Tuesday, December 26, 2006


As has become the tradition on this blog, here is my annual "Notable Books" list, in which the ten books that impacted me the most during the year are described. As usual, comments welcome!


The Fall, Albert Camus – This bleak but fascinating meditation on the human condition and the nature of justice, in the form of a long monologue from a Parisian lawyer in a seedy bar in Amsterdam, penetrates deep beneath the skin and lingers in the mind long after it’s over. It was a stroke of brilliance for Camus, a writer of rare genius indeed, to set the story in this notorious city, in which the winding canals purposely echo the descending levels of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Who’s ultimately to blame for this mess we’re all in? Is it God? Is it ourselves? And will the accounts be reconciled in the end? The Fall wrestles with these Big Questions as hauntingly as anything I’ve ever read.

Testimony of Hope, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan – These written texts of the Lenten spiritual exercises Cardinal Thuan preached to Pope John Paul II and the Vatican staff in the Jubilee Year 2000 are among the most unique and moving meditations on the subject of hope you will ever come across. Drawing heavily from his experiences while in prison for 13 years (9 of them in solitary confinement) under various Communist governments in Vietnam, Cardinal Thuan gently but powerful urges us to grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus in the midst of our personal sufferings. A shattering, perspective-changing book that both challenged and rewarded my faith.

The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric – This epic novel of war-torn Bosnia, told in the form of a history of the villages surrounding a massive stone bridge from the sixteenth century through World War I, vividly depicts a suffering that transcends both race and culture. But it also is a moving and rewarding meditation on the value of community and tradition, as a means of preserving hope in the midst of calamity. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel idealistic about the abilities of art to cross the chasm between races and cultures and be a force for peace in the world. Andric’s crie de coeur for his shattered homeland ought to be required reading not just for literature students, but for anyone studying diplomacy and/or foreign relations as well.

Pastoralia, George Saunders – This year brought me into contact with the hilarious and bizarre work of George Saunders, and trust me when I say that alone is worth celebrating. Saunders’ second collection of stories is strange, satirical, bleak and, at times, surprisingly moving. A writer of remarkable wit and compassion, Saunders can make you laugh out loud at any point, but can also turn around and give you a chill down your spine. This is one of the most memorable collections I’ve read in a long time. Characters wrestle with boring office jobs, morbid reality TV shows and sarcastic, rotting messengers from the underworld, but there’s a deep-seated longing within them, and you recognize it as something common to us all. Each story puts its finger on it somehow, and refuses to let go.

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, Donald L. Miller – Of course I’m not qualified to properly rate this book as social history, but it was a meaningful and memorable read for me this year, as it cast my home city in an entirely new and different light. This fascinating account of the founding of the city of Chicago and its emergence as a central force of American capitalism and tenacity (especially following the Great Fire of 1871) kept me engaged through its 600+ pages, with interesting anecdotes and vivid portraits of the city’s major characters – and there have been many! It’s often been said that the story of Chicago’s rise from the central plains is the story of America itself in microcosm, and with Chicago’s complex brew of courage and corruption, brutality and bravery, I can certainly understand the claim.

Gitanjali, Rabidranath Tagore – What the heck is this, and what is it doing on this list? Well, what it is is a book of poetry-in-prose form from the first non-Westerner to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why it’s here is simply this: it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, nor am I likely to again. These fascinating, beautiful meditations on the Divine, the natural world and human longing absolutely bowled me over, not just for their deep wisdom and the stunning beauty of the language, but for how they spoke to my Western heart despite their obvious Eastern origin. Reading them as a Christian, I was completely shocked at how this Hindu writer could connect with my heart, speaking as a fellow man doing his best to understand the mysteries of life. Thomas Merton took a lot of heat from other Christians for seeking to find common threads between Eastern and Western religious traditions, as Tagore was trying to do long before… but reading something like this reveals quite clearly that such threads exist, and are worth exploring.

Prince of Darkness, J. F. Powers – After years of putting off reading him for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I finally picked up a used copy of Powers’ debut collection of stories (he only had three, I was surprised to learn, and just two novels in his lifetime), and immediately regretted the delay. These funny, deeply insightful stories contain some of the most brilliant writing I’ve read all year. Powers is of course most famous for his satiric fiction about all-too-human priests, and indeed his best stories are the ones in which these men of God wrestle with fallen humanity, in either themselves or others, in amusing and often poignant ways. But in the final story, when a priest fully expecting to be named a pastor of his own parish learns he is instead being re-assigned to serve as an associate once again, his superior’s words in a hand-written note remind us of the profound spiritual import of these earthly struggles: “…and when you get there, I expect that you will find not peace, but a sword.”

The Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy – Of course I understand this is cheating since we’re talking about three books here; however, as I read them – perhaps unwisely, I’m still not sure – all in one shot (my copy of the novels includes them all in one volume), I figure I can get away with it. I might not have put any one of the three novels on this list (with the exception of The Crossing), but taken together they amass a weight and a cumulative power unsurpassed in recent literature. All three novels focus on young men embarking on long and painful journeys that take them across the U.S.-Mexico border and back again, during which blood is shed, hearts are broken, and souls struggle to come to grips with a God that would allow for so much evil and pain in the world. All written in prose as starkly beautiful as poetry, and as muscular and free-ranging as philosophy. McCarthy’s fiction is on another level entirely from that of his contemporaries.

The Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo – This is surely the strangest, most obscure of the books on the list this year… but it’s also one of the greatest man vs. nature classics you’ll ever read. Here’s some trivia for your next party: Hugo wrote three huge books in a kind of trilogy that was meant to expound upon man’s most important “contentions”: Les Miserables was a tale to explore man’s struggles with God; Notre-Dame de Paris man’s struggles with Law; and this one, man’s struggles with Nature. In it, a humble fisherman ventures out alone to the wide open sea to recover the engines of a wrecked steamship, and there he wrestles with the elements, himself and, climactically, a giant octopus (“devil-fish,” as Hugo puts it). As wild and unruly as the ocean itself, the book could have used serious editing, but is nevertheless a fascinating, rambling treatise on the physical and spiritual struggles of the human animal. And by the way: if you want to write a huge, sprawling, philosophical novel, you almost have to set it upon the open sea, as both Hugo and Herman Melville seemed to realize instinctively…

Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson – This important and insightful book surveys the formative impact that religion, most notably Christianity, has had on the common culture we have to come to know as “Western civilization.” I say “important” because in our time, as the European Union seeks to draft a new constitution that denies its own religious heritage, it is more important than ever to recognize and seek the meaning of Christianity’s influence on our understanding of human life, society, and culture. Dawson artfully lays out how Christian beliefs led directly to the institutions we, until very recently, had always taken for granted, such as the university, the courts, marriage and the family. And in a provocative last chapter of particular interest to readers of this blog, he demonstrates how one literary work, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, could have changed the course of history if its profound insights on the relationship between religion and society were taken more seriously.

BONUS ROUND -- Books that I would have put on the list if it were not limited to 10: District and Circle, Seamus Heaney; The Harafish, Naguib Mahfouz; Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter; The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer; The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright; The Collected Poems of Richard Wilbur

Saturday, December 23, 2006


This year-end top ten list reveals my ten favorite books that I read in 2006, presented this year in order of merit.

10. A Quire of Seven, Halldor Laxness. Seven short, rare tales from the Icelandic Nobel laureate which testify to the quixotic intensity of his fertile imagination and also demonstrate his concern with and insights on the mysteries of the human soul.

9. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, Jay Parini. This biography of Faulkner apparently got mixed reviews and may not surpass Joseph Blotner’s two-volume definitive work on the subject, but for my purposes this was one of the most illuminating and insightful books I’ve read in a long time about a writer whose brilliance will remain uncontested for all time.

8. The Stranger, Albert Camus. The French Nobel Prize-winner’s famous short novel about the existential angst of a man on trial for murdering another man for no apparent reason is as powerful and intellectually arresting as I’ve always heard it was.

7. Seeing, José Saramago. This allegorical sequel to Saramago’s well known Blindness is a blistering critique of modern democracy that surpasses its predecessor. Written with his singular wry humor and rife with his unsettling ability to powerfully illuminate the absurdities of life in ‘civilized’ nations.

6. Beloved, Toni Morrison. Devastating novel about a horrific choice made by a black woman to prevent her child from living a life in bondage, this novel is beautifully written, ingeniously structured and emotionally shattering.

5. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk. Winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, this novel was my doorway into Pamuk’s writing, and is one of the most challenging and original novels I’ve read in a long time, a composite of a murder-mystery, a treatise on art and creativity, a history primer on the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, a literary history of that nation, and a fascinating window into Islamic culture all wrapped up in one novel. Furthermore it is fascinatingly structured and written with obvious boldness and originality.

