiman (78)
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (78)
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (78)
The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 by James Fenimore Cooper (77)
The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien (77)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck (77)
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (77)
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (77)
Candide by Voltaire (76)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (76)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (75)
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (75)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (75)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (75)
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (75)
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (75)
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (74)
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (74)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (74)
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (74)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (73)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (73)
Baudolino by Umberto Eco (73)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (73)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (73)
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (73)
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (73)
The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again by J. R. R. Tolkien (72)
Neuromancer by William Gibson (72)
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (72)
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (72)
The System of the World by Neal Stephenson (72)
The Republic by Plato (72)
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (71)
Silas Marner by George Eliot (71)
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter (71)
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (71)
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (71)
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (71)
The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan (70)
Eragon by Christopher Paolini (70)
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (70)
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (70)
Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs (70)
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (70)
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (69)
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (69)
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (69)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (69)
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (69)
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (68)
Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire (68)
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (68)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (68)
The Art of War by Sun Tzu (68)
Eldest by Christopher Paolini (68)
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (67)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (67)
Empire Falls by Richard Russo (67)
The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First… by Thomas L. Friedman (67)
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (67)

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Little to say. Haldane is obsessed with sex and death; the body is very much on his mind, and so its dissolution. This book comprises his first three volumes. I’d read praise for his clear, no-nonsense approach — he’s very fond of iambic pentameter, the one form every schoolchild can identify — but I found there’s only so much you can say about sex, except to compare it to myriad things, especially oceans, but also apple-orchards, cozy snowbound cabins, the milky way. And then to be afraid of growing old and dying.

I liked this one, Bridegroom:

The river ice was rearing from its bed
in massive blocks forced upward by the thaw
as we passed by that morning to be married.
Later, out walking on slopes where snow had melted
exposing last year’s fallen leaves, you slipped -

‘These oak leaves are murder,’ kicking them you said,
and I thought of the oak king, bound and crucified,
the drops of my blood trickling down his side.

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To a blossoming pear tree - James Wright“A profound, somewhat tortured humanity is to be found throughout Wright’s poetry,” says Jonathan Barker in the Reference Guide to American Literature; “This is all we have, is it not? We have our internal life. Our external life is usually asinine….” he quotes Wright saying. I pulled this volume as a result of Hirsch’s How to read a poem and his exegesis of the stunning ‘Hook.’ Wright concerns himself with Italy, with poets, and with beauty and the despair of being human. The titular poem destroys worlds in its final stanza:

Young tree, unburdened
By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms
And dew, the dark
Blood in my body drags me
Down with my brother.

I found myself crying, unaccountably, at the unbelievable sadness of this one poem. Or accountably. Barker suggests that The branch will not break is his best work, I believe I’ll take him up on that.

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Beautiful natural blossoms,
Pure delicate body,
You stand without trembling.
Little mist of fallen starlight,
Perfect, beyond my reach.
How I envy you.
For if you could only listen,
I would tell you something,
Something human.

An old man
Appeared to me once
In the unendurable snow.
He had a singe of white
Beard on his face.
He paused on a street in Minneapolis
And stroked my face.
Give it to me, he begged.
I’ll pay you anything.

I flinched. Both terrified,
We slunk away,
Each in his own way dodging
The cruel darts of the cold.

Beautiful natural blossoms,
How could you possibly
Worry or bother or care
About the ashamed, hopeless
Old man? He was so near death
He was willing to take
Any love he could get,
Even at the risk
Of some mocking policeman
Or some cute young wiseacre
Smashing his dentures,
Perhaps leading him on
To a dark place and there
Kicking him in his dead groin
Just for the fun of it.

Young tree, unburdened
By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms
And dew, the dark
Blood in my body drags me
Down with my brother.

Wright, James. 1977. To a blossoming pear tree. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 61-62.

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New and selected poems, Vol. 1 - Mary OliverI think Vol. 2 was a more overall satisfying experience. But not because these aren’t as good. These stretch back, I assume, to her earliest work, which is – well, early. And they’re arranged in reverse chronological order, so the confident later work, with its settled focus on the joy inherent in the celebration of the natural world, is less and less in evidence, till at the end of the volume Oliver treats all the usual subjects — death, her interior life, Myth, nature, childhood — in tentative ways. Not that those earlier poems aren’t good, they’re just still casting about for a steady voice. One thing that Oliver does exceedingly well is stick the landing: the last line or two is always exquisite, especially as she ages. Both of these books, I want them on my shelf, to return to.

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The careless society - John McKnightRecommended, as so many in my queue, by the Englewood Review of Books, via twitter. A polemic against institutional service agencies in favor of a community of citizen activists. Threatened at every moment to devolve into libertarian utopianism, believing far better of humanity than it deserves, in the service of some idol of “free choice.” But ultimately, the book stayed just this side of the line, and its common-sense premise — that a system can never produce care (and often produces the opposite), but only human actors in relationship and community — is achingly true. And its vision of “recommunalizing” the labeled and incarcerated into a community of care, rather than rehabilitating, strikes a chord with me. Not a world-changer, but its a quick read and worth a moment of your time, perhaps.

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The Reason For God - Timothy KellerI’d been threatening to read this again ever since I finished it in November, 2008. Again, it remains a clear, coherent, compelling vision of the Gospel. One by one, Keller addresses the chief objections-to-faith he regularly encounters as pastor of a mainline Protestant church in progressive, liberal Manhattan. And when he’s done sensitively but thoroughly providing convincing responses to those doubts, he proceeds to walk through the positive case for God. I would strongly, strongly recommend this book if you have any curiosity about Jesus or Christianity or the Church at all, or if you’ve been in the Church your whole life and want to be challenged and refreshed, or if you’re just somewhere in between. I wish I could buy you all a copy.

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie DillardI think this is my third time through this book. I picked it up again as a morning devotional; Dillard herself has described it as “a theodicy.” The depth of insight here — I’ve hardly encountered anything like it, anywhere, in any volume of anything else I’ve read. Her penetration into the heart of nature and the mystery of God sucks the oxygen right out of the room and leaves the reader flipping like a fish on the floor. The poetry and praise on every page, and especially on the last pages, is wildly excessive, and of the highest order. I will not go without a copy of this on my shelf, if I can help it, ever. Nor should you.

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Everett is an English Professor with a wicked satirical streak, and although this novel is comical, I’m sure he’s deadly serious. It’s a Black Comedy, in both senses of the word. Not Sidney Portier spent twice as long gestating as any other normal person, and his life just gets weirder from there. He looks exactly like Sidney Portier, he inherits enough shares of Turner Broadcasting to shame Rockefeller, and Ted himself installs him at his mansion after Not Sidney’s mother dies. NSP goes on to college, meets the author, buys BET, gets arrested for driving while black in the deep south, attempts to build a church and solve a murder, all before being mistaken at the Oscars for Portier himself. He masters a sort of automatic hypnotism that allows him to compel others to act out his own will for them. Oh, and NSP’s dreams: he dreams himself into various Black identities or roles in the history of Being Black. The novel is a tragicomic tour through the myriad ways that being Black in America is an exercise in surreality, and through his many misadventures NSP is demonstrating that no one has a handle on who the Black Man is supposed to be. He’s as confused as you are. The Black Identity is as fractured and fugged as possible, beset by racism, classism, nationalism, pretension, issues of authenticity, self-hatred, sexuality, bootstrapping, slavery. No one wants him, everyone wants to use him, his only friends are men whose minds or monies have so divorced from identity as to make them ciphers. He has no idea where he comes from or where he’s going. A sadder commentary on the dissolution of a people it would be hard to imagine, nor a more humorously dry one.

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Michael Gallaugher is my friend and compatriot in Columbus, Ohio. Worshiping under his lead and watching him lead people into worship pretty much taught me all I know about that art; I’ll probably be returning to his songs from that period for my entire worshiping life. He’s been involved in worship and worship songwriting for about 14 years, beginning at Joshua House, the young adult ministry at Vineyard Church of Columbus, and continuing on at the church’s main services. Six years ago, he was sent out with the team that planted Clintonville’s Central Vineyard, and is now the worship pastor there.

Michael has been recording his own songs under the label robberfly music since the turn of the century. In 2006, what was essentially his microlabel expanded beyond his own recordings and is now home to three additional artists. Michael sees his label digitally releasing predominantly worship-related artists, and giving away all proceeds to non-profit organizations seeking social and economic justice. Robberfly music’s most recent release is Michael’s new project, Unleash Hope, a surprise to him and a welcome addition to his rich history in songwriting. A new set of songs from Michael is always an event in the Neds-Fox household, and I had the distinct pleasure of debriefing him about this album, his songwriting, his label and his plans for the future.

JNF: Last year’s EP, Taking Flight, was your first return to new songs in a number of years, and your first since you decided to make robberfly music an entirely digital label with the “name your price” distribution model. Talk about what precipitated your return to writing and recording?

MG: I suffered a severe bout of writer’s block for many years. I’m not sure if it was due to having children or not, but I guess I was unmotivated to write new material. I definitely didn’t have time like I used to, just to sit down and see what came out. When I did write something new the results weren’t very good. I had taken a definite break from doing original songs in worship for a year following the release of The Cross back in 2002, so when that happened the writing stopped as well. I had a large backlog of material from songwriting sessions with my friend Jim Zartman over the years as well as from my own personal songwriting, so I would borrow from those sessions when doing new songs; which although partially successful caused me to rest on my laurels and not try and write new songs. Most of this material remains and probably will remain backlogged. Some of it was brought to light on the Sing Your Praise live album in 2005 and the Central Vineyard Worship album in 2007.

I think of the Taking Flight EP as being a transitional recording. It marked the first time I had written new material in several years that I thought was worthy of being used in a corporate worship setting. There was also some backlogged material that we’d done at Central Vineyard, as well as some older songs (one being over 10 years old) that finally saw the light of day. Even while in the middle of recording, some new songs started to be written (“Lose my life,” “Mercy,” “Unleash Hope”) that I had planned on putting on the EP, but it quickly became apparent that the new songs had a voice and a place of their own and were supposed to be on their own project. Not to mention that the new songs had a special favor on them in corporate worship. So Taking Flight is really like a bridge between the old and the new; almost like a postscript to a chapter before a new chapter begins. It’s hard for me to imagine these new songs existing if Taking Flight hadn’t existed before them.

JNF: What happens to a song after you write it? Does using it in a corporate worship setting change it in any way? Does the song’s use in worship influence what happens in the studio?

MG: Typically I try to let my songs sit for a week or two and then if I’m still excited about it when I listen back, I’ll probably think I’m on to something. I will try to show it to a songwriting friend or two and see if they have any ideas to improve it. I think my confidence in songwriting is coming back – typically I think my songs are generally good, they just need someone to take a look at them and give some feedback. Our pastor Jeff Cannell compares it to the John Lennon-Paul McCartney songwriting relationship, where one person would write a song and the other would suggest changes to improve it. Ideally, I’ll test run a new song in homegroup before doing it on a Sunday morning and see how it goes. Are people able to easily sing it? Do people catch on to it quickly? I think in previous recordings I would try and make the recordings sound as close as possible to the live worship version. This album was different. Although I wanted the core of the song, the melody and chords, not to change, I also wanted to be as creative as possible and to use the studio as a room to experiment without losing the core of the song in the process. So this album had the opposite effect: instead of being influenced by the live worship version, it was the one doing the influencing.

JNF: What makes you feel like a song is going to work in a worship setting?

MG: I’ve been writing worship songs for a long time now, in fact it’s the only kind of song I write pretty much anymore. I think I’ve forgotten how to write differently. Because of this, when I write, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I think I’m always crafting a song to hopefully work in worship. I try to use themes and lyrics that most people can identify with and grab a hold on. I try to pick melodies that are memorable and easy to sing. There are a lot of songs that never see the light of day because they just don’t work for whatever reason. I feel like this album displays a lot more maturity in songwriting than my previous full-length album of original songs, The Cross.

JNF: Talk about how Unleash Hope came about.

MG: This whole album has been a bit of a mystery to me, and I believe God has been in it from start to finish. In May 2009 I attended the national Vineyard conference, and it was there that I went up for prayer during one of the ministry times. At the time I was deeply engrossed with what would become the Taking Flight EP, and had come up with all sorts of plans for what that EP would look like and essentially how I would be making it “happen.” When I got prayer, the guy praying for me said “I feel like you are holding on to something, and God is saying that if you lay it down at the cross He will give you something better” (which is another reason why I like the new version of “Lay It Down” being on the recording). Immediately after he said that, I thought of the recording I was working on and I consciously said to God, “I give this to you. Do with it whatever you like.” I gave up all plans to do anything with the EP and shelved it.

I had told our pastor Jeff about it and I don’t think he told me at the time, but he had felt like God told him to give me the opportunity to make a recording. I had met with Sheila, our church’s counselor/spiritual director, to talk about something completely unrelated, and we ended up having a conversation about the word the guy had. She got a prophetic image about a volume being taken off a shelf in heaven with the number “12″ on it, and it representing my album. I remember thinking at the time that the words/images were nice, but I had no idea how it was going to happen. I had asked her if she had the impression that these songs were unwritten, and she thought that the bulk of them were. When this happened, I felt led to complete work on Taking Flight and get those songs out of the way in order to make room for the new material.

A few months later, Jeff started talking about doing a new Central Vineyard CD to give to visitors, since we were starting to run out of the previous one we’d done. He was especially interested in using some of the new material at the time (“Lose my Life,” “Mercy,” “Unleash Hope,” “Weakness”), and it was looking like it would be a 4-song EP. When those plans started happening, I changed plans on Taking Flight and decided to finish it as a 6 song EP and try and get it completed quickly, and it was released in August last year as a digital download; the focus of the new material was so different from the material on Taking Flight that I wanted to keep the two items as separate as possible. I had talked to different studios around town about doing a live studio recording of the new material and most of them didn’t return my emails. Jeff had come up with the idea of having John Reuben produce it, which I hadn’t initially considered but was a great choice since he is part of our church and is a successful artist. I think John and I met one time to discuss doing the EP, and he was very interested.

In September 2009, my wife and I attended a justice conference in Maryland. I remember that really being a breaking point for me. We had gone representing two organizations that our church is involved with, Asia’s Hope and Justice Gardens. Towards the end of the conference I remember being so overwhelmed with injustice in the world, and saying out loud “what the heck am I doing leading worship?” It felt like it was a waste of my time and wasn’t doing anything to alleviate suffering or help the helpless. And it was in that moment of complete surrender, that things really started happening.

When I returned from the conference, Jeff felt like we were supposed to do a full-length album and that it should consist of a mix of new and old material, mostly because he felt my older material had never gotten the recording quality that they should have. The songs just poured out of me like never before, and I almost supernaturally knew what kind of songs this record needed to be complete. I knew that the theme of justice should be a big focus on the album and I needed another song about justice (“Love & Justice”). I knew that I needed a song about choosing to worship God even though in the midst of suffering (“Trust You”). I knew I needed a song about the relationship with God as father and what that mystery means (“Father me”). And I knew I needed a song of worship to God about how great he is just because; there’s so much about “us” and “others” and relationship on this album, which is great but I needed a song that didn’t even talk about us at all (“Hallelujah”). Those four songs (plus “Truth”) flowed very quickly after the conference and only left room for three older tunes to get re-worked.

John and Seth listened to all of my older material previously released (and some unreleased) and they both thought that any additional older tunes would need to be pretty much re-written in order to match up with the quality of the newer material. So even while initially discussing the album, the new stuff was pouring out and making its place on the album. All in all (with the exception of the older tunes), the new songs really are new: “Lose my life” was written in November 2008 and is the oldest of the bunch, with the rest following in its footsteps over the course of a year. I think it is also significant that the album is being released at the Regional Vineyard Conference almost exactly a year after I got the word at the National Vineyard Conference.

JNF: Tell me who you’re working with on this album? You’re in John Reuben’s studio, right? Who is producing? Who are your collaborators?

MG: Yes, John (Reuben) Zappin and Seth Earnest co-produced the album. Seth is John’s drummer and a consummate musician. He played all the instruments on John’s last album, as well as co-produced that album with John. We recorded in John’s studio, which is actually a guesthouse converted into a studio, but John’s made several of his albums there. It was great working with both of them, primarily because they are both artists, and they both make their livings as artists so they definitely have a creative view on the songs, and know what they are doing.

It was also great to be able to take time on this album. I now see my previous works as demos — usually one take and then done. The entire first month was spent talking through each song deciding what identity we wanted to give them and what approach to take. The nice thing about having Seth there is that he was able to come up with several different drum ideas for each song, and then we’d be able to pick which one we thought was best. Seth also played a lot of the instrumentation on the album including keyboards and most of the bass, so having the producer also be a musician helped in capturing the feel we wanted. It also helped having two guys who work primarily with rap music provide an interesting counter-perspective to mine. I think it helped the collaboration be richer than it would have been if I were working with someone who thought more similarly to me.

Songwriting-wise, this album has the most diverse collection of co-writers on it. Although I did write most of the material by myself, it was invaluable to have John and Seth listen to the songs and provide feedback. Most of the time, they didn’t want to change the lyrics, melodies or chords but instead suggested minor changes to improve the song. One example is “Hallelujah” which I had initially written as an upbeat happy-clappy praise song, because I didn’t think the album had enough upbeat songs on it when we first started talking about it. John and Seth suggested slowing it way down and giving it a more reverent feel which improved the song 1000%. Another song, “Father me”: I initially wasn’t sure the quality of the song was good enough, but they loved it and Seth came up with a very cool instrumental track, and now it’s the first song on the album.

JNF: ‘Father Me’ is already better than anything on Taking Flight.

MG: I wanted to start the album with “Lose my Life” since all the other new songs came from that song, but John thought “Father Me” was a much stronger opener and I believe he is right.

The three of us co-wrote “Love & Justice” which was just a handful of ideas when I brought it into the studio. Working with John and Seth made me realize how to improve my writing. I tend to operate mostly in the right-brain, very artistically but then without warning would shift over to left-brain using a lyric that John thought was very scientific. With their help, I was able to tone that down keeping more in the heart side of the things and less with the brain.

There are also collaborations with other songwriters. Noelle Shearer co-wrote “Unleash Hope” with me. Eben Brusco co-wrote “Mercy.” “Lose my life” was initially a prayer that Dave Nixon had for our church that I put to music. And of course, “Sweet Jesus” [from Michael’s first album, Enraptured] makes a return appearance and that was co-written with Jeff Anderson, although I wrote a new verse for the new version. Musician-wise, besides Seth, Peter Shumaker (who plays bass in my worship band) played bass on 4 songs. Nathan Laing (another consummate musician) played guitar on several tracks, and I played guitar on several tracks as well. Amanda Anderson (another Central Vineyard worship leader) and Sarah Higgins (an old friend from Vineyard Columbus) did a lot of the backing vocals. We also had group vocals on this album, which was a new and very rewarding experience for me made up mostly of Central Vineyard worship team people, but also some old friends as well.

JNF: So “Lose My Life” was the first new song. What’s the story there?

MG: Yeah, “Lose my life” was the song that all others flowed from. Dave Nixon is part of Vineyard Central (not to be confused with Central Vineyard!) in Cincinnati, and also a mentor to many people of our church. Dave had come up preach at one of our Sunday morning services in November 2008. It was at that service that he gave us a simple prayer in order to help us with getting into the rhythm of fixed hour prayer. And that prayer was just a very simple one that [became the lyrics to the song]:

My Lord, open my mouth to speak to you.
Open my heart to love others.
Open my eyes to see and engage suffering.
I want to lose my life and find it again in you,
Whatever the cost, through Christ amen.

I was struck by the simplicity of the words and yet how powerful of a prayer it was, and being a music guy immediately thought I could learn the words quicker if they were put to music. So within two minutes, the melody and chords and been attached to the words and I started doing it in church I think the following Sunday. Our church grabbed onto it, and I think it helped open up new doors for our church in worship. My previous experiences in worship songwriting had been largely limited to what I like to call the “God you rock” songs and the “God I suck” songs. This helped open a doorway for new material and new expressions of worship that were no longer as limited.

JNF: Talk a bit about the new material. What was your experience co-writing with so many people? With your producers (on “Love and Justice”)? How was it different from your sessions with Jim Zartman? Where did some of these songs come from? Where do you see them going?

MG: Back in the day co-writing with Jim Zartman was definitely a great experience and you got immediate feedback on ideas. Typically we would meet twice a month, most of the time coming together with nothing but two guitars and a blank piece of paper. Usually we’d write something from scratch, but since I wasn’t doing any new originals at the time most of the material got backlogged and still hasn’t seen the light of day. I’ve long toyed with the idea of doing an album of the best songs from that period, but it’s been so long now that they will probably remain unrecorded and unheard.

Since that time, Jim has moved to Cincinnati where he is on staff at a church there, helping out with worship. So, we’ve written some things via email, which does work but not as easily as being in the room with another person as was the case writing with Seth and John on “Love & Justice.” The songwriting-via-email method was how the songs “Mercy” and “Unleash Hope” were written, with Eben Brusco and Noelle Shearer, respectively.

“Mercy” was an interesting case in that the writing process took several years and multiple re-writes before it was finished. Eben and I had talked about doing a benefit album for a non-profit group called “Hear the cry,” where artists would contribute a song but at the centerpiece of the album would be a “We are the world”-ish type of song where everyone sang, with a big anthemic chorus. “Mercy” started out as that, and was initially called “Hear the cry”. But Eben and I were never happy with the results, and couldn’t agree on it so eventually the “Hear the cry” benefit album idea was scrapped and the song was shelved. Several months later a friend of mine was diagnosed with colon cancer while pregnant with her 3rd child. When that happened, I took the words to “Mercy/Hear the cry” and a new melody and chords came out. With her as the focus, the song came to life even though the words didn’t change. “Mercy” was the second song to be finished after “Lose my life,” but it definitely took the longest to write.

Other songs pursued more themes of lament, relationship or justice. A guy in our congregation was diagnosed with stomach cancer and “Trust You” was written out from that. “Love & Justice” is like the sibling to “Unleash Hope,” both of which explored the ideas of justice, more than anything getting our hearts and minds to match the heart of God on this issue. It’s also something that our church has been exploring and is extremely important to our identity. Other songs like “Weakness” and “Father me” are really born out of relationship with God and realizing our brokenness. And the song “Truth” came out of the idea I’ve thought of for a long time about choosing to worship even when you don’t feel like it.

I’m especially excited for the newer material because for me it’s a whole new world of songwriting, and I’m realizing how many things there are for us to sing about in worship. I’m excited to see where they go and what happens to them. I’m optimistic especially within the Vineyard movement, because the ideas about justice are where our movement is going but I don’t think we have many songs about it.

JNF: Has this been a temporary unblocking or are you continuing to write? What do you see happening next, both with your output and your label?

MG: It’s funny you should ask. During the whole process of making this album I haven’t written anything “new.” I’m not sure if this is due to focusing all my creative energy on the recordings or what exactly. I am planning on being purposeful in taking time to write again when this album is released. It is a good habit to get into and I want to take time to try to write regardless of what comes out. That being said you can’t sell short the power of the muse, and writing out of the overflow of the heart. I think songwriting is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Although it is important to work on the habit of songwriting, without the inspiration you’ve got nothing to work from. When writing a lot of the songs on this album, I took a new approach of researching a topic I wanted to write about and coming up with lots of ideas before trying to put those ideas into words.

In terms of the label, I’m glad to have found like-minded folks who want to bless others with their music. I still want to provide opportunities for other artists to have their music online. I’m looking at other ways to make this work better, but robberfly music is a small fish in a big pond. I don’t think we’ll ever be much larger than we are now, but hopefully God can do something big with our little offerings. I know Eben has been working on a new album with his church; he now is the worship pastor at the Hyde Park Vineyard in Chicago. I’ve been especially excited to hear what they are coming up with, as it truly is a blending of diverse worship styles. It should be amazing when it is finished. And I know some of our other artists have been talking about doing new recordings as well.

