“The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien [REVIEW]


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
by J.R.R. Tolkien, narrated by Andy Serkis
William Morrow, originally published 1954

Amazon Link | Audiobook
Link


Well, I did it. I finally did it. I finished Fellowship of the Ring. I had tried a few other times in my life and just couldn’t do it. But with some Amazon TV-show inspiration, an adult appreciation for slower narratives, and the help of Andy Serkis’ incredible narration, I did it!

And I really loved this book, especially once I slowed down and accepted it on its own terms. I still think Tolkien could have tightened this narrative quite a bit (many first-time readers have crashed on the rocks of its long travel sections or Tom Bombadil–still a baffling character to me). But Tolkien makes it all worth it in the end and makes me excited for more.

I came with minimal Tolkien or fantasy experience. I read and enjoyed “The Hobbit” as a middle-schooler, and I watched its creepy 1970s cartoon version a bunch. I’ve watched the theatrical versions of the movies once or twice, but mostly forgot them. I grew up hearing bad “Lord of the Rings” sermon illustrations. So if you are like me, what should you know about the book?

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St Teresa & A Woman’s Longing to Preach


François_Gérard_-_St_Theresa_(detail)

Today is the feast day of Christian Church which honors Saint Teresa of Avila. She was a 16th-century mystic and Carmelite nun who traveled around teaching and writing mystical treatises on the interior life of maturing Christian spirituality and contemplative practices. (Here’s a great intro on her life.)

For me, reading her writings and about her life is one of the most powerful testimonies to a woman’s place in the Christian church. She constantly challenged the male power structures of the day and in many of her writings one can see how she goes to great lengths to address their concerns about a powerful woman, trying to demonstrate how a woman can teach and lead while also living in accordance to the doctrines of the scriptures.

And yet, more than any intellectual argument, it is her grace, maturity, and powerful insight into the Bible, the Christian Life, and the human soul that are some of the greatest apologetics for a woman’s full right to teach and preach and lead in the Church. In her magnum opus, The Interior Castle (which is breathtaking), she offers this lament, and I offer it to you on her feast day.

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Two Books for the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena


Nearly a decade ago, I wanted to pick a saint for myself whose life I could study and be inspired by. I ended up (accidentally) choosing Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century mystic, theologian, political activist, and (I’d say) preacher of the faith. She was the perfect choice, and today is the day set aside to meditate on her life and works.

Of all the saints I know, I resonate with Catherine’s energy the most. I really connect with the theology of some (Origen, most the Gregories, Augustine), the social and practical emphasis of others (Francis, Clare, Ignatius, Theresa of Calcutta), and the mysticism of still others (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian). But only Catherine embodies for me all of these dimensions and the brashness and angst I carry with me regularly.

Catherine says and does some weird things. She overstates, goes too far, and is counter-productive in a lot of what she does. But she comes by it honestly and is clearly doing the best she can with what she knows and believes. She sharply argued with and called out Popes, rejected the leadership of church hierarchy, and followed her theology to its end, even when many called her a heretic (she has since been canonized as a theological Doctor of the Church).

And yet, with the world and people around her, and in her spirituality, she is so tender, sensitive, and romantic. There is a passion and ecstasy to her spirituality that can seem weird from the outside but so beautiful and inviting from within.

I resonate with all this. Bucking against authority to unhelpful (and often wrong) degrees, feeling misunderstood and unseen even while trying my best, phrasing things in ways that make sense to me while others stare at me in confusion, the tenderness and desire to sit with people in their pain, and the deep desire for ecstatic union and communion with God. These are all my vibe, and Catherine’s.

A decade on, I still wear my Catherine pendant daily, in order to carry her with me and keep her close. If you are interested in knowing more about Catherine’s life and spirituality, here were two of the books that helped me get to know and be inspired by her. Continue reading

“Foundation & Empire” by Isaac Asimov [REVIEW]


Isaac Asimov, Foundation and EmpireFoundation and Empire
by Isaac Asimov
Spectra, originally published 1952
(Amazon Link)


It’s weird. I think this is a “better” novel than the first, though it is not as “interesting” or impactful as the original Foundation novel, hence the lower rating. I appreciate how Asimov, in this book breaks the formula of his previous book a bit. It doesn’t cover as much time, it’s not as many small stories, but a few larger chunks of narrative. So rather than feeling like a short story collection, it feels more like a proper novel.

