April was something of a lackluster case for my two monthly challenges: two slightly disappointing books were partially read (and partially skimmed), and two more that promise to be more enjoyable were not finished in time to review in full.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)
When Hazel Motes, newly released from the Army, arrives back in Tennessee, his priorities are to get a car and to get laid. In contrast to his preacher grandfather, “a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger,” he founds “The Church Without Christ.” Heaven, hell and sin are meaningless concepts for Haze; “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything,” he declares. But his vociferousness belies his professed indifference. He’s particularly invested in exposing Asa Hawkes, a preacher who vowed to blind himself, but things get complicated when Haze is seduced by Hawkes’s 15-year-old illegitimate daughter, Sabbath – and when his groupie, eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, steals a shrunken head from the local museum and decides it’s just the new Jesus this anti-religion needs. O’Connor is known for her very violent and very Catholic vision of life. In a preface she refers to this, her debut, as a comic novel, but I found it bizarre and unpleasant and only skimmed the final two-thirds after reading the first 55 pages.
In progress: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959) – I love to read ‘on location’ when I can, so this was a perfect book to start during a weekend when I visited Stroud, Gloucestershire for the first time.* Lee was born in Stroud and grew up there and in the neighboring village of Slad. I’m on page 65 and it’s been a wonderfully evocative look at a country childhood. The voice reminds me slightly of Gerald Durrell’s in his autobiographical trilogy.
*We spent one night in Stroud on our way home from a short holiday in Devon so that I could see The Bookshop Band and member Beth Porter’s other band, Marshes (formerly Beth Porter and The Availables) live at the Prince Albert pub. It was a terrific night of new songs and old favorites. I also got to pick up my copy of the new Marshes album, When the Lights Are Bright, which I supported via an Indiegogo campaign, directly from Beth.
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas (2017)
Joan Ashby’s short story collection won a National Book Award when she was 21 and was a bestseller for a year; her second book, a linked story collection, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In contravention of her childhood promise to devote herself to her art, she marries Martin Manning, an eye surgeon, and is soon a mother of two stuck in the Virginia suburbs. Two weeks before Daniel’s birth, she trashes a complete novel. Apart from a series of “Rare Babies” stories that never circulate outside the family, she doesn’t return to writing until both boys are in full-time schooling. When younger son Eric quits school at 13 to start a computer programming business, she shoves an entire novel in a box in the garage and forgets about it.
Queasy feelings of regret over birthing parasitic children – Daniel turns out to be a fellow writer (of sorts) whose decisions sap Joan’s strength – fuel the strong Part I, which reminded me somewhat of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in that the protagonist is trying, and mostly failing, to reconcile the different parts of her identity. However, this debut novel is indulgently long, and I lost interest by Part III, in which Joan travels to Dharamshala, India to reassess her relationships and career. I skimmed most of the last 200 pages, and also skipped pretty much all of the multi-page excerpts from Joan’s fiction. At a certain point it became hard to sympathize with Joan’s decisions, and the narration grew overblown (“arc of tragedy,” “tortured irony,” etc.) [Read instead: Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin]
Page count: 523
In progress: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, a 613-page historical novel in verse narrated by a semi-literate servant from Stroud, then a cloth mill town. I’d already committed to read it for a Nudge/New Books magazine review, having had my interest redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize, but it was another perfect choice for a weekend that involved a visit to that part of Gloucestershire. Once you’re in the zone, and so long as you can guarantee no distractions, this is actually a pretty quick read. I easily got through the first 75 pages in a couple of days.
Next month’s plan: As a doorstopper Annabel and I are going to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (636 pages, or roughly 20 pages a day for the whole month of May). Join us if you like! I’m undecided about a classic, but might choose between George Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola.
In 2015 and 2017 I came up with some appropriately theological reading recommendations for Easter. This year I’m going for a more tongue-in-cheek approach, as befits the unfortunate conjunction of Easter with April Fools’ Day.
Currently reading or reviewing:
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
I bought this on a whim from a local charity shop, based on the title, cover and blurb. I’m about one-third of the way through so far. MacDonald and her husband started a chicken farm in a mountainous area of the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is rather hilarious. My only hesitation is about her terrible snobbishness towards rednecks and “Indians.”
A representative passage: “Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Co-operation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic and so at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing with hen, feet planted, and a shoot-if-you-must-this-old-grey-head look in her eye.”
