As this hard year draws to a close I thought I might end with just a few special books that are particularly well written or that draw on deep aesthetic impulses. I have often quibbled with Dorothy Day’s famous use of Dostoevsky’s line saying that “the world would be saved by beauty” but, surely, there is something nearly redemptive about simple beauty. God has given us “rainbows for the fallen world’ (as Calvin Seerveld puts it in the book by that name.)
And I think that sometimes beauty doesn’t always come to us all dressed up. Sometimes it’s just a great phrase, a good line, a fun story.
Books can really offer this to you; for you.
Here are some good words for the journey, six books I want to explain.
TWO BEAUTIFUL COLLECTIONS OF REFLECTIONS
Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery (revised, expanded) Gregory Wolfe (Square Halo Books) $22.99 I suppose I could name other books on aesthetics and the creative arts that have come out this year; we have, in fact, reviewed here at BookNotes books such as A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by Michael Mears Bruner, The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by my friend and respected President of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) Cam Anderson, and an earlier book in the Studies in Faith & Theology series, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism by Jonathan Anderson & William Dryness. Not too long ago I reviewed Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music & Art in Christian Education, a collected anthology by mostly classical educators, but a fabulous manifesto for anyone interested in such things. One of the chapters in that book of book reviews released in our honor (Books for Hearts & Minds: Books You Should Read and Why) has a chapter on books about the arts, all of which we stock. And, of course, I drop Calvin Seerveld’s name whenever I can – many great books on faith and the arts refer to him and we are delighted to always promote his stimulating prose.
I think that if I were to pick one book I was most thrilled to see this year in this whole arena of faith and the arts it is this wonderfully revised, second edition of Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery by Image Journal editor Gregory Wolfe. I loved the first version and the second is, if one can imagine it, a great improvement.
The first edition was a collection of Greg’s wonderful, insightful, occasionally feisty, sometimes luminous opening essays in the classy literary and arts journal that he helms. I have to admit, those often charming essays were keepers in a classy, intelligent journal that everyone kept – if you don’t know Image, you should. His mediations were evocative bits of cultural criticism and wise beyond his young years when he helped launch Image over thirty years ago. It had rave reviews on the back from the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard and esteemed Catholic novelist Ron Hansen and brilliant memoirist Richard Rodriquez. This is serious, remarkable stuff, the sort of book that should have been reviewed in the likes of Tin House or the New York Review of Books or even The Paris Review. With endorsers like poet Scott Cairns (who became better known through Image) it illustrates not only Wolfe’s vision and taste but the world-class significance of his journal.
The new edition of Intruding Upon… simply adds more – many more – pieces by Wolfe, some about the so-called culture wars, some about the sacramental nature of art, some about particular books or films. As it says on the back cover, it offers “more recent considerations of contemporary artists and writers such as Scott Cairns, Alice McDermott, Christopher Beha, and Edward Knippers.”
A second feature of the new, expanded edition of Intruding Upon the Timeless is that there is much more visual art, a fabulous black and white etching or linocut or pen and ink wash or woodcut for each chapter. The first edition was wonderfully illustrated with work by the extraordinary Barry Moser; Moser’s striking pieces remain, but a dozen other artists (some who would say their own artistic/theological imagination has been nurtured by Wolfe) have also contributed pieces that make this book a multi-faceted gem. Many of the artists are very accomplished and some created new work just for this volume.
One of Wolfe’s pieces reflects on a complimentary letter some wrote to him, citing another critic, suggesting that Image “expanded the stock of available reality.”
That it does. To appreciate the urgency of this project, just listen to these few lines from the Preface to the Second Edition:
In these intensely politicized times, the need to stress the centrality of art, with its capacity to set aside the relentless pragmatism, partisanship, and apocalyptic rhetoric of ideology, is more needed than ever. Art is one of the few modes of being left to us that opens up a space for wonder, reflection, and the possibility of finding common ground.
When imagination and faith dance together, probing the mystery of the human condition, that is to intrude upon the timeless, a necessary form of trespass that enables us to come to know the other – and, in the process, ourselves. It’s a messy business but one that we cannot live without.
