There are two kinds of people in the world.
There are some people who, rather than merely “entertaining” themselves, read the most important, the most beautiful, the most challenging, and the most thought-provoking books published each year; and there are some people who don’t.
The list below was created to assist the former.
From Robert Louis Wilken at First Things:
“Were John Witherspoon living today, he would be a regular contributor to First Things. A Scottish Presbyterian divine, learned philosopher, and fervent Evangelical, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, he believed that religious societies—that is, churches—had a public role in nurturing social and political order. He moved with his family to the American colonies in 1768 to become president of the College of New Jersey located in the village of Princeton. Almost at once he was caught up in the debates over dissolving the ties between the colonies and the king and parliament of England.
In this thoroughly researched and sophisticated book, Gideon Mailer cuts against the grain of recent scholarship on Witherspoon to make a compelling case that it was primarily his Evangelical theology, not common sense Scottish moral philosophy, that informed his thinking on religion and public life. This is best illustrated in a powerful sermon preached six weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Titling his sermon ‘The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,’ Witherspoon told his hearers that any attempt to create new forms of civil union was inevitably accompanied by pride and human fallibility. At a time when passions were inflamed and feelings of moral superiority drove the patriots (of whom he was one), Witherspoon offered no smooth words. ‘What we have to fear, and what we have now to grapple with, is the ignorance, prejudice, partiality and injustice of human nature.’ The American patriots were mere men. A demanding but rewarding book.”
Jan 26th – The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry – by Wendell Berry
“As with all thinkers who choose to set their face against both fashion and power, Wendell Berry is regularly caricatured for the crime of thinking things through – accused of ‘living in the past’, ‘wanting to turn the clock back’ and various other predictable insults grabbed at random from the progressive toolbag. From one angle he can certainly appear, as he acknowledges himself, a relic from the past. Born at the height of the Great Depression into a farming family which, like all its neighbours, still worked their land the preindustrial way, he is a unique figure in modern American letters. Brought up as a farmer, he left the land as a young man to study and travel, eventually moving to New York City to ‘be a writer’. Writers, then as now, in the long shadow of Modernism, were supposed to ensconce themselves in the metropolis and live as placeless chroniclers of its unease.
But it wasn’t long before Berry felt drawn back to rural Kentucky, where he had grown up. The place was pulling him. Places, in my experience, often do that. I think that some places want writers to tell their stories. Wendell Berry was never meant to tell the stories of New York City; there were quite enough people doing that already. So, as his fellow scribes looked at him aghast, some of them trying to persuade him of his foolishness, he left the city and went back to the land, buying a farm five miles from where he had grown up, in the area where both his mother and father had grown up before him. This is the place in which he has lived, worked and written for the last half-century. This is the place whose story he has told, and through it he has told the story of America, and through that the story of modern humanity as it turns its back on the land and lays waste to the soil.
Soil is the recurring image in these essays. Again and again, Berry worries away at the question of topsoil. This is both a writer’s metaphor and a farmer’s reality, and for Wendell Berry, metaphors always come second to reality. ‘No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul’, he wrote to his friend, the poet Gary Snyder, in 1980, ‘if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.’ Over the last century, by some estimates, over half the world’s topsoil has been washed away by the war on nature which we call industrial farming. We may have perhaps fifty or sixty years of topsoil left if we continue to erode, poison and lay waste to it at this rate. As the human population continues to burgeon, the topsoil in which it grows its food continues to collapse. It is perhaps the least sexy environmental issue in the world, but for the future of human civilisation, which continues to depend upon farmers whether it knows it or not, it may be the most important.
Wendell Berry knows this, because he sees it every day, and because he works with it. I have spent the last several months reading every book of essays he has ever published, and the image which has stayed with me above all others comes at the beginning of his 1988 essay ‘The work of local culture’. An old galvanised bucket hangs on a fence post near a hollow, in a wood on what was once his grandfather’s farm. In the bucket, slowly and over many decades, soil is being born:
‘The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognise there an artistry and farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human.’
In patience, in slowness, there is hope. In the places where we often deposit our hopes, meanwhile, there is less. Berry’s questing thoughtfulness challenges traditional political categories; challenges notions of activism, of movements, of politics itself on a national and global scale. All this makes liberating reading for those who enjoy thinking for themselves. To the ‘right’ he shows the consequences of a love of money and markets, of government by corporation, of an economic growth unmoored from place, which eats through nature and culture and leaves ruins. To the ‘left’ he shows the consequences of a rootless individualism, of rights without rites, of the rejection of family and tradition, of the championing of the cosmopolitan over the rooted and the urban over the rural.”
Jan 30th – Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture – by Anthony Esolen
From Mere Orthodoxy:
“I suspect the highest complement you can give a book written by a professor is that, upon finishing the book, you find yourself wishing that you could take a class with him. As I finished Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes my immediate response was precisely that—I wish there were a way I could study literature with Dr. Esolen. He can pick the books we read. I’m in.
We’re currently seeing a number of new books being released that belong to the same general conversation about the future of Christianity in the United States. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is the most well-known and will be out next week. That said, we have also had R. R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society published last year, Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land out earlier this year, and Esolen’s Out of the Ashes.
There are two things that stood out to me as I read Esolen’s book. First, his book is far punchier in its tone than any other book mentioned above, including Dreher’s. I bring this up because the reviews of Dreher’s book from many progressive evangelicals have spent a great deal of time policing Rod’s tone. Those people put off by Rod’s tone will be even more put off by Dr. Esolen as the man does not pull his punches.
An excerpt from the chapter on education:
‘Try to imagine someone armed with directives from Ottawa marching up to Anne Shirley, now a teacher, and telling her that she must instruct the little boys in ‘sexual expression’ and ‘transgender rights.’ When she narrows her eyes and wonders who gave the government official the authority to dictate to her what is best for her charges, rendering their parents irrelevant and obnoxiously presuming to overrule nature itself, she is subject to a barrage of contempt–from someone who has not one fiftieth of her knowledge of arts and letters or of the human realities of men and women, boys and girls. If Anne of Green Gables persists, she is fired and replaced by someone–usually a woman, call her Susie of the Sex Shop–who is strangely eager to impart this instruction, though we may question her equal eagerness to impart what little knowledge she may have of poetry or Scripture or British history.’
There is a striking thing about Esolen’s language, however: This is not at all an indulgent, florid polemic from an angry, bitter man yelling at the sky. Rather, it’s the lament of a man who knows all too well what he loves and knows how the current order threatens it.
Esolen’s talent is unique amongst essayists in that he is able to create worlds in ways we typically expect to find in fiction and poetry. Esolen is an English professor so perhaps that is not surprising, but even amongst the literature scholars I have read Esolen is unique. Reading him called to mind for me the experience of reading C. S. Lewis or Oliver O’Donovan. As you read, you become more and more aware of the fact that these authors haven’t simply read a lot of books; they have imaginatively lived in a world that you yourself do not know and they are speaking from their place within that world.
At minimum, reading them feels rather like sitting at the base of a tall mountain looking up its slope and seeing a distant speck that you know to be a person approaching the summit. But even that image may not quite capture how I feel when I read veteran scholars of this caliber. The overwhelming sense is both that they have lived in a world you do not share and that you desperately wish you did share it.
The result of this is that it is clear exactly what Esolen loves, what he sees as good, and what he wishes to preserve where it still exists and restore where it has been lost.”
From Christian Smith’s Foreword:
“Margaret has to avoid Facebook because seeing how happy everyone else appears online makes her unhappy by comparison. Rob gets a call from a friend asking him to ‘Like’ his new Facebook photo to save him from the possibility of not being liked enough. Michael felt lonely because he spent most of high school trying to impress people on social media rather than spending time with this friends. These are just a few of the people you will meet in this book. And it is tempting to ask: What’s the matter with kids today?
Everybody knows that the digital communications revolution – the Internet, social media, smartphones, online dating, and more – is transforming our society. But nobody really knows yet how these technological innovations are changing us and our ways of life – possibly including our very sense of self – and just how far it will go. We have lived long enough with this revolution by now to know that it is truly revolution, not a superficial phase. But we have not lived with it long enough to know what it really means for us in the long run …
Donna Freitas’s The Happiness Effect provides the first really serious and reliable answers to these kinds of questions that parents ask every day. As a researcher, I am very excited about it, even as I find it troubling as a parent. Unlike a lot of writing in this area, this book is neither speculation nor sensationalism. It is serious, focused on a hugely important issue, and based on rock-solid empirical evidence. Freitas elegantly interprets the data – mostly by allowing young people to speak for themselves – in clear and accessible prose that is rare among academic writers. It deserves and needs to be widely read.
On of the most important findings in this book, to my mind, is the schizophrenic effect social media has on people’s sense of self. Social media produces a world in which the problems and blemishes of real life are hidden behind virtual presentations of self that struggle, often obsessively, to be ‘Liked.’ One must always appear attractive, happy, and clever. And, as Freitas deftly shows, even while many users grasp the dehumanizing forces at work here, they find it difficult to keep themselves from playing into this virtual world’s insidious grasp on human insecurities and fears. The damage is perpetrated mostly by the same people who suffer them. It is troubling to anyone who wishes to see young people growing up to be authentically secure, happy, realistic, and genuinely caring about the real needs of other people.
The pages that follow skillfully reveal the sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant ways that social media twist and distort young people’s senses of self. I have seen hints of this in my own research, but this book nails it with force and insight. When I interviewed young people, smartphones and Facebook continually interrupted, metaphorically and sometimes literally. I knew social media was an essential topic. This book, which brings us inside the intimate thoughts and feeling of youth struggling to develop authentic senses of themselves, yet also wrestling to negotiate the immense pressures that social media places on them, provides answers to longstanding questions.”
Feb 7th – Norse Mythology – by Neil Gaiman
From The Atlantic:
“Norse Mythology is a considered retelling of sixteen familiar tales, presented in virtually the same sequence as they are found in Snorri’s Prose Edda, and crafted as sympathetically as any modern author can. There are echoes of Ibn Fadlan’s account, for instance, in Gaiman’s description of the funeral of Odin’s second son, Balder, one of the most beautiful and beloved of the gods. Like the noble Rūs man whose body was brought to the riverside, laid in a ship there, and burned with a woman by his side, Gaiman’s Balder was brought down the shingle, and when his wife ‘saw her husband’s body carried past … her heart gave out in her breast, and she fell dead on to the shore. They carried her to the funeral pyre, and they placed her body beside Balder’s.’
Gaiman does, however, take some creative license—largely for the better. This is perhaps most evident in his fantastic riffs off the pun-heavy Old Norse sense of humor. Snorri’s work emphasizes Thor as a god worth admiring for brawn rather than brains; Gaiman develops this characterization, fittingly, for comedic effect. When Loki explains that the lord of ogres wants Freya’s hand in marriage, for instance, Thor thinks it’s not such a bad deal: ‘She had two hands, after all, and might be persuaded to give one of them without too much of an argument.’
The gods in Gaiman’s stories are also far more talkative than those in medieval versions, and readers are granted further insight into their thoughts: ‘The people worshipped Frey and they loved him, but this did not fill the empty place inside him.’ Here, Gaiman reads Snorri’s more superficial depiction of Frey’s desires as a sign of the god’s loneliness, which offers a poignant and logical explanation for his pursuit of the giantess Gerd later in this tale. Still, Gaiman stops short of elucidating what rituals were performed when the people worshipped the Aesir and Vanir, the two groups of gods in the Norse pantheon. By and large, his lively expansions to existing passages succeed in being true to the spirit of earlier tellings. His alterations neither fundamentally change the source material nor our understanding of it, but they may very well enhance our experience of reading it.
That these stories continue to exist at all tells readers that Snorri—like Gaiman—wanted them to endure. As Snorri explains in Skáldskaparmál, the extended lesson in poetic diction that makes up the second half of his Prose Edda, it would be a loss to forget these ‘ancient metaphors,’ because without them the poet’s vocabulary would be diminished. Given that the trademarks of skaldic poetry are its ornate meter, difficult syntax, and often obscure kennings, it’s understandable that a writer like Snorri would want to have a wide variety of words and phrases available for reference …
In Norse Mythology, Gaiman mimics the elision also found in Snorri’s own accounts, the avoidance of specifics where certainty about the old ways can’t reasonably be found or expected. Gaiman’s Odin ‘stood by the grave at the end of the world, and in that place he invoked the darkest runes and called on old powers, long forgotten. He burned things, and he said things, and he charmed, and he demanded.’ What these things entail, not even Gaiman can say.
These tales, much like Snorri’s Edda, evoke more than they explain. They entice and enthrall. And in these (as in all) new versions of old myths, what readers encounter are the authors’ impressions of pagans and gods, tolerant and flawed and wise, shaped by good intentions. But the seeds of these stories were planted so long ago now, there’s no way of telling what branches shot up from which roots—only that the passing centuries haven’t stopped them from growing. Gaiman’s retelling adds another leaf to this ancient tree: It’s not a new species in its own right, but rather a fresh sign that the old one is still thriving.”
Feb 10th – The Dream-Child’s Progress & Other Essays – by David Bentley Hart
From The Centre of Philosophy and Theology:
“By turns champion of the Christian difference and voice of dissent; friend to Moley and Water Rat and scourge to those of scientistic bent—these are but a few of the many guises of David Bentley Hart, whose books, essays, and reviews over the past twenty years have established him as one of America’s foremost theologians, critics, and men of letters.
Few have escaped Hart’s withering scrutiny, as he has exploded comfortable attitudes of believers and unbelievers alike. Here he turns his vital, and at times acerbic, pen to matters of truly high import: books and authors—and in so doing ranges far and wide across our intellectual landscape. Writing on everything from Alice to Zen, here are meditations on culture, theology, and politics; on words, sports, and nature.
Disarming, insightful, illuminating—and often wickedly funny—the essays in The Dream-Child’s Progress give evidence of the great gift we have in Hart: a Christian intellectual engaging our world with warmth, candor, and clarity—but most of all, with charity.”
Feb 14th – Lincoln in the Bardo – by George Saunders
From Jason Sheehan at NPR:
“It begins, like so many simpler books before it, with a party. And with a death.
But this is no simple party. It is a state dinner at the White House, hosted by Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln — a lavish, decadent state dinner thrown in 1862, as the meat grinder of the Civil War is just beginning to churn.
And it’s no simple death, because it is the death of the Lincolns’ beloved young son Willie, of typhoid fever, at age 11. He lay sick upstairs while below, the party went on until dawn. It was thought, in that moment, on that night, that the boy would recover. His mother saved him candies from the elaborate dessert display — a chocolate fish plucked from a pond of spun sugar, a bee made from honey — and told him she would keep them until he was feeling better. Knowing what comes, what history has already told us will happen (must happen), it is the first of a hundred or a thousand small heartbreaks in George Saunders’ long-awaited first novel, Lincoln In The Bardo.
And then Willie dies. There is a funeral (glossed over) and an interment in a borrowed crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. Willie Lincoln’s body goes into its box and the box goes into its hole in the wall.
At which point the story begins in earnest.
‘Bardo’ means limbo, a liminal place, between worlds, between lives. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the bodiless state that exists in the lag between one incarnation and the next, full of unquiet spirits tethered by … guilt? By rage? By unfinished business, traditionally, or a simple unwillingness to move on.
And Saunders’ novel is full of ghosts. Soldiers and children, rapists and virgins, slaves and fools and drunks and a hundred others, including Willie Lincoln, stuck in the bardo and surrounded by a chorus of spirits all urging him to move on or to stay; all giving conflicting, contradictory advice because ‘These young ones are not meant to tarry,’ according to one regretful suicide, even though some do — the why of it always a small story, crafted here by a master of small stories.
Lincoln In The Bardo is not an easy book, but it gets easier with the reading. At the start, it jags, loops, interrupts itself a thousand times. Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent. But there are moments that are almost transcendently beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl, in the form of dialog attributed in a playwright’s style or historical abstracts cited with academic formality, pulled from sources invented or real, to speak about the party, about Lincoln, about grief or the war.
So for one night in 1862, Saunders uses his ghosts and his historians to build a tapestry of grief. While his sources cite the weeping in the Lincolns’ residence, the fury of a nation divided and the petrifying misery which Willie’s death provoked in Abraham Lincoln, his ghosts have a worm’s-eye view of death and the beyond. In them lives all the pettiness of life (a debt owed, a love unstated) umbrella’d over by the inconceivable horrors of war. While Lincoln has lost one son, he exists in a world overspilling now with lost sons, and soon to be choked with them. While he slips down to the cemetery in the middle of the story’s single night to open Willie’s casket and hold his boy’s body — to mourn in private and feel the weight of his son one more time in his lap — he stands also at the threshold of a war which will snuff hundreds of thousands of lives.
‘No one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly,’ says one of Saunders’ ghosts.
‘Ever,’ says another.”
Feb 21st – Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World – by Charles J. Chaput
From Patrick J. Deneen at First Things:
“The Moral Majority was organized to be an electoral force, animated by the implicit belief that America’s ailments were limited to Washington, D.C., and elite institutions. Liberals were using the levers of political power—especially the presidency, the courts, and the administrative state—to advance policies that contradicted the basic Christian and conservative instincts of middle America … This project reflected a kind of optimism: America is seen as a decent, faith-filled nation that can be restored with the ejection of a corrupt leadership class. The Moral Majority wasn’t claiming to change the nature of America, but to allow its true nature to reassert itself.
Thirty years later, the mood has changed. Published within months of each other—by a popular blogger and author who has journeyed from Protestantism to agnosticism to Catholicism to Orthodoxy, Rod Dreher; by one of America’s most prominent and intellectually accomplished Catholic bishops, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput; and by a Catholic professor of English at Providence College and renowned translator of Dante, Anthony Esolen—the books share the belief that traditional Christians are a moral minority. All three books were written in the midst of a political campaign that was expected to result in the election of Hillary Clinton. All three reflect the pessimism that accompanied that prospect.
The outcome of that election, surprising as it was, does not change the argument of these books: Politics will not save us. What is first of all necessary is to rebuild a culture in disarray. Compared with recovering the basic requirements of virtuous civilization—healthy communities, flourishing family life, sound education, a deep reservoir of cultural memory and practice, and formative religious faith—remaking the Supreme Court is a cinch. Philosophers who have described culture as the first requirement of a healthy civilization, from Plato to Burke to Tocqueville, have generally believed that the most one can consciously strive to achieve is preservation of a healthy culture, should one be fortunate enough to possess one. Once a culture is corrupted from within, however, they saw little hope of reversing its decay.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is less pessimistic than Dreher. Though he takes a darker view of the American political order in this book than he did in his last one, Render Unto Caesar, he remains confident that, by living their faith, Christians can contribute to the health of the nation. At points he explicitly rejects “withdraw[al] from public affairs,” reminding us that for every St. Benedict, there was a politically engaged bishop like Augustine. Yet as the book proceeds with a bleak analysis of America’s cultural rot, Chaput calls for the cultivation of an ability to live psychically, if not physically, apart. Christians may well have to live as a ‘conscious minority in a nation whose beliefs, culture, and politics are no longer their own’—that is, as strangers in a strange land. Like Dreher, he invokes the example of Vaclav Havel, who dissented against a ‘culture of lies.’ The comparison is telling: Havel did not appeal to the better version of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia or seek to reform it from within, but to ‘expose its unstable foundations’ by refusing to pretend that its lies were true.
Of the three authors, Chaput is the most confident that Christian belief and practice can exist in close proximity with, and even transform, the contemporary liberal order. His most constructive chapter presents anew the “Letter to Diognetus,” a Christian apologetic written in the second century. It explains how Christians can live and even thrive amid a pagan civilization. As Chaput points out, the ‘Letter to Diognetus’ describes Christians willing to criticize the lies and sinfulness of their fellow citizens, yet calls them to remain engaged with a hostile world, albeit perhaps not in a directly political way. ‘They didn’t abandon or retire from the world. They didn’t build fortress enclaves. They didn’t manufacture their own culture or invent their own language. They took elements from the surrounding culture and ‘baptized’ them with a new spirit and a new way of living.’ Only by transforming what a corrupt culture offers can Christians engage an always fallen world.”
Feb 21st – American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present – by Philip Gorski
“Was the United States founded as a Christian nation or a secular democracy? Neither, argues Philip Gorski in American Covenant. What the founders actually envisioned was a prophetic republic that would weave together the ethical vision of the Hebrew prophets and the Western political heritage of civic republicanism. In this ambitious book, Gorski shows why this civil religious tradition is now in peril―and with it the American experiment.
Gorski traces the historical development of prophetic republicanism from the Puritan era to the present day. He provides close readings of thinkers such as John Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Hannah Arendt, along with insightful portraits of recent and contemporary religious and political leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Gorski shows how the founders’ original vision for America is threatened by an internecine struggle between two rival traditions, religious nationalism and radical secularism. Religious nationalism is a form of militaristic hyperpatriotism that imagines the United States as a divine instrument in the final showdown between good and evil. Radical secularists fervently deny the positive contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the American project and seek to remove all traces of religious expression from the public square. Gorski offers an unsparing critique of both, demonstrating how half a century of culture war has drowned out the quieter voices of the vital center.
American Covenant makes the compelling case that if we are to rebuild that vital center, we must recover the civil religious tradition on which the republic was founded.”
Feb 28th – On Human Nature – by Roger Scruton
From The Economist:
“Its four essays pull together high-level complaints that the author has been making since his classic ‘The Meaning of Conservatism’ (1980). The argument is more philosophical than polemical. His starting point is that every political outlook presupposes a philosophical picture of the human person. Liberals, as he sees them, picture people as self-possessed beings free to choose their attachments, conservatives as creatures with social roots that impose duties and allegiances. The liberal picture, he says, involves three mistakes.