The Sheep Stell by Janet White
I’m reviewing this reissued memoir for the TLS. It’s a delightful story of finding contentment in the countryside, whether on her own or with family. White, now in her eighties, has been a shepherd for six decades in the British Isles and in New Zealand. While there’s some darker material here about being stalked by a spurned suitor, the tone is mostly lighthearted. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s enjoyed books by Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and Doreen Tovey.
Representative passages: “Shepherding is a strange mixture of tremendous physical work alternating with periods of calm, quiet indolence.” & “A dare, a dream and a challenge. I could have hunted the whole world over and never in a lifetime found anywhere so right: warm, high, pastoral and severed by the sea.”
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Mrs. Creasy disappears one Monday in June 1976, and ten-year-old Grace Bennett and her friend Tilly are determined to figure out what happened. I have a weakness for precocious child detectives (from Harriet the Spy to Flavia de Luce), so I enjoyed Grace’s first-person sections, but it always feels like cheating to me when an author realizes they can’t reveal everything from a child’s perspective so add in third-person narration and flashbacks. These fill in the various neighbors’ sad stories and tell of a rather shocking act of vigilante justice they together undertook nine years ago.
Sheep are a metaphor here for herd behavior and a sense of belonging, but also for good versus evil. Grace and Tilly become obsessed with a Bible passage the vicar reads about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. But how can he, or they, know who’s truly righteous? As Grace says, “I think that’s the trouble, it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.” It’s a simplistic message about acknowledging the complexity of other lives and situations rather than being judgmental, and matches the undemanding prose.
Reminiscent of Rachel Joyce, but not as good.
Vita Nova by Louise Glück
My first collection from the prolific Pulitzer winner. Some of the poems are built around self-interrogation, with a question and answer format; several reflect on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first and last poems are both entitled “Vita Nova,” while another in the middle is called “The New Life.” I enjoyed the language of spring in the first “Vita Nova” and in “The Nest,” but I was unconvinced by much of what Glück writes about love and self-knowledge, some of it very clichéd indeed, e.g. “I found the years of the climb upward / difficult, filled with anxiety” (from “Descent to the Valley”) and “My life took me many places, / many of them very dark” (from “The Mystery”).
Best lines about spring:
“The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats. / Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.” (from “Vita Nova”)
“Spring / descended. Or should one say / rose? … yellow-green of forsythia, the Commons / planted with new grass— // the new / protected always” (from “Ellsworth Avenue”)
Plucked off the shelf for their dubious thematic significance!
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
Happy Easter to all those who mark it, and have a good week. I have a few review-based posts scheduled for while we’re in Wigtown, a trip I hope to report on next Monday, when I will also attempt to catch up on blogs and comments.
If you’ve been celebrating Passover or gearing up for Easter this past week, you might be interested in picking up one of these three recent (or forthcoming) theology titles I’ve encountered. (See also the more extensive Easter reading list I compiled two years ago.)
Misfit Faith: Confessions of a Drunk Ex-Pastor, Jason J. Stellman
Stellman is a former pastor who runs a podcast called “Drunk Ex-Pastors” with his best friend and agnostic cohost, Christian Kingery. His book suffers a bit, I think, from an unclear aim: it started off as an apologia for his conversion to Catholicism after an unchurched upbringing and fervently Evangelical teen years. What it turned into is more of a theological ramble about how to see God and the world anew. For instance, God is Father, but also flesh, so we don’t need to condemn the secular: “embracing a Christianity that reflects the Incarnation by validating the physical world rather than vilifying it.”
With (dated, geeky) pop culture references, Stellman encourages a rejection of xenophobia and an embrace of narrative and ritual, which Roman Catholicism perhaps makes more space for than your average Protestant tradition. The last few lines of the book are a wonderful plea for openness, hearkening back to the very definition of ‘catholic’ – broad and inclusive:
Is misfit faith about love or suffering? Feasting or fasting? Divinity or humanity? Heaven or earth? The answer is yes, to all of it. And yeah, I want it all: the now and the later, the spirit and the flesh, the head, the heart, and the stations of the cross. I would rather embrace way too much than way too little, because something tells me that as wide as I can open my arms and heart, God’s are always open wider.
I’d recommend this to readers of David Dark and Rob Bell.
I received this e-book from Blogging for Books (via Edelweiss) for this review.