The Canticles of the Creatures – for Saint Francis of Assisi Luigi Santucci (translated by Demetrio S. Yocum) illustrated by Brother Martin Erspamer, OSB (Paraclete Press) $18.99 If the aforementioned collection by Gregory Wolfe is one sort of beautiful writing – essays about the arts, about mystery and spirituality and creativity within cultures – this lovely hand-sized volume has a very different feel; it’s creative writing is truly a work of art. The book itself has textured French-folded covers, dappled edges, pastel art, some full color touches of illumination on the printed fonts. With some reminisces of older styles, Erspamer (a multi-media artist and monk from the Abbey at St. Meinrad) is a contemporary liturgical artist and his visuals supplement the text wonderfully.
This short book is enchanting, what one reviewer said is “reminiscent of a medieval Book of Hours.” Jon Sweeney (who himself has written on Francis) says the reflections and illustrations “remind me of angels.” It is a gorgeous book of fine writing, “inviting the reader to linger in its pages, and to see the world anew, with vibrant joy.”
The structure is straightforward – it is simply a canticle of the creations, as the title says. That is, each chapter is a piece as if written by a particular creature. The first seven short chapters are by birds – you get the praises to God from a nightingale, the swallows, a water bird, the falcon at La Verna, and more. The second sections offers poetic praises from other creatures. You will read the messages of bees and a little rabbit, the cicada, Clare’s cat, a worm, an ox, even a fish (Job 12:8 says to listen to the fish, and I’ve often wondered just how to do that. Now you can!)
The Bible is utterly clear that the creation praises God and this playful yet profound work will help us hear and join these praises. Francis is an evangelical ally in this holy work. As Pope Francis writes in the foreword (yes, the Pope wrote the foreword!):
Saint Francis invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God’s speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. The world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.
I have heard that Luigi Santucci’s little book was a best-seller when it first came out last year in Italy. We can rejoice in this handsome English edition. The Canticle of the Creature is a wonder, bringing together the 13th century Saint, his own love of creation, and the beautiful, faithful vision of all creatures caught up in the drama of living before and for God.
TWO NEW COLLECTIONS OF POETRY
Mary Oliver (Penguin Press) $30.00 The Penguin Press imprint is increasingly prestigious and books they release are often notable. Mary Oliver – I hope I don’t have to tell you – is one of the finest and most beloved poets of our time. She has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Some of her tender, spiritual, passionate poems have lines that are often quoted and it is not surprising that they have entitled this new collection Devotions. Some readers are caught up in devotion when they ponder her luminous work.
You may know that many of Oliver’s works are plainly creation-bound: she has volumes with titles such as Dog Songs and Swan and Red Bear and Blue Iris. There are pieces here from each of those and so much more.
Some of her poems that use the beauties of creation to point us to big questions — think of “Wild Geese” – are widely known and often used in ceremonies from weddings to funerals. (And, yes, “Wild Geese” is in here.)
The earliest poems included may be from The River Styx, Ohio which came out in 1972 and there are other early works here (such as Twelve Moons from 1979) and pieces such as “Three Poems for James Wright” that appeared in Ploughshares and in 1982 in Three Rivers Poetry Journal. Work from other seasons of her career are well represented – a handful of poems from White Pine (1984) and House of Light (1990) and more. There are plenty from her 21st century output, up to a dozen from 2015’s Felicity
“Tell me,” she famously asked in “Summer Day”, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
We mentioned Mary Oliver’s new anthology Devotions earlier, recommending it as a fabulous Christmas gift. (We’ve shouted out about her stunning Upstream: Collected Essays too.) Perhaps either would make gifts for some other occasion this time of year. Highly recommended.
Joy: 100 Poems edited by Christian Wiman (Yale University Press) $25.00 Mr. Wiman is another well-respected, widely appreciated poet you should know. He now teaches at Yale Divinity School and is a generative thinker and very thoughtful writer. His own memoir of growing up fundamentalist in Texas, becoming a nationally-known literary figure, drifting from conventional historic faith, getting cancer and finding renewed Christian conviction is called My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. We have had the privilege of selling books for him and hearing him lecture and are fans.
