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.

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).

Pushing away grace

Reading Genesis WellIn my church, we sometimes find it most loving to be “careful with the images” in the sense that (for example) when we pray on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day we want to be gentle, knowing that there are some who would like to be mothers but can not; and some who had fathers who did not remotely model Godly fatherhood. That makes this passage particularly poignant:

small quotes blue[Some biblical] images we recognize from our own experience, but once we have grasped them, they in turn cause us to revise the way we carry out the activity. An example would be God as father; as Proverbs 3:12 has it, “for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” There is no reason to suppose that the compilers of Proverbs had a too-rosy view of what actual fathers are like; they could no doubt be every bit as distant, abusive, short-tempered, or just plain inconsistent in Israel as they can in the modern West. But most people have an intuition of what a father ought to be and can use that for thinking about God. The image has a varied texture.

So God is compared to a father not because fathers are perfect fathers but because God is a perfect father.

Another instance is Psalm 103:13, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” Those who meet the image halfway, allowing imagination and intuition to prevent experience from making them cynical, may find their own practice of fathering is changed to be more like what they perceive God’s to be, infusing tender compassion into moral education.

C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well 76 (2018) [amazon].

A brilliant point I think, but here is what I thought when I read it—those who will not meet the image (fatherhood, marriage, parental compassion, exuberant celebration, feasting, fertility) halfway because of past experience push away a part of the grace offered to them.

And we each need grace too much to push any of it away.

Let us open our hearts to the metaphors in which God speaks.

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.

Syllabi

A couple of syllabi* from two well-known instructors.

From 1941:

Auden-1941 Syllabus

From 1994:

Wallace_Syllabus_001_large

More discussion at Dan Piepenbring, “W. H. Auden’s Potent Syllabus, and Other News” The Paris Review (Jan. 29, 2015) [link]; “W.H. Auden’s 1941 Literature Syllabus Asks Students to Read 32 Great Works, Covering 6000 Pages,” Open Culture (Feb. 28, 2013) [link]; Alan Jacobs, “Auden’s Syllabus,” Snakes and Ladders (Oct. 1, 2012) [link]; and “David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books,” Open Culture (Feb. 25, 2013) [link].

I particularly enjoy Wallace’s caution to his students not to think “this will be a blow-off-type class.” Auden does not seem to think any of his students will make that mistake.

*Apparently not with two “i”s.

Recent book reviews

The Brain Defense

Two recent book reviews I have written:

Book Review: Kevin Davis, The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms (Penguin Press 2017) in The Champion (June 2018) [link].

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Book Review: Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, eds., Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William (Front Porch Republic 2018) in The Englewood Review of Books (Sept. 20, 2018) [link].

Always nice to get an interesting book for free, even if you need to do a little work for it.

New book

Jacobs 1943Today I received The Year of Our Lord 1943 by Alan Jacobs (one of my favorite thinkers). Jacobs, a prolific writer on the Web (see, e.g., Snakes & Ladders, microblog, Text Patterns, etc.) seems to manage to produce a physical book every year or two (sometimes on fairly esoteric topics) as well as fulfilling his University teaching duties.

This one looks at five Christian thinkers who, separately and in deeply personal ways, considered what the war meant and would mean for Christianity and the West:

The war raised for each of the thinkers . . . a pressing set of questions about the relationship between Christianity and the Western democratic social order, and especially about whether Christianity was uniquely suited to the moral underpinning of that order. These questions led in turn to others: How might an increasingly secularized and religiously indifferent populace be educated and formed in Christian beliefs and practices? And what role might people like them—poets, novelists, philosophers, thinkers, but not professional theologians or pastors—play in the education of their fellow citizens of the West?

p. xvii.

The five are Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and Simone Weil. I am in the throes of anticipation and will report back when I have finished it.