Friday, April 25, 2008

Missing the Guardian Review

It seems that sometimes when people have gotten used to reading a certain newspaper or publication, and they switch to another one, they find all kinds of reasons why it's not as good as the first - it doesn't have as much material, it has a less appealing lay-out, it doesn't have as nice pictures, it doesn't have their personal favorite series, and so on. True to form, since we've moved from England to the States, I have tried to switch from the Saturday Guardian to the Sunday New York Times, and have found that the Sunday New York Times - specifically the book review section - doesn't have as much material, has a less appealing lay-out, doesn't have as nice pictures, and doesn't have a series on writers' rooms!

Maybe I'll get used to it later. But for now, I am going to ask for an overseas subscription to the Saturday Guardian Review for my birthday. Then I can get that weekend feeling by settling down with the Review, coffee ... and maybe ... a donut.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When the blood creeps (Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me")

A final post on Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me. As you can tell the book troubled me - in a good way. O'Hagan chose to use one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poems as an epigraph, and the first time I read it I had to read through it twice.
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
It is taken from the collection "In Memoriam A.H.H."
I think it's both beautiful and haunting, even eerie. Hilary Mantel used the phrase "the heart is sick" from this poem as the title of her review of Be Near Me in the Guardian, whether alluding to Father David or to the villagers who surround him, I am not sure. But the repetition of the phrase "Be near me" in the poem sounds as if the author is also able to imagine and accept consolation in the midst of this heart-sickness.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Father David (Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me")

I think I might have been too hard on Father David in my last post. The reason that I decided to read Be Near Me in the first place was because I read Andrew O'Hagan's "In truth" in the Guardian - his reflection on one of the moments that led to the character of Father David:
I was alone in a cafe near the Rue Balzac when the first seeds of Be Near Me were planted. [...] I remember noticing a grey-haired priest who was sitting alone at a table beneath the window. He stared at his hands and after a while he stirred his coffee and a tear rolled down his cheek.
That's all he says about the memory. But it was enough to make me interested.

O'Hagan says that he imagines Father David's voice to have about it "something both wise and deluded at the same time," which I found to be true, and also that Father David's narration "may animate a true moral drama in the mind of a sensitive reader."

I did find that I was continuously slightly confused, while reading, about whether I liked Father David or not. O'Hagan is adamant that a character does not need to be likeable, but I think in this instance it goes back to his point about a moral drama. Father David wishes to give a full account of himself. I was confused about whether I liked him or not because I could not quite decide how immoral it was for him to harbour such illusions about himself - and, by implication, how immoral all of our life illusions are in general... Towards the end of the book, though, I was intensely concerned for him when it became unclear how his story would finally end - and whether, with his growing awareness of some of his delusions, he would decide to live or die.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Room for life, stifling life (Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" and Andrew O'Hagan's "Be Near Me")

I have been thinking about the difference between Gilead and Be Near Me. I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson a bit over a year ago, and I loved the picture she slowly paints of an old preacher in a little town, Gilead, in Iowa. He is looking back over his life. I remember that one of the things that struck me was how much room there was in the book for imperfection. The old preacher, John Ames, does not try to present a particularly rosy view of his past, but yet as he reflects on his family history and on God and on random, everyday observations, it feels like he brings things to life.

Andrew O'Hagan's priest in Be Near Me, Father David, is quite different. He takes up the post as Catholic priest in a small town in Scotland for a year, and during that year finds himself increasingly drawn to the rowdiness and disorderliness of some teenagers. He starts hanging out with them. As he tells the story of that year, and brings in moments from his past, it becomes increasingly clear what is going to happen. It also feels very sad, as Father David (and the reader) slowly becomes aware of how hollow his faith is.

Both books deal with love. Marilynne Robinson has given her character a young wife and son to love, and this in some way redeems the memories of previous times when he walked through the night-time streets of Gilead alone. Andrew O'Hagan, on the other hand, has given Father David in Scotland only a past love that ended too quickly. It was at that point that David escaped into the role of a priest.

Both books also deal with beauty and the things we surround ourselves with. Father David enjoys wine and rose bushes, music and books - but while these things seem beautiful at first, they gradually start to seem very empty toward the end of the book. His life charts a progression of beautiful objects, and it seems to me that O'Hagan suggests that the objects in themselves are beautiful, but that the way that Father David uses them - to define himself, as he is devoid of other meaningful definition - hollows out their beauty. John Ames on the other hand fills up his pages with moments of beauty that he enjoys, such as watching his wife and son blow soap bubbles at the cat, and the beauty in life suddenly seems to spring out of nothing, in all kinds of instances.

