I’m working on a longer piece about Marilynne Robinson and faith and my love of Housekeeping that I hope will be out soon! In the meantime, some thoughts on Robinson’s essay collection due out February 20:
Robinson’s essays are less concerned with religious community or any particular theology (though they are densely theological) and more with the ways in which ignoring the sacred, reducing what she calls Being to misapplied maxims of economics or evolution denies us of an, or she would say the, essential humanity. She refers to reductive interpretations of Freudian psychology, Eugenics, and moral capitalism as “horrible children of half-baked science.” One of the central ideas running throughout Robinson’s essays is that we’ve foolishly allowed a belief in markets to replace morality. Referring to the popular references to “cost-benefit analysis,” in the collection’s first essay, she writes that “[w]e accept the legitimacy of economic theory that overrides our declared values,” and that by this measure the Left and the Right are equally to blame in our collective move away from a moral society. “The left does not understand the thinking of the right because it is standing too close to have a clear view of it,” she writes in the preface.
It’s hard to admit that I was afraid to read Between the World and Me. When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay was published in 2015 I’d heard Coates on Where We Live that spring and by the time a friend in my bookclub suggested we read Between the World and Me that fall, I stiffened at the possibility of feeling responsible for the racism, violence, and oppression I’d been so horrified to watch unfolding in the news all summer. One of the things that made me feel nervous and scared was Coates’s claim that trying to become “a little bit more enlightened” was not enough. If that wasn’t enough then what could I do?
On a personal level, the biggest change since 2015 is that I have a son. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother to a son, what it means to raise a young man in America in 2018, and part of that means confronting questions about race. (To be clear, this is part of being a citizen of the United States in 2018, not just a mother or a mother of a son.)
Anyway, I listened to Coates read the book. The writing is beautiful, the argument at times uncomfortable (at least for well-intentioned white women like me), That’s the a point of reading, though. I’m trying to read more things that make me uncomfortable because that’s something it’s easy to stop doing once you’re reading in the wild and have the freedom to engage selectively.
I pre-ordered Fire Sermon after reading Nick Ripatrazone’s interview with Jamie Quatro at LitHub. I’d read Quatro’s short stories after meeting her at Sewanee several years ago and loved her intensely honest writing about running, love, and faith.
The writing in Fire Sermon is similarly intense, but because it’s a novel (even though it’s non-linear and narrated through journal entries, letters, sermons) I felt a little claustrophobic with the intimacy of the language and the story itself. I loved the structure, though, and felt English-teacher-affirmation when I saw the acknowledgement of Virginia Woolf’s influence. There are chapters that describe Maggie and Thomas’s house aging in a way that reminded me so much of To the Lighthouse.
The concept of passion (even adulterous passion) being spiritual was fascinating, strange, and uncomfortable to consider, but I’m trying to read more things that make me uncomfortable (intellectually, emotionally, maybe even politically).
I didn’t know anything about Jesmyn Ward’s novel except that it won the National Book Award. I’d heard her read parts of Salvage the Bones (which also won the National Book Award) on NPR and really liked both the writing and the interview with her that preceded it.
If I were still teaching, I’d be asking for a class set of Sing, Unburied, Sing and trying to figure a way to pair it with As I Lay Dying and/or Beloved. The writing was so, so good. I find haunting and ghosts endlessly fascinating both metaphorically in literature and in a more literal way. I’m trying to read fiction with a mind toward revising my own novel (which, like Ward’s novel is told through multiple perspectives). I read ravenously and urgently because there was something at stake (I was really worried about a toddler girl’s health, but there are also other long-term disasters looming on the horizon). I read so fast that I know I missed some of what Ward was doing with allusion, song, history, and language.