His last major anthology came out last year (and is now in paperback.) It was evocatively entitled Hammer is the Prayer: Selected Poems.
This new one, Joy, is an anthology hand-selected by Wiman. (He knows well contemporary poems and poetry as for years he edited Poetry magazine.) In recent years – perhaps stimulated by his brush with death and the subsequent awareness of mortality as so deeply described in My Bright Abyss – Wiman has taught courses on religion and literature (at the Yale Institute on Sacred Music) and has expressed fascinating with joy and it’s relative absence in modern literature. As it asks on the flyleaf of this new volume,
Why is joy so resistant to language? How has it become so suspect in our times? Manipulated by advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians, joy can seem disquieting, even offensive. How does on speak of joy amid such ubiquitous injustice and suffering in the world?
The publishers describe the book like this:
In this revelatory anthology, Wiman takes readers on a profound and surprising journey through some of the most underexplored terrain in contemporary life. Rather than define joy for readers, he wants them to experience it. Ranging from Emily Dickinson to Mahoud Darwish and from Sylvia Plath to Wendell Berry, he brings together diverse and provocative works as a kind of counter to the old, modernist maxim – no agony, no art. His rich selections awaken us to the essential role joy plays in human life.
You will think about this stuff seriously when you read the amazing first chapter – over 35 pages – by Mr. Wiman, called “Still Wilderness.” There’s a nice page of explanatory notes about his selections, too. This is really good stuff.
The rest of the book is, as they promise, not an explanation or rumination: these are poems to evoke joy in hard times. What a gift!
Blurbs on the back of this book are, interestingly, all by thoughtful writers of faith themselves – Mary Karr, Rowan Williams, Kathleen Norris and Paul Eli.
The always interesting Mary Karr says:
Joy is an indispensable collection that will buoy up the darkest reader. Truly, Christian Wiman is a genius to have ranged so far (and deep!) to gather in one spot so many unforgettable poems to convince this glum bunny there’s more light than dark in our wiggly world.
Can You See Anything Now? A Novel Katherine James (Paraclete) $16.99 I have heard that Christianity Today named this the best novel of 2017 and I concur. I did not read that review (or others) as I didn’t want it to color my own thoughts as I ploughed through this extraordinary, beautifully-written and wonderfully artful glimpse into the lives of a whole bunch of folks whose comings and goings — often tinged by pain and loss — intersect in a small New England town. The book is episodic, each chapter about a certain episode or glimpse into a relationship, so it felt to me almost like a set of short stories, or a high-end TV series one would binge-watch. I was struck as much by the artfulness of the writing and the vivid character formation as the plot itself. Which is not to say the plot was insignificant. Like real life, it was messy, scrambled, about a lot of stuff, and one does not see it all at the same time. But there are glimpses.
I think I might try to review Can You See Anything Now? more carefully, later – although it is demanding to try to significantly write about serious art and I think this is very serious art – but for now I will just invite you to consider it for your next fiction read. It is provocative, interesting, a little eccentric at times. Her gift of writing detail is exceptional and the prose is nearly poetic at times. It includes a pretty wide array of people, people of different ages and places in life.
One person is a once-abused punk rock girl who cuts herself. Another is a kindly evangelical woman who reads The Five Love Languages while another is a serious artist with MS, married – not altogether happily – with a therapist who practices out of an office in their home. There’s the kid who goes to Gordon College (and complains about mandatory chapel) and there’s the latecomer of a dad who shows up when his daughter is in a coma, awkward as hell, and believing for a miracle.
The book opens in a scene that unfolds in the first couple of chapters and I read them three times – Margie, who is ill and struggles with depression attempts suicide by jumping into the lake with bricks tied to her feet. She doesn’t count on the lake being low that time of year so is comically (or is it tragically?) stuck with her feet in the lake’s muddy bottom and her head high above the waterline. She obviously has to call for help.
