Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter is a book about a person, but moreover it must be considered as a book about a place. All of Berry’s fiction focuses on a fictional town in western Kentucky called Port William. The town is a mirror image of Port Royal, Kentucky, the riverside town that Berry grew up in and returned to. Through Port William, Berry presents a vision of community that seems entirely distant from the solitude of our current American society, highly individualized, even within families. He presents a community not only tied by blood, but tied by what may come to be a more lasting bond: a place. So though this book is told from Hannah’s perspective, it is the story of Port William as much as it is Hannah’s story. Indeed the very vision of life that Hannah speaks through is refreshing. For she sees the people around her as a part of something much larger than individual lives, each darting in their own directions, momentarily intersecting. There is woven in her words a stronger web. It is unlike the vision of our culture today, and to that end it is inspiring.

Reading a novel by Wendell Berry is different from reading one of his essays, but in a way it is also very similar. His thoughts on agriculture, community, and nature that he presents so refreshingly in his essays are present also in his fiction and his poetry. But they develop with a different tone. While many of Berry’s essays read with a tone of urgency and caution, his poetry has a meditative rhythm and his fiction reflects on similar themes from a position of peace. I imagine that if Berry’s essays represent his concerns and convictions about the use of land and the purposes of people, his fiction represents his love and gratitude for these things.

I feel a little scattered in my thoughts here because I have not been sure why this book felt so different from others. But nevertheless I would recommend it through and through both as pleasant and through provoking!

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Book Review: This Side of Paradise

Ok, so I realize “book review” may not be the most fitting description for these posts. First, I hardly ever read a book that I don’t enjoy; in part because I choose my reading list carefully and in part because I seem to have a optimistic temperament when it comes to judging books. Second, I haven’t been offering my personal opinion on the books as much as I have been summarizing them in hopes that others might be interested in reading them as well. Finally I would feel silly attempting to offer some kind of original insight on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel This Side of Paradise, published nearly a century ago.

Though here are my thoughts. This is my blog after all.

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This Side of Paradise tells the story of Amory Blaine, a young man searching for solid ground through college and the years that follow. I think the transformation that takes place for Amory through the novel was particularly influential to me because of my current position. Having just graduated from college myself, having come across ideas and world views of all kinds, having ominous years ahead of me, I feel I am in the middle of the same crisis of discernement that held Amory. It is not a bad crisis, and I think it is an important one. For Amory it facilitates a dynamic transformation.

Though I don’t think Amory’s transformation can be summed up as a simple intellectual process. Instead for most of the book Amory’s ideas and understandings of who he is are illustrated through his experiences with friends, mentors, and lovers. In the end Amory’s transformation is powerfully relational.

A cursory effort of self-reflection on my part reveals a similar path. In school there were a number of ideas that I understood intellectually, but I did not have a physical outlet through which to reflect these concepts. The division was often stifling. For instance: How could I profess to be invested in environmental and agricultural justice if I was not involved in the environment and I was removed from any contact with the parts of agriculture that come before the supermarket?

After finishing college I feel I am in the middle of transformation not yet completed. Being here on the farm, learning to do with my hands what I value in my heart, is a fulfillment of that transformation, or a part of it, at least.

If you read This Side of Paradise goes easy on Amory. He is far from likable most times, and his attitude as a self-proclaimed egoist doesn’t make him a target for my sympathy. But he is still pure-hearted somewhere deep down. So give him a chance. Give yourself a chance.

Book Review: Third Way Allegiance: Christian Witness in the Shadow of Religious Empire

At times, it is quite complicated to separate who is doing the narrating: Is the church narrating what it means to be an American, or is American narrating what it means to be the church? It is not always easy to know.       – Tripp York,  Third Way Allegiance

This question an other challenging thoughts that Tripp York presents in The Third Way Allegiance have been refreshing, yet challenging to me. I resonate strongly with York’s difficulty in discerning what defines our culture. Living in America, we all experience moments when the lines between church and state have been less than clear, and those in America that claim Christ as their King have an obligation to think critically about those lines. Does the path of the church run parallel to the path of America? Are the people of God meant to also be the people of a man-made nation? To whom do Christians swear allegiance? These are the questions York asks us to consider.

