Pulitzer Prize Good News

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded last Thursday to Kazuo Ishiguro, which is good news. Ishiguro writes literary novels that defy genre boundaries and garner popular appeal.

Here’s the New York Times online story about the award. And here’s a Times 2015 interview with Ishiguro that explores his reading opinions and related reflections. A former editor, Robert McCrum, muses about his friendship with Ishiguro in this piece. And James Wood, of the New Yorker, gives his take here.

If you want to dip into the award-winning literature of Kazuo Ishiguro, be prepared for the unexpected. You may want to start with The Remains of the Day, his portrayal of a dignified butler on an introspective journey at the fading of his days.

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Reading Recommendations

sunsetAfter a recent speaking engagement, I was asked for some book recommendations. Having expended a great deal of mental energy into the talks I’d just given, I felt a little brain dead and came up with only a few favorites. I did recall and mention, however, this earlier post that includes a variety of nonfiction related to literature as well as some fiction (both CBA and literary). That earlier post also talks about starting a book club.

Because I wrote that post several years ago, it’s definitely time for an update.  I also need to clarify something I said in front of the group. I spoke about finding one of Lynn Austin‘s books particularly meaningful when it described the struggle of Dutch settlers, and I’m pretty sure I gave an incorrect title. The book I was referring to is Waves of Mercy. But if you picked up Wings of Refuge, you’re also enjoy reading about how a woman’s archaeological adventure leads to a new understanding of the Middle East and her marriage. Lynn is a humble, godly woman who reminds me of Elisabeth Elliot.

Another favorite author in the Christian fiction genre is Ann Tatlock. In Every Secret Thing, a teacher learns how to cope with the present when she learns how to deal with the past. I’ll Watch the Moon is about a girl’s growing maturity while her brother is hospitalized with polio.

Jeanette Windle grew up as a missionary kid and spent many adult years in missionary contexts in foreign countries. This real life experience lends verisimilitude to her suspenseful books, and her painstaking research results in such remarkably accurate descriptions that she has been questioned by drug enforcement agencies about how she knew so much about their work.

I haven’t read any of the Amish novels written by Dale Cramer, but I enjoy the blue-collar male protagonists in some of his other books. One of my favorites is his Bad Ground, which is a coming of age novel with a young man who learns about work and relationships. His Summer of Light is a delightful novel about an unemployed husband and father who discovers a lot about himself and his family.

When it comes to literary fiction, the first name that comes to mind is Larry Woiwode. I had the privilege of participating in a week-long fiction workshop under his direction a few years ago (you can find my posts about that here, here, here, here, and here). Larry’s published works include novels, a memoir, and helpful books on writing.

Another literary author is Wendell Berry, creator of novels set in the fictitious town of Port William, Kentucky. His Hannah Coulter is a realistic portrayal of a woman’s long and difficult life.

Bret Lott has written many literary novels as well as an excellent book on writing, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.

Charles Martin is a fresh voice who skillfully constructs his plots in a way that keeps the reader guessing. I love When Crickets Cry, and I’m pretty excited to see the movie based on his The Mountain Between Us. 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite novels. I love its imagery and mystery. I’m not a huge fan of her other fiction, but this one shines with luminous writing.

Island of the World by Michael O’Brien is a beautiful and tragic book about great loss with healing through faith. This is a difficult book to read, but one that shows redemption through Christ.

To Kill a Mickingbird by Harper Lee may be my favorite American novel. I also enjoy several Victorian authors, especially Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope.

I hope you find these reading recommendations helpful. Feel free to leave a comment. If you’re interested in my work, hop over to my new author page on Facebook and comment there.

Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer

Image from sigmundbrouwer.com

Does the concept of popular literature seem like an oxymoron? Can a book sell well in today’s pop culture, while still displaying a high degree of literary quality?

The answer is a resounding: Yes! This week I read a newly released book by prolific author Sigmund Brouwer that evidences excellent literary quality and is sure to skyrocket off the sales charts.

