Friday, August 12, 2005

Duke Altum's Notable Books of 2004 (Part II)

Here's the second half of the list...

6. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe -- Another novel considered a "modern classic" from a foreign land, this debut from perhaps Nigeria's most honored writer took the Western world by storm when it was released in 1958, in that it took what was basically an American/European art form (the novel) and used it, for the first time, to express the African point of view towards "Western civilization." Achebe was provided a thorough Western education (the title phrase comes from W. B. Yeats' famous poem 'The Second Coming'), and it's interesting to note that the novel was written partly out of angry reaction to his reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Obviously, Things opened the eyes of a great many Westerners as to what it must have felt like to be colonized and force-converted to a strange religion (unfortunately, Christianity), and the fascinating thing is, it had the exact same effect on me: I had never thought much about the threat Christianity must have seemed to be to people in African tribes... to their families, their communities, their way of life. (In other words, the novel has lost absolutely NONE of its power to open jaded eyes and awaken sleepy consciences.) It sure made me think twice about the history of missionary work, and the need to share the saving message of Christ with careful sensitivity to other cultures (so that their own contributions to human wisdom are not lost), and respect for the dignity of every human person (so that their hearts are not closed to Truth). On top of these broader issues, it is also a fascinating inside look at the customs and beliefs of one African tribe, as well as a heart-rending tale of conflict between a father and son, a man and his community.

7. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, James Howard Kunstler -- Huh? Who would have thought a book on civic planning and the 'suburbanization of America' would ever have made this list? I certainly would not have. But I have to say: this book about the way our suburban areas and cities have been planned (poorly in the author's opinion, as should be obvious from the title), and the consequences of our long-since-made national decision to become totally dependent on the automobile, really got my mind mulling over subjects I've never spent more than two seconds thinking about in my life. For that reason alone, it deserves mention (meaning, any book that can get you interested in a subject totally foreign to your own experience is probably worth the time). At any rate, I heard an audio interview with the author, and was quite surprised at how fascinated I was in his analysis of the way certain of our cities and communities have been planned, and the mistakes that have been made in this country along the way... being a New Jersey resident for most of my life, I never spent much time thinking about needing a car to get to everywhere we need to go: it's just the way things are... but did they necessarily NEED to be designed this way? This book awakened me to all that has been casually left behind in the building up of our car- (and, oil-) dependent suburban landscape. It also made me start thinking about what makes a community "work," and why it is important to design our living spaces with PEOPLE, not machines, in mind. A provocative, at times irreverent, hard-hitting book that takes our culture to task for its shortsightedness, and its misguided prioritization of "progress" over persons. Not exactly uplifting, but definitely thought-provoking.

8. A Curtain of Green, Eudora Welty -- Welty's debut collection of stories immediately established her as a master of the short story form... and now that I've read it, I can certainly understand why it met with such acclaim. These were easily the most interesting, finely-crafted, haunting short stories I read this year. The amazing thing to me is that such a young woman (she was 25 at the time), who lived in the same small Southern town (Jackson, Mississippi) for almost her entire life, could create a collection of stories with such an astonishing variety of tones, voices, styles and moods... in one story, you're laughing at the vain, twangy dialog of Southern ladies gossiping in the heat, and then in the next, you're haunted by her dark, evocative descriptions of a harsh winter field, upon which a poor farming couple slowly freezes in their sorry shack. She mixes the grotesque and the comic with seemingly effortless ease (like her contemporary and fellow Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor) – the collection sometimes feels like visiting one of those old-fashioned traveling freak shows, and sometimes like a leisurely stroll through a sun-drenched country garden. Rich and evocative storytelling by a writer of rare insight, wit and powers of observation. Various scenes and images from this book are still lingering in my mind, dream-like, and don't seem to be leaving any time soon...

