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There is a point at which metaphors get out of hand, and Charlotte Gill has reached it. Hyper, barely there metaphors are everywhere in her prose, and they are unpleasant and conspicuous. They’re so conspicuous that it seems as though the other elements of the stories — plot, theme, character — exist purely as a foil — that is, as a background against which Gill can showcase her flashy prose: in a single, six-sentence paragraph, someone’s blood “scream[s] through his vessels,” “red cells [race] like fire trucks,” and his blood is also “a frenzy of hemoglobin” (3). In other stories, a “goodbye [kiss] is a skidmark, a streak of watermelon-scented lipstick across his cheek and ear” (191). In another, girls pass “intangibly” from “campus to the city at large” (113). “Intangibly” is imprecise. The girl is not actually intangible, but the word is too abstract to clearly convey the idea of moving about anonymously or disappearing into a crowd. And perhaps the fault of these metaphors lies not in any one of them, but in their sheer, distracting volume.
And then there is that awful thing — the verbless sentence. The scene is the backroom of The Bay, and one of the main characters has just seduced an employee. It reads: “Obstacles in the form of bra hooks and pantyhose, bureaucracies of anonymous desire” (72). I first noticed and grew to hate this sentence construction in Jane Urquhart’s writing. The offending sentences are often divided in two with a splicing comma, though technically I guess it’s not a comma splice if you don’t have a complete sentence to begin with. If you omit verbs, you’re omitting action, and I’m bored.
And it’s not just the style that’s unengaging in these stories. The other elements — plot, theme, character — fail to redeem the book’s in-your-face style. The plots are fairly mundane, though that could be their strong point — that they don’t shy away from the everydayness of situations like holiday shopping at The Bay with your girlfriend and her mom, or being a med student and having a sloppy roommate. Still, not a single character in the book compelled me. They’re as unlikable as they are unliked — by other characters in the story, certainly by this reader, and sometimes by they themselves.
This book has taken quite a beating from me, probably partly because I have strong opinions about style (obviously). I’ll have to end by agreeing with one of the reviewers quoted on the back of the book, but what she meant as praise, I mean as a sincere warning: “[Gill's] prose is booby-trapped with combinations of words so lethally effective they may as well be dynamite.” So, unless you want your stories to explode clumsily all over you as you read, avoid this book.
The Cost of Discipleship is a slog of a thing to get through and it took me half a year to finish. Partly, it’s the age of the book and the book’s somewhat sluggish style that make it difficult. That, and it’s a translation from German. But it’s also a hard book to get through because Bonhoeffer covers a lot of ground, and he tackles some really hard verses, such as 1 Peter 4.1, that verse that says that if we want to be true followers of Christ we must suffer. It’s a verse that’s led to many debates, most of which I remember happening with the other teenagers in my youth group. We’d all be sitting there, scratching our heads and asking, “Does that mean that if we aren’t suffering, we aren’t really following Christ?” out loud to one another. I believe the answer we came up with was “No.” Bonhoeffer provides a much more nuanced one.
These nuances, details, and specific interpretations are part of what makes this book so much work to read. But there’s a lot to be learned from these details and Bonhoeffer takes a great exegetical approach to scripture, which I think a lot of modern pastors could benefit from. The disciples and other people in the Bible, he reminds us, are not to be imitated, exactly. As he puts it, “they themselves are part and parcel of the Word of God in the Scriptures, and therefore part of the message” (73). And Bonhoeffer’s very helpful close readings of the Sermon on the Mount demonstrate this attitude that the scriptures have a very present reverence. For the Christian, the Bible isn’t just some stories about a person we love and believe in — it’s that person talking to us right now. That’s what I mean by present reverence.
Anyway, if you’re going to read this book, give yourself lots of time, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish it. Overall, Bonhoeffer’s writing lacks the energy that I prefer my nonfiction to have, but — check out his biography – this may be because all of his energy was going into other things, such as fighting Hitler and generally being a hero.
I wanted this book to be more shocking than it was. I’m not sure what every one is all up in arms about. For one, Rob Bell isn’t arguing there’s no hell. “Do I believe in a literal hell?” he writes, “Of course” (p. 71 in my edition). So, despite what you’ve heard, a hell-less world is not what this book’s about. Bell is arguing that we may need to rethink some of our beliefs, and read the Bible more closely, and see its truths in the world that surrounds us right now, not in some far away hereafter. In that vein, he gives a fresh and useful interpretation of 2 familiar parables:
1) Luke 16, the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the one where the rich man is burning in hell. Bell’s argument is that the “hell” the rich man is in (the one where he’s so thirsty) resembles the same “hell” he was living in while he was alive, and the emphasis is on the rich man’s refusal to give up his status as a rich man (or, in Christian language, his refusal to die to himself in order to have new life).