What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything, Rob Bell
Speaking of Rob Bell…this is one of his stronger books. Not as fresh and vibrant as Velvet Elvis, but it will have a big impact on teens and twentysomethings starting to question the narrow interpretations of the Bible they’ve grown up with in conservative churches. Bell stresses the importance of reading the Bible literately rather than literally: always looking deeper than surface facts to see what’s really going on here; striving to understand the background of Jewish practice and Roman occupation at the time of Jesus.
Bell emphasizes that the Bible is a disparate set of books written by fallible people who were defined by their own historical context, yet if you ask why they wrote down these stories of their interactions with the divine in this way – why they mattered to them then – you might get a glimpse of why they might still matter to us now. The “haphazard humanity” of the Bible, then is for him stronger evidence of its reliability than some rigid perfection would be.
He chooses a number of the more unusual incidents in the Bible to illuminate with a closer reading, such as Jesus writing in the dust, Ehud assassinating tubby King Eglon, and the Book of Revelation. Part 4 is usefully structured around FAQs (e.g. “So how would you define the word of God? The creative action of God speaking in and through the world, bringing new creation and new life into being”). This is like listening to a really good sermon series. (Releases May 16th.)
My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, Abigail Pogrebin
One thing Bell stresses is that Jesus was Jewish, so you can’t understand the stories about him apart from their Jewish context. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
Like many an American Jew, Pogrebin marked a limited set of holidays: Hanukkah, the Passover seder, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat. She circumcised her son, and hosted bar/bat mitzvahs for him and her daughter. Yet she had a nagging feeling that she had never genuinely locked into her own religion, and longed to go beyond the beginner stage.
So from September 2014 to September 2015, she celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, seeking to move beyond clichés and simplistic interpretations; interviewing rabbis and scholars of every stripe and reading Torah commentaries to discover meanings she’d missed before. Yom Kippur isn’t just a day of atonement; it’s for pondering the fact of your own death, taking stock of your life and asking what must change. Hanukkah, uncomfortably, is not just about persecution but about Jew-on-Jew violence.
There are opposite strands running through the Jewish ritual year: gratitude for survival (Purim) versus sorrow at tragedies (Holocaust Remembrance Day); feasting versus fasting. I was consistently impressed by how Pogrebin draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.
“[I]t’s a quintessential Jewish act: seeking, grappling. If you’re reaching, it’s because you believe there’s something to grab hold of.”
“I’m beginning to think that Judaism is obsessed with brevity and instability. But rather than finding the message depressing, it’s clarifying.”
“Judaism is always asking us to apply epic stories to everyday decisions.”
“Judaism reminds us not to run from transitions, but to consecrate them.”
Unlike Christmas, Easter is a holiday that might not lend itself so easily to reading lists. December is the perfect time to be reading cozy books with wintry scenes of snow and hearth, or old-time favorites like Charles Dickens. Christmas-themed books and short stories are a whole industry, it seems. Lent and Advent both prize special foods, traditions and symbols, but beyond devotional reading there doesn’t seem to be an Easter book scene. Nonetheless, I have a handful of books I’d like to recommend for the run-up to Easter, whether for this year or the future.
I hadn’t heard of Michael Arditti until I reviewed his novel The Breath of Night – a taut, Heart of Darkness-inspired thriller about a young man searching for a missing priest in the Philippines – for Third Way magazine in late 2013. He deserves to be better known. Easter (2000), his third novel, earned him comparisons to Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym. His nuanced picture of modern Christianity, especially the Anglican Church, is spot-on.
I’ve just finished Part One, which traces the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in a fictional London parish, St Mary-in-the-Vale, Hampstead. Structured around the services of Holy Week and punctuated with bits of liturgy, the novel moves between the close third-person perspectives of various clergy and parishioners. Huxley Grieve, the vicar, is – rather inconveniently – experiencing serious doubts in this week of all weeks. And this at a time when the new Bishop of London, Ted Bishop (“Bishop by name, bishop by calling,” he quips), has announced his mission to root out the poison of liberalism from the Church.
So far I’m reminded of a cross between Susan Howatch and David Lodge (especially in How Far Can You Go?), with a dash of the BBC comedy Rev thrown in. Reverend Grieve’s sermons may be achingly earnest, but the novel is also very funny indeed. Here’s a passage, almost like a set of stage directions, from the Palm Sunday service: “The procession moves up the nave. The Curate leads the donkey around the church. It takes fright at the cloud of incense and defecates by the font.”