4. The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa. A feast for the senses, this epic novel tells a spawling but riveting story of a religious community led by a charismatic prophet named The Counselor in late 19th century Brazil that comes together to form an insurrection against a totalitarian government.

3. Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow. This famous novel about the turn of the 20th century in America is one of the most flawlessly written novels I’ve read in a long time. Every single page of this powerful story that intertwines an upper-class white family, a black family and a poor Jewish family is interesting. This is a modern classic.

2. Suite Francaise, Iréne Nemirovsky. Two small novels of a planned five written by an extraordinarily talented Russian-born Jewish woman about the devastating events of the Second World War. The most amazing thing about this book is not the truly incredible tale of its discovery by her daughter after sixty years, nor is it that the writer, who died in Auschwitz after composing the novels in hiding, had the courage and skill to write about these events as they were happening – it is the extraordinary literary quality of the writing itself.

1. The Road, Cormac McCarthy. This nearly perfect post-apocalyptic masterpiece by one of the greatest American writers working today permanently cements his status as such. It is a stunning novel about the capacity of love to endure over even the most horrific evils and is without question the best novel I read all year. (See my blog post of October 2006 in the “Archives” section for more details.)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #44

Just about everyone would agree that one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, in any genre, was the famous Chilean poet and 1971 Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. No less a writer than Gabriel Garcia Marquez called him "the greatest poet of the century, in any language." And few poets have ever had a broader appeal and readership than Neruda: he was tremendously popular all over the world (one of his first collections, Twenty Love Poems, made him an international name), which is astonishing when you think he began his life in an obscure village in the rainforests of southern Chile, far from anything you might consider "modern" or "cosmopolitan." He also, interestingly, enjoyed a long and successful career as a diplomat, serving at posts in eastern and western Europe, as well as the Far East. When he heard about his selection for the Nobel, he was in Paris, serving as the Chilean ambassador to France.

I am only just starting to get to know some of Neruda's work, and I can say that he is one of these rare poets in which, upon your very first readings of his work, you realize you are dealing with a genius, a visionary gifted with the power to transport his audience to another place through the power and beauty of language. Usually when I notice this quality in a poet's work, my head finds the work itself to be difficult to understand, even though my heart is responding to the music of the verses. That's certainly the case here -- it is the same thing I experience when reading the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, for example, or T. S. Eliot. I don't pretend to understand it yet (and likely never will fully), but I can certainly appreciate it and enjoy the unique reading experience. In this way, to me anyway, reading the truly great poets is like reading the mystics of the Church: you never fully grasp what they are getting at, but there is more than enough truth, beauty and wisdom to, in Seamus Heaney's immortal words, "catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open."

Here is a poem from Neruda that, I think, captures the astonishing visual, even cinematic, power of his language... it describes a place I guarantee you have never been to and most likely never will, and yet when you read it, it takes form within your mind's eye in all its terrifying and beautiful splendor. I don't pretend for a second to know exactly what this poem is saying, but whatever that is, it sure is saying in it in a striking and original way. I was particularly struck by his comparison of that frozen, craggy landscape to a cathedral. Stunning work!



Antarctic, austral crown, cluster
of frozen lights, cinerarium
of ice broken off
the terrestrial fabric, cathedral rent
by purity, nave brought down
over the basilica of whiteness,
immolator of shattered glass,
hurricane dashed against the walls
of nocturnal snow,
give me your double breast stirred
by the invader solitude, channel
of the terrifying wind masked
behind all the corollas of an ermine,
behind all the klaxons of the shipwreck
and the white scuttling of the worlds,
or your breast of peace polished by the wind
like a pure rectangle of quartz,
and the un-breathed, the infinite
transparent material, the opened air,
the solitude without earth or poverty.
Kingdom of strictest meridian,
whispering ice-harp, immobile,
close to the enemy stars.

