According to recent polls, Americans are angry. They are angry about the economy, about the role of government in their lives, about the direction their country has taken. They are angry with the president and with the Congress. Some are angry because the government gives too much, others because the government gives too little. Many want the government to “fix” the economy. (This comes from a people who owe enormous personal debt via credit cards and loans, who often refuse work if it doesn’t pay salaries to which they are accustomed, who often pay no income tax themselves, who have lamented the transfer of their manufacturing base overseas while at the same time buying Chinese at Wal-Mart, whose corporations move abroad because of high taxes or remain here because of no taxes, who have forgotten that dependence on government leads not to freedom but to slavery).
We are thoroughly politicized even in our daily lives, followers of ideologies — until recently, a distinctly un-American trait — rather than as citizens bound by a spirit of compromise, a common law, a belief in liberty, and the search for pragmatic solutions.
We have traded horse sense for nonsense.
In Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age (ISBN 978-1-933859-88-0, $29.95), author and editor Gregory Wolfe sets out to show us a different path — or rather, how to return to the path once followed by even our recent ancestors. Put succinctly, and quite badly in comparison to Wolfe’s own stylish prose, Wolfe urges us abandon our ideological battles and return to the “old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty” as the criteria for making our democracy and our personal lives once again working propositions.
In the first two chapters of Beauty Will Save The World, Wolfe builds the foundation for this thesis. He tells us of his own struggles as a young man engaged in the culture wars, of moving from libertarianism to conservativism, and then beyond. His distaste for many who professed conservatism grew as he worked to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, when his fellow politicos, despite having pushed forward a president who had promised to shrink government, “jockeyed for positions in the new administration, including jobs in departments those stalwarts had resolutely promised to abolish. My euphoria evaporated and was replaced by something close to moral revulsion.”
Unlike others who undergo such a sea-change, Wolfe did not turn to the left for answers. He realized that both camps lacked in some way the keys to life and spirit which he was seeking. Instead, he sought out these keys in the realm of art, culture, philosophy, and faith, and unlocked, it would seem, the doors which could restore for many of us the proper way to live and become fully human in an age political rants and rages. In his chapter titled “Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture,” Wolfe gives us the heart of his argument:
“It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture — that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship, and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.”
An examination of the works of different writers and artists, and the way in which those works have played into our culture, takes up most of Wolfe’s book. He looks at writers of fiction as famous as Evelyn Waugh and as unduly neglected as Larry Woiwode; he examines in depth the work of various poets, especially that of the Englishman Geoffrey Hill; he analyzes the work of Southerners like Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, and Marion Montgomery; he discusses painters like Fred Folsom (his in-depth exploration of Folsom’s “Last Call” is worth the price of the book alone).
In Beauty Will Save The World — this title comes from an enigmatic statement made by Dostovesky which fortunately for us once captured the imagination of Wolfe — the author issues a ringing call to turn from the ideological wars of our day, wars which are ruining both our government and our democracy, and to try and find common ground in our culture, in what can be deemed true and good and beautiful. Wolfe, like a few other observers of the battlefield, has here issued a manifesto that may not only lead to peace among neighbors, but to a deeper realization of what is truly worthy of our attention.
Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age by Gregory Wolfe. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011. 278 pages
Craig S. Bulkeley’s Hope For The Children Of The Sun: Curing The Sonnenkinder Syndrome Called Contemporary Christian Worship (the book may be ordered at your local bookstore or on-line at www.WorshipPress.com aligns itself well with Wolfe’s musings. Sonnenkinder refers to “children of the sun,” a popular name for the European youth culture between the two World Wars.
In this well-reasoned and well-documented short book, Bulkeley points out how the youth culture of the last 60 years has altered the liturgies and services of so many Protestant denominations. After analyzing the development of the twentieth century youth culture — he makes extensive use of Martin Green’s best-selling Children of the Sun — Bulkeley shows why “it is not surprising that the weak church would welcome the ways of the children into its worship practices beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and embrace them wholeheartedly by the opening of the 21st century.” Bulkeley then argues impressively for the return of maturity to the church and to its worship of God.
Bulkeley, who is an attorney and the pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, brings to this book the clean arguments of a legal mind and the impassioned faith of a minister of God. This combination offers a finely-reasoned, clear read for all interested in this issue.
“At last I have come into a dreamland.” So wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe shortly after her arrival in Paris in June of 1853.
Stowe had gone to Paris for the same reasons Americans still visit the City of Light: a desire for adventure, a taste for art, an escape from the rigors or familiarity of life in the States — in Stowe‘s case, from her sudden unanticipated fame after the publication of Uncle Tom‘s Cabin.
Americans in Paris usually call to mind the cafes frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the seedy hotels of Henry Miller, the soldier-writers like James Jones and William Styron who headed for Paris following the Second World War. Today we think of student hostels, university “study abroad” programs, and a city which millions of Americans have visited in the last 50 years, all of them bringing their own hopes and desires for what they might find there.
Rarely, however, do we think of Paris as an American destination in the 19th century. We are aware of the impression left by Benjamin Franklin on the French, of the role the city played in the lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Until now, few of us would even have thought that there were Americans living in Paris between the era of the Founding Fathers and the time of the “Lost Generation” of the First World War.
In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (ISBN 978-1-4165-71176-6, $37.50), best-selling historian and biographer David McCullough corrects this perception by giving us a fascinating account of the lives of Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1900. Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James: these and many other Americans visited Paris and felt, to varying degrees, its influence in their lives.
