Award Winner · Drama · Fiction · Heather D · In the Library · Quick Read! · SCC Book Club

Clybourne Park | by Bruce Norris

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
(Faber and Faber, 2011, 210 pages)

Typically when reading a good novel the characters are well developed and the reader can feel as though they (the reader) are a part of story. For me it was difficult to become close to any of the characters in this play. I found myself continuously having to go back through the pages to try and figure out who was who.

This was the first time I have voluntarily picked up a play to read. I honestly have to say that I’m glad that I took the time to venture out of my comfort zone. It brought up some true-to-life controversial issues and I found it interesting see how it all ‘played’ out. I think I will stick with going and watching a live play performance as opposed to reading them.

You can also check out Julia’s review of Clybourne Park to see what she thought and to get a quick summary of the play.

Food! · Julia P · Memoir · Non-Fiction

Blue Plate Special | by Kate Christensen

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen
(Doubleday, 2013, 368 pages)

I don’t remember what prompted me to reread Blue Plate Special but this time around I was reading it with a different understanding of its author. Christensen has written a number of novels that I really enjoyed. The kicker is that I didn’t pick any of them up until after reading this memoir back in 2013. If you’ve followed my reviews you know that if it’s a book that’s in some way related to food I’m all over it. So even though I wasn’t familiar with Christensen’s work, at the time the book sounded like it would appeal to me. And it did.

Rereading this book allowed me to see just how much of herself Christensen has put into her novels. She has a follow-up book coming out shortly called How to Cook a Moose that is meant to pick up where this book left off (where Christensen is happily living in Maine with a man half her age). I’ll certainly be reading it because I like this author and I like food-related memoirs.

Even though this book didn’t “wow” me, it did turn me on to Christensen’s work and I’m so glad it did. You don’t need to have read her fiction to appreciate Blue Plate Special, but I think it adds something to the reading experience if you have. For more of a summary of the book you can check out my first review of this title 🙂

Andrew S · Essays · Non-Fiction · Religion

John Calvin’s Ecclesiology | edited by Eduardus Van der Borght and Gerard Mannion

John Calvin’s Ecclesiology: Ecumenical Perspectives
edited by Eduardus Van der Borght and Gerard Mannion
(T&T Clark, 2011, 254 pages)

John Calvin’s theology is profoundly church-centered. This volume of essays explores the various ways that Calvin’s theology is relevant for contemporary ecumenical conversations. Mannion’s introductory essay, which draws out principles for ecumenism from the correspondence between Calvin and Cardinal Sadolet, grounds ecumenical dialogue in critical engagement with history. Others, like John Halsey Wood, Jr.’s essay on Abraham Kuyper’s Free Church ecclesiology, show how Calvin’s thought has shaped Reformed and Catholic ideas about the Church throughout modernity.

Calvin is a controversial and divisive figure. While he is often viewed as a central figure in the disruption of the Church’s unity, these essays help to draw a nuanced picture. The catholicity of Calvin’s thought is something that all branches of the fragmented Church can benefit from. This volume helps to show how.

Andrew S · Books · In the Library · Non-Fiction

The Child That Books Built | by Frances Spufford

The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Frances Spufford
(Metropolitan Books, 2002, 213 pages)

Francis Spufford’s memoir of childhood reading is a classic case of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The American edition features a rather sentimental looking illustration of a child in a nursery setting, idyllically gazing at a picture book. The image sets the expectation (at least to my mind) of warm reflections on charming children’s classics. Well, Spufford has some of those, but this is certainly not the overall tone of the book. The first chapter, “Confessions of an English Fiction Eater,” is a play on Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Spufford’s voracious reading bears all the nasty marks of a habit. He describes the way that books served as an escape from a suffocating home life, one which was dominated by the needs of his sister’s debilitating illness. There is no sentimentality in the frustration and lack of sympathy that he expresses for her condition. Books serve as a means of distraction from the claustrophobia of boarding school and ultimately an escape from childhood altogether.

His account begins with his reading of Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit and ends with the erotic novel Emmanuelle. In between, Spufford investigates the psychology of fairy tales, the immersive qualities of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and the social ethics of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. His discussion of Lewis is particularly good. Spufford’s reading of Narnia really captures the capacity of Lewis’ writing to awaken a desire for the supernatural. Lewis’ stories are treated as stories, not as vehicles for ideas (as is so often the case). Lewis’ judgements about what makes for good reading continue to guide Spufford, even as he moves from reading children’s books to porn (the books he describes as “porn” actually sound a bit highbrow, but it goes well beyond romantic memories of childhood nonetheless).

This is a book that delves deep into the ways that reading shapes us psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. For those who come to reading as simple entertainment, this whole approach might seem a bit overblown. But if, for you, reading is more of a habit to be supplied than a recreation to be taken up or left alone, Spufford’s reading life should resonate deeply.

