The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing
(Canongate Books, 2013, 340 pages)
After reading The Lonely City in December I fell under the spell of Olivia Laing. In The Trip to Echo Spring she decides to try and figure out the connection between the work of a few noted authors and their alcoholism. I was initially surprised because Laing chose to focus exclusively on men, but she acknowledges this within the text and has her reasons for limiting herself to one gender. The authors she focused on are: John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams.
Laing draws connections between the authors, their work and their drinking by following a route through the United States that has her stopping in locations that had significant impacts on all of the authors. This book is a combination of biography, history, literary criticism, and personal memoir. I was taking notes as I read because I felt like she just gave me a taste of all the men she profiled and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to dive into their biographies and read more of their work.
I’d definitely recommend the book, especially if you’re someone who appreciates reading about literary figures and their “processes.”
Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
(Hmh Books for Young Readers, 2016, 176 pages)
Youth bio for ALL readers.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
(Anchor Books, 1998, 311 pages)
Timely read given political climate.
Jane Re by Patricia Park
(Pamela Dorman Books, 2015, 352 pages)
Jane Re is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. Jane Re is a Korean-American orphan living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Flushing, Queens. Jane is constantly given a hard time because of her lineage – her American father is something of a sore subject. After graduating from college, getting a job in the financial sector and then losing that job Jane doesn’t know how much longer she can stand to be surrounded by her family. That’s when her friend Eunice shows her a help wanted listing for an au pair in Brooklyn. Jane hesitantly decides to apply and then finds herself receiving the offer to come and live with the Farley family.
While living with the Farleys Jane finds herself falling for the father, Ed, and he for her. When it seems that they’re destined to move forward with their affair a familial obligation, combined with a life-changing event, result in Jane spontaneously leaving New York and going to Korea. This time among other members of her extended family takes Jane down a different path and she’s not quite sure where she really belongs and/or if Ed is the man for her.
I really liked Park’s reimagining of the classic Bronte novel. It was just the kind of reading experience I was looking for. If you’re a Jane Eyre fan I think you’ll appreciate this book.
The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015, 304 pages)
Not only is Marilynne Robinson one of the most important contemporary American novelists, she’s probably one of our most important political and theological thinkers. It’s good to know that she has the ear of people like President Obama, who cites her novel Gilead as a favorite and has also quoted her essay “Fear” (included in this collection) at public events. Robinson has a real love for America – a love for the theology that shaped it and the democratic ideals that it so often betrays.
These essays see Robinson covering much of the ground that she has covered in other essays. First, there is John Calvin and North America’s Calvinistic heritage. The chapter “Proofs” is a particularly good reflection on the nature of the mystery and sacredness of creation in Calvin’s thought. Next there are the failures of American democracy. “Fear” is a provocative reflection on an American approach to gun control laws, which Robinson characterizes as “cowardice.” Also, there is the phenomenon of human consciousness and the poverty of so much reductionistic science. “Givenness” looks to the 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards to critique certain attitudes in neuroscience. As usual, Robinson’s deep reserve of historical knowledge is brought to bear with eloquence and wit to address very pressing contemporary problems.
One of the features of this collection that I was excited to see was Robinson’s extended treatments of Shakespeare. As far as I can remember none of her other published essays have done so, except perhaps in passing. Shakespeare was the subject of her doctoral research, and yet it is only now that she has begun to explore his plays. Not surprisingly, her take is theological. She sees the plays, especially the later plays, as serious and brilliant engagements with the theological controversies of the Reformation.
There is no contemporary writer that I enjoy reading more than Robinson. True, her lengthy sentences and implied connections between topics can make for difficult reading. These essays require attention and reflection. However, the work pays off when you stumble across beautiful statements like these:
“Touch a limit of your understanding and it falls away, to reveal mystery upon mystery.”
“Grace is the great variable that puts any reckoning of fault or merit very far beyond human competence.”
“I have lived long enough to chalk up to age inadequacies that have been with me the whole of my conscious life.”
Theology and Literature after Postmodernity
edited by Zoe Lehmann Imfeld, Peter Hampson, Alison Milbank
(Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015, 304 pages)
“Theology and literature” has become a very rewarding field of interdisciplinary study. As part of the series Religion and the University, this volume demonstrates some of those rewards. This collection of essays brings together some of the most important contemporary Anglo theologians, including John and Alison Milbank, Rowan Williams, and Graham Ward, to reflect on the connections between theology, literary theory, and specific works of literature.