In The Greater Journey, McCullough examines both this influence and the way in which Americans interacted with one another in so strange and different a place. In his account of Morse and Cooper, for example, we are given not only insights into the world of art at this time — for years Morse worked slavishly to become a painter before helping bring the telegraph to the world — but McCullough also shows us the strong friendship between these two men. Cooper came to Paris a famous writer, while Morse was a struggling painter, yet for their time in the city they became the best of friends. Cooper became intrigued by his friend’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre,” an enormous work featuring a gallery filled with paintings and Cooper himself, and would visit Morse daily at his work to offer encouragement. Along with this account of the two men McCullough gives us their biographies in miniature, allowing us to see them more completely both as Americans and as travelers.
Here are dozens of other portraits. We learn about the importance of Paris to the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; we discover Mary Putnam and her determination to pursue medical studies in spite of many obstacles; we watch George Caitlin, the painter of the Plains Indians, and the tribal members who came under his auspices to the city and were admired by King Louis-Philippe; we gain access to the studio of Mary Cassatt, one of the great American Impressionists of this era.
In addition to telling us a relatively unknown story of Americans overseas, McCullough also gives a fine account of Paris itself during these years: the revolutions in art and politics, the plagues, the renovation of the city, the war against the Germans in 1870, the awful siege that followed.
We learn more than a little about French politics and painting, Parisian cuisine (which included the eating of rats during the great siege), the medical and technological advances of the era, literature and poetry. We see how Americans often carried home what they had learned from the French and made it a part of their own work.
This 500-page book also includes many photographs of these Americans abroad and examples of their artwork. Readers will find these invaluable in terms of following McCullough’s discussion of them.
For John Singer Sargent, for example, we not only have examples here of his portraiture, but we have sketches of Sargent by a fellow art student, a photograph of the artist in his studio working on one of his most notorious works, “Madame X”, the work itself, and his action painting, “El Jaleo.”
Readers will find themselves time and again turning from the text to these pictures, grateful that McCullough and his publisher saw fit to include them as an important part of the story.
David McCullough, who has authored such fine histories as 1776 and The Great Bridge, and whose biographies — Truman, Mornings on Horseback, John Adams — have done so much to arouse the interest of Americans in their past, has again struck gold.
The Greater Journey offers us a wonderful opportunity to visit a hidden part of the American past and to come away from that visit feeling as if we have gained a treasure of information.
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 2011. 576 pages.
Danielle Ganek’s The Summer We Read Gatsby (ISBN 978-0-670-02178-9, $28.95) tells the story of two half-sisters, Cassie, a translator for a Swiss lifestyle magazine, and Peck, an often-unemployed actress who loves vintage clothing, gossip, and parties. When their cherished Aunt Lydia dies, she leaves to the Moriarty sisters co-ownership of Fool’s House, the ramshackle home located in Long Island’s Hamptons, with instructions that they are to sell the house and split the proceeds.
In addition to spending a good bit of time wrangling over whether to follow through on these instructions — both young women entertain wonderful memories of the house and its magical place in their lives — Cassie and Peck also enter into a series of adventures together. Though Cassie is the narrator of the novel, it is Peck, the more vivacious of the two, who leads their excursions into literature, love, and art. Peck drags Cassie off to her beloved parties, revitalizes her in the morning with a pick-me-up, and introduces her to such ideas as the “dressing drink,” which is of course the drink taken while dressing for a party. After Peck is convinced that her old flame, Miles Noble, has invited her to a Gatsby party to win her back — he introduced her to Fitzgerald’s book — she spends most of the novel pursuing him while encouraging Cassie in her own love life. Other characters and situations intrude: the gay neighbor who watches over the girls with an avuncular eye; the eccentric houseguest; the theft of a painting, possibly the work of Jackson Pollock; the collection of eccentrics who mingle at the summer’s parties.
The Summer We Read Gatsby satisfies on every level. The plot is intriguing, holding our attention to the last pages, which offer several surprises. The characters are all finely drawn, particularly those of Cassie and Peck. Ganek makes both young women come alive on the page — Cassie as shy, a little aloof, reserved, and Peck as a sort of amiable “bad girl” who entertains the reader on every page on which she appears (the last four pages, in which Peck becomes the novel‘s narrator, will have the reader laughing aloud). Here, for example, is Peck on men and the great love of her life, Miles Noble:
“Men were always falling in love with Peck, or so she would tell me. And she did have a regal air that seemed to bring out the passion in even the mousiest littler creatures. But inevitably she’d come with several reasons to be disappointed. A passion for cats, for example. Or ordering a salad for dinner. Or the wrong sorts of shoes. “Tasseled loafers,” she would whisper into the phone, as if such a thing were so awful it couldn’t be voiced too loudly. It explained everything. Afterward, she’d always add, “Well, he was no Miles Noble.”
From the above we can discern the other strengths of Ganek’s writing and storytelling. In Cassie, she offers a warm voice that draws the reader into the story. Cassie, like nearly all good first-person narrators, puts us on her side, invites us rather than forces us to see life as she does. We also see Ganek’s ability to create a quick character study. For example, we leave this paragraph with a sizable image of Peck in mind; we can see her on the phone as she whispers to her caller.
Most importantly, there is a gaiety and insouciance that runs through Danielle Ganek’s book thatoften seems sadly absent from much fiction these days. Reading The Summer We Read Gatsby is as refreshing as a glass of lemonade during the recent heat wave — or better still, as one of Peck’s “dressing drinks.” With style, intelligence, and humor, Ganek explores the bonds of sisterhood, the debts we owe to the dead, the place of art and literature in our lives, the importance of friendship and the possibilities of love.