There is a ‘prayer of confession’ that I’ve been wanting to put to music, so that is my next plan of attack in terms of songwriting when this is finished. I think my overall approach is to live life and see what songs come from that, and write songs based on the topics God is bringing to my mind.

In terms of what I see happening next, working on this album really has caused me to realize that less truly is more. It may be weird to say this, especially on the verge of releasing a new project, but I know now the value of true quality. I know now that I shouldn’t feel any pressure to release material just to release something. I know I’m not on the same level as a professional artist, and I don’t need to make something happen but rather be led by God to release material when the time is right. If I look back at the all the albums I’ve done, they have all happened because of God opening the doors and allowing them to happen, so for better or for worse those were the albums they were supposed to be. However, I now have a taste for quality over quantity, and I have no plans to make another solo album until when and if the time is right. That being said, I do hope this isn’t the final chapter and I really hope I get to work with John and Seth again! But if these are my final recordings, I could die happy knowing that.

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Hannah, noted for his violent and explicit tales, primarily about the south, died this year. I’m not sure what put this title on my radar, but it is a remarkable collection of short stories. Not a few of them concern Jeb Stuart and his Confederate mates, and there are a couple of the titular contraptions. Most are about people embroiled in a high-stakes version of life: lying and dying. Hannah’s got a way with language and an almost-magical realism that weaves his characters in and out of the natural world. His range of styles and concerns is impossibly broad, from science- to historical- fiction and a mess more besides, and the collection ends with a nod to the Dubliners, which made me realize exactly whose stories these reminded me of.

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Abe and I worked our way through this over a couple of months. It’s been about 6 or 7 years since I read it last, and it seemed much more adult this time, in contrast with last time, when it seemed much younger to me than the first time I read it. I had not remembered correctly who it was exactly that killed Smaug (it was Bard), nor did I remember about the Goblins returning for the Battle of the Five Armies. Essentially, it’s an appetizer for the coming main course: the pacing issues here are resolved in The Lord of the Rings — battles are given their rightful due in that expanded work. We will now set ourselves to the Rankin/Bass cartoon: “where there’s a whip, there’s a way.” Huzzah!

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This is the Modern Library edition of Chandler’s first two Philip Marlowe novels. A perfect storm of suggestion blew me to the stacks to find a copy of The big sleep; Farewell, my lovely was a bonus. Marlowe is the tough guy with a heart of gold, which is interesting because his escapades touch on far seedier characters and deeds than Hammett (Maltese Falcon seems like child’s play next to these). Lines like “The lightless finger of a black pier jutted seaward into the dark,” convince you he’s writing for keeps. His playfulness with everyone’s dialogue keeps you coming back for more. Chandler has a lot of fun with Marlowe’s patois — you can hear him commenting on it at times, in Marlowe’s voice, a pre-post-modernism that probably worked in his favor. There’s a peculiar pleasure in reading Marlowe’s actions and then waiting to see what on earth his thoughts and motives turn out to be. Both novels involve killer dames. Oh, and surprise! here’s the origin of the phrase “would make a bishop kick out a stained glass window.” On the whole, a lot of fun.

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This God-forsaken book.

Pynchon is undoubtedly a genius. The sheer power, reach and strength of his mind shines like a fever all over this novel. The overall picture: of a technology — the Rocket — conceived by an Ancient, Otherworldly Evil, and unleashed on us as the final and utter harbinger of Death, that will rend the veil and submit us forever and unceasingly to their cruel designs.

But I doubt I will ever submit myself to this vision again. Pynchon obviously thinks we’re screwed. Or, if he intended any reserve of hope for us, preterite, passed over, it was swallowed whole by the Rocket in my reading of this novel. This novel is Death.

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Since this was my second attempt at penetrating Pynchon’s breakthrough novel, and my first attempt ended in such utter defeat, I thought I’d bring along reinforcements. Fowler’s guide was my secret weapon, orienting me to the novel scene by scene and helping me frame what I was reading, so that I wasn’t entirely responsible for creating meaning out of what is (frankly, at times) a complete mindf***. As a discipline, I did not read a chapter of Rainbow without first reading its corresponding section in the Guide. Fowler is a bit of a mystic himself, many times writing with a less-then-clear semi-spiritual vernacular. But overall, the thrust of his work comes through: that Pynchon is not concerned to craft a narrative or preserve the dramatic and personal integrity of his characters, but is writing something more akin to poetry; and that the chief concern is the relentless and inescapable action upon passive, ‘preterite’ citizens of this world by the completely Evil and Omnipotent denizens of an Other Kingdom, just over the spiritual horizon. With that frame, Gravity’s Rainbow had a structure that helped me piece the narrative together and kept me reading (albeit “just,” at times). And Fowler’s identification of the repeated elements in the novel (King Kong, Hansel and Gretel, etc.) were very helpful, as were the keys to the bewildering cast of characters. I do wonder if I would have had a different experience — less cynical, overall, and with a more immediate response to the surprisingly effective sinister moments — if Fowler weren’t leading me by the nose. But more likely, I’d have had no experience at all as I abandoned the novel after 100 pages. So: a useful book if you’d like to make it to the end of Gravity’s Rainbow.

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A racial allegory, pitting Lila Mae Watson, first female black elevator inspector and a confirmed Intuitionist, against the Department of Elevator Inspectors and its ruling class of Empiricists. A vague historicity and strong detective-noir tones (reminds me of The Maltese Falcon meets Gattaca). Interesting, to read a novel about race that didn’t simply retread the crushing slavery narrative. The protagonists — both Watson and her analogue, Fulton — are almost pathologically walled off against their own feelings, the cost of attempting to penetrate the world of the majority. And the elevators, with their promise of ascension, their threat of failure and death, their cold unfeeling machinery (one episode has a motor casing erupting in a flood of cockroaches), their identification with the white world of the city… I found myself thankful for the novelty. Also, a page-turner.

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Yesterday marked my fourth weekend this spr/ummer out walking on my stilts. A friend made them for me last year, for my birthday, but circumstances conspired against my practicing much with them then. This year I’ve made it a goal to get comfortable on them by the end of summer.

Till now, I’ve pretty much limited myself to walking on the grass in the back yard, taking short hops from the playset to the clothesline pole to the garage roof. It’s been a good exercise to get used to the height and the action of stilts, and develop my balance. The driveway beckoned, but the psychological distance from “falling on the grass” to “falling on the cement” was too far to bridge. I ordered a skater’s helmet, though, and wearing it yesterday did the trick: I was able to traverse the driveway, walk down an incline and peg up and down the sidewalk while the kids rode their bikes.

I figure a few more weekends of practice and I’ll try a walk around the block. Once I can do that, and safely navigate bi-level moments (like the curb), it’s time to buy a top hat and tails and contact a seamstress or tailor and make a pair of 32/64 pants. Fourth of July Parade, here we come!

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Such a stew: an Ideas novel, an Issues novel, a bildungsroman, a War novel, a Sports novel, a Saga. But above all, an incredibly skillful big, bad, character novel. Duncan creates such a rich leading cast, and an equally rich (if slightly less fully realized) supporting cast, you can’t help but fall in love with the whole overblown mess. He is absolutely unafraid to put his leading men and women through their paces and report faithfully on every single thing they do in response. And his relentless probing into the means and meaning of grace — truthfully, as a human and not an ideologue — lead me to believe that this novel will resonate long after the specific plot points fade from memory. I get the feeling this is why so many people love this one. If I had a complaint it would be that everyone speaks in essay form, “from the heart” as it were, but that may simply be the author’s prerogative; also, there’s a little too much “bold tragedy:” cancer, rape, electroshock therapy. But surely I can have mercy. A rewarding read.

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When your children are old enough to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, they may not still be old enough to see the Peter Jackson films. When they are old enough to see the films, if they haven’t yet read the books, they should read the books. Once they’ve accomplished both, they should read Bone. Imaginative, insightful, touching, thrilling, endlessly engaging. My concerns about the first entry’s Avery-esque leanings are ultimately allayed, though the work remains violent and scary. But once scary images are manageable, this series is a must for you and your kids.

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I am the King of Pie
and boast only of my kingdom
I sing of apples, softened,
browned in heavy liqueur
Of berries blue, in sugar,
and steaming yams of ochre.
All of them, my subjects
as well, their swarthy brothers:
the chicken-pot, the mincemeat,
the quiche, the meat, the spinach.
I rule them and I eat
sometimes a score a day
and finish out a pan of pie
as quick as you can blink an eye.

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My friend Jeff, from Columbus, Ohio, has long praised this series. He’s a comic book aficionado, and unabashed in his love for the form, and I think at least an acquaintance of the author. He often indicated (if I recall correctly) that Bone was harmless and, I inferred, a good introduction to the form for kids. Recently at an event, I saw a young boy just a little older than Abe reading one of these. I know Abe is fascinated by comic strips, and we’re reading The Hobbit, so I checked this out to see — could we read it together?

Bone may or may not be harmless. I’m not entirely sure. It has good elements — it’s not superhero-based or explicitly sexual or violent. It’s a lot of fun, and mostly innocent. Smith is obviously in love with a broad spectrum of the history of his form. Pogo, L’il Abner, ElfQuest, Scrooge McDuck, Krazy Kat, Cerebus — all are referenced strongly enough for even a novice like me to notice, and this is just the first volume. His pen is expressive without being overly busy.

The other influence, and the one that worries me, is the strong Frank Cho/Liberty Meadows thread: cute animals innocently and not-so-innocently in love with realistic beautiful women. It strings back to Tex Avery, and it’s so inextricably linked to the very DNA of comic books that I wonder if I’ll ever feel comfortable reading anything but Calvin and Hobbes to Abe. Bone is very tame, don’t get me wrong, but the suggestion is strongly there. Part of me figures that Abe will get to this stuff eventually, and it’s probably better if he navigates it with me first, so that he feels comfortable talking to me about it when he ventures into it on his own. But the other part of me rails against the insidiousness of it all — that this is the gateway into orientations to the whole subject that are so destructive for young boys: subverted longing, hidden away.

The other issue is that the monsters are very scary, and the king of the monsters is a very Dementor-like spectre and an obvious proxy for the Death archetype. Since this is a visual medium, I want to be careful with my children.

I like this Bone, but I have decades of experience from which to interpret it. I may save it for a few years before I read it with Abe.

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I wanted some perspective on this trailer, so I popped across the street to the DPL and picked this up.

What passes for cool is ridiculous. There’s an interesting set piece near the end, a comic book form approximation of the Rockefeller Skank scene from She’s All That, except with a video game fight overlay. So: Teen Movies + Bad Romance + Video Games + Manga + Cyberpunk + Rock Music = Empty Cool. The celebration of the valueless hipster.

Utterly empty.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

I was intrigued when Collected Stories was released last year, and I browsed my way to this recent volume in the stacks a couple weeks ago. The cumulative opinion is consistently positive for Davis, and the general consensus is that she’s breaking rules of form, so I’m not sure my instinct to call “bullsh**” is entirely correct. But these aren’t short stories in the textbook sense. They’re… poems. Essays. Journal entries. Sometimes literally, journal entries. “I still define myself as a fiction writer for lack of another term, but I’m not really inventing. I’m taking what I see, the material I’m given, and arranging it, and really doing very little invention.” (from a 2009 interview).

I think I badly wanted these miniature prose… snippets, missives(?)… to be entirely fictional, because then there would be something to praise beyond the occasional wonderfully economical observations about life. And she does tell the truth about little things, and tell it well, which is the job of the poet. But the larger question, whether these are form-breaking stories or just something else entirely, masquerading as stories, is still unanswered for me, or leaning towards the latter. It was a very readable collection, occasionally very interesting and obviously highly intellectual. That may be the problem — the pleasures were entirely of the mind, with very little gripping the gut. And truth-telling essay work can grip the gut, as DFW reminds us (and the best of the longer-form items in this collection reminded me vaguely of him). But I was left wanting… something other than what I got.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

In conversation with a colleague, I mentioned that I was a bad Social Networking Librarian, because I do not maintain a Facebook profile. I am not privy to Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc. I cannot become a fan of your cause or respond to your informal poll. And recently, I find that roughly 15% of the weblinks I follow dead-end at content locked behind the Facebook wall.

It’s hard to remember that just because you’re invested in a social/communication network doesn’t mean that everyone is. This is obviously true for Facebook, but includes any communication scheme, including email. Further, just because someone maintains a node on a network (an email address, say, or a Facebook account) doesn’t mean that if you hit that node you’ve effectively communicated with that person. He or she may check his email account infrequently, if at all. And this lead us to consider what I think is the fundamental — and fundamentally difficult — thing to remember about people online, which is: your online presence is not you.

And since we’re librarians, we instantly leaped to this analogy: you are a book and your web presence is merely a bibliographic record. It’s a stand-in for the real you. Just because you’ve accessed the bibliographic record, don’t think you’ve read the book. You may be cutting large swaths of your intended community out of your communication network simply because you’ve conflated their selves with their representations of themselves. An email (or a Tweet, or a Status update) does not communicate until someone reads it, and only a subsection of the people you’d like to reach will — or can.

It’s hard to believe this is true in 2010, or that it applies to any but the aged or the very very young, but it is and it does. If you post it on Facebook, you will not reach me.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Jaron Lanier is, the dust jacket informs us, “the father of virtual reality technology,” and as such may be held partly responsible for the culture of technological escape we seem to be embracing in the 21st century, when our online personas are growing almost as rich and demanding as our real selves. Which makes it a surprise that Lanier, a committed humanist, argues vehemently against many of the accepted tropes of the Web 2.0 movement in You are not a gadget (subtitled: “A Manifesto”, NY: Knopf, 2010). A disjointed and sometimes digressive manifesto, You are not a gadget boils down to one deeply held warning / conviction: the individual is more valuable than the crowd or the cloud.

Lanier begins by reminding us that technologies hide ideologies, and that in adopting a particular technology we often unknowingly also adopt its worldview. Web 2.0 technologies have been designed with features — anonymity, favoring crowds and open culture — that devalue individual humans. The belief in a Singularity (the point when the software, or the Internet in general, becomes sentient — characteristic of a way of thought Lanier calls “cybernetic totalism”) drives designs that push us to view software as being personably intelligent in the same way that people are intelligent. But software, Lanier argues, is actually more and more conservative the more complex it becomes. Couple this with the tendency for bad designs to get “locked in” as software gets older and more complex, and we face the very real risk of cementing in anti-humanist models of interacting with the Internet that could be deeply harmful over the long run.

“Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction… The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.” (p. 4, 17)

Lanier returns again and again to the example of MIDI, which in seeking to digitally represent the fluid concept of a ‘note’ succeeded in making it so rigid that certain forms of musical expression were locked out of the future. He cites the ascendancy of clockwork tempos, which are a function of the difficulty of modulating tempo in digital environments. In a broader context, he points out that the current generation hasn’t innovated a new musical style since the early eighties (hip-hop), satisfied instead to endlessly recycle old styles. He blames the wisdom of crowds, which stifles individualism and results in a sort of scavenger culture, endlessly rehashing existing creations. The hive-mind makes no space for the sort of intellectual restriction — scarcity, essentially — that results in new forms. He also cites our extended adolescence, which cedes cultural authority to the still-viable previous generation for a much longer period.

Lanier is an all-over-the-map thinker, and I’ve neglected to address large portions of his concerns in this book, including his thoughts on the implication of digital culture in the current financial crisis, and his opposition to the digital media free-for-all. He’s nostalgic for a time when individual voice and thought provided a basis for creative communication; he laments the Wikipedification of online explanation, which often results in a flat, unmodulated tone. One issue I take with his approach here: though he is a dedicated humanist, yet his chosen field requires him to be a dualist — he believes slightly different things about the nature of the universe depending on which application he’s pursuing. Sometimes he’s comfortable with a materialist model of things; other times he wants to admit to mystery, though he won’t commit to a full expression of that view. In any case, it’s a useful concept: none of us are either/or, we’re most of us usually both/and. He favors materialism but champions mystery. But the flip side of this is that Lanier has it both ways — spiritualizing materialism is like squaring the circle. His late-in-the-game explorations into future humanistic communications seem out of sorts with the tone of the rest of his manifesto.

Still, his clarion call to back up and see the forest instead of the trees, to see the deep conservatism in what we tend to see as a progressive new sphere of interaction, is sorely needed. “People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time… We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good.” (p. 32). I don’t know how to turn the tide of the crowd, but if the right people listen, maybe we can put some much-needed brakes on this headlong hurtle toward the Singularity… before individual expression becomes completely optional.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

1. I expected this book to be historical and deadly serious, in the vein of Underworld. I think, upon research, that I based my expectations on some algorithm comprising the subjects of Libra and Falling Man and the title of Mao II. I was sorely mistaken: this is primarily a novel about structure and words, and though serious it is deadly funny.

2. While reading this book, which concerns in part The Airborne Toxic Event and includes a chapter by the same title, I heard a song on the radio by a band calling themselves The Airborne Toxic Event, of which I’d never heard before that day.

3. David Foster Wallace’s archives went to UTexas this past month. Among his effects are heavily (heavily!) annotated copies of many of DeLillo’s novels. This novel bears the suggestion that he was a fan.

4. SPOILER. White noise is about death by a thousand cuts. The field of information junk we traverse every day literally and figuratively sucks the life and identity out of us. Jack Gladney, the first and preeminent scholar in Hitler studies, and with a hodge-podge family borne of various marriages, finds that his current wife Babette has had an affair with a rogue researcher in order to gain access to an experimental drug, Dylar, which treats Fear-of-Death. When Jack is exposed to a toxic cloud and faced with his own imminent death, he becomes increasingly desperate to procure the drug himself, ending in complete and vague dissolution.

5. What a rich book. The modern condition comprises a toxic cloud, which literally materializes in the novel and chases the main characters around their county. I wasn’t prepared for how inventive and funny it would be. Disarming. Probably launched a couple dozen careers. Canonical for a reason.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The Art Installation, that hard-to-define blend of mixed-media, space and event, can be an attention hog. The strangeness, the size, the ill-defined requirements of the viewer are all in play, bringing you to the table and then daring you to figure out what it is, exactly, that you’re eating. The viewer’s mind often slides over the thing and the concept at the same time, desperate for purchase on the smooth, indifferent surface, theorizing, guessing and reguessing at the point. Or, the Point, as it were.

DeLillo frames Point Omega (2010, NY: Scribner) with an Installation, 24 Hour Psycho by Douglas Gordon, installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006. The piece plays Hitchcock’s famous film, slowed down to a running time of 24 hours, so that each frame hangs for a (relative) eternity. Attending this installation in marathon bouts, day after day, is an unnamed narrator. He is both obsessed with the work and stuck in a feedback loop of his thoughts:

“The film made him feel like someone watching a film. The meaning escaped him. He kept feeling things whose meaning escaped him… He began to think of one thing’s relationship to another. This film had the same relationship to the original movie that the original movie had to real lived experience. This was the departure from the departure. The original movie was fiction, this was real… Meaningless, he thought, but maybe not.” (pp. 11, 13)

Two visitors to the installation go on to star in the middle third of the novel: Jim Finley, a would-be documentary filmmaker and Richard Elster, an aging academic and consultant to the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq, and the would-be subject of Finley’s film. Finley follows Elster out to the desert, and spends ages with him attempting to win his consent to star in his film, a talking-head documentary, “just a man and a wall,” recording Elster’s thoughts about his role in the war. Later, Elster’s daughter Jessie joins them, and then disappears, and… that’s it.

Finley and Elster drink, stare. Elster speaks occasionally, theorizing:

“‘Consciousness accumulates. It begins to reflect upon itself. Something about this feels almost mathematical to me. There’s almost some law of mathematics or physics that we haven’t quite hit upon, where the mind transcends all direction inward. The omega point,’ he said. ‘Whatever the intended meaning of this term, if it has a meaning, if it’s not a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea outside our experience.’” (p. 72)

Slowly, slowly, certain disparate strands of the very slight narrative begin to cohere and certain meanings become explicit — the connections between the framing device and the central story come into focus at just the right pace, for instance. But even as this happens, another intention also surfaces: DeLillo is concerned with our relentless drive to make meaning out of nothing at all. The intellectual conceits of the novel, the big ideas of its characters, are fatuous, vacant. The characters work and work over the slightest, the most intellectually vague and intractably theoretical raw materials, to construct some kind of… something, and imbue it with value. Finley’s intended film, for example, rests on the flimsiest of conceits, but he pursues it with almost fanatical faith in its importance. I wonder if DeLillo isn’t having a joke at our expense. Reviewers have been lamenting his decline into insubstantiality for years now, expecting less and less from his newer work. Maybe he’s tired of being an idea man.

The novel ends revisiting Jessie and the visitor to the Installation, who stays to the bitter end of the film — at least, as much of the film as can be screened before the Museum closes for the night. No more meaning can be wrung from the viewing than that, if there was any meaning there to begin with.

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Sometime in the last 18 months, my reading quota skyrocketed. I was unaware of how and when, exactly; what I know is that before 2009, I was having trouble finishing 52 books a year, and then during 2009 I finished upwards of 80 (and am well ahead of schedule this year).

I’ve given some cursory reflection to this, after the fact, and thought I’d share some of my tips for reading upwards of 52 books a year, if you share my ambitions.

1. Read more than one book at a time. This allows you to average the long books out with the short books, for one thing. A long or difficult book can monopolize your available reading time, and it can be discouraging to come to the end and realize you’ve got some catch-up to do to keep on pace. Following multiple narratives also keeps you from getting bored with your reading, and so stalling out on the project entirely. You might make them location or circumstance specific: read one only on your lunch hour and another only at bedtime (and a third only on the bus).

2. Rediscover poetry and young adult fiction. Poetry counts. A volume of poems is often as rewarding in its own way as a novel, and much much easier to get through. And work your way through the Newbery winners — they’re classics, they read quickly, and you’ll find yourself better in tune with the worlds your kids are living in or will live in soon.

3. Read down to your children. What I mean is, read books to your children that are above their age/reading level. My son could not read The Hobbit or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe on his own, but he loves listening to them, and I love revisiting them. I can help my kids comprehend and contextualize passages as we discuss the book. And my children are being stretched by the material. When we finish, my children will have a broader cultural base than they otherwise could have, and I will be one step closer to book 52.

4. Use the in-between occasions. Trip to the post office? Walk and read. Gotta go? Take your book to the bathroom with you. You can push lights-out 10 minutes later to get through a few pages. Reading is essentially a journey taken a page at a time. Use the in-between moments to take a step or two.

5. Make it a priority. You don’t read because you don’t think it’s as important as working/doing-the-dishes/LOST/etc. Reading is rewarding in and of itself, inherently. If you don’t think so, you won’t make time to do it.

6. Write about what you read. Documenting interesting passages, taking a moment to jot down your thoughts about a theme or character, keeping a reading diary to remind you of plots — all of these help you contextualize and remember what you’ve read, and they become encouragements for further reading. Use a site like Readernaut, and your diary will double as a prompt for further reading. If you write about it, you’ll remember it better. You’ll also begin to develop over time a feeling for which authors, genres, stories are compelling to you, which will in turn motivate you to press on to new titles.

You can do this. I believe in you. Go. Get started.

Read a book.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

A slim volume (free ebook), developed from a sermon. Driscoll is a polarizing figure, garnering both acclaim and scorn for his blend of extreme conservatism with the emergent church model. Most of the way, this reads like the barest gloss on Proverbs (“…14:26 says, ‘In the fear of the LORD one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.’ … [So,] the safest place for children is with a man who fears the Lord.”), which isn’t bad. But Driscoll drifts into behaviorism and a shocking lack of grace, admonishing a failing father for his lack of wisdom by (obliquely) recommending he shoot his daughter’s boyfriend and summarily excommunicating Christians-who-sin from the Church. I don’t mind separating the wheat from the chaff. Really, I don’t. But I bet I could find a follower of Jesus to give me sound scriptural advice on fatherhood without demanding that I sift through this deadly legalism to find it.

