One of the most important books of my childhood. I'm not sure if kids could get as much from it today, because part of the message is patience. But thOne of the most important books of my childhood. I'm not sure if kids could get as much from it today, because part of the message is patience. But the love of a dog, that's timeless. ...more
When the whole world seems to be falling apart, a light tends to shine on those parts of your own life that tremble with the least stability and mostWhen the whole world seems to be falling apart, a light tends to shine on those parts of your own life that tremble with the least stability and most ambiguous significance. For Joan Didion, in this collection that rings nearly as relevant today as it did initially in 1968, she shares gracefully from her scarred history, as she describes our world decomposing with moribund beauty—-a pessimistic aesthete. Hope exists, though it is neither revolutionary nor inevitable; any “rough” peace for one’s own soul or society is merely “slouching” along without urgency or sign. The preface ends with this warning: “writers are always selling someone out.” (xiv) Whether she means in this case that she has been a bit too truthful about her many interviewees, or too deprecating about her own self, her writing feels as close and revealing as a great story-teller, while maintaining the tone and distance of a misanthropic critic. Didion is a master at holding the reader’s attention with comedy, both clever and dark, before delivering her most poignant messages, both personal and philosophical. Especially the short stories in the first two sections are absolute must-reads, with enough memorable quotes to demand a bookside pen. ...more
Pop sensations in Christian spiritual literature rank just above overflowing toilets on my list of desirability… Considering further that the editor oPop sensations in Christian spiritual literature rank just above overflowing toilets on my list of desirability… Considering further that the editor of Blue Like Jazz includes on its back cover stock phrases like “relevant in a postmodern culture”, “a genuine encounter with a God who is real”, and—-pass me the plunger-—“a fresh and original perspective on life, love and redemption”, it is amazing that a vague acquaintance could convince me to pick up this book. Talk about learning my lesson!
My biggest surprise
You can read novels with better stories or essays with more profound messages, but there is not much writing out there today, Christian or otherwise, more clever than Blue Like Jazz! Imagine the levity of Douglas Adams, paired with HL Mencken’s biting cultural commentary, and put to a faithful agenda in the style of Anne Lamont’s charming personal narrative. At his best, Donald Miller is a storyteller with a voice of JD Salinger, especially in the brilliant, stunting inner monologues of a character (himself) with whom we dread to associate, because we share such immature habits, yet somehow we love, because he stumbles into the simplest truths we long to embody. At his worst, a paragraph or two can limp into an all-too-straightforward “infomercial for God” (97), but even in those rare moments, this is preferable to just about anything you see people read on airplanes.
What makes Blue Like Jazz such a literary masterwork is that few writers—-again, those with religious or “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality”—-capture our attention so skillfully in diverse ways. Plenty of authors might connect us more emotionally to characters, or paint more vivid images, or inspire our excitement. But Miller’s rare gift is being able to choose just the right word, craft realistic, powerful dialogue, clarify with catchy, clear sentences, prepare and present ideas sharply and boldly, and shape short, meaningful stories. An unexpected homage to these different literary locales, my copy is as filled with marginalia of all shapes and intent, as any book on my shelves. Prior to any comment to the content, I would offer that the writing here is unsurpassed in modern Christian literature.
The second surprise
Instead of preachy aphorisms and kitsch self-help, Miller really does offer the ‘relevant’ and ‘genuine’ thoughts on faith in the modern world that the back cover peddles. His message is consistently this: that addiction to self is the impediment to our relationship with God. For him personally, that plays out in strained relationships, a self-centered distrust of the world, and a stubborn resistance to abandon childish images of religion. For us, we might judge one another, or live selfishly ignorant of our indirect influences on neighbors near and far, or transfer our egoism to all sorts of more tangible addictions. Whatever the symptom, the cure is to turn ourselves over God, to recognize how deeply infused with spirituality are our most mundane experiences.