The Summer We Read Gatsby is a diamond of a book: sharply cut, glittering, lovely. Ganek is the author of another novel, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, and is at work on a third novel.
If The Summer We Read Gatsby is like a tall cool drink, Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (ISBN 978-0-307-37794-4, $27.95) is like a dash — for some people, better make that a bucketful — of cold water. Author of books like The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Jacoby here turns her gimlet eye on aging and on our response to it and to dying. She contrasts traditional attitudes toward aging and death to those of our own time, when we see all around us myths and fairy tales about how long we may live and how we may through different treatments defy the ravages of age. She reveals the various hucksters feeding off those who are approaching old age: the health food and vitamin gurus, the advocates of “staying young”, those who regard death as a “disease.“ She takes to task the baby-boomer obsession with the “youth culture” and offers at the end of the book the idea that growing old gracefully may mean simply allowing oneself to grow old.
Though readers may argue with certain points of Never Say Die — Jacoby’s take on attitudes toward aging, for example, gets more than a little silly — and though some of us probably don’t need to read this book (I have only to glance in the mirror to certify that I am growing old), this book is nonetheless a powerful reminder that most of us will grow old, will feel old, will look old, and will eventually die. To those who deal with the undertaker and the grave about as well as the Victorians dealt with sex, Never Say Die offers a powerful reminder of the inevitability of death.
“Look left and right, and be careful.” Your mother probably said those words to you when you were learning to cross the street. Her same admonition might apply to today’s political arena.
In one of the summer’s best-sellers, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America (ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1, $28.99), author Ann Coulter argues, as the book’s flyleaf puts it, that “liberals exhibit all the psychological characteristics of a mob — practicing groupthink, slavishly following intellectual fashions, and periodically bursting into violence.”
Often justly accused of inflammatory writing — she is not only despised by liberals, but by many mainstream Republic pundits and politicians as well, who fear being tainted by what they regard as her extremism — Coulter here follows the pattern set in her other books, mixing broad statements (“Liberals speak with the fatuous lunacy of people in the old Soviet Union, passing out awards to one another for imaginary heroism …”), statistics, and somewhat generalized history. Whether on the left or right, most political commentators these days use the same formula, mixing fact and speculation to support their own presuppositions.
Evidence of Coulter’s own prejudices — ”Liberals bad, conservatives good” — begins with the title, Demonic, and continues throughout the book. For this reason, liberals will not read the book, and conservatives will come to it agreeing ahead of time with its main points, consuming it as intellectual comfort food.
Though touted by some conservative reviewers as Coulter’s best book, Demonic will not win any awards for its literary attributes. Coulter is a better columnist than a writer of books, a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner, and this quality shows in the book. Though she does write in a lively manner, she repeats her arguments and examples, and often paints her case with too broad a brush. Her training as an attorney shows here, as it does in her other writing, in that she builds a case for her client — in this instance, conservatives — while marshalling selected facts against her liberal opponents.
Yet Demonic does bring up two points which political and cultural liberals might ponder with some gain. The first has to do with political rhetoric and violence in America. Coulter makes a convincing case that much of the political violence in the last 40 years has come from the left rather than the right of the political spectrum.
We like to think of “right-wing extremists” plotting assassinations and toting guns, but Coulter draws our attention to the fact that assassinations and mob violence, ranging from shouting down speakers on campus to breaking up political rallies, are much more a legacy of the left. One startling example which she uses comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarded by most conservatives as extremely left-wing, which concluded that “Extremists within the environmental and animals rights movements have committed literally thousands of violent criminal acts in recent decades — arguably more than those from any other radical sector, left or right.”
Both liberals and conservatives might also gain from reading Coulter on revolution and mobs. We Americans are fond of the word revolution — we just celebrated our own break from Britain and a king, and like to speak of a revolution in everything from computers to the foods we eat. Yet Coulter’s two-chapter look at the French Revolution reminds all of us, particularly those who read little history, of the cost in blood of a revolution. Here Coulter writes vividly of the executions, of the bloodthirsty pomposity of the revolutionaries, of the evil that humans may do in a good cause (In one case cited by Coulter, a woman arrested in a case of mistaken identity was proven innocent, but was executed “because she was there anyway.”) Revolutions nearly always mean the blood-letting of innocent people and consequences unforeseen, two circumstances that should always temper the welcome our government and our media give to such events as “the Arab Spring.”
In Liberating Liberals: A Political Synthesis of Nietzsche & Jesus, Vonnegut & Marx (Groucho, not Karl), Gandhi & Machiavelli (ISBN 978-0-557-68680-3), Bill Branyon has issued a call to liberals to become “free-thinkers” rather than doctrinaire politicos and to live with more joy in their lives.
The spirit behind Branyon’s book is enthusiastic and joyful. He is clearly a man who enjoys laughter, and his sense of humor carries onto the pages of Liberating Liberals. The book’s chief asset is it exhortation to liberals embrace this sense of joy and spontaneity. Branyon writes:
“Our efforts will be greatly enhanced by simply becoming more loyal to our freethinking ideals, by becoming more comfortable and happy with the current facts of political and personal life, and by insulating our imaginations and goals against the constant assaults of conservatives.”
Liberating Liberals is weak in its organization, its use of language and syntax, and in explaining the very thing which it espouses — “free thinking.” In one part of the book, Branyon attacks grammar rules as a residue of “the 18th century aristocrat” and goes on to state that grammar should not be taught until late in high school. “And even then,” he adds, “if it seems to inhibit someone’s desire to write, back off.” Liberating Liberals itself, which would have benefited from editing and clearer thinking, argues against Branyon’s case here.
