Book Reviews

Ron Austin’s In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts

This essay was originally published at Sojourners.

What Are You Reading?

A few words on a few of the books I’ve been enjoying lately.

A Long Way Down (2005)

Kakutani’s reading seems lazy to me. She’s misjudged these folks — not to mention Hornby’s intentions — and is punching herself silly, chasing after her straw men.

The Moviegoer (1962)

If you’re reading this in the future — say, you’ve wandered here via some poof of Google magic — you should know that if I were to turn on my television right now (now being the afternoon of September 2, 2005), I’d flip past image after image after image of destruction, violence, and misery.

Dreamer

I’m almost finished Dreamer, Charles Johnson’s novel about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles in Chicago in 1966, and it’s amazing — the finest novel I’ve read in months. (Dreamer wants to become part of my stalled dissertation; I have, as yet, managed to fight that urge.)

Little Children

So many of Perrotta’s observations of suburban life are so spot-on — I especially like the way that his lead characters absolutely adore their children while still resenting somewhat the life-changes they’ve caused — but the narrative voice never quite transcends the banality of the lives it is documenting. Maybe that’s the point. I doubt it.

The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology

I am of two minds about The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. The argument that Alexander and Philip Smith lay out in Chapter 1 is intriguing, and Alexander’s application of it in his readings of the Holocaust and Watergate are refreshingly useful. The rest, to be perfectly frank, feels a bit like filler.

The Rise and Fall of the American Left (1992)

By John Patrick Diggins For Diggins, the first problem facing any historian of the American Left is one of basic terminology. “The characteristics most often used to define the Left,” he writes, “the demand for change; political ideals like justice, equality, and democracy; anticapitalism and the tactic of dissent; the mentalities of rationalism and ideology—are […]

The Agony of the American Left

Spanning the years from the Populist movement of the 1890s to the radical politics of the 1960s, Lasch’s study offers a useful analysis of many of the social, economic, and political forces that have combined to frustrate the American Left in its search for a politically potent mixture of theory and action.

The Culture of the Cold War (1991)

The Culture of the Cold War is divided into chapter-long studies of the major voices of popular culture, each of which, according to Whitfield, reflected and contributed to the polarity that characterized so much of the 1950s.

American Pastoral (1997)

What most fascinates me about this novel—along, of course, with Roth’s beautiful prose—is its inability, ultimately, to make any sense of the Swede’s tragedy.

Black Water (1992)

But Black Water is first and foremost a novel about Kelly Kelleher and, by analogy, all other women who have been abused, exploited, and discarded by the powerful and by the media that report it.

American Fiction in the Cold War

Schaub focuses the majority of his attention on the early post-war years, turning to the New York Intellectuals—Howe, Trilling, and Schlesinger, in particular—for his diagnosis of the crisis at the heart of the American Left at the start of the Cold War.

The Public Burning (1976)

At the site of the execution—fantastically transposed from Sing Sing to the middle of Times Square—Nixon appears with his pants around his ankles, fully erect, then brings the crowd to a riotous frenzy as history dissolves around them.

Benito Cereno (1855)

As Mike Frank has recently asked, “What might narratology look like if we were to take cinema — particularly ‘classical Hollywood cinema’ — as the paradigmatic instance of storytelling?”

The Woman Warrior (1975)

Reading The Woman Warrior now, twenty-five years after its original publication, I find it difficult to separate the actual text from the cultural milieu in which it was written.

Another Country (1962)

Baldwin is so determined to explode the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality that he makes a fatal mistake: instead of being particularly insightful or even shocking, Another Country is preachy, sentimental, and, worst of all, boring.

Broom of the System (1987)

Lenore Beadsman’s life is complicated. The 24 year old heir to the Beadsman baby food empire struggles to balance her career as a call center operator — where the lines of communication seem perpetually crossed — with her, um, complex relationship with her boss, Rick Vigorous, of Frequent and Vigorous Publishing.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

In the opening chapters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, an elderly African-American woman sits down with her granddaughter and explains the main lesson she has learned during her difficult life, one that has spanned from the final years of slavery to the more promising days of the twentieth century.

O Pioneers (1913)

Willa Cather was nearly 40 years old in 1913 when she published O Pioneers!, her second novel. It’s difficult, then, to overlook the obvious similarities between her own life and that of her heroine, Alexandra Bergson.

Sculpting in Time

I’ve never read another book like Sculpting in Time. In it Tarkovsky speaks as eloquently about art as he does faith and philosophy, and does so in a remarkably kind, concerned voice.

Sculpting in Time (1987)

I’ve never read another book like Sculpting in Time. In it Tarkovsky speaks as eloquently about art as he does faith and philosophy, and does so in a remarkably kind, concerned voice. To him, his subject —the unique ability of the cinematic image to touch the soul and inspire spiritual improvement — is quite literally a matter of life and death.

New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)

Like “Making Peace,” the Denise Levertov poem that inspired this site, Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is concerned with the destructive influences of greed, superficiality, and passivity on our hectic, disjointed lives.

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue (1994)

Johnson’s and Petrie’s study is that extremely rare beast: an academic study that is informative, objective (or as close as anyone can get), and readable.

Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (1999)

Insdorf sets out with the right questions in mind: How was Kieslowski’s body of work shaped by personal experience, particularly by his life under Communism? What other directors, artists, and thinkers shaped his aesthetic? What preoccupations, both ideological and stylistic, form the backbone of his work? What precipitated his move from documentary to narrative film, and how did each influence the other? Unfortunately, in attempting to answer all of these questions (and in only 180 pages), she fails to address any of them adequately.

July’s People (1981)

Note: The following was written for a graduate seminar on Postcolonial literature, but, aside from the first few paragraphs, it is a fairly straight-forward reading of what might just be my favorite novel.

In the Time of Butterflies (1994)

“Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?” (page 5). Before meeting the sisters of In the Time of Butterflies, before even learning their names, we know that they have lived lives and died deaths worth telling.