Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015: Year in Reading

Here are the books I read in 2015. I'm happy to offer thoughts on any of these if you have any questions about them. Most of what's on this list I loved, although a handful of them I found deeply disappointing. (There are also a few I enjoyed but which left no lasting impression.) The last book I anticipate finishing in 2015 is Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women, which is a remarkable book.

Hold the Dark - William Giraldi
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion
Being Mortal - Atul Gawande
On Immunity - Eula Biss
Glimmerglass - Marly Youmans
This Side of Brightness - Colum McCann
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. - Adelle Waldman
Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker - Thomas Kunkel
Hiroshima - John Hersey
On Violence - Hannah Arendt
Spiritual Friendship - Wesley Hill
Herzog - Saul Bellow
Bad Religion - Ross Douthat
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie Dillard
Radiant Truths - (Ed.) Jeff Sharlet
The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño
Angels - Denis Johnson
Paradox in Chesterton - Hugh Kenner
Virtually Normal - Andrew Sullivan
St. Augustine: A Life - Garry Wills
Unapologetic - Francis Spufford
An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America - Joseph Bottum
Água Viva - Clarice Lispector
For the Living and the Dead - Tomas Tranströmer
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky
2666 - Roberto Bolaño
The Pocket Einstein - John and Mary Gribbin
Excellent Women - Barbara Pym
The Novel: A Biography - Michael Schmidt
Common Ground - Justin Trudeau
The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster
Strength of Conviction - Tom Mulcair
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - David Foster Wallace
Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival - Andrew Sullivan
Citizen: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine
The Mechanic Muse - Hugh Kenner
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil - Hannah Arendt
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia - Dennis Covington
Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America - Randall Balmer
The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake - Breece D'J Pancake
Catholics - Brian Moore
Missing Women, Missing News: Covering Crisis in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside - David Hugill
Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time - Sarah Ruden
The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline - George Saunders (reread)
Miss Lonelyhearts - Nathanael West
The Day of the Locust - Nathanael West
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 - Mark Greif
After Theory - Terry Eagleton ( reread)
Snow White - Donald Barthelme
Against Interpretation and Other Essays - Susan Sontag
Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 - (Ed.) Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Chad Harbach et al
MFA Vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction - (Ed.) Chad Harbach
Illuminations - Walter Benjamin
The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin - Garrett Keizer
The Complete Cosmicomics - Italo Calvino
Amends - Eve Tushnet

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Memories of Brett Foster

Brett Foster taught the first class I took at Wheaton College: ENG 215 – Classical and Early British Literature, a 9:15 AM class I stumbled into between 9:15 and 9:22 AM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the fall of 2006. I remember writing a rakish poem about one of my roommates in the style of Chaucer for an assignment. A couple days after we turned in our poems, Brett read a few of them out loud, including mine. He praised my poem until he reached the final couplet, at which point he criticized it for closing with an awkward slant rhyme (“times”/”realized”) that basically torpedoed the whole thing. I was elated.

His classes were highly interactive. The students who learned the most came prepared to throw themselves into roiling, expansive conversations. I was not yet a good student in those days and my preparation for Brett’s class was consistently lackluster, but I was struck by Brett’s love for his subject, as clear and instructive to us as his obvious expertise. He offered both light and heat: a way of seeing, but also a way of living. 

I didn’t take another literature class at Wheaton, falling instead into philosophy, but Brett always remembered my name and greeted me whenever we passed one another in the hallway.

We occasionally ran into each other at bookstores around town. The Half-Price Books on Army Trail Road was a place we both favored for its large selection. He was always eager to discuss recent finds with fellow enthusiasts. I’ve seen few people demonstrate a joy as pure as his in the discovery, collection, and endless reading of books.

He was generous in introducing me to his peers and colleagues and inviting me into conversations at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing in 2014. I attended a session of his, a panel on translation that also included John Wilson and Sarah Ruden, and got to listen to Brett dish on Dante’s jealous contemporaries. We talked afterwards for a few minutes. He reveled in the cheeky insults of the forgotten poets and further exposited some of the cultural and social rivalries that fueled their disputes. When he really got going, he turned his head and looked past me, smiling and nodding as he talked. I skimmed along the surface of what he said, peering down at him miles below as he bounced from idea to idea with joy.

In the spring of this year, I published an article about a writer I love in a magazine I love, a magazine to which Brett has often contributed. He emailed me after it was published to let me know that he enjoyed the article and wanted to be kept apprised of my literary pursuits. It was a short email: a small, good thing. It helped me to feel welcome—like I belonged—and I don’t think I succeeded in articulating how much it meant to me in the reply I sent him.