This same problem — unclear usage coupled with loose thinking — runs throughout the book. Branyon calls for a 20-hour work week so that human beings may become more humane, but never tells us how we are to reach that state. (He does cite Denmark as an example, extolling its vacations and cradle-to-grave socialism, but fails to mention that European economies are falling apart). He mingles Biblical quotations with lyrics from Joni Mitchell and observations from Nietzsche, but these rarely hang together in an argument for any point.
Finally, Liberating Liberals needed to clearly define certain terms: “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly free thinker (I have yet to meet one. If indeed “free-thinkers” ever existed, I suspect they have long gone the way of raphus cucullatus). Is a Marxist a liberal? Are liberals free-thinkers? Should we really scoff at men like Franklin and Jefferson because they used “pen and quill while we use word processors and the internet?”
“As prisoners of their own fundamentalism,” Branyon writes, “conservatives are extremely learning disabled.” If that is true, and if the freethinking view as presented in Liberating Liberals is the alternative, then we may all want to go to some other school for our education.
Paris in the 1920s attracted multitudes of American writers and artists. Drawn to France by a sense of adventure, by a strong dollar, by French culture, and not least, by the fact that in France the wine and spirits flowed legally and copiously while America underwent its experiment with Prohibition, writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, and the young and unknown Thomas Wolfe all came to Paris in that decade. The city left a lasting mark on them, and they repaid the favor by writing of their romance with the City of Lights. “Paris was always worth it and you received return from whatever you brought to it,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, his account of his years there. “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
Woody Allen’s newest movie, “Midnight In Paris,” which is a love-song to Paris both as it is now and as it was when those Americans first discovered it, offers viewers a pleasurable take on American literature and writing. In the film, which was both written and directed by Allen, a modern-day screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) has gone with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents for a visit to Paris. Gil, who idealizes the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, dislikes his own work and wants to finish his novel, a book in which he has little faith. Fearful that Gil may give up his lucrative position in the film industry for an impossible dream, Inez belittles his attempts at higher literature and has nothing but derision for his nostalgia.
One evening Gil becomes lost in the city while making his way back to his hotel. As the clock strikes midnight, some party-goers in an antique Peugeot pulls alongside him and invite him to come with them. As the car whisks Gil though the streets, he quickly discovers that he has somehow traveled in time back to the Roaring Twenties. He meets Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), then Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who agrees to read his manuscript. Night after night, Gil returns to this lost era, meeting artists and writers ranging from T. S. Eliot to Pablo Picasso, from Man Ray to Salvador Dali, and eventually falls in love with Adriana (Marian Cotillard), Picasso’s mistress. Though Allen takes liberties with some of the characters and their lives — Hemingway, for example, did not go to Africa for a safari while living as a young man in Paris — the sheer fun and pleasure offered to lovers of literature by this movie should overcome objections by purists to such insertions.
To say more about the plot of this delightful film would spoil the ending. What can be added, however, is that “Midnight In Paris” is not only a pleasure to watch — the movie opens with a mélange of shots of modern-day Paris so beautiful and moving that the viewer may leave the theater ready to take the next flight to France — but also offers a series of meditations on art and on time. We hear from Hemingway and Stein about writing and what makes it “true and good,” as Hemingway might say; we receive quick insights into how artists like Dali and Picasso thought; and finally, we see in Gil the struggle between the philistine and the artist.
Allen also cleverly makes an important statement about the nature of time, the idea of a golden age, and the present. In the movie, Gil wants to go back to the Paris of the 1920s. Adrianna in turn fantasizes about life in La Belle Époque, the 1890s, and men like Degas and Gauguin, whom we encounter briefly, think that the Renaissance was the best time for being an artist. By the end of the movie we come to see through Gil’s eyes the dangers of such nostalgia. We begin to understand, as he does, that the age in which we live has its own compensations, its own responsibilities, its own joys and sorrows, and that both the human being and the artist must live in their own time rather than pine for the past. Though we may not realize it until the movie is over, this message is embedded in the very beginning of the movie, with those lovely scenes from today’s Paris.
In Listen (ISBN 978-1-4143-2433-3, 2010, $12.99), Christian novelist Rene Gutteridge tells the story of Marlo, a town where an anonymous person suddenly begins recording intimate conversations and transcribing them onto the Internet. Though this thief of secrets posts these conversations without identifying those involved, the townspeople and those involved in their lives easily recognize their own words. These conversations soon cause an uproarious falling-out among neighbors and family members. Some incidents turn violent, and the police become involved, trying to track down the person responsible for these episodes as well as to repair the damage done by the gossip and innuendo posted online.
Gutterridge will win no awards for style or finesse in Listen — like many other books published in the Christian genre, her workaday prose is flat and unexciting — but she is a fine storyteller who raises some interesting questions: How responsible are we for the words we speak? What effect do words have on those around us? How much weight should we give to words spoken in anger or passion?
For the past several years we have seen the consequences of words and images on certain people and events. This summer alone has given us the emails of Sarah Palin, which were largely innocuous, and the crotch shots of Congressman Weiner, which revealed not only his nether regions but also a near-unbelievable stupidity. Listen is a well-timed reminder that loose speech — and in Weiner’s case, loose drawers — often has unforeseen consequences.
Listen by Rene Gutteridge. Tyndale House Publishers, 2010. 432 pages.
