Revived–again–by fiction

After a long season of writing, re-writing, and editing, diving into the fiction of others makes for a fun change of pace. Immersion in the work of those who really know what they’re doing inspires me, too, and makes me less willing to settle too soon for the sentences and paragraphs with which I build my own stories.

So, in terms of recent forays into fiction? The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt–after seeing it on the beach chairs of several over Christmas break. Then I found Tom Raschmann’s sophomore book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. I thoroughly enjoyed Raschmann’s The Imperfectionists (a collection of vignettes strung loosely into a novel that charmed me instantly), and his second book, wildly different, was no less affecting. The cleverness per ounce of Rise & Fall was breathtaking (it reminded me of Tom Holt’s gems, like this one; or Jasper Fforde’s); I kept reading to see if he could maintain the pace (yes, mostly), and if there would still be a story beneath all the fireworks (yep).

buried giantAnd then, Buried Giant pulled me in. There has been lots of interest in this book; one reason is that Kazuo Ishiguro has an Annie Dillard-like pace in book production and, like Dillard, hits it out of the park pretty consistently. Books like this offer master classes in writing fiction (so long as one can slow down long enough to pay attention to how the writer is pulling this off)–but they also are terrifically winsome. The story is so strong, the writing so effortless, the creation of a world so thorough that one cannot help being swept into the fog-enshrouded landscape and wanting to linger with engaging characters.

Ishiguro resists ties to any particular type of fiction. He’s comfortable with the period piece (Remains of the Day), science fiction (Never Let Me Go), and detective thriller (When We Were Orphans). For Giant, he enters the realm of Arthurian legend with a  story that takes its own sweet time. With its long setup, laconic pacing, absence of explosions or car chases, and heroes that are nearly relics, one might ask how the book can possibly hold one’s attention in an age of jump cuts and air-brushing. But it does, and splendidly, as Ishiguro weaves a tale of vengeance, forgiveness, and courage. All this is in the service of a study on memory, and its power and effect on individuals, small groups, and large communities. But then dig a bit deeper and Giant, it seems to me, wants to examine love, in ways that are as circuitous and as breathtaking as Dillard’s latest and last novel, The Maytrees.

The Buried Giant is evocative, moody. You feel the damp, squint in the dimness, hear the birds, sense what goes unspoken between characters. Like all good fiction, it constructs a neighborhood I’d happily visit if not inhabit. Indeed, I haven’t been in a world this compelling since Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus–and like that engrossing book, I both wanted to read more of Giant and dreaded arriving at the last page.

Encouraging grads

LTM cover

Leaving the familiar and facing that horizon–this is what grads experience as they prepare to leave high school or college and embark on the next… what? For some, the future feels bright and alive–they can’t wait for what lies out there. For some, days no longer in the same routine produce a whiff of anxiety. In either case, encouragement goes a long way.

A book like Letters to Me can help. In this collection of stories, a variety of writers–teachers, artists, pastors, poets, consultants, activists–reflect on episodes from their younger days, when they were launching into something new. Their accounts are by turns funny, poignant, and wise. Their experience will sound familiar, too, and as such, is likely to fan into flame faith, hope, and love.

Is there a grad in your network you could encourage?


Weekend drama

stage curtain

Schools and businesses close early this weekend. What else isn’t happening? And what is, during these days when so many pause for a religious celebration?

This celebration: it is operatic in its length and spectacle, spanning days, shifting venues, and covering a range of emotions. For some the story is familiar, to the point of almost losing its edge. By some, it is acknowledged in broad strokes. To some, it seems implausible.

The celebration causes a shift in this weekend’s rhythms–lighter traffic, special foods, extra services–which nudges us to go back, to remember. We consider each of the events, resist an over-simplified synthesis. We are immersed in agony, ecstasy–then, now; in our own spheres, in what others experience.

The detail–the staging, script, sense, and sensibility–is crucial. It also propels us into an even larger story. For incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection–what we celebrate each Easter–makes atonement possible. And this (with its ties to and provision of freedom, forgiveness, reconciliation, and relationship) redounds to the glory of God.

