By John Wilson
Books at Warp Speed
So many reports on the current cultural scene—especially but not only those coming from Christian sources—are unrelentingly grim, written with a tone of world-weary disgust. I think that virtually all readers of Books & Culture will agree that there is plenty to be distressed and disgusted about (and when hasn't that been true?). Certainly in the world of books there is a lot of trash, including some very high-faluting garbage. But—or so at least it seems to me—there is also more worthy of attention than anyone has time or energy to comprehend.
In year-end lists like this, there is a danger at the opposite pole from reflexive doom-and-gloom. I hate lists of books that seem to be mere puffery, an extension of marketing. Even worse, perhaps, are those which resemble the self-satisfied connoisseurship of so much wine-writing. (This compelling novel has hints of pine and birch, with an undertone of Beckett and cinnamon.) And yet it occurs to me that a wine critic with a well-trained nose and palate—one who says "I liked this wine, and that one; you can take a pass on this high-priced one, though" —performs a real service. It's called "wine-tasting" for a reason; there's an irreducible element of taste in our response to wine or fiction or music. But we welcome a reliable guide to the bewildering array of choices, without assuming that we will in every respect share his taste.
So here are some books in various categories that stand out among the several thousand I have seen this year. Descriptions are minimal by necessity; we have to move at warp speed. (Next week we'll feature the Top Ten, and the following week we'll conclude the year by looking ahead to some forthcoming books from 2004.)
Let's start with several books by writers with close connections to Books & Culture. For some years now, Celtic Christianity—like Celtic music—has been a hot topic. Dozens of books on the subject have appeared, full of contradictory claims. What would be very helpful is a clear, responsible overview. Now we have just the thing: Christianity and the Celts, by Ted Olsen (InterVarsity). Olsen , Christianity Today magazine's online managing editor, presides over CT's weblog—the best religion weblog, period. His book is a first-rate guide, and it's superbly illustrated as well. (CT's managing editor Mark Galli has an excellent volume on Saint Francis in the same IVP series.)
Philip Yancey's latest book, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing? (Zondervan), is intended primarily for readers "who live in the borderlands of belief—the region between belief and unbelief." When my wife Wendy and I went to the local Borders in October to hear Philip talk about the book, we were delighted to see that well over half of the large turnout was made up of young people, college age and twentysomething. (It was an odd feeling to be among the oldest people present, though we're slowly starting to get used to that.) Another book for those on the borderlands of belief (though not for them only) is Enrique Martinez Celaya: The October Cycle, 2000-2002, by B&C regular Daniel Siedell (distributed by D.A.P.), which introduced me to a contemporary artist of great integrity and spiritual intensity. (An exhibition of Martinez Celaya's work, curated by Siedell, will be at Sheldon Memorial Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln though January 25, 2004, after which it will move to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art from February 13 to April 25.)
In the very first issue of B&C (September/October 1995), Frederica Mathewes-Green published an essay on icons, which remains one of my favorites among all the pieces we've published over the years. Now Paraclete Press has published her book The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer. Like all of her books, this one is winsome; you feel you've entered into a conversation with the author (and sometimes an argument!). Don't miss it. Also on the must-read list is another book from Paraclete, Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner. Longtime B&C readers will remember Winner's series, "Jews, Christians, and God." In Mudhouse Sabbath, Winner—who converted from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, as recounted in her memoir Girl Meets God—talks to fellow Christians about what she has learned from Jewish spiritual practices.
As a few of you may recall, I am an unapologetic lover of haiku. Nothing irritates me more than anti-haiku snobbery among the literati (while I freely admit there are plenty of awful poems in this form, just as in any other variety of poetry you care to name). My favorite collections of the year were Jack Kerouac's Book of Haikus (Penguin) and Haiku, selected and edited by Peter Williams for Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series (Knopf). Here are some of the ones I like best from Kerouac: "The smoke of old / naval battles / Is gone." "Missing a kick / at the icebox door / It closed anyway." (Williams includes that one as well.) And: "Run over by my lawnmower, / waiting for me to leave, / The frog." Speaking of haiku I'm reminded of a wonderful collection of found poetry, Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld, compiled and edited by Hart Seely (Free Press). People who can't stand Rumsfeld—and they are legion—apparently found it a hoot. I am not of that camp, yet still I enjoyed this little book mightily. There's something uncanny as well as funny about the effects of language lifted out of its context for our inspection.