Thief of Glory engages the reader from its gripping beginning to its satisfying end, barely allowing anything beyond shallow breathing during the riveting middle. The narrative is written from the perspective of an elderly man forced to record his childhood memories of WW II years spent in a Japanese concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies. He begins with a paragraph that sings:

A banyan tree begins when its seeds germinate in the crevices of a host tree. It sends to the ground tendrils that become prop roots with enough room for children to crawl beneath, prop roots that grow into thick, woody trunks and make it look like the tree is standing above the ground. The roots, given time, look no different than the tree it has begun to strangle. Eventually, when the original support tree dies and rots, the banyan develops a hollow central core (Thief of Glory, p. 1).

That’s lovely writing, but the reader finishing the story realizes how masterfully Brouwer crafted those opening lines.

I’ve written a book review that I hope will appear in an upcoming issue of Christian Renewaland which I intend to post here after publication. But I wanted to mention this novel now and encourage all writers to read it. After I read an extremely well-written book, I often shut it and think, “I may as well give up writing altogether.”

I felt a bit of this when I finished Thief of Glory, but primarily it encouraged me that Christians can write stellar books for popular consumption. Books that shine with literary quality while subtlety conveying faith and truth.

Sigmund Brouwer excels at writing for the popular market. For more information about him, check out his about page on his website or look up his Amazon author page.

Wolterstorff’s expanded view on the arts: Practical activity, meaningful memory, and intrinsic worth

Dr. Wolterstorff, image found at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture page of the University of Virginia website.

In 1987, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote Art in Action, promoting practical application of art in contrast to the prevailing view of purely aesthetic contemplation. Rather than keeping art cloistered within the walls of elitist museums and exclusive galleries, Wolterstorff advocated putting art into action to elevate urban areas and ennoble private homes.

The book caused some controversy, but it also fueled the creative fires of artists who strive to enrich human lives and glorify the divine. It became such a seminal work that the International Arts Movement (IAM) chose “Art in Action” as the title for its 2009 conference, at which Wolterstorff was invited to speak.

A video of that speech is available on IAM’s website. It was fascinating to hear Wolterstorff express his views on the subject more than twenty years after the publication of his book.

While acknowledging existing criticism of the book, he said he still stands by his original premise about the need to live and act artistically. He revealed he’s had some new thoughts since writing the book, especially two additional ways he thinks about art.

Wolterstorff reiterated his belief that “an enormous amount of art” ennobles or elevates work or common experiences, making them less painful or boring. “How impoverished our lives would be if they weren’t ennobled in this way!”

He then related how two epiphanies have expanded his view. The first related to memorial art, and he cited the example of people viewing the Vietnam Memorial. “Aesthetical contemplation is not the point.” He described their active participation. “They descend into this gash in the earth. They touch the wall. They cry.”

He remarked how this participatory experience contrasts with museums’ usual rule: Don’t touch.

“Philosophers have had nothing to say about memorial art,” he admitted. He sees it as art created for “the effect of keeping alive memory.”

Wolterstorff believes memorial art is more than effectiveness. It also reflects an “intuitive sense that only art befits the worth of the person or event remembered.”

In connection with memorial art, he spoke about how great artists honored the birth and crucifixion of Christ. He also related how he and his wife had commissioned a requiem in honor of his son’s death in a mountain-climbing accident. (Their personal grief is recounted vividly in his Lament for a Son.)

Wolterstorff’s second epiphany occurred when he attended a poet reading and workshop. The poet often illustrated points by showing earlier versions and final drafts, explaining his changes by saying simply, “Because that made it a better poem.”

What struck Wolterstorff was that the poet didn’t say, “Because I liked it better” or “Because I thought it would give my readers greater aesthetic pleasure.”

This generated a revelation about art as something of intrinsic worth, a good thing of its kind.

“That’s what I and all my fellow philosophers, I think, had been overlooking,” he said. “And that’s why my critics felt uneasy with Art in Action. Yes, art ennobles what we do. I shall continue to defend that thesis with vigor. Yes, sometimes only art befits the worth of what we want to accomplish. And I shall continue to defend that thesis with vigor.”

“But what also happens in the arts, I submit, is that the artist produces a painting, a sculpture, a work of music, a poem, a play, a dance that is of intrinsic worth. Not just something of instrumental worth, of intrinsic worth. Something that increases the world’s stock of what is intrinsically good.”

