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The Overstory

The OverstoryThe Overstory by Richard Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yesterday, I posted the following to Facebook: "Just finished The Overstory by Richard Powers. On first impression I'm thinking it is the greatest and most important American novel since Beloved."

Already, over the weekend as my husband and I were away celebrating our anniversary and I be up early reading the novel on the porch of the B&B, I had said to him, "This may be one of the great American novels."

After posting that, I read some reviews to see what others had to say. Most reviews, of course, were glowing, with a few negative. Nathaniel Rich wrote "He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked."

Writing for the Kenyon Review, Aatif Rashid said, "But what if character wasn’t the only thing fiction could be about? What if a novel could be about other things instead—the world, science, ideas, the environment? In his 2018 novel The Overstory, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize, Richard Powers demonstrates that a novel doesn’t have to come down to human emotion—and even argues that from a moral point that, given our world’s impending environmental doom, perhaps it shouldn’t."

Here is a big novel of ideas making a moral point. Normally that would sound awful, like reading Bunyan, but in this case it works, in a way that Steinbeck could make it work. And, as the comments above point out, while de-centering the human character. Besides the rare wonderful novel about an animal, like Watership Down, the novel is almost exclusively about human character development, but not here. This novel is about trees and forests. The idea, the moral point, is compelling and persuasive.

All contained within captivating story and told with exquisite prose. Consider this excerpt:

The photos hide everything: the twenties that do not roar for the Hoels. The Depression that cost them 200 acres and sends half the family to Chicago. The radio shows that ruin two of Frank Jr.’s sons for farming. The Hoel death in the South Pacific and the two Hoel guilty survivals. The Deeres and Caterpillars parading through the tractor shed. The barn that burns to the ground one night to the screams of helpless animals. The dozens of joyous weddings, christenings, and graduations. The half-dozen adulteries. The two divorces sad enough to silence songbirds. One son’s unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature. The lawsuit between cousins. The three surprise pregnancies. The protracted Hoel guerrilla war against the local pastor and half the Lutheran parish. The handiwork of heroin and Agent Orange that comes home with nephews from ‘Nam. The hushed up incest, the lingering alcoholism, a daughter’s elopement with the high school English teacher. The cancers (breast, colon, lung), the heart disease, the degloving of a worker’s fist in a grain augur, the car death of a cousin’s child on prom night. The countless tons of chemicals with names like Rage, Roundup, and Firestorm, the patented seeds engineered to produce sterile plants. The fiftieth wedding anniversary in Hawaii and its disastrous aftermath. The dispersal of retirees to Arizona and Texas. The generation of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photo’s frame. Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early-middle age, growing at the speed of wood.

This is the sort of novel that might just change a reader. On Sunday as my husband and I hiked through a forest in Missouri, I kept telling him tidbits of the novel, for I was seeing the forest in a new way.

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The Sovereignty of Good

The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Classics)The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read the third essay in this collection when I was a graduate student and have long admired it as one of the best things ever written in moral philosophy. I have returned to it often, including it in sermons and teaching it in Ethics class. Finally got around to reading the entire, short collection.

Murdoch is insightful, witty, and (of course) a beautiful writer. One feels better after reading her work.

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This summer I preached a sermon series inspired by the poetry of Mary Oliver.  One of the key features of the spiritual life Oliver recommends is paying attention.

So I enjoyed reading Iris Murdoch advocating attention as key to the moral life in her essay "The Idea of Perfection."  Here are some excerpts of her essay:

I have used the word 'attention,' which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.


But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is  already over.  This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not.  But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.


But I would suggest that at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge: not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one's eyes but of a certainly perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.


This author discusses the paradox of Peanuts, child characters who aren't like most real kids and who are also subjected to cruelty, and yet children enjoyed the comic.  An excerpt:

What I took away from Schulz is that life is hard. People are difficult at best, unfathomable at worst. Justice is a foreign tongue. Happiness can vaporize in the thin gap between a third and fourth panel, and the best response to all that is to laugh and keep moving, always ready to duck.

The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in NatureThe Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature by David George Haskell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the last year I have used this book as something of an almost daily devotional here at my church office, reading a few pages of Haskell's observations of one small spot in a Tennessee forest and the reflections and insights that observation leads to. I also ended up reading it counter-cyclical, meaning during the summer I was reading about winter and vice versa, which was particularly nice during the long months of last year's Omaha winter to be reading about summer.

Near the close of the book Haskell concludes, "We create wonderful places by giving them our attention, not by finding 'pristine' places that will bring wonder to us."

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Williams' Social Compact

Victor Parrington gives this description of Roger Williams's idea of the social compact, a description I think is helpful in understanding the democratic idea of government:

But unlike the fiction assumed by Hobbes and Locke, this was no suppositious contract between ruler and ruled in prehistoric times, but present and actual, entered into between the several members of a free community for their common governance; nor on the other hand, like Burke's irrevocable compact, was it an unyielding constitution or fundamental law; but flexible, responsive to changing conditions, continually modified to meet present needs.  It is no other than a mutual agreement, arrived at frankly by discussion and compromise, to live together in a political union, organizing the life of the commonwealth in accordance with nature, reason, justice, and expediency.

Actually, reading that description, I think of Rorty.

The Cosmopolitan Tradition

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed IdealThe Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal by Martha C Nussbaum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A worthy addition to Nussbaum's body of work as she continues to develop her Capabilities Approach. This particular volume locates her ideas within the broad "cosmopolitan tradition." This tradition that advocates for world citizenship, arises with Diogenes and is developed by the Stoics, Cicero, Hugo Grotius, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant. She surveys the history of this tradition, identifying its strengths and weaknesses, all with a focus on what we can learn from it in order to apply to current issues such as the role of international law, the migration crisis, animal rights, etc.

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A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other WorksA Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works by Baruch Spinoza
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is joy in returning to a thinker after a quarter century. I read Spinoza in my first semester of graduate school and hadn't ever occasioned to read him again until these last few weeks. I did this time read parts of this anthology and of his masterwork, The Ethics, that I did not read the first time around.

Apparently in class in 1996 we were focused on his metaphysics, so this time I enjoyed reading some of his biblical hermeneutics, psychology, and moral and political thought. I feel as if I come away with a better grasp of Spinoza, his role in the history of ideas, and his influence upon later thinkers.

I was surprised to find some wise aphorisms in The Ethics, which reminded me of Marcus Aurelius. Here are a few examples: "He who lives according to the guidance of reason will strive, as far as he can, to bring it about that he is not troubled with affects of hate, and consequently will strive that the other also should not undergo those affects." "A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death." "A free man who lives among the ignorant strives, as far as he can, to avoid their favors." "The proud man loves the presence of parasites, or flatterers, but hates the presence of the noble."

But then there are the puzzling ones as well, such as "There are no affects of hope or fear without sadness . . . there is no hope without fear." "Humility is not a virtue, or does not arise from reason." "He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return."

Spinoza's work is an extreme expression of the life of reason. This is more fully embodied in his geometric approach to philosophy, presenting definition, axioms, and postulates that makes his masterwork awkward to read.

But as an expression of the life of reason, his philosophy possesses admirable qualities. It represents a high (yet impossible) ideal--the closing line of The Ethics is "But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

But I find him overall to be obtuse and wrongheaded, particularly in his metaphysics which undergirds everything else.

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