(Update: I neglected to point out Driscoll’s conviction that it’s a Biblical mandate that a Godly father make a lot of money, which he emphatically asserts but takes little time to flesh out. It follows from the mandate to provide for his family, which, I’m not sure, but I think our role in provision is at the very most as a team member and probably more likely as a charity case.)

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

A colleague loaned this to me. It’s of a piece with writing of the time — squarely avant-garde, almost poetry, Sixties San Francisco. The phrase “Trout fishing in America” becomes a synecdoche, both for a number of representative people, places, thoughts, actions relating to America and for America itself. There’s something elegiac about it: Brautigan may feel that Trout fishing represents something both fundamental about and increasingly missing in his America, as especially represented by a late chapter in which he visits a scrapyard where they’re selling lengths of Trout fishing creeks and various waterfalls. His voice is relentlessly fun, and he’s willing to follow his pen to almost any absurdity it intends. A unique, quirky little book — one that’ll probably get stuck in my synapses long after it should reasonably have faded.

Posted by & filed under Listening.

…since I recommended new music. Jeff Anderson has come into his own headspace (finally!), and Anderson Cale has released a self-titled set of instrumentals that make for great working music — stirring, well done, semi-ambient stuff. Go get it on iTunes and support a great couple of guys. (And hey, Anderson Cale: Bandcamp eats MySpace for breakfast. Get on that!!)

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The story goes like this: my wife brought this home from book club. It’s Michigan’s The Big Read, see, and one of her fellow bookclubbers works at the Ferndale Public Library and had a raft of copies. Zena’s not interested, though — all she can think of is Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir. But she picks it up, and when I needle her about it a few days later, she’s done a 180, she loves it, she can’t get enough of it, see? Which is enough to pique my interest, and here we are.

It’s a page turner, that’s for sure, with a great lead character, Sam Spade, a hard-boiled Detective who doesn’t trust anyone, listens when money talks and treats women like he owns them. He’s got an ethic, but it’s not a moral ethic — if your partner gets iced, you find and capture his killer, and you don’t chase a rabbit just to let him go.

It was amusing, reading the genesis of decades of Tough Dick Cliché. I’ve never seen the movie, so I came to it fresh — didn’t know a thing about the plot. Lots of descriptions of yellow or glowing eyes, set jaws, weak knees, etc. Very of its time. Women were dames and men were Men, a certain decorum reigned even among the riff raff, untrustworthy elements were “swarthy” or “Levantine,” on and on. Can you see why it would be enchanting?

If you can, I recommend it.

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Whiskerino is over. Which is a relief and a bit of a downer. There’s not much to say about it that you can’t glean from perusing my archive there. Except what David said, which is that he’d never before (nor since) encountered a forum that celebrated the Masculinity inherent in being an intelligent creative.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

A trip up to the special collections revealed that my library has a copy of every single Newbery winner. Which led me to seek out this favorite from childhood and read it. Which resulted in the realization that I didn’t understand half of it, despite having read it multiple times as a child. The forces in the book were elemental to me, as a child, but not explicitly connected to the Great Story (despite the inclusion of scripture!!). I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s good to read books to your children, especially books that might be above them, so that you can explain things to them — new words, tough ideas — and guide them towards comprehension. And so they’re not afraid to reach up and out when they choose their own reading material. </parenting-no-brainer> Meg’s space-and-time-bending journey to save her Father and her younger brother Charles Wallace is a moving reminder that we’re aided, equipped, and commissioned to resist the Darkness, and that it is our one monumental task, our responsibility, and our joy.

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Manning is taking sides in the faith vs. works faceoff, and he’s squarely in faith’s corner. You can’t be good enough. You can’t be smart enough. You’re loved and forgiven before you even get your lame self-justification out of your mealy mouth. Probably a good once-in-a-while read for those of us in the semi-gnostic, Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard camp.

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O’Brien’s 1994 novel concerns a rising politician who crashes and burns once revelations of his involvement in My Lai come to the surface. It’s beautifully written, skillfully exploring in language the interior lives of its antihero, a flawed man — both very good and very bad — never fully at ease after the events in Vietnam. Wade, the politician, tries to create a Good life after the war, and almost succeeds until his devastating loss in a run for the Senate. At a cabin in Lake in the Woods, Minnesota, his wife disappears under mysterious circumstances one night, and the book explores what might have happened to her, taking pains to let us know that there were no conclusive findings. Her disappearance among the 1000 Lakes mirrors the shifting opacity of Wade’s own life, as if the horrors of what he did and saw in Vietnam had forever unhooked him from the corporeal. A solid novel.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Desiring the kingdom is Smith’s attempt to reapproach Christian Education through the stomach, as it were. Cognitive approaches to Christian formation don’t touch the desires, he argues, and desire is the prime mover. We lead with our hearts. So while we learn at Christian Schools to adopt a Christian Worldview, the secular liturgies of the Mall, the Stadium, the University are getting straight to our hearts through our bodies, and forming a desire for a different Kingdom in us. Smith argues for a new approach to education, centered around Worship, which employs affective methods to truly form us as a peculiar people. It’s a refreshing idea, although his exploration into the ways that the Worship liturgy enact this formation struck me as after-the-fact, as if he’d formed his conclusions and then worked up examples to try to support them. Don’t let that dissuade you from tackling this very readable book, especially the last chapter on pedagogy.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

allow me to timestamp one LOST theory in advance of the premiere of the last season: the series has been employing up to three alternative timelines already, and we’re about to see a (possible) fourth. miles’s father is “pierre chang” in one of these timelines. in another, he is “marvin candle.” the island is a shared point on all 4 timelines, and has the unique quality of being able to move among them.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

What narcissism means to me - Tony HoaglandThis follow-up to Donkey gospel is… less, somehow, than its predecessor. The title almost seems like an apology for Hoagland’s having been caught in his own eddies, or a post-rationalization. But the greater focus on himself — the navel-gazing, almost — kills more than a few of these poems. And the ones that do survive aren’t quite as transcendent as those in the earlier book; the third and fourth sections are definitely stronger than the first two, and there are a few good lines/passages, like this from Suicide song:

It is a stone, it is an inconvenience, it is an innocence,
And I turn against it like a record

Turns against the needle
That makes it play.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox - Roald DahlThe slightest of stories, featuring Dahl’s customary celebration of a bit of shadiness — or resourcefulness, depending on how you look at it — in the face of exaggerated awfulness. I loved it as a kid, and now I’ve read it to my own son. Doesn’t quite hold up into adulthood, but it’s probably right up a 6-yr-old’s alley.

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Danny, the champion of the world - Roald DahlOne of my favorite books growing up; one of my favorite books from growing up now that I’m grown. Danny’s affection for his father transcends the revelation that his father engages in an addictive and illegal pastime. It subsumes it, redeems it. Danny notices his father’s every attention (he mentions each time his father holds his hand); he lionizes his father’s every habit. I think children can powerfully empathize with Danny; with the sense that there are grown-up currents that their fathers swim in, which they don’t understand but which they trust their fathers to protect them in/from. I think children can empathize with this all-covering love which makes even poaching noble. The truth is that Danny’s low estate means nothing to him because he only has eyes for his father, and I know this is true in real life, for real children. I love this book.

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Donkey Gospel - Tony HoaglandPoe, during Whiskerino, did a series of book recommendations, and transcribed the poem Jet from this book, which was gripping. I ordered it immediately. Donkey gospel is Hoagland’s second book of poems; it won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, which honors a poet’s second book. Hoagland writes pagelong paeans to himself and to life as a man in the 20th century, unafraid to celebrate and/or expose the banal, maybe both at the same time. He develops a rhythm that elevates the poems; he also has a lavish way with metaphor and he knows it. And he uses it. He’s unapologetically messed up at times, selfish, sex-obsessed, but there’s a tenderness in his affection for himself, warts and all. This is, in fact, his aim (I think): donkey::gospel, profane::sacred. A remarkable book.

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Empire of illusion - Chris HedgesHedges, in hysterics, prophecies nothing less then the End of American Civilization, charging our culture with retreat into mass deception. Instead of participating in reality we construct pseudo-events, favoring inanity over reality, pornography over love, and the continued charade of free-market capitalism over Democracy. Corporations have taken over, civil liberties are a memory, and we’re fast heading toward Weimar-Germany-level catastrophe that will rock us to our core. In what can only be described as a tacked-on coda, he suggests that — don’t worry — Love is stronger than Death, for about two pages.

My issue with Hedges isn’t that what he’s saying is untrue — it’s all true. It’s that he’s screaming at the top of his lungs without any constructive suggestion. If we’re powerless against the corporate security state, we need not hyperbole but organization and action, which would make for a much better and more useful book. Especially since only the choir is going to read this anyway, and they’re already awake.

And he’s right: evil is struggling to crush an uncrushable kernel of eternal life. But someone else is writing that book.

(PS – I had an idea, if the totalitarian security state ever arrives in force, for a secret post office of Christians, operating under the radar and on foot. It would be like an anti-Tristero, not evil but Good. Who’s in?)

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The doors of the sea - David Bentley HartHart tackles the problem of evil in the wake of the 2005 tsunami that decimated a large portion of the Indian subcontinent. He makes the distinction between God’s Providence and the requirement that God be directly responsible for every contingent event. He develops the argument (also in Atheist Delusions) that a true and robust definition of freedom involves the ability to achieve the full expression of one’s nature, and so to hold that God is responsible for evil, or that evil is somehow a necessary part of the realization of an ultimately Good eschaton, is to restrict God’s freedom to be completely Good. Evil is simply an “ontological wasting disease,” the necessary ‘nothing’ that springs from man’s ability to choose against God.

Hart is also wise enough to concede that no one can accept this without first finding faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the entry point, for us, into understanding God — we look at Jesus, we see the Father. I found this just as compelling as, and easier to get through than, Atheist Delusions. Worth it.

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Anonymous celebrity - Ignácio de Loyola Brandão(This review originally appeared in The Englewood Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 49)

A popular and political writer, relatively well-known in Brazil, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão has been only sparsely translated into English. Dalkey Archive Press — named after the comic-apocalyptic Flann O’Brien novel — is reissuing some of his work, like Brasilia Prizewinner Zero (initially banned in Brazil), and commissioning new translations of others, including this difficult little novel.

Set in an unnamed television studio in São Paulo, Anonymous Celebrity tells the story of, well, an anonymous celebrity: a stand-in for an absurdly famous Lead Actor (referred to as “LA”) in a Brazilian soap opera, used by the studio to make appearances in his place when LA is too sick or substance-riddled to do so himself. Cloistered in Dressing Room 101 (“surrounded by the books and notebooks containing the details of my grand design” p.10), the narrator relates aspects of his life and his approach to life in short, titled vignettes. His central concern is to achieve fame in his own right, not as a doppelganger for the already-famous. “What breaks my heart, what leaves me sleepless, is that my fame is still being kept from me.” (p.10) To this end, he employs legions of consultants — an Image Consultant, a Networking with Other Famous People Consultant, a Bruising Declarations Consultant, a Consultant on Personal Well-Being — and updates a library of manuals and notebooks — The Manual of Celebrity Behavior, Manual of Media Necessities, The Notebook of Cruelties, Manual of the Anonymous. He’s portrayed alternately as either a sort of pitiable hoarder — surrounded by the detritus of his obsession, constantly taking notes, reviewing fashions, rehearsing Bruising Declarations, spewing venom at the already-famous — or an untouchable Star, shocking the media with his profligate scandals. “Without the media… we’re nothing,” (p. 14) he asserts, and much of the novel concerns his efforts at building a meticulously constructed persona for the media. We’re left wondering how much is real and how much is entirely in his head.

I should take a moment to point out that this is a timely concern. We are obsessed with image. We’re fast approaching the point as a culture where we allow media to define us completely, not just culturally but as individual personalities. An interesting episode midway through the novel, concerning a dolly crane in the television studio that is purported to have been used by Kurosawa and hence has become a tourist attraction, illustrates the point. The so-called ‘Kurosawa crane’ had never actually been out of the studio. The story had been completely invented, and the invented story animated the inanimate, to the point of worship. If this novel is any indication, Brazil may be even farther down this road than North America. A novelist willing to tackle the issue is (potentially) a prophetic voice calling in the wilderness.

Brandão, with Anonymous Celebrity, wants to be that novelist, to expose the vacuity of our obession with fame. Shot through with laundry lists of trends, buzzwords, dead actresses, the sheer volume of shallow obsession reflected in the novel is meant to wake the reader to the meaninglessness of it all. We see the narrator involved in the most inane concerns, revolving entirely around the construction and maintenance of his image. Interspersed “Rescuing the Anonymous” profiles — little documentary passages, highlighting some uncredited extra in an otherwise famous photo or film — labor to hammer the point home. But the sheer callousness of the novel works against its impact. The narrator, as he is presented in the later third of the book, is fairly obviously meant to be a sympathetic character. But his action throughout the bulk of the novel is so over-the-top awful, it’s hard to believe he’s real. There’s a strongly prurient streak, completely secondary and extraneous to the main story — almost grafted on — that places Anonymous Celebrity squarely in the line of popular vs. political fiction. These interludes are meant to represent a real life which the narrator can roundly reject in favor of his self-constructed identity, but they’re so hyper-sexualized they feel anything but real. There’s also a failure of story: Brandão sets up some pretty cut-and-dried narrative mysteries and then neglects to fully or satisfactorily address them in the end, even though the novel’s end is patently designed to do just that. Instead, he introduces a few more ‘real life’ characters who seem anything but, and engages them in subplots and dialog that are silly at best and ham-handed at worst.

Some of my distaste for this novel may possibly be explained by the difficulty of reading in translation. I have neither the cultural understanding nor the luxury of the native language to cushion the blow of the stilted, humid prose. But I think the novel fails of its own accord. It’s disjointed — hundreds of one-to-two page ‘chapters,’ never relating to each other, some in larger text sizes or slightly different fonts but without any real thematic design — in a way that doesn’t successfully serve the novel’s political ambitions. It’s distractingly and unnecessarily sexual. Although the conceit of the novel turns entirely on the revelation of the protagonist as he really is — instead of as he presents himself — Brandão mishandles this revelation and fails to sufficiently uncover the narrator. In the end, it pretends to a gravitas that it doesn’t achieve or earn.

Which is ironic, really, because that’s a pretty good summary of the underlying problem with our celebrity obsession — we grasp at a significance that’s neither ours, nor really there in the first place. It’s unfortunate that, as best as I can tell, it wasn’t intentional.

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The raw shark texts - Steven HallA debut thriller that moved the NYT Magazine to declare it “genre-founding.” I got this on loan from a colleague at work who teaches meta-fiction. It is a pageturner — I couldn’t put it down. Its central conceit: that living concepts have evolved, akin to fish, and swim through the streams of communication, printed, spoken, sung. Some of them are predators, and their attacks explain all sorts of memory disorders. The main character is the territorial prey of a particularly deadly conceptual shark, and can’t remember who he is or what his life was like. The novel follows his efforts to tell himself / find out what happened and how to correct it.

My problem with the novel isn’t the conceit, which is excellent. It’s the application. Hall tries to elevate his fiction to the level of a worldview via a true-love-story, but fails to write characters who are either believable or believably true-lovable. The final three pages fall flat on their (two) faces, and they take the novel down a peg with them.

But if you’re in the mood for a thriller, a pageturner, and a good idea reasonably well fleshed out, here’s your book.

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The country of marriage - Wendell BerryCame upon this slim volume on a little shelf of poetry at a party; borrowed it from the hosts. At first, I thought I’d come upon a Berry I wasn’t that crazy about, which would be new for me. But it turns out I just needed a few poems to get back into the rhythm of what he says and how, and the second half of these poems really began to grab me. A couple sweet love poems; some “country of marriage” and some “country we have married,” meaning the specific land Berry lives on, farms, knows, loves, preserves. Some great poems lashing out at the unthinking economy of destruction. A brilliant reflection on the world of difference between his own world and the modern world, The Stranger, ending with the killer “I stand like an Indian / before the alien ships.

And this:

Anger Against Beasts

The hook of adrenaline shoves
into the blood. Man’s will,
long schooled to kill or have
its way, would drive the beast
against nature, transcend
the impossible in simple fury.
The blow falls like a dead seed.
It is defeat, for beasts
do not pardon, but heal or die
in the absence of the past.
The blow survives in the man.
His triumph is a wound. Spent,
he must wait the slow
unalterable forgiveness of time.

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Graham Greene - The heart of the matterI picked this up for some bedtime reading, and was quickly drawn in by Greene’s perceptive eye and understated prose. It’s just a novel — a plotted love triangle — but masterfully handled. And Greene’s Catholic concerns are front and center here, insisting on the broadness of God’s capacity for mercy and the narrowness of our own. When Scobie takes his pills, he does so because he has completely inverted his own understanding of love. We do well to studiously avoid the same mistake.

Posted by & filed under Listening.

Even though I grew up in the eighties, long after the advent of Psychedelia, Dylan, Abbey Road, etc., I think the expectation that pop songs had to mean something still hadn’t leached completely from the collective unconscious. I think it had been struck from the record, perhaps, but had yet to fade. It can take decades, centuries even, after the fact, for cultural beliefs to change, as David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions contends so well.

But listening to Slowmotions today, I wonder if the approximately two decades since Slanted & Enchanted haven’t taken a big bite out of that expectation. Is it gone? Are we completely comfortable with good sounding nonsense coming out of our earbuds?

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The book of gods and devils - Charles SimicThere’s a lot of existential dread in this follow up to Simic’s Pulitzer Prizewinner. Images of huge, forbidding skies, deities, children/women grown oversize; fairytales and myths and legends twisted subtly toward the macabre. Simic is growing on me in the slight period between starting the last collection and finishing this one. There was a transitional aspect to reading this: I think I came into it expecting one kind of poem, based on The world doesn’t end, and it took me about half the collection to warm to the rhythm of these more formal poems. I’m no devotee, but there are worse poets, if you like dread. Here’s a representative sample from Part II:

Winter Sunset

Such skies came to worry men
On the eve of great battles:
Clouds soaked in blood of the dying day
That made the horses restless,

So the soothsayers were summoned
But kept their mouths shut
About the meaning of it,
Even when shown the naked sword.

The gloomy heavens made gloomier
By the shadow play of unknown tribes
And their heroes on the run.
The white church tower of the First Congregational

Clutching its bird-shaped weathervane
Against it all, but the village deserted.
Not a soul in sight. The people indoors
Afraid to get up and turn on the lights.

Some young farm woman, dress unbuttoned,
A small child on her knees,
Its head turning away from her full breast…
Eyes full of the sky’s terror and luster.

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Gilead - Marilynne RobinsonSecond reading. It may not yet have won the Pulitzer Prize at that time. I’ve been recommending this book for five years, but I think I only now comprehend the import of its ending — that Ames sees Jack as himself, and so can have compassion on him finally. So, it’s good that I re-read it, and it’s lucky that it’s still an exemplary book.

My wife heard Robinson speak about writing this novel, a few years ago at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. Robinson holds that it was not written in the normal way — hard work, endless re-writing — but arrived as an inspiration, born whole as it were. She simply wrote a few pages and sent them to the editor, then a few more, and so on. Astounding! But we agreed then that it explains why she went on to write Home — that Home probably filled her need to actually go through the process of writing this novel, thinking about it, reworking it. Home is even more impressive now, realizing that Robinson was required to take the throwaway moments from Gilead and piece them into a cohesive narrative of their own, and that she largely succeeded.

In the final analysis, and barring Infinite Jest, this may be the best novel I’ve read since beginning my readership project in 2004. It’s the most widely recommendable. It’s certainly worth your time: the time you spend reading it will return to you a real, tangible value, which you will not get in any other way.

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The world doesn't end - Charles SimicThe progression goes like this: my friend Robert Garza gave me Simic’s The Book of Gods and Devils on the bus last week, because he had an extra copy. He mentioned that Simic won the Pulitzer for this other title, The world doesn’t end, and handed it to me — Garza places them in the surrealist tradition. I read a few of these odd prose poems before I had to disembark, and the next day I checked it out of my library.

He held the Beast of the Apocalypse by its tail, the stupid kid! Oh beards on fire, our doom appeared sealed. The buildings were tottering; the computer screens were as dark as our grandmother’s cupboards. We were too frightened to plead. Another century gone to hell — and for what? Just because some people don’t know how to bring their children up!


The city had fallen. We came to the window of a house drawn by a madman. The setting sun shone on a few abandoned machines of futility. “I remember,” someone said, “how in ancient times one could turn a wolf into a human and then lecture it to one’s heart’s content.”

They’re slight, and interesting as far as they go, but I wonder if they’re any good? I mean, is this a good poem? Is it good writing? I don’t always know how to answer that with these prose poems — as the book went on, I began to feel more and more like I was looking at the Emperor’s new clothes. With nonsense like these, sometimes I get the feeling that it’s about how it sounds… it has to sound right. I can imagine Simic throwing away 10, 20 failed experiments for every one he keeps.

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The abolition of man - C.S. LewisHere’s the earliest example of the arguments I’ve more recently read in Atheist delusions and Life is a miracle, that scientific progress is neither good nor bad, but that blind allegiance to it is destructive; and that to deny or replace — with values imagined by the will — the values intrinsic to things is to charge headlong towards nihilism. “It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.

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Marilynne Robinson - HomeI was tempted to think of this as an addendum to Gilead, Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prizewinner about Rev. Ames and his relationship to his spiritual son, the prodigal Jack Boughton. But this side of reading it, I realize that the story of Jack Boughton needed more than just that single accounting of grace. Gilead details Ames’s struggle to forgive Jack; Home looks at the same story from the point of view of the Boughton household, and the myriad other forgivenesses that Jack demands and engenders, or fails to.

The central mystery of Gilead — that Jack had married a colored woman — is of necessity known to the reader this time, and so we have more time to reflect on Jack’s own image of himself. Robinson has created an almost pathologically tortured soul: an alcoholic and a thief, lonely to the point of pain with a loneliness almost entirely self-inflicted. Away 20 years, he returns suddenly to Robert Boughton’s home, as his father is in his twilight years. Rev. Boughton is cared for by his youngest daughter, Glory, now in her 40′s and in her own way a failure at life, too. All three of them struggle mightily to approximate a loving, trusting family, but Jack’s nature and their long history make it impossible. Jack’s youthful indiscretion (he fathered a child by a near-child herself, and abandoned both; the child eventually died in poverty) was central to his family’s grief, and he himself is burdened by unspeakable regret.

The title brings to mind any number of old saws: “home is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” “you can’t go home again,” etc., (and both apply here). Jack tries desperately to belong in his father’s house, and ultimately fails, following an act of desperation. Robinson leaves open the possibility that Jack (and by extension, we) may, in the end, have no reasonable place to rest:

“That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the sould could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.” (p. 282)

The heart-rending coda, which I won’t spoil, sees a kind of redemption of his efforts through the imaginings of his sister. It is one in a string of attempts at defining forgiveness in the novel: as a kindly lie, as action even in absence of belief, as resignation, as false hope. The central fact of the novel is disappointed hope, and yet every character wrestles his or her existence to wring redemption out. The stillness and sadness that sets over the novel is almost itself a character.

It’s a high achievement, to tell the same story twice and to twice create a singular thing of beauty. I can only look forward to Robinson’s next effort. Surely whatever she sets her mind to will be worth reading.

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Atheist delusions - David Bentley HartFirst things first: Hart himself does a great job summing up the crux of his argument:

“The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity… are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible.” (pp. 32-33)

That’s his main suggestion: that Christian thought was a revolution across all levels of society the likes of which had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since, and that the modernist conception of itself as “an ‘age of reason’ emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith’” (p. 33) is a fable, having more in common with folklore or myth than with history or truth. He sees this age as ‘post-Christian,’ and as benefiting from an ethical foundation it inherited from Christianity but has since attributed to itself. Hart purposes, through most of the book, to correct this popular, common, and totally incorrect view of the historical record, and he does a thorough and only slightly smug job of it. This is the first time I’d ever heard a challenge to the common perception of Galileo as a scientific martyr to the Church’s dogmatic blindness.