They can be labelled (to use this reviewer’s terms) scientism, libertarianism and transactionalism. Scientism mistakenly takes evolutionary biology and psychology to offer the whole truth about human nature. Science does explain humankind’s animal selves, but not the irreducibly personal perspective by which people recognise who they are and hold each other to account. Libertarianism is correct that individuals are each morally free and personally accountable, but it neglects unchosen social ties that impose duties and flesh out who they are. Transactionalism considers anything of value to have acquired it by preference or consent, which threatens to equate value with price and render everything that matters open to trade.
Together those three mistakes encourage a flattened picture of people that makes too much a matter of choice and cannot account for what we owe to things of value in themselves such as beauty, the natural environment or the nation. For Sir Roger, the proper attitude to such ‘lasting things’ is not to ask ‘what is this for?’ but to acknowledge them without question and show what, in a non-religious sense, he calls piety. A sickened culture, he argues, could be cured if more people returned to this kind of piety.
On Human Nature is a tour de force of a rare kind. In clear, elegant prose it makes large claims in metaphysics, morals and, by implication, politics. It will be asked exactly what connects the three mistakes it exposes, and how far political liberalism depends on them. When liberals and conservatives turn to philosophy, perhaps political lines blur more than cultural conservatives might think.”
From Kaya Oakes at the National Catholic Reporter:
“Lakeland’s book is less concerned with providing examples of contemporary writers grappling with the question of Catholic imagination than he is with grappling with imagination itself. Fiction, he argues, is a particularly significant genre because it exercises the reader’s own imagination and because it can require what he refers to as ‘serious reading.’
Fiction, he writes, ‘supports love of the world as it is and contradicts the simplistic separation of the sacred and profane.’
Lakeland spends a good chunk of The Wounded Angel acknowledging that we are heading into what looks like a post-religious culture in America, one that is less interested in questions of faith in its fiction and more interested in entertainment and distraction. Faith, he writes, ‘has become an individual decision,’ and so has what we read …
One can understand why ‘serious reading’ of religious fiction like that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Marilynne Robinson, both of whom are mentioned in Lakeland’s book, is a discipline our battered attention spans cannot always manage. Lakeland also compares reading to an act of faith, both of which require sustained discipline that many readers and believers alike lack.
People read less fiction today, not only because they don’t have time for it, but also because the horrors of the world can be so overwhelming that our imaginations are increasingly apocalyptic and dystopian rather than faith-based, which would theoretically always end with a narrative of redemption. Religion’s greatest temptation, Lakeland writes, is to ‘mediate, if not even control, the experience of the holy itself.’
But that is also the role of the novelist, who not only has control over the lives of her characters, but also holds emotional control over her readers. Readers who are emotionally overwhelmed might understandably instead turn to nonfiction, which has spiked in popularity in the last decade, in order to grapple with reality, learn history or delve deeper into social issues.
Or they might choose poetry, which offers us the opportunity to be stunned by language rather than plot devices, monologues or the internal thoughts of a fictitious narrator.
Given these choices about what we read, why is fiction important, especially today? Lakeland’s book returns toward its end to the idea of the Catholic imagination, which is ultimately a sacramental one. Fiction can offer a world infused by grace in a manner that nonfiction and poetry might struggle to get across. The problem of good and evil, too, is perhaps better understood through the lens of a novel than through the morally muddled realities of our world.”
Mar 7th – Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked – by Adam Alter
“Welcome to the age of behavioral addiction—an age in which half of the American population is addicted to at least one behavior. We obsess over our emails, Instagram likes, and Facebook feeds; we binge on TV episodes and YouTube videos; we work longer hours each year; and we spend an average of three hours each day using our smartphones. Half of us would rather suffer a broken bone than a broken phone, and Millennial kids spend so much time in front of screens that they struggle to interact with real, live humans.
In this revolutionary book, Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, tracks the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today’s products are irresistible. Though these miraculous products melt the miles that separate people across the globe, their extraordinary and sometimes damaging magnetism is no accident. The companies that design these products tweak them over time until they become almost impossible to resist.
By reverse engineering behavioral addiction, Alter explains how we can harness addictive products for the good—to improve how we communicate with each other, spend and save our money, and set boundaries between work and play—and how we can mitigate their most damaging effects on our well-being, and the health and happiness of our children.”
Mar 7th – The Thing Itself – by Adam Roberts
From Kevin Power at Strange Horizons:
“So. How good is Adam Roberts? The Thing Itself spirals outward from a typically ingenious conceit: what if the elaborate ‘Transcendental Philosophy’ adumbrated in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was actually a completely accurate description of reality? If you haven’t brushed up on your Kant lately, here’s a quick refresher: Kant believed that human beings were incapable of perceiving reality as it actually was (he called this unperceivable reality the ding an sich or ‘thing in itself’). Instead, our apprehension of reality is structured by a series of a priori ‘categories’ (such as ‘unity,’ ‘totality,’ ‘causality,’ and so on) that help us to order the raw material of perception. Got that? Good. (If not, you’re in good company: Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy , describes Kant’s theory as ‘not clear.’)
The story begins with a deft homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)—trust Roberts to notice that the title of Carpenter’s movie was already the first half of Kant’s ‘the thing in itself.’ Two British astrophysicists are alone in an Antarctic research station. One of them, Charles Gardner, is our narrator—painfully English, in the best Roberts tradition (‘Crankiness sublimed into anger, which, as an Englishman, and according to the logic of my tribe, I expressed through exaggerated politeness,’ p. 76). The other, Roy Curtius, is a pain in the neck: a computer nerd who claims he’s solved the Fermi Paradox using Kant’s Critique. Things go wrong: Roy knocks Charles unconscious, strands him on the ice sheet, and performs some kind of experiment that seems to put both men in touch with the unassimilable horror of ‘the thing in itself.’
… Across a virtuoso range of tonalities and venues, Roberts traces the consequences of his ‘what if?’—what if Kant were right? What if ‘the thing in itself’ were real, and what if we found a way to manipulate it? Roberts pursues this donnée with his customary rigour, even when it leads him to some unexpected places. In his Acknowledgements, he describes himself as ‘an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God’ (p. 358), which nicely encapsulates some of the subtleties of his thinking in this book. As with his previous novel, the astonishing Bête (2014), The Thing Itself resists casual assimilation—it is a formidably ambitious work, demanding both careful reading and reflection … It may, in the end, be a fool’s errand to try to categorise a novelist as original as Roberts. Even a relatively capacious term like ‘Menippean satire’ starts to look imprecise when applied to a novel like The Thing Itself, which depends for so many of its effects on a deliberately sustained generic instability. Like Bête, this latest novel is less interested in satirising the world than it is in interrogating it, to moving effect. After sixteen novels, Roberts seems to be engineering his own new forms. How good is Adam Roberts? He isn’t like anyone else. You should read him.”
Mar 7th – Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From Megan Volpert at Pop Matters:
“Dear Ijeawele is a shockingly lucid, surprisingly simple road map to living a more feminist daily life so that our daughters may do better for themselves than we did. We should be more authentic and not worry so much about likeability. We should not think of marriage as a prize to be won. We should value our own work and treat each other as equals. We should question the assumptions of gender roles and the assumptions of language. We should be deliberate when we talk about our appearances and our careers. We should have a sense of cultural identity and we should be full people.
The fifth suggestion is one of the best: be sure to read. Indeed, many people need to start by reading Adichie. We cannot break free of systems unless we know how we have been trapped inside of them. As she quite rightly concludes about where our brightest future lies, ‘I cannot overstate the power of alternatives’ (48). Dear Ijeawele offers a comprehensive and comprehensible alternative to patriarchy without ever using words like “patriarchy”. The author doesn’t water down any concepts; she just speaks of them plainly.
Even for those of us who went to graduate school and have wiggled our way past feminism to humanism, Adichie’s adept essay is a refreshing reminder of our first principles and a handy checklist for when we inevitably lose our way, as we will, at times. It’s a shot in the arm that doesn’t hurt at all. You can read it in less time than it takes to drink a bottle of wine.”
Mar 14th – The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation – by Rod Dreher
From Alan Jacobs at First Things:
“The sociologist James Davison Hunter has rightly said that Christians in general should strive for ‘faithful presence’ in the public world, and there are, sad to say, multiple ways to fail at this task. One can spend so much time focusing on one’s faithfulness that one forgets to be present, or be sufficiently content with mere presence that one forgets the challenge of genuine faithfulness. It is also possible to conceive of “presence” too narrowly: again, I would contend that the hermit who prays ceaselessly for peace and justice is present in the world to an extent that few of the rest of us will ever achieve. But that said, and all my other caveats registered, I suspect that if American Christians have a general inclination, it is towards thinking that presence itself is sufficient, which causes us to neglect the difficult disciplines of genuine Christian faithfulness. This is certainly what the work of Christian Smith and his sociological colleagues—on which Dreher relies heavily—suggests.
And that is reason enough to applaud Dreher’s presentation of the Benedict Option, because his portraits of intentional communities of disciplined Christian faith, thought, and practice provide a useful mirror in which the rest of us can better discern the lineaments of our own lives. A similar challenge comes to us through Charles Marsh’s 2005 book The Beloved Community, which presents equally intentional and equally Christian communities, though ones motivated largely by the desperate need in this country for racial reconciliation. To look at such bold endeavors in communal focus, purpose, and integrity is to risk being shamed by their witness.
If we are willing to take that risk, we might learn a few things, not all of them consoling, about ourselves and our practices of faith. And our own daily habits are where the rubber meets the road, not in abstractions about liberal subjects and the decline of the West. Reducing the scope of the questions Dreher raises to the ambit of the local and personal could have the additional positive effect of lowering the stakes of the debate, which, in part because it has been conducted at the level of competing world-historical metanarratives, has far too often been reduced to charges and counter-charges of bad faith and unworthy motivation. (Hannah Arendt commented in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the self-perceived superiority of the Communist revolutionary elite ‘consists in their ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.’ If you don’t see the True Path of History, then the only question is what mental or moral deficiency blinds you to the obvious. Too many comments on The Benedict Option, pro and con, have consisted of similar declarations about other people’s purposes, leaving matters of fact by the wayside.)
So my chief counsel, when considering the proposals made in The Benedict Option, is to think locally and act locally, too, with the understanding that if other people’s motives may be impure, so too, surely, are your own. Even if you are properly and firmly confident that in the end all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, you probably have certain temperamental inclinations that will make it difficult for you to assess your own condition accurately.
The theological virtue of hope—situated, as Thomas Aquinas taught, midway between the vices of despair and presumption—has its everyday and practical counterpart, too, which should not be confused with it but which has a similar emotional tone. It is possible to despair unnecessarily over local conditions, to fail to discern possibilities that are actually there; and it is possible to be presumptuous about them as well, assuming that nothing really bad can happen. (Surely there were Cappadocian Christians who were guilty of that.) Which of those tendencies you are prone to is something you can know only through self-examination, but self-examination in the company of other Christians who are sufficiently different that they can see things about yourself that you can’t. This mutual teaching and learning is part of the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, the body that is also an intricately interconnected ecosystem of communities and practices.
In the meantime, if you are a Christian who is called to life ‘in the midst,’ in the world, you would do well to find ways to turn regularly inward, towards the traditional ways and means of the Christian faith by which you may regularly renew yourself, lest you end up being not just in the world but also of it. And if you are called to a ‘community of virtue,’ you would do well to find ways to face outward, towards mission, towards the saeculum for the salvation of whose people Christ came. An intentional Christian community is not a sacrament, but is like the sacraments insofar as it hopes to be an outward and visible sign of an inner and invisible grace. To that degree that hope is realized such a community exists, or should exist, in the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, ‘for the life of the world.’ And it can have that quasi-sacramental efficacy only if it knows itself to be related by Blood to those still fully in the world, who will, if they know what they’re about, reflect from time to time on those oddball groups of believers who just may be learning something of great value that is mostly hidden from the rest of us.”
Mar 14th – Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church – by Hans Boersma
From Ron Dart at the Clarion Journal:
“Many are the tendencies and trajectories when approaching, reading and interpreting the Bible. The literal, grammatical, historic tradition and the higher-lower criticism approach have tended to dominate for many in the modern ethos. There has been a postmodern rebellion of sorts against such a reductionistic heritage, but such a leaning often lacks substantive depth and grounding. The decided and definite turn, in the last few decades, by those weary of the rather paper thin modern and postmodern approach to the Bible, has been to the wisdom and layered exegesis of the early church—Scripture as Real Presence stands within such a catholic and classical line and lineage.
How did the Fathers/Mothers of the early church read the Bible? Was it a one dimensional and rather flat approach or were there exegetical levels that were refined and nuanced? Scripture as Real Presence is a beauty and bounty of a tome that illuminates, in a pithy and poignant manner, portals through which, when walked in a meditative and participatory manner, new vistas in the relationship between text and experience, insight and transformation. The ten chapters are worthy of many a reread. Each of the Fathers of the Church (it might have been valuable to heed and hear some of the Mothers—there were many) are given their rightful due, place and space.
Boersma reveals and unveils, in each of the compact and finely tuned chapters, the sheer breadth and depth of the classical Christian exegetical tradition by reflecting on how the Fathers interpreted certain Biblical themes—he calls these themes “readings”: 1) Patristic Reading: The Church Fathers on Sacramental Reading of Scripture, 2) Literal Reading: Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine on Creation Accounts of Genesis, 3) Hospitable Reading: Origen and Chrysostom on the Theophany of Genesis, 4) Other Reading: Melito of Sardis and Origen on the Passover of Exodus, 5) Incarnational Reading: Origen on the Historical Narrative of Joshua, 6) Harmonious Reading: Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine on the Music of the Psalms, 7) Doctrinal Reading: Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa on the Wisdom of Proverbs, 8) Nuptial Reading: Hippolytus, Origen, and Ambrose on the Bridal Couple of the Song of Songs, 9) Prophetic Reading: Irenaeus, Cyril of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine on the Servant Songs of Isaiah and 1)) Beatific Reading: Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Leo the Great on the Beatitudes. The “Conclusion” brings this much needed book to a fit and fine ending.
There are few books that synthesize, so well and wisely, how scripture can be read in a sacramental manner so that reader and community participate in the real presence that hovers, light and life giving, in the text. The truly catholic and comprehensive approach by Hans in Scripture as Real Presence abundantly clarifies, through a close reading of many of the church fathers, either in tandem or community dialogue, the mother lode we often ignore to our peril.”
Mar 14th – New York 2140 – by Kim Stanley Robinson
From Alan Jacobs at Education & Culture:
“It would be a stretch, but not too much of a stretch, to say that the abiding theme of Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction is the intersection of materials science and human desire. In order to fulfill certain desires, whether for power or knowledge or delight or mere safety, we learn to transform the materials that surround us into designed objects. Often, having so done, we discover that we are not as powerful or knowledgeable or delighted or safe as we had hoped to be, which leads to further explorations in extraction, design, and construction. Sometimes those explorations create more problems than they solve, and that can be the most powerful impetus of all for yet more extraction, yet more design, yet more construction. This cycle—whether virtuous or vicious, we must reflect before deciding—continues unless it is arrested by crisis. But such arrest is never more than temporary.
The endless possible permutations of this cycle have fascinated Robinson throughout his long career as a novelist, but a vital factor is missing from the description I have just given—and, arguably, missing from Robinson’s fictional worlds, until now. That something is the medium through which the energy of innovation courses. And that medium, liquid and multifarious, is capital. In his new novel, New York 2140, Robinson has written a story that might be subtitled ‘Capital in the Twenty-Second Century.’
Capital is one of the two liquidities of the novel: the other is water. For with the rise of sea levels in the century-plus between our time and that of the novel, lower Manhattan is underwater, and a chunk of the city from the southernmost part of what we now call Midtown to Central Park is an intertidal zone, sometimes above water, sometimes under. Much of the monetary liquidity of the city is devoted to a complex set of strategies to manage the watery kind, most of them involving waterproofing and structural reinforcement. For here materials science must come to the aid of a very powerful human desire: the desire to keep New York City habitable no matter what.
It is an understandable desire. There are, for one thing, massive sunk costs: so much has been spent, over so many years, in building up this astonishing monument to human ingenuity that few of the people who control the financial resources can bear to let it collapse and drown. Moreover—Robinson makes a point of this—despite instantaneous global communication, it still matters, for work and for play, that people inhabit the same space. Big things and small ones alike get done here over dinner and drinks, and sometimes even in the midst of catastrophic storms. And finally, who can bear to abandon one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a city? The citizen is right: the Bight of New York is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It was in 1746 and will be in 2140—even when much of what is now land will then, very likely, lie beneath the great blue sea.
We humans love this world we belong to, though we don’t love well enough or wisely enough. And Robinson’s fiction has changed over the years in a very interesting way: though he became famous for writing about Mars, and had written other novels of interplanetary travel, he has become increasingly convinced that the Earth is for good or ill our home, and we had best get used to that fact.”
Mar 14th – Cold Pastoral: Poems – by Rebecca Dunham
From Courtney Flerlage at Meridian:
“Rebecca Dunham’s newest poetry collection, Cold Pastoral, begins with a poem entitled ‘Mnemosyne to the Poet.’ As opening to a collection that documents disaster—both man-made and ecological—Mnemosyne laments, ‘For you, memory is but / an oil lamp to snuff,’ and later, ‘I am not permitted / / to turn…Am not permitted / to learn how not to look.’ So stands Dunham’s challenge in Cold Pastoral: how to elegize when memory is difficult to look at head-on, when the loss is too dark, or when it threatens to hold you accountable? How to write clearly of crisis when you are ‘the poet of the eye / filled with dirt’? In a collection that investigates the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the sixth mass extinction, the 2011 tornado in Joplin, and other tragedies, Dunham uses elegy as a medium not just for mourning, but also as a way to inform and uncover. In ‘A Hive of Boxes,’ Dunham writes, ‘The only thing worse than the disaster itself is what happens / when the world decides it’s over.’ She asks, ‘Who will witness what follows danger’s first aftermath? / Who will document the crisis that bleeds on and on?’ In answer, Cold Pastoral comes as a spell against forgetting, an offering of testimony, lyric, and elegy, a quest first to understand, and then to ignite into memory.
Throughout the collection, Dunham’s language is carefully wrought— her poems are able both to inform readers on the tragedy at hand and channel the emotional urgency of the moment. A poet of rich, singing diction and wild imagery, Dunham wields language as a way to conjure the reader into the position of witness … In a collection that asks the reader to fully see others’ pain even as the speaker struggles to do so, Dunham’s willingness to approach her own language with a critical eye is essential in making her challenge to the reader feel genuine. In a series of ‘Field Note, 2011′ poems that occur throughout the book, Dunham scrutinizes her own tendency to shy from tragedy as she recounts interviews with an oyster farmer whose business died after the oil spill. She writes in the third ‘Field Note, 2011,’ ‘I owe him more than this / utterance unheard— / must learn, at last, to look.’ Dunham acknowledges that her poem is ineffective if it only exists as a detached recounting of the interview, and, in doing so, allows the poem to beg the question of readers: is simply reading the poem enough, either? Even when it means accepting her own contribution to a crisis, Dunham pushes herself to the vulnerability of honesty, as in ‘In Which She Opens the Box,’ when she confesses, ‘I thought I knew about the cruelty of men…I never thought men could mean me, never / imagined lives of literal night.’ Elsewhere, she admits that even language fails her, ending an elegy with the grasping assertion, ‘There must be some way to say this.’”
Mar 15th – Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help – by Chin Jou
From New Republic:
“Supersizing Urban America, a new book by the historian of public health, Chin Jou, shows that fast food did not just find its way to low-income urban areas: It was brought there by the federal government. In the wake of the 1968 riots, Nixon’s law-and-order presidency began programs that doled out federal funds to fast food franchises. The administration asserted that black-owned businesses serving fast food would help to cure urban unrest by promoting an entrepreneurial spirit in poor communities. The federal subsidization of McDonald’s and other chains to enter urban markets previously considered too poor or dangerous was meant to promote ‘black capitalism.’ It did make a select group of black entrepreneurs wealthy, but it was mostly a boon to fast food giants searching for new market demographics …
Supersizing Urban America makes clear that addiction to fast food is not a moral lapse or a brain chemical but the effect of poverty. Jou recognizes that ‘low wages affect the type of diets households can afford.’ She also shows that anti-poverty programs have had ulterior motives, often creating markets for large companies. Politicians like Michael Bloomberg are often fascinated with the ‘bad choices’ of the poor requiring the government to mandate posted calorie-counts, rather than the calculated logic of multinational chain restaurants that keep wages far below the cost of living. Many cities have been more intent on cracking down on the ingredients in Happy Meals rather than raising the hourly wages of those who make them.
Fast food once symbolized middle-class status, prized in neighborhoods where many were just scraping by on public assistance and food stamps. Today, it has become much more identified as the food that people who labor in fast food restaurants eat, as the miserable pay leaves them few other options.”
Mar 24th – Wendell Berry and the Given Life – by Ragan Sutterfield
From Jeffrey Bilbro at Christianity Today:
“Wendell Berry’s body of writing—spanning over 50 books of poetry, essays, novels, and short stories—can be rather overwhelming to those who’ve merely seen his name on the wall of a farmers’ market or the menu of a hipster cafe. Too many Christians still have only a vague sense of who he is or why he is important, and Ragan Sutterfield’s book, Wendell Berry and the Given Life, prepares readers to explore Berry’s work for themselves.
Sutterfield is well-suited for this task. He is ordained in the Episcopal Church, a former small-scale farmer, and the author of several books, including This Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith (2015).
Berry has been an important voice for the last 40 years, but I can see at least two reasons why we should particularly heed his wisdom now. The first is the election of Donald Trump, which many have interpreted as rural America rejecting the country’s reigning economic and political orthodoxies. Berry has spent decades criticizing the industrial assumptions that shape the policies of both major parties, but the local, humane, sustainable economies for which he advocates could not be more different from Trump’s bigger-is-better rhetoric. As Bill McKibben writes in the foreword to Sutterfield’s book, ‘if there were a literal opposite to Donald Trump on the planet, it would be Wendell Berry.’ Perhaps this is the moment to listen carefully to Berry’s vision for creaturely economies.
