Cormac McCarthy (Re)Visited

A while back I made an off-handed and second-hand comment about the "nihilism" of Cormac McCarthy. A thoughtful reader (from Australia, as I recall) sent an email and encouraged me to suspend judgment about McCarthy until I had actually read him. Sage advice. So this past summer, while I was in Pasadena, I picked up a first edition of All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of McCarthy's acclaimed "Border Trilogy."

This post is my confession: forgive me, for I have sinned. I am, without reservation and with much devotion, a new convert to a different McCarthyism--which is, for my money, a long ways from nihilism. All the Pretty Horses is one of the most enthralling books I have read in a long time. (In fact, as soon as I put it down I immediately went to eBay and scored first editions of the next two volumes in the trilogy.) The friendship between John Grady and Rawlins is one of the most beautiful and poignant I've encountered (though, I must confess, I found that images of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal kept creeping into my head!). It is simply amazing how, in such sparse dialogue, McCarthy can make a friendship come to life so vividly. And far from nihilism, I did find in McCarthy what could be a kind of persistent hope--though, admittedly, it could also be a kind of resigned fatalism. But I'm suspending judgment until I work through the rest of the trilogy. And then hope to jump ahead to his newest novel, The Road. (Though that will take a while: I've tried to discipline myself to a bit of a reading order: a British novel, an American novel, then something "other" (e.g, French, Chinese), before moving back to British, American, etc. It's going to be hard to let those other McCarthy's sit on the shelf untouched.)


Bird by Bird: Anne Lamott on Writing

[Despite a very busy summer, I also enjoyed a decent slate of summer reading, and will try to catch up a bit on my reading log here.]

Over the last two years my wife has become a devoted fan of Anne Lamott. Like most converts, she also tends to be a bit of a zealot, so I kept trying to more objectively guage just how good Anne Lamott was. While I still haven't gotten around to Traveling Mercies or Plan B, a few weeks ago while we were visiting friends in Atascadero, CA they gave me a copy of Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I'm sold.

Lamott regularly had me laughing out loud. And if it doesn't sound too hokey, the book really was downright "inspiring." While I could pretty legitimately described as an "author," I still dream of being a "writer," and Lamott's wisdom helped dream myself into that just a little bit more. (Just need to take things "bird by bird.") But on top of the "instructions" side of this book, Lamott offers a number of gems by just being a closer observer, somebody who knows how to pay attention to what's right in front of her.

Perhaps, above all, I find her voice to be without guile. She is an honest writer, and here she is (sometimes brutally) honest about both writing and life.


Wine, Interpretation, and "Objectivity"

An interesting piece in the New York Times today takes a hard look at the rise of the 100-point system for rating wine--tracing its history from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate to its industry-wide adoption--but also calling into question it's effectiveness. Even those who employ the system grant that it gives an air of scientificity and objectivity to something that is much slipperier and elusive. Judging wine (like hermeneutics and interpretation) is an art, not a science--though even the best art should be informed by good theory and criteria, as well as apprenticeship and training.

Perhaps most disheartening is the market-driven nature of the 100-point system and the challenges of conflict of interest when ratings are doled out by glossy magazines laced with ads from the wineries and producers subject to their judgment (as well as retailers who post those little scoring tags below the bottle displays). And while some mags commit [or claim to commit] to "blind" tasting, there's still a problem similar to peer-review in the academy: vintners have figured out what these folks like, and produce wines that are primed to score well--which is a bit like the tail wagging the dog.

The upshot? A few years ago, I read Jim Flick's book on golf, which recommended that most people should resist the hype of massive, ballooned 1-woods, just leave their drivers at home, play from the tee with a trusty 3-wood. Perhaps something of the same is true for new wine afficianados: Amateurs might do better to ignore the pseudo-science of scores and the mass-market formulas the system has spawned and, instead, trust the friendly, knowledgeable folks at a local wine shop.


A Tale of Two Religions?

I had to hastily finish Michael Ruse's wonderful book The Creation-Evolution Struggle because it's due back to the public library. But it will repay a second loan. Ruse, a philosopher by training, has here written a bit of a page-turner history of the emergence of evolutionary theory and the ensuing debates and clash with religion--particularly creationism and intelligent design.

Ruse is eminently fair to both sides, without pulling any punches. It's particularly interesting to find a non-Christian scholar (Ruse variously describes himself as a "deist" and an "agnostic") who recognizes the long history of how legitimate evolutionary science is regularly morphed into a kind of secular religion. Ruse distinguishes these with the rubric of "evolution" or "evolutionary science" vs. "evolutionism"--the latter being the equivalent of a "secular religion." Ruse is at pains to argue that evolution did not necessarily entail evolutionism; but nevertheless, contingently and historically it did and has regularly yielded the latter.