2) The story of the prodigal son. Bell points out that “hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish. It’s not an image of separation, but one of integration.” The point of this parable is that both sons are wrong about the character of their Dad. He is not fair and he is infinitely loving. And he likes to throw parties.
Over and over again, Bell urges us to look at both the bigger and the more immediate picture. The more immediate one is clear: look at all the present hells, he says, over and over.* The bigger one, he stresses, involves a perspective that the world is being redeemed right now, whether we recognise it or not. The urge to look at the bigger picture also involves the claim that all things were made by God and for God and through God. It’s a claim that, he admits, is pretty “out there,” pretty “mythic” and “premodern.” All, Bell points out, ultimately comes down to how pure of an empiricist you are, to whether you want to live in a universe that is “limited to what we can conceive of and understand” or whether there are “realities beyond the human mind.” As you can see, at points, Bell gets apologetic (in the sense of Christian apologetics, or defense through logic, not in the sense that he’s sorry).
Which brings me to my next point: this book has grand limitations. For one, it is quite unsubtle. Parts of it read as though C.S. Lewis, already a pretty readable guy, has been digested and spit back out, now in a slurpable form for those who don’t like to chew. There is something limiting about engaging with a pretty rich and complex issue and then failing to engage with it in any really deep way. If you’re looking for something theologically rich, you won’t find it here. Of course, I wasn’t expecting something theologically rich when I picked up Rob Bell, and so I will say that Bell is doing important work in trying to draw our focus away from something useless, like whether or not you’ve said the right prayer to get into Heaven or whether you are really saved, and toward things utterly more important: what’s going on in the world around you, what is your view of God, and are you accepting or refusing his love right now? Where even is Jesus in all of this anyway? Oh yeah. He’s “before all things, and in him all things hold together” and he has “made peace with everything in heaven and on earth.” Not a bad reminder.
*And Bell is by no means alone on this. This same revelation led the pastor of a megachurch in Oklahoma, named Carlton Pearson, to question his beliefs and stop preaching about a physical hell. The change in his beliefs eventually led him to be deemed a heretic. Check out the This American Life podcast on him.
Imagine that one of the small, forgotten about towns in southern Nova Scotia — somewhere like Bear Cove or Grosses Coques or New Edinburgh (all located roughly where Laville is set) – had developed into a booming, prosperous town. If you can’t really imagine it, that’s okay — Germaine Comeau already has. The fictional town of Laville is doing well for itself; it’s got all the vitality of a small-ish, cozy but vibrant city, and its citizens, too, are quite happy with their lives. In fact, there’s very little conflict at all between the characters. Most of their relationships are just going really well: there’s a happy marriage, a courtship that ends in a happy wedding, and a healthy relationship between a man and his — therapist. (It’s actually a woman he goes to for counsel about the future, which she gets by looking into her crystal ball. All this is not as far fetched in the book because the whole story, set in this magical, happy town of Laville, is in fact a fiction within a fiction.)
Which brings me to the structure of the book. We begin in 1945 and end somewhere in the present day, skipping generations along the way. There are also little snippets of everything from CBC radio to Wikipedia to Walt Whitman, and the bulk of the book is made up of an email correspondence between a mother and a daughter who is studying abroad in Paris and who then writes a story (this is where the Laville plot occurs: as a story within an email within a story). Had you told me that this was the structure of the novel, I would have hated it before it was even in my hands. Yet it may even be such wonky structure, combined with very strong and beautiful writing, that makes the book as enjoyable as it is. The Laville plot — the one most recognisable as a story – is compelling on its own, if only for the wonder of reading a well-told story driven by something other than outright conflict, but perhaps becomes all the more so when we have to take our heads out of it every few pages to read an email.
I should mention that even though I’m writing this review in English, the book is written (and, as of now, is only available) in French, and takes as one of its main themes the intricacies of a regional language. Still, these reflections, which do admittedly take one a little bit too far outside the story, especially in the last section — a section the author tells us is optional and which really doesn’t add anything to the novel — these reflections don’t overpower the book. All in all, the book does a nice job of basking in the fun of fiction and storytelling, and it’s a great introduction to Acadian literature — what should perhaps be called the other other side of Can Lit.