I didn’t know Brett well, but what I do know of him I am confident to say. He was a lovely, generous, and brilliant man; he cared for many people and expressed his care for them in tangible and specific ways; he was an encouraging and patient teacher; he was a beautiful poet. I thank God for him.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Holy Relics Compendium

Once upon a time, I wrote a weekly-ish column that was all about evangelical Christian cultural ephemera. I was very pleased with a number of the pieces, but my interests have led me away from the column for the time being, and I don't think I'm going to be able to bring it back in any regular form.

I would very much like to turn these pieces into a book someday, complete with beautiful photographs of small-town churches and the things one finds in them. I want to write a handful of final pieces in this vein, ones that I've been saving up, wherein I swing for the fences and try to muster all my powers to say something meaningful and interesting about the most central and common features of evangelical life. The book would be very pretty. A coffee-table book, maybe. I'd hope that it would be a gift for Christians looking for interesting things to say and think about their way of life at our peculiar point in history.

Till I can get someone interested in such a book, however, I'm left with the pieces I did write. They're all available online still, but haven't been easy to access from a central location. That's what this post is for.

Below, you can find links to all of the published installments of Holy Relics. I hope you enjoy these. I've also included links to guest pieces that friends wrote for the column in its last days; one of them is a good-natured parody by a very talented fellow writer for the site. I *loved* writing this column, and hopefully have many more pieces to write in this vein. When I get them published, I'll put up links to them on this page.

Thanks for your encouragement and support with this little project. Anyway, here're the links, arranged chronologically:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

March/April Writing Recap

In case you're interested, here are links to two recent pieces of mine that I'd love for you to read.

Germanwings and Evil is a meditation on the recent Germanwings tragedy and the privative nature of evil. It's short—a tangential riff on Terry Eagleton ended up getting cut during revisions—and much more direct than most of the stuff I write. It's also my first contribution to First Things' First Thoughts blog. Hopefully it will not be the last. 

Who's Afraid of Shirley Jackson? is an article I worked on for quite a while, and I'm fairly pleased with the results. It can be found online via the link above, and you can also read it in the May/June print issue of Books & Culture. The piece traces a Freudian theme through Jackson's novels. If you've never read her or are only familiar with her legendary short story "The Lottery," I hope to convince you to pick up one of her longer pieces of fiction. They're dark, funny, and elegantly written. 

Currently I'm also working on a review of Atul Gawande's excellent book Being Mortal, and should soon be posting a link to a review of William Giraldi's beautiful and propulsive thriller Hold the Dark. When those go up, I'll try to remember to post the links here.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014: Year in Reading

Unsorted, uncategorized, un-reflected upon, here's a list (as complete as my memory can make it out) of books I read in 2014, as well as books I'm currently reading and intend to finish. I have a lot to finish. If you want a snap opinion or recommendation for any of these, let me know!


Shirley Jackson - The Bird's Nest
The Haunting of Hill House
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
The Sundial
James Baldwin - Another Country
Christopher Beha - Arts & Entertainments
Kyle Minor - Praying Drunk (my blurb)
Leslie Jamison - The Empathy Exams
H.P. Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness
Paul Elie - The Life You Save May Be Your Own
Shusaku Endo - Silence
George Saunders - Tenth of December 
In Persuasion Nation
Marilynne Robinson - When I Was a Child, I Read Books
David Foster Wallace - Both Flesh and Not
Christian Wiman - Once in the West (poems)
Penelope Fitzgerald - Human Voices
Mary Szybist - Incarnadine (poems)
John Darnielle - Wolf in White Van (my review)
Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast
Denis Johnson - Jesus' Son (reread)
Christian Wiman - My Bright Abyss (reread)
Michael Chabon - Maps & Legends
Joseph Mitchell - My Ears Are Bent
Joe Gould's Secret
Alexander Theroux - The Primary Colors
Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian
Judy Oppenheimer - Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson
Jeff Sharlet - Sweet Heaven When I Die
Jacques Derrida - The Gift of Death
Gene Luen Yang - American Born Chinese
Aaron Belz - Plausible Worlds (poems) (my review)

In progress:

Michael Schmidt - The Novel: A Biography (my blurb)
Atul Gawande - Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Joan Didion - Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives
Between Parentheses
Gregory Wolfe (Ed.) - Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE
Michel De Montaigne - The Complete Essays
Virginia Woolf - Mrs. Dalloway
Sarah Ruden - Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time
Miguel de Unamuno - Three Exemplary Novels
Fred Sanders - The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything
David Bentley Hart - The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
John Cheever - The Stories of John Cheever
Felix Ó Murchadha - A Phenomenology of Christian Life: Glory and Night