I am always on the lookout for bedside books, and I found two really good ones this season. The first is Brooke Allen's Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior (Ivan R. Dee), a delightfully eclectic collection of essays on literary subjects. (How eclectic? Well, there's Byron and Bram Stoker, Laurence Sterne and Henry James, Samuel Pepys and Sinclair Lewis, Jane Austen and L. Frank Baum. . . . Satisfied?) You may have seen some of these essays in The New Criterion or elsewhere, but unlike so many magazine pieces they bear rereading, not least because every piece tells a shapely story, spiky with idiosyncratic particulars yet also exemplary in some way.
Very different from Brooke Allen's bracingly skeptical sensibility is Mary Lou Kownacki's Between Two Souls: Conversations with Ryokan (Eerdmans), with poems by Kownacki (a Roman Catholic nun) written in response to poems by the great Japanese Zen poet, Ryokan (1758-1831), the two juxtaposed on facing pages. It's a project that virtually invites disaster on many fronts, and doesn't always manage to avoid it, yet I for one am grateful that Kownacki was willing to take the risk—and grateful to Eerdmans too, for publishing this book, which both charmed and exasperated me. Here is Kownacki's concluding poem:
What will it be?
There is an old photo:
A young anti-war protestor
Leans out the bus window
Holding a rose in her teeth.
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