Classics Revisited: Literary Limericks

East of Eden
When your father has dubious means,
And you’re not too sure of your own genes,
Your mom is a witch,
And you’re a snitch,
You can’t buy anyone’s love with beans.

Pride and Prejudice
Hearing the truth quite often hurts one,
But ignorance is even less fun.
Darcy and Bennett
Might take a minute
To figure out just who they should shun.

The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Pavlovich was some kind of a jerk.
His three (or four?) sons each a unique piece of work.
Grushenka lived loud.
Katya was proud.
Priests rot, but in the loud dark, both death and hope lurk.

The Power and the Glory
Everyone’s sin is a nonstarter.
Church on the lam; wine on barter.
You shouldn’t get drunk
When you’re the lone monk,
For conscience will make you a martyr.

Les Misérables
Said Hugo, “No one can write bluer,
But ev’ry injustice I’ll skewer.
Valjean’s the hero;
All others zero.
Wait! I forgot about the sewer.”

Ebcosette

Image credit: Émile Bayard engraving for 1886 edition of Les Misérables. Public Domain.

2017 in Pages

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2017.

History/Biography

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
This is superb biography. Thorough and unflinching. Alexander Hamilton’s reputational resuscitation—from forgotten financial guru to Broadway inspiration—owes pretty much everything to Chernow. His mining of records from Hamilton’s childhood and deep familiarity with his personal correspondence yields a detailed, engaging story that presents the fullest picture of this founding father yet produced. His thought (on human nature, financial systems, geopolitics, etc.) is well-explored, and his failures are given full airing. Hamilton is unquestionably one of the most consequential figures in Western history, and it’s hard to imagine the United States becoming a global power without his influence at the beginning.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
Hindsight is 20-20, so they say, and in American hindsight, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were the height of moral clarity, with waves of virtuous young athletes staring down the Nazi machine and beating the “master-race” on their own turf in nearly every event. Rose-colored memories notwithstanding (if everything was so cut-and-dried in 1936, one wonders why World War II had to wait three more years), there are plenty of inspiring stories from those games (e.g. Jesse Owens taking four golds). The U.S. victory in men’s eight-oared rowing is perhaps one of the most improbable, and Brown’s retelling dives deep into “why”, exploring the rocky upbringings and incredible efforts of Joe Rantz and the rest of the boys in the boat. A bit floridly written at times, but earnest and beautiful all the same.

Cultural Observations

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
From my review: “Some of his observations and recommendations may strike readers as good common sense (such as deepening the way our lives are structured around the historic rhythms of church life or a call to support the businesses of our fellow believers). Others may be hard to swallow (as a fellow homeschooler, I am sympathetic to Rod’s call to pull our children out of both public and status-oriented private schools, but many will bristle at such a brusque suggestion). Dreher is at his finest in the two chapters on sex and technology, where the culture holds most sway within the church, often without our notice. You may react with shock, but you cannot deny the clear and dire warnings he lays out there.”

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Stevenson’s narrative of abuse of the death penalty and life imprisonment in the supposedly “post-racial” era shines a light on just how far the U.S. has to go in pursuit of civil rights for all her citizens. This is a powerful book on the merits of the subject matter alone, but Stevenson’s style and depth of personal experience take these hard truths and make them into urgent pleas for action. “Why must we kill all the broken people?” he asks. Simply devastating.

The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander
This should be required reading for every American. Alexander’s thorough research is compiled here in a relentless drumbeat of indictments against every level and branch of government (with equal shame heaped on both major political parties), popular culture, civil rights and community leaders, and the “colorblind” complacency of Americans of all races. The mass incarceration of non-white men, she argues, is a de facto caste system, trapping for life those caught in its web for even the most minor offenses. We are all complicit, and we must all work against it. Whereas Stevenson tugs at the heart through stories, Alexander presents an unrelenting barrage of facts that demand a verdict. Both are effective, and both are needed.

Fiction

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
“Grumpy Old Swedish Man” doesn’t do it justice. This is a story the West needs to hear right now. There is more to life than individuals and the administrative state, and that the people we do not want to “bother” us (neighbors, co-workers, and those in need) are precisely those whom God puts in our path to save us from despair. Backman weaves very modern tale with intense heart and a Wodehouseian love for the absurd metaphor. What a joy!