Hart warns that the logical terminus of the modernist concept of freedom — liberty from anything that constrains the will — is nihilism (that is, literally, “nothing”), and that what humanity might become, when freed from the ethical constraints necessitated by the Christian view of human life as intrinsically valuable, is unknowable and probably unlikeable. The Christian view of freedom — that one is truly free when one is at liberty to assume the highest and fullest expression of one’s nature — is self-validating; we’ve left that concept behind, Hart says, partly because we do not acknowledge that man has a nature beyond the mere expression the will.

Hart believes that the ethical outworking — charity, empathy, altruism, responsibility to the other — of the radical Christian idea — that man is valuable because God created him and inheres in him — will slowly disappear from civilization (he doesn’t hold any hope that it will do otherwise). He suggests that as this happens, those who have been or are being truly transformed by that idea, still, may retreat into the modern equivalent of the desert to seek the kind of freedom noted above, just as the first desert fathers (and mothers) did as the Empire subsumed Christianity in the early centuries A.D.

This book is chiefly welcome as a corrective to the modernist fable about itself (as I’ve said), and I’d like to get my hands on a copy permanently, to keep for future reference. It’s also probably Hart’s most accessible work; a quick look at The Beauty of the Infinite reveals very, very technical theology, which is almost impossible for me to parse. Glad I started with this.

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The God delusion - Richard DawkinsWhen I picked up David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions, I wanted to a) be as fair-minded as I could be, and b) learn a little about the opposition, since the title is so loaded — it obviously references Dawkins’s very popular book. Many of my friends, family and acquaintances have read this. So I read them concurrently, finishing this one first.

Dawkins argues that religion and religious belief is (to paraphrase while retaining his tone) irrational, arrogant, dangerous and above all, contemptibly stupid. His main argument is that, given the universe’s improbable complexity, God must be even more improbably complex to create it, thereby himself requiring an even more improbably complex creator, ad infinitum. He offers only ‘natural selection’ as an alternative for the prime mover. The “who designed the designer” problem isn’t explained away by natural selection: although Darwin’s theory is an elegant, simple, and almost certainly correct explanation for the progress of life, it doesn’t attempt to address how those simple one-celled or even sub-cellular flora or fauna got here in the first place, nor can it. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Dawkins’s logic is lazy and unconvincing, mostly a rhetorical appeal to emotion, filled with unstated assumptions, and extremely condescending. And I found it hard to be objective in the face of his invective: as far as objectivity goes, I probably checked out about 3/5ths of the way through. Hey, I tried.

Dawkins reminds me of the man with the hammer, to whom everything looks like a nail. He’s so intelligent, but he seems obsessed with applying the theory (law?) of natural selection to every unsolved problem of propagation he can see, including the development of the universe, the spread of ideas and the rise of religious feeling. Also, the scope and extent of his anger, and the general sloppiness of his argumentative logic, suggests that something more primal, less rational, than his reason is driving him here, something more akin to religious fervor than scientific detachment. Both combine to make the book less than compelling, which is unfortunate for Dawkins’s stated aim that theists would be atheists by the time they finished reading it.

It’s a shame, because the truth is that science reveals a beautiful universe, of jaw-dropping complexity and improbability (see above), and its explanations for what things are and how they work and develop (including, by the way, natural selection) are elegant and awe-inspiring. Dawkins does such a great job of revealing this. It’s a shame he hates God so much, because I like his writing, what he says and how he says it, when he’s not quite so busy smacking me around.

Posted by & filed under Listening.

zena and i had the privilege of seeing sufjan stevens friday night on a little mini-tour he’s doing through the great lakes area and canada. as he put it during some between-song patter, “part of the reason i’m doing this tour is to try out some new songs,” which just made it all the better.

we heard four of ‘em, to be exact — the neo-funky impossible soul, the poppy there’s too much love, the space-horror freakout age of adz, and a heavily reworked, epic, difficult all delighted people, which retained only the lyrics to the refrain (“all delighted people raise their hands”) from the original. majesty snowbird got an airing too, also slightly reworked (or re-arranged), making it clearer, less orchestral and slightly more accessible: in other words, better.

setlists from earlier in the tour indicated another new song, alien attack. i presume this was cut to make room for more songs from greetings from michigan: flint, the upper peninsula, detroit, and holland were all in evidence.

labelmates cryptacize opened with an antiseptic, emotionless, ultra-hip form of indie music, heavily indebted to 60′s french pop and the beach boys (they played an ironic cover of transcendental meditation and mentioned pointedly that they were from california). on one of their songs, cosmic sing-along, they sang a super-clear, a capella caesura: “sing along, sing along, sing along.” no one did. later in the concert, when sufjan played casimir pulaski day (about an ex-crush who died of cancer) you could feel the pathos in the room. his obvious emotional investment was so compelling, the room spontaneously joined him for the “da da da” melody that ends the song. cryptacize: fake cosmic singalong that wasn’t; sufjan: true cosmic singalong that was. it was amazing.

we wished we’d heard the transfiguration (which he’d been playing earlier on the tour), but it’s hard to complain with this guy. as zena said, “it was a dream.” as the culture declines, the lights — informed by the light — will seem even more brilliant. case in point.

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The very persistent gappers of Frip - George Saunders and Lane SmithA morality tale for children about aiding the less fortunate, illustrated in The Stinky Cheese Man style by the illustrator of The Stinky Cheese Man; takes a few sideswipes at (presumably) Christian morality in favor of ethical humanism, though not in so many words. Moral aside, not terribly remarkable.

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Welding with children - Tim GautreauxShort stories, caught my eye on Readernaut. The author’s voice is so good, I plan to read his earlier work (as happened with Joseph O’Neill). Set in a pre-9/11, pre-financial crisis U.S., in a pre-Katrina Louisiana, where hard lives still seemed redeemable by good choices. Differs from many other collections of short stories I’ve read, in that the characters don’t descend into depravity and hopelessness but more often than not make the good choice and pull up from the tailspin. Highlights include the title story, about the grandfather embarrassed with his parenting skills who turns it around with his grandkids after a hard word from an oldtimer; Resistance, in which another oldtimer helps his neighbor’s school-age daughter with a science project, in spite of her father’s drunken rage; and the hilarious Easy Pickings, in which a ragtag group of poker-playing Cajuns disarm a would-be petty thief without hardly even trying. “What wins us over is Gautreaux’s powerful, often poetic mix of colorful detail and rapid-paced suspense,” says Andy Solomon in the NYTBR, and Amen, but I’d add that he’s pretty darn good with dialogue and character, too. Winner!

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Introducing the sermon - Michael J. HostetlerFrom the “Craft of preaching” series, this is, um, exactly what it says: an entire book devoted to the craft of writing a compelling introduction to a sermon. Not even a whole sermon, just the introduction. Essentially a practical manual, focusing on four contact points that must be made in the introduction– with the secular world, with the bible, with the audience, and with the body of the sermon. By far the most attention is given to contact with the secular world; my recent experience is that pastors are focusing more now on contact with the audience. A little flat, a little dry; good insight but not much more. Found it, interestingly, in my library’s William Alfred Boyce Storytelling Collection. How about that?

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The search for delicious - Natalie BabbittI confess that I knew this song long before I knew of Babbitt’s children’s book. Panda Bear’s spiritual kinship with Delicious‘s year of publication helps make the connection. The novel itself is an interesting fable about a poll to resolve the meaning of the word ‘delicious’ in a faraway kingdom: everyone disagrees about what it means, and their disagreements escalate nearly to civil war. But the convoluted plot, including a traitor to the king, an ancient mermaid and a lost doll, is contrived at best, and the main hook — that you cannot codify the subjective — is not on par with that of her best-loved book, Tuck Everlasting (though both feature a magical pool). Interesting at best.

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Jayber Crow - Wendell BerryA big, loving novel about what every Wendell Berry missive is about: what it means to live well, and what it takes. Jayber is the longtime barber in Port William, married to Mattie Chatham, though only by his own secret covenant with himself: even she doesn’t know, though he remains faithful to her. A couple times, Berry uses the unspoken word with piercing perfection, especially in the novel’s closing sentences. And his all-pervading love for the balanced economy of the small farm-er in community underpins the work. A visit to the working 1850s farm at Greenfield Village during my reading of this novel made me feel like I’d stepped into its pages.

I can’t do anything anymore but recommend you read Berry. All of it — fiction, nonfiction. Read it.

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The things they carried - Tim O'BrienThis is the most affecting war novel I’ve ever read. It is: world-destroying, and also: world-restoring. It is as brave an act of storytelling and remembering as I’ve ever seen, and it deserves to be read and treasured and passed down to succeeding generations and read again. A series of vignettes, written by the real Tim O’Brien, who really served in Vietnam, about a fictional Tim O’Brien, and fictionalizing his and his Alpha Company brothers’ real experiences there: the book lives and dies by the idea that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” (p. 203) Crushing. Devastating. Devastating. Perfect. Lifesaving. I can’t give a high-enough recommendation for this novel.

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The trumpet of the swan - E. B. WhiteMy son and I read this; I found it in a stack of books by the side of the road. I thought it was great. He was on-and-off interested. White has a knack for anthropomorphizing animals without pulling them totally out of the animal world. His people and animals live in a weird in-between world, where animals and people can relate but both retain their distinct otherness. Anyway, that was all evident here, and I remembered all the things I liked about this book when I read it, as a kid: Louis and his trumpet, his easy triumphs over the human world, his earning money and making his way and defending his father’s honor and winning his sweetheart’s love. E. B. White, man…

Posted by & filed under Listening, Lord, State of the Union.

yesterday, for various reasons, i was feeling pretty dismal. depressed, disconnected, dejected — i’d decided that nothing was figure-outable and i was worthless and life was pretty much uninteresting and uninterested. and my feelings were backing that conclusion up, cheering me on: “yeah, yeah, that’s right, isn’t it?” “luke, trust your feelings.” depression: it’s the new black.

feelings make harsh taskmasters. for one thing, they’re entirely internal, but they screen and filter all of your incoming perceptions. so although they have absolutely no bearing on the nature and make-up and temperament of the external world, you’re stuck perceiving the external world through them, and it can be hard to convince yourself, in the moment, that the external world isn’t exactly as you *feel* it is.

think about it, though: the world is what it is, regardless how you *feel* about it. so if you feel depressed, that doesn’t mean the world is any different than when you feel, say, ecstatic. and the logical conclusion is that you shouldn’t use your feelings to make determinations about objective things, like whether or not things are good or bad, or how valuable you are, etc.

anyway, my wife graciously took stock of my mood and suggested going out and spending some time alone with the bible, trying to force another screen for the world and counter my feelings. except the first coffeeshop was closed, and the second coffeeshop was packed to the gills and not the best place to get some solitude, and ultimately i found myself, dejected and desperate, at

the record store.

now, you know where i’m at with music. i’ve just recently started listening again, but carefully, and i haven’t bought an album in over a year, and i’m not sure i’m supposed to start now. plus we’re on a budget and i’d just told the kids we couldn’t get slurpees after church because we’re trying to watch what we spend, but i thought to myself, “maybe they’ll have that dead texan album, and maybe one more, that innocence mission album, and if they do i’ll just buy them and it’ll make me feel better.” i tried to rationalize it, like, “i’m listening to an old, pirated copy of the dead texan on itunes anyway, and if i buy it i’ll just be making an honest man of myself.” also, i’ve never seen the dead texan in the used bin before, ever, though i’ve looked, and so i didn’t expect to find it and that made my trip into the store harmless, right? i’d walk in, get disappointed, walk out and no one would get hurt.

wouldn’t you know it: they had both albums. $15, all told. and i’d promised myself, if they had them, i’d buy them. so i put it on the credit card and went out to the car and tried to read the psalms. and i read one or two, and looked at the two cds, and the cd inserts, and thought about how i’d tell zena i bought two albums, and what that said about my time and my state of mind. and i knew that record-store-shopping is classic coping behavior, for me, and here i am: depressed, and with two new cds that i can’t afford and don’t need and which are completely out of line with my whole spiritual milleau for the last year anyway. and i began to feel the prompting of the holy spirit to just: take them back. beg the store owner to let me return them. be done with this and be at peace again.

i did that. i told him i thought they’d give me peace, but then i had no peace, and anyway i bought them with money i don’t even have, and so if he could find it in his heart to take them back…? and this guy, he looked at me and said, “aha. medicated spending. yeah, i’ll take them back. if you want to practice what they call ‘fiscal responsibility,’ well, i guess i can dig that.” and i suppose it’s god’s grace that the owner of my local record store follows jesus, although he doesn’t make a big deal about it, except one time he let it slip in a conversation a few years ago. and small mercies go a long way toward slipping past the screen of your feelings. i didn’t feel better right away, but later i did.

anyway, that’s the story of yesterday. no moral, but pay attention. your feelings do not define reality.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Answering God - Eugene PetersonAnother title started at The Convent, finished later. I usually have a hard time with Peterson’s language, but this was relatively easy to digest. He explores the practice of praying the Psalms in a monthly cycle, and the ways that they naturally provide a framework for prayer — for acknowledging God, for remembering, for praying in community, for praising and for cursing. He advocates praying them without worrying too much about the what and how and why of it. The rhythms and language will eventually work their way into you. It’s the thing to do, says the testimony of centuries of spiritual practitioners, and we’d be a little deaf to ignore their witness.

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Asterios Polyp - David MazzucchelliAs with The Last Lonely Saturday, I read this graphic novel at the general urging of Ian Sampson via Readernaut. Apparently, Mazzucchelli is something of a touchstone for the indie cartoon movement of the 90s/00s, and hasn’t published anything for 15 years (the Terence Malick of cartooning?). This has been ten years in the making; New York calls it “a cartoonist’s cartoonist’s masterpiece,” and even a patzer like me can clearly see that they’re right. The story follows the missteps of the titular character, a prominent ‘paper architect’ (meaning he’s celebrated entirely for his theory; nothing he’s designed has ever been built) and self-involved prig who marries his opposite and ultimately loses her. We follow his journey to a healthier understanding of himself, his life, his regrets, and the things he might do to begin to make reparation.

Much of the communication is done with the art and the form — characters are stylized according to their character, as it were, speaking in different fonts and occasionally revealing their inner selves by their rendering. Mazzacchelli wants to say something about either/or thinking vs. a more life-affirming complexity, that we’re all both deeply convicted about certain things and deeply contradictory in our expression of those convictions. Mazzacchelli tempts you to sum up characters on first glance — assign them merely two dimensions — and then reveals that you were too quick to judge by adding a third, a fourth dimension a few pages later. And the story swirls through modes of art, myth and legend with dizzying virtuosity and a Pynchonesque flair for character names.

Mazzacchelli also has something to say about how brief this life is, and how comparatively important it is to get over yourself, quickly. He does so by making a connection to elements of his earlier ‘Rubber Blanket’ trilogy, and I won’t spoil the almost-doesn’t-work-but-then-yeah-it-does ending by revealing more. But I will say that, although he’s merciless with his characters, he ultimately shows them great compassion, and he does so without sacrificing the complexity of his narrative.

I imagine this will assume its place in whatever cartoonist’s canon there is, alongside Maus and Blankets and [I'm already out of my depth]. I liked it better than Blankets, I’ll say that. You might, too.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

In the name of Jesus - Henri NouwenNouwen didn’t find his calling and voice, really, until he retired from the world of influence and power to a L’Arche community for the mentally disabled in Toronto. This is a speech he gave on Christian leadership from out of that time, bookended by his reflections on bringing along Bill, one of his community members. Nouwen stresses resisting the temptations (outlined in Jesus’s temptation in the desert) to be spectacular, powerful, relevant, and instead serve in the humble ways Jesus serves. But he (probably rightly) speculates that the hearers of the original speech will remember Bill’s presence long after they forget Nouwen’s words. Can be read quickly; go ahead.

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Barry Lopez - Winter count

Short stories from the author of Of wolves and men, which I understand was a nonfiction sensation and established him as something of a voice for the environmentalists. Stunning. Mostly concerned with acknowledging, maybe revering, the numinous in the natural world — shells, stones, weather. There are also a couple of stories, perhaps the most affecting, where historians/anthropologists, after long study of their subjects stories and culture, are overtaken by the meaning underneath and can no longer remain objective, or even function well anymore. In the title story, a professor who has spent his life memorizing the winter counts (single sentences marking a notable event as a way of recording the passage of time, among northern plains native americans), stands almost in terror of the futility, and possibly sacrilege, of presenting these often conflicting and wholly personal primary records at a conference:

He hesitated for a moment at the edge of the stage. He wished he were back in Nebraska with his students to warn them: it is too dangerous for everyone to have the same story. The same things do not happen to everyone.

A similar realization happens in the last story, ‘The location of the river’: the narrator is a historian who is examining the record of a predecessor who makes an astounding claim about a river disappearing for a season in Nebraska, a story told to that predecessor by the Pawnee Indians he lived with. The Pawnee warn that this is a judgment on the white man, a disapproval of his view of the land and its uses. That same judgment visits the narrator in a surprising way at the end of the story, leaving the reader with an uneasy shock and terror, a feeling that something grave had really happened.


Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

(Note: This review appeared in The Englewood Review of Books, 2(31) on August 7, 2009. I’m posting it here, but I strongly recommend you check them out for more of the same.).

Wholly Jesus - Mark ForemanMark Foreman, lead pastor of North Coast Calvary Church in Carlsbad, CA, and father to half of the rock band Switchfoot, offers a distillation of an increasingly prevalent brand of theology in Wholly Jesus. At least I infer that his message is increasingly prevalent, given that a layman like me has encountered most of it piecemeal over the course of the last decade. Foreman’s cheif concern is to present a gospel of wholeness: Jesus came not merely to save souls for some future eschaton, but to transform us now, physically, emotionally, spiritually, interpersonally and intrapersonally — what he often refers to as “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” wholeness. (51) “My desire… is to apply Jesus’ offer of salvation-unto-wholeness as he intended, through his message of the kingdom of God.” (39) Foreman sets this all-encompassing idea of wholeness — essentially the restoration of the image of God to our fallen humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection — up against any number of alternative plans, Eastern and otherwise. His view of wholeness rests comfortably in the ‘already/not yet’ Kingdom theology of Ladd and Fee, which he presents succinctly. That’s not his only succinct presentation: he tackles an incredible range of topics, from the Imago Dei to the doctrine of the fall, Jesus’ healing ministry, the mission of the church, first century Jewish worldview, 20th century church history, the Theologia Crucis, Christian Meditation and more.

This is one of Wholly Jesus‘s main weaknesses. It attempts to outline almost an entire theology in a trade paperback, and so ends up both feeling a little disjointed and doing disservice to certain of its topics (a bloodless few pages on theodicy come to mind, along with a message of the cross that, although it acknowledges that “it is all or nothing with God” (87), will not go so far as to uneqivocally say that taking up one’s cross involves our death). I also found myself confused about Foreman’s intended audience. His particular gospel of wholeness is good news for a non-churched readership, and the pains he takes to walk us from brokeness through the cross to salvation and restoration seem to indicate that Foreman thinks so, too. In a coda with a strikingly different tone from the rest of the book, he strongly advocates a ‘church without walls,’ permeable to the world, and a non-separatist missional posture that walks already-established cultural pathways, and these offer support for the idea that the book is intended for the world-at-large. Yet the language of the book reads, at times, like a shorthand for the already-indoctrinated, and I found the final chapters (while helpful and essential) to be unambiguously targeted to the Church. Most likely the book is meant for both audiences, but this dilutes its impact.

The good news is that Wholly Jesus is the Good News, and another telling of the gospel is always welcome. It’s not a bad book — Foreman’s message could be revelatory to a wide swath of Christians and non-Christians alike. That it feels like a codification of a decade of trends in Empowered Evangelicalism is probably not a count against it. Maybe the time has come to recognize that a forward-thinking theology of the Kingdom of God is becoming something like settled doctrine in a certain segment of the Church. Settled enough, at least, to make its way comfortably into trade paperback.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Telling the truth - Frederick BuechnerAn approach to homiletics: Don’t interrupt the sorrow – it’s the preacher’s job to strip us naked and expose the misery that is the world. Don’t miss the joke – it’s the preacher’s job to reveal the inevitable comedy in a God who does the impossible. Do not turn homiletics into apologetics and demythologize the gospel – the gospel is that very magic that says that we will be changed, for real. Don’t be tempted to make the gospel harmonize with modern and post-modern thought. Let God be true, though all men are liars.

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The last lonely Saturday - Jordan CraneI expected that the 52nd book this year, the one that fulfills the challenge and after which all other books would be gravy, would be Buechner’s Telling the truth: the gospel as comedy, tragedy and fairy tale. But on the strength of Ian’s recommendation, I tracked down the closest Jordan Crane title, which happened to be this, across the street at the Detroit Public Library main branch, and it turned out to be a 5-minute read, although I went through it twice (I never even checked it out, just read it right there in the stacks).

A tiny little wordless fable, both light- and heavy-hearted, in maroon lines and yellow wash (the colors of Autumn), which most certainly must have been among the inspirations for Bob Peterson’s opening sequence in Up. An elderly gentleman, living alone, writes a letter and adds it to that month’s (week’s?) pile of letters to his wife, and delivers them to her grave. Where he reveals his utter sadness at being a widower. Her ghost, obviously trying to love him, instead chills him and he retreats to his car, which won’t start. When she reads his letter, she goes back to him and tries again, reaching into his chest and triggering a heart attack; he dies, and his ghost joins her and they resolve into a wind that lifts a fallen leaf.

So short, such a quick read, that I struggle with how much weight I should give to it? Should I be looking for all kinds of levels of meaning, over-interpret it and bemoan its existential angst while praising its clear-eyed assessment of the gravity of loss, and it’s weirdly life-affirming assertion that death is not the end and nothing to be afraid of? Or should I simply say this is a harmless and quick little well-handled narrative in yellow and maroon? I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

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The book of sorrows - Walter Wangerin, Jr.Didn’t realize how strangely incomplete The book of the Dun Cow was until I read this, its natural completion. Are there two better books to discover, 25 years after the fact, than these? I will hunt down copies to be sure I can return to these books at a moment’s notice. This volume concerns the dissolution of the bonds that keep Wyrm locked under the earth, and the forgiveness that robs him of his triumph at the penultimate moment; and does so with such high language, such tenderness, that I wept openly multiple times. Consider this my humble effort to keep these books from passing out of the cultural memory. Essential.

