Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth by Philip Ryken

I was mildly disappointed by this book. I was expecting a book by a Tolkien scholar when this is a series of three lectures and responses by a university president. It is certainly the best book by a university president I've read this year! But the best parts must be the extended quotes of Tolkien in each chapter. Ryken has done an admirable job of collating these quotes and especially of using the appendices to bring out details of Tolkien's thought that are not obvious from the main narrative of Lord of the Rings. However, there's just not enough value added to the mix for me, although as an avid Tolkien fan I admit I'm hard to please.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor

This collection of stories would be worth it for "The Lame Shall Enter First" alone. I have never encountered a short story that does what that one does. Part of its effect is its placement in the middle of this collection, because you have to expect O'Connor to do what she does, and then you're devastated by it anyway. It's a bit like yelling at the screen in a horror movie -- you know they're going to walk down that dark hallway anyway, and your knowledge that something bad is going to happen makes the event all the more wrenching when it does happen. The opening story that shares its title with the collection is also terrible and excellent, and "Revelation" provides one of O'Connor's most indelible images. Only the final story or two are not worth five stars in my book. Also, as with the novels, it may gain power as an audiobook. My one complaint about Wise Blood is that it was not challenging or transformative to the reader -- this collection is both of those things and more.

Book Review: Bells in Winter by Czeslaw Milosz

This collection of poems is shorter than Road-Side Dog, and the poems are longer, but I gravitated more toward the barrage of epigrams and pith of the previous collection. This one seems more "normal," like what one would expect of poetry, but it also may have demanded more close reading from me. By saying "more normal," I'm setting the norm to Nobel-Prize-winning poetry, so take that as you will. Just not as many post-its in this one than in the previous one. Two poems stand out: "Ars Poetica?," one of the best descriptions of inspiration I've encountered, and "From the Chronicles of the Town of Pornic," for its strong sense of place and groundedness in history.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Book Review: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I can't help but compare this to O'Connor's other novel, The Violent Bear It Away, and I can't help but like that other novel more than this one. But this one is still very good. It takes me a while to put my finger on why I didn't fall head over heels for this one. There's too much humor in it, with so much ridiculousness that it's hard to find normalcy in the proceedings. No "straight man." But once Hazel Motes actually gets down to preaching his Church Without Christ, and starts attracting competition, then some of the best passages in the book pop out with sudden clarity. This book is closer to most readers' experience than the backwoods preacher of The Violent Bear It Away, and it may be more accessible as a result, but I feel like it's less focused and easier to evade its gaze by saying "It's not ME she's writing about, it's that other guy over there." So it's less of a personal challenge, but it's still a fine indictment of modern default deism and a literary exemplar of gothic, faith-infused writing. Not to mention, at least in the audiobook (which brings these things out), it's laugh-out-loud funny. Props to Bronson Pinchot's audiobook rendition for an incredible dynamic range of voices and emotions.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book Review: Beren and Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the sixth recent book in which Christopher Tolkien has edited his father's previously obscure work into a tidy, marketable package, sort of an in-progress zoomed-in Silmarillion. The first book (IIRC) was The Children of Hurin, and then there were four reworked/retranslated myths (the Death of Arthur, Beowulf, Kullervo, and Sigurd and Gudrun). Now, Christopher has produced Beren and Luthien, which is Tolkien's favorite story, as evidenced by the fact that Tolkien's own gravestone identifies him with Beren and his wife with Luthien. It's fascinating to watch the story evolve through four different versions over the years. There's a few moments that are more heartfelt than anything else Tolkien has written. Also, it's clear that Tolkien's magic was first and foremost musical -- there is a wizard duel which is described as singing songs! (Dueling Banjos will never be the same after that.) I have to admit that when I reached the end and found there was an appendix with yet another version of Beren's story, I sighed a little, but it was probably the best written of all the poems, having been written after Lord of the Rings was finished and full of vivid words and images. So this kept surprising me and drawing me under its spell, and it's my favorite of all these books. Looks like Christopher Tolkien saved the best for last.

Book Review: The Great Shift by James L. Kugel

Reading this book feels like listening in on one side of a conversation in which you support the speaker and want to interject but really shouldn't. I've admired James Kugel's translations of Hebrew poetry before, and so I was eager to read this book as a more interpretive, big-picture work. Kugel asks why the Biblical stories in which God speaks and works miracles seem so distant from our modern experience, He explains that it might be US who changed, from pre-modern to modern selves. I deliberately omit post-modern because Kugel seems to be speaking to the "default" modern reader. This is reasonable because most academic non-fiction is addressed to precisely that reader: the good student who wonders about these things but doesn't study them in depth. Because he's explaining ancient religious people to modern irreligious ones, there's not much time to address other parties (like, say, me!), but I'm fine with filling in the blanks and extending the conclusions myself. Then, at the very end, Kugel brings in a Flannery O'Connor quote that shows that 20th-century believers do actually exist, shaped by the same texts into something like the ancient believers. And the book stops. It's done all it should do at that point, but there's so many more questions: What does the Great Shift really mean? What can continue to Shift ... or can Shift back (e.g., Owen Barfield's recovery of original participation)? At the end of the day, and despite Kugel's protestations to the contrary, I think we can participate in ancient belief as we move into the future, because the object of belief is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Great Shift opens a door to that possibility by showing how it used to be, which (to me at least) implies that it might be again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

This memoir by a writer about her marriage and family is a short slice of reality, compact and yet inclusive of two decades of sharing life with someone else. Shapiro is married to another writer, and the theme of the memoir is the interplay of similarity and difference. The audiobook is compelling because you are hearing her speak to you herself, and the last vignette (which is a scientific experiment of sorts, now that I think of it) is particularly vivid. I feel like I'm missing out a bit by not having read Shapiro's earlier memoir, but I'm not sure if that's the case. This would be a good book club book, because it doesn't interpret itself that much, but it would be fruitful to discuss it with friends -- it's incomplete like real life and gives you as much to think about as living does. Seems like that's what a memoir should do, and this book definitely does it.