Considering allegiances, I believe it will be helpful to start with a familiar story from the life of Jesus. After Jesus had entered Jerusalem he came to the temple courts to teach. At one moment, the Pharisees raised a question to Jesus with hopes of trapping him. They asked, “What is your opinion? Is it right to pay takes to Caesar or not?” Jesus asked to see a coin for paying taxes and asked whose portrait and inscription was on the coin. The denarius bore the portrait and mark of Caesar. Then Jesus responded, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

At first glance this appears clear enough, but when we reexamine Jesus’ reply, doesn’t it hold quite a large contradiction. Of course Caesar lays claim to taxes, but our faith informs us that all the wealth of the earth, along with every part of creation, has come from God. Jesus’ answer is simple, but to discern what it means is not. For it appears to me that Caesar and God both desire our sacrifices.

Considering our allegiances is a very personal subject. Certainly the foundations in which we put our trust will make a deep mark on our character, and when those foundations are questioned, it is natural for us to be defensive. Because of this I have often found books and articles that deal with Christian allegiance in a black and white manner to be unhelpful. They can be instructive but they often feel too rigid for interaction. On the contrary, I have found Tripp York’s writing to be very interactive. When I read this book I found many parts of my foundation called into question, but I did not ever feel resentful of York’s words. Instead, with each chapter being followed by a section for reflection and discussion, I feel that York is promoting conversation and critical thinking, instead of simply shouting his ideas.

York addresses issues ranging from our politics and peacemaking to our treatment of holidays and non-human animals. Looking for a thoughtful summer read? Consider Third Way Allegiance by Tripp York.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Last Saturday I enjoyed reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a story by Richard Bach originally published in 1970. This book was suggested to me last spring break on a trip to Niagara Falls. Standing on the walkways overlooking the falls I could see hundreds of gulls! As a matter of fact, “the Niagara River has the largest and most diverse population of gulls in the world!” ¹ Some gulls were milling about in the park pecking at food left by human visitors, others were floating above the river looking out for a water-dwelling snack, and every now and then a gull would swoop low over the falls and dive down. I was struck by the boldness and sense of ease with which these gulls interacted with the falls. Tremendous power flows right beneath them while they coast calmly, even diving for food only feet away from  the river’s treacherous end. I wondered aloud how it must feel to fly. In turn I was offered this book.

Alert: I am not sure whether the following thoughts will ruin this book for you. If you are concerned, don’t worry. Most books are very good even when you know the ending ahead of time. Don’t take it from me, ask a psychologist. A study done last year by the University of California, San Diego has suggested that one might actually enjoy a book more if they knew the ending ahead of time. ² So without further disclaimer,

Jonathan Livingston Seagull showed me how to fly. There, I have even spoiled the ending of my blog. Now you will theoretically enjoy it more.

Jonathan is an oddity among his seagull flock. While the other gulls monotonously pick the decks of fishing boats for scraps and stand idly on the shoreline, Jonathan ventures off alone to practice flying. Yes, Jonathan can already fly like all the other gulls, but he is convinced that most gulls never reach the potential of their bodies. So he climbs high into the clouds and plummets towards the sea; he pushes himself as fast as he can only for the sake of exploring the limits of his gift of flight. The way Jonathan Seagull flies is beautiful. Even the way he tumbles and flaps about in his failures is vivid. My curiosity at Niagara was answered by Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘s development of a flight vocabulary. Since I am used to being on land and reading about characters on land, Richard Bach had to constantly remind me that the characters were flying. After a while I began to catch on a feel I was flying along with the gulls. The experience was altogether transporting.

As the story progresses Jonathan’s quest to fully realize his ability to fly expands into a larger quest to fully realize his potential as an individual. The book gets really existential. In the end I was reminded a lot of a short story by J.D. Salinger, one of my favorite authors. His story Teddy deals with many of the same ideas about broadening one’s concept of reality and the potential of the soul. I don’t know if you are into that, dear reader, but if it suits you, go for it! If the philosophical stuff puts a damper on your mood, don’t worry. Through and through Jonathan Livingston Seagull is still a remarkable tale of flight and adventure.

¹ http://www.niagaraparks.com/nature-trails/birding.html

² http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/soc/2011_08spoilers.asp