Albert Woodfox

IMG_1421Some good stuff, here (review forthcoming in The Champion):

p. 23:

I’d seen guys in my neighborhood come back from Angola throughout my childhood. They were given the highest respect. I thought it would be an honor to go there. I chose Angola.

p. 49:

Writing about this time in my life is very difficult. I robbed people, scared them, threatened them, intimidated them. I stole from people who had almost nothing. My people, black people. I broke into their homes and took possessions they worked hard for; took their wallets out of their pockets. I beat people up. I was a chauvinist pig. I took advantage of people, manipulated people. I never thought about the pain I caused. I never felt the fear or despair people had around me.

p. 59:

Prison is prison. First you figure out the routine, which doesn’t take long because every day is the same. Then you learn the culture and how to play between the lines. The faster you do that the quicker you adjust. . . . Conditions were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and run-down.

p. 173:

Nelson Mandela taught me that if you have a noble cause you are able to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Malcolm X taught me that it doesn’t matter where you start out; what matters is where you end up. George Jackson taught me that if you’re not willing to die for what you believe in, you don’t believe in anything.

p. 207

In my forties, I chose to take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate. Whenever I experience pain of any origin I always made a promise to myself never to do anything else to suffer the pain I was feeling at that moment. I still had moments of bitterness and anger. But by then I had the wisdom to know that bitterness and anger are destructive. I was dedicated to building things, not to tearing them down.

Albert Woodfox with Leslie George, Solitary: Unbroken by four decades in solitary confinement. My story of transformation and hope. Grove Press (2019).

Re-reading

Visiting an old friend, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow:

JayberCrowsmall quotesIf you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.

p. 149.


As a lover of allusions, I get a kick out of the references to Bunyan, Dante and a certain famous hymn.

Herman Wouk 1915-2019

I was saddened to hear that Herman Wouk died last week, just 10 days short of his 104th birthday.

TheCaineMutinyHis novel The Caine Mutiny (1955) has long been one of my favorites, and I have had opportunity to teach it to several high school classes.the caine mutiny I was disappointed to read a recent piece by Professor Joseph Bottum* which seems a modern example of “damning with faint praise,” suggesting that Wouk was a good “middlebrow” writer, whose work (some of it, anyway) has stood the test of time better than others in his . . . league(?).

I think, that if Bottum were pressed, he would say that he was praising Wouk, just not “over-praising him.” But when Bottum says “In general, . . . he could be counted on to write a readable book with some serious ideas in it. Or, perhaps better, a readable book with some serious ideas on it, like figures embroidered on a tapestry,” it is hard not to hear that as a snide, uncharitable comment.**

In my view, The Caine Mutiny succeeds as a novel because it draws us in to care about a handful of deeply flawed people who actually grow in self awareness. Willy gains maturity, of course, but so do Maryk and Keefer — and May. The fact that Wouk does this in a long, believable, narrative, with deft humor and across many sub genres,*** is really quite impressive.

I hope that Bottum’s review does not dissuade a single person from reading (at least) The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s accomplishment should not be disparaged for being accessible. That seems fair, doesn’t it?


*Joseph Bottum, “Herman Wouk, 1915-2019: Remembering a master of middlebrow,” The Washington Free Beacon (May 25, 2019) [link].

**Not convinced? How about this: “No doubt, [Captain Queeg] is wonderfully drawn as a character: memorable in every way, beginning with his name. But an author doesn’t get to give us a Dickensian type, and then reverse field just to flatter readers that they’ve just had a deep thought. All they’ve had is the picture of a thought, a simulacrum of ideas, unearned by the prose. Which is perfectly fine for a certain kind of fiction. This might almost be the definition, the archetype, of the middlebrow.”

***By which I mean, non-technically, that The Caine Mutiny is a war novel, a romance (modern sense), a comic novel, an adventure story, a legal thriller, and (yes) a morality tale neatly woven into one narrative.

Simon Tam

Simon Tam 2I attended a great event (at the Chester Bedell Inn of Court) last night with Simon Tam (@SimonTheTam) of The Slants (“The Band Who Must Not Be Named”)*, who described his odyssey to the Supreme Court** and why reclaiming an ethnic slur could be so critical to young Asian-Americans.

Excellent speaker, moving story, important take away.

*http://www.theslants.com/
**Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017) [link]; see page at SCOTUSblog [link].

slanted

 


I am also looking forward to reading his new book: Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court (2019). I’ll have a brief review up soon.

Current reading

current reading 2Lore Ferguson Wilbert reviews a new book for the Gospel Coalition that sounds like it would be an excellent read for a married+single church study:

Allberry argues that although sex is part of intimacy in marriage, it isn’t as foundational to intimacy as friendship—and friendship is available to the unmarried as well as the married. This concept, if truly believed and adopted, would free many unmarried Christians who worry they’re missing out on intimacy because of their singleness. And, if God does give the gift of marriage, this understanding of foundational intimate friendship could help address the complications many marriages have around sex.

Lore Ferguson Wilbert, “The Book on Singleness I’ve Been Waiting For,” The Gospel Coalition (Feb. 27, 2019) [link]. The book is Sam Allberry, 7 Myths about Singleness (Crossway 2019) [amazon].