“Few writers would want all of their work published,” says the author of an article about Sylvia Plath that recently appeared in the Guardian. If that’s true, then poor Philip Larkin didn’t get his wish. Faber and Faber has put out a giant, purple book full of all of his poems, published and unpublished, lovely, and, well, a little ungainly.
The effect of this collecting everything together is that we get to see the good alongside the bad — and, in perusing this collection, one is grateful to Larkin for editing and selecting — some of the poems are so silly, one wonders what they are doing here. Take, for example, the very last poem that appears in “The Poems” section:
Snow on Valentine’s Day!
But it will go away.
My love is not like snow:
It will not go.
If nothing else, these comically bad poems — a lot of them taken out of their original context of letters to friends — show us just how much work went into the poems we have come to know and love. Remember the poem “Days” (“What are days for? / Days are where we live.”)? Well, there’s another version: “What is booze for? / Booze is what we drink.” Truuuuue — but I’m glad of the other version.
More than anything, this is a reference book, and should be treated as such; if we were to read it from cover to cover, we’d be choking on every other poem (see “Valentine’s Day,” above); if we were looking for a glorious, enchanting ending, we’d also be choking (see “Valentine’s Day,” above).
What’s really interesting about this book is the second half — the commentary — specifically, Larkin’s commentary on his own work, though the catalogue of possible allusions is interesting as well. Some of the most intriguing is the stuff that appears under the poem “Aubade,” a poem, in Larkin’s own words, “about DEATH.” Archie Burnett has gathered together all the instances in which Larkin mentions death, mostly in letters he was writing around the time he was finishing the poem, and the effect is harrowing. “I can’t imagine how people can say ‘no use worrying about it, it’s inevitable.’ That’s exactly why I worry.” Or, in another instance, “I get less used to the fact of death as I grow older.” Or, “Loneliness. Death. Law suits. Talent gone. Law suits. Loneliness. Talent gone. Death.” The worry continues through many letters.
There’s a reason we read a poet’s poems first and his letters only after the fact, once we’re hooked. His poems have got the same stark honesty that appears in his letters, but with a lovely edge of irony that makes them less gloomy, somehow, if only that someone else is saying it and not you. And in case you’re not hooked yet, or even familiar with Larkin, you can find some of his poems online here.
When I read a book of poetry, I fold over the corner of the pages containing the poems I like. I folded over a lot in this book.
Because this is a selection of poetry from Paterson’s six books of poetry (published from 1993-2009), there is a bit of range in the content: the ones from his earlier collection are quite cheeky (for instance, there’s one titled “On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him” whose poem doesn’t actually contain any words); a few in the middle are a bit more self-reflexive (there are a couple about poetry itself); the ones at the end are at once eerier and blissfully disorienting (as in the poem that contains this weird image: “the moon was in my mouth”).
But one thing remains pretty constant throughout the whole collection: his incredibly adept use of rhyme and rhythm combined with a startlingly plain vocabulary. This combination of poetic skill and strong, clear language makes some of these poems absolutely perfect. There is also an energy to them that captivates you, promises — and delivers — something exciting waiting at the end.
Every time I write about poetry I seem unable to restrain myself from forgetting the specifics of the poetry I’m trying to review and lecturing on the wonders of poetry in general. To be specific: Paterson’s poetry is moving; to be general: poetry always moves me more than prose. I don’t know what it is that makes it this way. Perhaps because it’s not so tedious or bogged down by the everyday. It’s removed from it and deals more directly with emotion. It purposely leaves something unsaid — Paterson takes this to the extreme in the Zen Master poem.
But rather than (probably mostly unhelpfully) generalising, I will be as specific as one can get. Here are the last two stanzas of my favourite poem in the collection: a retelling of part of Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, “The Forest of Suicides.” In this scene, one of the trees (=soul of a woman who has killed herself) is addressing Dante:
And like you, at the final clarion,
we’ll return to fish our bodies from the ground,
but never again to wear them: such is the sin
of our ingratitude. Instead, we’ll drag them down
to this dark street; and here they’ll stay, strung out
forever in their miserable parade –
naked and still, each hung like a white coat
on the hook of its own alienated shade.