This is the classic: food as theology/theology of food/embodied life/Celebration of God's good creation. If that were not enough, a delightfully craft...moreThis is the classic: food as theology/theology of food/embodied life/Celebration of God's good creation. If that were not enough, a delightfully crafted book.(less)
This is my second reading of Taylor's now "classic" text outlining the spiritual and historical origins of modern western culture. To be clear, by "sp...moreThis is my second reading of Taylor's now "classic" text outlining the spiritual and historical origins of modern western culture. To be clear, by "spiritual origins" I mean Taylor primarily dissects Christianity's contribution to the formation of Anglo-American culture. Taylor, a Catholic, is even-handed when handling protestant/catholic issues but covers little of non-Christian religious traditions. First published in 1989, Taylor's analysis has stood up well and remains a key source. (in addition to his newest book continuing and completing his argument ) Sources of the Self is an essential starting point for any student studying at the interface of religious belief and contemporary culture.
Although my devoting such a great amount of time (twice)! to this 500 page text may seem excessive, close reading of the text has been more than rewarding. In particular, Taylor's final chapters: "Visions of the Post-Romantic Age" and "Epiphanies of Modernism" provided a helpful intellectual infrastructure for both my long-standing interest in theology and the arts and a newer imaginative literature project. In many ways the twenty plus years since the author wrote the text have added significant validation to his assertions. I know of no other text with such a wide-ranging, thoughtful, yet distilled analysis of modern imaginative culture.
However, be forewarned: the writing here is academic and I do not mean simply the presence of numerous endnotes. Taylor's prose while clear is ponderous and without literary style. Worthwhile reading, but Sources of the Self does require a committed reader.(less)
Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres is not recommended for readers needing happy or uplifting stories. However, for those readers who revel in grace...more Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres is not recommended for readers needing happy or uplifting stories. However, for those readers who revel in graceful prose and finely observed relationships, this novel is for you.
Smiley tells a story that on the surface describes the implosion of a solid prosperous Iowa farm family. The Cook family, like many successful midwestern multi-generational farm families, failed to adequately account for the dangers implicit when passing control from older to younger generations or the treacherous economic conditions that exploded during the final decades of the 20th century. While the economic tale has become well known, Smiley’s principle interest resides in the dissonance found below the surface, a calm surface marked by church pot-lucks, hard-work, and taciturn small-town manners that also hides a viscous under-tow of incest, abuse, hate, patricide, and even murder. While these recent farming economics may reflect an extreme aberration, the author’s use of Shakespeare’s King Lear as a matrix on which to frame her modern story suggests inter and intra generational struggles are universal and there is “nothing new under the sun” when it comes to the human heart.
Jane Smiley’s prose is a delight to read and a model for novel construction. While some critics were unimpressed by this modern Lear re-telling, I found her use of the “Elder sister” Ginny as narrator (That would be Goneril for those who don’t quite remember their Shakespeare), a most un-Shakespeare like treatment of Caroline (the Cordelia character), and a far more detailed and nuanced description of Daddy Cook (Lear) made this story fresh. I was aware of the matrix; it just didn’t matter.
I come from Midwestern farm stock(Iowa, actually) and found Smiley’s descriptions of people and places uncomfortably accurate. During the last thirty years the farm crises produced countless stories of suffering, culture destruction, and displacement. Without a doubt, this narrative documented the withering of many long-standing farm communities and represented a significant cultural loss. Although understandable, these same stories often reinforced many distorted small town myths, myths that might once have been true but no longer approximate the truth. Smiley’s novel suggests that small towns, family farms, and stable multi-generational communities are not now nor ever were protection against the human heart’s tendency toward self-seeking. This tale is replete with all too accurate descriptions of the tragic long-term consequences of sexual abuse, repressed hate, and vengeance.
New readers of A Thousand Acres may consider this narrative of family dysfunction, particularly the incest, represents a too-often trod path. It is well to remember Smiley’s book is now over twenty years old. When it was written, in the middle of the farm crisis, our culture’s sensitivity to sexual abuse was significantly less than our own. However, as Shakespeare’s continued popularity attests, good stories tell tales about the human heart—and these stories never get old.
However King Lear—often described as the most theological of Shakespeare’s plays—carries a hint of redemption or at least insight that is notably absent in Smiley’s novel. Lear, unlike the elder Cook, in the last act is able see Cordelia’s actions as gestures of love; the Shakespearian protagonist’s suicide would seem a sign of the old King’s acceptance of at least a degree of culpability and finitude. Smiley’s Ginny, unlike Goneril who when her evil plans failed killed herself, is blandly grateful that the attempted murder of her sister by poison was unsuccessful. The book ends with her noting, “. . . that a burden had been lifted.” But it is not clear if this expression simply reflects the reality that Rose was dying from cancer and Ginny’s homicidal actions were no longer needed, or if Ginny now saw her actions as evil and possessed a modicum of genuine remorse.