Sutterfield’s introduction to Berry is also timely given the conversations sparked by Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option. (It was Dreher, after all, who in a 2011 essay nominated Berry as the ‘Latter-Day St. Benedict’ hoped for by Alasdair MacIntyre in the famous closing paragraph of After Virtue.) While Sutterfield doesn’t mention Dreher’s project, he argues that, like Benedict, Berry provides a ‘coherent vision for the lived moral and spiritual life. … His insight flows from a life and practices, and so it is a vision that can be practiced and lived.’
While some critics accuse Dreher of advocating withdrawal from secular society out of a fear of contamination, Berry offers a clear alternative to this misconception. For Berry, the real danger is not contamination but complicity; as he notes in an interview with Sutterfield, all who care for the health of the land and its human communities are ‘involved inescapably in … wrongs that they oppose.’ Thus he advocates practices and reforms that reduce our participation in such wrongs. His work reminds us, then, that our faith must be embodied, that it must go to work in local, loving economies that strive to honor the immeasurable gift of life.”
From Elizabeth Flock at PBS NewsHour:
“Magdalene, a new book of poems from former New York Poet Laureate Marie Howe, who was raised Catholic, seeks to reenvision Mary Magdalene for the modern age — and tackles some of our modern-day problems in the process.
In the poem ‘The Map,’ Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a contemplative mother, in stark contrast to how she has often been seen throughout history.
‘Mary Magdalene is a woman who has been largely defined by the church fathers… as a repentant sinner, and it was assumed those sins were sexual,’ said Howe. ‘And so I’m very interested in healing the split between the sacred and the sexual. Between Mary and Magdalene. The mother and the whore.’
In another poem called ‘Magdalene — The Seven Devils,’ Howe imagines the seven devils that were said to have been cast out of Mary Magdalene, as told in the Gospel of Luke. In Howe’s portrait, the sins that bedevil Mary Magdalene include worry, envy and being too busy.
These are concerns, Howe said, that existed for women in biblical times — and that exist for women today. Being busy, she said, ‘is the devil of post-modern life… I see Mary Magdalene as being a woman who has lived throughout time and is here now.’
Just as many women today sit down to practice meditation or to pray, she said, Mary Magdalene sought meaning and understanding by following Jesus as teacher. ‘She wanted to find metaphysical meaning,’ Howe said.
Another way of counteracting those devils in the modern era? Reading poetry, Howe said, because of how it forces the reader to return to their senses.
‘[In the modern era], it’s so hard to be in the present, it’s almost unbearable,’ Howe said. ‘But when we read a poem we come back into our body, come back into time, and forget ourselves, enough to recover ourselves.’”
From Gabriel Sanchez at First Things:
“The loss of Latin as the unifying tongue of the Roman Church has created a void in theological learning among clergy and laity alike. Classics that were once accessible to anyone with a good education are now left unread, untranslated, and forgotten. Knowing that Latin is not likely to become an educational staple anytime soon, an enterprising independent scholar, Ryan Grant, has begun releasing a series of fresh translations of works by some of the Church’s greatest doctors, including the Theologia Moralis of St. Alphonsus Liguori.
Having gone through nine editions in Liguori’s lifetime, the Theologia Moralis was lauded by several popes, and by the saint’s death in 1787 had become the standard handbook of moral theology to which later scholars would repair. It remained such until the mid-twentieth-century upheavals in Catholic theology, from which the Church is still reeling. The first installment of Grant’s new translation covers the first three books of St. Alphonsus’s work, which focus on conscience, law, sin, and the theological virtues. As St. Alphonsus makes clear in the introduction, his aim is to chart a path between laxism and rigorism while assessing the probability of various theological opinions that were dominant during his lifetime.
Grant’s translation is both literal and lucid, allowing an educated novice to learn at the feet of the man Bl. Pope Pius IX declared Doctor zelantissimus (most zealous doctor). Those better versed in theological history and even Latin will also benefit from Grant’s efforts, as they can use his work as a guidepost through St. Alphonsus’s occasionally technical Latin prose. Thanks to Grant for exhuming one of the forgotten masterworks of Catholic theology, which has special relevance today amid widespread confusion over the moral theology of conscience.”
Apr 3rd – Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil – by Deborah Nelson
“This book focuses on six brilliant women who are often seen as particularly tough-minded: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. Aligned with no single tradition, they escape straightforward categories. Yet their work evinces an affinity of style and philosophical viewpoint that derives from a shared attitude toward suffering. What Mary McCarthy called a ‘cold eye’ was not merely a personal aversion to displays of emotion: it was an unsentimental mode of attention that dictated both ethical positions and aesthetic approaches.
Tough Enough traces the careers of these women and their challenges to the pre-eminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain. Their writing and art reveal an adamant belief that the hurts of the world must be treated concretely, directly, and realistically, without recourse to either melodrama or callousness. As Deborah Nelson shows, this stance offers an important counter-tradition to the familiar postwar poles of emotional expressivity on the one hand and cool irony on the other. Ultimately, in its insistence on facing reality without consolation or compensation, this austere “school of the unsentimental” offers new ways to approach suffering in both its spectacular forms and all of its ordinariness.”
Apr 4th – The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America – by Frances FitzGerald
From Kyle Williams at Mere Orthodoxy:
“The Evangelicals, for its part, is a magisterial book. FitzGerald is a superlative writer of historical narrative and a master of the craft of distilling and making accessible generations of scholarship. For students of American religious history, The Evangelicals serves as an introduction and survey of major figures and institutions from the 1740s to the present. In many ways, it is a book that could only come at a mature point in the historical understanding of both evangelicalism and conservatism, a time when focused studies have given way to narrative syntheses.
Those good things being said, there are considerable problems with The Evangelicals that are worth considering. Its major failure is that it arrives at a time when it is unable to tell us anything new. It offers the reading public little that is useful or actionable from the past that might point toward a different way. Its narrative arc is as familiar as it is well told. Each turn in the story may be easily anticipated.
Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and J. Gresham Machen are prefatory studies for the main acts—the odious figures of Pat Robertson, Carl McIntire, Jesse Helms, et al. Its structure is bent toward the explication of one movement between the late 1970s and the 2010s that was focused on electoral politics.
FitzGerald’s decision to ignore the wide-ranging cast of people and institutions that identify as evangelical in surprising and different ways is regrettable. From worldwide Anglicans, the continental and Anglo-American reformed, and Roman Catholics to Lutherans, Methodists, Anabaptists, and post-evangelicals, the discursive world of evangelicalism is deep and wide. But to leave aside the role of African-American, Latino, and Asian evangelicals as well as the conscientious objectors to the Christian right among conservative and liberal evangelicals undermines not just the usefulness but also the integrity of the book.
The Evangelicals offers no window into these alternative worlds, which is regrettable. It serves, rather, as a serious account of a political, social, and ethical world which is fading away and which leaves its remaining supporters and opponents wondering what might come next.”
Apr 11th – The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed – by W. Bradford Littlejohn
“What does it mean to live as citizens of this world and of the world-to-come? How can we render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s? In recent years, fresh controversy has erupted over these age-old questions, and especially over the meaning and relevance of the Reformation’s “two-kingdoms” doctrine. At stake in such debates is not simply the shape of Christian politics, but the meaning of the church, the nature of human and divine authority, and the scope of Christian discipleship.
Apr 11th – The New Philistines – by Sohrab Ahmari
From Matthew Stewart at Quillette:
“‘Today’s art world isn’t even contemptuous of old standards — it is wholly indifferent to them,’ writes Sohrab Ahmari in this timely polemic, in which he writes passionately in defence of humane art and the critical standards once thought to be of supreme importance and permanence: ‘sincerity, formal rigour and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent.’
Editorialist for the Wall Street Journal, contributor to Commentary magazine, author and editor of works analyzing the Arab Spring and its aftermath, and a recent convert to Catholicism, Ahmari makes his own position clear. His book is aimed at readers who want to engage with art but find too little of it that speaks to them. He is not concerned with winning over the art world insider or academic expert, but rather wishes to aid the confused and disgruntled arts lover.
Ahmari was raised in Iran while the ‘cultural revolution’ busied itself purging the academy and cultural institutions of anyone who might ‘create the wrong kind of art, or hold the wrong opinion about [it].’ The revolutionary vanguard spent its time in libraries blacking out images of nudes. ‘That a theocratic police state could be this afraid of Renaissance nudes in books taught me early on about the power of great art and its connection to human freedom,’ writes Ahmari.
But what has that to do with the art of the West, where artists are free to create as they please, and critics to write what they want? For well over a hundred years the smashing of traditional forms has become business as usual in the world of high art and, as for subject matter, anything goes. Only of late has a retraction of freedoms been promulgated, and – setting aside reactionary religious forces such as Islamism – this urge to censor and restrict has come from inside the art community itself, which consistently seeks to impose a worldview that aligns with prevailing theories of social justice.
It is this kind of self-imposed limitation that Ahmari’s book explores. For despite the contemporary art scene’s superficial freedoms, experimentation, and efforts to shock, the author finds a deeply conventional world governed by trendy doctrinaire politics. The art scene exhibits a narrowly circumscribed world view that restricts itself to predictable subject matter and seems more interested in what has become known as ‘virtue signaling’ than in aesthetics. Artists who deviate from this narrow set of values and practices won’t find themselves in jail, of course, but they are apt to find themselves without institutional patronage, media attention, or the support of their contemporaries. It is a state of affairs that recalls Orwell’s complaint about “smelly little orthodoxies.’
To see what is going on for himself, Ahmari surveys the art scene in London, sampling a variety of artistic media. He also makes a sincere effort to understand this world in its own terms, generously quoting from the in-crowd’s own explanations of their goals. While the examples mostly come from London, readers even modestly acquainted with the arts will recognize a scene familiar to many Western cities in which identity politics holds sway among the bien pensant and creative classes.
He calls the adherents of this postmodern dogma ‘identitarians,’ and these self-styled moral entrepreneurs are evidently not noted for their humility in the face of the large human questions once explored by art. Instead, they ‘think they already have the answers: a set of all-purpose formulas about race, gender, class and sexuality, on the one hand, and power and privilege, on the other.’ The art world, it seems, has passed into the hands of hectoring sociologists.
The author’s field trips include attendance at a five-day film festival held at the London Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The festival’s written program confirms his thesis, forthrightly setting down that, ‘Themes of social and political identity permeate the content and subjects explored. These themes underpin moving image’s relevance in 2016.’ The exhibited films, the festival talks, and the accompanying special presentations are all monomaniacally identitarian. Ahmari concludes that ‘It is almost inconceivable that so many filmmakers could think of nothing – be inspired by nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – but the politics of representation, ‘performativity,’ gender, race, queer theory etc. There must be other subjects, in the world outside or in their inner lives, which belong on the screen.’
American readers who have listened to National Public Radio on one of the ever-more-frequent days when story after story is devoted to these same topics will identify with Ahmari’s exasperation. How much more depressing, then, when the identitarians’ obsessively narrowed weltanschauung permeates not just the news room, but the arts, once conceived to be the cathedral of heart, soul and mind, devoted to humanity’s capacity to explore.”
From Shilpi Suneja at UMass Boston News:
“Winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress and director of UMass Boston’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, Jill McDonough’s new book of poems, Reaper, assembles robots, drones, military technology, drone pilots, and engineers who make these technologies. Through her poetry she examines the contemporary culture of secrecy and willful ignorance, what is being done in our name as Americans, as well as what it means to be an American in the present moment. ‘I wanted to examine how technology is changing,’ she explains. ‘It is changing the way we think. It is changing the way we look at one another, whether it is through iPhones or through drones.’
… McDonough blends the personal and the political with grace, panache, and mastery. The unprecedented moment of now holds enough magic for her. The act of sitting in her office overlooking the Boston Harbor is just as worthy of examination as is the act of a drone taking off a ship. She wants to question the meaning of progress in all its forms. ‘What does it mean,’ she asks, ‘that we look at a phone longer than a person’s face?’ … Poetry, she believes is the perfect form for her inquiry. ‘Poems are short enough that you can take a rich and complicated subject and break it down into its component parts. You can focus very sharply on just the experience of, say, Bin Laden’s funeral at sea.’ Being able to look at these specific small things helps her plot her thinking on a larger graph of what is going on in this national moment.
… When asked what brought her to poetry, she reveals, ‘I was bored in school and I wanted to make a small perfect thing. I loved writing each word in a different colored pen. That’s the basic work of being a poet.’ Her passion for art is as fundamental to her now as it was then. ‘The unexamined life has its appeal,’ she says simply. ‘It’s not an option for me.’”
Apr 12th – The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics – by David Bentley Hart
From David Bentley Hart’s interview with EerdWord:
“What unites or connects the essays in The Hidden and the Manifest?
Principally a number of recurrent themes, such as the relationship between the development of Christian doctrine and the enucleation of the metaphysical grammar adopted or invented by Christian tradition. To a great extent, my interest is in the ways in which Christian philosophy arguably produced the first Western metaphysics that is also, in the proper sense, an ontology specifically as a result of Nicene Trinitarian thought. I am also, as is evident from the essays I selected, keen to argue for the coherence of the classical metaphysical affirmations of Christian tradition, and for the doctrinal necessity of those affirmations. And, as is equally evident, I am interested in the genealogy of modernity, understood as at once the consequence of and the reaction to the ways in which Christianity altered the course of Western thought and society. At least, the first nine essays in this volume all revolve around questions of that sort. The remaining essays, while they also address many of these themes, are also more diverse and occasional in nature, and largely concern more isolated topics.
Although the general state of writing today tends toward simplicity in word choice and sentence structure, your writing is famous for expanding readers’ vocabularies. What leads you to swim against the flow of contemporary discourse in this regard?
Well, if I were to prepare a list of my favorite prose stylists, it would certainly include Sir Thomas Browne, John Florio, Thomas De Quincey, Norman Douglas, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Vladimir Nabokov, and a great many others of what one might call the ‘more is more’ variety. There would be practically no one on the list who favored a plain style and a parsimonious vocabulary. Maybe E. B. White or Raymond Chandler; certainly not Hemingway. So a great deal of it has to do with taste: I write as I like to read. But, to be honest, the very notion that style should be secondary to content—and very remotely secondary at that—or that a writer should never force a reader to repair to a dictionary seems to me rather demented, especially for Anglophone writers. English does not possess any of the aural beauty of, say, Spanish or German; it is an ungainly and miscegenate clash of irreconcilably different tongues. To the ear, it is nearly as hideous as French or Dutch. The great advantages English has over all other languages are the extraordinary richness of its lexicon and the vast number of nuances and shades of difference and combinations of sound and sense that this richness allows. To ask a writer who has this magnificent treasury of words at his disposal to write in a plain dry style is like asking an organist to sit down at the greatest organ in the world and perform, but only on one console, with one hand, with no more than one stop pulled out, and without using the pedals.”
Apr 15th – The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise – by Cardinal Robert Sarah
From Matthew Becklo at Aleteia:
“Ours is a loud age … ours is a restless age. We know the landscape well: the raucous media circus that blurs the line between power politics and viewing pleasure; the teeming internet jungle of tweets about jeremiads and jeremiads about tweets; and a digital presence that multiples itself exponentially, without end. We even internalize it, drawing it into ourselves in greater doses until we not only make noise, but are noise, plugged into the agitation and clamor of the world and unable to watch or click or share our way out of it. But what else is there?
Into this milieu marches The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, a powerful new book with a revolutionary message: that what our world wants least but needs most is stillness and silence.
Robert Cardinal Sarah of Guinea touched on the subject in his first interview with Nicolas Diat, God or Nothing, where he concluded that for many of us, the ‘disturbing’ sound of silence just doesn’t feel like an option. ‘We ceaselessly need to hear the noise of the world: today logorrhea is a sort of imperative, and silence is considered a failure.’ The Power of Silence, another interview with Diat, unpacks the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of silence, including our reticence to even begin engaging it.
The interview unfolds with a numbered series of philosophical fragments, much like the Pensées of the philosopher Blaise Pascal (whom Sarah quotes). ‘What will become of our world if it does not look for intervals of silence?’ Sarah asks. ‘Interior rest and harmony can flow only from silence. Without it, life does not exist. The greatest mysteries of the world are born and unfold in silence.’ In silence, where so many of us see an unsettling absence, Sarah challenges his readers to discover instead the presence of the greatest mystery there is, one which, like the gaze of a lover, the growth of a plant, or the motion of the stars, communicates itself in and through its own silence. ‘Nothing will make us discover God better than his silence inscribed in the center of our being,’ Sarah writes. ‘If we do not cultivate this silence, how can we find God?’
The postmodern world cuts itself off from God precisely to the degree to which its cuts itself off from silence and solitude. ‘Without silence,’ he writes, ‘God disappears into the noise.’ But Sarah also makes it clear that cultivating silence is not just a matter of quieting speech and sounds; it also means quieting our judgments, passions, and thoughts. In fact, the path of exterior silence can painfully reveal the depths of interior noise into which we’ve been plunged – which is precisely why we tend to avoid it. ‘With its festive appearance, noise is a whirlwind that avoids facing itself,’ he writes. ‘Agitation becomes a tranquilizer, a sedative, a morphine pump, a sort of reverie, an incoherent dream-world. But this noise is a dangerous, deceptive medicine, a diabolic lie that helps man avoid confronting himself in his interior emptiness. The awakening will necessary be brutal.’
Sarah invokes various beautiful images – a temple, a melody, a light, and a flame – to capture the glory of silence, but also invokes more disquieting imagery to capture its power – a burnt offering, a shadow, a wave, a violent seizure. The necessary practice of silence means an encounter with God, and the encounter can take us to ‘fearsome shores.’ But Sarah encourages us to venture on, discovering the same great peace and fortitude that so many holy men and women have found in their silence.
It would’ve been easy for Sarah to devolve into an indictment of political, economic, and social powers – and while Sarah is certainly not silent on their culpability, his focus is more on revealing and inviting us into the great sources of silence in the Catholic tradition. He returns to the Old Testament again and again, but finds the greatest scriptural odes to silence in the life of the Holy Family. Joseph never utters a single word in the Gospels; Mary’s words are few – the Gospels of Mark and Matthew have no mention of her words either – and her entire life is swallowed up in faithful obedience and prayerful attentiveness. But it’s in the life of her Son that silence takes on a whole new meaning. ‘The whole life of Jesus is wrapped in silence and mystery,’ Sarah writes. ‘If man wants to imitate Christ, it is enough for him to observe his silences. The silence of the crib, the silence of Nazareth, the silence of the Cross, and the silence of the sealed tomb are one. The silences of Jesus are silences of poverty, humility, self-sacrifice, and abasement; it is the bottomless abyss of his kenosis, his self-emptying.’
For Sarah, who is also the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Church has to protect and foster this silence in its prayers, in its sacraments, and in its liturgy. The Cardinal made headlines last year when he called for a return to ‘ad orientem’ celebration of Mass (in which the priest faces the same direction as the congregation), and in The Power of Silence, doesn’t hesitate to call once more for a ‘reform of the reform’ of the liturgy, adding that ‘the future of the Church is at stake.’ He makes a compelling case, and it’s clear that he’s driven not by any ideological commitment, but a burning love for the Church and sacred silence, ‘a small anticipation of eternity’ that can uniquely open a heart to God.”
Apr 18th – Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place – by Jack R. Baker & Jeffrey Bilbro
From Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative:
“Higher education fosters what Wendell Berry has termed ‘boomers’: individuals who ‘are always on the lookout for better career opportunities in better places.’ He contrasts this group to ‘stickers’: those who root themselves in a place, and dedicate themselves to its wellbeing. Wallace Stegner first used these terms to describe the pioneers who settled in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries; but our universities have long fostered boomers instead of stickers.
Coulter’s children, like most American youths, bought into ‘the destructive ideology of the university as part of an industrial economy—an economy in which schools bring in customers and send out displaced individuals with immense debts, having taught those individuals that the good life can be found anywhere but at home,’ write Baker and Bilbro.
Many in and outside America’s universities don’t see a problem with this sort of displacement. Upward mobility, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, has always been a present and accepted part of the American psyche. We increasingly strive to be cosmopolitans, global citizens, people who exist outside of place and its tribalistic ties. Today, as never before, the virtues of contentment, gratitude, and loyalty have fallen into disrepute.
But resurrecting such virtues, Baker and Bilbro suggest, is critical for the health and happiness not just of America’s small towns and communities, but also of its young people—for although independence may appeal for a while, living as a ‘global citizen’ and ‘world leader’ can be rather lonely and alienating. Cultivating opportunities for homecoming is not just a romantic or reactionary notion. It is a recipe for holistic healing and reintegration, in a nation that sorely needs it.
To foster this sort of reintegration, Baker and Bilbro suggest, we need to tell different stories to our youth: stories that foster the aforementioned virtues of place, stories that suggest home is in fact a beautiful place worth preserving. Baker and Bilbro thus begin to lay out a vision for reforming higher education—for cultivating a university in which students are encouraged to love their place.”
Apr 18th – Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign – by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes
From John R. Coyne Jr. at The Washington Times:
“This highly entertaining and fast-moving book provides an extensive analysis of what caused the failure of Hillary Clinton’s unwieldy and hugely expensive campaign to carry its highly favored candidate across the finish line.
From the outset, suspicions and unanswered questions trailed her candidacy, many of them centering in the size, reach, money-making activities and dubious associations involving the Clinton family foundation, and its various spin-offs. There were the unresolved questions about her role in Benghazi in particular and the Middle East in general during her tour at the State Department.