The novel isn’t wicked funny, although there are humorous moments. There’s some heavy stuff – I shed tears more than once – and some dialogue that stimulated my own ponderings. It is literary fiction, excellently written, if a bit racy at times with a surprising amount of what we euphemistically call colorful language; surprisingly, at least to me, it is written by a Wheaton College grad and published by a house that is known mostly for contemplative spirituality and liturgical theology. Can You See Anything Now? opens with an epigram from Infinite Jest, which should have alerted me that this was serious business.
Is this a “Christian novel”? Well, it’s not like any evangelical fiction you’ve read lately, that’s for sure; it would be more akin to Marilyn Robinson or Frederick Buechner’s fiction than those on the CBA best-seller list. It is artistically and creatively outstanding; Katherine James has obviously worked very hard, exploring mature themes and creating remarkable, memorable characters.
Suzanne Wolfe (wife of the aforementioned Gregory Wolfe) has written several amazing novels, and she writes, of the characters in Can You See Anything Now?:
This is a novel which will open your eyes to your neighbors and make you see them as God sees them—dappled with shadow and light.
I might add that one of the plots of the book is Margie doing her artwork (her father was a painter as well) and her teaching her culturally conservative and religiously inclined neighbor to paint. The descriptions of prepping the canvases and choosing the brushes and getting the light and rhythms right were captivating; the scene of Ettie going to a class to paint the human form was awkwardly hilarious, spot on.
I might also add that the bits of the plot about high school kids going off to college, coming back to their small town – Trinity – to hang out and talk about their lives really rang true to me. The coming of age stuff, the young romance and desire, the drug use, the angst, all were very effectively drawn, making the story illuminating. Can you see anything (now? yet?) she is asking? I’m not one to over-think book titles, usually, but I’m still pondering this one.
Allow me to be clear: this is not preachy, not in the least. There are some Christian characters, there’s a Bible toting prayer-warrior, there’s that throwaway line or two about a Christian college. I like that religion plays a role in the story, but most of the characters are not religious, and the tone is not that which one gets in inspirational fiction.
I applaud the publisher and the author (who apparently has a memoir coming out this spring to be called Notes on Orion. It sounds harrowing, about her son’s heroin overdose and I am sure it will be well worth reading. For now, walk with her into this company of characters in a town called Trinity. And ponder that.
Listen to Leslie Leyland Fields, herself an amazing writer, most recently of Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt and the Seas:
If you’re a redemption chaser, you’ll love this book. If you hate redemption stories, you’re going to love this book. How can one woman know so much about the fractured human heart and the mysteries of faith? Katherine James just might be a genius.
Dreamfield Ethan D. Bryan (50/50 Press) $15.99 I’m not going to lie – I have several reasons to be biased in favor of this book – the author is a friend who I truly respect and a real cheerleader for our work here. I’ve reviewed his memoir and children’s books and his near-constant writing about baseball. And I make a passing appearance in one line of the book. But, truth be told, I thought I had several reasons to not like it – I’ll come clean and just say I’m not that interested in baseball, let alone books about baseball and I’m sure not interested in sci-fi, mind-bending stories about time travel. Wikipedia properly calls the quintessential baseball book, Shoeless Joe (which inspired the movie Field of Dreams) as “magical realism” but I still don’t care for that weirdo stuff. I think I picked this up out of loyalty to Ethan more than really wanting to read a magical realism time-travel story, no matter how much I did really like Back to the Future.
And those great baseball movies (Field of Dreams, League of Their Own, 42, The Natural, Bull Durham, Moneyball, The Rookie, and the like.
Hey, maybe I do like time travel and baseball books after all.
Well, I’ll tell you this much: I loved Dreamfield. I loved it, couldn’t put it down, couldn’t stop turning the pages, night after night, wondering what in the world was going to happen to poor Ethan, his friends, his wife and kids, his sports team back in the 20th century. I think it was one of my very favorite books of 2017. (Uh, I think it’s 2017. This book had me thinking it was 1992. Ha.)
So, I loved this. And, yep, Ethan is the main character, which itself is pretty clever.