Curiously, Ruse the philosopher here avoids properly philosohical questions (e.g., the epistemic conditions of "science," etc.), but he has addressed those questions elsewhere. This book provides an excellent history of the emergence of evolutionary theory and should be required reading for anyone interested in these questions.


How We'll Read: The Future of the Book?

It would seem that the news of the death of the book has been a bit premature. While both prophets of doom and heralds of "progress" have been penning requiems for the book since the 1970s (sometimes falsely referring to Derrida's discussion of the "end of the book" in Of Grammatology), people still don't crawl into bed with Adobe eReaders and such.

However, a fascinating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed some new initiatives in academic publishing: "Book 2.0" explores some projects related to the "Institute for the Future of the Book." While I'll never give up the tangibility of treasured hold-in-your-hand volumes of paper, I can see some interesting possibilities here for unique collaborative scholarship. Be sure to follow the links to "experience" the future of the book.


(Another) American in Paris

Continuing an American tradition that goes back to Hemingway--and even earlier, as Franklin and Jefferson were regular haunts of the city--Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon is a memoir that narrates the five-year adventure of an American (and Canadian ex-pat) in Paris (1995-2000) with his wife, young son (and later a daughter that was the fruit of their time in the City of Light). This is one of those books that have been on my "to read" list since it was first released, but never made it onto the nightstand--due in no small part, I think, to just sheer jealousy. Gopnik was living the (my!) dream.

Making a commitment to reside in Paris, this isn't just another travelogue--though a persistent theme of the book is just how much he feels continues to feel like an outsider. The closest he ever feels to being an "insider" is when he becomes part of a protest group committed to keeping open a local restaurant in danger of being gobbled up by the homogenizing forces of globalizing cuisine. Connoisseurs of the world unite! But in the midst of their sit-in protest, Gopnik sees a problem with the revolution:
We were building up to an impressive pitch of indignation, but at that point the waiters began to serve the dinners that we had ordered while we were waiting to begin our protest, and this weakened the revolutionary spirit a little. There was, I sensed, a flaw in our strategy: If you take over a restaurant as an act of protest and then order dinner at the restaurant, what you have actually done is gone to the restaurant and had dinner, since a restaurant is, by definition, always occupied, by its diners. Having come to say that you just won't take it anymore, you have to add sheepishly that you will take it, au point and with bearnaise sauce.
The book is witty and warm, while also having the rather pedestrian virtue of being informative. Gopnik's chapters on French cuisine and couture are some of the best in the book for the way they respectfully and charitably peel back the layers of Paris for foreign eyes. His chronicles of the adventures of navigating French bureaucracy seethe with frustration, while the annals of a daily life lived in tiny, banal rituals provide a sense of the depth of the world. In these descriptions, the mundane habits of a walk in the park are seen as portals to hidden worlds--as if worlds upon worlds were tucked away in corners of the Luxembourg Gardens (found especially in the chapters that constitute his annual "Christmas Journals"--Journal 3, "Lessons from Things," being the best of the bunch).

Gopnik's pen is agile and tender, issuing in a flourish of similies ("Alice had found frisee and watercress and was looking at them raptly--not with the greed of a hungry man seeing dinner but with the admiration of William Bennett looking at a long marriage," p. 244) as well as on-the-money "capturings" of experience. My favorite in the latter category is when he describes storytime with his son, in the late evening:
Paris is a northern city, on a latitude with Newfoundland, as New York is a Mediterranean one, on a latitude with Naples, and so the light here in the hours between seven and nine at night is like the light in the hours between five and seven in New York. The sun is still out, but the sounds have become less purposeful--you hear smaller noises, high heels on the pavement--and though it is a pleasant time to lie in bed, it is not an easy time for a small boy to go to sleep (pp. 196-197).
The conjunction of light and sound, and the playful suggestion that the bend of the sun somehow dulls the air through which sound travels, crystallizes in the "high heels on the pavement" observation, which transports one to just that kind of evening and sound. Great stuff.

As is usual--one finds this alot with students who study abroad--the cross-cultural experience makes possible a reflection on one's own culture that wouldn't be possible otherwise. As Gopnik observes, "There are certain insights that can come to an American only when is abroad, because only there does the endless ribbon of American television become segmented enough so that you can pay attention to its parts," for instance. Gopnik is at his best in this mode of Paris-based reflection on American culture in his chapter "Barney in Paris" (yes, that Barney!) and some reflections on football (soccer) by a lover of baseball and hockey.