Nor as the campaign proceeded did the situation improve. Unanswered questions about email use and servers persisted, with no admissions, no apologies, always something negative playing in the background, with never a full and direct statement by the candidate herself to clear the air.
Nor from the day she launched her candidacy at a rally on New York’s Roosevelt Island in an awkward, committee-written speech, was she able to explain why she was running. At the rally she managed to come up with this: ‘America can’t succeed unless you succeed. That’s why I am running for president of the United States.’ That was it — as the authors put it, ‘a trite tautology’ — and throughout the campaign, she was never able to improve on it.
For reasons yet to be explained, she chose to put her campaign into the hands of a youngish technocrat, appropriately named Mook, whose faith lay in ‘data analytics,’ and whose computer-generated analyses apparently helped convince her that her victory depended on appealing primarily to several distinct constituencies — women, blacks, academics and gender-challenged people.
As for the deplorables, those white working men and women once thought of by Democrats as the heart and sinew of their party, they could be taken for granted; and despite warnings from seasoned politicians like her husband, who read the volatile national political mood, they were.
… At this writing, Hillary Clinton and her remaining bitter-ender loyalists, many of whom will no doubt find sinecures at the foundation or related family businesses, are reportedly furious about the leaks and trying to identify the leakers.
But one suspects the Clinton brand has been pretty thoroughly shattered. If Richard Nixon perfected the modern presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton may have destroyed it. In the end, there was too much — too much money, too many advisers, too many staffers, too many factions (the authors identify four power centers in the campaign, each with its own agenda), pointless scheduling with dubious events laid on and important venues totally neglected. And the money flowed … When the dust had settled, Mr. Trump’s campaign had spent $600 million, Hillary’s $1.2 billion, twice as much.”
Apr 21st – The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition – by James Matthew Wilson
From Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:
“The Vision of the Soul is a defense of Christian Platonism, which Wilson says is at the core of the Western intellectual tradition. What he sets out to do is to go to the fundamentals of thought that today we call culturally conservative, but which is really an attempt to keep faith with Western civilization in modernity. I don’t want to say too much about it so far out from publication, but I will say here that Wilson’s book gives a defense of the Western tradition that is breathtaking in its depth and clarity, conveyed in prose that genuinely delights with its elegance, lucidity, and splendor. I have never read a book in which content so profound takes flight with such lightness and style. It’s like watching a 747 maneuver with the grace and precision of a hummingbird. Future generations of conservatives will look back to their encounter with The Vision of the Soul with the same sense of gratitude and awe that we today remember the first time we read Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. This book is not only true and good, but also beautiful. I know that I will be reading it, and re-reading it, for the rest of my life. The Vision of the Soul should be a cornerstone for every classical school. This is one of the ten books you take to your Benedict Option monastery, and around which you build the rest of your intellectual life.
Why do I bring it up here. Because you only have to read a few pages of Wilson to exult in what the conservative intellectual and artistic tradition has been and can be, but to despair over what it has been reduced to in our time. This is not a book about politics, or rather, it’s a book in which politics are but one expression of deeper convictions about the nature of things. But exulting in the book also induces despair at how far from our roots we have fallen. Trump is not in this book, but in a way, he’s all over this book. He is a symbol of decadence — as is the establishment against which he rails (and yes, this includes the media establishment). In classical culture, disorder of the soul produces disorder in the polis. This is why, most fundamentally, we are in the trouble we’re in today …
… Anyway, for those for whom conservatism means something more than anti-liberalism, for those who wish to dive deep into the conservative tradition in search of pearls, pre-order The Vision of the Soul. We’re going to need it. Here’s a snapshot from its introduction:
‘Traditional conservatism, in contrast, strikes the contemporary breast only in those brief moments when the loneliness of the modern individual breaks forth and leads him to question the normally unquestioned good of technological and media-saturation; when he sees for a moment that the material ugliness of our civilization cannot be solved by ‘green’ technology but only by a fundamental readjustment of the human person’s attitude toward creation and acquisition to antique standards; when, ever more rarely, he reads a book that stirs in him an image of genuine heroism unmotivated by mere trauma and realized in a form more lasting than the bloody phantasmagorias of contemporary Hollywood; or when he senses that the heart’s deepest longing is for a permanent happiness, and that happiness is possible only in an extended natural community with ties that bind but ties that uphold as well.
At these margins, and in these fugitive moments, can some restored literary conservatism be revived? Does our age have within it a Burke, a Coleridge, an Eliot? The historical record does not give us cause for optimism, and the present age of relativist skepticism and consumer spectacle, of pornographic anti-culture and enthralled senses, gives us positive grounds for doubt. But the chapters that follow are founded on hope: hope that the defense they make of a culture of truth, goodness, and beauty—and indeed, of the reality of that trinity as ordering reality as such—will resonate with the sensibility of its readers and help them on their sundry roads to living well in the world; hope that its arguments will be sufficiently compelling to cause a few souls to rethink our present cultural regime; and hope, finally, that its resources may help the conservative voices of today and tomorrow to find a language adequate to express the passions of their breast.’”
From Harvard University Press:
“Andrzej Franaszek’s award-winning biography of Czeslaw Milosz—the great Polish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980—offers a rich portrait of the writer and his troubled century, providing context for a larger appreciation of his work. This English-language edition, translated by Aleksandra Parker and Michael Parker, contains a new introduction by the translators, along with historical explanations, maps, and a chronology.
Franaszek recounts the poet’s personal odyssey through the events that convulsed twentieth-century Europe: World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland, and the Soviet Union’s postwar dominance of Eastern Europe. He follows the footsteps of a perpetual outsider who spent much of his unsettled life in Lithuania, Poland, and France, where he sought political asylum. From 1960 to 1999, Milosz lived in the United States before returning to Poland, where he died in 2004.
Franaszek traces Milosz’s changing, constantly questioning, often skeptical attitude toward organized religion. In the long term, he concluded that faith performed a positive role, not least as an antidote to the amoral, soulless materialism that afflicts contemporary civilization. Despite years of hardship, alienation, and neglect, Milosz retained a belief in the transformative power of poetry, particularly its capacity to serve as a source of moral resistance and a reservoir of collective hope. Seamus Heaney once said that Milosz’s poetry is irradiated by wisdom. Milosz reveals how that wisdom was tempered by experience even as the poet retained a childlike wonder in a misbegotten world.”
From Andy Crouch at The Gospel Coalition:
“Winston Churchill’s tribute to the architecture of the House of Commons—‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’—has endured as an aphorism because material culture, like buildings, so often slips into the background. Only when we’re compelled to pay attention—as happens when we experience the disorientation of cross-cultural travel or when, as in Churchill’s generation, we must rebuild buildings that had been suddenly destroyed after standing for centuries—do we really see the reflexive power of culture, the ways that human life is shaped by material things.
But none of us can miss the most striking change in material culture in our lifetime. In a single decade we have dashed from a world with zero smartphones (if you don’t count the clunky pre-2007 ancestors of the iPhone) to a world with 2 billion of them. We’ve taken a kind of cross-cultural trip to a new world stuffed with glowing rectangles—and apparently, we’re traveling on a one-way ticket. We’re still getting over the jet lag, and the queasy discovery that although we bought these devices because of what they promised to do for us, they’re also doing something to us …
Reinke begins his book with ‘a little theology of technology,’ which is fundamentally a reminder of the good, God-given, and constructive role of all human culture in the “garden-to-city unfolding of history.’ Like many authors, he treats all of humankind’s skill- and tool-based transformation of the world as equivalent to ‘technology’: ‘a trajectory of shovels, sickles, and horse-drawn plows, and then tractors, irrigation systems, and now GPS-guided (and GPS-driven) equipment.’ I think treating this as a single trajectory is misleading—if technology were just more tools, we wouldn’t need a new word for it. There’s a wider and more significant gap embedded in those transitional phrases ‘and then . . . and now’ than Reinke implies. Still, he’s right that this whole story is part of the larger human calling to cultivate and create in the world, with potentially glorious results.
But when he gets to the real subject of this book, every one of his ‘12 ways your phone is changing you’ is about a deficiency, a change in the wrong direction—‘we are addicted to distraction,’ ‘we fear missing out,’ ‘we get comfortable in secret vices,’ and so forth. If the job of every Apple ad is to portray the smartphone as a gleaming gateway to childlike wonder and fulfilling relationships with beautiful people, Reinke’s book is the anti-Apple ad, pointing out how often our smartphones cut us off from real life. His ‘12 ways’ are artfully constructed to show both the superficial results of our device obsession and its deeper consequences for the health of our souls and bodies, and the grave threat they pose to our ability to fulfill the great commandment to love God and love our neighbor.”
From Josh Roark at Frontier Poetry:
“Terrance Hayes says her poetry is ‘indispensable… These poems are fire.’ ‘Stunning,’ declares Angela Davis, ‘[this] volume reminds us that conflict and contradiction can produce hope and that poetry can orient us toward a future we may not yet realize we want.’ With My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, Aja Monet has definitively arrived and the literary world is about to take notice.
‘i earned my poetic license so i could say shit
haunted by the blood in me’
Monet is best known for her performances and her extensive social activist work, a small self-published collection entitled The Black Unicorn Sings, and the collaborative & musical work, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape. She’s the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for her work—she is the youngest person to win the legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title. Through all of this, her focus has been telling the stories of female heroics, female lives, especially women of color, and a blistering defense of progressive social justice ideals. Notably, Monet was a featured speaker at the Women’s March in Washing D.C., reading the title poem of this very collection. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter dives deeply into these passions, leading its readers on a dance through the lives, the traumas, and the triumphs of the modern woman of color:
‘…she feeds on her hunger
to know herself. she has not yet been taught
to dim, she sits with the stars beneath her feet,
a constellation of thing to come.
as if a swallowed moon, she glimmers.’
Much like Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, generations of women, fighters all, live and breath in Monet’s poetry. But where Shire carefully lays out her poems in a short chapbook, one piece at a time, crafting tightly her images and lines—Monet has unfolded the lives of sisters and mothers and little girls with a breathless stream of music. Without a doubt, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter is for them—both a treasure box, and an armory.
… There’s a lot of ground covered in the 160 pages of poetry, a lot of Monet sprawled across the pages, nearly all of her in a rapid pace of breath and music and image. The scope of the book (with its blistering, beating heart in ‘witnessing’) is in the prophetic mode of literature. The poems reach beyond national traditions of craft, further back in time, to the very heart of spoken language, to its primal roots: dark, musical, confrontational, dangerous. Like her predecessors Patti Smith & Toni Morrison, Monet uses language and poetry to carve out a voice for the oppressed—calling out the limitations and corruptions of current power, the beatings, the economic abuse, the heavy foot of the politically callous, the ugly indifference of society in its vision for marginalized communities:
‘it’s not lost on me
that death is part of life
some die so others live
but who is doing all the dying
at the expense of all this living’
This book moves, it breathes with music on every line. This isn’t a professor’s book of linguistic riddles. My Mother is a voice let loose, a long song dashing between rant and sermon and lament and dance. The poetry carries the reader, you don’t want to put it down, every poem a new melody and new beat, new sounds in the ear. Monet’s performative talents are as clear on the page as on the stage:
‘we marooned in the projects
hid in the holy hood of our crown
doused our bodies in albahaca water
blessed by sandhog saints
abre el camino
as hellish hipsters sip on Brooklyn brew’
You want to read these poems quickly, loosely, letting them set the pace. She uses language to carry the reader forward, not to make them pause and puzzle. Everything is delivered with its own musicality, its own pace. Her poetry doesn’t follow technical rhythmic structures, but flows loosely as if they were born first in the ear and second on the page.”
May 2nd – Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke – by Richard Bourke
From David Womersley at Standpoint:
“Richard Bourke’s careful and learned account not just of Burke’s political life, but also of the intellectual commitments and inclinations which Burke set in motion in his public career, brings new clarity to our understanding of a thinker and man of letters who, as we have seen, could baffle those who knew him. Burke lived through, as Bourke puts it, ‘vicissitudes of empire and revolution’, and this shifting background of successive crises in different theatres of the world — Britain, Ireland, America, India, and finally, France — inevitably required a certain flexibility on the part of those, such as Burke, who attempted to navigate safely through the resulting turbulence.
For many of Burke’s contemporaries, the result of his intellectual subtlety was simply apostasy. As a result of some obscure reactionary reflex the defender of the American colonists had become the unappeasable enemy of the French revolutionaries; the champion of Indians oppressed by the rule of the East India Company was able eventually to turn a cold eye on the sufferings of the French peasantry. This was the conclusion to which Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine (whom, as Bourke reminds us, Burke had entertained at Beaconsfield as late as 1788) were driven. Bourke, however, argues that Burke had a set of intellectual and moral commitments which did not change over time, and allegiance to which explains the apparently contradictory stances Burke adopted in the midst of different crises:
‘Burke’s achievement was to analyse the conditions of freedom in minute practical and constitutional detail. His analysis drew on a historical vision of the character of modern politics. This book tries to capture the subtlety of that vision as it was expressed over the course of a parliamentary career. It aims to achieve this by reconstructing Burke’s political thought in relation to the major developments of the age. This requires a full examination of current affairs as well as careful attention to intellectual context.’
Such is the ambitious and demanding programme Bourke has set himself in this long and searching book.
Bourke’s forensic anatomising of both the underlying consistency of Burke’s commitments and also of the repeated misreadings to which his career has been subjected is a pleasure to read. Time and time again Bourke skewers a misinterpretation with an acute discrimination. Was Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution an apostasy from his support of the American colonists? On the contrary, both were dictated by Burke’s aversion to a particular way of doing politics:
‘Twelve and a half years before the publication of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, in the midst of his defence of the American Revolution, and in the context of a bid for reconstituting the Empire on the basis of a new covenant for the distribution of its powers, Burke was trying to expose purely speculative theories of government and the abstract conception of freedom that accompanied them.’
Was Burke’s advocacy of reform in the context of India at loggerheads with his conservative stance towards the ancien régime in France? By no means:
‘His antipathy was not directed against the principle of natural rights or the contention that civil entitlements had a basis in the laws of nature. Burke’s defence of property, his promotion of toleration, and his championship of values that ought to guide the government of India were all conducted on the assumption of fundamental rights. What disturbed Burke was the appropriation of the rhetoric of rights to serve the advancement of what he saw as two calamitous political programmes. The first was the goal of resorting to the natural right of self-government as a means of determining the shape of existing civil societies … The second programme turned on the idea that the original rights of nature could challenge the distribution of wealth in established societies. As Burke saw it, both these sets of pretensions to primordial ‘rights’ in man compelled the French Revolution along its avid course, progressively diminishing the chances of securing any civil entitlements.’
Was Burke’s willingness to support Indian or American resistance to the burdens imposed on them by administration undone by his attitude towards the French revolutionaries? Certainly not, because the French Revolution was an event of quite another kind:
‘Arbitrary power was an essential feature of the spirit of conquest. In Burke’s eyes, resistance or revolution was a legitimate response. Yet the French Revolution had begun not as a rebellion against an oppressive monarch but as a wilful campaign on the part of a faction to usurp the constitution of the state.’
Did Burke’s deployment against Warren Hastings of the imperatives to be derived from an understanding of common humanity conflict with his abhorrence of the revolutionary doctrine of universal benevolence? Nothing could be less true:
‘Throughout the impeachment of Hastings, [Burke] appealed to universal morality founded on the sentiment of humanity. But this is not to be confused with the doctrine of ‘universal benevolence’ that he later came to associate with the philosophy of Rousseau. Cosmopolitan generosity on the Genevan’s part seemed to Burke a notional commitment without any basis in genuine emotion: although a theoretical ‘lover of his kind,’ Rousseau in fact comported himself as a ‘hater of his kindred.’’
In passages such as these Bourke’s patient and reflective scholarship clears away the accumulated heaps of shallow assertion that have impeded for so long a proper understanding of Burke’s thought.”
From Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter:
“Fr. Julián Carrón has led the Communion and Liberation movement since 2005 when the movement’s founder, Msgr. Luigi Giussani, died. Carron’s new book, Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth and Freedom, is at once splendid and frustrating. And, in this regard, it is faithful to the style of Giussani’s many books which could stop me dead in my tracks with insights and inspiration and also leaving me scratching my head.
A confession: I have a soft spot for Communion and Liberation. I was introduced to them by Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete who served as chaplain to the movement in the United States for many years. When I found a head-scratching claim in one of Giussani’s books, Lorenzo could explain it to me, but Lorenzo has gone to God and I had to work my way through Disarming Beauty on my own.
An observation: Part of Giussani’s great insights was that in our modern technocratic age, we had to relish the fact that there is Mystery at the heart of our experience, that there is Mystery at the heart of our faith in Jesus Christ, and that this experience of Mystery was, in fact, a confirmation of the Incarnation, not a difficulty. So, it should not surprise that sometimes the writings of both Giussani and Carrón seem opaque.
But let’s start with the gems. Chapter 5 opens with the arresting question once posed by Dostoevsky: ‘Can one believe while being civilized, i.e. a European?, believe without reservation in the divine nature of Jesus Christ, the Son of God?’ It is a question that is too easy to ignore. At a time when religious fanaticism perpetrates the grossest offenses against humankind, it takes courage to posit that our Christian faith is reasonable only if it is ‘without reservation.’
Yet, Carrón is no culture warrior or religious fanatic. After a few pages of unpacking the claim, and noting the changed, secularized culture of today, he writes, ‘we need to find a way of living the faith, within this social reality and pluralistic culture, such that others can perceive our presence not as something to defend themselves from, but as a contribution to the common good and their own personal good. We need a way of being present without a will to dominate or oppress, and at the same time with a commitment to living the faith in reality, in order to show the human benefit of belonging to Christ.’ The phrase ‘human benefit’ would sound suspiciously utilitarian coming from some writers, but not Carrón: Here he is expounding another essential Communion and Liberation charism, the proposition that faith must be reasonable or it is insulting to expect people to believe it.
Like the great theologians and founders of the Communio project – Balthasar, de Lubac and Ratzinger – Carrón and Communion and Liberation stand on the claim that Christianity is an event. ‘Christianity is a fact, an event, not a doctrine,’ writes Carrón. ‘It is enough just to read a page of the gospel in order to realize this, to recognize its vast distance from any purely notional conception of Christianity.’ This insight became a part of the magisterial teaching of the church most clearly in Deus Caritas Est, where Pope Benedict XVI wrote, ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’ The reduction of Christianity to a checklist of ideas is a reduction that deforms the faith.”
May 5th – The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology – by W. Bradford Littlejohn
From W. Bradford Littlejohn:
“How did we get in this mess? These recent conflicts highlight the profound disconnect between the language of individual liberty that has become our cultural DNA in the modern West, and our nagging, inexpungible intuition that life together requires some agreement over the goods we are seeking, and some renunciation of our private preferences. If such conflicts can at least help us relearn the inevitability of some public morality, perhaps they will not have been in vain.
To help us in this task of self-reflection, some historical perspective may perhaps be in order. And where better to gain it than in the Protestant Reformation, the crucible in which our concept of liberty of conscience was forged (even if it is has now mutated almost beyond recognition)? In my book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, I show how in the decades following Luther’s protest against the authority of Rome, Protestant rulers, churchmen, and political thinkers had to grapple with the same tensions that we are grappling with today—that life together in society requires a shared vision of the good, and institutions that sustain that good, which inevitably stand in tension with religious liberty. And yet at the same time, they recognized that the norms and institutions governing society must not be invested with a spiritual or eschatological ultimacy. Indeed, despite their retrieval of the centrality of the Bible, they realized that appeals to Scripture as the basis for law had to be treated with utmost care, lest consciences be bound in matters well beyond Scripture’s salvific intent.
Perhaps no Protestant thinker in the 16th century dedicated such penetrating and systematic attention to this nexus of problems surrounding conscience and community, liberty and authority, than the Elizabethan churchman Richard Hooker. Although not all of his assumptions and conclusions are equally usable today, his profound reflections on the role of reason and prudence in public life, the inevitability of disagreement and the need for warring parties to ‘submit to some definitive sentence,’ and the Christological grounding of political authority deserve fresh attention today. It is my hope that The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty will provide an entry point for 21st-century scholars, pastors, and lawmakers to grapple afresh with Hooker’s remarkable insights, and to creatively apply the legacy of Reformation political thought today.”
From Gary Day at Times Higher Education:
“North’s focus is on the fate of Anglo-American literary studies from the 1920s to the present. His argument is that they were, throughout this period, dominated by two paradigms, ‘criticism’ and ‘scholarship’. The emphasis of the former is on evaluating a work, the emphasis of the latter is on explaining it. For the early part of the 20th century the two existed in relative harmony, but eventually scholarship – or what North also calls the ‘historicist/contextualist’ approach (by which he means feminism, new historicism, queer theory and so on) – came to dominate. It was more inclusive, democratic and progressive than its rival – or at least that’s what its proponents claimed.
North links the change to the rise of neoliberalism, arguing that the new disciplinary stress on ‘knowledge production’ was more in tune with the imperatives of the free market than the old aesthetic appreciation. Nevertheless, he continues, adherents of the scholarship paradigm remain strangely dissatisfied. Troubled by a sense of something missing, they probe the limits of their field in search for a more satisfying conception of literature, one that takes account of its affective as well as its analytical nature. And, in this respect, North believes that they could do a lot worse than revisit the work of I. A. Richards, whose The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) provided ‘a sophisticated answer to the question of what literature is good for’.
Without Immanuel Kant, this question might never have been asked. He claimed that art had no connection with our moral or practical lives but was a thing to be enjoyed for its own sake. Richards disagreed, arguing that the value of literature in particular was as a means of ordering our minds and, as he put it in a quotation not in North’s book, transporting us ‘beyond our experience, satisfying and harmonising the unfulfilled activities of our nature’. North describes how those who followed Richards either adapted or ignored his legacy, leading to a split between ‘critics’ who think the study of literature is about cultivating the mind and ‘scholars’ who think that it is about challenging injustice. Richards offers a model of how it can do both.