Dreamfield opens like a memoir, and I happen to know that much of the basic plot is true. (Well, not the go-back-in-time-for-a-do-over-of-high-school part, at least I don’t think so.) Ethan is describing his real life, in his real town of Springfield MO, and his own great parents and sister. His own biography is the core of the book. With all the references to his bald head (from alopecia) and his love of Doctor Pepper, you know it’s true.
In Ethan’s real life – as he has described in memoirs like the set of meditations on KC Royals baseball games, Run Home and Take a Bow or his fundraising antics in Catch and Release: Faith, Freedom, and Knuckleballs – that he played serious baseball in high school but took up golf his senior year. He has always wondered what would have happened in his life had he followed his first love and stuck with hardball.
In real life Ethan went to seminary and worked for a church and plays guitar (and writes about that in Tales of the Taylor.) Yet, he’s always wondered if he should have played college ball – maybe even gone to the big leagues.
He knows more about the history of baseball – including the Negro Leagues and the Negro League broadcasters – than anyone I know. And he loves his hometown as earnestly as anyone can.
So what would happen if he ended up back in high-school in September of 1992 and he gets to replay that real life scene that he really does still dream about sometimes, the one when the baseball coaches asks him to try out again, after that year of golf, and get back to the baseball team?
And that is exactly the premise of the Dreamfield plot.
Like other time-travel stories – from Back to the Future to Midnight in Paris to Somewhere in Time and, I suppose, Groundhog Day – it gets really poignant. I’m a sucker for this Wizard of Oz “There’s No Place Like Home” stuff and Ethan works it marvelously. Is he ever going to get back to his real life, his real kids? This is anguishing, in some ways, although it is somewhat light-hearted, at times. Goofy as the Philadelphia Experiment sci-fi plot is – this father of two time-warping back to high school, knowing the second time around what he knows from his years of growing up but wondering how his life might unfold differently (what with the butterfly effect and all) – I bawled my eyes out when I got to the end. Why is that?
Don’t you get choked up when you hear a really good cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”? Don’t you have this yearning for shalom in your family, don’t you sometimes wonder about ultimate meaning, about your place in the plot? Whether it’s your own regrets or your grown kids or your elderly folks, don’t you just need to own that a bit sometime? Dreamfield is good medicine, but not strong. It’s fun and funny and clever and edge of your seat curious, like a good sit-com, asking good questions but not ham-fisted. How’s he going to get out of this jam or that situation? Will he make it home? What’s with the twilight zone of that other kid that shows up in one chapter? It’s a blast of a book, with all those high-jinx episodes and mind-bending questions and just a bit of angst to keep it real.
There’s a scene that very deeply moved me and that I talked with Beth about (endlessly.) Maybe I was touched because I’m extra romantic during the holidays or maybe because I know Ethan’s real-world, real wife, who is in the story, too. In this scene he’s back in high school and he knows that his real wife-to-be is (as a high school girl he hasn’t met yet) in the band of a neighboring school. He gets one of his buddies to oddly attend a football game at that school so he can see her – her 17 year old self – marching in the half-time show. He sees her (and, of course, misses her terribly since he’s been ripped from his real-world family) and then he even notices her parents – his future in-laws – cheering her on. He wants to ask her to his own homecoming dance but knows that it could disturb things; in real-time they don’t meet until college. What if he dates her in high school and something goes wrong and they break up? Might he not marry her? Would he not have his two beloved daughters? He walks away, needing to be content with just a glimpse of his beloved. Oh man, I just lost it.
Although there are a lot of sports in the book, much of the book is loaded with cool pop culture stuff. He tries to explain his plight to one trusted high school buddy and mentions Hermione’s time turner from that Harry Potter book and realizes that his 1990s fellow-students haven’t experienced Harry Potter yet. It’s so funny how he knows the outcome of sporting events (that he is always watching or listening to with hid dad, who calls him Chief.) It’s cool how he knows the sequels to movies that nobody else knows yet and it’s fascinating – we’ve all been there – when he goes back to the old neighborhood, knowing how this restaurant or hangout spot will be demolished and the streets and houses will be different. Of course he has to keep all this to himself and if he lets anything slip, his peers will be suspicious of his weird insights.