In a coarse but apt phrase, Miller’s advice is to be “willing to own your own crap” (53). Somehow, he can say that with a pastoral patience unusual in Christian writing, by sharing such personal stories as radical public confessions and ridiculous summer camp pride. Then he can challenge the way our beliefs about salvation often lead us to be “too proud to receive free grace” (83), and implore us to a deeper penitence than using church simply to “hose things down” (8). Much as jazz resists a certain stiff prescription, Miller’s enduring message of Christian spirituality is that “Self-discipline will never make us feel righteous or clean; accepting God’s love will.” (86)
Most of Blue Like Jazz reads from a the perspective of a rogue critic of faith, the sort of author who can title a chapter “Faith: Penguin Sex”, the sort of critic who can blame the devil for trying “so hard to get Christians to be religious” (13). The last third shifts, however, to something slightly more like establishment Christianity. Perhaps this allows, on one hand, secular liberals to find an ally and reason to soften their stance against faith, while on the other hand, inviting the reasonable right to question their unfazed certainty in parroted religion. Perhaps because his audience is so broad, Miller does not confront us, as a Rob Bell, for instance. But if you have ever been disillusioned by formulaic church-iness or put off by the hypocrisy of Big Religion, there is an unmistakable call to action here, one that promises to offer all that the back cover promises, “a fresh and original perspective on life, love and redemption.” ...more
The early chapters of Faust are, with TS Eliot’s first of Four Quartets, are the finest philosophical poetry ever written. It is a tragic story, emineThe early chapters of Faust are, with TS Eliot’s first of Four Quartets, are the finest philosophical poetry ever written. It is a tragic story, eminently universal, Job being the most famous Devil’s toy, us being the latest. I have read two translations, both classical English, which may be appropriate to Geothe’s style, although I’d like to see a good modernized version. Still, more rhythm than Dante, with dialogue as rich as Shakespeare, the narrative shines through. The translation of John is perhaps the most well known section (“In the beginning was the Deed!”), and Heaven’s discussion in the Prologue is quite familiar. (Mephistopheles: “He is as strange today as that first day you made him. His life would be not so bad, not quite, Had you not granted him a gleam of Heaven’s light; He calls it Reason, uses it not the least Except to be more beastly than any beast.” Lord: “A good man with his groping intuitions Still knows the path that is true and fit.”) But just as powerful are the theodicy and Faust’s demise in chapter 4. (Mephistopheles: “I am the Spirit that denies! And justly so: for all things, from the Void Called forth, deserve to be destroyed: ‘Twere better, then, were naught created. Thus, all which you as Sin have rated—Descruction—aught with Evil blent—that is my proper element.” Faust: “Ah, now I know your honorable profession! You cannot destroy on a large scale, So you are trying it on a small.” Mephistopheles: “I will bind myself to your service in this world, To be at your beck and never rest nor slack; When we meet again on the other side, In the same coin you shall pay me back.” Faust: “The other side gives me little trouble; First batter this present world to rubble, Then the other may rise—if that’s the plan. This earth is where my springs of joy have started, And this sun shines on me when broken-hearted.”) Other highlights include chapters 2 (Student: “A strong, old beer, a pipe that stings and bites, A girl in Sunday clothes—these three are my delights.”) and 10 (Mephistopheles: “The Church has an excellent appetite, She has swallowed whole countries and the question Has never arisen of indigestion.”)...more
The later two stories in this collection are the deeper, better written, more interesting narratives. The Overcoat is the jewel, describing the sad plThe later two stories in this collection are the deeper, better written, more interesting narratives. The Overcoat is the jewel, describing the sad plight of a middle manager with lofty taste, or exactly the population of America's disenfranchised middle class. The central character, Akakii, is at once lovable, but turns pathetic and even disgusting to the reader. Gogol has little need here to use satire or comedy--it's just a good story, with message, well written. The Nose fits well with the psychological drama Diary of a Madman, and the anti-governmental frame of The Portrait, though with a taste of the the average Russian: "Like any self-respecting Russian artist, Ivan was a terrible drunkard." (60) It is a humorous account, weird to be sure. Despite the message against buearocracy, the reader wonders just how much Gogol fell in with the narrative, until the last paragraph shows his playfulness throughout: "The strangest, the most incomprehensible thing of all, is how authors can choose such subjects." (78) Of the first two stories, the simple theme of Old Fashioned Farmers is, "Which wields the most powerful sway over us, passion or habit?" (17) This story of a regular, pleasant married couple, nearly ruining themselves due to an obsession with food. The Tale is also a simple story of silly commoners, this of two Ivans quarrelling over very little. These are not merely narratives of life in the country, but Gogol's critique of 'Little Russia': "It is dull in this world, gentlemen!" (last words, on 57) Within the grayer parts of life, the author's review of women is bright and sharp: "I must confess that I do not understand why things are so arranged, that women sieze us by the nose as deftly as they do the handle of a teapot: either their hands are so constructed, or else our noses are good for nothing else." (32) ...more