Smiley’s characters are thoroughly modern. They have, in ways Shakespeare’s characters have not, lost confidence in any outside standard of right or wrong. The inept interventions by the local pastor and inadequate cultural mores leave the inhabitants of A Thousand Acres adrift in a sort of existential narcissism. The book comes to a close, as do many of the recent farm narratives, with a sterile farm sale, a prose image not dissimilar to Roman guards dividing the crucified Christ’s cloak. But, life does go on—in real life and in the novel. Unlike most TV dramas, Smiley leaves the reader unsettled and unresolved; Ginny and Rose’s two children simply survive and “move on.” Perhaps, like death camp survivors, Smiley suggests Ginny, Ty, and her nieces' triumph is the opportunity to try again.
In the novel's epilogue, it seems the only cost to the survivors is paying an estate-tax bill; an act Ginny can imagine only as a transaction--a most peculiar personal transaction. She reaches a deal with the IRS to pay her share of the tax over 14 years. To be sure, she notes that her act will keep Rose’s children from the burden, but she is “. . .glad to pay it,” but not as a gift or act of love; Ginny is glad to remit the money because it pays off “her regrets.” In this modern view, a view I think Shakespeare would have found strange, Ginny’s moral imagination—like all the other characters—is stunted, able only to process personal feelings and needs. In considering the legacy of her father, his lack of remorse, a memory Ginny will safeguard above all others, she remembers this deficit as, “. . .wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self.”
I left the book with a a profound sadness. Smiley has beautifully articulated the peculiar modern infatuation with self. This is an infatuation that corrodes all possibility of human relationships; an infatuation that by its pervasiveness allows survivors to see others looking into Narcissus’ mirror but makes them blind to the mirror before their own eyes. However, a reader looking for a hope greater than simple existence will need to look elsewhere. Indeed, A Thousand Acres is a modern tragedy. (less)
I confess to a long-standing love of good detective fiction. While I find myself reading far more English detective fiction, I am not a nationalistic...moreI confess to a long-standing love of good detective fiction. While I find myself reading far more English detective fiction, I am not a nationalistic snob. Recently, a staccato of Jack Reacher film trailers careened across my TV during a football game and reminded me that I had not read the popular and prolific detective fiction of Lee Child. I had just finished grading a series of college freshmen essays and was in a mood to indulge myself. So, at my Library’s Second-Hand bookstore I purchased the first Jack Reacher novel written by the “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author.” I should have saved my money.
Perhaps I have read too much Joseph Kanon or Henning Mankell or Colin Dexter, but Lee Child’s fiction is all body and no mind. This book contains near constant episodes of violence committed by stereotypical ultra-evil men and is matched by Reacher’s amoral and unsentimental reprisals. The protagonist’s relationships match his reprisals. Child’s Jack Reacher seems largely motivated by necessity, a vague tribal or family obligation, and a desire to reveal the absolute minimum about himself—to his friends, to his lovers, and most definitely to the reader. I have no more idea of Reacher’s thinking or his feelings or his choices after perusing the 512 pages than I did when I started.
In a way, the lack of character development, significant plot, or meaningful deduction made Killing Floor a kind of detective fiction pornography—repetitive violence which by it’s nature depersonalizes the acts and desensitizes the reader making questions concerning meaning or good versus evil or coherence or justice or morality moot. Indeed, there is so little suspense or real detective work in the Killing Floor that this book might be better characterized as dark fantasy—very bad dark fantasy. (less)
Muriel Spark wrote novels with a devotion toward the spare form and this effort is no exception. The author's most famous work, "The Prime of Miss Jea...moreMuriel Spark wrote novels with a devotion toward the spare form and this effort is no exception. The author's most famous work, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," contained precious little description but was ripe with a pleasing if sarcastic wit. Sadly, this novel is neither descriptive nor humorous--worse yet, the characters remain enigmatic and I could care less. Critic James Wood notes that Spark exerts "rigid control" over her characters and uses as support for his assertion the author's use of the "flash forward" device. Unfortunately, in this novel the author's use of these time tropes is so frequent as to become for me a major distraction. Finally, Spark was fascinated by the limitations of what can be known about another human being and the inherent uncertainty surrounding events and motivations. But while this fact is surely true in real life, the author has so reduced what she has chosen to revel that she has left the reader with a story that it is, well, boring.(less)
I found this a helpful text to orient an exploration of theology and the arts. The section on Michael Polyani is especially thoughtful and well writte...moreI found this a helpful text to orient an exploration of theology and the arts. The section on Michael Polyani is especially thoughtful and well written. Polyani's work is important but often hard to appreciate without reading many of his smaller tracts. Begbie provides a readable introduction.(less)