Monday, December 31, 2007

Vehige: Best Short Story Collection of 2007: James Van Pelt's Strangers and Beggars

Strangers and Beggars by James Van Pelt was the best short-story collection I read this year.

Van Pelt is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer who's known for both his short fiction as well as for his remarkable work ethic: Since September 1999, he's written at least 200 words a day without missing one day. Amazing! At any rate, I heard of James Van Pelt last spring because of his writing habits (all aspiring writers think there's a trick to it beyond putting one's butt in a chair and writing), found his blog, liked what I read, bought Strangers and Beggars, and let it sit on my shelf for almost four months before reading it.

It blew me away. James Van Pelt writes the kind of speculative fiction I like to read -- character driven and optimistic. I don't know Van Pelt's religious background; when it comes to art, one's religion rarely matters. From what I've read, James Van Pelt is writing some of the best "Catholic" speculative fiction insofar that most of these stories all contain moments of grace. His stories fulfill Flannery O'Connor's fundamental rule for drama: Damnation is a real possibility. Van Pelt reminds us that in the midst of damnation, there is a way to salvation. As Bruce Holland Rogers says in the book's Introduction, Van Pelt's stories are "about emerging from the darkness." This poor world of ours could use more stories like these.

For those who will buy this book based on what I've said, here is a list of my favorite stories: Finding Orson (a contemporary fantasy about self discovery), Nor a Lender Be (a SF story about teaching), Happy Ending (for pulling off a literary stunt without sacrificing the story), The Diorama (another contemporary fantasy, about escaping hate and finding hope, perhaps the best of the lot), Eight Words (a ghost story that works!), and The Comeback (because is a SF story about baseball -- what's not to love?).

But those stories are my favorite from this collection. As a whole, Stranger and Beggars is now one of my all-time favorite collections of short fiction.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Woodward: The Feast of St. Thomas Becket

In honor of his feast day, my children and I tonight watched Becket, the curious film adaptation of Jean Anouilh's curious play about the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury. It's a movie that I always try hard to like and sometimes succeed in liking -- at least in part. Anouilh's play, and Edward Anhalt's screenplay based on it, do a fine job of depicting the emotional ebbs and flows of an intense and troubled friendship. They don't do nearly so good a job of portraying the inner life of a saint -- much less the fascinating story of how a sinner becomes a saint. Perhaps we shouldn't judge that failure too harshly. I can't think of a single example of a dramatist or novelist who has told such a story well.

The movie is pretty to look at, the two leads (Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton) have a heck of a good time, and we get to watch the great Donald Wolfit in one of his all-too-rare film performances. Still, as hagiography, Becket falls pretty short. If you want a more thoughtful and penetrating study of the sinner-turned-saint, Robert Hugh Benson's little book (now apparently out of print) is a better bet.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Woodward: "I Did Not Come To Bring Peace..."

"...but a sword." Or maybe a broomstick.

Here's the mainstream media's favorite kind of Christmas story:

"Robed Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests went at each other with brooms and stones inside the Church of the Nativity on Thursday as long-standing rivalries erupted in violence during holiday cleaning."

Just the kind of publicity Christianity needs. The night before I came across this Associated Press item, I had been reading the "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This passage from that document especially echoed in my ears:

"In transmitting the Gospel, word and witness of life go together. Above all, the witness of holiness is necessary, if the light of truth is to reach all human beings. If the word is contradicted by behaviour, its acceptance will be difficult."

No kidding. I'm pretty sure that almost all of us fall short in the "witness of holiness" category; I freely confess that I do. (If it were only "word" and not "witness," I'd be fine.) Then again, we should all be grateful that our individual failures in transmitting the "light of truth" don't usually get picked up by the wire services.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Woodward: Another Christmas Poem

The poem I posted yesterday was written by a world-famous atheist. (World-famous atheists aren't what they used to be, are they?)

Today's is by a world-famous Christian -- ultimately a world-famous Catholic but, at the time he wrote this, a moderately famous Anglican.

A Christmas Carol
by G. K. Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Woodward: Christmas Eve

Off to midnight Mass, which always makes me think of this -- one of my two favorite Christmas poems. (I'll post my other favorite tomorrow.)

The Oxen
by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Vehige: Best Novel of 2007

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, without a doubt. Before you go off thinking that I'm an Oprah fan, I first heard of this book on Amy Welborn's blog, Charlotte Was Both. That didn't set me out to buy it right away, but it sounded good. While on vacation over Thanksgiving, realizing that I'd forgotten to pack any fiction, I ended up buying it while we were picking up some odds and ends at Wal-Mart. It's a story of the building of a cathedral in England, set during the period between the death of King Henry I and the rise of King Henry II, and it's about the men and women -- the kings, bishops, monks, earls, and rubes -- who are involved in constructing this fantastic building. The characters are wonderful, and Pillars possesses the most despicable and hated fictional villain I've ever had the pleasure of encountering. If there's a problem with the novel, it's this: Follett puts too many modern sensibilities in his medieval setting. But it's a problem I overlook; it is, after all, the same problem you find in movies like Braveheart and 300. For some, that statement will be enough for them to avoid reading The Pillars of the Earth. But others -- for those who understand that stories, even historical ones, are more akin to mythology than history -- will find The Pillars of the Earth to be a remarkable novel.