Disclaimer: I read this for a friend, and tried very hard to give it a fair read. And in fact, the primary cosmological argument wasn't as crazy as IDisclaimer: I read this for a friend, and tried very hard to give it a fair read. And in fact, the primary cosmological argument wasn't as crazy as I suspected, although with all the benefit of the doubt, the epistemic and axiological implications are still dumbfounding. PvF is not really the self-help para-spirituality that it seems on hearing a review. For instance, Hawkins never gets close to explaining how you can use consciousness to financially invest better, giving credence to his purity of the motivation. And knowing my buddy who lives by this stuff, the life-changing capacity is genuine. But anything, drivel or brilliance, about self-introspection and human value has the capacity (shocking) to get people self-introspective and thinking about values, so PvF's specious argument and ridiculous methods here are window dressing on a manequin of high hopes. Hawkin's cosmological argument is imprecise, incomplete and ultimately flawed, though reasonable enough at a glance--the conclusion to which is that we united mind-body selves are connected to a wholly interconnected universe. The noetic argument is a bigger stretch--the conclusion to which is that our bodies stand in a knowledge-relation to all parts of the conscious universe. The two fundamental flaws are that relation to the univese does not imply relation to all the things of the universe; and that the nature of our relation to consciousness, namely knowledge, is based on an arbitrary equivocation of 'awareness'. That there is awareness (consciousness) and that we have awareness does not imply that for creatures like us awareness is knowledge; as well, consciousness could meet us in any relation, most directly the simple relation of being aware. But the 'practical' implications take the cake. For, even if we are connected to the universe, and to things of it, and connected in knowledge ways, Hawkins demands (with appeal to science, though no evidence) that your arm (in the right conditions) serves to ascertain knowledge, and that truth knowledge (now abandoning his non-Western concept for an intentionally simple, Western concept) can yield value measurments with the same method! That your arm is the cable to the consciousness internet is just silly (why not little toe, why not intense meditation of some sort?), and that the same test works for such various ontological commitments as propositions and high order values, is just too good to be realistic at all. So, ignore the mathematical evaluations, ignore the dream of knowing everything with your simple arm, and ignore the noetic argument about your reation to the universe. But by all means, if it helps you to quantify and categorize values, embrace this one more guess at how to live in a world of spiritual consequences and hierarchies....more
Collins is a genius at making simplicity beautiful, and the beautiful simple. Who else could write a poem about "How agreeable it is not to be touringCollins is a genius at making simplicity beautiful, and the beautiful simple. Who else could write a poem about "How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer"? (7, Consolation) And who would choose a word like 'agreeable' there? Reading in a Hammock is a great justification for taking up a book like this in an actual hammock: "A light so pale and violet it is impossible to tell if I am a man of leisure or a martyr to idleness." (16) The Best Cigarette deals so well with a sensitive topic, describing the end of sex as "these punctuations of flame and gesture." (22) Thesaurus, On Turning Ten, Workshop, Man in Space, and The Blues are great, although this is not one of his more consistent collections. ...more
Yes, it's the standard of American poetry, and yes, there are selections that every student of literature should know; but Leaves isn't meant to be reYes, it's the standard of American poetry, and yes, there are selections that every student of literature should know; but Leaves isn't meant to be read cover to cover, and honestly, there's too much here to be a classic throughout. Without Dead Poets' Society ("yawp" and "Captain"), would anyone read more than a few pages? The highlights are "Eidolons"; Whitman's deep awareness of the sacredness of this land (especially "Song of Myself "16); "Come Up From the Fields, Father"; "Miracles"; and "Prayer of Columbus" is so powerful. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that Whitman is as purely natural and undefiled by the traditions of literature, logic, modernism as he tries to evince. And I certainly don't understand his strange fascination with death, with no apparent metaphor. Also, the rhetorical repetition bugs me, causing his longer poems to lose their power. ...more
This second time around, I read Mice and Men out loud to myself. It's like poetry, but without a single (deeply) metaphorical word. What a fantastic sThis second time around, I read Mice and Men out loud to myself. It's like poetry, but without a single (deeply) metaphorical word. What a fantastic story, told so well, with characters who speak merely as they should, not a word more, not a word out of place. Name another book with such meaning, and so little pretension, no unnecessary allegory! The first pages, for instance, are so plain, so artful, a simple cartoon of fiction. Or take the mice--throughout, I kept trying to find or make them a symbol. No, they're just damn mice, soft furry mice! Lennie is projecting, but there's no literary trickery here. ...more
There was a time when Rilke served as a Holden Caulfield for the 20-something set, an archetype of melancholy for the late rebel. He seems more knownThere was a time when Rilke served as a Holden Caulfield for the 20-something set, an archetype of melancholy for the late rebel. He seems more known than read now, but modern young adults should be able to connect well to his isolationist despair, especially considering how technology and social media has challenged classic concepts of self-identity, chiseling us down to solipsistic souls covered by layers of tee shirt mottos and favorite bands. Whether they could follow his courage (or is it merely stubbornness?) in seeking through art some meaning (or at least some integrity), I’m not sure. I tend to doubt the resiliency of Gen Y, but they certainly are enterprising to understand Rilke’s longing to create. Hollywood has probably made it harder for them (and most of us, to be fair) to appreciate Rilke’s fascination with death; however, the huge modern marketplace for spiritual truth and celebration of vague religiosity, might makes his sense of transcendence more approachable than ever.