One of the more interesting claims of the editors is that the book demonstrates “how literature can provide a space in which diverse theological approaches can honestly and hospitably converse” (3). Similarly, they articulate a unique understanding of the basis upon which theological and literary disciplines interact. They aim “to deploy theology hospitably in a reconstructive approach to contemporary literary criticism” (4). This emphasis on a theologically motivated understanding of hospitality sets the table for a conversation between disciplines that often conflict in terms of their methodologies and basic assumptions.
The essays are collected under two headings. The first, “Pedagogy,” focuses on the university context of theological and literary study. The second, “Theological and Literary Reconstructions,” explore the connections between literary and theological concepts and texts with a view to questions raised by postmodernity. In the second group, Graham Ward’s essay “Belief and Imagination” is particularly interesting for its claim that “exploring the divine is always an exploration into the imagination” (81). Ward looks to the novels of Graham Greene for a literary example of how the imagination shapes religious belief (though really he is investigating “belief” in a more general sense). John Milbank’s broad ranging “Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative” is also noteworthy for its exploration of Christianity’s particular valuation of childhood and its expression in children’s literature. This collection does much to demonstrate how a theological stance can contribute to literary criticism and to a better understanding of specific literary texts.
Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Work of Thomas Moore
by Thomas Betteridge
(University of Notre Dame Press, 2013, 272 pages)
Thomas Moore is best known as an intellectual and political figure that ran afoul of King Henry VIII. Beyond his conflict with and execution by Henry, Moore is an important figure bridging the gap between medieval and modern Europe. Betteridge offers a close reading of Moore’s most important political and religious writings, as well as many late medieval texts that help to contextualize Moore’s work. This is a very helpful book for those interested in the intellectual climate of Tudor England.
Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field by Julie Thompson Klein
(University of Michigan Press, 2015, 218 pages)
Digital humanities is a field that has emerged as computing technology and digital culture have been brought to bear on various disciplines in the humanities. One of the features most frequently highlighted about the field is its interdisciplinary character. As Klein points out, this is “an inevitable assumption given the marriage of technology and humanities in the name” (5).
However, while digital humanities brings together scholars from different disciplines and skill sets to work on issues that transcend any one discipline, there has been a lack of theoretical reflection on how this dynamic shapes the field. Klein applies “lessons from the literature of interdisciplinarity” (6) in order to help clarify terminology and define the field. In part, she looks to other fields, like American studies and feminist studies, which have established practices, institutions, and professional standards in order to help point the way forward for digital humanities.
One of the major themes of the book is the need for collaboration and openness amongst scholars working in this new-ish interdisciplinary field. Toward this end, Klein’s book is available in its entirety online, complete with annotating and commenting tools meant to “enrich the reading and learning experience of others and to facilitate community peer review” (xiii). Making the book available in this way reinforces the message of collaboration and promotes the open culture that is necessary to the establishment of digital humanities as a defined field of study.
Religious Diversity and Early Modern English Texts: Catholic, Judaic, Feminist, and Secular Dimensions
edited by Arthur F. Marotti and Chanita Goodblatt
(Wayne State University Press, 2013, 376 pages)
This collection of essays brings together North American and Israeli literary scholars to look at the diverse religious streams that run through early modern English literature. Though the volume deals predominantly with the major Protestant literary figures of the era – Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, etc. – the influences of Judaism, minority Catholic culture, and proto-feminist figures are explored in depth. This book is very helpful in the way that is draws out the crucial role that minority cultures played in shaping a literary culture that could otherwise appear to be uniformly Protestant.
Charles Williams: The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop
(Oxford University Press, 2015, 464 pages)
I’ve been waiting a long time for this book to come out, and it did not disappoint. Charles Williams is the least famous of the three major members of the Oxford literary group known as the Inklings – the other two being C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. This is the first full biography that has been written about Williams. In many ways he was the strangest member of the Inklings, both in terms of his writing and his personal life. This book about an important twentieth century poet is definitely worth checking out. I’ll be writing more about it in a review that should appear in Literature and Theology.