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October 2020


CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quite enjoyable tale, reimagining many of the familiar stories of gods and heroes with Circe at the center. Miller has a beautiful way of inhabiting these old tales (I enjoyed Song of Achilles as well). Circe grows and develops as a character, and her thoughts on life in the final pages of the novel are realized as a well-deserved achievement.

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Selected Poems of Paul Celan

Selected Poems and Prose of Paul CelanSelected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan by Paul Celan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Will days heal softly, will they cut too sharp?"

Many of Celan's poems are weighted with grief. He survived the Nazis, but his parents did not, and mourning his mother is a constant theme.

And yet these poems reveal beauty. A command of language. Weaving words to reveal and create possibilities.

And in one poem I found my slogan for 2020 (I have adapted the translation a little):

"This cracked year
with its rotting crust of

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The Wild Iris

The Wild IrisThe Wild Iris by Louise Glück
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was rather embarrassed when an American poet won the Nobel Prize and I had not read one of her books. Oh, I'd read a poem here or there, but that's all. This seems particularly embarrassing given my 2017 project of reading lots of authors often mentioned as possible Nobel recipients and the vast amount of poetry I've read in 2020.

The day she won I tried to order this book, but it was out-of-stock. I ordered two others and then a week or so later saw this one was available again and ordered it and it arrived but the first two I ordered still have not. I devoured the book this week, despite the six or seven other books I'm actively reading.

An early poem, "Snowdrops," seemed particularly appropriate this week when winter weather arrived and Covid numbers were spiking and you could feel a sense of dread developing. It begins:

"Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you."

Reading, I was amazed at the ways her poems bear together intense darkness and radiant light. It's incredible her skill in completely holding both at the same time.

"If you would open your eyes
you would see me, you would see
the emptiness of heaven
mirrored on earth, the fields
vacant again, lifeless, covered with snow--

then white light
no longer disguised as matter."

I praise the Nobel committee's decision. She may have been the perfect author to draw attention to in this calamitous year.

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Landscapes of the Sacred

Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American SpiritualityLandscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality by Belden C. Lane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this calamitous year our connections to places and spaces have been heightened.  We were/are isolated in domestic spaces.  We walked our neighborhoods.  Many of us gardened and landscaped.  We also couldn't go to places that we enjoyed, found meaningful, that inspire or comfort us.  In religious communities there was the acute realization of the importance to many of us of the places we worship and fellowship and that online versions were but a pale and inadequate shadow creating significant spiritual loss.

I had enjoyed another Belden Lane book and this one has been sitting on my shelves to-read for a while.  This year seemed fitting.  I grabbed it and began it while three days of spiritual retreat in the Nebraska Sandhills at Kamp Kaleo, our denominational campground.

In this book Lane explores the particulars of American spiritualities of place and space. He opens with a discussion of how all sacred spaces are storied spaces. The vast middle section of the book examines various spiritual approaches to place from Native American to Catholic Worker. In this section I found two things particularly lacking--no examination of place/space in African-American spirituality or any discussion of what Eastern Religions have contributed to a sense of place (surely a discussion of Gary Snyder would have been easy?). I personally most enjoyed the chapter on the Puritans.

The book then concludes with the tension in Christian spirituality between a sacramental sense of place and an apophatic tradition that emphasizes transcendence of place. In this section he discusses the need to deconstruct the ways in which landscapes are always constructed (a brief discussion of Simon Schama's wonderful book Landscape and Memory). And how Christianity disciplines us to see the sacred in the places we want to ignore.

As I contemplate how to spiritually direct my people this winter, building on some work I did last spring, I can imagine a pilgrimmage in place, focusing on the interior life and attention to the details in our ordinary spaces. My mental wheels are turning.

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Cheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sandoz brings her eloquence and attention to detail to the story of the Cheyenne who in 1878 left Oklahoma Territory, where they had been sent, in order to return north, fleeing through soldiers and multiple attacks through a very harsh winter. This is a harrowing story, not for the faint of heart, with much injustice and sadness. There were moments where I questioned whether I could go on, but Sandoz's writing is so beautiful and compelling and she recounts this story with such attention and appreciation for the indigenous people from whom she collected oral accounts.

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Hume: An Intellectual Biography

Hume: An Intellectual BiographyHume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are significant stretches of this book overburdened with details, making it at times a dense read.

However, I did enjoy it. It's best gift is understanding Hume within his intellectual context. At two particular places this was most enjoyable. First in learning more about the philosophical influences upon him, such as Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, and others. Second was learning about the differing understandings of British history in the 18th century, in particular how those different understanding approached the concept of liberty. This was relevant to then understanding what approach Hume took in his own History.

The book had a grand conclusion, stating that Hume had achieved the dreams he set for himself as a young man. Would that more biographies could end that way.

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomFrederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I expected to marvel at the story of Douglass, but I never quite expected how good a writer Blight would be. He has a beautiful way with structuring paragraphs and sentences.

And it is intellectually a delight. Really capturing Douglass as thinker, including as a theological one.

And I appreciate the approach to Douglass as a Founding Father of the refounding of the Republic during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

I'm not sure I've read an American biography as well written as this one. So besides Douglass's own works, this too surely will enter the canon of American literature.

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FragmentsFragments by KP Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Don't love me like a fire;
even the wildest flames can die.
Love me like the ocean;
endless and free from constraint."

I like that image, "Love me like the ocean." This debut book of poems from "Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas" contains some images the remind me of Ocean Vuong.

The poem "Itsy Bitsy" is about seeing a spider crawling on the wall and wondering where it comes from. When it starts there's both an innocent wonder and some sense of dread. The images are really strong--"Where could I go to/ to build a web for one?" And the poem ends with a shock.

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The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

The Collected Poems of Emily DickinsonThe Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I live on dread; to those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger, other impetus
is numb and vital-less."

Back during the spring quarantines I read a lot of poetry and decided that it was finally time to tackle Emily Dickinson. 2020 seemed to be a good year for her sensibility.

But if American poetry is divided between fans of Whitman and fans of Dickinson, then I'm clearly in Walt's camp.

While there are obviously poems I liked and which were profound, her style just didn't excite, animate, or resonate with me like many other poets I read.

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