August 31, 2016

Essay: Love and giving thanks

It all comes back to love. Gratitude does, like everything else that is good in the world. Thomas Merton writes that gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder….” His subject is the relationship that human beings share with God, but he could just as well be talking about the relationship that two people share when they love each other. Indeed, he’s talking about love of all sorts.   Wonder — and gratitude Young lovers can’t get enough of each other. They want to be together all the time, share every experience, know everything there is to know about the beloved. They are intensely aware of the goodness and richness in the loved one — the humor, the compassion, the beauty, the intelligence, the sweetness. They can’t help but feel wonder — and gratitude. And the imperfections of the loved one? These are recognized, of course. He may be moody or lazy or, well, a little overweight. She may be a couch potato or high-strung or spend too much on clothes. Knowing each other so well and learning more and more each day, the lovers can’t ignore these imperfections. They can’t pretend they don’t […]
August 25, 2016

Book review: “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a sad, bleak book about a man who finds near the end of his life that he has wasted it. On the second to the last page of this 1989 novel, Stevens, an English butler who, during an auto trip through the countryside, is musing about events in his life, decides that he needs to stop thinking so much about his past. “I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.” His solution is that he will work even harder at learning the skill of bantering.   “Dignity” Stevens, the son of a butler, is a man who has taken on the role of the butler to such an extent that, as he relates, he is never off-duty unless he is alone. And, as his ruminations in the pages of this novel show, he is not really ever himself even when he is alone. Certainly, he is unwilling to let himself experience his feelings or, for the most part, even recognize their existence. His life is focused on being a “great butler” which, for him, means embodying the character trait that […]
August 24, 2016

Book review: “Hombre” by Elmore Leonard

I’m not sure how Elmore Leonard’s Hombre, published in 1961, reads for a young person today. It seems to me that there is something universal to it that would make the short novel interesting and even thought-provoking for a millennial — or anyone, for that matter. Something about personal integrity. Essentially, a motley group of people, riding in a stagecoach to Bisbee, Arizona, are confronted by bullies in the form of four robbers. The bandits are after a fairly hefty fortune that Dr. Alexander Favor, the Indian agent, is carrying. As it turns out, Favor has embezzled the money and is trying to flee with his wife before anyone catches on. But the robbers have caught on. The result is a chase, mostly on foot, through the mountains of southern Arizona. Hombre is a novel about the veneer of civilization and the real thing. Favor and his wife Audra, for instance, are the most genteel of the stagecoach riders. Yet, it becomes clear that Favor loves his money more than his wife. And his wife doesn’t love him at all. The real thing, in terms of civilization, has to do with looking beyond sentimentality and wishful thinking. It has to […]
August 22, 2016

Book review: “Sorrow Road” by Julia Keller

Sorrow Road is Julia Keller’s fifth novel set in fictional Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, and centered on the county prosecutor Belfa Elkins. If you want to get a sense of this series, just go about halfway into the new novel, to the point at which a couple of sheriff’s deputies have made a grisly discovery: And then the heavy-duty flashlights illuminated a gruesome tableau. The two old women lay on their backs at the base of a tree about three-quarters of a mile away, on a white mound of snow, limbs twisted like an Egyptian hieroglyphic. They were holding hands. That last touch, the two murdered women holding hands, is an example of Keller’s courage as a storyteller. It’s the sort of detail that most modern writers, especially those who want to be taken seriously, writers with ambitions of creating literature, avoid like the plague. It’s too sugary a detail, too sentimental, right? Too hokey. Except, in the right hands, it’s not hokey. Connie Dollar and her friend Marcy Coates, the deputies could see, had been chased through the snow by an assailant who had already slit the throat of Connie’s dog and carried a loaded shotgun to use on […]
August 17, 2016

Essay: Us and God

There is no Us and Them. There’s only Us and God. That’s one of the lessons of the Bible. Another is that God shows us the way to live, and it’s up to us to follow that way. It’s our job as human beings and our calling. “I come to gather nations of every language,” the Lord says (Isaiah 66:18). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (12:7) says, “God treats you as sons [and daughters].” Part of the role of a parent is to instruct and train children, and the writer of Hebrews describes this as “discipline,” something that is painful in the moment but later “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” (12:11)   Deep yearnings Another way to think of this is to realize that Christianity is not an easy faith. We are not called to self-satisfaction. We are called to recognize that we fail, we sin, we are imperfect. In multitudinous ways — through the beauty of the world and the example of good people and the whisperings of our conscience — the Lord shows us how we need to live better and what we need to do to […]
August 15, 2016

Book review: “A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles” by George Wallace