North tells a good tale. He is a courteous and charming narrator whose book is an absorbing addition to the history of literary studies, and future researchers will be indebted to him. But his choice of terms is idiosyncratic to say the least, nowhere more so than when he equates ‘scholarship’ with political readings of works. Historically, scholars come out of the grammarian tradition of commentary, concerned with the authenticity and integrity of the text, its allusions and stylistic devices. Critics come out of the rhetorical tradition that sees literature as a means of influencing behaviour. North conflates the two to the detriment of his argument. Sometimes things look clearer when you take the long view.”
May 16th – The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance – by Senator Ben Sasse
From Keith Miller at Mere Orthodoxy:
“One easy way to tell that this isn’t the usual politician’s book is that Ben Sasse’s smiling mug is absent from the design of the front cover. Kasich’s Two Paths does not make that particular design oversight. The image that is featured on Sasse’s cover is that of an American flag gradually disappearing à la Marty McFly on a Polaroid. The photoshopping may leave something to be desired, but the imagery’s meaning is clear: America as we know it could cease to exist unless we address the problem Sasse has identified.
What is that problem? In short it can be summed up in the title of the book’s introduction: ‘My Kids Need Air-Conditioning.’ Our society’s wealth, technology, and educational structures are combining to give rise to a generation that can’t finish tasks, listlessly wastes time, and, is ‘bubble-wrapped enough’ that they think it impossible to sleep without A/C cooling their room below seventy-two degrees. Sasse explains that these stories about lack of initiative and growing sense of entitlement amongst the young ‘are not in any way about politics’ (see, I told you), but that ‘America can’t endure long this way.’
Sasse’s diagnosis of what is wrong is multi-faceted and includes both chosen and unchosen developments in American culture. On the side of philosophical choices, Sasse targets John Dewey’s largely successful campaign to transform schools into surrogate parents.
‘[Dewey] doesn’t want the school any longer to be in the handmaiden role, aiding parents in their goal of passing literacy and tradition and deferred gratification on to the their progeny. . . [H]is schools now have the socially transforming purpose of displacing the parents, with their supposedly petty interests in their children as individuals.’
… [T]he book’s afterword ‘If Teddy Roosevelt Spoke to a High School Graduating Class’ … is a stemwinder of a hypothetical address that runs nine pages and that I cannot resist excerpting at some length. Here’s Sasse/Roosevelt imploring his listeners to live the Strenuous Life.
‘I have thought a bit more about the particular strengths we need in our boys, and I cannot hide the fact that I am worried that you boys are soft. America has a right to expect that our boys will turn out to be good men. In my experience, the chances are strong that one won’t be much of a man unless he was first a good deal of a boy. He must not be a coward or a weakling, a bully, a shirk, or a prig. He must work hard and he must play hard. He should be able to hold his own under all circumstances and against all comers. It is only on these conditions that he will grow into the kind of American man that America needs …’
And here’s Sasse/Roosevelt expressing concern that virtue to be cultivated.
‘You should want to be good … Cultivate the virtues! I mean ‘good’ in the largest sense. It includes whatever is straightforward and clean, brave and manly. Have courage. Be honest. Exercise your God-given common sense.’
Earlier in the book Sasse pointed out a piece of linguistic trivia: ‘though ‘virtue’ has come over the centuries to mean ‘moral living,’ it evolved from an older Latin term meaning ‘strength.’ The two are inextricably linked.’ Sasse wants self-respecting, self-governing adults to know the good and have the ability to do it. And for them to work.
‘Aspire to be known as a worker–as one who would be ashamed not to pull his own weight . . .’
‘Drink this in: if a man does not work, then nothing can be done with him. He is out of place in any community–but especially our American community. For we are workers. We have in our scheme of government no room for the man who does not wish to pay his way through life by what he does for himself and for the community.’
If this were a political book, the conceit of a first-term Senator giving voice to the sentiments of a beloved Mount Rushmore-level President might be indicative of some kind of future aspirations on Sasse’s part. As it is, however, the invocation of the famous Rough Rider merely serves to incarnate what Sasse believes our current moment requires: It requires us to replace our citizens’ softness with strength.”
From Hugh MacDonald at The Herald:
“There is a compelling beat at the heart of this extraordinary biography of one of the greatest of artists, one of the most fascinating of men. It is this: can we not only admire genius but replicate it, even though we may lack the intellectual power, creative drive or even instinctual recognition of what life both demands and proffers?
Can Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whose 82 years on earth stretched from 1749, not only offer us the consolations of philosophy, the significance of art, and the lessons of science but also a simple but profound way of existence? In short, can we live the life of a genius? It is a substantial proposal and one must first pause to admire the ambition of Rudiger Safranski, a philosopher and author, who has already written biographies of Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.
One must also pay tribute to the elegant and engaging translation by David Dollenmayer, though someone in the editing process should have noted that Sir Walter Scott is not English. But, above all, one must gaze at the wonder that was Goethe. ‘We thought we were seeing an Apollo. I’ve never seen such a union of physical and intellectual perfection and beauty in a man as I then saw in Goethe,’ says a contemporary witness.
Safranski captures this phenomenon. Goethe as a boy had a command of Italian, French, English, Latin and Greek and could read Hebrew. By his early 20s, he had written the great novel of his age and a great novel of all ages in The Sorrows of Young Werther …
[A] life of astounding achievement and unrelenting inquiry was haunted by death. Four of Goethe’s siblings died in infancy, with a solitary survivor, Christiana, also pre-deceasing him. He lost his wife and his only son. He survived to old age but he carried the burden of sorrow that makes his ability to find salvation, even peace, all the more remarkable. Goethe could not avoid suffering but he found a way of living that allowed him to march on despite the brutal blows.
Safranski is precise on the philosophical questions that dominated the life of a genius and his illustrious peers but the lessons for the many are outlined in a simple, engaging style. This is the zen of Goethe, the tao of Johann.
He instinctively cultivated mindfulness. ‘Behaviour and action in the practical sphere should be pure even to the bite,’ he said of his propensity to eat slowly. He believed in action, but not of the displacement variety. He did not rush about mindlessly but worked practically in his garden, on his writings and on his administrative work. He could be found lost in the mystery of a leaf in his garden. ‘Truth emerges from the practice of life,’ he said.
He extolled the power of poetry: ‘Like a balloon, it lifts us and the ballast we carry into higher regions, leaving earth’s tangled paths lying spread out before us in a bird’s eye.’ But that poetry was not just the matter of rhyme but of the meditation of life itself …”
May 17th – House of Names – by Colm Tóibín
From Heller Mcalpin at NPR:
“Colm Tóibín has ventured to ancient Argos — far from the decorous, restrained worlds of Henry James, coastal Ireland, and mid-20th century Brooklyn we’ve seen in his earlier books — in this heart-stopping novel based on Clytemnestra’s family tragedy.
Although he’s taken some of his familiar, familial preoccupations with him — including strained family dynamics — House of Names is a surprising turn for Tóibín, a violent page-turner about the mother of all dysfunctional families and the insidious ravages of revenge and distrust. He has borrowed the main characters — Agememnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their three children, Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes — from the ancient Greeks, and re-animated their tragedies with intimate sagas of suffering you didn’t hear from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Curiously, Tóibín hasn’t attempted to update the classics by fast-forwarding centuries — as Eugene O’Neill did in Mourning Becomes Electra, his retelling of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, set in New England in the 1860s. Nor does he seek modern relevance by drawing explicit parallels to our times. House of Names is set firmly in ancient Greece, but in Tóibín’s take, the power and influence of the ancient gods is on the wane, and with Christ still centuries off, there’s a dangerous void in the sphere of divine influence on the affairs of mankind.
As in Aeschylus, the cycle of revenge vendettas are not struggles of right against wrong, but part of an inexorable, weirdly logical chain of atrocities. What’s different in Tóibín’s novel is that this savagery is driven not just by Fate and the Furies, but in large part by psychology. In visceral, accessible language, Tóibín brings us close to the members of the house of Atreus — who, in the absence of gods, bear responsibility for their actions.”
Jun 1st – Beren and Luthien – by J.R.R. Tolkien
From John Garth at New Statesman:
“In a woodland glade white with flowers, a young woman danced for her soldier husband. It seems a vision from a lost world, and for that Somme veteran in 1917 it was: a glimpse of joy as if sorrow, sickness and horror had never been. For Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien the dance in the glade inspired a fairy tale, written that same summer in hospital, after a relapse of Somme trench fever. To call it a difficult birth would be the understatement of a century: it has taken 100 years for the story of Beren and Lúthien to become a book in its own right.
Of the nine years since Tolkien and Edith had met as fellow lodgers (and orphans), three had been spent under a communication ban imposed by his guardian. Reunited after Tolkien turned 21, they had married just weeks before he was sent to the trenches. There for four months with the Lancashire Fusiliers, mostly as a battalion signals officer, he repeatedly witnessed the carnage that he later called simply “animal horror”. He also lost many friends, including two of his dearest. Part exorcism, The Book of Lost Tales, begun when he got back to England, was his first attempt at recounting a mythological war over three ‘holy jewels’ called the Silmarils – the multi-threaded epic he later named The Silmarillion.
Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German ‘Rapunzel.’ Tolkien’s big idea was that his ‘Lost Tales’ were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.
That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.
Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early ‘Lost Tales’ plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.
Christopher follows the thread beyond the end of the story proper to show how the lovers’ quest leads to later redemption and victory in the war against Morgoth. He discusses how their fates fit in with the concepts of mortality and immortality central to the whole ‘legendarium’. Finally, he adds a sequence from a rewriting of The Lay of Leithian begun with redoubled power after The Lord of the Rings, but again abandoned. So this is also a memorial to a story that might have been.”
Jun 6th – The Essex Serpent – by Sarah Perry
From Jennifer Senior at The New York Times:
“Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is a novel of almost insolent ambition – lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate. Set in the Victorian era, it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. It’s wonderfully dense and serenely self-assured. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home …
Perry’s writing engages the senses. You can almost smell the brine, the oyster, the ‘secretive scent of fungus clinging to the oak.’ When Cracknell shows up at church in a coat crawling with earwigs, you’ll spend pages squirming, wishing to pick them off; when the wet air creeps in, you’ll feel it in your own bones. ‘There’s a penetrating dampness coming from the walls,’ Cora writes to Ransome. ‘It feels personal.’
The Essex Serpent is also an example of what the nature writer Robert Macfarlane calls ‘a word-hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape.’ Perry writes of blue lias and saltings; gorse thickets and bladderwrack; coltsfoot and cowslips.
But the real abundance here is of feelings between characters, not all of them sentimental. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in which a man and a woman quarrel quite so much, and quite so forcefully, without something devastating coming of it. ‘They sharpen themselves on each other,’ Perry writes of Cora and Ransome, ‘each by turn is blade and whetstone.’
At times, their arguments are a bit heavy-handed, their themes too bluntly expressed. But Perry is generally light on her toes. She has to be. It takes a gentle touch to create the proper awkwardness of two people in love. ‘I’ve never liked the look of you (do you mind?),’ Ransome writes to Cora, ‘But I seem to have learned you by heart.’”
Jun 13th – No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need – by Naomi Klein
From Hari Kunzru at The Guardian:
“Lately the pace of news has felt so fast and its volume so overwhelming that the very idea of a political book seems quaint, a relic of the gentler and more carefree time before we were all pinned to the floor by the social media firehose. Naomi Klein has written No Is Not Enough at near internet speed, a warning of the enormous toxic potential of the Donald Trump presidency and a call to oppose it. As the title suggests, Klein wants her readers to move from refusal to resistance, from a passive stance of opposition to engagement in a programme of action. If the convulsions of the last year have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t wait for the dust to settle and clarity to emerge. Turbulence is, at least for the foreseeable future, our new condition, and we must learn to function within it. We have to teach ourselves to stand upright on a moving deck.
… If you spend your days glued to your phone and have 30 political tabs open on your browser, much of the material in No Is Not Enough will be familiar. The book’s chief value lies in synthesis. Klein’s particular background and expertise allow her to pull together the disparate threads of what it would be misleading to call ‘Trumpism’, if only because of the unwarranted suggestion of system and control. How you view her political proposals will depend on your politics, particularly on the value one ascribes to what used to be called ‘the extraparliamentary left’. She insists, rightly in my view, that there is a need to promote a positive alternative social vision, and that ostensibly ‘utopian’ aims and proposals are a way to avoid being caught in a politics that is merely reactive or timidly reformist. Partly, I think, because she believes (again, I’d argue correctly) that a lightly greenwashed version of the status quo will never save us from the catastrophic consequences of climate change, Klein skims over the terrain of legislative politics. She has little practical advice for people engaged in the sort of dull, incremental political action – lobbying, attempting to influence legislation – that is aimed at turning the oil tanker that is the US Congress. Nor does she advocate particular aims or tactics for organisers. The book ends with a document called The Leap Manifesto, drawn up by Canadian activists in 2015, a ‘platform without a party’, which is a powerful statement of alternative principles that feels as though it needs a thread to connect it to today’s largely defensive struggles.
Leaving aside the thorny issue of electoral subversion, it is notable that Russia provides a possible model for the Trump administration. Its rulers are men who profited from the cataclysmic shock of the end of communism, reaping fortunes in the violent, turbulent 1990s. The order they have imposed has brought about the near destruction of politics as a public activity. This is not an easily reversible condition, and its spread to the US would be a catastrophe. The supreme court has, in its wisdom, decided that corporations are people and money is speech, and free speech cannot be limited. In an environment where the amount of money in politics is truly staggering, the only safeguard left to the public is rigorous transparency. If public scrutiny is ended, Trump and his ‘masters of disaster’ may also be able to put an end to ordinary people’s ability to shape the forces governing their lives. Klein’s book is ultimately optimistic, because she believes the power to make change lies in the popular will. She calls on us to recognise that this will has enemies, and they are making havoc.”
Jun 27th – Golden Hill – by Francis Spufford
From Dwight Garner at The New York Times:
“The English writer Francis Spufford has long been a bit of a cult figure. It’s an ardent cult. Once you’ve read his intelligent and ingenious books, many other nonfiction writers seem merely to be issuing, to steal a phrase from a Charles Portis novel, ‘foul grunting.’
Spufford refuses to occupy a fixed position. His first book was I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, which appeared in the United States in 1998 after winning several major awards in England.
He’s since written volumes about children’s books and the rise and fall of technology in Britain as well as a defense of Christianity (he is married to a vicar) and an altogether remarkable book called Red Plenty (2012), about the once-limitless promise of the Soviet Union’s planned economy.
Intellectually he resembles a many-armed Hindu deity, able to pluck fruit and butterflies from anywhere on earth’s most robust tall trees.
His new book is another pivot. Golden Hill is his first novel, and not a typical first novel (mumbled quasi-memoir) but an ebullient, free-wheeling historical fiction set in 18th-century New York City three decades before the Revolutionary War.
I am not a terrific fan of historical novels. The weight of the bolts involved in set construction sinks nearly all of them to lake bottom. Golden Hill did not make me rethink that position.
But I read it in what felt like 10 minutes, and it left my mind feeling like it had been kissed by some sunburn. Its action is so vivid that you seem to be consuming (imaging Wolf Blitzer’s voice here) breaking news. Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight.”
Jun 27th – Quiet Until the Thaw – by Alexandra Fuller
From Shannon M. Houston at Paste Magazine:
“It’s impossible to read Quiet Until the Thaw and not think about the ongoing violence of whiteness in a country that would have looked very different had whiteness never invaded its shores. One of the many points that Alexandra Fuller’s debut novel drives home is that the oppression of Native Americans did not end with the Trail of Tears; it has never ended, in fact. In the same way that Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated film 13th shows that slavery was never abolished (but was merely amended to create mass incarceration), Quiet Until the Thaw shows that genocide against the Native American is an ongoing, white American legacy.
Although many of us are now familiar with the Dakota Access Pipeline, following the recent protests from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, contaminated water is only one of many ways the U.S. has continued to destroy an entire race. Yet Fuller manages to relay all of these devastating realities while creating a story that is about people who fight against an entire nation of powerful men bent on their destruction. Fuller argues in the presentation of her Lakota Oglala Sioux characters that White America has wreaked havoc, but it has not been entirely successful. As long as there are surviving members of these tribes—people passing on stories like the ones she tells here—there exists a legacy that cannot be cut down.
Fuller’s concern as a writer (one who was born in England, moved to Rhodesia as a child and found an adopted home with the Lakota Oglala Sioux as an adult) is for this legacy and how it might travel through different generations in spite of White Men’s presence. None of the main or minor characters in her novel are white; none of the white people mentioned are especially significant to her narrative. Whiteness is a fact—a shadow over the other characters we come to know and love. But it is, in a way, simply one of many other facts at work.
Fuller achieves what every creative writer with political and social concerns hopes to achieve, where the political issues of her text do not overwhelm her story with a heavy hand, and yet they are simultaneously a part of the visible and invisible forces at work on the characters’ journeys. And what journeys they undertake. What begins as a tale of two young cousins at odds spirals out into the stories of the woman who raised them and the many Lakota Oglala Sioux who cross their paths. Fuller’s style in presenting this web-like narrative reflects one of her character’s greatest philosophies: one man’s story is never just one man’s story.”
Aug 1st – The Seventh Function of Language – by Laurent Binet
From David Sexton at The Evening Standard:
“Laurent Binet’s first novel HHhH, translated into English in 2012, was a tense account of the assassination attempt on the Gestapo chief Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942, divided into short chapters and full of literary knowingness, even playfulness, about the difference between history and fiction. One chapter in its entirety proclaimed: ‘I think I’m beginning to understand. What I am writing is an infranovel.’ An infranovel!
In France HHhH was much admired and won the Prix Goncourt for a debut, despite being so much about its own procedures, as well as telling such an intrinsically powerful story. Here some readers found its tricksiness to be a bit self-regarding.
It’s quite outdone by his new novel, though, which has also won prizes in France. The 7th Function of Language is a smart, spoof thriller, cheekily taking as its cast the most famous Parisian intellectuals on the scene in 1980, the year Roland Barthes was knocked down and killed by a delivery van, just after he’d had lunch with François Mitterand, then a presidential candidate.
‘Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so,’ the book begins gamesomely, before starting off with this scene, just as it took place — except that in this book the accident is no accident.
In the novel, Barthes is carrying with him a secret document in which the great linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), who famously (in real life) distinguished the six functions of language, has described a ‘seventh function’, one giving those who know about it and can use it the most remarkable power of influence over others.
It’s this incredibly significant document that has got Barthes murdered — and there are many dangerous factions competing to get their hands on it. There are cops and robbers, Bulgarian agents with poison umbrellas, Japanese protectors devoted to the memory of Barthes, gay hustlers and anarchist Italian students — plus appearances by every French intellectual from the heyday of theory: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Bernard-Henri Levy…
Set on the case by Mitterand is a tough police superintendant, Jacques Bayard, who, since he knows nothing of semiotics, recruits a young lecturer, Simon Herzog, expert at decoding signs in a frankly Sherlock Holmesian way. Together the pair uncover a Dan Brown-style ancient and global secret debating society, the Logos Club — and they set off on an academic wild goose-chase that takes them all over, to Bologna, Cornell University in New York State, Venice…”
By publishing these essays together for the first time, this collection widens access to a number of T. F. Torrance’s illuminating studies on the history of biblical hermeneutics. Moreover, by detailing Torrance’s extensive engagement with primary sources, which generally appear only in summary form across his writings, this collection reveals to readers how Torrance’s own theological hermeneutics were forged through deep fellowship with the communion of the saints.
“An invaluable resource for any serious student of Torrance, bringing together a rich and rewarding collection of his essays. Highly recommended.”
– Alister McGrath, University of Oxford
“It is not too much to say that without a proper hermeneutics shaped by the unique nature of its object, theology would be lost. This impressive collection of essays from Thomas F. Torrance helpfully gathers together many of his most important writings on the subject displaying an amazing grasp of history and theology. Familiar themes emerge: the important connection between the incarnation and atonement, the nature of scientific knowledge of God as knowledge grounded in God and personally conveyed through his Word and Spirit by grace through faith, and more. But the really important impression that this book will convey to its readers is the way Torrance’s own thinking is not only shaped by Scripture but by the early church Fathers, and especially by Calvin and Barth. There are contextual discussions of just how Calvin related experience and knowledge of God that will illuminate Torrance’s own important discussions of the Trinity and Christology. This is a book that Torrance scholars and theologians interested in Reformation history, as it relates to Augustine and Mediaeval theology generally, will want to read.”
– Paul Molnar, St. John’s University, Queens, New York
“T. F. Torrance’s extensive studies on the history of hermeneutics deserve to remain important reading for students of theology and scriptural interpretation. This volume presents a very valuable collection of some of Torrance’s most significant texts in the field, set out somewhat after the fashion of the ambitious general history of hermeneutics which he originally envisioned as corollary to his work on theological epistemology and Christian doctrine. For all who wish to gain an understanding of Torrance’s provocative ways of reading historical theology and its legacies, this book is an essential asset.”
– Ivor J. Davidson, University of Aberdeen
“One might think a work on hermeneutics would be mired in stodgy prose and consumed with literary and secular hermeneutical theory. This volume exhibits neither tendency. Hermeneutics for Torrance is Christology in another key, and that means his hermeneutics is distinctly Christian. As we have come to expect from Torrance, the tradition is examined (here especially significant late medieval thinkers, Reformers, and of course Karl Barth) not merely for its own sake but for the cause of following the mind of the catholic Church in order to make clear what it means for Christ to be the Truth and the one who fully reveals God. Gathered together in one accessible volume, the editors have done a service to the church with these carefully chosen essays which form a companion volume of sorts to Torrance’s earlier study in hermeneutics, Divine Meaning, which explored the patristic consensus.”