Andrew S · Baseball · Classic · Fiction

Shoeless Joe | by W. P. Kinsella

Shoeless Joe

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
(Ballantine, 1987, 224 pages)

Shoeless Joe is a strange blend of baseball nostalgia, rural elegy, and mystical realism. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Field of Dreams, which is based on the novel. Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer, hears a strange voice that tells him, “If you build it, he will come.” The “it” is a baseball field, which Ray carves out of his cornfield, and the “he” is Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced slugger who was banned from baseball after it was discovered that he helped throw the 1919 World Series. Ray builds the field, and Shoeless Joe, along with the other seven players implicated in the Black Sox scandal, mysteriously appear to play. The cryptic instructions aren’t over yet. When the voice tells Ray to “Ease his pain,” Ray somehow knows that he is being told to track down reclusive writer J. D. Salinger and take him to a baseball game. As Ray follows the promptings of the voice, the mystical events surrounding his field continue to multiply, and the farm falls into a financial crisis. So long as he continues to heed the voice, Ray is sure that that farm will be saved.

While the film captures the spirit of the novel, some of the key elements are treated very differently. First, there’s the “voice.” In the movie, the voice is a ghostly whisper carried on the wind that rustles the corn stalks. Kinsella’s version is the scratchy voice of a baseball announcer delivering his messages over the roar of a crowd. The voice should make the reader/viewer question Ray’s sanity. And yet, the sense of fate that Kinsella creates is so convincing that you never fail to trust that everything will work out. The movie has James Earl Jones portraying the fictional character of Terence Mann, a writer very much like J. D. Salinger. Jones’ delivery of the climactic speech about the place of baseball in America’s past is stirring. Yet, the oddity of Salinger’s presence in the novel is disorienting and entirely appropriate. Even with these differences – and there are of course many more – the movie successfully transposes the book’s mixture of fact and fiction, the natural and the supernatural, onto the screen.

For Kinsella, baseball is a religion, and he is the game’s great mystic visionary. The rituals, the stories, the atmosphere of the game are portrayed with reverence. Baseball is a link, a shared experience, between fathers and sons. It can actually bring together the living and the dead in the ritual of the game, made possible by Ray’s faith. The field gives Shoeless Joe another chance to play the game he loves after being betrayed by the crooks and the owners. It offers Ray a chance to save the land that he loves even as the creditors and the industrial famers close in on his little plot. The game and the land are tied up together. Baseball is a religion that defines America and the Midwest.

Fiction · Jean R · Thriller

The Lost Key | by Catherine Coulter and J. T. Ellison

The Lost Key (A Brit in the FBI, #2)

The Lost Key by Catherine Coulter and J. T. Ellison
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014, 464 pages)

The Lost Key by Catherine Coulter and J. T. Ellison is the second book in the A Brit in the FBI series. FBI agent, Nicholas Drummond, and his partner, “Mike” Caine, are called to investigate a murder on Wall Street. The victim, John Pearce, was more than the local owner of a rare book store. Pearce had information that was wanted by a billionaire owner of a bio-tech corporation. John Pearce’s final words are “The key is in the lock.” Drummond and Caine must interpret those final words to solve the murder and, possibly, save the world.

I found this book more interesting than the first book in the series, The Final Cut. The characters are more interesting. There was a slight resemblance to Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. Sherlock and Savich from Coulter’s other FBI series make an appearance in this book.

There is a third book in the A Brit in the FBI series entitled The End Game. I will put that on my “to read” list. If you enjoy Coulter’s work or FBI thrillers, you might want to put The Lost Key on your “to read” list.

Fiction · Medicine · Thriller · Ying L

Intervention | by Robin Cook

Intervention (Jack Stapleton & Laurie Montgomery, #9)

Intervention by Robin Cook
(G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009, 387 pages)

I enjoy Robin Cook’s medical investigation books. This one continues the story of New York City medical examiners Jack and Laurie Stapleton. Their infant son is diagnosed with a rare disease and Laurie is on extended maternity leave. Jack throws himself into his work so he doesn’t have to think about his son’s suffering and his guilt at leaving Laurie alone at home. Jack performs an autopsy on a healthy young woman who received alternative medical treatment. While Jack sets out to research and gather evidence to prove the young woman’s death is caused by alternative medicine, his college friend, an archaeologist, makes a discovery that could threaten the Catholic Church.

The controversial issues in this book made it interesting and it entertained me with medical details and religious history. However, I wish the author could focus on one story instead of two. Each makes sense on its own but it felt forced when the author tried to weave the two plots together.

Award Winner · Drama · Fiction · In the Library · Julia P · Quick Read! · SCC Book Club

Clybourne Park | by Bruce Norris

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
(Faber and Faber, 2011, 210 pages)

Today was the first Between the Covers book club discussion for the Fall 2015 semester and Clybourne Park was the title we talked about. This was the first time Between the Covers read a play and it made for a unique reading experience. Like most people, the only real experience I have with reading plays is in the classroom setting. It’s not a genre I think people frequently pick up because, by it’s very nature, a play is meant to be seen as a performance. That being said, I still enjoyed the experience of reading this piece by Norris.