Posted by & filed under Listening.

here are the lyrics to ‘all creatures’ from the forthcoming josh garrels album, lost animals, which you can read while you listen to the preview track at josh’s site or myspace page:

all creatures of our god and king
lift up your voice and let us sing
o praise him, o praise him, alleluia

creation sent to me the centipede
to witness the complexity of 100 legs that were moving unexpectedly
ironically just as they were meant to be
they’re fearfully and wonderfully made

an organism praising, circadian rhythms
sun will rise and then the sun will set
and then the sun will rise again
so lift up your head, this is life
not a static object preserved and displayed
like a relic of the dead
you are not a fruitless tree with a rootless disease
growing in a bucket in a rich man’s home
next to the tv, tamed and alone
learning to lust for the things you don’t own
like an armchair warrior who’s been dethroned
declawed and fixed, fighting for your life
with unattended slit wrists

don’t let your name get intermingled with the number
cause it’s time to awaken from the devilish slumber
to freely follow the forerunner to the fatherland
and rally round the renaissance man
and the wisdom of his ways and all the work of his hands
catch come as catch can
concentrating on the good words of the son of man
the plan is to withstand
the demands of a confused oppressor
a wolf in sheep’s clothes with monotonous lectures
and questionable gestures, unequal measures,
cultural pressures and synthetic textures
forcefed instead of the most beautiful architecture
of our long lost forgotten origins
birds see fiber in the blood of my king (kin?)
and that old rock where we confessed our sins

o my god, fellow man, in this great land
they all cry out for full restoration
and this’ll take patience
and this’ll take the tribes and the tongues of all the nations
and all of creation groans in anticipation
waiting for the son of god to be manifest
i can feel it burning in my chest
the liberation for the oppressed

and it’s beautiful like the feet that bring good news
beautiful like this freedom tomb
beautiful like the power to choose to change
beautiful like the long awaited rain
beautiful like the healing pains
beautiful like the holy flames, coming down

all creatures of our god and king
lift up your voice and let us sing
o praise him, o praise him, alleluia

Posted by & filed under Lord, State of the Union.

a little less than a year ago, i discerned that god was asking me to lay down my idolatry of music, which meant relinquishing control of music. with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, i obeyed. i have sold, gifted, and donated away my 20-year cd collection. i have spent a year generally fasting from music: i haven’t stepped into a record store, haven’t read pitchfork, haven’t trolled the blogs or followed the next big thing. i didn’t buy that bon iver ep. i have spent a year unlike any since i bought those first albums back in junior high.

on vacation this past month, i told my 5-year old in a confessional moment that sometimes i missed listening to music. “why don’t you listen to music?,” he asked. i answered, “because god showed me that i was doing it in a way that was unhealthy, and that i needed to stop.”

“well,” he replied, “why don’t you ask god how to listen to music in a healthy way? he can do miracles.”


so, i have carefully, tenatively, begun to listen again. i am not so blind, legalistic, or self-flagellating that i would discard such obviously prophetic wisdom. i am practicing moderation — there is a time for music and a natural limit to music. i am not pursuing the next big thing, or any big thing. i am not downloading albums that do not belong to me. i am praying for a sobriety in my approach — to remain healthy, as my son has said.

a major reason for my year-long fast had been to divest myself of the identity i had crafted for myself and so carefully controlled. i did so in faith that jesus would begin to provide a new identity for me: that he would name me, and that name would be more truly me than the name i was adopting for myself. i no longer would let music name me. well, its one of the signs that abe’s word for me might be true, that i’ve recently been feeling like jesus has been revealing an identity for me, one that feels both more alien and more true. i’m working on stepping into that identity. i think “listen[ing] to music in a healthy way” involves not letting it overcome or impinge on or in any way intrude into the identity jesus is making for me. can i do that?

to the extent i can do that, i will now listen again.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Netherland - Joseph O'NeillI’m not sure how this caught my eye, or where I noted that the President is (was?) reading it, but somehow it got into my cue. I’m so glad. It’s not a page-turner; it’s not exciting or flashy. But the considered and slightly off center meditation on the disintegrated and re-integrated marriage of Dutch ex-patriot Hans (ex- of London but living in New York) to Rachel, in the wake of 9/11, and of Hans’s subsequent involvement with dreamer, entrepreneur, opportunist (slightly-seedy) Chuck Ramkissoon (ex- of Trinidad) and Chuck’s impossible dream of a New York Cricket Stadium, is one of the best written novels I’ve recently read. O’Neill is absolutely in love with and in command of the language, and he has that other rare quality that makes the best writing: the observant eye and the observant heart and the skill to articulate what he sees and what he discerns. Really amazing — I’m amazed.

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New and selected poems, vol. 2 - Mary OliverAnother find on the exemplary bookshelf of Dave Nixon. Relentless wonder and exultation at the holiness, happiness and sanctity of life in the natural world, especially flowers, bees and birds (thrush, lark, heron, owl). Really very powerful poems, hitting over and over the same song, but always just right, like the birds she so admires.

from ‘Circles’:

I am so happy to be alive in this world… seeing what I have seen has filled me.

from ‘What I Have Learned So Far’:

The gospel of light is the crossroads – of indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

and finally, ‘Some Things, Say the Wise Ones’:

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything, are not living. I say,
you live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they are afraid of being left behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said: thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses, there is no argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
Small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

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Sex, economy, freedom and community - Wendell BerryOpening with an uncharacteristically playful preface, The Joys of Sales Resistance, Berry vows that “when the inevitable saleswoman comes to tell me that I cannot be… eligible for the sexual favors of so fair a creature as herself unless I buy” into hypertext and electronic newspapers, “dear reader, I am not going to do it.” In the following 8 essays he generally argues in favor of local solutions to local problems, of local economies and the value of communities, of favoring the lives of people even over the eradication of an acknowledged problem (like tobacco), of the insanity of war, of marketed sex detached from the trust of a known community and the committed partnerships therein, of the interdependency of good work and good sustainable ecology. He proposes, in Christianity and the survival of creation, his particular theology of the soul (“soul = dust + breath”), and argues against the rampant dualism that robs life of its significance. And in the extended title essay, he lays out a cogent and convincing argument against, ultimately, the unopposed advance of individualism at the expense of community. God, I love these books.

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The way of ignorance - Wendell BerryThe familiar themes are treated here: an urgent call to return to and reclaim a kind of knowledge that recognizes specificity, place, humility, scale, and the limits required by form. An emphatic ‘no’ to other approaches, which imagine that general solutions can be applied to specific problems on a massive scale. Compromise, Hell!, The Burden of the Gospels and the title essay, along with Courtney White’s contribution at the end, are all particularly good.

All. Particularly. Good.

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Future missionaries of America - Matthew VollmerDebut, short stories. Offbeat (read: odd, not wacky), characters in a very modern world. Often touches colors of the culture that will resonate with Gen X/Y: Teddy Ruxpin, the computerized baby they make you take care of for a week in high school, Pole Position, “mint condition Millennium Falcon.” The multiple references to Seventh Day Adventists — ironic on the surface, but he’s ultimately kind to them — flirt with redemptive themes that never actually materialize. His deeply insecure protagonists sometimes ring false (Will and Testament is a pastiche on Salinger/DFW [I know, right?!], and Stewards of the Earth just plain fails), but he’s got a deft dark comic touch and an eye for human detail that doesn’t quit. The best of these (Bodies, Straightedge, The Digging, the title story) cast that eye on wounded men and women, boys and girls, and wring a kind of compassion for them out of a hard, unsentimental look at the mechanics of their pain.

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A mercy - Toni MorrisonMorrison again focuses her unwavering eye and razor-sharp intelligence — and tight, poetic pen — on the costs and causes of slavery, with somewhat less impact than in earlier novels. A character study, with a number of really, really well defined characters, living in the colonies in the infancy of the slave trade. Not so much plot, which makes the whole thing seem smaller than, say, Song of Solomon or Beloved. Works, too, as an essay about the many lives, treatments, views of and prospects for women in the 1600s (none of them all that good). I tore through it. Recommended.

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Responsibility for devalued persons - Stanley HauerwasA symposium of speakers on the ethical challenges of responsibility for retarded persons, held in 1980 — the twilight between deinstitutionalization and well established social and advocacy programs for the same. Barry Hoffmaster presents the logical inconsistency of holding to opposing moral positions about the mentally retarded: that their retardation is not morally relevant, and so they should hold the same opportunity rights as everyone else; and that their retardation *is* morally relevant, and so they should hold certain *outcome* rights (the right to particular types of support and care) that aren’t generally available to everyone else. Hauerwas, in writing about “The Dilemma of Care,” explains the double bind we create for the retarded by ‘medicalizing’ their condition: that we rob them of the political power to themselves determine — and advocate for — what they are and aren’t capable of. And the parent forum that closes the collection was revealing of the thought processes and motivations behind Hauerwas’s interests, as well as (probably intentionally) a striking contrast between the approaches of the morally sensitive atheist and the morally sensitive Christian. An interesting read; probably not for everyone.

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The BFG - Roald DahlIn which the BFG, a medium sized Big Friendly Giant who collects dreams and blows them into the rooms of sleeping children every night, kidnaps the orphan Sophie, and the two of them enlist the Queen of England’s help to capture nine huge, terrible giants who have been nightly eating “human beans” from every country of the world. A childhood favorite, now shared with my 5-year-old son. Viva la parenthood.

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The book of the Dun Cow - Walter Wangerin, Jr.A National Book Award winner (1980), written (for young people but readable at all ages) in the highly stylized — and heightened — language of classic folk tales; borrowing its title from the ancient Irish manuscript of the same name and its characters from Chaucer; that is, taking as its sources a wide range of ancient storytelling traditions, including not least The Story — where most of the characters here are Types of Christ and the tale is the ancient one of the suffering servant who defeats Death Itself by self-sacrifice, and of the common folk who hold Evil at bay simply by doing well the simple work that is given them to do (though the folk here are Roosters, Hens, Weasels, Dogs and the Dun Cow, and the evil is Wyrm and his minion, Cockatrice, and his minion’s children, the Basilisks) — this, then, is the most satisfying fable, novel, story I’ve stumbled upon in quite a while, touching the same parts of me that were/are satisfied with The Return of the King or Out of the Silent Planet, and doing them good service with a good story that serves both itself and Another, truer Story. Good work, Wangerin.

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The Every boy - Dana Adam ShapiroAmy Sedaris and Tom Perotta both call it “quirky” on the dust jacket. Why didn’t that give me pause? Probably because Perotta also contends that Shapiro is truly ‘Salingeresque’ among a passel of posers. Please. This is an amusing read, but far from the profound exploration of teenage longing-for-experience-and-belonging it aims to be. Henry Every (the titular ‘Every boy,’ and see what he did there? see the cleverness?) strikes off on his own after his parents’ divorce and has a Chelsea Hotel experience with a one-handed bohemian temptress, before realizing the right girl was back home the whole time. After his accidental death/martyrdom (by setting his father’s pet jellyfish free, he was metaphorically setting his father free from his obsessive guilt over driving him and his mother away, see?), his father and mother learn to love each other again. Neither seems to miss him much, which is just one of the character-motivation problems with this novel. Plenty of pathos — no less than four teen suicides, not counting the death of the title character — but the payoff is Chuck-E-Cheese-cheap.

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Our Lincoln - Eric FonerOur Lincoln aims to bring to bear on the study of Lincoln some of the new interpretations of Lincoln’s era, in the hope of producing a more nuanced understanding of both the man and his world.” (from the Preface, p. 12). Starting with Team of Rivals, and fed by a bicentennial issue of the New York Times Book Review and the lifelong interest of a pastor I follow, I’ve been picking up Lincoln biogs. This showed up on my library’s new book shelf, and I grabbed it. Interesting essays on Lincoln’s mastery of his image in art, Lincoln’s dogged pursuit of colonization for African-Americans, his ‘sacramental language’ and mastery of oratory (the author, Andrew Delbanco, posits that Lincoln changed the nature of style in American writing), and the current political theft of Lincoln’s memory. The title, eyed on the bus, sparked one memorable conversation where Lincoln was variously vilified by my fellow (black) passengers, and compared to a gangster, a la Michael Corleone. There’s a new perspective for you.

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Franny and Zooey - J. D. Salingermy notes from readernaut (mostly) adequately sum up my thoughts:

1. the incredible list of items in the medicine cabinet. the self-consciously bad television script. the “verbal stunt pilot” bit where zooey impersonates buddy from buddy’s phone in buddy’s room. the abrupt sideline into buddhist quotes on the back of the door. franny’s evident self-awareness vs. lane’s lack of same. the audacity of making the glass family brilliant, eccentric and good looking. buddy’s first person/third person introductory gymnastics. the haunting presence of seymour and the de facto haunting presence of buddy over everything. the debatable point(s?) of it all.

2. this book is an entirely different read, post-wes-anderson.

and, i’ll add this: “…don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? … Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

Posted by & filed under Uncategorized.

i’m consistently finding this one of the better bookmarklets i’ve adopted: readability, which reformats that news article into a much calmer, reader-friendly experience. also, i’ll no longer print a feature article any other way. give it a few weeks, i think you’ll agree.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The blue parakeet - Scot McKnight“Blue parakeets” are passages in the Bible that challenge our traditional reading of the Bible — analogous to a pet bird showing up in your backyard among the sparrows. McKnight advocates for the current vogue in Biblical hermeneutics (rightly so, don’t get me wrong) of ‘Bible as Story,’ (or, more precise, a series of individual retellings of the overarching Story) and for reading the Bible with (rather than through) tradition, so that God is allowed to speak to today’s culture in our language. His point is that we already adapt large portions of the Bible, even if we espouse ‘biblical inerrancy’ — very few of us follow all of the pre- and proscriptions in the Bible. Coming to terms with proper discernment of scripture requires acknowledging our adaptations and striving to understand how God wants to speak to us today. This was one of The Englewood Review of Books‘ Best Books of 2008 For The Life of The Church, and it’s worth reading.

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Born on a blue day - Daniel TemmetMemoir from a young man on the autistic spectrum (he’s diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome), a confirmed savant who experiences numbers and letters synesthesially (is that a word?). The author is fully aware of his social and emotional awareness deficiencies, and able to articulate this; however, his writing is jarring for its strange factual-ness, its “this happened, then that happened” literalness, and its weird lack of emotional nuance. All of this contributes to a unique voice. Plus, Temmet has memorized and recited Pi to 22,500 decimal places (it took him over 5 hours to say).

More interesting (for me) is that Temmet is an autistic gay Christian, converted after reading Chesterton, with whom he feels an affinity (he hypothesizes that Chesterton may have been a high-functioning autistic). The Incarnation, and the ritual aspects of worship, are both highly important to him. And he’s a testament to the expansive nature of God’s salvation — Temmet crosses all kinds of traditionally defined borders and still counts himself in the Kingdom. God values diversity.

Posted by & filed under Lord.

On June 10th, The Englewood Review of Books interviewed Scot McKnight, author of The Blue Parakeet, about the topic of fasting in the wake of his new book, Fasting. The whole thing happened in real time on Twitter, between the accounts of the two concerned parties. I found it so incredibly thought-provoking, I decided to flout copyright and take my chances (Gentlemen, I will recant and repent upon notice from either of you). Below is a chronologically arranged reposting of the interview:

  1. While you wait for the Intrvw w/ @ScotMcKnight Our revws of his 2 most recent bks BLUE PARAKEET /FASTING
    12:00 PM Jun 10th from web
  2. Welcome to the Englewood Review twinterview with Scot McKnight ( @ScotMcKnight ), professor, blogger, and author of many books…
    12:00 PM Jun 10th from web
  3. We are talking today with Scot about his newest book FASTING ( @ThomasNelson 2009 ) Welcome Scot!
    12:01 PM Jun 10th from web
  4. @scotmcknight I know from experience that fasting is difficult for most people. So, why should we even pick up your book?
    12:01 PM Jun 10th from web
  5. @ERBks I’m hoping this book will shed some light on the abuses of fasting and the misunderstandings that have slipped in.
    12:03 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to ERBks
  6. Fasting, I believe, is natural and inevitable. When it becomes a chore or difficult something’s gone wrong.
    12:04 PM Jun 10th from web
  7. @scotmcknight E.g., most Christians are familiar with fasting (and praying) for a specific end. Why is this view of fasting misguided?
    12:05 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  8. Fasting “in order to get” is an instrumental view of fasting. Fasting becomes something we “use” to get what we want.
    12:06 PM Jun 10th from web
  9. The emphasis in the Bible is not on “use this instrument and you will get what you want.” Instead, the emphasis in the Bible is different.>
    12:06 PM Jun 10th from web
  10. There are three elements of every event of fasting: A is the situation. B is fasting itself. C is the result.>
    12:07 PM Jun 10th from web
  11. Our tendency is to start with B and hope we get to C. In fact, some say you will get C if you fast (B).>
    12:08 PM Jun 10th from web
  12. The overwhelming emphasis in the Bible is not a B to C movement. This was my most exciting discovering in writing this book on Fasting>
    12:08 PM Jun 10th from web
  13. The emphasis is on A (the situation) that prompts or even drives the person to B (fasting).
    12:09 PM Jun 10th from web
  14. So, the way I put it is like this: when the ancient Israelite encountered a grievous, sacred moment — like death, like a famine>
    12:09 PM Jun 10th from web
  15. like the prospect of war, that person’s natural response was to fast (B). So, A leads to B — and that’s the Bible’s emphasis.>
    12:10 PM Jun 10th from web
  16. @scotmcknight Yes, this seems to me like a necessary corrective to how we view fasting.
    12:10 PM Jun 10th from web
  17. There’s a huge implication: we need to avoid motivating folks to fast so they can get something.>
    12:10 PM Jun 10th from web
  18. We need, instead, to focus on situations for which the normal and natural response is to fast. >
    12:10 PM Jun 10th from web
  19. The primal example is when someone you love dies. What do we do? We don’t eat. We go into “fasting” mode naturally. That’s the secret >
    12:11 PM Jun 10th from web
  20. to grasping what fasting in the Bible is all about.
    12:11 PM Jun 10th from web
  21. @scotmcknight Your view of fasting is built on the unity of a person – body, soul, mind. How do we begin to recognize/embrace such a unity?
    12:11 PM Jun 10th from web
  22. @ERBks Good question. Let me turn this around a bit: Westerners are by and large Platonists. They draw big thick lines between body and …>
    12:13 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to ERBks
  23. @ERBks Am I doing this right?
    12:13 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to ERBks
  24. @scotmcknight Yes, you’re doing great… it will be easier to read though if all posts begin with @ERBks
    12:14 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  25. @ERBks between body and soul. Or between body and spirit. The body is of less value. Soul and spirit are preeminent.
    12:14 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to ERBks
  26. Platonists have little reason to fast or to inflict the body. Why? The body doesn’t matter.
    12:14 PM Jun 10th from web
  27. What happened for Platonists was that they fasted in order to suppress — mightily at times — the body of its desires.
    12:15 PM Jun 10th from web
  28. But this cuts in half the person.
    12:15 PM Jun 10th from web
  29. The person in the Bible has dimensions not parts. We are body-ish and soul-ish and spirit-ish. Fasting is transformed>
    12:16 PM Jun 10th from web
  30. from spirit disciplining body when we see ourselves as a unity and organic.
    12:16 PM Jun 10th from web
  31. Fasting becomes whole body response to a grievous sacred moment.
    12:17 PM Jun 10th from web
  32. @ERBks In the 2d and 3d centuries, fasting got tied up with the Platonic developments.>
    12:19 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  33. @ERBks Then fasting became too much spirit punishing body — Jerome is one of the big offenders.
    12:19 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  34. @scotmcknight If fasting is a natural response to grief, how do we even begin, in a culture of amusement/diversion, to recognize our grief?
    12:19 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  35. @ERBks Wow, that’s an interesting question.
    12:20 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  36. @ERBks First, we do grieve over death and over losses and over tragedies. So, we’ve got a firm footing in these sorts of events in life.
    12:20 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  37. @ERBks Let’s then, second, learn to see other events as grief-inducing — like sin and family strife and bad relations …
    12:21 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  38. @ERBks Then I’m suggesting that we can learn to see fasting as a “response” instead of an “instrument.”
    12:22 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  39. @ERBks My concern is to recover the “responsive” nature of fasting and to get us back on track in that regard.
    12:22 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  40. @ERBks It seems whenever I talk about fasting I get hung up in the discussion of whether the Bible teaches an instrumental view.>
    12:23 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  41. @ERBks I’m not convinced the Bible does teach an instrumental theory of fasting. I’m convinced the Church has made that its emphasis.>
    12:23 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  42. @ERBks If we can recover the Bible’s emphasis on fasting as (1) response and (2) whole body spirituality, we will be in better shape.
    12:24 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  43. @ERBks One more: living in a culture of amusement and diversion ought not to make humans non-responsive to grievous moments.
    12:25 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  44. @scotmcknight Yes, let’s hope and pray that we can recover this perspective on fasting! Next question…
    12:25 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  45. @scotmcknight What is the most pertinent caution that you can offer churches about the practice of fasting?
    12:26 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  46. @ERBks First, no one should fast beyond 12 hours without talking to his or her doctor. Fasting more than 12 hours is not good for the body.
    12:27 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  47. @ERBks Second, two MDs said this to me: Never teach teenagers, especially teenage girls, to fast. Anorexia nervosa was the issue for both MD
    12:28 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  48. @ERBks Third, I’d urge us to recover the responsive nature of fasting and subdue the instrumental view.
    12:29 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  49. @ERBks One more: Let’s try to recover “seasonal” fasting (Lent, etc) as a “response” to something. During Lent, of course, to sin.
    12:31 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  50. @scotmcknight Yes, I appreciated the sensibility of the medical wisdom that you brought into the conversation about fasting.
    12:31 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  51. @ERBks Thanks. My wife is a psychologist and I’ve lost a student to anorexia nervosa.
    12:32 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  52. @scotmcknight Maybe you just answered this with your point about Lent, but … >
    12:32 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  53. @scotmcknight Many forms of fasting you describe are corporate but how can a church with no sense of fasting begin to develp such practices?
    12:32 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  54. @ERBks That’s another good one. Thanks.>
    12:33 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  55. @ERBks Let me suggest that we get the leaders to fast intentionally and to discuss it — so get the leaders into the experienced mode.
    12:33 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  56. @ERBks Then gather round the leaders those in the church who are experienced fasters for more discussion.>
    12:34 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  57. @ERBks Out of that experiential and theological basis — and have them read my book! — do some teaching on fasting.
    12:34 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  58. @ERBks Then the folks can fasting together in an informed manner.
    12:35 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  59. @scotmcknight (BTW, I have my church in mind here, and I bet others are in a similar place!) :-)
    12:35 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  60. @ERBks I’d avoid like the plague making folks feel guilty about fasting. This isn’t a high priority command in the New Testament.
    12:36 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  61. @scotmcknight This bk is in the Ancient Practices series. Is there 1 figure/era of church history that is particularly significant for you?
    12:37 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  62. @scotmcknight WRT fasting, that is… sorry hit up against my 140 character limit…
    12:38 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  63. @ERBks From my emphasis, you can see I’ve focused on recovering the Biblical stuff. But…>
    12:39 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  64. @ERBks John Wesley was very good on fasting, even if he had one event that caused great consternation.>
    12:39 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  65. @ERBks And, as I say in the book, Adalbert de Vogue — however you spell it — is very good too. I like John Piper’s book, too.
    12:40 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  66. @scotmcknight Thanks! Did researching and writing this book change your own practices of fasting? And if so, how?
    12:42 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  67. @ERBks Yes, though I had seen how important the “responsive” element was, this book sealed that for me.>
    12:42 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  68. @ERBks I began to fast on mornings I was writing as a response to my need for God’s grace and wisdom as I wrote.>
    12:43 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  69. @ERBks And the notion of heroic fasts — where the emphasis is on how long — lost all attraction for me.
    12:44 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  70. @scotmcknight If I may, which one of the forms of fasting (body contact,hope,etc) that you describe in this bk is most challenging for you?
    12:46 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  71. @ERBks I don’t do the “body contact” mode of fasting because, for me, it is far too instrumental in approach.
    12:47 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  72. @ERBks And I should say that I don’t have a routine fasting rhythm: what I call Body Discipline in the book.>
    12:49 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  73. @ERBks Which means I don’t have one day a week where I fast, or even one day a month. I tend to rely on responding to something…>
    12:49 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  74. @ERBks as that which triggers fasting for me.
    12:49 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  75. @scotmcknight Thx so much for talking with us today! 1 last question that I can’t resist as one interested in bks and missional reading:
    12:49 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  76. @scotmcknight If you could recommend one other essential book on fasting, what would that be?
    12:50 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  77. @ERBks One other essential book? I think the book by de Vogue, though too much into a monk’s lifestyel, is the best.
    12:50 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  78. @ERBks But the best — most complete — is by Kent Berghuis. Rigorous and theologcally sound.
    12:51 PM Jun 10th from Tweetie in reply to ERBks
  79. Tweetie told me I’m tweeting too much!
    12:52 PM Jun 10th from web
  80. @scotmcknight LOL! Any last thoughts?
    12:53 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to scotmcknight
  81. @ERBks Nope, this was fun. I hope it helps some who follow Twitter.
    12:53 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to ERBks
  82. Thanks again @ScotMcKnight and thanks to all who have been following our conversation! Be sure to check out Scot’s book!
    12:56 PM Jun 10th from web
  83. And if you haven’t seen it, my review of Scot’s book is here:…
    12:56 PM Jun 10th from web
  84. @ERBks Thanks brother.
    12:57 PM Jun 10th from web in reply to ERBks
  85. Our next twinterview will be with @DavidDark on his book THE SACREDNESS OF QSTNG EVERYTHING Next Tuesday 6/16 Time: 1PM CT (2PM ET/11AM PT)
    12:58 PM Jun 10th from web

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Holes - Louis SacharI guess I thought I’d read this during 52 Books already, but no. Must have been before April 2004. Anyway, this is my second time through and it’s just as good. I’ve been reading it with my son (he’s 5) and it’s scary how into it he’s been. He recalls plot, characters, details with alarming accuracy. He also reveals his developmental stage — he couldn’t quite parse the flashbacks, telling me that certain characters had come back to life.