– Myk Habets, Carey Baptist College
“T. F. Torrance’s writings on the history of biblical hermeneutics deserve to be much more widely known than they presently are, for they have a great deal to teach both academic theologians and members of the church. These collected essays put some important texts within easy reach and provide all who care about biblical interpretation with a great deal of food for thought.”
– Darren Sarisky, Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford Adam Nigh (University of Aberdeen)
From Major Jackson at The New York Times:
“Most serious readers agree: The direction of American poetry has, on the whole, remained stagnant since the widespread adoption of psychotherapy and counseling to help people grasp the complex undercurrents and fallout of family dysfunctions, grueling addictions, pitched anxieties and illicit yearnings.
Which is to say, therapeutic insights have birthed many lines of poetry and in some cases entire careers. (I’m looking at you, Anne Sexton.) The resulting volumes are largely complacent in their embrace of fabricated valor and self-disclosure that in other circumstances, away from bookshelves, might produces fits of embarrassment and shame …
Then emerged the cosmopolitan and intellectual sophisticate Frank Bidart, whose poetry over five decades has volubly modeled a wholly new approach to autobiographical material … Throughout his career, Bidart’s self-devoting genius has been his ability to transform a poem into a vocalized (albeit anguished) performance of consciousness and moral interrogation, an occasion for metaphysical speculation as intense and oracular as any Shakespearean monologue or philosophic treatise.
His most famous utterances carry that kind of ore: ‘Love is the distance / Between you and what you love / What you love is your fate’ (‘Guilty of Dust’). ‘There was no place in nature we could meet’ (‘Confessional’). ‘We are the wheel to which we are bound’ (‘Overheard through the Walls of the Invisible City’) …
The scale of these poems is cinematic and their reach reveals the extent to which Bidart’s classical mind is adept at plucking allegorical tales and figures from Western literature and history on which he can graft his own life story, and also ours.
By recasting in verse such mythological and historical stories as those of Myrrha and King Cinyras, or retracing the fallen friendship between Jamuqa and Genghis Khan, or transforming Raphael’s great painting ‘School of Athens’ into a nightmare of competing ideologies, Bidart exhibits how cyclical and fated are all our destinies. More than a mouthpiece for Western civilization, these poems allow for golden echoes, for tragic archetypes to reverberate in our time – a huge service, given the rapid disappearance of university classics departments. Reading, say, ‘The First Hour of the Night,’ which ranges in emotion from solemnity to rage, you’ll find the absorption mesmerizing.”
Aug 15th – The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage – by Jared Yates Sexton
From Carlos Lozada at The Washington Post:
“Jared Yates Sexton spent much of 2015 and 2016 attending presidential campaign rallies across the country. Along the way, he wrote dispatches about the rage he witnessed, particularly at Donald Trump’s events. He developed a sizable Twitter following. He received threats and hate mail. He went on radio and TV. And he drank beer. Lots and lots of beer …
Sexton’s preoccupation with his alcohol consumption is one of the recurring oddities in The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, an impressionistic and often disturbing account of the 2016 presidential race. If Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered picks apart the Clinton campaign from the point of view of strategists and staffers, Sexton grapples with the Trump campaign from the perspective of the crowds reveling in the candidate’s presence and message. It is a useful vantage point given the increasingly blatant bigotry in the months since the election. Even if marred at times by Sexton’s uninspired political analysis and unceasing affirmation of his working-class credentials, this book reveals the incremental nature of public displays of hatred, growing from harsh chants and bumper stickers to, say, an open and unmasked gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville …
‘Bigotry and ugliness had been granted a foothold in the culture at large,’ Sexton writes of the national mood after Election Day, ‘and suddenly white nationalists like Richard Spencer weren’t on the outside looking in anymore.’
Sexton didn’t see Trump coming, he admits. Like so many others, he had assumed that the reality-television star’s run would be a ‘historical footnote’ and that the Republican Party would eventually settle on mainstream conservative respectability. (See McCain, John; Romney, Mitt.) However, ‘by keeping Trump at the forefront, and using him as an outlet for the more offensive elements of the party, the Republicans unwittingly encouraged and heartened a bloc they had always kept at bay.’ And thanks to the insidious influence of conservative talk radio and Fox News — where ‘racism, sexism, and xenophobia are barely relegated to subtext,’ Sexton writes — that bloc eventually came to embrace an ‘altered reality’ that depicted Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other liberals as forces for pure evil, prompting a confrontation that came in the form of Donald J. Trump.
‘Trump hadn’t dragged anybody anywhere,’ Sexton writes, recalling the December 2015 speech when the candidate proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country. ‘Trump was, as of that moment, the heartbeat of an America with which many of us were unaccustomed. . . . This was a group that lived their lives steeped in unbelievable anger. They were either poor or less rich than they thought they should be … and they were, almost to a person, white. They were angry and all they wanted in the f—ing world was to blame somebody. Trump wasn’t the cause; he was the disease personified.’
Over the course of the campaign, the Trump faithful grew more ‘comfortable and daring in their hate,’ Sexton writes. At a rally in Greensboro, N.C., he sees that rather than just reacting to Trump, people began to feed off one another. ‘The gays had it coming!’ screams one man, referring to the June 2016 massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Sexton hears several people using racial epithets to describe Obama. When Trump talks about revoking media credentials for The Washington Post, some men yell out, ‘Kill them all!’ And after the event, Sexton witnesses an adult explaining to a small child that, of course, ‘immigrants aren’t people, honey.’”
Aug 15th – City Folk and Country Folk – by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Favorov
From Elisabeth Cook at Education & Culture:
“You could easily be forgiven for never having heard of City Folk and Country Folk by Russian author Sofia Khvoshchinskaya. It’s only seeing the light of day in the English-speaking world this year, thanks to a translation by Nora Seligman Favorov, having first been published in the 1860s under a male pseudonym. Still, the timing of its arrival in translation (thanks to Columbia University Press’s Russian Library) seems felicitous.
The novel tells the story of a country woman who prefers local mushrooms to truffles, who aspires to simplicity but must cope with complexity, whose consciously humble way of life is threatened by confusing social mechanisms and her own doubts about her place among them. Taking place shortly after Alexander II’s Emancipation Manifesto of 1861 and the abolition of Russian serfdom, City Folk and Country Folk draws its humor from a society in flux, a climate in which no one is sure what the future holds. (Sound familiar?)
At times, it reads like a slightly absurd and fatalistic Jane Austen novel. It boasts prominent, interesting female characters of whom you may grow fond. As with Austen’s novels, though, which are sometimes reduced in the popular imagination to a fetishized view of classic British culture or the original chick lit, City Folk and Country Folk has far more to offer than the intrigue of eligible bachelors and sharp displays of women’s wit. It does poke plenty of fun at matters of gender inequality, but also respects the complex placement of gender on a larger map of social strata.”
Sep 1st – Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy – by Mark Regnerus
From Mark Regnerus at Slate:
“To better understand what’s going on, it’s worth a crash course in ‘sexual economics,’ an approach best articulated by social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs. As Baumeister, Vohs, and others have repeatedly shown, on average, men want sex more than women do. Call it sexist, call it whatever you want—the evidence shows it’s true. In one frequently cited study, attractive young researchers separately approached opposite-sex strangers on Florida State University’s campus and proposed casual sex. Three-quarters of the men were game, but not one woman said yes. I know: Women love sex too. But research like this consistently demonstrates that men have a greater and far less discriminating appetite for it. As Baumeister and Vohs note, sex in consensual relationships therefore commences only when women decide it does.
And yet despite the fact that women are holding the sexual purse strings, they aren’t asking for much in return these days—the market ‘price’ of sex is currently very low. There are several likely reasons for this. One is the spread of pornography: Since high-speed digital porn gives men additional sexual options—more supply for his elevated demand—it takes some measure of price control away from women. The Pill lowered the cost as well. There are also, quite simply, fewer social constraints on sexual relationships than there once were. As a result, the sexual decisions of young women look more like those of men than they once did, at least when women are in their twenties. The price of sex is low, in other words, in part because its costs to women are lower than they used to be.
But just as critical is the fact that a significant number of young men are faring rather badly in life, and are thus skewing the dating pool. It’s not that the overall gender ratio in this country is out of whack; it’s that there’s a growing imbalance between the number of successful young women and successful young men. As a result, in many of the places where young people typically meet—on college campuses, in religious congregations, in cities that draw large numbers of twentysomethings—women outnumber men by significant margins. (In one Manhattan ZIP code, for example, women account for 63 percent of 22-year-olds.)
The idea that sex ratios alter sexual behavior is well-established. Analysis of demographic data from 117 countries has shown that when men outnumber women, women have the upper hand: Marriage rates rise and fewer children are born outside marriage. An oversupply of women, however, tends to lead to a more sexually permissive culture. The same holds true on college campuses. In the course of researching our book Premarital Sex in America, my co-author and I assessed the effects of campus sex ratios on women’s sexual attitudes and behavior. We found that virginity is more common on those campuses where women comprise a smaller share of the student body, suggesting that they have the upper hand. By contrast, on campuses where women outnumber men, they are more negative about campus men, hold more negative views of their relationships, go on fewer dates, are less likely to have a boyfriend, and receive less commitment in exchange for sex.
… Jill, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, is one of the many young women my colleagues and I interviewed who finds herself confronting the sexual market’s realities. Startlingly attractive and an all-star in all ways, she patiently endures her boyfriend’s hemming and hawing about their future. If she were operating within a collegiate sexual economy that wasn’t oversupplied with women, men would compete for her and she would easily secure the long-term commitment she says she wants. Meanwhile, Julia, a 21-year-old from Arizona who’s been in a sexual relationship for two years, is frustrated by her boyfriend’s wish to ‘enjoy the moment and not worry about the future.’ Michelle, a 20-year-old from Colorado, said she is in the same boat: ‘I had an ex-boyfriend of mine who said that, um, he didn’t know if he was ever going to get married because, he said, there’s always going to be someone better.’ If this is ‘the end of men,’ someone really ought to let them know.”
Sep 5th – Sing, Unburied, Sing – by Jesmyn Ward
From Sarah Begley at Time Magazine:
“‘To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi’ goes a line often attributed to William Faulkner. More than half a century later, Jesmyn Ward may be the newest bard of global wisdom. The writer rocketed to literary fame in 2011 when she won the National Book Award for her second novel, Salvage the Bones, a lyrical Hurricane Katrina tale. As in her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, the characters in Salvage live in the fictional Mississippi Gulf Coast hamlet of Bois Sauvage, which is based on Ward’s native DeLisle. Six years and two nonfiction books later, Ward has returned to fiction, and to Bois Sauvage, with Sing, Unburied, Sing, a mystical story about race, family and the long shadow of history.
Ward, 40, wrote her first two novels while moving around the country for writing programs and fellowships, but she has since returned home and started a family. Sing, Unburied, Sing is the first novel she’s written from there and the first she’s written as a mother. ‘The figurative language that I use is so informed by this place and by the things that I see and experience here,’ she says, ‘that it helped me write Sing, because I’m able to observe and see these things and incorporate them into my writing.’ Consider how nature relates to human behavior in this description of a grandfather on a difficult morning: ‘He matched the sky, which hung low, a silver colander full to leak.’ Or when a mother watches her daughter cling to her son: ‘She sticks to him, sure as a burr: her arms and legs thorny and cleaving.’ … Sing is her riskiest work yet. Magical realism is in full effect: ghosts appear to certain characters, while others ‘hear’ the thoughts of fellow humans as well as animals. Trouble calls for voodoo. It’s territory she’s never tread before, and her editor, Kathryn Belden, says the risk-taking helped her grow as an artist.
And these woods are savage indeed. While Belden says Ward does not write ‘with the news cycle in mind,’ the novel ‘ends up touching on a lot of issues that are part of the national dialogue.’ … The family in Sing deals with problems that are representative of a town in a state that set a new record for deaths by drug overdose last year. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country and one of the highest unemployment rates, and is often ranked among the hungriest, unhealthiest and worst-educated places to live. Jojo and Kayla represent the future of their town, and while they have inherited a beautiful legacy from one set of grandparents in the form of their spiritual powers, statistically speaking, they’re up against a tragic litany of obstacles.
… To see the election of Donald Trump and the hordes of his supporters who were comfortable with his language about race — not to mention the race hatred visible in Charlottesville and Boston in recent weeks — is like ‘we’ve been reminded once again that we live in the South,’ she says, ‘that we live in a place where throughout the centuries and throughout the decades, our lives have been considered worthless.’ This keen attention to history’s bitter hold on the present will likely continue to motivate Ward. For her next novel, Ward will head along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans, where she’ll write about ‘the height of the domestic slave trade, in the early 1800s.’ But she promises a return to Bois Sauvage. ‘I love creating that community and writing about that place, because I think in some ways Bois Sauvage is like the DeLisle of my past; it’s like the DeLisle of the ’80s that I can never return to. So in some ways, when I write about Bois Sauvage, I’m writing about a home that I’ve lost.’”
Sep 5th – Sourdough: A Novel – by Robin Sloan
From Jason Sheehan at NPR:
“Robin Sloan’s new novel, Sourdough, is exactly like his first book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, except that it’s not about books (exactly), but is absolutely about San Francisco, geeks, nerds, coders, secret societies, bizarrely low-impact conspiracies that solely concern single-noun obsessives (food, in this case, rather than books), and also robots. And books, too, actually, now that I think about it.
It is a beautiful, small, sweet, quiet book. It knows as much about the strange extremes of food as Mr. Penumbra did about the dark latitudes of the book community. It concerns one Lois Clary, a young proprioception engineer for a gleaming robotics company in San Francisco called General Dexterity. She ended up there kind of by accident: She was good with computers, good with machines, had a perfectly reasonable job in Michigan, close to her family, when she was suddenly recruited out of the blue by the robot people. And she took the job because, in Lois’s words (via Sloan), ‘Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: We are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.’
That right there? That was the line that sold me on this book. An entire generational motto summed up in one compound sentence.
Anyway, Lois doesn’t really like her job. The work is grinding, the hours are long, the commitment demanded by the never-ending start-up culture is making her sick and lonely. But one day, she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, an illegal house restaurant which delivers her dinner every night — spicy soup and bread which (as unlikely as it sounds, because much of what happens in Sourdough is unlikely-bordering-on-magical-but-who-cares-because-everything-here-is-almost-a-Silicon-Valley-style-fairy-tale-anyway) heals her, body and soul.
Two immigrant brothers run the restaurant, and when they’re deported, Lois is bereft, But before they go (because she was their best customer and they, her only friends), they leave with her a batch of their sourdough starter.
It, too, is magic. It is fully 95% more alive than any other starter culture ever (and starters are already pretty damn alive, which you already know if you’ve ever made your own bread). But this one sings. It makes little disco lights. And once Lois teaches herself how to bake, it makes the greatest bread that anyone has ever tasted.
Making the bread widens Lois’s social circle. She brings some to her neighbors. She brings some to the robot factory where her co-workers eat only a nutritive gel called Slurry despite the Silicon Valley affectation of having a full-time chef on staff. Then Lois starts selling some of her bread to the robot company chef, who in turn tells her she should try out for a space at the farmers market. And when Lois does that, she instead ends up getting an invitation to a very different kind of market. An underground market, borderline legal, where all sorts of wild experiments with food are being done. It is called the Marrow Fair and is operated by a mysterious benefactor called Mr. Marrow who offers what he offers (Chernobyl honey, cricket cookies, lembas cakes self-assembled in a bioreactor) in an attempt at disrupting the food-scape.
And that is where Sourdough‘s story actually starts.”
Sep 8th – Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor – edited by Collin Hansen
From The Gospel Coalition:
“Probably no book published in the last decade has been so ambitious as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. In it, Taylor seeks nothing less than to account for the spread of secularism and decline of faith in the last 500 years. And he explains why so many Christians struggle to believe, let alone share the gospel in a rapidly changing culture.
Now a remarkable roster of writers considers Taylor’s insights for the church’s life and mission in The Gospel Coalition’s Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor. Nothing is easy about faith today. But through Christ, we know that endurance produces character, and character produces hope, even in our secular age.
– Collin Hansen, ‘Hope in Our Secular Age’
– Carl Trueman, ‘Taylor’s Complex, Incomplete Historical Narrative’
– Michael Horton, ‘The Enduring Power of the Christian Story: Reformation Theology for a Secular Age’
– John Starke, ‘Preaching to the Secular Age’
– Derek Rishmawy, ‘Millennial Belief in the Super-Nova’
– Alastair Roberts, ‘Liturgical Piety’
– Brett McCracken, ‘Church Shopping with Charles Taylor’
– Bruce Riley Ashford, ‘Politics and Public Life in a Secular Age’
– Greg Forster, ‘Free Faith: Inventing New Ways of Believing and Living Together’
– Jen Pollock Michel, ‘Whose Will Be Done? Human Flourishing in the Secular Age’
– Bob Cutillo, ‘The Healing Power of Bodily Presence’
– Alan Noble, ‘The Disruptive Witness of Art’
– Mike Cosper, ‘Piercing the Immanent Frame with an Ultralight Beam: Kanye and Charles Taylor’”
Sep 12th – Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World – by Brad S. Gregory
“On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation comes this compelling, illuminating, and expansive religious history that examines the complicated and unintended legacies of Martin Luther and the epochal movement that continues to shape the world today.
For five centuries, Martin Luther has been lionized as an outspoken and fearless icon of change who ended the Middle Ages and heralded the beginning of the modern world. In Rebel in the Ranks, Brad Gregory, renowned professor of European history at Notre Dame, recasts this long-accepted portrait. Luther did not intend to start a revolution that would divide the Catholic Church and forever change Western civilization. Yet his actions would profoundly shape our world in ways he could never have imagined.
Gregory analyzes Luther’s inadvertent role in starting the Reformation and the epochal changes that followed. He reveals how Luther’s insistence on the Bible as the sole authority for Christian truth led to conflicting interpretations of its meaning—and to the rise of competing churches, political conflicts, and social upheavals. Ultimately, he contends, some of the major historical and cultural developments that arose in its wake—including the Enlightenment, individual self-determination and moral relativism, and a religious freedom that protects one’s right to worship or even to reject religion—would have appalled Luther: a reluctant revolutionary, a rebel in the ranks, whose goal was to make society more Christian, yet instead set the world on fire.”
Sep 12th – World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech – by Franklin Foer
From Franklin Foer at The Washington Post:
“Over the generations, we’ve been through revolutions like this before. Many years ago, we delighted in the wonders of TV dinners and the other newfangled foods that suddenly filled our kitchens: slices of cheese encased in plastic, oozing pizzas that emerged from a crust of ice, bags of crunchy tater tots. In the history of man, these seemed like breakthrough innovations. Time-consuming tasks — shopping for ingredients, tediously preparing a recipe and tackling a trail of pots and pans — were suddenly and miraculously consigned to history.
The revolution in cuisine wasn’t just enthralling. It was transformational. New products embedded themselves deeply in everyday life, so much so that it took decades for us to understand the price we paid for their convenience, efficiency and abundance. Processed foods were feats of engineering, all right — but they were engineered to make us fat. Their delectable taste required massive quantities of sodium and sizable stockpiles of sugar, which happened to reset our palates and made it harder to sate hunger. It took vast quantities of meat and corn to fabricate these dishes, and a spike in demand remade American agriculture at a terrible environmental cost. A whole new system of industrial farming emerged, with penny-conscious conglomerates cramming chickens into feces-covered pens and stuffing them full of antibiotics. By the time we came to understand the consequences of our revised patterns of consumption, the damage had been done to our waistlines, longevity, souls and planet.
Something like the midcentury food revolution is now reordering the production and consumption of knowledge. Our intellectual habits are being scrambled by the dominant firms. Giant tech companies have become the most powerful gatekeepers the world has ever known. Google helps us sort the Internet, by providing a sense of hierarchy to information; Facebook uses its algorithms and its intricate understanding of our social circles to filter the news we encounter; Amazon bestrides book publishing with its overwhelming hold on that market.
Such dominance endows these companies with the ability to remake the markets they control. As with the food giants, the big tech companies have given rise to a new science that aims to construct products that pander to their consumers. Unlike the market research and television ratings of the past, the tech companies have a bottomless collection of data, acquired as they track our travels across the Web, storing every shard about our habits in the hope that they may prove useful. They have compiled an intimate portrait of the psyche of each user — a portrait that they hope to exploit to seduce us into a compulsive spree of binge clicking and watching. And it works: On average, each Facebook user spends one-sixteenth of their day on the site.
In the realm of knowledge, monopoly and conformism are inseparable perils. The danger is that these firms will inadvertently use their dominance to squash diversity of opinion and taste. Concentration is followed by homogenization. As news media outlets have come to depend heavily on Facebook and Google for traffic — and therefore revenue — they have rushed to produce articles that will flourish on those platforms. This leads to a duplication of the news like never before, with scores of sites across the Internet piling onto the same daily outrage. It’s why a picture of a mysteriously colored dress generated endless articles, why seemingly every site recaps Game of Thrones. Each contribution to the genre adds little, except clicks. Old media had a pack mentality, too, but the Internet promised something much different. And the prevalence of so much data makes the temptation to pander even greater.”
“In Empress of the East, historian Leslie Peirce tells the remarkable story of a Christian slave girl, Roxelana, who was abducted by slave traders from her Ruthenian homeland and brought to the harem of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul. Suleyman became besotted with her and foreswore all other concubines. Then, in an unprecedented step, he freed her and married her. The bold and canny Roxelana soon became a shrewd diplomat and philanthropist, who helped Suleyman keep pace with a changing world in which women, from Isabella of Hungary to Catherine de Medici, increasingly held the reins of power.