Reading George Wallace’s collection of 48 poems A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles is a kaleidoscopic, whirligig experience. It is a rushing, often breathless torrent of images, allusions, emotions, evocations and even snippets of song lyrics — “it’s all in the game” and “trampled out the vintage” and “up against the wall Motherfucker.” There is much about this collection that brings to mind the improvisation of energetic, experimental jazz. Maybe those are the “intangibles” of the title. For sure, the poems themselves are far from simple. At the core of this book seems to be a frenetic effort to live in the face of death. We are, Wallace writes, “a cornfield/of harvestable souls.” We are the fruit, and we are the pickers. Wallace’s poem “Hauling Peaches to Paradise” concludes this way: …it’s a bee’s life, ain’t it, I mean the price of admission to an execution in the park, go ahead keep saying you’re done if you want but you’re not — you’re hauling peaches to paradise, too — what a joke — all toil in the all-hallowed orchard.   “Handled me” This book is filled with mythic figures, such as the woman of “Concrete Jaime” who is so […]
August 10, 2016

Book review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Science fiction seems to be about the future, and, a lot of times, it is. Writers will grapple with the nuts and bolts of how a spacecraft might be constructed and noodle ideas about how the various laws and theories of science will hold up for people who are traversing the Universe. They’ll imagine how life on a planet with a different sort of gravity and a different sort of atmosphere might evolve and how human beings might react to these differently evolved beings. Because it is not just science but also fiction, sci-fi will also involve some sort of tension — a tension, for instance, as simple as that of the stereotypical Western with good guys and bad guys fighting a battle for dominance, or maybe a tension that’s based on the daunting challenge of staying alive in a brutally dangerous cosmos. In other words, an adventure of some sort. A story.   A deeper purpose Most science fiction has a deeper purpose as well, and that’s to use the mirror of an imagined future world to look at life in the present day. This occurs in two ways. First, a science fiction book will wrestle with the issues […]
August 8, 2016

Essay: The serendipity of a used bookstore

What do Virginia Woolf, Robert Heinlein, C. S. Lewis and Douglas Coupland have in common? For me, it’s a used bookstore in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where I stopped during a recent weeklong vacation in Door County — Jefferson Street Books. In our modern world, the used bookstore is an endangered species. Locally, we’ve lost many over the years, including two very good ones recently, Shake, Rattle and Read—The Book Box in Uptown and the Book Den in Evanston. Jefferson Street Books is also a very good one. It’s packed with thousands of books in well-organized and well-presented categories, not only in the small house that fronts on Jefferson Street just north of downtown Sturgeon Bay, but also in an annex in a building in the back called the book barn. It’s a year-old, and you can still smell the fresh wood of the shelves.   A particular kind of experience Buying a book at a used bookstore is a particular kind of experience. When you buy at a store featuring new books, you are basically restricted to what’s popular at this moment in time. There may be some “classics” here and there to be found, but, even in the largest […]
August 3, 2016

Book review: “The Stupidest Angel” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore’s 2005 novel The Stupidest Angel tells the story of one extremely clueless — albeit extremely powerful — angel who visits the California coastal community of Pine Cove to carry out an extremely spectacular miracle. Which goes, you guessed it, extremely wrong. Not to worry. He eventually carries out a second miracle to fix all the problems — such as zombies and terrors and horrors and deaths — that the first one created. It is, after all, a Christmas book. But, before you go jumping to conclusions, you need to know that, on some unmarked page before page one, Moore issues an Author’s Warning: If you’re buying this book as a gift for your grandson or a kid, you should be aware that it contains cusswords as well as tasteful depictions of cannibalism and people in their forties having sex. Don’t blame me. I told you. Well, maybe not exactly “tasteful.”   “A choir of suffering houseflies” True, The Stupidest Angel features sex in a graveyard, and an evil developer who lets nothing, including death, stop him, and a naked warrior princess who’s off her meds, and, well, yeah, a lot of elements that would be difficult to define […]
August 1, 2016

Book review: “The Long Season” by Jim Brosnan

Jim Brosnan’s books about two years in his life as a baseball player — The Long Season, published in 1960) and Pennant Race (1962) — were the first and last of their kind. The books were the first time an active player wrote about what it was like to go through a baseball season — and off-season. Brosnan, a right-handed pitcher, took readers inside the clubhouse, the dugout and the bullpen and allowed them to listen in as he and his teammates grouse, kibbitz, strategize, scheme and ponder the greater and lesser questions of life. They opened the door for many other books including the Ball Four by Jim Bouton, a scandalous tome for many baseball traditionalists, and for generations of ex-players who went into the broadcast booth to tell listeners and viewers what was really happening on the field and in the minds of the ballplayers and managers. Yet, none of those books and none of those color commentators have come anywhere close to being as achingly honest about what it’s like to play professional baseball as Brosnan. These books, covering the 1959 and 1961 seasons, are love letters to baseball. And also forthright, unguarded descriptions of the physical […]