Holes tells the story of four generations of Yelnats through the travails of young Stanley Yelnats, sentenced to dig holes in the hot Texas sun for a crime he didn’t commit. The intricacies of the story are well-handled, and Stanley may be destined to change his super-unlucky family’s fortune if he can just overcome his character defects.

One unique element is Sachar’s almost magical way with handling issues of race. He ably introduces the realities of the issue — racism — without ever making the race of his characters an overt issue. I know that sounds paradoxical, but read Holes and tell me if I’m wrong. I mean it: read Holes. It completely deserves its Newbery.

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Millroy the magician - Paul TherouxI’ve now read this twice: once back in ’94 or ’95 and again in 2009. It’s amazing what 15 years of perspective and 11+ years of following Jesus will do to your understanding of a novel. I remember it mostly for the magic (and the anal fixation), and the transfer of power that closes the novel. But it’s a wild analogue of the story of Christ, with overtones of patriotism, cultishness, an uncomfortable love story and a surreal ‘Last Supper.’ Millroy transforms himself from a loser, “lost in his fat,” to a magician/guru with almost godlike powers and a message for America about eating only foods mentioned in the Bible and taking your time in the restroom. There are echoes of the gospel — particularly God’s desperate, almost hungry love for his creation, and his willingness to lay down his divinity in order to woo her — but mostly this is a flight of fancy with little in it to edify.

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The samurai - Shusaku EndoEndo is an unrepentant fatalist. I picked this up after reading Silence; this continues with the same themes — the Japanese cultural approach to faith in Christ, faith through suffering, God’s silence. In The Samurai, Endo explores the path to faith of two people, a Spanish missionary and a Japanese samurai. They travel to the New World and Spain in the early 1600s in an attempt to open trade routes to Japan. The missionary thinks he knows God, the samurai vows he never will, but both are proved wrong when they come to faith at the end of the novel, and are martyred. Silence is recognized as Endo’s masterpiece, but I liked this one better.

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The student BibleI’m not going to review the Bible, for heaven’s sake! But I will say a few things about this reading of it. It’s the first time I’ve ever read the entire bible, for one thing (I followed a reading plan). It took me just under a year, and some books I read more than once. Also, I ended in the middle, at Isaiah 66, which is interesting since Isaiah is kind of a bridge between the Old and New Testaments (Jesus inaugurates his public ministry by reading aloud in the synagogue a text from Isaiah 61), and because the Bible has a total of 66 books. But other than that… what? Review the Bible? It was a good book.

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here’s where you can fill all your quality .gif needs. this example of quality is via nathan (kids at some sort of graduation, maybe?).

Shake it

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Five smooth stones for pastoral work - Eugene H. PetersonI actually borrowed and started this book over a year ago, but I picked it up again after a bookshelf reorg a week ago and plowed through the last two chapters. Peterson is often a difficult read for me — his style is digressive and florid and I get distracted easily whenever I read him — but it all went much better this time. Maybe because I’m seeing my role in the church more in a pastoral context than when I read this last?

Anyway, this book walks through the Megilloth — Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther — in order to draw out and define five core elements of pastoral work: prayer-directing, story-making, pain-sharing, nay-saying and community-building, respectively. I found the last chapter, on community-building (Esther), to be particularly encouraging in its assertion that the faith community does not need to be grown — it is simply called together by God.

A common theme for Peterson’s ‘pastoral’ books is “don’t get distracted with the way the world would like to define your pastoral work.” The metaphor here is David’s rejection of Saul’s armor, which would have been impressive but completely irrelevant and possibly deadly, in favor of the comfortable tools of his long training, which God had perfectly prepared for him over years of erosion to be smooth, hard and essential. A good book.

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Regeneration - Pat BarkerNot sure how this entered my radar. A character study, essentially, about a psychiatrist in a World War I hospital charged with “curing” a pacifist in order to send him back to the front. Shares elements with Hansen’s Exiles, especially the tightly focused historical underpinnings and the poet with a second vocation. A strongly anti-war novel, the first of a trilogy (the final entry, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize).

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The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian - Sherman AlexieA humorous and oddly affecting book — more affecting than its plot and characters would seem to deserve. Junior, the “part-time Indian” of the title, leaves the reservation daily to go to the white high school, 22 miles away (often hitchhiking), as a way of preserving his hope for the future. He’s variously hated/loved by people who should love/hate him, and then the other way around, both for being an ‘apple’ (red on the outside, white inside) and for being an Indian at a white school.

Lots of deaths, alcoholism, boners, and swearing. Lots of insight into the mixed-up nature of racism — how favoring a minority can be a subtle form of racism, how you can hate yourself for dragging yourself out of a segregated poverty. Alexie’s greatest strength here may be his willingness to embrace hypocrisy, the recognition that we’re all traitors and tribal at the same time.

Might be pitched a little above the 10-year-old with whom I’m reading this (separately, not together) — especially as regards sex, drugs and casual profanity. Folks, read it first before your kids read it.

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The sacredness of questioning everything - David Dark(Note: This review appeared first in The Englewood Review of Books, 2(21) on May 22, 2009. I’m posting it here, but I strongly recommend you check them out for more of the same.)

In attempting to reduce a book-length testimony to four or five paragraphs, there’s always the risk of perverting the author’s original intent (if indeed he/she has something intentional to say). When I say ‘perverting,’ I mean it in the sense that David Dark defines it in THE SACREDNESS OF QUESTIONING EVERYTHING (Zondervan, 2009): the object is “reduced to a thing… dispensed with, taken care of, filed away.” “Perversion is pigeonholing,” he says, and I sincerely hope not to do this to Dark’s message, since I’m convinced he actually does have something to tell us.

In SACREDNESS, Dark champions the power — and the spiritual necessity — of the open mind. Asking questions of our convictions, assumptions, perversions, religions, is the only way to let the light and air into them. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” he maintains, using Leonard Cohen’s words. Questioning our God(s), our government, our eschatology, our language or our lusts, opens them to the possibility of rehabilitation, redemption, and ultimately resurrection.

His chief target is the concept of God as an angry, vengeful tyrant, an abomination who punishes the slightest doubt or faithlessness with a swift and terrible consequence, a false God he names Uncle Ben, or (via William Blake) “Nobodaddy.” Dark confesses to slipping into this conception of God every so often, and he marshals all his courage and skill to outline the means to counter this concept with truth and grace. This involves crossing carefully drawn boundaries to tip over some of the very sacred cows of the modern evangelical tradition. Particularly challenging are Dark’s explorations into postmodernism and moral relativism, and what those ways of thinking might have to teach us about the value of continuing to search for a truer witness. “Freed from the burden of cognitive certainty, the postmodern mind is determined not to fall for transcendental pretensions or any idolatry of concepts.” (p.125) Dark acknowledges that, though we must act on what we believe to be true and right, we must always remember that we may be wrong, and we must be ready at a moment’s notice to rehabilitate our actions if it turns out we *are* wrong. In what might be the mission statement of this work, Dark writes:

“I want to announce the good news that God, the God in whom I believe, never calls anyone to playact or pretend or silence their concerns about what’s true. I want to break through mind-forged manacles that render us incapable of seeing truthfully for fear we might let in the wrong information. God is not made angry and insecure by an archeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off to the complexity of the world we’re in…

“Damn this demonic Uncle Ben business. Damn it all to hell. May we bear it no more…” (p.143)

Dark is also — and in some ways primarily — concerned with language here. “Semantics might be all there is to talk about,” (p.130) he writes in a chapter devoted specifically to the subject. But everywhere in SACREDNESS, he asserts the power of language to redeem humans and humanity from the darkness around and inside us. His principle agent is what he at various times calls cosmic plainspeak, the apocalyptic, or the Get Fresh Flow, but most often simply “the poetic.” “There’s an ancient conversation going on in a variety of forms, and there are so many ways of naming it.” (p.109) What he means by these names is a type of witness that calls us out, wakes us up, makes us aware, “demanding a reappraisal of whatever [we] thought [we] knew about life and how to live it before.” (p.32). He reappraises freely, redefining words (‘religious,’ ‘apocalyptic,’ ‘pervert,’ ‘poetic’) when their usual meanings don’t accurately reflect the truth.

Dark’s peculiar (meaning: uniquely his) obsession is to find this witness in the streams of what we’d otherwise call ‘secular’ culture, and he indulges liberally throughout this book. He’s sly, dropping slightly altered references to lyrics, lines, poems and snatches of dialogue all over the place (starting with the memorable Prince tidbit — “Dig, if you’re willing, this picture” — that opens the book), trying to trick the reader into stopping for once to think — really think — about what’s being said. And when the spirit moves him, he’ll dally over a particular cultural artifact — ‘The Colbert Report,’ an Arcade Fire song, ‘The Office,’ Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ — turning it over and over to wring the unlikely sacred witness out of it. He pretty much begs us to expose ourselves to this witness, even and especially when it’s unusual or uncomfortable for us to do so. The unacceptable risk of *not* doing so is a life lived under the influence of Uncle Ben and his minions.

Let’s take a page from Dark’s book and attempt an application of his redemptive, subversive methods: SACREDNESS is a work of exceedingly conservative religion. By conservative I mean having as its business the preservation and defense of the core — in this case, the core of the gospel and the *Imago Dei*, the image of God in every person. And by religion I mean the ‘calling out,’ the prophetic word that seeks to wake sleepers from the dead. This conservation is difficult work in the 21st century, where children are “bred to pledge their liege away without question.” (p.193) That Dark can continue to tilt at this windmill and still describe himself as a ‘mandatory agnostic’ — committed to the proposition that he doesn’t and can’t know everything — suggests that there may be something in his unusual brand of agnosticism worth looking into.

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i told you once. i told you twice. i probably told you another couple times.

but if you still haven’t taken the plunge, maybe now’s the time:

Infinite Summer: An old school internet event.

“The Challenge: Read Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009.

“You’ve been meaning to do it for over a decade. Now join endurance bibliophiles from around the web as we tackle and comment upon David Foster Wallace’s masterwork, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages 1 ÷ 93 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.

“Return to this site on June 1st for full details. In the meanwhile, buy or borrow a copy of the novel, follow us on Twitter (#infsum), join the Facebook group, and clear your literary schedule for the foreseeable future.

1. Plus footnotes.2
2. A lot of them.

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What are people for? - Wendell BerryI can’t recommend Berry enough. He slices through our comfortable thoughtlessnesses, straight to the heart of our ways of life, and shows us another way to be, another kind of life to value. This is among the better of his essay collections, and a good starting point for any curious reader who wants in. He addresses his favorite themes: community, economy, ecology, writing, living well, good work, health. He includes a few poems, a few not his own even (including one amazing piece on the function of a particular anti-war poem). There are reviews of and responses to literature. There are letters. There are razor sharp indictments of technological progress and the assumptions we make about what makes life good (hint: not technology). A few months ago, my wife made the observation that the advent of the Internet suggests that we hate having bodies; it appears that Berry scooped her on this idea by about 20 years. There are meditations on “leaving,” and why we started, historically, to leave our communities and not come back, and what the alternatives might be.

The man is rich, and he’s giving his riches away, for free. Don’t get left out on this bounty.

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Brief interviews with hideous men - David Foster WallaceDuring my stay with this book, someone proposed to me that the Bible is a collection of stories about moral failures. Someone else proposed that art that makes us uncomfortable can be the most spiritually beneficial, using an example that I had to admit had indeed made me uncomfortable when I first encountered it, and that I had neglected to engage in a thoughtful and confident manner. Brief Interviews, then, is both: a moral calculus, comprised of stories of exceedingly uncomfortable moral failures, meant to provide the reader with the opportunity to change his or her mind (which “change your mind” is the literal meaning of the word “repent”). You have to screw up your courage to read it and stay engaged with it. My first muddied pass at sucking the marrow out of it would be: honesty about ourselves — our essentially f’d up nature — will cause pain, either to ourselves or to those around us or both, but attempting to avoid that pain will only increase it. Through pain, healing.

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King Lear - William ShakespeareNever, before this year, finished this play. So, for instance, I had no idea that Cordelia dies. Whoops, hope you knew that already. I’ve even performed a monologue from the durned thing; (Q? Edmond. Q? Badly). Shows you how much integrity I had, as an actor. Anyway, consider me brushed up.

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Envisioning information - Edward TufteThat’s what it’s about: the unique problems presented by attempting to show more than two variables in a two dimensional space (‘Flatland’), and some possible solutions: small multiples, layering and separation, micro/macro readings, etc. Some good takeaway points: multiple color values are not an intuitive way to encode information; 1 + 1 = 3, where the third element is the outlined whitespace which becomes a distracting value in itself; tables define their own axes, which don’t need to be reinforced with heavy lines; text and graphics must be united closely and on the same page, or the illustration loses its succinct power; don’t cheapen the graph with tricks and jokes. I’m no designer, but I feel a little more competent after this. A tiny, little bit.

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Anathem - Neal StephensonContact for the new millennium. Imagines a world where monasteries are for high-order thinkers — physicists, mathematicians, logicians, philosophers — rather than theologians (although there are some of those in there too), and where the implications of Platonic thought have actual consequences. Full of a lot of what you expect from Stephenson, although he may be mellowing with age — he’s not quite so much the hotshot he used to be. That’s okay. Posits (among other things) that monasteries should not be a prerequisite to devote oneself to one thing over a long period of time. It’s a brick, but it reads like a thriller.

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“Libraries exist to promote a public good: ‘the encouragement of learning,’ learning ‘Free To All.’ Businesses exist in order to make money for their shareholders—and a good thing, too, for the public good depends on a profitable economy. Yet if we permit the commercialization of the content of our libraries, there is no getting around a fundamental contradiction. To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere. No invisible hand would intervene to correct the imbalance between the private and the public welfare. Only the public can do that, but who speaks for the public? Not the legislators of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

Robert Darnton, (director of the Harvard University library system), “Google and the Future of Books,” The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 2, February 12, 2009.

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The substance of style, pt 1 (Moving image source)

thanks, yewknee, for tipping me off to this amazing opening salvo in a blog/video series dedicated to the influences — and influence — of wes anderson. i’m telling you, go check out the video here. if you even kind of like wes anderson, you won’t be disappointed.

(btw — rushmore: my favorite film. now you know.)

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Dragon, dragon - John GardnerA book of four fairytales for children, with anachronisms and a wink to the parents. Gardner is a lauded medievalist, with a famed wit and a rebellious streak. I bet this book was a big deal at the time among a certain literary/parent set. Anyway, a diversion.

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Let the right one in - John LindqvistReally disturbing-yet-compelling vampire novel about a 200 year-old 12-year old in a housing project in Sweden. Don’t think I’ve read this much ‘id’ writing since i put down Needful Things a couple of chapters in, about 17 years ago. Oskar – lonely and outcast – makes friends with the titular vampire, Eli, despite eventually knowing the truth. Elements of this book were absolutely revolting, in true 20th century horror novel style. But the central story was — there was *something* to it. Read at your own risk.

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Predictably irrational - Dan ArielyA layman’s look at behavioral economics, which starts from the Berry-esque assumption that we’re not as smart about stuff as we think we are. We make irrational decisions in predictable ways, influenced by things like emotion, context, relationship, etc. For instance, when asked to make a value judgment between two options, we can be unduly influenced by the presence of a third option that is more like one of the available choices than the other, but visibly less valuable than that available choice. Or, when asked to predict how we would behave under heightened emotional stress, we consistently underestimate our tendency to abandon our moral scruples. The presentation is easy to digest, and I feel like the whole work is far more relevant than, say, Freakonomics. This book was recommended to me on the bus, by a fellow passenger who saw me reading Freakonomics; “If you like that book, you should read this other book,” she said, and although I wasn’t crazy about Levitt’s book, I’m glad I read this one.

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here’s an illustration detailing the number of readers on readernaut for each of the 72 most recently added books in my profile. Note that 50% – 75% of my reading is ‘the long tail’ — books that only I and one or two others find (potentially) interesting. I wonder how you’d develop an algorithm to compute how similar the reading interests are, vs. how different, across a population?

The long tail on readernaut

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Grendel - John GardnerThe much-heralded novel revisiting Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. Ends with a fight for Grendel’s very right to exist against a Wittgensteinian attack on his person(monster)hood. A languagefest. The author died relatively young in a motorcycle accident; the monster dies similarly. Well worth reading.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books, Lord.

Blankets - Craig ThompsonMy friend Jeff recommended this graphic novel (among countless other accolades it received) a few years ago; my own library, surprisingly, had it among the juvenile fictions. An autobiographical(?) novelization of first love and the process of growing up, abandoning/adapting one’s faith, making sense of what’s good and what’s not in life, exorcising one’s demons, etc. etc. It *is* a remarkable achievement — the deep look at the past that was no doubt required is commendable in itself — but felt a little unfinished. I reserve the right to change my mind about that in the future.

Posted by & filed under Listening.

“i find this quite interesting. hundreds of tracks, dozens of djs, a number of clubs and events, in effect an entire subculture based on this one drum break; i mean, based on 6 seconds from 1969.”

take a few minutes (20, but it’s worth it) to unpack the world around a piece of your world that you didn’t even know was there. and, incidentally, get an excellent, well articulated primer on the thought behind the creative commons movement: the amen break. (via twirk ethic)

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Not wanted on the voyage - Timothy FindleyThis was a Readernaut-inspired read: I’m apparently a sucker for books about Noah and/or the flood (see The preservationist and Eco’s The island of the day before). Findley is a Canadian writer with a style that appeals to the senses, and this is a very, very well-written and imaginative book. It’s also highly ideological, advancing the age-old enmity that the enlightenment has against the more difficult aspects of faith in the God revealed in the bible. “We are truly captives here, she thought; every one of us — and yet they have called this: being savedHoly meant: no way out.” God — that decrepit old tyrant — has trapped us in a meaningless — and mean — limitation on all that is free and beautiful and life-giving, and if we could only break free we would be happy. Lucifer (who figures prominently) was right to rebel. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Philip Pullman owns a well-thumbed copy of this novel; there are strong similarities between this and his ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy. Needless to say (?), I disagree, and the despair in the denouement of the novel is telling: if this indeed is the way the universe is, who wouldn’t rather be drowned?

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The thief and the dogs - Naguib MahfouzI read this, quickly, to participate in my university’s book discussion for The Big Read. It’s the story of an Egyptian ideologue who steals as an act of revolution, goes to jail, and comes out to a world that’s left his ideology behind. He acts with increasing irrationality, seeking justice from those he imagines have betrayed him, until he finally destroys himself. The concept is pretty high-minded; the novel has a hard time living up to it. Part of the problem is surely that I’m reading it in translation, and 50 years after publication, and in another country/culture/hemisphere of the world. I think the basic theme is along the lines of “who is more the fool, the fool or the fool who follows the fool,” or perhaps, “a justified crime is still a crime.” Maybe I’ll update this post after the discussion on the 26th.

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The spy who came in from the cold - John le CarreThis is one of Time magazine’s 100 best English-language novels. I like le Carré, I really do, but this one reminded me more of Ludlow’s execrable The Bourne identity in its style and tone, its treatment of the female protagonist, its expository dialogue, than of Graham Greene. I must have an era-related handicap, or perhaps this book doesn’t age well. In any case, the story of an East-West triple cross, with lots of moralizing-slash-handwringing over the (un)righteousness of both sides’ motives.

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acrl national conference was in seattle this year; i was excited to visit the seattle public library. as expected, it kinda blew my mind. what I didn’t expect was how thoroughly kubrickian it is inside. somehow, the magazine profiles failed to convey this, though I can’t imagine how — the influence is unmistakeable (maybe I read the wrong profiles, or didn’t read them closely enough).

like *2001*, the milk bar or the bar in the overlook hotel, the interior is at once expansive and claustrophobic. I felt like I were moving in slow motion through meticulously composed cinematic frames. everything has the broad, primary-color, plastic sheen of classic modernist/futurist design (design nerds: I’m a layman, go easy on me). every escalator is impossibly long and improbably thin. every ceiling is an uninterrupted field of bright white flourescent light, stretching to the horizon (it’s a huge building) and hung too low, so one feels like dave traversing HAL’s memory banks. the section for magazines, with its analog clocks, built-in shelves, and stark white walls with sans-serif wayfinding, looks like it was designed/built 35 years ago instead of 5. the hum in the immaculate yellow elevator is ominous. even the barely inclined slope of the floor throughout the nonfiction recalls the hamster-wheel geography of kubrick’s space odyssey sets.

I noticed multiple high-quality cameras among my fellow patrons. seems I’m not the only one to notice the cinematic qualities of the space.

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Entries - Wendell BerryStarts off strong, gets a little didactic in the middle. Ends with a tour-de-force in Part IV, with a cycle of poems honoring and remembering his father.

I have feared to be unknown / and to offend — I must speak, / then, against the dread / of speech,” he writes in a reflection on his marriage.

We live in time / as in hard rain, and have no shelter,” he writes in explanation of his father’s fears.

Wendell Berry. Consistently astounding.

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The English major - Jim HarrisonAn English major-turned-farmer finds himself divorced after decades of marriage. His wife sells the farm out from under him. He takes off cross-country, has a messy affair, and hatches a plan to re-christen every state and every North American bird with a name more appropriate. The style suggests the word-li-ness of a true English major’s thought process, married with the pragmatism of an inveterate farmer in his 60s. An exceedingly pleasant read, but not essential: Harrison is his own thing, read him if you like him.

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Detroit got some play in the national press over the last few days: pundits are reflecting on the insanely low cost of real estate here. It’s a city built to house millions of middle class auto-workers, with a current population of around 800,000 (depending on who you ask) and falling. So houses are cheap. Like $100 cheap (Toby Barlow is a Detroit resident and author of Sharp Teeth).

If you didn’t have a mortgage to finance on top of it, you could probably afford the 10% property taxes ($833/mo on a $100k house, but those will go down for a while as housing values fall). And if you had a little money from the sale of your previous home, you could afford to do all kinds of cool things with your property, like renovate completely green or go off the grid. Or build a massive architectural art installation. Or start a church. Or an intentional community.

It’s just nice to think there’s an upside, however small, to the collapse of the Michigan economy.

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Freakonomics - Steven Levitt and Stephen DubnerI found this in the trash on the side of the road while walking to work one morning, which is interesting because when I was working at the public library in 2005 there was a reserve list on it a mile long. I do strongly remember the original article about Levitt in the NYTM that sparked the book. This strikes me as the non-fiction equivalent of an airport novel: Entertainment. I know it sounds like oversimplification, but what is this book telling us other than “poor people do worse than wealthier people” and “economic incentives will lead people to abandon their scruples?” Oh, and correlation does not prove causation, although Levitt and Dubner have their fingers crossed behind their backs on that one. At least it’s a quick read.