Until now Roxelana has been seen as a seductress who brought ruin to the empire, but in Empress of the East, Peirce reveals the true history of an elusive figure who transformed the Ottoman harem into an institution of imperial rule.”
‘Leslie Peirce, one of the world’s foremost historians of the Ottoman empire, has created a brilliant, absorbing, and profoundly insightful account of one of the most enigmatically interesting figures of the sixteenth century: Roxelana, the captive slave who ultimately reigned alongside Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Peirce is rightly celebrated for her expertise on the fascinating subject of the Ottoman harem, and there is no one better qualified to help us understand how Roxelana emerged from the sultan’s harem to become one of the most powerful political figures of her times. This is a book that should be read by anyone interested in understanding the deep history of Turkey, the Ottoman empire, and the Muslim Middle East.’
– Larry Wolff, author of The Singing Turk
‘Leslie Peirce is uniquely qualified to tell the story of one of the greatest royal love affairs in world history. In her earlier, ground-breaking book, Peirce demystified the Ottoman harem. In Empress of the East, she demonstrates the same careful attention to primary sources, refusing to romanticise what we cannot know. Reality is far more compelling. This page-turning narrative of an Ottoman sultan’s passion draws us deeply into the household of a couple that broke all the rules. Peirce sets Süleyman and Roxelana’s intimate lives within the context of the times, to show how the personal was inescapably political. Roxelana has at last found the biographer she deserves.’
– Caroline Finkel, author of Osman’s Dream
‘A brilliant book that restores one of the most fascinating women in Islamic history to prominence. Leslie Pierce, the foremost authority on the Ottoman imperial harem, has done her subject justice in this exquisitely crafted biography.’
– Eugene Rogan, author of The Fall of the Ottomans
‘It takes solid scholarship to turn the potentially Orientalist tale of a young slave who became the wife of the most powerful sovereign of the sixteenth century into an accurate and well-documented historical narrative. It takes talent to give this narrative the lively twist that makes it such a good read. It takes Leslie Peirce’s years of experience with the study of the daily life of Ottoman women, high and low, to bring to the foreground the life and destiny of a woman, however powerful and exceptional, in a world of men. Roxelana/Hürrem’s story is a novel and rather unique way to discover or revisit one of the most fascinating episodes of Ottoman history.’
– Edhem Eldem, Bogazici University, Istanbul
Sep 28th – The Diary of a Bookseller – by Shaun Bythell
From Michael Simkins at The Daily Mail:
“If, like me, you’ve always harboured dreams of one day running your own second-hand bookshop — reading War And Peace over a cup of tea, a cat snoozing on your lap, a fire in the grate, with a steady stream of customers to share your literary passions — Shaun Bythell’s charming, darkly comic memoir will soon disabuse you of any romantic claptrap.
Bythell took over The Bookshop in Wigtown, Galloway, in November 2001, and has now written a chronicle of a year in his life behind the counter.
The shop, Scotland’s largest example, has some 100,000 titles and more than a mile of shelving.
Yet, in addition to the roaring fire and the snoozing cat, Bythell’s memoir also chronicles leaky roofs, truculent, imbecilic customers, missed orders and the daily grind of sorting through tons of assorted titles in a desperate attempt to squeeze a profit out of the tiny segment of the business not steamrollered by all booksellers’ online nemesis — the all-conquering Amazon. The book, in diary form, covers a 12-month period starting in February 2014 …
Sadly, the sentence Bythell hears most often these days is: ‘It’s cheaper on Amazon’, usually muttered sotto voce by customers who, having used the premises as a free browsing facility, will inevitably return home to order their selection online.
Who’d be a bookseller nowadays? Well, he, for one; for despite it all, you sense Bythell’s life is both fulfilled and fulfilling.
In between minding the shop, he goes fishing for salmon and drinks whisky late into the night with old friends. He also helps to run the annual Wigtown Book Festival, which has mushroomed from a rackety little affair some 20 years ago to become a thriving cultural (and commercial) opportunity for the area.”
From Shane Williamson at 9Marks:
“McCracken’s writing is fresh, and invigorated with genuine concern and care for the church’s witness in our modern world. In many ways, reading Uncomfortable provided me with a ‘theology of comfort.’ A few things in particular stand out.
Firstly, Part One reminded me of what the Christian life is and what it ought to resemble. Do you have brothers and sisters in your church struggling to conceive of how the cross ought to impact their lives? Or does your church perhaps seek after authenticity over holiness? Giving away this book to church members will certainly aid in providing biblical correctives to a consumerist conception of Christianity that unthinkingly pervades the minds of our flocks.
Secondly, McCracken exposes the error in attempting to blend our churches in with the cultural landscape. The Christian life is a calling to be set apart. This inevitably leads to uncomfortable living. We need to not so much care about the world’s opinion of us, as much as we care about what God thinks about his church:
The Christian life is not a call to be true to yourself. It’s a call to deny yourself, or at least to deny those parts of yourself that are incompatible with the human type we should all aspire to imitate: Jesus Christ. (66–67)
Thirdly, McCracken helpfully steers the analysis of consumeristic Christianity to the particular focus of the church. Sadly, our ‘comfort idolatry’ and ‘personal-preference individualism’ (145) aren’t left at the door. McCracken’s insights into fighting against the contemporary Western culture are encouraging and uplifting. All pastors should wrestle with these ideas and lead their churches into reforming concepts of diversity, authority, unity, and commitment. While not all of us will agree with how McCracken proposes change (e.g. styles of worship), his plea to infuse Christians with an ecclesial-shaped Christianity is utterly necessary for the church today, especially his highlighting of unity-in-diversity and authority as a gift.
Finally, among many benefits of this book, I appreciate how Uncomfortable seeks to connect theology with church. For far too long the church has settled for pragmatics and secular business models to advance her message. Uncomfortable is a helpful corrective in that it pushes us back to the Bible and shows how our theology should interact with our gatherings.
To that end, I’ll close with a great quote toward the end of Uncomfortable that encapsulates this helpful corrective: ‘If the church is going to thrive in the twenty-first century, she needs to be wiling to demand more of her members. She needs to assert the importance of covenants over comfort, even if that is a message that will turn off some. She needs to speak prophetically against the perversions of cultural and consumer Christianity, seeker unfriendly as that will be. She needs to call Christians away from an individualistic, ‘just me and Jesus’ faith, challenging them to embrace the costliness of the cross and the challenge of life in a covenantal community.’ (183)”
Oct 2nd – The Lost Words – by Robert Macfarlane
A Note From the Illustrator Jackie Morris:
“It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone. The letter was a request for words culled from the Oxford University Press Junior Dictionary to be returned. These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.
It wasn’t the fault of the dictionary that these words were not included, but the culture in which we live which seems to give more importance to the urban than the wild. The dictionary was a symptom of this, and a timely reminder that we should take a good, long look at what we value … How could these words be removed? What did that teach children about the importance of wild places. When you work in the world of words, language, such things have power. How can we teach children that bluebells are important, that acorns have value, if the words are not important enough to be in the dictionary found in most schools?
I took courage in both hands. I emailed Robert MacFarlane to ask if he might be interested in working with me. At the very least I wanted to do a series of paintings to make into a book, with dictionary definitions beside them. I never imagined that he would wish to make the book something much much more than this. It turned out that he too was thinking of something, trying to form a book in his mind also. His desire is to cast spells of language to summon the words back into common usage. A ‘spelling’ book in more ways than one. He announced at Hay Festival that we were working on the project together, but we had still to find a publisher who would take the idea and run with it.
… Two years on, and my hope is that between us we have a book for all ages, a book that reads aloud to delight the ear, with images that dance in the heart. Spells for sleeping and dreaming wild places deep into the dreams of people. I still remember when I saw my first kingfisher, that heart stopping, breath taking moment of magic. Listening to Robert MacFarlane read his spell of a kingfisher in the offices of Hamish Hamilton gave me that same sense of wonder. What an utter delight it has been to work with his words … The book is about lost and found, about words, about the wild. This is one piece. It’s a large book. A book to lose yourself in.”
Oct 3rd – Paris in the Present Tense – by Mark Helprin
From James Como at the New English Review:
“This revenge tale, wrapped within a contemporary historical novel, provides a morphology of the type of mind that these days is too scarce. The mind belongs to an old man, with ‘contemporary’ in this case meaning the duration of his rich, utterly focused, consciousness. We learn that history by how the man sees and hears (in waves, especially waves of music, ‘the voice of God’), by what and how he loves, and by increasingly distant flashbacks (harrowing, poignant, joyful). Helprin can multi-task with the best, moving fluently from one layer of time-space narrative to another, story-telling as three-dimensional chess. (And reader beware: there are few minor characters.)
The extraordinary Jules Lacour—driven? certainly; paranoid, certainly not—was a child of the Holocaust and a veteran of the Algerian War. Returning to Paris from Los Angeles, with a momentous stopover in New York, he seems done. But ‘with stars all around, the plane splitting a path through the night, rising and falling more smoothly than a boat on a gently rolling sea,’ his plan to ‘save a life, and give his own’ coalesces over Iceland. Jules knows himself thoroughly, elegiacally, but he is resolute. He had ‘been profoundly aware of oblivion since the retreat of . . . the SS through Reims [where he and his family were in hiding] in the summer of 1944′; now he thinks like soldiers ‘who fight with neither fear nor regret.’
When the plane lands nearly three hundred pages later (short by Helpriin’s usual standard), that disposition will seem practical, and morally perfect. Then the plot really thickens, and more rapidly than in Helprin’s other novels. Finality is looming …
When landing in Los Angeles Jules considers the nature of paradox, “the reconciliation of opposites within a theater greater than the world, within infinite time and infinite space, [the] solution to his dilemma.” By the time he is landing in Paris, Paradox, along with its sibling, Irony, will have called and raised, and we will know Jules’ reasons for wanting revenge as well as its targets, and we will cheer him on—even though we don’t yet know the plan. Eventually two disconnected characters sprinkled in earlier will assume great importance, both to the plot and to Jules personally. There will be mistakes, moves and counter-moves (one of those surely an ad hoc afterthought: a couple of plot elements seem a bit too on-the-nose), and a fuse will burn down. The denouement, in what does and does not happen, shows both narrative cunning and genuine wisdom. Our gratification runs deep.
Here, in his seventh novel, Helprin is as keenly attentive, his images as surprising and exact, as in all his stories. Designs of plot and place are rich, like well-wrought tapestries; casual insights (psychological, social, historical) are dulce et utile, as when Jules explains why old people who have no dementia will forget small details; vivified characters simply do not go away. Within this particular quintuple helix—Paris, anti-Semitism, music, old age, and eros (if undiminshed certainly transformed)—he has woven his characteristic, polyphonic motifs: muscular Jewishness (with generous feelings for Catholic custom and belief), contempt for those complicit in the suicide of the West, the workings of providential grace, heroic protectiveness, a severe code of loyalty as an antidote to devastating betrayal, a prodigious, palpable love (above all of family, living and dead, immutable), and a metaphysic that . . . goes way beyond the scope of a review.”
From Mark Pulliam at Law and Liberty:
“Justice Antonin Scalia definitely had a way with words. Law students pore over his opinions not just for Scalia’s keen analysis but to delight in the verve of his prose—pungent, clear, combative, and always colorful. Scalia aficionados also savor his books and essays, which showcase his forceful rhetoric and deft pen. Alas, the body of Scalia’s judicial decisions and scholarship, although considerable, is finite. Fortunately, Scalia fans now have a treasure trove of new material to savor, in the form of a recently-released compilation of the late Justice’s speeches, entitled Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived.
Compiled by Scalia’s son, Christopher, and a devoted former law clerk, Ed Whelan, the collection features dozens of Scalia’s best speeches (out of hundreds that he delivered), on a variety of subjects, to both legal and lay audiences. The famously affable Scalia (‘Nino’ to his friends) loved people, and was a bit of a ham, as evidenced by his active involvement in high school and college theater. It is no wonder, then, that he enjoyed speaking all around the world on many different topics. His speeches were performances. It is a testament to Scalia’s eclectic repertoire and love of pedagogy that he crafted his impressively-varied speeches with care—combining erudition with personal reminiscences and humor, always in his distinctive voice.
As his son notes in a touching Introduction, ‘The charm and gregariousness that drew so many people—including ideological adversaries—to him are prominent throughout this collection.’ As if to confirm that point, Scalia’s Supreme Court colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with whom he often disagreed on the Court, provides an affectionate Foreword. The speeches, each with a short headnote, and few of which have been published before, are organized into six broad categories: ‘On the American People and Ethnicity’; ‘On Living and Learning’; ‘On Faith’; ‘On Law’; ‘On Virtue and the Public Good’; and ‘On Heroes and Friends.’ The section ‘On Law’ is the longest, with over a dozen speeches regarding the Constitution and Scalia’s view of the role of judges, but Scalia Speaks is not primarily aimed at lawyers; this book will also be of interest to anyone who admires Scalia’s inimitable wit, towering intellect, and remarkable judicial legacy.
In addition to Scalia’s now-familiar views on originalism and the separation of powers, his opposition to ‘substantive due process’ and the notion of a ‘living Constitution,’ and the shortcomings of legislative history, the reader learns about Scalia’s childhood stickball exploits growing up in Queens, tips on writing well, the joys of turkey hunting, the importance of civic education, his Catholic heritage and fascination with Sir Thomas More, high school memories from a military academy in the 1950s (including traveling to his school with his rifle on the New York subway), the value of tradition, the Holocaust, his favorite presidents, and more.”
Oct 3rd – Manhattan Beach – by Jennifer Egan
From Meghan O’Rourke at The Guardian:
“A work of remarkable cinematic scope, Manhattan Beach portrays the lives of an Irish family in Brooklyn, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and then the second world war. A young woman becomes a diver to help the war effort and uncovers the powerful forces that led to her beloved father’s disappearance; a father is forced to leave his family behind to save his own life; and a successful mobster gets swept up in cultural tides that threaten everything he’s built.
As a novelist, Egan possesses an unusual mix of qualities, combining a powerful social realism with poetic resonances that derive from her precise imagery and her fascination with the limitations of language. Here, she places her characters in situations that permit trenchant cultural observations, writing revealingly about the challenges of coming of age in the middle of the American century, when women’s lives were substantially circumscribed. But this novel is also metaphysical in nature: Egan’s characters are transformed by the vast ocean around them, which both hides and reveals.
… We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion said, but often those stories are wrong or horribly partial. Egan’s interest seems to be in all the ways that our single perspective limits the stories we tell – how our lives get reordered by the discovery of key facts we lacked. Anna thinks her father disappeared because he couldn’t deal with her sister’s disability. Likewise, her boss and the many men she encounters tell a limited story about her: they believe that because she is a woman, she can’t be mentally or physically strong enough to do the work. Her quest to prove them wrong is one of the real thrills of this book. Egan describes diving, beautifully, as an act that delivers Anna ‘to a purely tactile realm that seemed to exist outside the rest of life. It was like pushing through a wall and finding a hidden chamber just beyond it.’”
Oct 3rd – We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy – by Ta-Nehisi Coates
From Constance Grady at Vox:
“We Were Eight Years in Power, the new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is not precisely new. It’s a collection of eight articles Coates wrote for the Atlantic, starting in 2007 during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, concluding this year with the start of Donald Trump’s administration, and including some of Coates’s greatest hits, including his much-lauded 2014 article ‘The Case for Reparations.’ What’s new is that each of the eight articles is introduced by an essay in which Coates lays out its context: what was happening in America when he wrote it, and what was happening in his own development as a writer.
Ultimately, those two narrative arcs form the spine of the book. In We Were Eight Years in Power, you can see America at first embracing the policy of a black president and then reacting in a violent and paranoid racist backlash, and you can see Coates developing both the theoretical tools and the lyrical, expressive voice that makes his analysis of that backlash so captivating.
‘I could hear what that voice sounded like in my head,’ Coates writes of the voice he was aiming for as he profiled Michelle Obama. ‘It was a blues with a beat dirtier than anything I had ever heard anywhere in the world.’ He didn’t, he concludes, capture such a voice in the profile, but as you read We Were Eight Years in Power, you’ll hear Coates incrementally refine and clarify his distinctive voice — steeped in poetry and hip-hop and the rhetoric of black liberation — into the formidable tool it’s become today.
Coates thinks of the aesthetics of his sentences as being inseparable from their content. His model is James Baldwin; for Coates, Baldwin’s writing is beautiful specifically because it is honest. ‘The beauty of Baldwin’s prose that I connected to was not ancillary to the dream-breaking but central to it,’ he writes. ‘The beauty in his writing wasn’t just style or ornament but an unparalleled ability to see what was before him clearly and then lay that vision, with that same clarity, before the world.’
… Over the course of Eight Years, you can watch Coates develop the particular habits of diction and syntax that he falls back on in service of this quest: the repeated rendering of the black self as a black body, upon which racism works with physical force; the use of the word plunder to describe how white supremacy takes possession of black wealth and labor; the preacher-like repetition of sentence structure in a long cascading litany of American sins; the which is to say that links abstract, morally charged ideas to concrete action, illuminating both. Coates writes ‘about race, which is to say the force of white supremacy.’ Nations are ‘atheists, which is to say they find their strength not in any God but in their guns.’ Nas’s lyrics are ‘beautiful, which is to say [they are] grounded in the concrete fact of slavery.’
These writerly habits are not crutches or safety blankets; they’re carefully developed tools that serve a specific argumentative purpose. Part of the pleasure of reading Eight Years lies in watching Coates discover and refine these tools and then slowly discard them as they live out their purpose.”
Oct 3rd – The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President – edited by Bandy X. Lee
From Carlos Lozada at The Washington Post:
“Gone are the days when euphemisms about President Trump’s mental health insulated the man like so many padded walls. Erratic. Unpredictable. Unstable. Unmoored. Temperamentally unfit. This was what politicians and commentators said when they wished to question Trump’s state of mind but feared the consequences of a more colloquial assessment. Yet the deeper we plunge into this presidency, the more willing people become to call it like they see and hear it.
‘I think he’s crazy,’ Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) confided to his colleague Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in a July exchange inadvertently caught on a microphone. (‘I’m worried,’ she replied.) CNN’s Don Lemon, flabbergasted after a Trump speech last month, concluded that ‘he’s unhinged. . . . There was no sanity there.’ Even some Republicans have grown more blunt, with Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) recently suggesting that Trump ‘has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence’ to succeed as president.
Now, some psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals are shedding long-held norms to argue that Trump’s condition presents risks to the nation and the world. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump features more than two dozen essays breaking down the president’s perceived traits, which the contributors find consistent with symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy and other maladies. ‘Collectively with our coauthors, we warn that anyone as mentally unstable as Mr. Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency,’ Judith Lewis Herman of Harvard Medical School and Bandy X. Lee of the Yale School of Medicine write in the book’s prologue.
… Mental illness hardly disqualifies one from the presidency. Abraham Lincoln is thought to have suffered from severe depression, but he held himself together and the union, too. ‘Equating mental illness with incapacity merely stigmatizes the mentally ill,’ clinical psychologist Craig Malkin writes in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. But Malkin and other contributors argue that Trump’s behavior — his political statements and actions as well as his interviews, books and social-media activity — suggest more ominous possibilities.
Trump displays signs of ‘extreme present hedonism,’ the tendency to live in the moment without considering consequences, seeking to bolster one’s self-esteem no matter the risk. Or he exhibits ‘narcissistic personality disorder,’ which includes believing you’re better than others, exaggerating your achievements and expecting constant praise. Combine hedonism, narcissism and bullying, and you get ‘an impulsive, immature, incompetent person who, when in the position of ultimate power, easily slides into the role of the tyrant,’ Philip Zimbardo (of the famous Stanford prison experiment) and Rosemary Sword write. Others suggest that Trump shows indications of sociopathy, including lack of empathy, absence of guilt and intentional ma-nipu-la-tion. Put it all together and you have ‘malignant narcissism,’ which includes antisocial behavior, paranoid traits, even sadism.
‘Mr. Trump’s sociopathic characteristics are undeniable,’ retired Harvard psychiatry professor Lance Dodes concludes. ‘They create a profound danger for America’s democracy and safety. Over time these characteristics will only become worse, either because Mr. Trump will succeed in gaining more power and more grandiosity with less grasp on reality, or because he will engender more criticism producing more paranoia, more lies, and more enraged destruction.’ And when the president stands before the U.N. General Assembly and threatens to ‘totally destroy’ an enemy country of 25 million people, enraged destruction seems on point.”
From John Gray at New Statesman:
“A cultural historian and professor of English literature at Edinburgh who has focused particularly on Victorian sensibilities, O’Gorman believes that the systematic devaluation of the past began in earnest in the 19th century, though it goes much further back. Today, disparaging the past is a mark of intellectual respectability. Anyone who believes that history involves loss as well as gain is reactionary: ‘The preference among liberal intellectuals is for a new kind of Whig history – one where the past is to be surveyed primarily to expose its failings…’
In this by now thoroughly conventional perspective, the values and structures of the past are seen as ‘always categories of power, where anything that is dominant is, by definition, oppressive. The only exception is the dominance of liberal ideas themselves, which can, it is assumed, never be oppressive.’ In the 18th and 19th centuries, Whig history meant history written as a story of continuing improvement. Today, it means history written as an exercise in reproach and accusation in which universal human evils are represented as being exclusively the products of Western power.
Giving voice to oppressed and marginalised groups – ethnic and sexual minorities, subalterns of empire – may be a necessary part of historical inquiry. Yet as practised today by many historians, retrieving these occluded identities seems to require that other identities – local, national and religious, for example – be critically demolished and then consigned to the memory hole. Forgetfulness of the past must be actively cultivated, so that a future may emerge in which human beings can shape their lives as they please. As David Rieff argues in his powerful critique of commemoration, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (2016), there may be times when laying the past aside is necessary for human beings to be able to live peaceably with themselves.