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck is one of those authors (like Hemingway) considered to be near the pinnacle of greatness for a certain generation of American literati. I’ve read much of Steinbeck in the past, and none of his work ever “clicked” with me in the emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually satisfying way truly great books tend to. All of that probably explains why I missed reading this one until now. This is truly his magnum opus, one of the masterpieces of American story, an epic homage to home and the ways sin and hate co-mingle with love and redemption in the secret sauce of family. East of Eden redeemed Steinbeck for me.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I picked this one up out of love for the man responsible for its publication, Walker Percy, who read the manuscript and championed its printing at the behest of Toole’s (reportedly obsessive) mother some years after her son’s suicide. This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read, with lots of of laugh-out-loud scenes. It’s also quite insightful into the brokenness of social systems and the seamier side of life in New Orleans. Despite the excellent writing and well-drawn characters, none of them ultimately rise to the level of care and concern for the reader…which, I suppose, is Toole’s point. Still, it’s grown on me as it marinates after reading.

Theology & Practice

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch
I heard Andy Crouch deliver a condensed version of the content in this book at a conference earlier this year, and made a point to buy a copy. Like most of Crouch’s work, this one is winsome, accessible, at times painful, but much needed. There is far more here than a stern warning about screen time for young children (though he makes a good case in that direction). The book is truly a meditation on Sabbath keeping, wherein we truly rest (not just take leisure) after pursuit of creative work (not just mindless toil or frittering). His is a prophetic call to resist the “easy-everywhere” idolatry to which our devices tempt us.

Practicing the King’s Economy by Michael Rhodes & Robby Holt with Brian Fikkert
Among the perks of working for and with authors is that you get to read, edit, and comment on books before everyone else sees them. This is the case with this volume, due out in April 2018 from Baker books. Rhodes & Holt make a compelling exegetical and practical case for a biblical reorientation of our economic lives around a vision of Christ’s already-but-not-yet kingdom. This is explored through six keys (worship, community, work, equity, creation care, and rest) each bolstered with thorough study of scripture and real-life, attainable examples. I read a lot, and this book makes me very excited, and I’m not just saying that because I love the three guys who wrote it!

Memoir

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry
I think rather highly of Wendell Berry, but find his oeuvre somewhat uneven. When he is on to something, he is prophetic. When he is cranky about a hobby horse, it shows, and his prose suffers. This short book, which I only recently heard of, is among the finest of the former category. In traveling back through his childhood experience of America’s racial caste system, he cuts to the heart of the social and economic dislocation crushing the American soul. Jim Crow and slavery are only the half of it. Though this book is nearly 50 years old, it seems even more incisive now than I’m sure it must have been then.

The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
I met Harrison and heard him speak at this year’s Walker Percy Weekend. When I stopped laughing, I bought a copy of his memoir of growing up as masculine misfit in Mississippi. Key is by turns crass, juvenile, and silly, while simultaneously managing to be spiritually insightful and deeply moving. It’s a neat trick if you can do it.

Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
There’s not much one can say about O’Connor that hasn’t been said, but it’s all true. Her stories are always on my nightstand, ready to deflate any bubbles of self-importance and remind me that I only pursue righteousness through the benevolent violence of God’s grace. Overall, I prefer Everything that Rises Must Converge, but this volume contains plenty of gems as well.

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
It just gets better and better with age. All of Percy’s work feels more or less prophetic, as humanity has still not fully come to terms with the dislocation of the individualized, technological society birthed by WWII, but The Last Gentleman sums up his philosophy best of all his fiction. I read this for the fourth time this year, in preparation to lead our book club in a discussion of it. The “New South”, the old South, the sexual revolution, cultural Christianity, and so much more comes under his withering eye.

Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
Like many American Christians, I confess to being overly comfortable with my culture and overly sensitive to perceived threats to religious liberty and biblical values. It is easy to see the Church’s influence waning in our society and be tempted to anger or despair, especially when so many of my fellow believers still seem intent on pursuing purely political solutions to fundamentally spiritual/cultural problems. Speaking into that frustration, Everyday Church is an excellent wake-up call, breathing Gospel life back into my understanding and expectations of the Church and its relation to culture. Chester and Timmis both serve as pastors in the United Kingdom, a country whose Christian heritage has all but disappeared, so their sound scriptural advice is also given the weight of experience.

Also-Reads

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
Howards End by E. M. Forster
The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Twelve Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke
The Second Coming by Walker Percy
A Meal with Jesus by Tim Chester
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
At Home by Bill Bryson
The Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden
A Legacy of Spies by John LeCarré
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
ReSet by David Murray
Onward by Russell Moore

If you wonder what I thought of these, find me on Goodreads.

Photo: Library, The Biltmore Estate, December 2017.

Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

Something Else Matters Most: Music for an Anxious Age

“Just do your best. It’s the only way to keep that last bit of sanity. Maybe I don’t have to be good, but I can try to be at least a little better than I’ve been so far.”
~ The Avett Brothers, “When I Drink”

I dearly love music.