Gopnik's prose had so welcomed me into his world that I, too, felt the sting of his family's departure for Paris, just as I felt a sting of disappointment in the book's coming to an end.


Best American Fiction?

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the best American fiction of the last 25 years. (For the implicit criteria, see the list of judges.) Toni Morrison's Beloved was the winner, and Don DeLillo's Underworld was runner-up (I don't think you'll see that one on Oprah's book club.) I'm not a huge fan of American fiction, but I do love Updike, and glad to see the Rabbit novels get honorary mention. And I just keep bumping into the nihilism of Cormac McCarthy everywhere, including a recent Harper's piece. Need to add his trilogy to my summer reading list.


"Grace is Everywhere"

Those, like me, who enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead will undoubtedly be moved by Georges Bernanos’ classic, The Diary of a Country Priest (first published in 1937), which I finished on the plane to Geneva. Indeed, one wonders if Robinson didn’t find a certain inspiration and model in Bernanos’ novel: Robinson gives us a glimpse into the epistolary legacy left by a dying old Reformed preacher in the rural American Midwest; Bernanos steals for us the diary of an ailing young Catholic priest tending a tiny parish in the French countryside.

The Diary is typically French: only about six things ever happen in the book. But the genius of the book is the anonymous priest’s keen observatory powers, turned on both his parish and friends, and turned inward in introspection. All of this is interlaced with brilliant literary theological reflection which seems to capture the spirit (I would say) of le nouvelle théologie. (E.g., the priest remarks: “Paganism was no enemy of nature, but Christianity alone can exalt it, can raise it to man’s own height, to the peak of his dreams.”)

His is an honest faith: grappling with doubt, and yet so strongly tethered to Christ; struggling with prayer, and yet a life bathed in prayer; looking for friendship, and finding it in the most unexpected places; loathing, but loving, his parishioners; frustrated by the institutional church, but not abandoning it. Above all, Bernanos illuminates the sacramentality of the world in the priest’s final words: “Grace is everywhere.”


Laughing all the way to the Wodehouse

I just enjoyed the cathartic pleasures of some laugh-out-loud, tears-rolling-down humor in P.G. Wodehouse’s tales of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves--in a wonderful collection of Wodehouse’s witty short stories, The Most of P.G. Wodehouse (Scribner, 2000), which I picked up in Chicago a few weeks ago. A delightful change of pace from more sober reading of late.

Thinking back, I was put onto Wodehouse by two quite different trajectories that both intersect in Evelyn Waugh. The first was via Christopher Hitchens who, in Love, Poverty, and War, comments on both Waugh and Wodehouse. The second avenue was through the leads provided by George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic, which also put me onto Waugh. Then, a couple months ago, on a gorgeous Saturday in early March, I sauntered over to a local used book shop (All the King’s Books) and found a wonderful collection on Waugh (Evelyn Waugh and His World, edited by David Pryce-Jones), which made several mentions of Wodehouse, including reference to Waugh’s defense of Woodhouse in the Times (16 July 1961). So when I ran into this Wodehouse collection in Chicago (and for a bargain!), it seemed as if Evelyn had led me to the spot. Tonight’s read was the pay-off.


A Poem a Day

I'm enjoying a service that Knopf is providing as part of Poetry Month. Their "Poem-a-Day" list brings new poetry to your inbox each day--including both new voices and old favorites. Included are also podcasts of poem readings. For instance, today was a double treat: Joan Didion reading Gerard Manley Hopkins!

Amidst the administrative drudgery that constitutes most of my inbox, these little missives are like little in-breakings of grace from another world. Consider treating yourself to the same: subscription is free.


John Paul II: A Call to Bishops

I just finished reading John Paul II's Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way (Warner Books, 2004)--a letter, of sorts, to fellow bishops. A quick and easy read, interesting both for matters of biography (the book roughly tracks the period after Wojtyla's ordination, focusing on his appointment as an auxilary bishop then bishop in Poland) and for reflections on the nature of the church, priesthood, and episcopate. It is also an invitation into the friendships that were so crucial to JP II's ministry (the array of Polish names gets pretty overwhelming). Especially interesting is the former Pope's discussion of his involvement with Vatican II, and then his task as bishop to "implement" the Council. Citing the importance of de Lubac for his thought, one finds in John Paul II's vision the kind of ancient-future sensibility which is able to think both ressourcement and aggiornamento. As he puts it near the end of the book (p. 213):

Our faith, our responsibility and our courage are all necessary if Christ's gift is to manifest itself to the world in all its splendor. Not just the kind of faith that safeguards and keeps intact the treasure of God's mysteries, but a faith that has the courage to open and reveal this treasure in constantly new ways to those to whom Christ sends His disciples. And not just the kind of responsibility that limits itself to defending what has been handed down, but the kind that has the courage to use its talents and multiply them.