Father’s Day, the third Sunday of June and so falls this year on June 19, sports a peculiar history. Although first proposed as a holiday in 1908 by Grace Clayton of West Virginia, and pushed later by Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Wash., with the help of the YMCA, the YWCA, and various churches, the idea was greeted with derision by many. For years it was the object of satire, in large part because people feared its commercialization along the lines of Mother’s Day. Even the punctuation of the designated day — should it be Fathers’ Day or Father’s Day? — was an object of some debate. Not until 1972 did President Richard Nixon sign the bill that officially declared Father’s Day a national holiday.
Father’s Day also offers more of a dilemma to children than its maternal counterpart. Though we may have difficulty choosing a gift for mom, the bare essentials seem to include at least flowers and a meal which she doesn’t have to prepare herself. With dads the issue is more complicated. Flowers seem a trifle goofy, even by our loose conventions, and a special meal loses some of its meaning unless Dad is the household chef. Neckties, once the fallback gift for males on such occasions, are too much of a cliché and too little worn to be an option. So what’s left to progeny wishing to honor fatherhood?
Buy books, of course.
The easiest way to give Dad something to read is by means of a gift certificate. This option allows him the pleasures of shopping a bookstore and selecting a book which he will read. If a gift certificate seems a little chilly, however, there are many books that will appeal to Dad. Nearly all bookshops set up special displays for fathers this time of year, offering buyers a wide selection of purchases designed to offer Dad some diversion.
One of the stranger books found on one of these displays this year was Sh*t My Dad Says (ISBN 978-0-06-199270-4, $15.99). Here Justin Halpern gives us the profane paternal adages of his own father that make Pat Conroy’s Great Santini look like a sixth-grade altar boy. On Internet service, for example, Mr. Halpern comments: “I don’t want it … I understand what it does … Yes, I do. And I don’t give a sh*t if all your friends have it. All of your friends have dopey f*cking haircuts, too, but you don’t see me running to my barber.” On Bring-Your-Dad-To-School Day: “Who are all these f*cking parents who can take a day off? If I’m taking a day off, I ain’t gonna spend it sitting at some tiny desk with a bunch of eleven-year-olds.” On LEGOs: “Listen, I don’t want to stifle your creativity, but that thing you built there, it looks like a pile of sh*t.” On hair: “Do people your age know how to comb their hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their heads and started f*cking.”
Sh*t My Dad Says is humorous when first perused, but after 10 or 15 pages of this short book some readers may find themselves not only appalled by the profanity and sarcasm of Mr. Helpern, but thankful that they themselves never had to suffer such a father. Mr. Halpern eventually comes across here as a real jerk, emotionally stunted, a man little and bitter in spirit whose profanity and bile make him even smaller than he already is.
Readers looking for a better gift for Father’s Day might take a look at Washington: A Life (ISBN 978-1-59420-256-7, $40). Biographer Ron Chernow, author of books about the Morgan family, Alexander Hamilton, and the senior Rockefeller, gives us a fine life of the father of our country. Whether writing about Washington’s New Jersey campaign or about his problems establishing some of the parameters of the newly-created office of president, Chernow delivers the man in crisp, lively prose. His feeling for the era of Washington and the manner in which he introduces the scores of other historical figures who surround the man easily make this one of the more readable and at the same time more accurate biographies of the past year.
Like our own age, Washington’s time boiled with political scandal and struggles over rights and powers, yet Washington himself “consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene.” He differed in many ways from many of the Founding Fathers: he had begun working as a teenager, deprived of the classical education given men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; he was a surveyor and planter rather than an attorney; he had placed himself again and again in the path of bullets and death; he truly disliked political intrigue and jockeying for political position. Critical of slavery, but caught up in an economic system which depended on such exploitation for its wealth, he ordered his slaves to be freed after his death.
Near the end of his study of Washington, Chernow shares with us one great secret of Washington’s effectiveness as a leader:
“George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest … History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country.”
Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. It Books, 2010. 176 pages
Nearly 50 years have passed the death of C.S. Lewis — he died of illness in 1963 on the same November day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated — yet Lewis remains a household name and a best-selling author. Although he taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, where he was a respected medieval and Renaissance scholar, he is today best known for his novels and his tomes on Christian apologetics. The release of different films based on the Chronicles of Narnia have only enlarged his audience for these stories, his space trilogy continues to attract readers, and many Christians, new and old alike, are familiar with his books on faith: The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy, and others.
Often, however, even readers who are reasonably well-acquainted with the work of Lewis express surprise when asked about his novel Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Though this book, which some critics regard as the best of Lewis’ novels, lends itself to rereading, deep discussion, and numerous interpretations, many Lewis fans have never read Till We Have Faces, and many more have never heard of it.
This is regrettable, for these readers are missing a deep, rich mine of a book, a dark story scintillating with bright gems: strong characters, bold themes, a universal story. Till We Have Faces recreates the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which, as Lewis writes in a note at the end of the book, he took from Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius Pltaonicus. In the original myth as recounted by Apuleius — and there are several variations — Psyche is the mortal daughter of a powerful king. She is the most beautiful maiden in all the land. Eventually, Venus becomes jealous of Psyche and directs her son, Cupid, to punish Psyche. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche and takes her to his bridal chamber. Psyche, however, at the urging of her sisters, disobeys Cupid’s command not to look on him (he visits her only in the night), is apprehended, and must then wander the earth looking for her lover. After many trials, she and Cupid are finally reunited.
This myth gives readers much to ponder. Cupid is Eros, the god of sexual desire, and Psyche means soul in Greek (It also means butterfly, of which Thomas Bullfinch once wrote that “there is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain … to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring.”)
