January 21, 2013

Book review: “Nocturnes – Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2009 collection Nocturnes are, in a way, about music and nightfall, as the subtitle indicates. Yes, but, even more, their subject is the fragility of love in the face of human nature. Or maybe the strength of love despite the clashings and dissonances of human nature. A famous singer croons to his wife from a gondola in Venice, and she weeps bitter tears. A London couple berate their visiting friend, all while befuddled at the way their lives have drifted apart and the bonds of their love have strained to the breaking point. A couple on vacation from Switzerland has a spat while gazing together at the English countryside that inspired the music by Edward Elgar they both treasure. A sax player in Los Angeles has his plain face reconstructed at the urging of his wife who has left him. A middle-age woman leads a young cellist to raise his craft to a higher level, and then her boyfriend shows up.
January 16, 2013

Book review: “The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story” by Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buechner’s The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story, published in 2005 by Paraclete Press, is an intense, dense poetic meditation on the life and person of Jesus. A Presbyterian minister and theologian, Buechner is also a novelist of such highly praised works as Godric and the four volumes of The Book of Bebb. And he writes about Jesus with such sharp focus and deep understanding that I’m tempted to quote extensively from this short book of fewer than 25,000 words. And I will. But, first, it should be noted that Buechner is one of a long line of novelists who have taken upon themselves the task of writing their own version of the gospel story. It’s quite a list, including such luminaries from the literary past and present as Nikos Kazantzakis, Leo Tolstoy, Philip Pullman, Christopher Moore, Jim Crace, Reynolds Price, Anne Rice, Gore Vidal and Charles Dickens. Most have written novels. Not Buechner. The purest of ore This is a book a pastor would write, a pastor with an artist’s eye for detail and an imagination for finding the story behind the story. That’s what gives this book its density. It is prose and poetry at the same […]
January 15, 2013

Book review: “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card

Ender Wiggin is six at the start of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and eleven by the time the novel’s action has concluded. Over those five years, he has endured isolation and ostracization, has fought off two crowds of bullies with deadly results, has become a star at Battle School and a superstar at Command School, and has been asked to win a war with an alien people known as buggers. Not what you’d call a normal childhood.
January 12, 2013

Book review: “Changing Places” by David Lodge

David Lodge, I suspect, had fun writing his 1975 novel Changing Places. It’s a playful novel of two English professors — Morris Zapp from the prestigious West Coast school, Euphoric State (think the University of California at Berkeley), and Philip Swallow from the second-tier British school in a blue-collar city, the University of Rummidge (think of the University of Birmingham) — who trade positions for the spring term in 1969. That was a tumultuous year on college campuses in the U.S. and elsewhere, and also the year in which Lodge, an English professor at Birmingham, served as a visiting professor at Berkeley. So, in Changing Places, Lodge is taking the opportunity to compare and contrast, and gently send up, the academic communities in both places. Foolish but not fools And, like just about every well-done academic novel (except the bleak yet revelatory Stoner by John Williams), Changing Places is a comedy. Its characters are generally foolish. Lodge, however, is no ogre. He doesn’t make them fools.
January 6, 2013

Book Review: “Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Life and Doctrines” by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz

Basil of Caesarea (329/330 – 378) was an important early thinker about the still-developing world of monasticism, writing guidelines for those who sought to lead lives of quiet contemplation. Yet, as Andrew Radde-Gallwitz notes in his short, sprightly biography Basil of Caesarea, Basil saw little difference between ascetic and authentic Christianity, between living in a monastic setting and living in the wide, bustling world. Both, for him, were aspects of a “life centered on Christ’s commandments.” Both, too, involved living a God-focused existence within a community. Basil was suspicious of a “go it alone” model of spirituality. For him, to think of ourselves as self-sufficient would be to ignore the many ways in which we need each other, a mutuality that God our Creator intended. Moreover, Christ himself set the example of service-in-community. If you live entirely on your own, Basil asks, ‘whose feet will you wash?” Earthy, direct and deeply rooted “Whose feet will you wash?” — Basil won me over with that phrase, so earthy, so direct, and so deeply rooted in the central teachings and life of Jesus. And it wasn’t a fluke. The many quotations from Basil in this book show him to have been a […]
January 4, 2013

Book review: “Aquamarine” by Carol Anshaw

A mother is thinking about her aimless 19-year-old son and how, as a child, he enjoyed putting on magic shows and drawing, in crayon, various inhabitants of his imagination, such as a man made of water. And then somewhere along the way, he slipped from surprises into secrets, started becoming this elaborately unknowable person. Which makes [her] crazy. She sits quietly next to him and wants to tear him open and crawl inside, find out who the hell is in there. Yet, isn’t each one of us “elaborately unknowable”? Even to ourselves. That’s the reality at the heart of Aquamarine, Carol Anshaw’s first novel, published in 1992. It is a short book of fewer than 200 pages. Yet, it is intensely rich and multi-faceted — in part, because of a surprising bit of literary legerdemain that Anshaw is able to pull off, and, even more, because she is like a bulldog. From the first pages, she grabs onto this issue of unknowable-ness and won’t let go. A distraction Consider her central character Jesse Austin.