And when one person does believe him, he shares a bit about the Internet – whaaat? – and then the horror of 9-11. Who could imagine then what would become of our world?
There’s one fabulous instance of this time-travel quirk. He is doing a paper on baseball history for a high school elective and is visiting the very early days of the Negro Baseball Museum. (In his real-life 21st century world it is a (real) well-funded and fabulous place; in the 1990s it’s a couple of old black men keeping some baseball memorabilia in a small back room.) They happen to have Jackie Robinson’s bat and Ethan picks it up, holding it as Jackie did. The old players recognize that this white boy knows how Jackie held his bat – Ethan can’t dare tell them he learned it in 2013 from a movie called 42.
There are a few pretty nice parts of this very nice story that will appeal to some readers. As I mentioned, the real life Ethan has gone to seminary so in the book he knows a lot about theological stuff – such as a strong emphasis on realized eschatology and the Kingdom of God the centrality of social justice alongside conventional Baptist talk about evangelism, say. In his 1980s second-time-in-high-school life, he goes to youth group and tries to keep cool, but can’t help himself. He chimes in, cribbing from N.T. Wright and other 21st century theologians and the youth leaders, naturally, find this remarkable. I think the real author Ethan knows enough about churchy politics to know that some of this could be a bit controversial, too, so there’s some church conflict in the story. Still, he processes sermons and Bible studies and youth group activities – through the mind and soul of a grown man – and that in itself makes this book remarkably useful. There’s some good theology and missional thinking that shows up.
I think youth pastors could benefit from this, if only for this part. Ethan ahs served the church as youth worker so he tells these aspects of the story with vigor.
And, while I’m on this theme – Ethan is a little hard, without being mean-spirited (he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body and his writing is always earnest and somehow virtuous) on uninspiring education systems. Again, knowing what he knows about learning and inspiration and human growth and the making of meaning in the young adult years, he can offer a playful poke at stupid practices of American high schools. He has a group of kids he hangs with – the Loser’s Club they call themselves and I gather this was a true crew from his real-life high school years – and they did their best to bring vigor and fun and encouragement to a often dead and rule-based institution. Watching this bright man in a kid’s body and social context is illuminating, to say the least. Of always he is always plotting because, again, he’s trying to figure out how he got into this past world and how he’s going to get out. But – like the Ethan I know – he ends up like a 1990s high school ordinary saint and leaks love on everybody, invites wholesome adventures and holy capers. There were times in the novel when I swear I thought it was Bob Goff who went back to Kickapoo High School there in Springfield Missouri.
A longer review could explore this in greater detail but Ethan’s 1990s parents are amazing. I gather this is mostly true, actually, but if one wants to see a beautiful picture of a healthy family (despite Ethan’s squirrelly deceptions — he’s from the future, after all) this family is worth a good long look.
The publisher says this is an “exploration of baseball, faith, and pop-culture” and they rightly suggest it could appeal to adults and teen readers. There is a lot of baseball stuff, for sure – yes, Shoeless Joe and the work of W.P. Kinsella come into the conversation, but it is also about God’s providence, about history, about responsibility, and, finally, about that great dream of getting a second chance. It’s about living a better story, and pointing, finally, to grace. Now that’s a sci-fi, time-travel, baseball book I can appreciate. You will too.
The first chapter starts like this:
Time travel is a fascinating concept. Storytellers have loved toying with our imaginations by employing it.
Doc Brown’s DeLorean magic at 88 miles per hour using 1.21 gigawatts.
The mystical wardrobe entrance to Narnia.
Al and Sam in Quantum Leap.
Whatever really happened in LOST?
Hermione Granger’s time-turner.
I used to love reading books and watching movies where alternative time lines created multiple storylines to follow…
Until I experienced it personally.
Gotcha, eh? Play ball!
And when you see Byron and our bookstore mentioned in 1992, just know it’s just one more of those really crazy moments that make up the time-bending Dreamfield. Enjoy!
So, friends, there are just a few of the many, many books that can bring beauty and mystery, comfort and joy, to you and yours. Why not use our secure order form link shown below and send us a year’s end order. Just type in what you want and we’ll confirm everything.
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