Four elements run through this collection of Rilke’s Selected Poetry: despair, death, courage and transcendence. The first and most obvious theme is a general unplaced misery. He is not quite angry at people or situations, not quite depressed, but has a thoroughgoing sense that there is something wrong with ordinary life itself. Life for Rilke is a sitcom, something empty and transient, something to stare at rather than engage. He writes, critical of sitting on the couch of life: “How we squander our hours of pain. / How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration / to see if they have an end.” (Duino Elegies 10) There is no selfishness intended when “he looked across at her / almost as one might gaze into a mirror.” (The Last Evening) But when the world is made merely of self and some mass of the Other, it becomes easy to decide “never to love, in order not to put anyone in the terrible position of being loved.” (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) Rilke’s idea of something more realistic, something worthwhile, is, “Angel and puppet: a real play, finally.” (Elegies 4) But in lieu of ‘a real play’, we live amongst ‘puppets’, as though, perhaps the better analogy is that life is so vacuous, that it resembles a reality television show. Perhaps. At his best, reading Rilke is at least as depressing as watching Snooki…
Beauty in life, or at least the part Rilke seems to appreciate most, comes through death. At every phase of his art, morbidity draws more intrigue than sensitivity. His early poetry asks, “why did God ever hesitate / to flush it all down the drain?” (Dwarf’s Song) His most personal thoughts are revealed a bit later, perhaps the best stage of his writing: “Oh quickly disappearing photograph / in my more slowly disappearing hand.” (Portrait of My Father As a Young Man) Some of the more important works from the middle of his career are also steeped in death, like Alcestis, Requiem for a Friend (“Do not return. If you can bear to, stay / dead with the dead.”), and Death (“And HOPE is written / across the side, in faded Gothic letters.”). The theme continues into his last great work: “we for whom grief is so often / the source of our spirit’s growth.” (Elegies 1)
An artist should choose to suffer, but “In only a few does the urge to action rise up / so powerfully.” (Elegies 6) Rilke does not simply plod through life, enduring death in search of beauty. He gives his whole hard-working career toward making something valuable and pure out of emptiness. From a phrase of Tillich, poetry is Rilke’s ‘courage to be’. At worst, this is Rilke scratching an itch, as unfulfilled as Holden’s journey. At best, however, Rilke’s poetry brings him up against the transcendental borders between meaninglessness and a reason to live. He reaches toward something spiritual especially through language, particularly in To Holderlin, or when he writes, “Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window— / at most: column, tower…” (Elegies 9) That is not quite a religious sentiment, but he is constantly invoking ‘angels’, and occasionally using the vocabulary of faith, such as “I would like to step out of my heart / and go walking beneath the enormous sky. / I would like to pray.” (Lament)
I feel a bond to Rilke. We both relish in how real life is within despair. His poetry, however, takes some patience. The New Poems collection includes some of the best rhetoric, especially in Before Summer Rain and Self-Portrait. Parts of Notebooks and Requiem are great, and a few of the Uncollected Poems are his very best writing, namely Lament, We Must Die Because We Have Known Them, and To Holderlin. But otherwise Rilke is hard to appreciate. Excepting his first few Elegies, late Rilke seems caught up in European intellectualism, reaching toward some overly symbolic art-for-the-sake-of-art. Thankfully, however, this collection includes a fabulous introduction, to guide one through the more arcane selections. ...more