Friday, April 27, 2007

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, 1999.

I re-read, from time to time. You may, reading this entry, be interested in reading about the last time I read this book--though I said even less about it, then, in January of 2004.

There’s an elusiveness to Dillard’s musings. She presents an idea, and then a story. A reflection, and another story, and another idea. Seemingly unconnected they weave together with a lack of tangibility akin to the attempt to dance about architecture.

This book about life, and its essential nature as ephemeral. About death, and its pervasiveness. About meaning, in a life lived—and that lack of tangibility beyond a mere moment. About theodicy, and about what it means to believe, to be in relationship with God.

There is a striking beauty in this patchwork quilt of ideas, thoughts, and reflections. The spare-ness of Dillard’s writing combines with the weight of the subject and with her unflagging sense of wonder in the face of life, death, God, and existence, to create a book that is not sum-up-able in a short post on this blog. Rather, the book is an experience designed to awaken questions in the mind of the reader, and to provide an organising metaphor or two—to provide an image—that might help the reader struggle with these perennial questions. Dillard returns, time and again, to the prayers of thanksgiving of the Jewish community, at every aspect (both positive and negative) of life, and to the thought and wonder of the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I don’t know if the second will provide lasting insight for me. Certainly, the contrast between the vastness of time of geologic processes and the brevity of our lived experience is telling, but I feel a degree of being unsettled that makes me long for some of the unwoven threads of this book to be more neatly tied together. I don’t yet know if that’s a desire reflective of an incompleteness that should not be, or of an incompleteness that is me not yet fully engaged with the questions Dillard raises for me. I do know it’s a book to which I will need to return.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Paul Gibson, Discerning the Word: The Bible and Homosexuality in Anglican Debate, 2000.

I want to be Paul Gibson. Well, in fairness, it’d be more accurate to say that I have a deep and abiding respect for the Rev. Dr. Paul Gibson. He writes and speaks with astounding clarity and insight, and is to my mind the epitome of someone whose attempt to articulate issues of faith honestly and prayerfully, with the deepest possible commitment to engaging fully with scripture, reason, and tradition.

His book is interesting enough on the issue of homosexuality and the church, but what makes me appreciate it more deeply still is his care and sensitive approach to how scripture has been read, and how scripture should be read. For example:

It is possible to treat the Bible in exactly the way earlier generations of Christians treated the person of Jesus and the sacrament of the Last Supper. [that is, particularising one aspect in such detail as to move into heresy] It is possible to deny the human, the this-world dimension of the Bible and with the same devastating results.

Gibson offers a path for reading and engaging with scripture in a way that finds a via media between Bibliolatry and the dismissal of the Bible as mere human scratchings, and his path is a clear statement of how I myself think the Bible should be read. Someday, I’d like to be able to articulate such things as well as does the Rev. Dr. Gibson. It's a book well worth reading, to think about how to be with scripture.

For some online wisdom from the Rev. Dr. Gibson, read through his response to the St. Michael report.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Rakoff, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, 2005.

I met Rakoff as I met David Sedaris: through listening to NPR’s This American Life. Someday I will recover from my desire to have Ira Glass’s job. Maybe.

This collection of essays is not, generally, laugh-out-loud funny. It’s thoughtful: Rakoff muses and considers. He shares personal experiences, and the essays feel almost like magazine pieces, if the magazine in question happened to be The Believer. They range from experiencing a private resort to fasting, from becoming an American citizen to foraging for food in the wilderness of New York City, and so forth.

My favourite piece is “J.D.V., M.I.A.” In it, Rakoff describes participating in a scavenger hunt in which one elaborate clue leads to the next; I identify strongly with his relative inability to solve the brainteasers, and feeling out-of-place with those who can. For me, it happens when I try to engage with a cryptic crossword: I might get one or two answers, but my brain doesn’t turn sideways that way. Present in the essay is an admiration combined with a sense of self-recognition and self-awareness that appeals strongly to me.

The pieces are pleasant. They are occasionally sharp and acerbic, but never mean. Rakoff tends to move toward a flatter, more descriptive prose style that lacks emotional content, when he wants to convey disappointment or other negative perceptions of some subject, and that habit gives the book a charitable, polite tone. It’s an engaging read, well-worth the time it will take you.

Friday, April 06, 2007

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green, 2006.

Despite internship pressure, despite the busy-ness of Holy Week, I finished a novel that I thought was going to take me a lot longer to read. Black Swan Green is, you see, brutal. It is brilliantly written; it is a compelling read. Its sharply accurate portrayal of childhood, though, is brilliant.

The story is part general bildungsroman and part künstlerroman. Describing it that way might well frighten off people who have been forced to read too many of such things—ah, Wilhelm Meister, and your apprenticeship!—but Mitchell’s story of Jason Taylor as he moves from childhood to a more adult view of the world, and into someone who begins to take his art seriously—is fresh and entirely enjoyable.

It’s told from Taylor’s perspective, complete with daydreams, nightmares, and musings. The nasty pecking order of middle school, and bullies, and the sheer miserable-ness of other miserable people combined to bring back repressed memories in myself, which floods may well explain why I found it a brutal book to read. Taylor falls in love, watches the turmoil in his family, and tries to make sense of what it is to want to read and to write when such things are “gay”—and how desperately, madly, does he want to fit in and to be popular! Yet given opportunities for advancement, he rejects them when they conflict with his own developing moral sense. Jason’s the kind of kid you’d be happy to call your own: earnest, and trying to do the right thing. You just wouldn’t want him to have to go through his travails.

I’m making it sound like a dire book, but it’s infused as well with a gentle, self-deprecating humour. I can’t recommend it highly enough; Black Swan Green is a wonderful book, and one I’d like to see widely read.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Susan Howatch, Glamorous Powers, 1988.

I mentioned the first one in this series some weeks ago, and my thoughts about this one are much the same. It's a decent book, but not quite what I hoped for. Heavy on the Freudian analysis. Far less plausible than the first; I have trouble believing that the central character of this book, Jon Darrow, could have been so effective a spiritual director in the first book with his own self so unbalanced. The notion of glamorous powers is intriguing, though--and the book explores well how misused they can be in ministry and within the church.

I'm not convinced I'm going to read the other four novels any time soon, but we'll see. I'll want to relax with pulp this summer.