In this book, we continue the history of the Foundation–the eponymous organization created in the first book as a haven for human knowledge in anticipation of the Galactic Empire’s imminent collapse.

The first book saw the Foundation come out victorious over several enemies due to the careful planning of the mathematician-prophet Hari Seldon, who anticipated a series of what became known as “Seldon Crises” based on the natural profession of nations. In this book–again, following historical precedence–we see what happens after the Foundation becomes the de facto Empire, having conquered those competing interests in volume 1 to find themselves now looking very much like Empire they hated.

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“Foundation” by Isaac Asimov [REVIEW]


Isaac Asimov, FoundationFoundation
by Isaac Asimov
Spectra, originally published 1951
(Amazon Link)


Okay, in preparation of the upcoming television series, I finally read Foundation, Isaac Asimov’s first book in what is widely considered the greatest science fiction series ever written.

As one who usually doesn’t seek out science fiction in his reading, I’ve got to say, this was fantastic, and represents what everyone says about the best sci-fi: the actual science and premise itself isn’t so much the point as it is seeing the human condition play out against its backdrop. On those terms, this book is a masterpiece and success in nearly every way.

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“Tenth of December” by George Saunders [Book Review]


Tenth of December
George Saunders
Random House, 2014
(Amazon Link)

This was my first foray into the mind and writings of George Saunders and it was fantastic.

Yes, I am a little late to the Saunders bandwagon, as his writings have racked up awards, and the audiobook production of his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo had a 166-person cast including the voice work of the other short story writer I feel embodies a similar casual-yet-earnest linguistic style, David Sedaris.

Regardless, Tenth of December, was the collection that put Saunders on the map, and deservedly so; it ought to be everyone’s starting place for his work.

The book is a short story collection, but an odd one. The stories in both theme and at times setting bleed into one another fairly seamlessly, with a generally consistent narrative voice throughout. In lesser books, this would cause confusion and make the entire collection feel like a homogeneous blob; but here the distinctions come from plot and character. The stories are darkly hilarious. He’s never “cute” funny, but existentially so.
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Journaling Ulysses: Ch. 3, “Proteus”


Frank Budgen’s illustration of Proteus from James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses

Well, I made it through the chapter that’s famous for keeping people from progressing further through James Joyce’s  Ulysses. And boy, let me tell you: this chapter is a trip.

The narrative of the chapter is incredibly straightforward. Stephen Daedalus walks down a beach on his way to drop off a letter. Along the way, he sees a dead dog on the beach, watches a gypsy couple meander towards him with their dog sniffing and exploring, and then he either imagines or witnesses the recovery of a dead body from the water. That’s it.

And yet, in these pages we find an intoxicating writhing of language in its theme, content, style, and technique. The chapter becomes more like a sense memory, larger than the sum of its parts, but also hazy in its exact contours.

Stephen & Proteus
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Journaling Ulysses: Ch. 2, “Nestor”


As I wrote a couple of days ago, I’m blogging my way through James Joyce’s  Ulysses, trying to give a layperson’s perspective on the chapters in an attempt to demystify it a bit. I previously wrote about Chapter 1, and how it’s incredibly straightforward. However, in Chapter 2, I’m starting to see the subtle storytelling shifts that he book is known for.

Point-of-View

I’ve known that Chapter 3 is the sandtrap that gets a lot of readers stuck. It is a full-blown stream-of-consciousness sensory overload in the mind and perspective of Stephen Daedalus. Every thought, observation, and fantasy run together in a constant flow.
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Two Amazing Bloomsday “Ulysses” Performances to Watch


As part of my current deep dive into James Joyce’s magnum opus Ulysses, I attended much of the Bloomsday celebrations at The Rosenbach Museum and Library. They live-streamed the entire thing, which you can find on their Facebook page, but I want to post here my favorite part. And no, you don’t have to have read ANY of the book to understand or enjoy this. Also, there aren’t really any “spoilers” of the plot. Ulysses isn’t really that kind of book….