Clybourne Park is something of a follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun. The play is set in two acts and each act is set at a specific time. Act 1 is set in 1959 and Act 2 takes place in 2009. Act 1 is set in the home of a couple who is getting ready to move and whose house has been sold (unbeknownst to them) to a black family – the first one in the Clybourne Park neighborhood. This brings up some issues with members in their community who don’t want to see this “change” in the neighborhood take place.

Act 2 is set in the same home 50 years later and it becomes clear that the demographics of the neighborhood have changed. Clybourne Park is now predominantly black. There is a white couple looking at purchasing the original house, tearing it down, and building a new one in its place. This brings a new set of issues that still follow racial lines – now what’s at play is the beginnings of gentrifying the neighborhood.

Clybourne Park brought up a lot of issues that I think would make for some great discussions. While it dealt with serious topics, there were still moments of humor and a few times when my jaw dropped. The play won the Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award. If you haven’t read a play before (or since you were a student somewhere) I recommend giving it a shot and seeing how you feel about it. Some people find it harder to get into, but I felt like it lent a different sense of immediacy to my reading experience. I enjoyed it.

I’d definitely recommend going to see the Center Stage performance on campus. They’ll be performing the play September 30-October 4. Tickets are free for SCC students with an ID!

Andrew S · Essays · In the Library · Non-Fiction · Translated Work

Notes on the Death of Culture | by Mario Vargas Llosa

Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society
by Mario Vargas Llosa; translated by John King
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 227 pages)

The word “culture” gets used in all kinds of ways in today’s culture (see what I did?). Precisely which “culture” is Nobel Prize winning novelist and essayist Mario Vargas Llosa lamenting the death of in this book of critical essays? He speaks not of culture in the broad sense, that is, “as a mere epiphenomenon of social and economic life,” but instead “as an autonomous reality, made up of ideas, aesthetic and ethical values, and works of art and literature that interact with the rest of social existence, and that are often not mere reflections, but rather the wellsprings, of social, economic, political and even religious phenomena” (14). Vargas Llosa is presiding over the funeral of the sort of culture that T. S. Eliot warned was slipping away in 1948 with the publication of his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Eliot, with his conception of “higher culture” is a conversation partner for Vargas Llosa throughout the book.

For Vargas Llosa, higher culture has been all but lost in the thicket of what he calls a “civilization of spectacle.” This civilization, defined as it is by celebrity obsession, reality TV, and professional sports, continually and publicly lays before us the crassest elements of our existence in the name of entertainment. This makes the importance of privacy a constant theme for Vargas Llosa. The privacy of our information, of our sex lives, and of our religious faith are essential to a society in which art and literature can flourish. As he sums it up, “with the disappearance of the realm of the private, many of the best achievements of humanity deteriorate and become degraded, beginning with everything that has safeguarded certain forms including eroticism, love, friendship, modesty, good manners, art and morality” (152).

The critiques of Notes on the Death of Culture are well formed and eloquently articulated. Vargas Llosa’s warnings regarding the consequences of the loss of private information in a digital age, occasioned by an essay lambasting Julian Assange, are particularly important. That said, there is a grumpiness and nostalgia that characterizes these essays. This leads me to suspect that Vargas Llosa’s negative views of contemporary culture, as accurate as they are about its more detestable elements, are at least to some degree a result of being out of touch with the better developments in the various societal and artistic arenas that he critiques. I very much enjoyed these reflections from an eloquent curmudgeon, even if I don’t entirely trust them.

Cats! · Fiction · Jean R · Mystery

The Litter of the Law | by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown

The Litter of the Law (Mrs. Murphy, #21)

The Litter of the Law by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown
(Bantam, 2013, 256 pages)

The Litter of the Law by Rita Mae Brown and her feline co-author, Sneaky Pie Brown, is another book in the Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series which began in 1990. In this book, the main character, Harry, her husband, Fair, her two cats, Pewter and Mrs. Murphy, and her dog, Tucker, are all out for a nice fall drive in the Virginia countryside. The group spots a scarecrow that doesn’t look quite right and goes to investigate. The scarecrow is a dead accountant dressed to look like a scarecrow. And so the mystery begins. Harry along with her animal companions decide to investigate. During the course of the investigation, another death occurs. Are the two deaths related? If so, how and why did they occur?

I have been reading the Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series for several years. In recent years, the series seems to be teaching lessons as well as solving a mystery. In The Litter of the Law, Brown discusses the issue of Native American rights (or lack thereof) in the state of Virginia. While I no longer enjoy the series as much as I once did, I do continue to pick up the books from time to time to see what is happening in Harry’s life.