In this peculiar novel-cum-biography, Beard attempts to piece together everything that has ever been said, written and thought about the biblical character of Lazarus. The best sections have Beard ferreting out the many diseases from which Lazarus may have been suffering, and imagining what his stench – both in life and in death – must have been like. (“He stinketh,” as the Book of John pithily puts it.)
Alongside these reasonable conjectures is a strange, invented backstory for Jesus and Lazarus: when they were children Jesus failed to save Lazarus’ younger brother from drowning and Lazarus has borne a lifelong grudge. A Roman official is able to temporarily convince Lazarus that he needs to take up the mantle of the Messiah because he came back to life: he has the miracle to prove the position, whether he wants it or not. The end of the novel follows the strand of the Passion Week, though in a disconnected and halfhearted fashion.
Beard’s interest is not that of a religious devotee or a scriptural scholar, but of a skeptical postmodern reader. Lazarus is a vehicle for questions of textual accuracy, imagination, and the creation of a narrative of life and death. His unprecedented second life must make him irresistible to experimental novelists. Beard’s follow-up novel, Acts of the Assassins, is also Bible-themed; it’s a thriller that imagines the Roman Empire still in charge today.
No matter your current thoughts on the death penalty, you owe it to yourself to read this book with an open mind. I read it in the run-up to Easter 2007, and would recommend it as perfect reading for the season. As I truly engaged with themes of guilt and retribution, I felt the reality of death row was brought home to me for the first time. Many of the men Prejean deals with in this book we would tend to dismiss as monsters, yet Jesus is the God who comes for the lost and the discounted, the God who faces execution himself.
The film version, which conflates some of the characters and events of the book, is equally affecting. I saw it first, but it does not ruin the reading experience in any way.
Marcus Borg, who just died on January 21st, has been one of the most important theologians in my continuing journey with Christianity. His Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity are essential reading for anyone who’s about to give up on the faith. In this day-by-day account, mostly referencing the Gospel of Mark, Borg and Crossan convey all that is known about the historical Jesus’ last week and death. They collaborated on a second book, The First Christmas, which does the same for Jesus’ birth.
And now for two more unusual, secular selections…
Call me morbid, but I love English graveyards. My most enduring Easter memory is of dawn services at the country church in my husband’s hometown. In the weak half-light, with churchyard rooks croaking a near-deafening chorus, the overwhelming sense was of rampant wildness. The congregation huddled around a bonfire while a black-cloaked vicar intoned the story of scripture, from creation to the coming of Christ, as loudly as possible over the rooks – trying to win mastery over the night, and score a point for civilization in the meantime.
This anecdote goes some way toward explaining why I rather enjoyed Bellman and Black – but why many others won’t. Setterfield’s second novel is a peculiar beast, a bit like a classic suspense story but also an English country fable. Protagonist William Bellman is part Job and part Faustus. At age ten, he makes a catapult that kills a rook. Thereafter, his life is plagued by death, despite his successful career as an entrepreneur at a cloth mill. Can he make a deal with the Devil – or, rather, the sinister Mr. Black – that will stop the cycle of deaths?
Bellman’s daughter Dora is a wonderful character, and because I love birds anyway and have strong, visceral memories involving rooks in particular, I enjoyed Setterfield’s symbolic use of them. However, many will be bored to tears by details of cloth-making and dyeing in early nineteenth-century England. Setterfield evokes her time period cannily, but in such a painstaking manner that the setting does not feel entirely natural. Here’s hoping for a return to form with Setterfield’s third novel.
This was the first book I ever borrowed from the Adult Fiction section of the public library, when I was eight years old. It quickly became a favorite, and though I didn’t reread it over and over like I did the Chronicles of Narnia, it still has a strong place in my childhood memories. Why have I chosen it for this list? Well, it’s about rabbits: a warren comes under threat from English countryside development and human interference.
I loved a little story Rachel Joyce inserts in her novel The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Taking over from another nun, a young, air-headed nurse at Queenie’s hospice resumes reading Watership Down to a patient. At the end the patient cries, “Oh, it’s so sad, those poor rabbits” and the nurse replies, “What rabbits?” (You’d think the cover might have given it away!) It’s a good laugh, but also reflects how carefully Adams characterizes – one might say anthropomorphizes – each rabbit; you might forget they’re actually animals.
Do you have any favorite books to read or reread at particular holidays?
Happy spring reading!