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.