Anyway, here are the performances of the last two chapters–the “Ithaca” and “Penelope” sections, specifically. The first is narrated in a Samuel-Beckett-ish question-and-answer format, like a religious catechism, and it is hilarious. The second is the end of the book when, for the first and only time, the main characters wife, Molly Bloom, takes over the narration as we enter her stream of consciousness while she tries to get to sleep. The performance of Drucie McDaniel is powerful, moving, funny, and poignant. You owe it to yourself to watch this in full. Happy Bloomsday!

BOOK REVIEW: “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro


The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage Int’l, 1989
(Amazon Link)


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, as the Amazon product page calls it, “universally acclaimed”. It won the Booker prize the year of its release, and no less a pedigree than Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson graced the screen in its film adaptation. I personally received recommendations for this book from people that both know me well and whom I greatly respect for their taste in literature.

Imagine my surprise, and the depth of my self-doubt and questioning of my own aesthetic inventory, when I read this book and really, really despised it.
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Let’s Read James Joyce’s “Ulysses” This Summer!



This Summer, some friends of mine and I will be reading through James Joyce’s Ulysses–a mid-century modernist juggernaut that’s considered by many to be the greatest novel in the English language–and I want to invite all of you to join us. Feel free to pass this post (and its accompanying Google Doc) to anyone and everyone you think might be interested. You can purchase the book here.

The Bloomsday 2019 Kick-Off

Ulysses is at it most basic level, about one 24-hour period on June 16th, 1904 in the life of Leopold Bloom. For book nerds, that calendar day has subsequently been dubbed “Bloomsday”. Here in Philadelphia, there is a library and museum called The Rosenbach which has one of the only complete manuscripts ofUlysses, handwritten by Joyce. Every June 16th they throw a massive day-long block party celebrating Irish culture and James Joyce.

Our little reading group will begin on Bloomsday 2019, and we invite anyone in or near Philadelphia to come to The Rosenbach to party. We’ll then read through the book and, for those interested and able, we’ll occasionally meet in various Irish cafes and pubs around Philly to talk about the book. I’ll also try and blog a bit through the book here. Continue reading

“Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices” by Brian D. McLaren [REVIEW]


This book is nearly a decade old now. It ages well, though now what it says may not seem as immediately new and fresh as it once was. Still, I believe its diagnosis and treatment are just as relevant today as it was then. 

Ultimately, as laid out in its introduction, this book (and the series of subsequent books which follow it), seek to lay out a fourth way (“third” ways are soooo 2008) “beyond a reductionistic secularism, beyond a reactive and intransigent fundamentalism, and beyond a vague, consumerist spirituality”. In this sense, this book is a great success. 

Implicit in its prescribed antidote, this book offers the same diagnosis for each of the three problematic ways of existing in the world, despite their radically different orientations–a fundamental disembodying of the human person, as exemplified by their anemic relationship to practices, both communal and private.

To that end, the book outlines ancient historical and theological foundations to spiritual practices. A refreshing aspect of this is that his list goes well beyond the typical Evangelical “pray-and-read-your-Bible quiet time” approach to spiritual practices. There are treatments given to Christian mystical traditions often overlooked by contemporary American Evangelicals, especially when it comes to contemplative, apophatic, and negative theological traditions, wherein one experiences connection through the divine by stopping activity and cogitation to experiencing an emptying rather than a filling.

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“Lies the Government Told You” by Andrew Napolitano [REVIEW]


“Truth is identity between intellect and reality. A lie is a knowing and intentional violation of the truth.”

With these words,Judge Andrew Napolitano draws the battle lines within which he will fight for the rest of this book, Lies the Government Told You: Myth, Power, and Deception in American History. Unfortunately, though, these lines are where the book’s liabilities also fall. 

The book goes through a series of principles on which the American mythos has been built and offers vivid anecdotes, data, history, and musings as to how the American government has not only fallen short of these ideals, but has codified and structuralized the outright denial of those ideals. 

There’s a little something for every political stripe here. For example, the opening chapter, “All Men are Created Equal”, spends most of its time sounding like a Black Lives Matter treatise, recounting the views of slavery by the founding fathers, disillusioning the Lincoln-as-great moral-Liberator myth (arguing that Lincoln freed slaves more out of political calculus than genuine moral courage), and the systemic injustice of Jim Crow. In this, he talks like an activist trying to show how America has never been on the side of black humans. And yet, he ends the chapter by waxing away about how affirmative action is just one more version of “government sanctioned racism”.

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