9. The Clearing, Tim Gautreaux -- An immensely satisfying, deeply moving novel that explores the complex relationship between two brothers struggling to run their father's saw mill (and keep Italian mobsters off of their backs) in 1920's Louisiana. There's so much richness and power to this contemporary novel (first released in 2003), it's hard to pinpoint what makes it so memorable -- is it the powerful moral undercurrents running through the story? the poetic descriptions of the bayou backwater country, so evocative that you can almost feel the heavy wetness in the air, or hear the constant scream of the saw blades? the slowly-building tension throughout the story between one brother's desire to cultivate healing and forgiveness, and the other brother's instinct (learned in the death-haunted trenches of WWI) towards violence and revenge as the only real answer to life's dilemmas? This gripping story simmers like a big ol' pot of Cajun shrimp gumbo, slowly getting hotter on every page until the boiling point is reached... but I hasten to add that this is not your ordinary page-turner. Gautreaux's real talent and worth as a writer lies (as it does with all great writers, I believe) in the depth of his characterization, and the insight he offers us about ourselves through his characters' strengths and weaknesses, thoughts and actions. Anyone who appreciates elegantly-written fiction that acknowledges the sacramental nature and moral order of the universe ought to RUN, not walk, to check out the work of Tim Gautreaux (who, I should add, studied creative writing under no less a writer than Walker Percy)... as this answer of his in a recent interview (responding to a question about his debut novel) should make clear:

>>Q: What is your first novel The Next Step in the Dance about?
>>A: It's about the moral decision you make when you abandon your roots, your class, when you think you're better than your raising. But it's more than that. It's about bailing out of a marriage that could be fixed, and about what it means to be in a relationship for the long haul. Every marriage is broken when it starts. When young people get married, they have no idea what marriage is about. They think they do, but I can tell you as a veteran of 32 years, I learn something new about marriage almost every day.

10. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, Robert Louis Wilken -- To give you a flavor of this outstanding study of the thought of the Early Church Fathers, I am going to quote from the opening paragraph of a review that appeared in America magazine:

"...Robert Wilken states his book's purpose in the introduction: 'to depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative years of the church's history.' It is a large task, but one that Wilken carries out with great learning and deep appreciation. This is not a book written for the academy but for all readers. It is not driven by theoretical or ideological agendas but is the fruit of years of patient and affectionate reading. It is not a young scholar's bid to make a name but a senior scholar's effort to share the fruit of learning...."

These brief sentences contain what, to me, is the essence of what makes this such a significant and valuable book: it is the distillation of one man's 30+ years of studying the early Church and the ancient cultures that surrounded it, in a form that is readable, accessible and (significantly) tailored to a non-academic audience. Reading it is like having a man steeped in the history and culture of the early Church over for dinner, and just listening to him speak of the intellectual and spiritual legacy of those great believers who handed down our ever-rich, ever-inspiring Catholic traditions and beliefs to us. This book really opened my eyes to the incredible sophistication and wisdom in the thought of well-known early theologians as St. Justin Martyr, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great... but also provided fascinating glimpses into the works of lesser-known fathers (to me anyway) like St. John Damascus and Maximus the Confessor. Now I realize that early Church history is not everybody's cup of tea... however, when a noted scholar who has devoted his life to the subject writes with such obvious warmth and enthusiasm about the "faith of our fathers," I think it is worth recommending to this audience! A last important note: Wilken's book is unique in that it covers areas of early Christian thought that are often overlooked -- he includes entire chapters on early Christian poetry, the hymns of the period, the writing of icons, and the intellectual debates between Christian and Roman thinkers during that period. I thought it was a very wise move for Wilken to open up the scope of his inquiry a little bit (beyond just theology and philosophy and into the arts), because it helps increase the books' appeal to the heart/soul as well as the mind... after all, don't we learn more sometimes from a great novel or painting than we ever would from a philosophical treatise? That's part of the point of this whole dumb list, come to think of it...