All seas are your circular sea.
All the resistances of Ocean
concentrated in you their transparency,
and salt settled you with castles,
the ice raised high cities
over a crystal spire, the wind
swept along your briny paroxysm
like a tiger burnt by the ice.
Your cupolas gave birth to danger
from the vessel of the glaciers,
and life lies in your dorsal desert
like a vineyard underwater, burning
without consuming, preserving the fire
for the springtime of the ice.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Celebrating a True Christian Classic

Recently, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of but have learned it's always better not to question, several people close to me have been reading a book that has been one of my favorites for many, many years. If "Christian fantasy" is a legitimate literary category (and I would argue that it not only is, but enjoys a long and distinguished history, from early classics such as the anonymous Anglo-Saxon epic The Dream of the Rood to Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Hawthorne's The Celestial Railroad, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and beyond), certainly C. S. Lewis' short but vivid tale The Great Divorce stands as a classic of the genre. I know for a fact that he wrote it with many of these older classics very much in mind, but as with all fiction that he produced, he also wrote it to explore his own thinking on theological and philosophical questions that were important to him.

If you look at all of Lewis' "fantasties" and fictional writings, and are familiar with his more "serious" non-fiction works (I put that in quotes because he himself would scoff at the assumption that a work is more "serious" simply because it is non-fiction... in reality, I am almost sure he would argue for the opposite position), you will come to realize that all of his fictions were simply the manifestations of the ideas and questions he had been grappling with his entire life. It's been well-documented by far more capable and wiser minds than my own that his Chronicles of Narnia, for example, represents the "fleshing out" in story form of most of his own theological beliefs and hopes. His rich, mythic novel Till We Have Faces does the same thing, only this time was intended for adults and is far more complex and melancholic in tone (taking as one of its primary themes the necessity of suffering as a path to genuine redemption). In The Screwtape Letters, quite possibly the wisest book I have ever read (excepting the Bible), he famously mused on the battle between sin and grace raging underneath the surface of every human life (as observed from the point of view of one of the devil's master tempters). And he memorably and poignantly, in his last years, mused on thorny questions about prayer in an imaginary correspondence with a friend he called "Malcolm" in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

The Great Divorce would seem to be his musings on the nature of the afterlife, as in, what it might be like and how we live once we're there. But those who have read the book will tell you that that's really not what it is at all. For despite its fantastic premise of a bus trip from Hell to Heaven and back again, the tale is much more concerned with how we live our lives before we die than after. And of course in this it is only continuing very much in the tradition I described above: the idea of writing a parable of the afterlife in order to spur readers' hearts to face tough questions about our present lives is a very old one indeed. Heck, Jesus did it himself (think of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man).

Through a series of ingenious dialogs between passengers on the bus and residents of Heaven/Hell, Lewis illuminates our reasons for believing what we do, or for refusing to believe, as the case may be. I can't remember if this exact quote comes from the book or not, but this story is certainly the manifestation of Lewis' profound insight that "the doors of Hell are locked from the inside." Meaning, if there is indeed a Hell, we will only go there if we choose to: God, because He is all-loving according to His very nature, does not condemn anyone to Hell. He does, however, allow us to make the free choice to be separated from Him forever, because He knows that all geuine love must be free. Here Lewis memorably depicts for us the residents of Hell who are only there because their pride is preventing them from accepting the grace and mercy of God.

My wife and my sister, as well as my partner in crime on this blog, have all read The Great Divorce recently, so they would be much more able to comment on it than I am at the moment, my memory of it being far foggier than I'd like (sucks to admit that, but it's true -- obviously I'm due for a re-read!). Therefore if any of them read this, I invite their comments on this wise and witty story. In the meantime, if anyone else reading this has not read Lewis' little classic, I strongly urge you to rectify this as soon as possible! I think I can safely say that, like all great literature (hence the entire point of this blog), diving into this book can only be good for your soul...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 30


"For at least the first three months of 2006, I decided I am going to embark on a 'reading experiment' unlike anything I have tried before. I am going to spend the first quarter of the year doing what I guess I am going to call 'research reading' in preparation for a writing project I plan to attempt." - Mutt Ploughman, December 6, 2005

'Tis the season for year-end reviews, so I am going to devote this edition of the Journal to a retrospective of the first year of progress on the writing of what, let's hope, will become my first novel, tentatively titled "Only The Dying".

On the publication front, aside from working on the novel, I have made a number of attempts to get published again this year, but most of them fell short. My lone success this year was the publication of my book review "Freedom's Warriors" in America magazine, on May 10. I sent out at least four short stories, two more reviews, and a number of queries, and I also entered one short story writing contest, but none of them worked out. So be it, that's the writer's life. I STILL have not made it into the ranks of published fiction writers, after at least ten years of trying. But I will, eventually. I guarantee that. I do have one story still out for review so I guess there is the remote possibility that it could be accepted for publication, but it won't happen in 2006.

