Previous month:
December 2014
Next month:
February 2015

January 2015

Lyle Lovett: Pontiac

Lyle Lovett has made some fine music over the years, and I haven't heard all of it, but I'm doubtful that he's produced another album as consistently good as this one, his first second. I had forgotten how good it is until yesterday, when I listened to it on the way over and back to watch a Mardi Gras parade. Except for the disappointing last track, "She's Hot to Go", which is about as lightweight and crass as the title suggests, every song is top-notch, both lyrically and musically. Moreover, the recorded sound has a warmth and depth which seems to be missing from most recordings of the past fifteen or twenty years (Pontiac is from the mid-'80s). 

I seem to recall there being some confusion about exactly how to take Lovett when he first appeared. Was he country? Sort of, but jazzy, too. Was he being ironic all the time, or only sometimes? Was he serious, or a humorist? He was definitely off the beaten track lyrically, which is established with the first track, "If I Had a Boat":


I can't resist quoting this great bit from "She's No Lady", though it's much better when he sings it:

The preacher asked her
And she said I do
The preacher asked me
And she said yes he does too
And the preacher said
I pronounce you 99 to life
Son she's no lady, she's your wife.

And yet the album contains serious and moving songs such as the title one, a brief and troubling portrait that recalls Tom Waits. 

52 Authors: A Nudge

I'd like to draw your attention to the schedule, which is in its entirety:

  • January 5: D'Anna - Percy O'Connor
  • January 12: Janet - Howard
  • January 19: El Gaucho - Rushdie
  • January 26: Rob G - Helprin
  • February 2: Robert Gotcher - de Lubac

You'll observe immediately that only one of those dates is in the future. I have one other contribution which I actually received in mid-December, to be posted when needed.  That can be the February 9 one. So we have two weeks before someone else has to come up with a contribution, or I have to write one myself, which I hadn't planned to do quite yet. 

So if you want to claim a spot on the schedule--a spot in February or March, preferably--please let me know. I encourage you to do that, actually, as deadlines are usually good motivators. Or if you want to do like the first contributor and just send something to be posted any time, that's fine, too. (If you've forgotten who or what you volunteered for, see this.)

I think this is going wonderfully and hope it won't falter.

52 Authors, Week 4: Mark Helprin

I first became acquainted with Mark Helprin’s fiction in the late 90s, when for some unrecalled reason I picked up a copy of his novel Memoir From Antproof Case. I absolutely loved the mix of humor and pathos, delivered in a fairly madcap but very well-drawn narrative, and to top it all off, I thought the writing was spectacular. I raved about the book to friends, but for some reason never followed up with any of Helprin’s other work.

For several years he was off my radar, until an online acquaintance began singing (actually shouting, more like) the praises of his then-new book of short stories, The Pacific (2004). My friend recommended anyone who had not read Helprin to pick up the book, read the first and third stories, and “if you’re not hooked, you need go no further with Helprin.” I took his advice and was bowled over, especially by the third story, “Monday.” I read the rest of the book and rather than being disappointed, continued to be stunned. While Antproof was more of a comic novel, a romance in the old sense, many of the stories in this collection were quite serious, and serious in a beautiful way. There was no doubt in my mind that what was at work here was a writer of incredible talent, a brilliant imagination and a very strong and surprisingly traditional moral sense. In the ensuing years I’ve read all his fiction except the children’s stories, some of it twice and three times.

Helprin’s first book of fiction, a collection of stories called The Dove of the East, was published in 1975. Since then he has published two more collections of stories, six novels, and a trilogy of children’s books based on Swan Lake. His best known work is Winter’s Tale, a hit fantasy/magic realist novel set in turn of the 20th century New York City, published in 1983.

To be frank I don’t read a whole lot of contemporary fiction, as much of it leaves me cold. So I’m not really in a position to compare Helprin’s work with anyone else’s. If I’d have to describe it I’d say that he uses some of the techniques of modern and post-modern literature, but in a way that is very much supportive of traditional ideas and the “permanent things.” As one reviewer put it, his fiction is “unabashedly concerned with the great questions of love and death, beauty and honor.” This makes his work simultaneously very contemporary and winningly old-fashioned.

One of the most amazing things about his writing is his ability to blend the riotously funny with the genuinely moving, and pull them off equally well, often in the same story or novel, yet with no sense of inappropriateness or “jarring.” He’s a lot like Dickens in that regard, and in some ways you could very well call Mark Helprin “our” Dickens.