This life, full of glory

morning glory pool, yellowstone

One of the perks of writing is the opportunity to encounter (and sometimes interact) with other writers and their thinking. In my current project on glory, I’m finding all manner of ideas scattered through books and articles, and the effort lately has been to corral notes taken from these sources so as to cobble together a few propositions and possibilities connected with the subject in view.

Jurgen Moltmann is among those whose thinking propels me in new directions. A friend recommended The Experiment Hope (a good starting point for Moltmann, he assured me), and I’m slowly moving through that. Previously though, I’d bumped into The Coming of God–and in this book, I hear Moltmann say:

to glorify God means to rejoice in God’s existence and one’s own, and to express this joy in thanksgiving and praise, in the joy of living and celebration. (p323)

German theologian are not always known for being easy to read or comprehend. But when I hear a comment like this, I get Moltmann’s point right away. And I’m all the more eager to plunge deep into the pool that is glory.


The shadow cast by sin

The book about glory I’m trying to finish starts with an examination of sin (sin and glory come together in Romans 3:23, a verse that has wormed its way into my mind and soul). Meanwhile, a new project–a collaboration with a theology prof–includes sin among the several topics we’ll consider in a collection of essays, reflections, and devotionals. Which means I’m reading and thinking a lot these days about this dark matter.

orig sinAlan Jacobs has a great book on the history of a doctrine–‘original sin’–that’s had a long shelf life. He traces the notion back to Augustine (who sharpened and emphasized an idea already in circulation), and shows how it affects thinking and behavior down through the centuries.

sin historyGary Anderson’s close reading of Hebrew and Aramaic turns up the way an understanding of ‘sin’ shifts over time. He notices that early on, ‘sin’ is a burden to be borne. Later, it is a debt to be paid. That ‘debt’ language went on to affect expectations in large parts of the Church regarding a God-honoring life, and even concepts of atonement.

*** Continue reading

Catching up

holey joes

Much of January went into teaching an intensive Theology class: a rich experience, with thoughtful, enthusiastic students and an opportunity to amble around territory long occupied by good-hearted, big-brained, and deeply-souled people.

And now? Back to writing. Along that line, a handful of news…

There’s a tentative date for the first part of a book launch for a new kids’ book, Hug in a Mug (late Feb; details to follow).

An old friend–artist and metallurgist Alan Voelkel–made a map for University of Days. You can see most of this map on the UDays page. It’s pretty great.

Thanks to Rod Colon, I’ll get to talk a bit more about Working When You’re Not, during his ‘radio on the internet’ program Monday, Feb 16.

As to work in progress: the book on glory, which continues to captivate (so much to think about!) and exasperate (why is it so difficult to finish?); and, a new collaborative project just beginning, on theology for non- (and even anti-)theologians. More about this one another time…

p.s. Holey Joe’s is in New Oxford, PA. If you’re ever close, it’s worth a stop.


One of the writer’s jobs

stars… is “the process of charming someone via prose, compelling them to keep reading.” So says George Saunders, in Poking A Dead Frog, a book urged on me, because of what it says about putting pen to paper in the service of comedy and other genres. Charming? Sure, because writing, after all, is just another kind of magic.

Slow down and …

Pine final (2)

My inbox is filling with last minute offers–wonderful! amazing! perfect! offers–to urge last minute shopping. Because nothing says Christmas like stuff + exhaustion. But I’m staying in, trying to relax, to settle, to slow.

This urge to slow is being discussed in various quarters: among foodies, among investors, among church folk. Makoto Fujimura mentioned a study by the National Council on the Arts that touched on the matter, too. In doing so, he puts a finger on the problem of not embracing slow:

Associated with the decline in reading is a declining interest in activities like hiking, or going to baseball games; in essence, our habit of contemplation, of developing an interior life, has diminished, and that leads to disengagement from the world…. [P]eople are losing their ability to contemplate, to love deeply, to move toward beauty.

Slowing has an appeal in the welter of so much activity (you deserve a break today!), but it is essential if we are to engage with what matters. Instead of being enmeshed in all that is swirling around us, slowing opens space for something else entirely.

A white Christmas–this we know and in certain circles revere. But how about a slow Christmas? Perhaps at this point, that’s not a hard sell.