In this ancient myth we see the workings of Eros on love, and yet we sympathize with Psyche as well as she reveals the sufferings which the soul must undergo to attain the deepest and fullest measure of love. The child eventually produced by the union of Cupid and Psyche is strikingly named Pleasure — not the term as we generally understand it, but pleasure meant more in the sense of pleasing. The offspring of Eros and Soul, in other words, is pleasing, right, good.
In Till We Have Faces, Lewis gives us the same general tale as Apuleius, but he deepens the characters, adds more detail to the plot, and more fully develops his own theme. In Lewis’ version, Orual, Psyche’s older sister, tells the tale of her family and the kingdom of Glome, of which her father is the king. Orual is a complicated character, rejected by her father for her ugliness, obsessively in love with her sister, a girl who by the end of the book becomes a cunning queen and a harsh judge of people. Always suffering from the loss of her sister, for which she blames on the gods, Orual has even prepared a brief against these deities for the pain they have brought to the kingdom of Glome, to her sister Psyche, and to herself.
In addition to Psyche, two other characters play important roles in the book and in Orual’s life. The first is her tutor and good friend, the Fox, a Greek slave and an atheistic philosopher who represents rational thinking. The second is Lord Bardia, her chief military commander and close friend, who encourages her in the ways of duty, honor, and justice. Through her own selfishness, Orual eventually destroys the lives of both men, wanting them, as she wanted Psyche, completely for herself and for her own needs, rather than allowing them the small freedoms of life due to them.
By his retelling of this myth, Lewis has given us a very modern story about love, the will, the soul, and the relationship between them. He delves more powerfully than Apuleius into the central theme of the Greek myth, that Cupid, who is Love, is made for Psyche, or the soul, and that their union results in Pleasure, which is the pleasure of a soul infused with love.
Through Orual’s account of her life we also come to understand what happens when we pervert or twist love. We see the many masks of false love we wear, the facades we erect, most often unwittingly, to protect ourselves, the disguises we wear in our self-righteousness to justify our actions. Here Orual becomes our mirror. As she slowly comprehends her terrible flaws — her domination of those around her, her twisted sense of true love, her quarrels with the gods — we readers become aware of our own awful failings and misjudgments, of our own responsibility for so horribly wounding those around us, particularly those whom we profess to love most. We may even come to understand, at some level, the lesson finally learned by Orual: that we cannot meet the gods face to face till we ourselves have faces.
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis. Harcourt Brace & Company. 324 pages
Kind hearts, allow me to introduce Police Detective, Harry Hole. Let me warn you in advance, he is an alcoholic who manages to keep his job in the House of Pain (Oslo’s Robbery Division) by cunning and a talent for catching elusive criminals — a fact that pleases his superiors and angers many of his career-minded peers. Harry prefers to work alone and has a reputation for using “unorthodox methods.” Although acquaintances frequently describe him as “tall, sullen, blond ... and ugly.” (He maintains relationships with women that tend to be perverse, passionate and/or downright disturbing.
At the present time, the Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo, has completed a half-dozen thrillers that feature Harry Hole. As a result, Nesbo has become the most popular detective fiction writer in Europe. Due to the complexities of publishing (and translating) Norwegian fiction into English, Harry Hole’s following in America has been delayed. The first novels — The Redbreast, The Devil’s Star, The Leopard, The Redeemer and Nemesis — have become astonishingly popular throughout Europe and although they are now available on Amazon, some titles are still difficult to acquire. The advance sales demand for Nesbo’s last two books, Snowman and Phantom, have already made them bestsellers, even though they will not be released in America until May (Snowman) and June (Phantom).
Amid a lot of promotional hysteria that calls Nesbo “the new Steig Larsson” (in this reviewer’s opinion, he is much better than that) and critical essays about the “Norwegian Invasion of crime literature,” it is clear that the Harry Hole novels herald an innovative and appealing development in crime literature. But how are these novels different? Is it Harry’s unique character or Nesbo’s gift for descriptive details?
This review focuses on Nemesis simply because this is the only Harry Hole mystery that this crime fiction fan could find. (The others are on back order.) Nemesis is third or fourth in the Harry Hole series and as a result, a new reader may feel like he has entered in the middle of a movie. There are references to events that occurred several years ago, including the unsolved murder of Harry’s lover, Ellen Gjelten — a tragedy that is partially responsible for Harry’s dark moods and alcoholism.
There are also a number of recurring regular characters: Inspector Tom Waaler, a sinister police officer who has created a kind of vigilante squad of maverick cops and who hates/fears Harry (Tom may be involved in Ellen’s death), and Rune Avarsson, an envious administrator who bitterly resents Harry’s success in solving crimes.
However, Nemesis easily stands alone since Jo Nesbo possesses a remarkable talent for sustaining suspense while developing an intricate plot filled with obscure facts about forensic medicine, astronomy, psychology, current “pop” music and cooking.
In Nemesis, Harry Hole must solve two murders: the first involves the shooting of a female bank employee, Stine Grette, during a robbery. Harry is perplexed by the fact that the murder appears unnecessary since the surveillance cameras in the bank revealed that the masked robber had acquired the money ...yet he shoots the bank employee anyway.
The second murder is a bit more personal. A former girlfriend of Harry’s, Anna Bethsen (an unstable, failed artist), invites him to dinner. During the meal, he is drugged and dumped outside Anna’s apartment. When he regains consciousness, Harry has no memory of his dinner with Anna. When he returns to Anna’s (locked) apartment, he finds her dead in what appears to be a suicide. Notifying the police with an anonymous call, Harry silently watches as an inept investigation closes, finding the cause of death to be suicide. Although Harry suspects that Anna was murdered, he also realizes if the case is reopened he will be the prime suspect.