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The TainI read this almost entirely due to the Decemberists. Appears to be an epic of ancient Irish myth about a national civil war over a bull, which was not what I initially expected given the lyrics to the above referenced EP; but upon reading the epic, the song opens up. Much is given over to the exploits of the Celtic hero, Cúchulainn, who slays 100s and 1000s handily but is ultimately laid low by his foster brother. The language is the stuff of myth and legend, with idiosyncratic customs and conceits; the descriptions of heightened rage and blood-lust are almost comically overblown. Certainly, now, I’ll have a mental image to go with Meloy’s Tain, should I ever hear it again.

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Nathan Coulter - Wendell BerryNathan is a boy growing up in (I presume) the early 20th century on a farm in Kentucky. He’s flawed, his family’s flawed, everyone in the town of Port William is flawed. Life is prosecuted amidst flaws.

“I could have cried myself. Brother was gone, and he wouldn’t be back. And things that had been so before never would be again. We were the way we were; nothing could make us any different, and we suffered because of it. Things happened to us the way they did because we were ourselves. And if we’d been other people it wouldn’t have mattered… we’d have had to suffer whatever it was that they suffered because they were themselves. And there was nothing anybody could do but let it happen.

That’s the closest Berry comes to stepping outside the action to communicate the theme (admittedly, it’s pretty darn close). But the bulk of this novel shows without telling. Unusually fine.

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Bound by law - Aoki, Boyle and JenkinsIt’s a comic book about copyright, giving a good overview of the problem and promise of intellectual property law and the current imbalance in attitudes toward copy rights. I hear there’s a new edition just published. Um… I’m struggling with what to say about this. It’s a, um, comic book. About copyright issues and… fair use? I’ve probably overstepped my copyright bounds, like, daily for the last 5 years.

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Duino elegies - Rainer Maria Rilke (Edward Snow)An (the?) overarching concern is the taking up and transforming/preserving inside ourselves the Things around us. Snow is rumored to be the best translator of Rilke. Less straightforward literal translation than Mitchell is my guess — more artistry (?). But twice through these elegies is enough for now: I start to wonder if the Emperor is wearing clothes.

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Ahead of all parting: the selected poetry and prose of Rainer Maria RilkeI ride the bus with an amateur Rilke scholar, who, when he found out I had a copy of The Book of Hours at home, immediately held an impromptu Rilke seminar right there on the 460 to Pontiac. He recommended this omnibus as the most accessible introduction to Rilke’s work. My overwhelming impression is that the world of entities, objects, rose up and imprinted on Rilke in a blinding flash, a torrent. There’s something commanding, terrible, heightened, in his impressions. And of course a tortured spirituality that’s completely of his time — when men were drunk with the idea that they could strike off on their own again, spiritually, away from the Mother Church. I’m in for a pound, though, with my friend on the bus. I’m going to hunt down Snow’s translation of Duino Elegies.

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

Today the Nedsfoxes are 11. Zena is a brighter star every year; every day she sheds something more of the stuff that defiles, degrades or devalues us, and puts on something more of the life that just brings more life. I love her; I love her.

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Things fall apart - Chinua AchebeApparently a common selection for high school and college lit class (I remember copies on reserve at the Library at OSU Mansfield). A masterful sense of sustained dissolution. Also, effortlessly draws the (Western) reader into an unfamiliar culture without unduly emphasizing that the reader is a stranger there. And fear is equally damaging across cultures; a tragedy. Achebe handles all the elements of fiction lightly and deftly, and makes it look effortless. Highly recommended.

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The year of living Biblically - A. J. JacobsJacobs is neurotic and obsessive, which fits nicely with the concerns of the Biblical literalist. He conceives of this as something between a journalistic stunt and a spiritual quest; I think he succeeds at the former and fails at the later. He is, to be fair, relatively open-minded (his pre-”Living Biblically” mindset was staunchly anti-fundamentalist) — and it helps that his cultural heritage is Jewish. But then there’s this one passage where he pretty much is being led to the leap (of faith) and stubbornly pulls himself to his fallback position. You can tell I’m going back and forth on this one. Let’s say it’s good — for its insights into how to think fairly about faith if you’re culturally hardened against it — and bad — for its ultimate line-in-the-sand approach to “reasonable belief.” I’m not disappointed with the book, but if it didn’t change A. J. Jacob’s life, I’m not sure how it’s going to change yours.

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Life is a miracle - Wendell BerryAddressing some of his common themes: stretching the ‘machine’ analogy beyond metaphor is harmful to creatures; man cannot know all that he thinks he can know; ‘place,’ ‘small,’ ‘familiar’ are all more important than the modern era allows. But most specifically about the danger of making reductionist science-and-technology into a religion — of the new, of the ‘frontier’ — that causes real harm to real people and places without any real accountability or forethought. Spends a large portion of the book addressing counterarguments to Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience, which campaigns for a scientifically-based unity of all disciplines, both the sciences and the humanities. Berry, predictably, thinks this is hogwash, and makes his case with blinding elegance, thought and assurance (also predictably). I’m not done with this man yet.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

From a distance (1985, Julie Gold, famously recorded by Nancy Griffith and Bette Midler): most theologically frightening song ever.

The implications:

1. That God is myopic.

2. That God is mistaken about our essential nature, and doesn’t know us as we truly are.

3. That, therefore, we might have something to fear if God ever finds out what it’s really like down here.

4. That we can develop a positive, hopeful vision of justice and mercy only if we abstract ourselves from the real, hard, close truth about our lives and our life.

5. That God either can’t, or can’t be bothered to, come down here.

God help us all if that’s what God is like.

I believe in an entirely different reality, where God is not a myopic, absent, delusional creature; where he knows us fully, in all our neediness, violence, and greed, and still loves us; where the true vision of justice and mercy is formed in the trenches, where we really live, by a God who is so intimately connected with our suffering that he decided to ‘come down here’ and live it out, right alongside us. And where the true ‘hope of hopes’ involves, not a self-deception born of a kind of desperate squinting at humanity, but the knowledge of a real man, Jesus, who also happens to be that intimate God, and promises to take up and redeem all that is hopeless in our lives.

That was on my mind this morning.

From a distance the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight.

From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
It’s the voice of hope, it’s the voice of peace,
it’s the voice of every man.

From a distance we all have enough,
and no one is in need.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
no hungry mouths to feed.

From a distance we are instruments
marching in a common band.
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace.
They’re the songs of every man.
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.

From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,
it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.
This is the song of every man.
And God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.
Oh, God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPhersonFrom the preface: “…I believe there is room for a brief biography that captures the essential events and meaning of Lincoln’s life without oversimplification or overgeneralization. This is what I have tried to do in the following pages.” I don’t know if it quite does that (avoids some of the essentials — his fierce love of his son[s], for instance — and oversimplifies a bit), but this does appear to be a good refresher course on the touchpoints of the Lincoln history. Maybe a good preface to a more in-depth biography. This is the first of a number of new Lincoln books suggested by the New York Times Sunday Book Review for the 200th anniversary of his birth.

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Silence - Shusaku EndoA Portuguese missionary to 17th-century Japan is forced to apostatize. Explores what “suffering for Christ” really looks like — are we willing to be despised, even by our brothers and sisters in Christ, in order to truly love another person? The missionary, Rodrigues, dies in ignominy in a Christian prison in Japan, buried as a Buddhist, but knowing that God was not silent: He spoke to Rodrigues, assuring him that apostasy in his case (unless he denied Christ, other Japanese Christians would be tortured to death) was truer to the spirit of Jesus than stoic martyrdom. A mix of epistolary fiction and omniscient narrative. This is a wonderful novel.

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Sharp teeth - Toby BarlowThe hook with this one is that it’s an epic poem about werewolves in modern day L.A. written entirely in free verse. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to it than the hook — characterization gives way to tone and the entire thing is pretty much about moving the (three) plot(s) along (to the ‘climactic’ convergence). But, hey: epic poem, werewolves in L.A., free verse, L.A., werewolves. And the author’s from Detroit. Maybe that’s enough.

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Reading and writing - Robertson DaviesReally just two essays (from the “Tanner lectures on human values, vol. 13“). Davies suggests re-reading, reading slow enough to hear every word in your head, and reading in such a way as to reclaim books and the life of the mind from the ‘intelligentsia.’

…the book which may be a tale to the simple reader — and the tale comes first, as I have tried to make plain — or may be a parable to some who like to explain what lies behind the tale, may also be, at its best, a direct revelation of reality which, when it comes, leaves us enlarged and in possession of some new ground in the exploration of ourselves.

Davies also suggests the writers are born, not made, and if you are not one, you shouldn’t fret over it — writers are notoriously without other aspects of character which make for a good life. He lays out one an aspect of good writing that I’ve long intuited: the author writing something that the reader recognizes instantly as true, but which the reader could not have articulated for himself, or at least not with quite the same economy and grace. And he promotes a number of writers and books that sparked my interest and which I may have to track down.

All that commentary for 64 pages! Well, I do spend a lot of my time engaged in his subject: reading…

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Exiles - Ron HansenHansen has obvious empathy and admiration for his subject. Alternates between the life of Hopkins and the episode which inspired Hopkins’s poem The Wreck of the Deutschland. Hansen makes a spiritual metaphor of the wasted lives of the 5 doomed nuns aboard their ship to America, drawing a parallel with Hopkins’s own failure in life to achieve recognition for his poetry (which is widely regarded now as being ahead of its time, perhaps presaging the Modernists). Although the book seemed slight at first — overwhelmed by its facts — I grew steadily more impressed as it drew to a close. Hansen navigates the altering narratives, with their differing timelines and different voices con- and diverging, deftly, and the whole transcends the parts about 3/4ths of the way through. I fully intend to read more.

Posted by & filed under Commentary, Lord.

I may be jumping straight into the deep end here with nary a floater round my arm, but, however, and nonetheless. This morning I drove the car (instead of riding the bus) to work and so could listen to NPR, which program was featuring a story on the evolution of pigmentation in human skin, and how it may have taken as little as 2,500 years to go from black to white or vice versa, and may still be evolving in people groups (i.e., race is fluid).

And, you know, the (Darwinian) mechanism of evolution is the random mutation: one baby is born with a gene that produces melatonin, and then his family moves north a little and he’s better able to adapt to the UV-content of the sunlight there, and so he survives his non-melatonin-gene-carrying brothers and sisters and lives to produce children who carry his gene, and they survive their cousins and peers and so on until everyone has the melatonin-producing gene and they can all move a little further north because their skin is adaptable to periods of sun and shade. But all from one baby.

The thing that struck me is the parallel with the Kingdom of God: that it’s like a tiny bit of leavened dough, that was hidden in a whole mess of unleavened dough, and slowly leavens the whole thing. And it’s like the spread of discipleship to Jesus, too: that from a tiny band of followers — and let’s face it, the odds against them were massive — the life of Jesus spreads and spreads and a mere 2,000 years later it covers the earth. It’s even Spencerian — that followers of Christ were strong enough to withstand even unusual punishment by the status quo, that they were fittest to survive. You might say that Christ-following evolved, from a tiny spiritual mutation: the notion that righteousness does not come from being ‘in’ with the ‘in’ crowd, but from knowing Jesus and being known. (Or even, not to be too clever about it, from one baby).

So there: I’ve proposed a (semi-mystical) connection/correlation between faith and evolutionary theory. There may be an element of design in it after all. Now, take me to task…

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

really moving. also, a great illustration of our deeply ingrained assumptions that the mentally delayed or disabled are somehow inherently incapable. imagine what the season would have been like if the coach had worked against his own assumptions and put him in before the last 4 minutes of the last game?

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The prodigal God - Timothy Kelleranother compact relation of the gospel: seeking to be one’s own Savior is the sin underlying both a life of licentiousness and a life of extreme moral righteousness, and that that Jesus himself is the way out of a life that seeks to be its own Savior. makes a couple of interesting points: that prodigal means “extravagantly costly” or “having spent everything,” and (if it is to be used) properly refers to the father in the parable and not the wayward younger son; that the father goes out to meet and re-instate both the younger and older brothers, and humbles/humiliates himself before both of them; that reinstating the younger brother is done at great cost to the elder brother; and that the parable invites us to look for a brother who can bear that cost…

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The Neverending Story - Michael EndeYes, that Neverending Story. The movie (which figures prominently in my childhood), it turns out, is relatively faithful to the book (although in the book, Atreyu has green skin). The book, it turns out, has far more metafictional elements: reader/character confusions, author visiting the story, easter eggs in the chapter headings, etc. And a distinctly 70′s spirituality regarding love and healing. And it doesn’t resolve the central mystery from the movie: what is Bastian’s mother’s name? In the book, he names the Empress “Moon Child.” (Update: apparently, that’s what he says in the movie, too). Nonetheless, fun.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

1. facebook turns relationships into a commodity. how far into your past do you have to go to sate your need for an ever-expanding circle of friends/relatives/acquaintances to feed your ‘feed?’ don’t you feel good when you find a new ‘person you know’ on facebook to ‘friend?’ doesn’t that feeling go away, fast, leaving you waiting for the next find? don’t you just ache when you log in and you don’t see that little red ‘activity’ indicator at the bottom of the page?

2. facebook’s growing ubiquity works against it. since everyone’s on it, i begin to feel like all i know about everyone i know is what their status updates tell me. it’s like an endless stream of relational inanity, much of it indecipherable.

3. facebook wastes your time with information you don’t need. that time could be used to relate to the same set (or a subset) of people in analogous ways that are far more rewarding. so facebook is actually robbing you of quality relationship by substituting a more time-consuming junk relationship.

4. facebook encourages a sense of false identity. giving people a full profile of things you’re a ‘fan’ of — ‘lost,’ sharpies, puggles, brad pitt, radiohead — tells them very little about who you are. joining a cause or creating a profile of books you’ve read or movies you enjoy doesn’t get people much closer to the core of who you are.

5. your [grandpa/boss/highschoolgymteacher/firstgirlfriend] is on facebook.

6. facebook allows your friends to expand your online presence, posting pictures of you without your consent which they can then attach to your profile without your knowledge. yikes.

7. facebook’s algorithm for who shows up in your feed is not all-inclusive. certain of your friends (or ‘friends’) will dominate. certain others, although they continue to update their facebook pages, will never show up. you will not know why.

8. facebook encourages a false sense of accomplishment. you have not contributed to a cause by joining its facebook group page.

9. facebook keeps all your data, forever, and uses it to develop sophisticated demographic marketing profiles, which it sells. aggressively. want out? you can only ‘deactivate’ your account, you can’t delete it. facebook is an engine for making you a marketing target.

10. facebook is a bait and switch. it promises to be all about the people you ‘friend’ — after all, you’re seeing their statuses, their postings, their photos, their comments. but really, its all about you: what are *you* doing, what do other people think about what *you’re* doing, do you have the perfect profile picture yet. (zena suggested posting only brutally self-deprecating status updates and seeing whether people balk). i already have an online forum for broadcasting ‘all about me.’ you’re reading it right now.

+1. you don’t need more. you need less-but-better.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

The prejudice for IQ is worked almost inextricably into the language:

“From an educational perspective, Binet and Simon posited three levels of feeblemindedness: idiots, who could not communicate either verbally or in writing; imbeciles, who could speak, but not read or write; and morons, who were delayed in school studies by a few years, never attaining to much higher than a twelve-year-old level of intelligence. Meanwhile… Stern (1871-1938), revised the Binet-Simon test and introduced a ‘constant’ intelligence quotient (IQ) that correlated the mental and chronological ages of the test-takers… it was widely accepted, given the confidence in science during this period of time… Still, Stern ‘unwittingly encouraged the simplification of the extraordinarily complex concept of intelligence… [since such tests] assumed that the intelligence quotient was analogous to, if not synonymous with, native intelligence.’

“…This classification was given further specification through an adaptation of the Stern IQ by Lewis Madison Terman (1877-1956)… Terman’s IQ test, also known since as the Stanford-Binet Test… basically remains in effect even today.”

(Yong, Amos. Theology and Down Syndrome. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007. pp. 51-52)

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Peace like a river - Leif EngerZena started this, barely, about a year ago, and dropped it in disgust at the writing — she thought it poor. I disagree. I also think this: before you bother seeing whether the hype about The shack is worth it, please, just read this book instead. (Yes, I am saying this will resonate stronger with followers of Jesus, but there are reasons to read it even if that’s not where you find yourself). Every element of good literature — plot, character, pacing, voice — is treated better here than there, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That was a message with a story loosely hung on it. This is a good, old-fashioned, just-plain story. And the tears I shed at the end of this one felt earned.

Posted by & filed under Uncategorized.

Jim Renaud participated in the design of

no one i know was a bigger obama booster, during the campaign, than jim renaud. he’s a killer graphic designer, too, just ramping up to launching his own studio brand. what’s he worked on, you say?

oh, just a little of this.

Posted by & filed under Uncategorized.

Run D.C.

My acquaintance (friend? internet friend?) trey‘s tumblog is featured prominently in their sweet themes. checking it out, i happened on another tumblog which featured the above tshirt. it’s amusing sure, but isn’t it also kind of sweet? i think its the combo of the wide open smile with those oversize glasses — it makes him look like an innocent kid.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. II - M. T. AndersonEqually accomplished but wholly different companion to the prior entry in Octavian’s tale. Both are horror stories of a sort — detailing, in different ways, the horror of being counted worthless among all your fellow men — but where Vol. I approaches this end through the madness of white condescension and slavery, Vol. II employs the madness of war. Considers ‘liberty,’ when by indiscriminate use it becomes meaningless, especially when one man is liberated from another but continues to keep a third in bondage. These two volumes form a significant work. Highly recommended.

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

at dinner we say grace each night. we hold hands and pray, and when we’re done, we ask mazzy how we should say ‘amen.’ she says either ‘soft’ or ‘loud,’ and we proceed apace, *amen* or AMEN.

following a soft amen tonight, mazzy told us out of nowhere, ‘no, wait a minute guys: robot amen,’ followed by her doing a pretty good version of the robot there in her chair and saying, in her best robot voice, ‘a. men.’

robot amen. only from the mind of mazzy.

Posted by & filed under Uncategorized.

The Swan

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.

And dying — to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day–
is like his anxious letting himself fall

into the waters, which receive him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draw back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.

(Rilke, Rainer Maria. ‘The Swan.’ in Ahead of all parting: the selected poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. by Stephen Mitchell. NY: The Modern Library, 1995, p.35)

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

No cover image availablePoems resulting from weekly walks taken in the woods on/near Berry’s farm. Presented chronologically, but generally moving thematically through the seasons. Mostly reflections on the Sabbath; but also dealing with:

  • light, light as a metaphor for the Breath of God
  • leaf, light, wing, hand, soil
  • God works in death, and rests in life. Life rises to rest.
  • The praise that every thing gives unceasingly.
  • (rarely) the intrusion of man into the natural order.
  • It takes work to make of the land what time and neglect will do naturally. This work is our entry into grace.

An example (which I would like to remember):

1979 XII.

To long for what eternity fulfills
Is to forsake the light one has, or wills
To have, and go into the dark, to wait
What light may come — no light perhaps, the dark
Insinuates. And yet the dark conceals
All possibilities: thought, word, and light,
Air, water, earth, motion, and song, the arc,
Of lives through light, eyesight, hope, rest, and work –

And death, the narrow gate each one must pass
Alone, as some have gone past every guess
Into the woods by a path lost to all
Who look back, gone past light and sound of day
Into grief’s wordless catalogue of loss.
As the known life is given up, birdcall
Become the only language of the way,
The leaves all shine with sudden light, and stay.


Berry is really good with the closing line/couplet. These poems work together to move the reader toward a sense of rest, or need of rest.

Posted by & filed under Lord.

To sit and look at light-filled leaves
May let us see, or seem to see,
Far backward as through clearer eyes
To what unsighted hope believes:
The blessed conviviality
That sang Creation’s seventh sunrise,

Time when the Maker’s radiant sight
Made radiant every thing He saw,
And every thing He saw was filled
With perfect joy and life and light.
His perfect pleasure was sole law;
No pleasure had become self-willed.

For all His creatures were His pleasures
And their whole pleasure was to be
What He made them; they sought no gain
Or growth beyond their proper measures,
Nor longed for change or novelty.
The only new thing could be pain.

(Berry, Wendell. ’1979: III.’ Sabbaths. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press. 1987. p. 9.)

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Another turn of the crank - Wendell BerryEssays about conservation, economy, health, and always, the purpose and value of human beings and the world of which they are (but) a part. I’m about to go on a Berry kick that will last as long as I can stand it; I assume I’ll hear the ideas presented in this volume again, in other forms. But Berry is a prophet, a lone voice in this time. Packed with good ideas. For instance: there is a third way between raping the land and preserving tracts of wilderness unspoiled — that is, using the land well, so that it remains healthy and yet provides for us well. For instance: perhaps humans aren’t intelligent enough to act on the scale to which our technologies tempt us. For instance: when you think about the body as a machine, which it is not, you proceed with a type of medicine that treats the body as if it were a machine, which is not conducive of good health. For instance:

“We have, in fact, no right to ask the world to conform to our desires. Sooner or later, if we hope to grow up, we have to confront the opposite imperative: that our rights and the realization of our desires are limited by human nature, by human community, and by the nature of the places in which we live. If we can accept our world’s real limits and the responsibilities that protect our authentic rights… then… we may hope to transcend our limits…” (pp. 83-84)

Highly recommended, though I reserve the right to proclaim a later volume of essays “even more highly recommended.”

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The Maytrees - Annie DillardI had presumed I’d read The Living before I read this: the former has been on my bookshelf for over a year. But I stumbled on this while picking up Zena’s latest bookclub title, and flew through it. Concerning the Maytree’s marriage, and Maytree’s infidelity to Lou, and Lou’s very practical forgiveness, even to the point of providing hospice to both the woman Maytree left with and Maytree himself. I found myself wishing, early on, for the plot; but it turns out the plot, when isolated seems ‘contrived’ (as Zena put it), and is perhaps beside the point (which is life-over-time, dying, the nature of love, and characterization). Some stunning sentences; and again I’m struck with just how many ideas, observations, turns of phrase Dillard can lay down on a page. On one page, what would be a wealth for another writer! A lovely book.

Posted by & filed under Fourscore and Seven, State of the Union.

my wife and i get a new couch every 6 months or so. we get them off the curb, especially if we know the people who curbed them. it’s good that they’re free, because we get tired of our couches pretty quickly. the only couch we ever loved was the first one we ever purchased, and it just wouldn’t fit through the door of our house, no matter how hard we tried. we donated it to our church and it’s done just fine there for the past 4 years. so after that, we’ve had at best a casual relationship with our couches. when we see one that catches our eye, in the wild, we just haul it home and part with the old one.

it doesn’t make for a terribly well arranged living room, though — we often have to deal with irregularities in size / shape / color vs. our existing furniture.

so, then, the point is: we recently inherited a curbed overstuffed chair [okay, not a couch, but the principle is the same], which sits opposite our current couch, and it has done the magical, impossible task of tying our entire living room together and making it into a really nice, tidy space! and its colors coordinate. i never thought i’d manage a coherent interior design (mostly because I never try), but here it is, and by accident at that.

thank you, lord, for all your gifts.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Being Consumed - William CavanaughThanks, clc! Differs slightly from my earlier read (Consuming Jesus) in that the focus is economics in general and not the ‘spiritual consumerism.’ However, better written and more concise than that book by a long shot. A condensation: 1) market ‘freedom’ is not simply the absence of state control, but the presence of a specific end to which desire points; 2) consumerism is characterized by a detachment from products, production and producers; 3) Christ counters the homogenizing and detaching force of globalization by making the universal particular; and 4) in Jesus, the basic economic assumption of scarcity is turned upside down. Again, much to think about here, and I get the suspicion that certain demands are being placed on my practice of everyday life.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

A stay against confusion - Ron HansenHere was the surprise answer, found on the shelf at a retreat house, to the question, “Does Hansen believe Jesus is God?” I’d imagined so, given the subject matter of Atticus and Mariette in Ecstasy. He gives some reflection to how Catholicism informs his writing, and much more on just plain aspects of Catholicism — the Society of Jesus, the Eucharist, Stigmata, St. Ignatius, etc. His forwards, where he writes in a very chatty voice that I think is supposed to be familiar, were a bit grating — full of himself — but the essays themselves have the same economical, engaging style as his fiction.

