While My Pen Gently Weeps

6742625959_af858306f8_mMy daughter Gracie was helping me prepare dinner one evening. We were doing the bœuf bourguignon from Virginia Willis’s amazing cookbook Bon Appetit, Y’all, which puts a southern spin on every recipe—this one, by adding bacon.

As Gracie stood on her cooking stool and crisped the bacon at the stovetop, the aroma filled the kitchen and mixed with the onions I was cutting at the counter. She talked over the bacon’s hiss and sizzle about being a chef someday, quitting cross country, girls at school she liked and didn’t like, boys.

I drifted as she chattered, but snapped back to attention when she said, “And if you’re going to be a writer—”

“I am a writer,” I cut in. I wasn’t sure how we’d come to this. [Read more...]

Who Needs to Read Anymore?

High pile of hardcover booksAt the community college where I teach—actually in the state capitol two hours away—a massive overhaul of the English curriculum is underway. As I understand it right now, a diagnostic test will determine student placement, and three levels of developmental reading and writing are being added for those with low scores. Those students will be taking nine credit hours, almost two hours a day five days a week, of developmental reading and writing.

Faculty members are groaning—two retired the week the changes were announced—but what I haven’t heard is anyone saying there isn’t a problem with student proficiency. I remember the essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” in The Atlantic some years ago, in which a professor claimed many of his students were close to being functionally illiterate. [Read more...]

Hannah Graham and a Silence too Loud

hannahgrahamweb_7f64e4c639e69df5491ce7a6c6354be9It was forty degrees this morning when I got into my car. The back window was spotted white with frost. As I drove to work, a new appeal came from news that had made me heartsick for weeks. It was a plea from the mother of Hannah Graham, the eighteen-year-old student who disappeared in September from the University of Virginia.

“Please, please, please,” the mother’s anguished voice came over the radio with a British accent. “Help us find our girl,” she cried out (to someone who knows something? Anyone? God?). “Please, please, please, help us bring Hannah home.”

The police are still looking, as are fire departments and federal agents and hundreds of volunteers. Hannah is out there somewhere these cold nights. No one is talking about whether or not she is still alive, but they are scouring the countryside for clues, “a cell phone, or a shoe,” as one searcher told reporters, “anything that will point us to Hannah.”

Jesse Matthew, the suspect arrested on charges of abduction “with intent to defile” has invoked his right not to speak. Hannah cannot speak right now. It is likely that no one else knows what happened. Will Hannah ever break her silence? [Read more...]

Pasternak: Artist and Holy Fool

tumblr_lz6uc9ddzz1r4t46jo1_500As I read the essay “The Writer and the Valet” in my latest issue of the London Review of Books, an image came to mind of a T-shirt I saw in one of the random catalogs that come in the mail. It was a simple black shirt with the sentence, “Artists make bad slaves” printed on it.

The essay by Frances Stoner Saunders is about how Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago came to publication, and it is a story filled with Cold War suspense and intrigue. It also parallels the novel itself—the story of an individual artist whose life and living are wrecked by revolution in his homeland.

Pasternak was born in 1890 into the home of an artist father and pianist mother. Artists and musicians frequented his parents’ home, including the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Pasternak himself started his studies in music, switched to philosophy, and then found his calling with poetry. He was a poet who loved botany, and was, according to Alan Furst in his review of The Zhivago Affair, “above all else, a poet of the human spirit, a poet in love with a world of weather, landscapes, romance and the Russian soul.” [Read more...]

The Demons That Possess Us

Vasily-Perov-Dostoyevsky-3When I graduated from Seattle Pacific’s MFA program, I was sorely disappointed to hear Greg Wolfe announce The Brothers Karamazov as the next common reading selection. Upon returning home from my final residency at Whidbey Island, I pulled Dostoyevsky’s great novel down from the shelf as my first post-graduation self-assigned reading. It was such a decrepit old copy that it fell apart as I read, grew smaller as glue gave out and pages fell away—a visual gauge of my progress. When I finished, I had to go out and buy a new copy for my bookshelf.

So I was delighted last month when, over brioche, fresh fruit, and coffee, the summer reading group I attend settled on The Brothers Karamazov for next summer. Though my teaching load is heavy, I have decided to read my way back through all my Dostoyevsky in preparation for our summer with Brothers. I have returned to Brothers and Crime and Punishment several times over the years, and I often teach Notes from the Underground in spring semester, so I’ve decided to start with Dostoyevsky’s books I’ve only read once.

When I was a young man in my last year of seminary, I read Dostoyevsky for the first time. As many do, I started with Crime and Punishment; as maybe not so many do, I went on a Dostoyevsky bender that lasted through his novels and notebooks, to criticism and biographies. This eventually spread to Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pasternak, and then on to the likes of Berdyaev, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Unamuno, Camus. Dostoyevsky diverted me down a whole new stream of literature that I’ve been riding for the past two decades. [Read more...]


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