Adding to the intricate threads of the plot, Harry finds that the burglary division has recently employed Beate Lonn, the daughter of a murdered policeman who possesses a rare talent called “fusiform gyrus,” which means that she can recognize and recall the details of every human face she has ever seen. Beate is assigned to work with Harry. (Yes, she may have seen Tom Waaler someplace he should not have been.) In addition, Beate has a condition called “Setesdal Twitch,” which I will refrain from defining since it would definitely spoil the conclusion of Nemesis.
Gradually, Harry begins to suspect that the two murders are connected. As he delves into the history of bank robbing in Oslo, he discovers that the most successful robberies have been carried out by gypsies. In fact, the leader of Oslo’s most efficient bank robbing team, a man called Roskol, continues to plan and execute robberies from prison where he sits each day playing chess. To complicate matters further, Harry learns that Roskol allowed himself to be convicted for a crime that he did not commit because he is doing “penance.” At this point, Harry begins to ponder the close association between vengeance and love, especially in his own life.
There are far too many tension-ridden episodes in Nemesis to discuss in this review. However, among the most riveting are Harry’s “unofficial” trip to an unpleasant little town in Brazil to find a mysterious gypsy who may (or may not) be Roskol’s brother. Also, shortly after Anna’s death, Harry begins receiving taunting emails from someone who knows all about his dinner with Anna as well as a disconcerting amount of personal information about Harry. A further complication develops when Harry’s arch-enemy, Tom Waaler, develops an interest in Beate and decides to seduce her (while “Purple Rain” plays in the background). At the same time, Waaler devises a “foolproof” plot to destroy Harry. The plot becomes a complex series of boxes within boxes within boxes.
Perhaps what is most interesting about Nemesis, is Nebo’s ability to capture the lives and personalities of his characters through dialogue that blends discussions about suicide (Albert Camus), American movies (“The Shining”, “BayWatch” (David Hasslehoff), the Horse-head Nebula, and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” In fact, the discussions of music, abnormal psychology and a wealth of tantalizing knowledge definitely serve to make this Harry Hole thriller “a thinking man’s (or woman’s) murder mystery.” I guess I’m hooked.
Nemesis by Jo Nesbo. HarperColllins, 2010. 474 pages.
So ends Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his years as a young writer in Paris. This book contains the best of Hemingway: his prose style, crisp and clear as a glass of fine chardonnay; his reporter’s eye for detail; his talent for dialogue and for character. A Moveable Feast also gives us the worst of Hemingway as a person: his habit of kicking in the face those whom he had passed up on the ladder of success, writers such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his penchant for blaming his own personal follies on the actions of others.
One striking feature of A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s remaining affection of his first wife, Hadley. She shared his life in those early years in Paris, and for the rest of his days Hemingway remained in love with her. After his betrayal of her, he writes that “when I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in … I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”
Paula McLain’s novel, The Paris Wife (ISBN 978-0-345-52130-9, 2011, $25) tells the story of Hemingway’s Paris years from Hadley’s viewpoint. She begins her book with an account of Hadley’s first meeting with Hemingway in 1920, gives us Hadley’s background — she was sickly as a child, became a caretaker for her family, and found in Hemingway a release from her stifling home — and then moves us along with the newly-married Hemingways to Paris and the excitement of those years. Through Hadley’s eyes, we meet writers like Ezra Pound (“Over in the shadowy corner of the studio, Ernest was literally crouched at Pound’s feet while the older man lectured, waving a teapot around as he talked”) and Gertrude Stein (her eyes were “the deepest and most opaque shade of brown, critical and accepting, curious and amused”). Through Hadley, McLain shows us the squalor of the apartment in which they lived when they first came to Paris, gives us the conversations of the artists and writers in the boulevard cafes, and imparts a sense of the magic which Hemingway and others found then in Paris.
McLain also gives us a different view of Hemingway than many of his biographers, nearly all of whom are male. Here we take in Hemingway through a woman’s eyes, and though the book is fictional, we acquire a different image of Papa than that found in the many books written about him. McLain captures the difficulties of being close to Hemingway every day, his mood swings, the intensity he brought to his writing, the demands he placed on his marriage, his growing love for Pauline Pfeiffer, who was wealthier and younger than Hadley, and would eventually take Hemingway away from her. When Hadley finds herself pregnant, Hemingway responds like a truculent child, and though he eventually becomes as good a father in the book as he was in real life, McLain’s Hadley lets us understand how deeply his initial negative reaction to her pregnancy hurt their marriage and her love for him.
The Paris Wife has its weaknesses. Though McLain ably captures the Paris of the twenties, and gives us fine sketches of people like Pound and Fitzgerald, she somehow fails to give us an adequate portrait of Hadley herself. Though she herself tells us the story, Hadley as narrator seems thinly drawn somehow, two-dimensional, all surface and no depth. By the end of the book, we are left wondering what Hemingway saw in this flighty, shallow woman. Here the incident of Hemingway’s stolen manuscripts might serve as an example. On a train from Paris to Lausanne to meet Hemingway, Hadley had stolen from her a valise containing most of Hemingway’s stories. This incident was a terrible catastrophe for the real-life Hemingway and his wife: there were no copies, and the loss was temporarily devastating to the young couple. Yet in The Paris Wife, the incident is covered in four pages, and we have little sense that Hadley feels much remorse over the stolen manuscripts. While Hemingway goes back to Paris to search their apartment for the stories, as he did in real life, the Hadley of The Paris Wife seems under whelmed by the disaster. After Hemingway leaves, a friend, journalist Lincoln Steffens, takes Hadley in hand. “Steffens took me to dinner and tried to calm my nerves, but even with several whiskeys in me, I jangled.” She “jangled”: that is the complete description of Hadley’s emotional state during her husband’s desperate search for his lost writings.