Back to my main focus for the year, my novel in progress, set in Indiana between 1924 and roughly 1960. As you can see from my post of almost exactly one year ago, I started the year conducting research with the intention of hopefully starting a novel. I wanted to limit the period of time I allowed myself to research: so I decided I would read exclusively about the time and places I was interested for a period of 3-4 months. I read numerous books about the Depression, the oil industry, and the State of Indiana between December '05 and March of this year. This was the first time I had ever read a series of books with the specific intent to research a writing project, and it was a really interesting and informative learning experience. I feel like I gained a great deal of background information, but it was no where near comprehensive. I didn't want to overload myself on the research. I only wanted to do enough to get myself to a starting point, following the model once famously put forth by the novelist E.R. Doctorow.

Since I actually begin to write the Prologue to the novel in March, I think the research worked well for me in this regard. Sooner or later, you have to just dive in. I had only done 3 months' worth of 'hard' reading for the novel, but I knew that I had been mulling over themes and potential storylines for years. Then an idea for a way to begin (and eventually end) the novel came to me in the form of the character of Father Luke Brogan, S.J., the son of Walter Brogan, the protagonist of the novel I was intending to write. So I just picked up the ol' automatic pencil and started knocking out a Prologue, set in the present day. So curiously enough, after all the period-oriented reading I had been doing for over three months, when I actually started writing the novel I placed my character in the present day. But this character had been raised and his character formed during the period I had just spent three months researching, and my hope was that whatever knowledge I the writer had gained about that time would somehow be translated into the appropriate voice for the elderly priest I was creating. That was the idea. I don't know how successful it was.

In the eight months that have passed between March and early December, I have written and revised a Prologue and the first two Chapters of Part I of the novel. I don't write at a fast pace, obviously, but I think I've gained more ground than I might have hoped in the first year of effort. I try to set long-term goals for my writing life, and this novel is no exception. But I also try to keep them attainable and realistic. I always knew that if I ever started writing a novel - especially one that was set in a time that I did not live in - I was going to need a lot of time to stumble my way through it. First novelists, in one sense, having no name and no contract, no pressures from anyone other than themselves, have all the time in the world. The only deadlines are self-imposed. I try to keep mine reasonable. At one point in my life I had the goal of obtaining a Master's degree before I turned 30. I just got that in under the wire, finishing my graduate thesis in May 2000 (my 30th birthday was in November). [Note: that "thesis" was supposed to be my first "novel", a story about soliders called "The Faith and Fire Within". But it never quite got itself together; I think it was too soon for me to make a serious attempt. Although at the time I was very serious about it. I wrote about 300 longhand pages, which I still have, but they're painful.]

Now, my next longterm goal is simple: finish this novel before I turn 40. I am currently 36. As you can see, I am giving myself a lot of time. But I know myself and my work ethic; I also know the time constraints I have working against me and how my lack of experience will cause me to take more time. But in light of this timeframe, I think that the fact that I have 3 chapter-sized portions of the book written in draft means I am making pretty decent progress. I have a Prologue and two chapters, and I just started working on a third. Since I envision the book to have maybe somewhere between 12-15 chapters, I think I am off to a pretty decent start. So I have to note here for the record that I am pleased with the progress I have made so far. This is without a doubt the most serious attempt I've made at a dream I've had for at least 16 years: to write a novel. If you have a dream and you stick at it for 16 years or more, you're either dedicated, stubborn as hell, or just plain crazy. Most writers would probably tell you that it takes all three of those to get a novel done. I am certainly learning that myself. But I'm proud of what I've written so far, and I am proud that I am sticking to my vision for the book.

Am I writing a good novel? Can I do this for another 3 or 4 YEARS? Will anyone publish it? Will anyone want to read it if someone does? Does anyone give a damn besides me one way or another? Who knows. Those aren't questions I am interested in right now. All I want to do is write the story that's been brewing in me for a long time.

Thus, I make my pledge for 2007: 3-4 more chapters. As I see it, if I succeed with this goal, by this time next year the novel will be halfway done, more or less. I advise all readers to get in on the ground floor now. Start throwing your support my way and then brag to all your friends later that you were behind the book from the beginning. (Just kidding.) But seriously, there it is: my goal for 2007. Write more of the novel, non-stop.