The ability to create (good) music remains a bit beyond my grasp, and so I’ve always admired the creations of others—preferably at a volume suitable to parse nuances of vocals and instrumentation. This fact is to the frequent chagrin of family, co-workers, and fellow vehicle passengers. Thank the Lord for headphones. My tastes, such as they are, range all over, leaping genres and centuries from one hour to the next. I have affinity for particular bands or composers (and even interpretations thereof) more so than broad, industry-determined categories. I own plenty of albums/songs from years of gathering (more than I have time to listen to regularly), but even that collection doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of preference with access to of Pandora, Spotify, and the maddening diaspora of choice.

It is probably not surprising then that I could not name a single “favorite” song or musician. Taste is a horrible thing to quantify. Still, if there has been a soundtrack to life of late, though, it has been the Avett Brothers.

Perhaps there is some deep, rumbling affection toward them from my North Carolina expat heart. Maybe it is their legendary engagement with fans throughout an always-full tour schedule. It could be their relentless creativity, as they reinvent themselves from album to album without losing their core dynamic. At bottom, though, I engage with Scott, Seth, Bob, Joe, et al., as poets as much as musicians.

Avetts

Photo © James Nix, Independent Tribune

The success of their recent albums comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve been listening for a while (and if having Judd Apatow direct a documentary on your band isn’t the heights of popular culture, I’m not sure what is). Plenty of better critics than me have reviewed the Avett’s music and chronicled their rise to fame. I’ll even sidestep the question of taste. What interests me is not whether their music is good (though I’d fight anyone who says otherwise), but why it has risen to the heights of culture right now.

Why, in a culture obsessed with the new, do songs dealing with the pain and sorrow of the past chart right behind poseur pop stars and forgettable tween idols? Why, in a world where familial, social, and political bands have all but dissolved, does simple, honest music cut through the mess to draw people together? Something else matters most, and, try as we might, there is no escaping it. The Avetts are among a very few musicians who dive right into the spiritual/relational hunger of our anxious age.

The Avett Brothers’ style is hard to nail down. Ostensibly beginning as a bluegrass group, they simultaneously evoke Southern Rock, folk, emo, and even electronica. Somehow they manage to be both high-hipster and down-home country. They remind me most broadly, though, of 70s music.

I know that’s not a genre either, but the 1970s were a golden age of music. It was the mainstream glam pop of Elton John and David Bowie, but not just that. It was the arena rock of Boston, Kansas, or Journey, but not just that. It was the R&B, Funk, Disco, or Memphis Soul, but not just that. It wasn’t even just the zenith of soft-rock, with James Taylor, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg. The 1970s was all of this, humming in the background of a decade-long cultural trainwreck.

That trainwreck (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the Cold War, coups & revolutions, stagflation, and general malaise) could’ve been precisely what made the music go. In a time of political, economic, and social dysfunction, we turn inward, searching for our lost stability in love, family, and faith. Enduring art always needs a little prodding from external discomfort—when the black hole yawns widest, the artist feels most alive.

Culturally, it seems that we are now living through a 70s redux (though 2016-17 has seemed a little more 1968 than any of us are comfortable with). Musically, then, it stands to reason that the explosion of soul-searching indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Head and the Heart, etc.) would be a natural result. It is the Avetts, though, who emerge as the second coming of all your 70s favorites, because they manage evoke them all.

Though there is something reassuringly familiar about each of their songs, they do not subsist on nostalgia. Each album manages to be fresh and new. Rather than spending all their reserves on their debut project, they work and mature, genuinely getting better with age. They are even getting more overtly religious, boldly incorporating biblical language and flouting the increasing pop-culture taboos against Christianity.

The vapidity of much of what passes for “Christian music” these days may be driving the rise of thoughtful voices in the rest of the industry just as much as it has led to the decline and fall of the Christian Contemporary labels. When the Avetts can earnestly lament depression, alcoholism, pornography and rejoice in the promise of friendship and redemption (all in one song!) with musical excellence, why bother creating a counterculture? Moreover, they’ve recently announced that a new recording project (a joint effort with Scott & Seth’s dad, Jim Avett) will be a gospel album.

So it’s here I’ll take my stand, proclaiming an undying love for this band. Taste? Sure, but some things matter even more. While the mainstream continues rushing away from truth and beauty, we need more and more to be reassured that the simpler themes of life, death, love, loss, joy, and pain still carry the day. People are looking for other things to live by, and the mournful hope proffered by the Avetts is pointing the way for many.

I went on the search for something real.
Traded what I know for how I feel.
But the ceiling and the walls collapsed
Upon the darkness I was trapped
And as the last of breath was drawn from me
The light broke in and brought me to my feet.

There’s no fortune at the end of the road that has no end.
There’s no returning to the spoils
Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them.
There’s no falling back to sleep
Once you’ve wakened from the dream.
Now I’m rested and I’m ready,
I’m rested and I’m ready to begin.

~ The Avett Brothers, “February Seven”

Photo credit: James Nix, Independent Tribune