I have been wondering about these two priests, and the difference between them. One of them is able to create and bring life to what he observes, while the other has hollowed himself out. One draws on the church as something that fills his life and blesses its imperfections, while the other gradually comes to realize that he has used the church as an escape, a means to cut himself off from life.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Coffee cups

Before we even knew that we were going to move to Athens, GA, we were visiting and bought this coffee cup. It says THINK.

Then when we were going to move here it felt good to know that I already had something from Athens that I really liked. After we'd moved we bought another one. This one says PAUSE.

The cups are made by Rae Dunn - and I have just found out that she has a blog called Rae Dunn . . . Clay.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Down to earth (Patricia Hampl)

Once a month I go to a reading group where we talk about authors who have incorporated Christian themes and experiences into their writing. So far we've read Flannery O'Connor and Frederick Buechner, and last week it was Patricia Hampl (all from the collection "Listening for God," edited by Paula Carlson and Peter Hawkins).

The excerpt that we read from Patricia Hampl was taken from Virgin Time, a memoir in which she thinks through her Catholic upbringing and her current quest / questions. One of the things that struck me about the excerpt we read (chapter 6) was the way in which she contrasted the clouds in the sky with the more solid earth beneath it. As in her childhood encounter with one of the neighbors:
He allowed me to assist him in rooting out his dandelions [...] I introduced religion while he plunged the dandelion gadget deep into the lawn.  
No, he said, he did not go to church. "But you do believe in God?" I asked, hardly daring to hope he did not. He paused for a moment and looked up at the sky, where big, spreading clouds streamed by. "God isn't the problem," he said. 
Some ancient fissure split open, a fine crack in reality: so there was a problem. Just as I'd always felt. Beneath the family solidity, the claustrophobia of mother-father-brother-me, past the emphatic certainties of St. Luke's catechism class, there was a problem that would never go away. Mr. Bertram stood amid his dandelions, a resigned Buddha, looking up at the sky, which gave back nothing but drifting white shapes on the blue.
This is one of the first encounters in chapter 6, and it frames what follows: between the clouds in the heavens, with their elusive and insubstantial character, and the ground, with all its dandelions, solidity, and (mistrusted) certainties. The ground may be more tangible, but it is also more difficult.

In terms of space, and how Christianity relates to spaces, it is interesting to see how Hampl at the end of this chapter locates God - or religious contemplation - at ground level, rather than up above. The encounter with her neighbor is matched at the end of the chapter by an encounter with a woman whom she passes on the street every day. Patricia Hampl, as a girl, was intrigued by this woman because she looked up and smiled at her every time - "a complete smile" - and because she seemed to be praying. Nevertheless the woman "didn't look up to the blank clouds for a response," but down at the ground as she was walking.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Anthropology Matters

We have just released the latest issue of Anthropology Matters - the online anthropology journal that I am currently editing. All the articles in this issue are written by former MA students who are also dedicated youth or community workers. They use ethnography to understand what's going on around them in present-day Britain.

I think all the articles are worth reading for anyone interested in engaged anthropology, Britain under New Labour, political participation and citizenship, and youth and community work. There were two that particularly grabbed my attention because of my own interests.

First, Saffron Burley's "My dog's the champ" is the most insightful analysis of the phenomenon of young men owning "fight dogs" that I have come across - and far more thoughtful than average media portrayals. It did make me think differently about the young hoodies with stocky dogs in tow that I used to pass on the streets when I lived in North Hackney, London.

Second, Paul Hendrich's "Charting a new course for Deptford Town Hall" presents an engaged discussion of the history and current symbolism of a sculpted town hall that is now owned by Goldsmiths College (University of London), and which boasts a ship (a trading vessel? a slave ship?) as weather vane. He charts ways of responding that acknowledge the "horrible histories" of the building, but overwrite these with new associations. -- The fact that we were able to publish Paul Hendrich's article was suddenly made all the more important when I received news in January that he had tragically died when he was hit by a lorry on his bicycle. Although I don't know his wife and one-year old daughter, many warm wishes and thoughts have gone to them while I was finalizing this issue.

In addition to the contributions by Saffron Burley and Paul Hendrich, Rachel Ashcroft writes on how political participation can (and has) become de-politicized in Britain under New Labour, Helen Clark examines some examples of how youth in London have experienced such participation in practice, and Beccy Blow presents a nuanced discussion of whether one can "empower" a person with learning difficulties. And if you're interested in "folk devils," Rayen Salgado-Pottier explains what they are in her aptly entitled article, "A modern moral panic."