Open Letters Monthly: The February 2014 Issue!

It’s up! Go read it!

SaccoNovo1In case you need more detailed encouragement, here are some highlights:

One of my favourite contributors, Joanna Scutts, is back with a wonderful piece on Joe Sacco’s The Great War, which is a remarkable-sounding panoramic drawing of the first day of the Battle of the Somme inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry:

Unlike other drawings of the war, like Otto Dix’s Der Krieg cycle, the horror isn’t etched on the faces of men in pain; few expressions are visible, and we never get closer. Nor is it in the depiction of the explosions, which are delicately rendered, pointilliste swirls: artillery bombardment by Hokusai or Seurat. You just keep folding over the accordion pages, and gradually the battlefield becomes a casualty clearing station, the Red Cross wagons waiting, a white flag waving from a broken tree branch. And further on, past the walking wounded and the hospital tents and the lines of men on stretchers, there’s the end of the line—new trenches being dug, for bodies this time, and crosses nailed in. One gravedigger pauses with his arm across his face, exhausted by the heat or the horror. In the background a column of ants: innumerable new troops marching to the line in a loop that leads back to the beginning.

Steve Donoghue continues his series on the Tudors with Chris Skidmore’s The Rise of the Tudors; as usual he has as much fun (and does as good a job) telling us the story as telling us about the book under review:

According to a legend that’s too pleasing to be disbelieved, that story had its beginning in a moment of lust. Catherine of Valois, the pretty young widow of England’s King Henry V and mother of his son Henry VI, was living in the confines of Windsor Castle (as Skidmore points out, this in itself was cause for worry among the peers of the realm, since Catherine was young and strong-willed and kept calling herself Queen – English society hadn’t seen a setup like that in two centuries and didn’t quite know what to do with it) when she happened to glimpse a minor court functionary, Owen Tudor, swimming in the river with some friends, his long auburn hair plastered wet across his back. The girl was instantly smitten, and in due course there were Tudor children by the half-dozen, including two strapping sons, Edmund and Jasper, whose half-brother Henry VI gave them both rapid preferment at Court.

Ivan Keneally writes on Flannery O’ Connor’s A Prayer Journal:

O’Connor notes that the principal purpose of the letters is to express “adoration” for God, but much of their substance swings from distressed supplication to self-effacing confession. She sometimes prayed for guidance in prayer itself, to learn to love and draw near to a personal being who resists full comprehension. She seems to grope for a more visceral commitment and for the courage to surrender herself to God in a way that inspires rather than constrains her artistic creativity and rational powers; she pines to be “intelligently holy,” anticipating a preoccupation she would revisit ten years later in her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” (1957), which investigates “what effect Catholic dogma has on the fiction writer who is Catholic.” She hungers for a beatitude that nurtures her creativity, not doctrinal shackles that constrain it. She even entreats God to supply her with a surfeit of inspiration, going as far as to describe the divine as the epiphanic source of her creative output, reducing herself to a mere vessel of God’s will:

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.

Greg Waldmann scrutinizes Andrew Sullivan’s I Was Wrong:

Viewers of The Dish today may find it hard to believe that this is the same person they read every day. (In fact, several have written to say they considered cancelling their subscriptions after they read I Was Wrong.) Today Sullivan is skeptical of intervention abroad, and generally wary of extreme political speech at home. But more than that, he – along with his staff – have fashioned The Dish into an almost bewildering cacophony of voices on the issues of the moment, and reserved its weekends for posts about and links to ruminations on philosophical, social and spiritual issues. It has become what he recently called “a very rare place online that takes some time in the week to gather and air the best ideas, arguments, insights in online writing about literature, love, death, philosophy, faith, art, atheism, and sexuality.” It is the most consistently interesting site on the web, and one of the more fair-minded as well. Iraq is at the heart of this transformation, but there are other reasons which this narrowly-focused e-book understandably leaves out.

 And the editors all pitched in to help you find the perfect verse for your Valentine. I like my own choices, of course (I have heard students mock those lines of Aurora Leigh, but I simply pity them for not appreciating the wonderful convergence of erotic ecstasy and prosody) — but of the others, I especially like Colleen’s contribution, by the 11th-century “poetess-courtezan” Izumi Shikibu:

It would console me
to see your face,
even fleetingly, between
lightning flashes at dusk


Also included: my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. Long-time readers of this blog will know I’ve been lying in wait for this book ever since Mead’s New Yorker essay appeared three years ago. I use that predatory metaphor deliberately but also ironically, because by the time the book was officially announced as ‘forthcoming’ I was already less inclined to pounce. Though I stand by my New Yorker critique as an honest and rigorous reflection of my priorities for writing about Middlemarch, I have learned — from the comments on that post and from the evolution of my own thinking — to be (somewhat) more open-minded about how other people choose to write about it (or what they want to read about it).

This doesn’t mean that everything has changed! As I say in my review, I began the book feeling pretty skeptical. But how pleasantly surprised I was! As I say in the review, “Mead won me over.” And I do think it’s not just that the book is “more expansive than the New Yorker essay . . . better balanced, more thought-provoking, and, unexpectedly, more self-effacing.” It’s that I feel more positive and less defensive myself. Most importantly, I have done a lot more of my own non-academic writing about George Eliot since 2011, but  I have also come to feel more connected to a greater variety of conversations about books, not just through my blog but through the people I now know on Twitter (full disclosure: including Mead herself). I can see now, too, that it’s a good thing that Mead hasn’t written same kind of book I want to write. If she did, after all, there wouldn’t be any need for my book! I admit that amidst the flurry of publicity and praise for her book, I am finding it harder to hang on to my ideas about what my book should be, and especially to imagine what the audience for it would be, if her kind of book is the kind of book so many people like. But, putting my own selfish preoccupations aside (which is what Middlemarch teaches, after all), I can say that hers is a lovely book of its kind. I think my review is scrupulous, and I know it to be completely sincere:

What My Life in Middlemarch ultimately offered me — what I cherished about it — was its celebration of the continuities as well as the changes that mark our growing into ourselves, and of the special role books so often have in this process as tangible symbols of who we have been, are, and aspire to be. “Most serious readers,” Mead rightly notes, “can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one Middlemarch has in mine. I chose Middlemarch — or Middlemarch chose me — and I cannot imagine life without it.”

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