-- END --

9 comments:

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Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, obviously some, uh, varied reactions to your list here. Let's be clear. Duke's Top Ten list chucks the gauntlet down hard for you readers on the The Secret Thread. He reads some wild stuff. Personally, I hadn't made a top ten for 2004 (believe it or not) but mine would be a lot different. Of course, I tend to read a lot more fiction than Duke, who likes to vascillate between categories. Although my list probably would have contained one or two of these too, such as 'As I Lay Dying' which I read for the first time in 2004. Duke, impressive list.....

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Duke Altum said...

Thanks to all of you guys you said you've enjoyed the blog so far. To answer Sheila's question, Mutt & I have only been blogging for a very short time... but in a way we've been leading up to this blog for years. We've been "blogging" to each other for a long time, and recently figured out (way behind the curve, I know) that we extend the walls of the ongoing conversation outward a bit... at any rate, we invite everyone to keep sharing comments, ideas, book recommendations, etc. Great to hear from you!

loren said...

Hi Duke,

I share your interest in church history, and I take it you're more or less connected with the post-modern (emerging) church? Which, of course, is still defining itself.

Have you ever looked at the other end of the time spectrum, at the church of the last days? Now that is an interesting study.

Too bad you've gotten so many 'spam' comments here. I've only been blogging for about 5 months, and it wasn't like this until a few weeks ago.

Duke Altum said...

Hey Loren, I'm honored that you "stopped by" The Secret Thread. It's always encouraging to know there are others out there with an interest in these important questions/topics... re: your question about "the emerging church," I would not say I was connected with it, although I have heard about it and know a few people who are involved in one way or another (i.e. as members of Brian McLaren's church, for example). As an orthodox Catholic, I would find it difficult to identify with a church that labels itself as either "emerging" or "post-modern," as I believe in one Church that has existed for over 2000 years (i.e., it has already "emerged" a long time ago), and is, if anything, most definitely pre-modern (not just chronologically, but intellectually and theologically as well). Does this mean it does not interest itself in the modern world, and engage it in the realm of ideas and cultural trends? Not at all. But one of the hallmarks of postmodernity is its denial of absolutes and of the need for doctrine and dogma -- all of which are, on the contrary, very much affirmed by the traditional Church. It seems strange to me that a movement of Christians would want to associate themselves with so-called "postmodernity." To do so seems to weaken our link with Tradition and the teachings of the Church Fathers, which I believe is a link we need to be strengthening. So while I certainly respect and understand some of the thinking motivating this movement, I cannot in good conscience align myself with it. As for the church of the last days, I would not know how to begin to study that, except perhaps through the book of Revelation... but then there is a lot of debate as to whether that actually describes the future church at all. How does one study such a topic and not get bogged down in the mire of utter speculation? Maybe you can enlighten me on that question.

In general, I think we have certainly NOT learned nearly all that can be learned from the wisdom of our forebears, and that so much of what they have written and taught is still very relevant today, and we can only benefit from listening to their voices (and obviously I am not only talking about theologians, or even believers, as the title of this blog would imply).

Thanks for ringing in! Feel free to do so again...

Pax Christi,
Duke Altum

loren said...

Hi Duke,

On the other hand, I don't suppose the Scriptures will be proven wrong, and they do foretell a reformation in the end times (Eph 4:13-16).

But you needn't take anyone's word for it, or worry about official interpretations. Unless you're very old, I'm quite confident we'll both see it with our own eyes in the days to come.

The good news is that it will show us Jesus more clearly than previous generations have ever seen Him, and that's something every true hearted Christian can rejoice in.

Duke Altum said...

Hi Loren,
I suppose your reading of those verses could be debated, but not being a scripture scholar/expert, I doubt I am the man to do it... herein lies the rub, of course: I may read those verses one way, you another: who is right??? Maybe those "official interpretations," as you call them, have some merit after all... there is much to be said for a central teaching authority in the Church, as the sad, recent history of the Episcopalian church in America, to cite just one example, makes pretty clear... but anyway, if we all see and come closer to Christ in the near future, it will only be through the work of the Holy Spirit, and thus will indeed be, as you said, something we can all rejoice in. My best to you in your ongoing spiritual quest! Come by again anytime...