The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. As O’Gorman puts it, ‘We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.’ Rather than enabling human beings to fashion new identities, a willed collective amnesia leaves them with no identity at all.”
From Stuart Kelly at The Scotsman:
“The image of Nan Shepherd which now graces a £5 bank note is a curious one. She looks as if she is in fancy-dress as a Native American, or a flapper more concerned with the Charleston than the Cairngorms. In fact, the strange band around her head is a piece of photographic film she hastily wrapped around her brow on a whim, before placing a broach in the middle. It is an image which seems to blur the technological and the primitive, the futuristic and the chthonic, the avant-garde and the elemental. To that extent, it is the perfect image for this strange, inspiring writer. Charlotte Peacock has done an immense service in writing the first full biography of Shepherd. In recent years writers like Robert Macfarlane and Amy Liptrot have been eloquent about the work: but what of the life?
Shepherd was born in 1893, the same year as Wilde wrote A Woman Of No Importance, and she died in 1981, the year Alasdair Gray published Lanark. She wrote three novels – The Quarry Wood in 1928, The Weatherhouse in 1930 and A Pass In The Grampians in 1933 – as well as a collection of poetry, In The Cairngorms in 1934. The rest is silence, except for the remarkable book she is best known for, The Living Mountain, which rested for 30 years in a drawer until its publication in 1977. Most of her life was taken up with teaching at the Aberdeen College of Education, then editing the Aberdeen alumni magazine, then caring for her own housemaid …
Part of the joy of this book is seeing unpublished poems and letters and variant versions; it is a genuine gift to the reader to allow a keek into a very private life. The use of Shepherd’s commonplace books is excellent, and learning things like the fact that she transcribed Emily Dickinson’s poem with the line ‘Behind the hill is sorcery’ deepens the reader’s understanding of Shepherd’s work. The downside is that there is a biography-ish quality to parts of it, with too many ‘we cannot know’s, ephemera about childhood school competitions and rather abstruse details about whose brother-in-law’s sister married which of the available siblings.
If Shepherd’s work is now again in vogue, it is almost against itself. When I recently re-read The Living Mountain what struck me most was how peopled the wilderness was. It was a place of crashed planes and indignant tree-fellers. In her hands, although it is transformed, it is the opposite of pristine. Shepherd, curious about non-Abrahamic religions, seeks to pierce, to puncture, to penetrate the material realness of the world to find the beyondness of it. She is one of the best writers at conveying the ineffable – she puts into words the wordless like no other. In a way, this biography puts her silence in front of her words, wisely.
This is a necessary book, and there is so much detail – those vagrant notes from the anthology of a child’s early sentences, the snappy but sharp letters, the awful position of ‘surplus women’ after the First World War, when a ‘catch’ was more than necessary and how one might negotiate that dilemma – that this will be a standard volume for the time being. But as Shepherd knew, knowing a thing and being a thing are different propositions. Peacock has done admirable work here: now let the critics loose to find all the subtleties and ambiguities and contradictions in the work.”
From ISI Books:
“The debate over the size and scope of the federal government has raged since the New Deal. So why have opponents of big government so rarely made political headway? Because they fail to address the fundamental issue.
Patrick M. Garry changes that in this short, powerful book. Garry, a law professor and political commentator, reveals six ways in which big government hurts the very people it purports to help: the poor, the working class, and the middle class. And the problem is worse than that. He shows that big government actually props up the rich, the powerful, and the politically connected.
The False Promise of Big Government thus debunks a myth widely accepted in politics today: that only government can help the average person survive and prosper in the contemporary world. Garry demonstrates that opponents of big government rely on arguments that are true but fail to address the heart of the issue. Yes, massive government programs are wasteful and impose huge economic costs on America, and yes, many of them violate constitutional provisions. But in focusing on economic and constitutional arguments, proponents of limited government cede the moral high ground to progressives.
The truth is that those who claim to speak for the “little guy” actually push for policies that harm the most vulnerable in society. And it is just as true that proponents of limited government don’t ignore the working and middle classes but in fact are trying to free those individuals from a government that acts against their interests.
In just one hundred pages, The False Promise of Big Government lays out everything you need to know about why big government fails and how to overcome it at last.”
Oct 10th – The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung – by Roger Scruton
From The Future Symphony Institute:
“Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung is one of the greatest works of art created in modern times, and it has fascinated both critics and devotees for over a century and a half. No recent study has examined the meaning of Wagner’s masterpiece with the attention to detail and intellectual power that Roger Scruton brings to it in this inspiring account. The Ring of Truth is an exploration of the drama, music, symbolism and philosophy of the Ring from a writer whose knowledge and understanding of the Western musical tradition are the equal of his capacities as a philosopher.
Scruton shows how, through musical connections and brilliant dramatic strokes, Wagner is able to express truths about the human condition which few other creative artists have been able to convey so convincingly. For Wagner, writes Scruton, the task of art is to ‘show us freedom in its immediate, contingent, human form, reminding us of what it means to us. Even if we live in a world from which gods and heroes have disappeared we can, by imagining them, dramatize the deep truths of our condition and renew our faith in what we are.’
Love, death, sacrifice and the liberation that we win through sacrifice – these are the great themes of the Ring, as they are of this book. Scruton’s passionate and moving interpretation allows us to understand more fully than ever how Wagner conveys his ideas about who we are, and why the Ring continues to be such a hypnotically absorbing work.”
Oct 10th – Grant – by Ron Chernow
From Richard Moe at The American Scholar:
“Americans tend to stereotype their most notable presidents. Contemporary reporting and early biographies often lock in impressions, especially of failings, that persist for decades. Inevitably, though, a first-rate biographer challenges the conventional wisdom and redefines the man—so far, only men—in light of new information and a longer perspective. Thus some of our most eminent historians have given us fresh appraisals that have changed our understanding. Writers who have done so in single-volume biographies include David Donald (Lincoln), David McCullough (John Adams and Truman), Robert Dallek (Kennedy and, soon, Franklin Roosevelt), and Ron Chernow (Washington).
Now Chernow has done it again with a landmark work on the much-maligned Ulysses S. Grant. Like his earlier biographies of Washington and Alexander Hamilton, it is deeply researched, eminently balanced, and fair. No longer do we have the talented-but-flawed general who drank his way to victory in the Civil War and the hapless president who struggled through two scandal-plagued terms. Instead, Chernow gives us a military genius who understood the full scope of the war and pursued a winning strategy, and a sometimes inept president who, though unschooled in politics, made his highest priority the protection of the lives and rights of freed slaves.
‘Dismissed as a philistine, a boor, a drunk, and an incompetent,’ Chernow writes, ‘Grant has been subjected to pernicious stereotypes that grossly impede our understanding of the man. … In fact, Grant was a sensitive, complex, and misunderstood man with a shrewd mind, a wry wit, a rich fund of anecdotes, wide knowledge, and penetrating insights. … At the same time, Grant could be surprisingly naïve and artless in business and politics.’ As for his reputation as a drunk, Chernow maintains that, with help from his wife Julia and his staff, Grant’s drinking was ‘measured’ during the war, and eventually diminished to nothing.
Trained at West Point and seasoned in the Mexican War, Grant was saved from a chronically unsuccessful civilian life by the the Civil War, which drew on his immense military talents. Chernow rightly focuses on these years, which were decisive in determining not only Grant’s personal destiny but that of the nation. Chernow is particularly insightful in showing how critical the Lincoln-Grant relationship was to winning the war. The two men were perfectly aligned: Lincoln desperately needed a general who would fight; Grant embraced ending slavery, long a personal conviction, as essential to the northern cause …
The end of Grant’s presidency found him without a home, money, or plans. He and Julia took a two-year trip around the world, during which he was feted as a hero in capitals from Europe to Asia. Settling in New York, he was snared by a Wall Street scam that left him financially bereft. Having nothing to leave Julia, he agreed to write several articles and eventually a memoir of his wartime service. His friend Mark Twain, a former Confederate soldier, realized what a hit his work would be and arranged a highly remunerative book deal that assured Julia’s security. Grant devoted himself to the project, correcting the public record where necessary and otherwise telling the story through his own experiences. By now, he was dying of a painful cancer in his throat, but he persisted, showing the same courage he had displayed in the war; he finished his manuscript only days before his death. The memoir sold 300,000 copies, a huge number for the time. It also came to be seen as a great literary achievement, perhaps the greatest memoir of any American president.
Just as that memoir will likely persist as a definitive work of its kind, so too will Chernow’s book—a monumental and gripping work in every respect, which even at nearly 1,000 pages, is not a sentence too long.
With this work, Chernow impressively examines Grant’s sensitivities and complexities and helps us to better understand an underappreciated man and underrated president who served his country extraordinarily well. The simultaneous arrival of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant on the scene of America’s greatest crisis, during which they fought together to save the Union and free its enslaved peoples, is one of the greatest blessings of the much-blessed American experience.”
From Danny Heitman at The Christian Science Monitor:
“The first thing one notices about Devotions, a survey of Mary Oliver’s poems from more than five decades, is how big the book is – unusually so. At more than 400 pages, it registers palpably on the lap, a pleasant anchor through an autumn afternoon.
The large format is a departure for Oliver, whose long career has unfolded by the teaspoonful – in slender volumes, easily slipped into a knapsack or jacket, like field guides taken on hikes and picnics. It’s a case of form following function, since Oliver is primarily a writer about the natural world.
… One can survey the many years of Oliver’s poems and find almost no overt references to politics or current events. In a world touched by so much violence and strife, are her musings about land and sea and sky merely an indulgence of escapism?
But a closer reading of Oliver’s poems reveals them as more than pastoral portraits rendered in cheerful pastels. She recalls Robert Frost in the shadows she brings to her vision, her acknowledgment of grief. In ‘After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond,’ she admires both the heron and the frog he’s just consumed, aware that life is a ledger inked with gains and losses. Does one laugh or cry in the face of that reality? She decides to do both. ‘My heart dresses in black / and dances,’ she concludes.
Oliver suggests that it is precisely because life is fragile and darkened by tragedy that we should celebrate and affirm what is good. ‘If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate,’ she writes in a prose poem called ‘Don’t Hesitate.’ ‘There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left.’
One finishes Devotions with the sense that Oliver’s poetry isn’t a denial of our troubled times, but an answer to them.”
Oct 17th – How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds – by Alan Jacobs
From Samuel James at Mere Orthodoxy:
“Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? ‘For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.’ (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.
… The point Jacobs is making is that thinking well is fundamentally an issue of desire as least as much as it is an issue of having the right facts or properly functioning cognition. We fail to think correctly, fairly, and helpfully because doing so may interfere with what we want—especially if, as Jacobs writes, what we want is to be fully accepted into a group that will keep out those we dislike. Here Jacobs spends a good portion of the book, arguing, convincingly, that in-group solidarity is one of the most effective and most difficult to overcome motivations for bad thinking.
… One thing that makes Jacobs’s book particularly helpful is the very concrete way he talks about cultivating better thinking. In the appendix Jacobs includes a provocative ‘Thinking Person’s Checklist,’ a kind of 12 Commandments for implementing the ideals of the book.
We could perhaps summarize the checklist and the book with three simple rules for thinking. 1. Be slow. 2. Be honest. 3. Be teachable. ‘When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes,’ Jacobs writes, and adds: ‘Value learning over debating.’ He also exhorts readers to ‘seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with,’ since building caricatures in our minds is one of the surest ways to hold onto bad thinking habits. If even a portion of the wisdom Jacobs has to share on this topic were practiced widely, we would find our public square transformed for the better overnight.”
Oct 17th – The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won – by Victor Davis Hanson
From Claire Barrett at HistoryNet:
“Historians have analyzed and written about World War II in exhaustive detail since the last days of the war itself, all the while debating its root causes and exact starting date. In his latest work, noted military historian Victor Davis Hanson provides an utterly original account of what he terms the ‘first true global conflict.’
Some 60 million people perished during World War II. What began in 1939 as a classical European war had expanded by 1941 into a global conflict, which in turn morphed into total war. Hanson examines the land, sea and air battles across the theaters of war, but the book really shines in his chapters on ideas and people. Hanson argues that the Treaty of Versailles—whose reportedly harsh terms historians have long blamed for the rise of Adolf Hitler and subsequent outbreak of World War II—was not harsh enough. Indeed, it was mild in comparison to the terms Germany had imposed on France in 1871 and on the Soviet Union in 1918. Humiliating perhaps, but not emasculating. Through laxity on the part of the Allies, by 1936 Germany’s military had almost rebounded to full strength. The terms of the armistice had allowed the defeated but not deterred nation to act on its desire for Lebensraum (‘living space’).
Hanson lays out the origins of the war—what prompted German aggression; why Great Britain and France initially sought to accommodate the Nazis through diplomacy and deterrence; and, finally, why the Allies ultimately abandoned diplomacy and chose to fight. He argues that World War II was a preventable conflict, that tens of millions of people need not have perished just to confirm the fascist powers were in fact far weaker than the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain—a conclusion he lays at the feet of ‘British appeasement, American isolationism and Russian collaboration.’ No idealist, Hanson also acknowledges postwar calm will forever remain a temporary phenomenon. To quote General George Patton: ‘Nobody can prevent another war. There will be wars as long as our great-great-grandchildren live. The only thing we can do is to produce a longer peace phase between wars.’ That is one of the few sentiments Hanson could not have expressed any better.”
From Carl R. Trueman at First Things:
“Reading these lectures, one realizes how much of later Christian thinking about sex finds its source here, in the distinction between the body’s unitive and procreative aspects. And one realizes how much we have lost in our perennial concern with symptoms rather than deeper causes. We lament the trivialization of sex but fail to see that it derives from the collapse in our understanding of purity. And as Hildebrand argues, purity is a positive virtue, not to be confused with chastity or celibacy. Purity is life lived out in the conscious reverence of God and all that he has created. In such a life, sex is not a human right but rather the unique act that binds one man together with woman before God alone.
In our day, however, Hildebrand’s work poses another challenge. He took it as basic that sex is both significant and mysterious. As noted above, even in our ‘sex as recreation’ era, its significance is still acknowledged in the fact that sex crimes are considered by society to be among the most heinous. If any good has come from the crimes of Weinstein, it is in the fact that the champions of sex as recreation are being forced to contradict the philosophy of their own artworks.
The mystery is now all but lost, as many teenage boys have today seen more naked female bodies than their grandfathers saw in a lifetime. How is it to be restored? That is the question that faces us today and to which it would appear there are no obvious answers.
One way, of course, would be for the movers and shakers in our world—the Hollywood moguls, for example—to use their influence to reshape popular mores, to stop presenting sex as mere recreation and then hypocritically lamenting the fact that people like Harvey Weinstein apparently believe they can act on what they preach. Perhaps, however, a more hopeful way would be to start local, for parents to model the beauty of marriage before their own children, to show forth the mystery of that true love which is not dependent upon looks or youth and which lasts throughout the years, constituted by selfless and sacrificial self-giving to another. That is the love that provides the context for pure sex. The question, “So what can we get away with?,” becomes irrelevant.
Hildebrand’s book sets before us a beautiful vision of how true sex is pure sex and can only be understood as such when set within the broader framework of life as a whole. The alternative? Outsourcing sex education to whoever succeeds Harvey Weinstein, I guess. Which, in a sane world, would result in a report to the Child Protection Agency.”
From Baker Publishing Group:
“In this culmination of his widely read and highly acclaimed Cultural Liturgies project, James K. A. Smith examines politics through the lens of liturgy. What if, he asks, citizens are not only thinkers or believers but also lovers? Smith explores how our analysis of political institutions would look different if we viewed them as incubators of love-shaping practices–not merely governing us but forming what we love. How would our political engagement change if we weren’t simply looking for permission to express our ‘views’ in the political sphere but actually hoped to shape the ethos of a nation, a state, or a municipality to foster a way of life that bends toward shalom?
This book offers a well-rounded public theology as an alternative to contemporary debates about politics. Smith explores the religious nature of politics and the political nature of Christian worship, sketching how the worship of the church propels us to be invested in forging the common good. This book creatively merges theological and philosophical reflection with illustrations from film, novels, and music and includes helpful exposition and contemporary commentary on key figures in political theology.
‘Smith has written an essential guide to social life aimed at his fellow Christians but essential reading for all of his fellow citizens. His core insight, that the human being is created to pursue solidarity but must then be ceaselessly formed and re-formed to achieve and sustain it, is at least as bracing a critique of modern politics as it is a critique of the deficiencies of political theology.’
– Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and author of The Fractured Republic
‘Negotiating his way through the mass of confusions known as political theology, Smith has written a superb book that develops a constructive and nuanced position in the Reformed tradition. He has done so, moreover, by engaging in conversations with Oliver O’Donovan and Jeff Stout. This is a book that should be read widely by anyone interested in addressing the fundamental questions of church and politics.’
– Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law, Duke Divinity School
‘In Awaiting the King, Smith sets out to reform Reformed political theology. With his usual clarity, creativity, and verve, he accomplishes just that, hitting the right notes of both affirmation and critique by refocusing political theology on the polis of the church and its formative liturgical practices. Awaiting the King is a satisfying final movement in Smith’s Cultural Liturgies symphony and a crucial contribution to the wider conversation in political theology.’
– Peter Leithart, president, Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama
‘Awaiting the King presents Smith’s mature public theology–a carefully nuanced plea for ‘calculated ambivalence’ and ‘cultivated circumspection’ toward culture. It is a vision of resident aliens invested in the world around them. Lucid and persuasive as always, Smith challenges the ways in which contemporary Christians–including his own Neocalvinist tradition–run the risk of naturalizing shalom. Smith’s account unabashedly advocates making life’s final, heavenly end the starting point for the way we structure our social life together. This final, crowning volume of the Cultural Liturgies project has the potential to profoundly redirect contemporary public theology and practice.’
– Hans Boersma, J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College
Nov 7th – The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State – by Nadia Murad
From Sarah Ruden at Education & Culture:
“There is still slavery over much of the globe, but slavery tends to be a pragmatic, if excessively brutal, arrangement: human beings are “owned” because their “owners” want to exploit them, and this can bring a little protection. It does not make economic sense to abuse a slave without limits and risk killing her or driving her to suicide; this must apply to trafficked women in the “ordinary” sex industry. But then there is genocidal sexual slavery.
Brief news reports about ISIS atrocities against girls and young women in Iraq and Syria elicit gasps of anger and fulminations about retribution (with an emphasis on military strikes). This account by Nadia Murad — who belongs to the Yazidi community singled out for special persecution — of what she went through day by day as a sabaya or sex slave ought to have a more useful influence. I know the personal effusions expected in response to such personal testimony; yet Murad asks — and deserves — not that we get our full imaginative empathy around what she reports, because that is likely impossible, and if it were possible, it might be purely self-indulgent — a sort of psychological voyeurism; rather, she challenges us to take in the facts, compare them to our own happy experience of human rights, and try to come up with a reason that, when she came of age, she needed to be in a more vulnerable category of humankind than the one we inhabit.
The failure of imagination that that exercise is bound to lead to might actually serve her as she seeks to free Yazidi women and girls who remain in captivity and to bring her tormentors before the International Criminal Court at the Hague. The very lankest gesture we could make toward her and her scattered, decimated family is to raise US “world moral leadership” above the level of farce by taking in our share of Middle Eastern refugees, Yazidis included. Murad found safety and a basis for her activism in Germany, whose openness and generosity ought to make us walk off the international stage in shame …
It’s inevitable that Murad’s version of her early life is lit up by contrast to her captivity and its aftermath. She relates, for example, that in the mournful silence of the refugee camp, she missed the noise of village squabbling. I doubt that, even if her homeland had been peaceful, she would have avoided bitter disappointments and unmitigated sorrow in adult life. (Ironically, the single-parent family’s growing comforts and capital depended on her brothers’ work in government security forces; with no civil war, she wouldn’t have been enslaved, but she would have been dirt-poor.) But in a society of this kind, people are physically and emotionally together in both celebration and mourning, tedium and success and frustration, and that must mean a lot. They believe — in each other and what makes them a distinct group.
Radical Islam, a movement too infantile even to parasitize effectively on the entrepreneurial/disruption chic that attracts it, wreaks a special rage on people like this — maybe in large part out of jealousy: the others are whole, they know exactly what they value, and it definitely wouldn’t change because of some incendiary marketing podcast. Murad, even before her captivity, actually knew much more about Islam than the average ISIS recruit from overseas does. She knew, and could throw in her captors’ faces, how wantonly the older, locally born ISIS leaders were falsifying their heritage, how many rules and principles they discarded.
From the time the girls were continually and painfully groped on the drive from the schoolhouse, the project was, explicitly, to make them believe that they were only commodities, not human beings; that they had no rights, no inner life to be considered, no past, no future. But endless taunts, tortures, and humiliations could not take away their integrity. They had to be hammered, pried, and dragged, shrieking, away from each other; nothing would make them stop demanding visits with their imprisoned friends and relatives. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t seem to have applied here. They never embraced excuses for their captors. They never stopped trying to escape. They were never going to stop deeming ludicrous the rule book that purported to govern their treatment — much of the bureaucracy Murad describes reminds me of Nazi conceits. The captives’ defiance held not only because the men broke the rules whenever they felt like it, in separating nursing mothers from their babies, for example: more fundamentally, the girls understood what rules were, and thus that these people weren’t entitled to claim any in the first place …
Yazidi slaves changed hands at screeching speeds, often within a few days. Their tormentors were apparently convinced that, if you just kept shopping and fiddling frantically enough, the magic toy, manipulated in the magic way, would grant you an apotheosis. This has been, in other words, an atrocity peculiar to the IT consumer age, when mass-produced fantasy is the universal sop to alienation. The atrocity howls the need for international law to begin inching toward technology in status, power, and appeal; and for at least a few human monsters to be attributed human responsibility, and humanely but justly punished.”