McLain makes a mistake, too, of writing as if her readers already know the facts of Hemingway’s life, and more importantly, his philosophy. Though she is undoubtedly correct — most people who pick up this book will do so from an interest in Hemingway — her assumptions weaken her writing, with the reader left to fill in what she has left out. At the end of the book, for example, when Hadley is an old woman, she reports that “I couldn’t pretend to be surprised by Ernest’s death. I’d heard from various friends about the sanatorium in Rochester and the terrible shock treatments. Death was always there for him, sometimes only barely balanced out.” Balanced out by what? McLain doesn’t tell us. Indeed, Hadley’s emotional reaction to her first husband’s death seems as flat and cold as yesterday’s headlines.
Nonetheless, there are readers who always enjoy reading about the life of Papa. For them, The Paris Wife should provide some diverting entertainment.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Ballantine Books, 2011. 336 pages
For Christians, Easter is a moveable feast day — this year the celebration fell about as late in the spring as it possibly can — which sparks consideration of the resurrection of Christ and all that this resurrection means for them. Many congregations hold sunrise services. The Moravians of Winston-Salem are famous for sending brass bands throughout the city during the early hours of Easter Sunday to greet this special day with music. Catholics light vigil fires outside their churches on Saturday evening and end Holy Week with a service that begins in darkness and explodes into light. Easter is the time of year when many churches welcome new members, when the fullness of the possibility of resurrection is contemplated by believers.
Like Christmas, Easter can make those who are not Christians more acutely aware of their inability or unwillingness to believe in such a personal god. Passing by churches filled with parishioners or worshippers standing in a meadow at sunrise, these non-believers may experience many reactions: scorn, indifference, a desire to believe but without the faith to do so. Atheists, whose numbers in America have grown in recent years, righteously declare that God doesn’t exist, but many more who lack faith in God travel under the uncertain banner of agnosticism.
In Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest (ISBN 978-1-57731-912-2, $22.95), English professor and public radio host Michael Krasny has produced a wise and gentle look at agnosticism and religious faith. In our loud, cacophonous time, this age in which it too frequently seems that those who scream the loudest, who throw off the most crass insults, who gleefully and ignorantly deliver ad hominem attacks, Michael Krasny may seem in his call for tolerance like the Biblical voice crying in the wilderness. His restraint in terms of criticizing religious faith — coupled with his own examination of his inability to believe in an immanent god — makes this small book worthwhile reading for believers and non-believers alike.
What is best about Spiritual Envy is its mix of philosophy, faith, literature, and personal example. Krasny is more interested in exploring belief and disbelief, why some people believe and why others find belief an impossibility, than he is in winning arguments or slicing up those who disagree with him. He argues in the broad manner of a good “liberal humanist,” bringing in literary figures from Ian Fleming to Flannery O’Connor, philosophers from Augustine to Peter Singer, psychiatrists from John Mack to Ian Stevenson, poets and songwriters from Dylan Thomas to Jim Croce.
Krasny also displays the mind of a liberal thinker — here I intend the old definition, the meaning associated with a liberal education, rather than the politics currently linked to the word — in trying to understand those whose religious faith acts as the grounding wire for life. He does indeed envy Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other believers, and writes that he has frequently longed for their ability to find a personal god in the universe. He also speaks well and with understanding of those who do believe in that sort of god and who can’t figure out why their neighbors have so much trouble finding that faith. In fact, the only group for which he reserves a good store of scorn is for those nonbelievers who “view those who have religious zeal as evil or simple-minded.”
In our time, when a few religious fanatics and a few more atheists and secular-minded folk gain most of our attention by finger-pointing, by trying to limit free speech with the barbed wire of political correctness or religious zeal, and in a few cases, by killing those regarded as enemies, the odds are likely that Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy will be little read or heeded. We have grown unaccustomed to calls for real tolerance, to nuance in arguments, to what Krasny calls “the power of asking the right, or most reasonable and compelling, questions….”
Many among us no longer seek to ask such questions, or any questions, of those with whom we disagree, preferring to paste our opponents over with labels and bumper-stickers. In losing all sense of proportion — and as is often the case, all sense of humor as well — a large number of Americans have bought into the argument that the political truly is the personal, that the atheist must axiomatically despise the believer, and vice versa, with little regard for their human personhood. Those whose beliefs differ from our own are no longer living, breathing fellow beings, but caricatures to be avoided, gagged, or driven from our midst.
This failure is unfortunate. Such rude judgment makes objects of our neighbors, stripping them of their humanity. Worse, and on a grander scale, it leads to the creation of armed camps, of us versus them, of labeling other Americans as our enemies simply because their vision of life and death is different than our own.
Near the end of his book, Krasny writes:
“I have been emphasizing a code of respect for others and for what they do or do not believe. It boils down to recognizing that what people believe, or how they worship or act or don’t act on their belief or nonbelief, is, as my Dad would have jauntily put it, their own damn business as long as they do no harm.”
Where’s Dad when you need him?
Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny. New World Library, 2010. 264 pages.