Breaking Bread

My review of Alan Jacob’s Breaking Bread with the Dead (Penguin Press, 2020) is online at Englewood Review of Books and is reproduced below:

Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead:
A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind

(Penguin Press, 2020).

To read with intelligent charity.

Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading:
The Hermeneutics of Love (2001).

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,”
God in the Dock 217 (2014).

As a society we are reconsidering our relationship to the past.

We wonder whether statues, schools and flags should be removed, renamed or redesigned because of their association with causes, people and history which we now find evil, embarrassing or repugnant. We wonder about the past.

Continue reading Breaking Bread

Op-eds

It is always terribly hard to be sure exactly what happened, but it is easy to collect opinions.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Defeat of Sennacherib” (c. 1613) (Courtauld Gallery, London).

Dieu a établi la prière pour communiquer
à ses ceatures la dignité de la causalité.

Pascal

The Bible says Sennacherib’s campaign was foiled
By angels: in Herodotus it says, by mice—
Innumerably nibbling all one night they toiled
To eat away his bowstrings as warm wind eats ice.

But muscular archangels, I suggest, employed
Seven little jaws to labour at each slender string,
And by their aid, weak masters though they be, destroyed
The smiling-lipped Assyrian, cruel bearded king.

No stranger that omnipotence should choose to need
Small helps than great—no stranger if His action lingers
Till men have prayed, and suffers their weak prayers indeed
To move as very muscles in his delaying fingers,

Who, in His longanimity and love for our
Small dignities, enfeebles, for a time, His power.

       C.S. Lewis, “Sonnet” (Oxford Magazine, May 14, 1936) [link]


The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
   And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
   When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
   That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
   That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
   And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
   And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
   But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
   And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
   With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
   The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

       Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib” [link].


The next king was the priest of Hephaestus whose name was Sethos. He despised and had no regard for the warrior Egyptians, thinking he would never need them; besides otherwise dishonoring them, he took away the chosen lands which had been given to them, twelve fields to each man, in the reign of former kings. So when presently king Sanacharib came against Egypt, with a great force of Arabians and Assyrians, the warrior Egyptians would not march against him.

The priest, in this quandary, went into the temple shrine and there before the god’s image bitterly lamented over what he expected to suffer. Sleep came on him while he was lamenting, and it seemed to him the god stood over him and told him to take heart, that he would come to no harm encountering the power of Arabia: “I shall send you champions,” said the god.

So he trusted the vision, and together with those Egyptians who would follow him camped at Pelusium, where the road comes into Egypt; and none of the warriors would go with him, but only merchants and craftsmen and traders. Their enemies came there, too, and during the night were overrun by a horde of field mice that gnawed quivers and bows and the handles of shields, with the result that many were killed fleeing unarmed the next day.

And to this day a stone statue of the Egyptian king stands in Hephaestus’ temple, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect:

       “Look at me, and believe.”

Herodotus, Histories, II, 141, 1-6 (tr. A.D. Godley) [link].


[The Lord says] “I will shield this city [Jerusalem] and rescue it for the sake of my reputation and because of my promise to David my servant.” That very night the Lord’s messenger went out and killed 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. When they got up early the next morning, there were all the corpses. So King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and went on his way. He went home and stayed in Nineveh.

2 Kings 19:34-36

Race Empathy

One of the great benefits of reading, particularly novels and memoirs, is its ability to promote the kind of empathy Atticus Finch describes to Scout: “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.”

Justice OnenessEmbraced

 

I am currently reading John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (2006) [amazon] [link to Rabbit Room Reading Group] and Tony Evans, Oneness Embraced (2015) [amazon], but here are several more books which may help you inhabit the skins of others:

 

 

Solitary

 

Albert Woodfox, Solitary (2019) [amazon] is the memoir of a black man in prison who spent nearly all of his life in prison in Louisiana for a murder he could not have committeed. I wrote a review and also posted some quotations from the book. [review] [post].Invisible

Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (2018) [amazon] is the biography of Eunice Hunton Carter, Stephen Carter’s grandmother, who Amazon describes as “a woman and a prosecutor, a graduate of Smith College and the granddaughter of slaves, as dazzlingly unlikely a combination as one could imagine in New York of the 1930s.”

Between the World and Me (2015) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ heartbreaking memoir for his son about what it means to grow up as a black man in white America. Not an easy read. I’ve read this book several times and wrote a couple of posts. [post] [post]Extraordinary

Extraordinary, Ordinary People (2010) [amazon] is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s fascinating (and touching) memoir of her parents, as she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Birmingham.Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines (2016) [amazon] is an excellent dystopian novel about race and control.

Incidents

Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (1861) [amazon] is an astounding autobiography of a woman raised in slavery, who escaped her bondage.

And of course, don’t forget Harper Lee’s incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) [amazon], which you were supposed to read in junior high! Sissy Spacek does a beautiful reading of the book. [audible]

Two for early 2020

Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).Index of Self-Destructive Acts

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).

No spoilersBaseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.

Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.

Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”

For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.

Highly recommended.


Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*

The Glass Hotel

No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).

Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.

Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.

No spoilersNo spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)

But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life,  . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.

Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:

A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)

It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).

“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)

Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.

This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:

He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)

Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.

Highly recommended.

*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].

Jesu juva

Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark: Thought on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (2019) [link]. Adorning the Dark

This is an absolutely marvelous book if you (1) are a fan of Andrew Peterson, (2) are interested in Christians in the arts, or (3) read books. (Okay, I threw the last one in, because I think this could have very broad appeal.)  Peterson, of course is a singer-songwriter living near Nashville who is also involved the lives of a number of creative Christians in an online community called The Rabbit Room.*

You likely know Peterson as a thoughtful singer-songwriter and (perhaps) a gleeful author — mostly of fantasy novels — but in this case his thoughtful faith plays out in a string of reflections and personal anecdotes about the faith and the creative calling. Adorning the Dark is memoir and (in the best sense) sermon.

There are many delightful anecdotes referencing the influences on his thought, including some usual suspects (C.S. Lewis, Rich Mullins, Wendell Berry) and some decidedly unusual suspects (The Dragonlance novels, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor). Tolkien and Dylan were relatively late additions. By far, though, it is friends and fellow believers who seem to have built themselves into Peterson’s life. Continue reading Jesu juva

Rabbits and Rulers

Watership DownSome interesting thoughts from Ross Douthat, prompted by reading Watership Down to his daughters:

small quotes blueOne of the virtues of reading a narrative aloud, to children or indeed to anyone, is the way that vocalizing a story clarifies its power, especially in the quavering passion that you try to keep from your voice (because you don’t want your kids to think their dear dad is too emotional) but that bleeds through in spite of everything.

Ross Douthat,”Watership Down and the Crisis of Liberalism,” The New York Times (Oct. 22, 2019) [link]. The whole article is worth reading, though perhaps too optimistic in the end.

The best takeaway? You should read aloud to your children the books that move you.

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.