While I continue to be nonplussed by JP II's tendency toward nationalisms and his friendliness to liberalism and capitalism (I can now see that this emerges from his experience with the atrocities of both the Nazis and Communists), this vision of an ancient-future Catholic faith that is unafraid to articulate a vision of the world to the world resonates deeply.


Top 5 of 2005: Much Belated

A while back I promised to post my top 5 books of 2005. We're now a long ways from end-of-year recollections, but I'll try to make good on the promise. I don't mean this to be an "objective" list of the best books from last year (as Napolean replied to Kit: "Like anyone could even know that!"). Rather, they're five books that stick out in my memory of a year of reading.

1. Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today. Hands down, my favorite book of 2005, and one of the best books I've read in a long time. Marsh does an excellent job rescuing the civil rights movement from liberalism and demonstrating its thick connections to the particularities of the worshipping community. Because of its ecclesiocentric roots, Marsh evaluates the "secularization" of the civil rights movement not as its completion, but rather as precisely that which stunted its effects. This book is also a model of "public" theological writing--that is, theology undertaken as public intellectual discourse without sacrificing the rigor of theological confession and precision. I can't speak highly enough about Marsh's accomplishment.

2. Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. This was an end-of-year treat for me. Jacobs navigates a course between hagiography (all too common in Lewis literature) and cynicism (think A.N. Wilson). It is a solid intellectual biography that helpfully explores interesting tensions in Lewis (particularly the intra-psychic tensions between the worlds of philosophy and literature, logic and fantasy), as well as several curious snippets about Lewis' interest in sado-masochism [that doesn't show up in the hagiographies]. The end of the book felt a little rushed (the movie release date approaching?), but throughout I particularly enjoyed Jacobs' account of "Faery" as central to Lewis' thought. An enjoyable read.

3. Nicole Krauss, The History of Love. As I noted earlier on this blog, a wonderful literary novel.

4. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek, editors, Theology and the Political. This is the only "academic" book I'll include, but I think it is a landmark volume on the boundaries of philosophy, theology, ontology, and politics. It will take a year to digest it all.

5. George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God. I continue to feel an allergy to Weigel's (Constantinian) politics and (basically neo-con) economic leanings, and yet I find myself often in deep agreement with his diagnoses of what's wrong with the West (in which he echoes much of Benedict XVI's own diagnoses). This book offers a compelling contrast between the poverty of European liberalism and the richness of Catholic social thought.


The Revival of Biography

Since Christmas vacation I've been treating myself to reading some biographies, including Alan Jacobs' The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis [more on that in a later post] and a little gem I found at a local used bookshop: Dennis Donoghue's Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls.

But it's another little biography that is the occasion for my post: Edmund White's Marcel Proust in The Penguin Lives Series. Or perhaps I should say it is the series itself which has intrigued me--akin to Harper Collins Eminent Lives Series, from which I read Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson this past summer. These biography series often have a brilliant alchemy, creating a way to bring together potent contemporary voices to produce dense--or rather, economical--portraits of historical figures in ways that are both illuminating and literary. One might hope this represents a renewed place for biography that might finally displace the incessant string of memoirs from twentysomethings! And if they represent a certain rennaissance of biography, one wonders how short the cycle must be, since Evelyn Waugh--in his own 1928 biography of D.G. Rossetti that very much fits this genre--opened by noting:

Biography, as books about the dead are capriciously catalogued, is still very much in the mode.

It has usurped the place held in recent years by the novel, and before that by poetry, as the regular metier of all those young men and women who, in every age, concern themselves with providing the light reading of their more cultured friends. Naturally enough, a new manner has resulted, and, to a great extent, a new method; and polite literature is the less polite for it.
He goes on to, shall we say, confess?--
We have discovered a jollier way of honoring our dead. The corpse has become the marionnette. With bells on its fingers and wires on its toes it is jigged about to a "period dance" of our own piping; and who is not amused? Unfortunately, there is singularly little fun to be got out of Rossetti. (Waugh, Rossetti: His Life and Works, 1928, pp. 11-12)
I take it that Waugh worries that the entertainments of these "Lives" can create anachronistic creations for our own delight--a kind of horizontal Feuerbachian worry that we'll create our subjects in our own image. Fair enough; and in fact, White's little life of Proust probably does just that with its incessant fixation on Proust's homosexuality. And yet, there is an invitation to other worlds embedded in here from which it is always a bit disappointing to have to return.