Not a Christian, but (I believe) an observant Jew, much of his work reflects that fact. He obviously respects his heritage, but is not above poking innocent fun at some of its foibles, always with obvious fondness, however. He’s never mean-spirited, except against the mean. The humor, while often riotous, is never vulgar or crass, he uses very few obscenities, and I can’t recall ever coming across a sex scene. Like old movies he always cuts away and leaves things like that to be imagined. His action scenes can be violent, but moderately so, and they are never needlessly graphic, as they often are in this era of hyper-realism. All told he is a very “virtuous” writer, that word being used in its best sense, and in that way his work often feels like it comes from an earlier era.

A couple of brief examples of his writing, chosen at random, will give you the sense of the wordsmith at work:

The Saromskers had taken in many survivors of the Holocaust, mostly children who had been babies when their parents had been murdered. Their devotion to mothers and fathers they had never known was fiercer and more concentrated than anyone might have dreamed, except perhaps for the parents themselves in the very moment that they were parted from their children. Their prayers for the union of souls, and their silent and intense petitioning of God had the strength of all the winds of the world, of its invisible magnetism, of oceans and seas. But they were petitions that, for all their power and urgency, and though perhaps answered in time or beyond the limits of time, were not answered then.

--from the novella “Perfection”

In the days of furious work, and the nights, when they had labored in the blaze and heat of lights, something arose that made it easy. It was not merely a rhythm or a sense of progress. Nor was it the unusual speed of the work, nor the caffeine, nor the music, both of which powered them on all their jobs and neither of which was capable of sustaining them as they now were sustained, power and perseverance flowing so voluminously and steadily that they were lifted from their fatigue, lifted above their difficulties, just as Fitch had imagined, as if on a wave in the wind. Such waves can without effort lift even immense ships, because the power of the wave comes from the great mass and depth of the sea.

--from the story “Monday”

Helprin’s humor is harder to describe, and transcribe, because it often comes via dialogue, but some of it is hilariously funny, at certain times recalling Wodehouse, at others Monty Python or Woody Allen.

For the newcomer to his work I’d say to try the short stories first, especially the ones in The Pacific. I’d recommend “Monday,” “A Brilliant Idea and His Own,” and “Charlotte of the Utrechtseweg.” Also in this collection is the brilliant novella “Perfection,” mentioned above, which manages to be both the funniest baseball story I’ve ever read and a profound moving reflection on the memory of the Holocaust. In addition, I’d highly recommend the long title story from his Dove of the Eastcollection, which is marvelous.

Regarding his novels, I must say that I think A Soldier of the Great War is one of the best novels of the last 40 years or so. It’s the only novel ever that I, upon finishing, wanted to read the beginning again right then and there. I did so, immediately jumping back in and rereading about the first 70 pages. In Sunlight and In Shadow is right up there next to it, a gorgeously written adventure and love story that no one should miss. Both are outstanding. My next favorites would be Antproof and Winter’s Tale, both of which are excellent, but not quite up to the level of the other two, in my opinion.

In a word, Mark Helprin is a great writer, a great storyteller, and a great moralist. If there’s anyone else out there like him writing right now, I haven’t found him.

(Hopefully this brief look at Mark Helprin’s work has made you curious. If so, check out his website,, which features synopses, excerpts, and reviews of all his books.)

--Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it.  He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.



At least two people recommended this movie in a discussion here a month or two back, and I watched it over this past weekend. It is excellent, and I add my recommendation to Janet and Rob's.

Among other things, it's a tour de force of acting. Unless there was a glimpse of someone in the opening scene that I've forgotten, only one person is ever visible. He is Ivan Locke, a construction engineer (if that's the right term) whose special expertise is managing the pouring of very large quantities of concrete. We see him in that opening scene leaving a job site and getting into his car, and the entire 90 minutes of the movie from that point on consist of him driving and talking to people on his mobile phone. We never see anything (after the opening scene) except his face, the interior of the car, highways, lights--the drive takes place at night--and traffic.

Locke is on a 90-minute drive, so the movie unfolds more or less in real time, ending when he's almost at his destination. By hearing his conversations with various people including his wife, his two sons, a woman who is about to give birth to a baby which was the result of a single lapse (or so he says) on his part, and several people associated with his job, we learn that he has put a very successful and well-ordered life at risk of falling apart completely. In soliloquies directed at his deceased father, we learn some of the reasons why he's doing it, and why he's determined to make things right for the newborn child. But one of life's most painful lessons is that you can make mistakes that are impossible to put right. 

