Top Reads 2009: Short Stories

It's that time of year again--time for retrospective lists of all sorts, and bibliophiles seem to be particularly prone to the temptation. I'll be continuing the tradition of my 2008, 2007, and 2005 reflections, with a new twist: an installment on short stories read in the past year, and maybe an installment on poets/poems.

Rather than a comprehensive list, let me begin by highlighting five short stories I read in 2009 (not necessarily published in 2009--though the selections will be New Yorker heavy). I don't pretend to make any claims about these being the "best" stories of the year; instead, these are the stories that, for various reasons, stuck with me, made an impact on me, or otherwise made a dent in my consciousness that, even now, still lingers.

  • Jonathan Franzen, "Good Neighbors," New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2009. Fabulous flaying of Volvo-driving urban-gentrifying liberals (i.e., us, minus the Volvo).
  • William Styron, "Rat Beach," New Yorker, July 20, 2009. A war story in the spirit of Sassoon that includes this unctuous account of snails: "I couldn’t shake the memory of one ambulance that stalled, then jerked back and forth, jostling its poor passenger until the voice from within screamed “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!” again and again. Poetry was no remedy for such a sound, and so I’d close the book and lie there in a trance, trying to shut out all thought of past or future, and focus on the tent’s plywood deck, where there was usually at least one huge brown snail, with a shell the size of a Ping-Pong ball, propelling itself laboriously forward and trailing a wake of mucilaginous slime with the hue and consistency of semen. Giant African snails, they were called, and they slid all over the island, numberless, like a second landing force; they woke us up at night and we actually heard them sibilantly dragging their tracks across the flooring and colliding, with a tiny report like the cracking open of walnuts."
  • Alice Munro, "Save the Reaper," in The Love of a Good Woman. Set in my old haunts near Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario, this is Munro at her Southern (Ontario) Gothic best.
  • Sherman Alexie, "War Dances," New Yorker, August 10 & 17, 2009. Explores the dynamics of Native American displacement in the Pacific Northwest, with charming (Adn knowing) references to country music, and an undercurrent of deep longing.
  • Honorable mention: Jonatham Lethem, "Procedure in Plain Air," New Yorker October 26, 2009. This is a supercharged story on several different levels, exploring the dynamics of complicity with a kind of realistic surrealism (that is, the kind you experience when something real is happening, and you say to a friend, "This is surreal.") It also regularly tempts the reader to read it as an allegory (say, of Gitmo). In these ways, it reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin's, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."


Prodigal Critics

In his Chronicle Review essay, "Prodigal Critics," Jeffrey Williams provides a very nice little history of shifts in criticism in the last century--specifically the rise of New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks [who, I have to confess, are secret favorites of mine, lining the shelves here at home] who in turn gave birth to their own critics, like Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, and Stephen Greenblatt. Williams' brief is that "theory" in the US was more home-grown than a foreign (i.e., French) import. Worth reading--there's an education crammed into this little essay.

Locating Religion: On "Faith and Place"

Mark Wynn's Faith & Place: An Essay in Embodied Religious Epistemology (Oxford, 2009) is one of the most interesting books in philosophy of religion I've read this year. As he notes in the opening, philosophical theologians tend to be concerned with place only to transcend it, focusing on God's omni-presence which relativizes differences in place. And yet religious practice is always placed, local, often in very intentional spaces--what he calls "the place-relative character of religious belief and practice." So Wynn sets for himself the task of articulating "the differentiated religous significance of place."

Wynn is primarily interested in knowledge of place as an analogue for knowledge of God. Drawing on figures such as Bachelard [an old favorite of mine], LeFebvre, and Bourdieu, he contests the paradigms of “knowing” in contemporary philosophy of religion (Swinburne and Alston are recurring examples throughout the book). The way we “know” a place, Wynn argues, points to a kind of embodied, affective, tacit knowing which gets little attention in philosophy of religion because of the regnant epistemology assumed in the field. So knowledge “of” place is a kind of limit case, pointing to a different kind of knowing, which then primes us to consider knowledge of God in similar terms. This alternative account of knowing is most fully developed in chapter 8, on the “aesthetic” dimension of knowing. (Throughout the book Wynn regularly builds bridges to poetry by autobiographically exploring his friendship with poet Edmund Cusick--and the way their friendship was tied to places.)

However, while this is the core argument of the book, Wynn is also attentive to the religious significance of place—how places are charged “sites” of knowledge (e.g., in a chapter on pilgrimage). Thus he is concerned both with knowledge of place and the “placed” nature of knowledge. An excellent book and an encouraging sign of alternative trajectories in philosophy of religion.