Posted by & filed under Uncategorized.


The comments aren’t all ported over from Haloscan. 52 books is there from January 2008 to the present, with a few earlier entries; I’ll be working on finishing that up.

But really, how long can a man wait? Here’s the blog, Mark III.

Posted by & filed under Uncategorized.

Folks, the sale is over. I’ve divested myself of the entire collection.

Hi. I’m selling my CD collection. There are about 180 titles or so left to choose from. I’d say about 95% are priced between $1 and $5, although certain box sets or rare titles might be higher.

There’s a reason; if it’s important to you, you can read more.

If not, come over to my house and browse the titles. You can email me: I’m nedsfoxes and I use gmail. If you know my number, give me a call (or email me and I’ll let you know it).

If you’re too far away to come over, look at the catalog, let me know what you’re interested in and I’ll send you a quote. (I make no guarantees about the up-to-datedness of the catalog. Some of these titles may already be sold.)

This is a good time to

  • sample new music at little cost
  • get insane cheap (post-) Christmas presents
  • go legit on those illegal downloads

Happy Holidays! Thanks for stopping by.


Posted by & filed under Lord, State of the Union.

Two of the issues I struggle with are escapism and immoderation.

I’ve spent about twenty years applying both, liberally, to the realm of music. I’ve built my identity around my love of/knowledge of/involvement with/ownership of music.

Recently I had two dreams which I sensed were communications from Jesus, who I follow. The first suggested that I had abdicated control of my musical obsessions to oppressive spiritual elements, and I needed to be free from that oppression. The second suggested that I wrongly saw myself as ‘in control’ of my musical obsessions, and that I risked passing this oppression down to my children.

I prayed about this, and after consideration, I felt pretty certain that Jesus was asking me to lay down control of music. One aspect of this directive was to give up my cds, which embody my obsession. Another was to delete the iTunes library and stop intentionally listening to music. No headphones at work, no putting a cd on the stereo in the evening. Jesus reassured me that he knew how much I loved music, and that this was good, but that for the foreseeable future he would control when, what and how much I heard. When I hear music I love from now on, I’m to view it as a personal gift from God, an expression of his love for me. It’s been over 4 months since I listened to anything on purpose.

This has turned out to be both excruciating and fruitful for me. I’m completely reorienting myself to music. On the other side of this process, I feel like there’s a new identity for me, one that more closely resembles both who I really am and who Jesus is. I’m excited about that.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Theology and Down Syndrome - Amos YongYong attempts to develop a semi-comprehensive theology derived from the existence of people with intellectual disabilities — that is, what can we infer about God, assuming his omnipotence and benevolence, given individuals like Yong’s brother, Mark? After first exhaustively surveying the range of factors that might bear on his task, Yong profers: A soteriology deeply rooted in the body and in relationship; a redemption of disability in the eschaton, without (necessarily) a corresponding removal of disability; a respecting of personhood and identity, understanding the soul as being embodied but not merely reducible to the body; and an eternity where the infinity of God’s perfection suggests an infinity of our being perfected, which allows us to be both eternally perfect and eternally ‘disabled’ — ever looking upward to the next height of joy. This book holds out a great hope for those of us who love both Jesus and someone with an intellectual disability. A challenging read (whew!), but deeply rewarding.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

givenFound on the shelf of a spiritual director in Cincinnati. A hard and good light shining on death, aging, aging love, and the love of the created order. Both Zena and I would like to read more.

“There are no unsacred places; There are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

will_you_please_be_quiet_pleasePlucked from the shelf up in the PSs, mostly because of Altman’s Short Cuts, although I remember a review of an omnibus volume that suggested that Carver’s stories are as much the product of his editor(s?) as of his own writing/rewriting (not sure I’m remembering this correctly). Dark, dark, dark, no faith in human nature. Weirdly compelling, mostly desparing.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

consuming_jesusFound this browsing the LOC BR/BS’s. A theology of the eucharist as an indictment of the spirit of consumerism and racism prevalent in the Western Church. First voice I ever heard speak against today’s dominant teachings about church planting and church growth (target a growing area and a particular demographic, cater to that demographic, etc…). Lots to think about.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

object_orientedA primer for me, since I’ve been rudely pulled into the world of PHP5′s full support for objects. This was a little disjointed, but I appreciated the high level look at the concepts, and certainly feel like I know more what I’m aiming for…

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

adventures_of_pinocchioJust barely familiar from the Disneyfied version, this Pinocchio is the embodiment of “what I don’t want to do, that I do.” He’s like a living metaphor for achieving virtue the hard way. Glad I read this.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The Reason For God - Timothy KellerJust the most down-to-earth, respectful, articulate, empathetic, compassionate apologetic I’ve read since Mere Christianity. Makes me excited to follow Jesus, to know him, to be known by him and identified with him. Hands down, the best book on faith I’ve read in years.

Posted by & filed under Lord.

“Imagine you are on a high cliff and you lose your footing and begin to fall. Just beside you as you fall is a branch sticking out of the very edge of the cliff. It is your only hope and it is more than strong enough to support your weight. How can it save you?… It’s not the strength of your faith but the object [emphasis mine] of your faith that actually saves you. Strong faith in a weak branch is fatally inferior to weak faith in a strong branch.

“This means you don’t have to wait for all doubts and fears to go away to take hold of Christ.”

(Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. NY, Dutton, p.234)

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Read this to the kids, episodically. Some parts interested them more than others, but on the whole they followed it better than they’ve been following Treasure Island, which we just can’t seem to make any progress in. It’s much brattier and more conventionally nonsensical than I remembered. The poetry might be the best part.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

A spontaneous choice, sitting on the shelf outside a coworker’s office. This is where your 10th grade English definition of ‘tragedy’ came from. I remember that the plot of Eco’s The Name of the Rose turned on the lost second volume of this work. I suppose you should read this if you’re serious about literary form.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

An arresting novel, looking deep into the eyes of modern convenience and the advance of technology and seeing very little redemption. Yves, and his idyllic village surrounded by mountains on an unexplored British isle, are pre-industrial and prosaic until he dreams up the harness, an as-yet-unheard-of improvement. Highly recommended.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

A weird inversion of the spy novel, where the espionage is entirely altruistic and all the antagonists end up living happily ever after. Plus some speculative post-virtual-reality “locative art” stuff, about installations that can only be seen with a special helmet over local wi-fi networks. It’s okay.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Strongly reminiscent, to me, of Asimov’s Foundation in its obsession with the psychology of survival. Ender is a child prodigy groomed by the military to destroy an alien race, to his own shame. It’s a page-turner.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Revealing non-fiction, as the (non-fiction) author’s voice can be trusted to be more fully indicative of the author’s self. Wallace didn’t just write in a neurotic tone, these essays suggest, but was in fact markedly neurotic — that was his voice. I found the first (“Derivative sport in tornado alley“) to have the most power, in its eerie climax and autobiographical focus on Wallace’s childhood.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

does it strike anyone else that obama’s decision to opt out of public financing was short-sighted?

he’s outspending mccain 4 to 1 in advertisements now, in these last two weeks leading up to the elections, says the new york times. next week he will have spent more on advertising than any other presidential candidate in history, ever.

but the long term effects? no candidate will ever blithely agree to public spending again, without some serious calculations. and the kinds of candidates that can run, from now on? not idealists, but the kind of seriously charismatic populists that can succeed in raising the more-and-more-massive amounts of private financing that will surely be necessary to win a presidential election.

who are those populists going to be? the kinds of candidates with deep and broad experience, insight, wisdom? are those the kinds of character traits you develop while you’re also developing the kind of popularity that ensures massive amounts of private funding?

just seems short sighted, that’s all.

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

saw (yet another) ‘hdtv’ box in this morning’s trash on the way to work. someone else has taken the plunge into modern tv, and presumably, into preparedness for digital television.

On February 17, 2009 all full-power broadcast television stations in the United States will stop broadcasting on analog airwaves and begin broadcasting only in digital..”

i’ve been feeling vaguely uneasy about this until i realized that, as long as i have a working analog set in my house, i’m in the (arguably) enviable position of being able to say after february 17th, “i cannot receive television transmissions over the airwaves in my house.” yes, we have a tv; how else could we watch magic school bus videos? but the prospect of the kids discovering broadcast television has always kind of creeped me out.

maybe i should start stockpiling analog television sets. they’re going to be cheap and plentiful for a while.

in the interest of full disclosure: zena and i do watch and appreciate some television. we’ve seen every episode of lost, online, and plan to continue. and friends have loaned us the british office and arrested development on dvd — those were really awkward and funny. i personally just want full control over which programs are available in my home. and i’m about to have that, as regards the medium of the television set, for the first time in my life, ever. i’m a little giddy; someone please take me down a peg.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The final novel from a post-Joyceian master; I picked it up because I saw a description of it as being along the lines of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. It’s less weighty and more comical-pastoral than that — deals with an everyday Irishman’s relations with a mad scientist, a non-bike-riding bicycle policeman, and an addled James Joyce (who disavows writing Ulysses and longs to become a Jesuit priest). Slightly more than a diversion, but I’m told I should read some of his earlier novels (At Swim-Two-Birds and The Poor Mouth, specifically). Maybe.

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

zena and i were interviewed yesterday, by the fox news detroit health personality, about mazzy and this saturday’s buddy walk (zena is the p.r. rep for the event). mazzy wore, variously, her princess/fairy dress and her santa suit.

we’ll likely air tonight (10/2) on the 5 o’clock news (around 5:50 or so, they say), tomorrow morning on the 11 am news and Saturday on the 8 or 9 am news. update: it’s online — watch!

we have no television in the home — dvr it, folks!

and if you’d like, join us saturday at kensington, 10 am, for some serious buddy walking.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

How Chesterton found Christ, and what he believed that led him there, presented for your edification. Glorious.

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

i love my public transportation time, because i’m usually free to read a book (or whatever).

but this morning, i realized that i dislike finishing a book on the bus (see 52books). i think its because that period just after finishing a book is kind of like an eddy in time, where the book and its ending and the moment are sort of swirling around in your brain, and there’s a stasis that’s really precious. and being on a bus just kind of messes with that, probably because of the forward motion; it kills the eddy and starts time flowing again.

i like to finish a book on the couch, at night, after everyone else is asleep.

also, last week, i discovered that i actually kind of enjoy the (far-away) smell of a skunk, on the highway or wherever. because it reminds me of scratch-n-sniff books when i was a kid. but when a skunk is up close, man, there’s no getting over that.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

The Yiddish policemans union - Michael ChabonThe 2008 Hugo award winner (the man has a Pulitzer and a Hugo; what more, a Nobel?). At its most basic, a good detective novel, imagining that the Jews were given a portion of Alaska after failing to win the Holy Land in the 40s, and are now facing exile again, as the gift reverts to its owners. Chabon (though he frustrates me, with his pet themes and personal fascinations) spins some really good accents, grace notes, layers, levels on top of that frame. He’s got a way with words, at the very least, and the end made me tear up (I’m kind of emotional right now, though, so it could be that).

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

i finished infinite jest for the second time. ‘infj,’ perhaps, in shorthand, which corresponds to my meyers-briggs profile. the author, david foster wallace, committed suicide while i was working my way through this novel again.

if you followed that link, you know that infinite jest is about the nature of addiction. the book deals with two main protagonists (among dozens of semi-pro- and an- tagonists), hal and don; hal is descending into addiction and don is ascending out of addiction. the narrative is bookended by snapshots of hal’s and don’s arc: hal, at the beginning, has been rendered inutile by his marijuana addiction; don, at the end, during a fever dream, remembers his absolute peak high on an exceedingly-hard-to-score substance called ‘sunshine,’ which delivers him into temporary oblivion while all around him various dangerous lowlifes reenact portions of ‘a clockwork orange’ and just generally go off the deep end, substance-use- and violent-impulse-entertaining-wise. (that is, don’s absolute peak high was also his absolute moral nadir, a kind of zenith of self-destruction).

if you read this blog, you probably know i’m working through my own issues with addiction. this book has been tremendously helpful to me, in terms of having someone cast a fierce eye on the nature of addiction and then explain it, and then explain the process of recovery, in a way that makes sense to me. that wallace himself succumbed to (presumably) some of the self-deluding ways of thinking that he so clearly articulates in this novel is just pathologically tragic.

but i have two things now, here on the other side of this novel. one is a clear, clear picture of exactly where i can expect to get to, if i continue to indulge my addictions and my inclination for escape.

the other is a real hope for change, not only because wallace left behind this impressionistic roadmap to recovery, but also because i know that

life with jesus is transactional.

a transaction is taking place,

where jesus is willing to substitute his life and power for my own, if i’m only willing to give up my life

(and his life and power are most assuredly the opposite of ‘inutile’),

and where exactly did my life get me in the first place(?), is something to consider when considering this transaction.

just a little, you know, like, confessional blogging for the day.

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

Infinite Jest - David Foster WallaceMy second time. Better, now that the hard work of figuring out what the hell is going on in the narrative has been done already. And I can better sum up the main theme, too, which is: the nature of addiction. And the author committed suicide while I was reading this, his magnum opus, which this reading will be forever connected with that fact in my mind, probably. I unequivocally, unreservedly, urgently, utterly recommend this book.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

from the blog entry describing google’s new browser, ‘chrome:’

Chrome has a privacy mode; Google says you can create an ‘incognito’ window ‘and nothing that occurs in that window is ever logged on your computer.’ The latest version of Internet Explorer calls this InPrivate. Google’s use-case for when you might want to use the “incognito” feature is e.g. to keep a surprise gift a secret. As far as Microsoft’s InPrivate mode is concerned, people also speculated it was a ‘porn mode.’

i don’t have anything earthshaking to say about this. but please note the following:

1. it’s in the nature of the internet to allow people to gratify their desires, whether beneficial or harmful, instantly. i’m talking specifically about pornography here — there’s no vetting period for pornography on the internet, no cooling down period built into the process of seeking, finding and consuming pornography.

2. because of this, pornography is the silent king of the internet. people go there for it.

3. so, web browsers — or let me break it down: the software(s) you use to get to the web — have a strong incentive to grease the wheel a little for pornographers.

4. but, societal norms are still such that you can’t just come out and *say* you’re greasing the wheels for pornographers.

5. so, the browser industry (you know, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari) has come up with ‘privacy mode,’ which basically means automatic-tracks-covering-up mode. you can go where you want on the web and no record of your activities will be kept by the browser.

6. so now but note the way that Google advertises its privacy mode. The only explicit function they suggest is ‘keeping a gift private.’ But they still find a way to let you know that — wink wink — *other* browsers have suggested that you might possibly just maybe also use this feature to indulge yourself a tiny little bit in… pornography.

7. also, because Google is a search company, primarily, note that the language explicitly connects the ‘pornography’ utility of this feature with Internet Explorer, not with Chrome, so that searching for ‘porn mode’ won’t automatically implicate Chrome, even though they’ve let you know that Chrome is okay with your using their privacy mode for pornography, in a roundabout way.

8. this having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too approach to correlating privacy mode and pornography by the browser makers frustrates me to no end.

9. I should point out that Firefox hasn’t incorporated a privacy mode into the browser, but they don’t have to — there’s a popular extension that does it for them. To disable this feature in Safari, you have to actually monkey with the browser code itself, which no regular user is going to (be able to) do.

10. (and this is most important) You don’t have to get everything you want. You don’t have to. You don’t have to have everything you want. You don’t have to look at pornography on the internet, even if you want to. You don’t have to do it. Even if the browsers make it easy for you. It’s possible not to get everything you want and still be okay. You don’t have to get everything you want. Other people want you to try to get everything you want, but you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to have everything you want.

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The weight of glory - C. S. LewisMost would recognize the quote from the titular essay regarding our lack of imagination being akin to a child who prefers to go on making mudpies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. This occurs surprisingly early in this slim volume. I was more taken by the address on ‘Membership,’ which advances a theology of personality that’s terribly compelling and almost infinitely promising.

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The shack - William YoungThis generation’s Hinds Feet on High Places, it’s a fantasia on meeting with the living God. Not terribly well written, but it’s got most of its theology right on, with especially good things to say about God’s orientation to himself and to us.

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Maine trys his “sto[ry/re]telling” skills on a modern trope (as opposed to a biblical episode) — the B/Monster Movie (specifically King Kong) — and fails dismally. I cannot recommend this book, which is a shame, since his previous efforts have been rewarding.

Posted by & filed under Commentary, Lord.

“Marathe’s chair squeaked slightly as his weight shifted. ‘Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout Freedom! Freedom! as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress… But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?”

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. NY: Little, Brown and Co. 1996. p. 320.

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Genome - Matt RidleyUsing the 23 chromosomes as a vehicle for discussing the science, sociology and secrets of the human genome, Ridley presents a highly readable pop-science introduction to genetics and genes, capping it all with a look into the false dichotomy of determinism vs. free will (with interesting implications for those who follow Jesus). Well worth it.

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Temporary Handlebar Weariness

Temporary Handlebar Weariness.

“What horror to be so afflicted. The right-side cannot hold a twist at all.”

(lifted bodily from Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century, a University of Kentucky Archives project)

(may I also take a moment to say that Bon Iver live is just as good as, if not better than, although wholly different from, Bon Iver on record. Plus, he covered Talk Talk’s “I Believe in You,” which just about took the show into the stratosphere, for me.)

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New birth or rebirth? - Ravi ZachariasA short, imaginary dialog between Krishna and Jesus attempting to explicate the differences between the two approaches to God and truth. I’m not sure who the target audience is: Hindus seeking to understand Jesus, or Christians seeking to understand Hinduism? I think it’s more likely the former, but only the latter will read it, and it doesn’t do the best job of making Hinduism clear (if that’s possible for someone not brought up Hindu).

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who thinks of this? who thinks “i’ll digitally stretch kelly clarkson’s ‘since you’ve been gone’ and lay it over footage from decades-old space missions for the ultimate in spiritualized tributes.”?

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

(note: this is emphatically not a suicide cry-for-help)

it’s just i’ve always thought of myself as above-average-intelligent. but it turns out my thinking is like split-pea soup when it comes to unraveling my own actions and motivations, or addressing issues of stress and complexity in my marriage and parenting and interpersonal relationships. i don’t even have the mental capacity to unravel that last sentence!

so, it seems i’ve come to the end of myself– that is, the end of my own ability to handle my life. i need some kind of external power just to handle my minute-by-minute.

i know that’s what it means to ‘trust jesus.’ that it means to rely on his resources for life rather than my own. i just don’t. know. how.

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The once and future king - T. H. WhiteThe third of the recommendations rising from this post. Way different than I expected; I somehow thought this was written much earlier than it was. Makes a definite slide from light and comic toward exceeding grimness, with inventive language and a sly way with human nature in between. Glad I did.

Posted by & filed under State of the Union.

zach galifianakis *is* the snuggler on adult swim (thanks, zach and jim).

so, that’s the preface. now, there’s a guy who goes jogging on our street many evenings around dinnertime, in shorts and a t-shirt, with the full beard and scruffy hair. he looks exactly like the snuggler!

and we’ve made a big deal of it. “z, look, it’s the snuggler!” “woah, it really is the snuggler!” “look guys, the snuggler, the snuggler!” so the kids have picked it up; their little dinner table is right next to the kitchen window, and when he jogs by, my son will often point him out and yell “mom, look, the snuggler, the snuggler!,” and mazzy will shout “the snuuuugler!,” which is innocuous in the safety of your (relatively soundproof) kitchen. (i must, for propriety’s sake, point out that my children have never seen the actual video of the snuggler. still an okay parent, until the next paragraph).

fast-forward, then, to an evening on the porch with the kids. which we could have forseen what would happen if we’d stopped for even a second during our month-long snugglerfest to consider the possibilities. but nevertheless, along comes the snuggler on the other side of the street. and just like we taught him, my son screams at the top of his voice: “mom, mooooom, loooook! it’s the snuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugler! the snuuuuuuuuuuugler!” which goes on far too long for whoever this jogging, snuggler-looking stranger is not to know that he *is* the snuggler to this random wacko family on flowerdale.


“um, hi. sorry. we point you out every night and make a big deal about how you look exactly like the snuggler, and my son is just really enthusiastic. we’re not bad people…”

lesson…. learned?

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“Although you don’t see it with your eyes, the sizes of the keys on the iPhone keyboard are actually changing all the time. That is, the software enlarges the ‘landing area’ of certain keys, based on probability.

“For example, suppose you type tim. Now, the iPhone knows that no word in the language begins timw or timr – and so, invisibly, it enlarges the ‘landing area’ of the E key, which greatly diminishes your chances of making a typo on that last letter. Cool.”


(David Pogue. iPhone: the missing manual. O’Reilly Media, 2007.)

Posted by & filed under 52 Books.

His illegal self - Peter CareyThis is my fifth Carey novel; all are on this project. A wonderful writer, one of the treasures I’ve found explicitly because I started this meme. This one, no exception. A priviliged NY child, transplanted into the feral Australian bush, and all the language that implies. I still have no reservations recommending Carey.

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Dubliners - James JoyceThe second of the recommendations rising from this post. Could this be the gold standard to which all other 20th century short stories struggled to attain? With a minimum of fuss, Joyce nails the inner life. What a pleasant surprise.

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Mr. Pip - Lloyd JonesGreat Expectations, and the principled, troubled white teacher who introduces it, gets a young islander through her country’s terrible civil war. The book is a reimagining of Pip’s story through multiple iterations — the narrator’s imagined version, the narrator’s actual life (escaping the war and winding up in London), the teacher’s offering of a way out of the horror of war, and countless other iterations. A good read.

Posted by & filed under Commentary.

Chris Williams asks (via) “What is with these people on Twitter who follow thousands upon thousands of other Twitter members? I don’t get it. Why? WHY?!”

i’ve been asking myself the same thing, and i think the answer is: marketing. if they follow you, you may just knee-jerk click ‘follow this user’ and follow them right back. and then they’ve essentially got free push marketing for whatever they want.

i’ve seen two possible scenarios. one is the blatant entrepreneur who’s pushing a product or idea, or wants to route traffic to some other website (in his profile). these are easy to identify.

the other is a little harder to figure out. some of these twitterers look like their tweets are robot-generated from random text, or from random snippets taken from the internet with some rudimentary ai applied to keep them looking legit, or — and this strikes me as most likely — from other twitter feeds (hence the inclusion of @respond tweets to add authenticity). then they’re using bots to find and follow as many twitterers as possible. i think the idea may be that they can then sell their feed to marketers looking to blast a 140-character message. Pay $.07, i’ll drop your message as a tweet on my account, and you’ve effectively reached 200,000 net-savvy consumers without having to bypass spam filters.

so you’re seeing phase one of the great twitter spamwave. the key is: don’t follow them. i block any follower i don’t know, or can’t figure out how they reasonably picked up my twitter account. sorry oozzl. way to bust twitter.

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Playmobil Security Checkpoint – hilarious for the customer reviews

To a former consumer health collection development librarian, this was an interesting blip in the WWDC announcement Monday: Netter’s Anatomy for your iPhone. (from Modality)

Maurice Sendak animations: In the Night Kitchen | Where the Wild Things Are

Two images of pop culture whackery: Rogues gallery | Slip ‘n’ Slide

A nice little joke from the recent feature-length film, Curious George:

Man in yellow hat: “What’s the difference between neanderthal man and cro-magnon man?”
George: “hurgh?”
Man in yellow hat: “Linguistic competence and polychromatic cave paintings!” (laughs)