“Engaging art differs from the other kind of art I’m talking about,” he said. “It does not accomplish something. It does not have worth because it gives delight upon attending to it; it’s the other way around. The worth and delight of attending to it lies in the fact that, doing this, we’re putting ourselves in touch with something of intrinsic worth.”

“The appropriate response to the gift is love,” he said. “One form being drawn to something on account of its worth, of relishing in it, reveling in it. That’s the form of love Augustine thought we ought to have for God.”

Wolterstorff offered three concluding comments:

1. “I find it nothing short of astonishing that intrinsically good paintings, sculptures, poems, dances and so forth, should be so incredibly diverse.”

2. “God as Creator makes things of intrinsic worth…you and me, tigers, hawks, butterflies…so the artist in creating things of intrinsic worth is like unto God. Artistic creation is one aspect of bearing the image of God.” At this point, he warned about the danger of idolatry, which some artists have succumbed to.

3. “I think we have to see these creations of intrinsic worth as radiations of God’s good, sort of the rays coming out from God, as it were.”

“Humanity longs to be part of a great story, but it needs great storytellers to point the way,” he said. “Humanity needs artists, and yes, artists need humanity.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 42 & 43 of the March 5, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.

Christmas and the Arts

Bartolome Murillo – The Adoration of the Shepherds (from Wikipedia Commons – image in public domain because its copyright has expired)

During the Christmas season, Reformed Christians enjoy the beauty of the arts more than any other time of year. They decorate their homes with artistic wreaths, creative decorations, fragrant greenery, and nativity sets. They listen to Handel’s Messiah and tap their toes to its rousing Hallelujah Chorus. Many use their God-given talents to craft attractive gifts.

The primary way Reformed Christians celebrate Christmas is in worship. They gather with other believers to praise and pray, but especially to hear the gospel proclamation of the incarnation, the mystery and beauty of God who became a man.

Worship is one thing Reformed Christians do very well. They also do church music well. Many familiar hymns are arrangements of great classical music, and much choir music weaves beautiful melodies with biblical words. While Christmas anthems fill our ears with aesthetic tunes, they thrill our hearts with inspiring truths.

Reformed Christians do many things well. But we—and evangelical Christians in general—sometimes lack experience in fostering appreciation for fine poetry, excellent literature, or engaging art. Frankly, believers from high church traditions often have a more comprehensive understanding of the arts. But shouldn’t a biblical believer acknowledge God’s sovereignty over every area of life, including the fine arts?

At Christmas, we easily integrate our faith with beauty. In coming issues, the Lord willing, we’ll explore more about embracing artistic endeavors and the Christian artist’s responsibility to produce art that is true, lovely, admirable, or excellent. All to the glory of God, who became a man in the greatest revelation of beauty and mystery.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 54 of the December 11, 2013, issue of Christian Renewal.

Lit! An elliptical book review

You say you’re not a reader? Readers are made, not born. Like anything else, we learn to do it through practice. You read a lot or you want to read more, but you feel like you need direction? Look to the light of Lit! by Tony Reinke.

The title is a clever play on words that intentionally conveys Reinke’s basic premise: appreciation for good literature, which reflects the Creator’s glory, shines in the flood lamp of a biblical worldview. Now don’t roll your eyes and click away, dismissing Lit! as a boring theological tome. It’s title also shows this is a short, easy read that engages and challenges.

I may have heard first about this book from Tim Challies, perhaps in a Facebook status update, but I’m not sure how I came across it. Tim has written at least three posts mentioning the book, and gives 5 reasons to read it. And The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog features an interesting interview with Tony Reinke.

In any case, I purchased Lit! several months ago and sent it to my husband’s Kindle, but didn’t find time to read it until this month. That’s when I began reading Kindle books in bite-sized pieces as a way to force myself onto a newly-acquired used (and very old) elliptical. Lit! has short, easily-digested chapters that lend themselves well to these brief elliptical reading episodes.

Reinke doesn’t write like a theologian, but he writes from a solid biblical foundation. He doesn’t write like a professor, but he writes about literature from a broad liberal (in the academic sense) perspective. Reinke writes like a regular guy who comes up with unique phrases.

