American Heraclitus

From the October 2015 Print Edition

The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964
by zachary leader

knopf, 832 pages, $40 Saul Bellow had a cat named Rufus. He learned from Ralph Ellison how to make drip coffee—though, according to his new biographer, the “elaborate procedure” that Ellison taught him “was hard to see as worth the effort.” Also meriting attention in Zachary Leader’s 800-page chronicle of the first half of Bellow’s life: the incorporation in 2002 of Bellow’s birthplace, Lachine, Quebec, into the city of Montreal. In his sophomore year of high school, Bellow’s grades were mostly “Good” or “Excellent.” The father of Bellow’s third wife, Susan, was a doctor for the Chicago Bears and Blackhawks. One of Bellow’s colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought gave another of his colleagues a silver marrow spoon at Christmas one year, and one of Bellow’s writing students went on to pen the screenplay for Dirty Dancing. I could go on with these pocket lint pearls. Leader certainly does. Continue Reading »

Write Away

From the August/September 2015 Print Edition

The most electrifying reading experience I’ve had this past year came 656 pages into Donna Tartt’s recent novel, The Goldfinch. A twenty-first-century young American’s adventure story, its action moves from wealthy Manhattan to Great Recession–era Las Vegas to decadent high-end European hotels, covering various points in between and beyond. The hero is an orphan who steals a priceless piece of art just as his mother dies in a terrorist attack at a New York museum. Following its 2013 publication, Tartt’s novel earned high acclaim, the Pulitzer Prize, and an extended stay on bestseller lists.None of this is surprising. After all, at first glance, The Goldfinch is exactly what comes to mind when you think of the Great American Novel: sprawling, smart, of-the-moment in its plot, and above all else, unabashedly swaggering in its presumption that you’ll want to spend eight hundred pages following Theo, its hero, as he makes his way through loud and crazy America. Like Huck Finn, Ishmael, Thomas Sutpen, Jay Gatsby, the Invisible Man, and Augie March, Theo drives on and on. He’s knocked down and gets right back up, again and again. You cheer for him, you worry about him, you grow frustrated with him, you hope for the best for him. Continue Reading »

Jesus Lovers

From the March 2015 Print Edition

The Book of Strange New Things?
by michel faber
?hogarth, 512 pages, $28
At last, someone has written the great interplanetary Christian missionary novel. Perhaps you weren’t aware that we were waiting for this. I certainly wasn’t, until reading British novelist Michel Faber’s new book. Set in the near future, the novel concerns the experiences of a onetime drug addict turned lefty Christian minister, an Englishman named Peter, who leaves behind his loving and faith-filled wife to accept a lucrative assignment from a shadowy American corporation called USIC: He travels to a distant planet to serve as pastor to its native population while the employees of that corporation work on various projects of opaque purpose. Despite understandable misgivings, Peter’s keen for the assignment. “This was not Gethsemane: he wasn’t headed for Golgotha, he was embarking on a great adventure. . . . He’d been chosen out of thousands, to pursue the most important ministry calling since the Apostles had ventured forth to conquer Rome with the power of love, and he was going to do his best.” Continue Reading »

City of Google

From the January 2015 Print Edition

Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the Internet
by antonio spadaro
fordham, 160 pages, $24

The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives
by eric schmidt and jared cohen
random house, 368 pages, $15.95

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism
by evgeny morozov
public affairs, 432 pages, $17.99
My wife and I recently decided to read some Joseph Ratzinger together. We were excited. We’d just downloaded a theology library that was searchable, interactive, beautiful, and could be used on all of our Apple devices. So we spent a good hour sitting side by side, scrolling through the many options, enthusing about all the things we could do when we decided which book to read. When we tapped the wrong tiles and slid our fingers in unintended directions, we found our way into still more amazing resources and cool capabilities. The possibilities were endless! Eventually we chose to reread Introduction to Christianity. We tapped out a plan to read the book in twelve weeks, tested to make sure everything was working, and then closed the apps, feeling both tired and restless, even a little fried. We never actually read anything. As of this writing, I’m days and days behind. Actually, I can know exactly how far behind, in days, pages, and percentiles, because the app features this really well-designed reading-progress graphic that you can just tap. Continue Reading »

Scriptural Splinters

From the May 2014 Print Edition

The Childhood of Jesusby j. m. coetzeeviking, 288 pages, $26.95 Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003, South African novelist J. M. Coetzee has long been a fierce if idiosyncratic moral voice in contemporary literary circles. In the 1970s and 1980s, his essays and fiction regularly took withering aim at . . . . Continue Reading »

Faith in Fiction

From the Aug/Sept 2013 Print Edition

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I . . . . Continue Reading »

Thoroughly Modern Mary

From the March 2013 Print Edition

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín Scribner, 81 pages, $19.99 All told, Mary utters only two hundred words in the Bible. We hear from her three times in Luke, at the Annunciation and the Visitation, and when she remonstrates with the twelve-year-old Jesus after he has gone missing in . . . . Continue Reading »