After having spent the preceding weeks committed to a long volume of Tolstoy, I decided to play the field during September, dabbling in a few genres.
I took a chance and checked a book out from the “express 3-day loan” table at the library. This novel by Louis Begley was everything you’d want in a rebound relationship: short, easy, and not so good that you’re sad when it’s over.
An older writer runs into one half of a couple he knew when he was younger. This woman is not likable. He becomes obsessed with finding out why her marriage fell apart. You learn about how deranged she and her husband were without having to go to the trouble of processing any of the information, because the narrator is doing it for you. The one thing our narrator never lets us in on is why he cares so much about their decades-old relationship.
I read it in one day and felt like I’d accomplished something. Not a great something, but something.
The day of the same trip to the library was the same day it was announced that Seamus Heaney had passed. The library staff had thrown a bunch of his books out on a table and this was the one I’d picked up. Though I met Heaney once, very briefly, in college, I have not read much of his work.
I paged through the book, then picked it up and opened it to random pages throughout the weeks I had it checked out. What I discovered was poetry with a sense of place that resonated with a homebody with me. There were also a number of poems that had a truly fun of language. For me, the sign of a good poem is if I want to read it out loud, and I did that often with the poems in this collection.
One verse has stayed with me this month, from The Aerodrome:
If self is a location, so is love: bearings taken, markings, cardinal points, Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance Here and there and now and then, a stance.
Reading two novels in short order is out of character for me, but this one caught my eye because of the weeks I spent in Assisi this summer. This book had jacket blurbs from a number of notable religious thinkers and writers. It was engaging, but not quite life-changing for me.
I should have seen that coming. Ian Morgan Cron’s main character is an evangelical pastor (who has bought into all the worst stereotypes of modern American religion – certainty, materialism, rationalism) whose crisis of faith drives him into the waiting avuncular arms of a Franciscan friar, who introduces him to all the best things about Catholicism and Franciscan spirituality.
I tend not to delve too deeply into the intermittent crises of Evangelicalism, mostly because my tribe has problems enough of its own. Perhaps someone who had would have read the main characters spiritual crisis differently, but all I saw was a train wreck coming a mile away. And when he “discovered” the highlights of Franciscan spirituality, I was happy for him but not as scandalized or surprised as a Catholic reader might have been.
I wanted so badly to enjoy this book, and for the first few pages I thought I would. The authors tone is readable, and the book is full of information about an era that I want to know more about. Its structural problems, unfortunately, kept me from loving this book.
It’s a long way from Aachen to Palestine to Byzantium, and this book makes those leaps abruptly, and often for reasons that aren’t apparent. Jeff Szypeck clearly has an imaginative gift that perhaps could have been indulged more in a different sort of book. Many sections began with “one can imagine…” and went on to paint a vibrant picture of our protagonists, only to conclude with “but that’s not what happened” or “we don’t know what happened”.
In short: exhaustively researched, frustratingly written.
What did you read this month?
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