Take this hook from his introduction, for instance:

Perhaps you love to read. You get the same feeling from a new stack of books as you get from looking at a warm stack of glazed donuts. Maybe not. For most, reading a book is like trying to drink down a huge vitamin. You know you need to read—you’ll be healthier for it—but everything within you refuses to swallow! (p. 15)

Or this gem as he describes different bookstore experiences:

My hanging head notices an eight-hundred-page Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book cover is beautifully designed, the book was translated into English with great care (according to a friend of mine), and the novel is reasonably priced. My eye has caught the spine of this book many times before, and I’ve nearly purchased it on several of my frequent trips to the bookstore. But it’s also a very thick book that asks me for a serious commitment. And I’m already married! (p. 22)

Reading Lit! is almost an interactive experience. It’s like sitting across the coffee shop table from Reinke as he sips a hot latte and punctuates his sentences with expressive waves. When he dropped the names of old friends Anne Bradstreet, Leland Ryken, and Larry Woiwode, I actually spoke aloud: “Ah!”—which is elliptical shortspeech for, “Oh, you know him (her) too?”

The first part of the book presents a theology of books and reading. Reinke lays a scriptural and historical foundation before he recounts how personal sin and the gospel shape literacy. He then talks about developing a biblical worldview in an “Eye-Candy” culture.

Chapters 5 & 6 conclude his first section and contain the information I found most valuable. “The Giver’s Voice” presents seven accessible arguments for reading non-Christian books with discernment. Reinke writes, “As book readers, we are mistaken when we categorically reject non-Christian books. And we are mistaken when we read non-Christian literature uncritically” (p. 77). He reflects on John Calvin’s wisdom in this area, finding his model “generous, cautious, and sobering” (p. 77).

In his chapter, “The God Who Slays Dragons,” Reinke speaks about “The Purifying Power of Christian Imagination”:

The imagination is a God-given ability to receive truth and meaning. In an essay, C. S. Lewis wrote, “For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Using fantasy in literature does not make a story fictitious; it’s often a more forceful way to communicate truth” (p. 87).

Fiction writers strive to write what’s true. While that may seem an oxymoron to some, discerning readers understand that truth shines bright in the best fiction.

The second part of Lit! gives practical advice on book reading, all of which can be implemented easily. Although I still cringe at his advice to write in your books. I understand the logic and wisdom behind his argument, but I haven’t quite summoned the strength to jump over my defacement hurdle. Maybe if I work out a little longer on the elliptical.

If you’re looking for a quick but thought-provoking read about reading, pick up Reinke’s Lit! And see the light.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes is on:

Lit! © 2011 by Tony S. Reinke
Published by Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois
186 pages

Telling the story eclipses intention and audience

hills

Compressing everything I learned during my intensive Glen West workshop into brief blog posts seems impossible. But I can give you a taste through small samples.

Last Friday, I focused on the first day and wrote about beginning to write by writing. Two of the many literary terms we discussed on subsequent workshop days were intention and audience.

Our workshop leader Larry Woiwode didn’t seem particularly keen on the concept of authorial intention. “The critic never knows the writer’s intention,” he said. “The only person who can know your intention is God. Saying you know the intention of the author is promoting yourself.” He added, “Write to tell a story, not to convey intention.”

He wasn’t a big fan of writing for a particular audience either. “Don’t worry about who you’re writing for,” he said. “Do the best you can and it will find the audience.”

Do you see a pattern? Woiwode stressed expending your best effort in telling your story. “Tell the story properly,” he urged. “Do the best you can.” He described a well-written story as one that “has dimension under it,” saying, “We feel underneath it the thought that conceived it, compressed it.” He spoke of “the story beyond the story,” which “you want the reader to think about for the next week.”

I believe it’s accurate to say that, for Woiwode, story-telling trumps intention and audience.

Literature or fiction?

man on shelvesLately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a novel rise above the level of merely well-written fiction to become a literary work.

A novel can consist of technically flawless writing, but be as bland as a piece of white toast. So it must tell a good story. It’s also true that a novel can convey an engaging story in a mechanically accurate manner without the writing rising to a high literary quality. So the writing must surpass grammatical accuracy and correct construction to demonstrate literary skill. But literary skill does not consist of simply inserting techniques like simile and metaphor. Some of the worst writing I’ve read abounds with vivid and original similes. Literary techniques are counter-productive, however, when they become obvious and distract the reader.