The NYTMag describes a newly discovered Rembrandt in Russell Shorto, “Rembrandt in the Blood: An Obsessive Aristocrat, Rediscovered Paintings and an Art-World Feud,” The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 27, 2019) [link]. Very interesting! (Thanks, GLBH.)


I am unclear why First Things is publishing a review of a poor novel from the 1980s, but I have an idea, and the review is worth reading, even if the book is not.

I think Justin Lee properly discounts a certain kind of Protestant literature, and correctly critiques Frank Peretti’s novels:

Peretti’s art fails, and it does so for the simple reason that his representations of angels and demons are not strange enough. His novels just aren’t scary because they fail to be true to the irreducible particularity of human life, which means we don’t see the dangers as real. In the end, readers are left only with what propositional meanings can be gleaned from the surface.

Justin Lee, “The Art of Spiritual Warfare,” First Things (March 2019) [link].

This article really doesn’t do what one expects from a book review, which is to direct the review reader to an interesting book (or warn her off a book not worth her time) or (in the case of a current book) to identify strengths and weaknesses.

I think this is not really a book review, though, but a too-brief attempt to answer the really difficult question “Why can’t Protestants and Evangelicals produce great novels like Catholics and Anglicans?” For that it is worth reading.

Anticipation!

I am re-reading one of my old favorites, Reamde, by Neal Stephenson () [amazon], because I heard the other day that Stephenson was writing a sequel. I understand perfectly well that either Cryptonomicon (1999) [amazon], or The Diamond Age (1995) [amazon], or even Snow Crash (1992) [amazon] is a cooler favorite,* and indeed I love all Reamdethree of those, but as I am reading Reamde for the third time, I realize that because of the excellent dialogue and complex, multifaceted narrative, combined with Stephenson’s normal dry comedy and dizzying excursions into technical detail, this is really my favorite.

FallIn any case, Stephenson has written a sequel of sorts Fall; or, Dodge in Hell which is coming out on June 4, 2019 [amazon]. He also has a novella, Atmosphæra Incognita which sounds like a re-telling of the Tower of Babel being released on July 31, 2019 [amazon].The River

In a similar vein, I just received a review copy of The River (2019) by Peter Heller [amazon], which I hope will be as entertaining as The Painter (2015) [amazon] or The Dog Stars (2013) [amazon]. I also have the newest Adam Roberts The Black Prince (2018, adaptation of a script by Anthony Burgess) [amazon] on the shelf beside my bed.

AgencyWith William Gibson still on track to publish Agency (a sequel to The Peripheral) in September 2019 (though the date keeps on being moved) [amazon], I now have new work by a number of my favorites. I am still waiting on Neil Gaiman, Emily St. John Mandel, David Mitchell, and Donna Tartt.

*seveneves (2015) is also very good, while Anathem (2008), The Mongoliad (2010–2012) and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (2017, with Nicole Galland) are also entertaining. I could never quite mesh with The Baroque Cycle (2003-2004).

A mentor

One of the nicer things about working at my law firm is hearing other attorneys talking about the former members of the firm, in this case the senior partner of the firm when I first arrived. Sometimes those old stories find their way into print, as in this recent example:

small quotes blue[After clerking for Judge David W. Dyer, I returned to the private sector, and was working for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where] I was working on a sensitive criminal case arising out of the Kennedy Space Center. Our client, a contractor on the space program, had been accused of defrauding the government. It looked like the case might go to a grand jury for possible criminal charges. I was in charge of the day-to-day investigation. Part of my duty was to prepare for Armageddon if, heaven forbid, the company was indicted. Continue reading A mentor

The Delightful Scalia

In 2018 I read an old book of miscellaneous addresses and essays by my favorite Canadian curmudgeon Robertson Davies called The Merry Heart (1998 [amazon]), and in previous years enjoyed similar compilations of material from Neil Gaiman (The View from the Cheap Seats, 2016 [amazon]); and Neal Stephenson (Some Remarks, 2012 [amazon]).

Scalia SpeaksThis year’s delight is certainly going to be Scalia Speaks (2017 [amazon]), a compilation of speeches by the late justice known for his staggering erudition, his biting wit, and his personal warmth. One of his sons (Christopher J. Scalia) and one of his former law clerks (Edward Whelen) have chosen and introduced a number of addresses given on many occasions. They are marvelous! Scalia’s good friend and fellow justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RBG herself) wrote the forward.

Here are a few tidbits:

Continue reading The Delightful Scalia

Living with sin, living with others

current reading 2Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans 130 (W. Pauck, trans.) (Westminster John Knox Press 1961):

small quotes blue[T]his life is a life of cure from sin; it is not a life of sinlessness, as if the cure were finished and health had been recovered. The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents. Heaven, however, is the palace where the whole and the righteous live.


Justin Lee, “In The Age Of #MeToo, Men Must Read More Literary Fiction,” ARC (Nov. 6, 2018) [link]. Lee argues that fiction reading impacts the reader’s ability to place themselves in another’s shoes:

small quotes blueReading fiction requires a sustained act of imagination: you inhabit a world of others, identify with their joys and travails, even learn the texture of their minds. Serious readers know that reading great fiction enhances their ability to empathize. And habitual reading helps sustain that empathy, makes it reflexive.

This (not surprisingly) makes me think of a well-known quotation from another Lee:

small quotes blue“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) (Atticus speaking to his daughter, Scout).

I believe both Lees are correct.