I know a good book when I read one. And reading great literature is probably the best way to begin recognizing good literature. But I want to go much further in learning how to recognize and write literary work. Is this a skill that can be taught or is it simply intuitive?

Recently I’ve participated in some interesting chats on literary subjects, but I’d like to expand the conversation. Would you like to weigh in? What aspects do you believe lift writing to a literary level? Feel free to comment.

The Glen West experience

Sunrise over St. John's College in Santa Fe
Sunrise over St. John’s College in Santa Fe

How would you like to spend several days participating in a productive workshop and living within a creative community? Attend Glen West!

Many years ago, Gideon Strauss and I chatted about Christianity and culture. I was writing a series of articles for Christian Renewal on Christians in the arts, and he’s passionate about promoting art and leadership excellence to influence culture. I lamented my lack of community with other writers who want to produce work of excellent literary quality that would interest mainstream publishers. Gideon said, “Many of my writing friends recommend the Glen.”

In the intervening seven years, I researched the Glen Workshop, subscribed to Image journal, and read each Image/Update email newsletter. Every year I studied the listings of workshops and instructors, longing to attend, but for many different reasons it didn’t work out. Last fall, I saw the instructor for this year’s fiction class at Glen West would be Larry Woiwode.  I was familiar with Woiwode’s work and had interviewed him for my earlier series. I knew it was my time.

cloudsGlen West daily exceeded my expectations. The workshop, worship, community, and setting combined to create a memorable and priceless experience.

Larry Woiwode led the workshop with a laid-back style that complemented his organizational preparation and productive instruction. Our group consisted of 15 unique individuals from widely divergent backgrounds and at differing writing stages, ranging from college to retirement age, but each one was a competent writer who brought insight to the discussion. Meeting the other writers brought greater appreciation for their work, and working together developed a stimulating group dynamic.

Evening worship set an almost sacramental seal to the close of the day as we quietly and reverently focused on the Creator who bestows creativity.

hillsGlen West’s community is incredible. Even longtime attendees are warm and welcoming to newcomers. A sense of underlying creative energy is palpable.

It’s difficult for me to determine how much of this energy comes from workshop, worship, community, or setting. I believe it’s a combination of all the above. Certainly setting plays a significant role.

Santa Fe means “Holy Faith.” Native Americans valued the area as a sacred location, and Spanish missions brought Christianity in the early 1600s. Today hundreds of artists live and work in Santa Fe, whose streets are lined with art galleries. At 7000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe’s rare air is crisp and fragrant with pine, pinion, and sage. Striking clouds tower in the intense sky above green-dotted brown hills and layered blue mountains. At night familiar constellations appear lower and closer.

A star shines as St. John's bell tower is silhouetted at dusk
A star shines as St. John’s bell tower is silhouetted at dusk

The Glen West experience was a series of meaningful events, each of which I’d have liked to take time to process, but came one on top of the other to produce a cumulative emotional impact. Think summer Bible camp on steroids. Image Journal proclaims: Art, Faith, Mystery. At Glen West, those theoretical aspects became experiential realities.

Literary lyrics

Jewel-cAny regular reader of this blog knows that I love psalms. I love reading and meditating on them. And I love singing them in worship. But I also like singing hymns during the service, especially when they tie in well with the sermon and focus the mind on the divine.

Hymns often duplicate the message of many psalms: Life is hard, but this life is not all there is. And God is great and good.

Noticing little literary touches increases my appreciation for hymns. Although the hymn, “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” includes many personal pronouns, I like its reiteration of commitment to Christ now and into the future, including our heavenly home. And I love the assonance in the final stanza: “I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow: If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.” Notice the short “i” sounds in “sing” and “glittering”? And the similar vowel sounds in “crown” and “brow”? Such literary techniques increase my worship experience with appreciation for the hymn writer, but primarily with awe for the Lord. He created people with an emotional component. He generates within their hearts and minds a love for himself and his beauty reflected throughout creation. And he leads people to express that love for beauty in their work and artistic endeavors.

I love literary lyrics, not because they make me praise the creator, but because they lead me to praise the Creator.