At the end you feel like there's nothing of major importance about Locke that you don't know. Moreover, you know the other characters quite well, though you only hear their voices. The film is a brilliant job of writing as well as acting. It's been on my mind a good deal since Saturday night when I saw it, and one line in particular sticks with me: "The difference between never and once is the difference between right and wrong."

Here's the trailer. It strikes me as slightly misleading, as if it's trying to suggest that this is going to turn into some sort of action thing. But it's acceptable as a taste of what the movie looks like.



Nobody Wants to Hear the State of the Union Speech

Except diehard loyalists of the incumbent party. Nor should they, it seems. I suppose most of us, or at least those of us who aspire to be Informed Citizens, think of it as something we should pay attention to, but really have no interest in, and will be entirely unaffected by, except for a certain amount of vexation proportional to our dislike of the current chief executive.

Well, we shouldn't feel guilty about it, says Charles Cooke of National Review: yes, it's in the Constitution, but its current use as a platform for grandstanding by the president is a distortion of its intent. Cooke is one of those British immigrants who are more in sympathy with American ideals than most Americans are.

That the practice that Jefferson strangled was eventually resuscitated by that outspoken enemy of republican virtue, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, should frankly worry anybody who is concerned about the maintenance of political balance in America. Champions of the legislature might be alarmed, too, to learn that, after the infinitely laudable Calvin Coolidge had reversed Wilson’s course, the spoken address was brought back once again by the most imperial of all America’s imperial presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

 Ignore it with a clear conscience.

52 Authors, Week 3: Salman Rushdie

It is not necessary to know very much about India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims, or have any working knowledge of their languages and dialects to find Salman Rushdie’s books enjoyable--simply a love of literature, and the beautiful writing that can be accomplished with the English language. Take this opening section from Midnight’s Children:

One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man. This decision, however, made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history. Unaware of this at first, despite his recently completed medical training, he stood up, rolled the prayer-mat into a thick cheroot, and holding it under his right arm surveyed the valley through clear, diamond-free eyes.

I have been sitting at my computer reading and re-reading this passage wondering what to say about it. It is so rich in everything that is Rushdie to me: magical realism (the rubies and diamonds); religion (the prayer-mat, god or man, a “vacancy”); Indian history (the story begins in Kashmir, a region of India which Pakistan lays claim to); and humor. The funny part is that despite his recently completed medical training, Dr. Aziz does not recognize the “heart-hole” made by his decision to forego his former religion.

I love reading Salman Rushdie! He is one of those few authors that I hold back reading their books because once I have that initial experience it cannot be repeated. But I have read Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses several times each. These are his two most famous books, but for very different reasons. The former was the 1981 winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction; and then in 1993 was awarded the Booker of Bookers, or, the best novel ever awarded the Booker prize. The Satanic Verses though, is how I and many others initially came to know who this Salman Rushdie troublemaker was.

I still remember in 1988 going to my local bookstore in North Miami, Florida (back when small stores like this were more prevalent) to buy a copy of this book which was causing such discontent amongst Muslims around the world. The owner of this store had hardback copies of The Satanic Verses in brown paper bags behind the counter, one of which I purchased. I read through it, though not really understanding what I was reading, or what any of it meant. When asked about it by my contemporaries I probably remarked something along the lines that the writing was very vivid and wonderful, but I wasn’t really sure what it is about. Now that I am more than twice as old as I was then, a more mature reader, and more familiar with Rushdie and his worldview, I do have some idea; but the book remains strange, mysterious, beautiful, and more elusive than Midnight’s Children, or most of his other novels.

The last time I re-read The Satanic Verses I remember feeling very deeply affected by a scene at the very end where Saladin Chamcha returns to India to care for his estranged father who is dying of cancer. I wrote in my reading journal that these passages were in their way more powerful to me than Leo Tolstoy’s great novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. After glancing over this passage, I think I will spare all of you a quote from it. Think pain, destruction of the body by disease, and love.

This morning while thinking about Rushdie I could not help but realize how topical he remains as long as freedom of speech is in short supply in so many places around the world. The attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo just a few days ago is a direct correlation to the entire Rushdie/Ayatollah Khomeini affair from the late 1980s; and it seems that no progress has been made. Rushdie wrote about his experience of nine years in hiding and protection by the British Secret Intelligence Service in his book Joseph Anton: A Memoir. The book is written in the third person, perhaps in a conscious effort by Rushdie to distance himself from these memories and that period of his life. It has its detractors because of this, but having always been interested in this little piece of pre-911 history, I found it quite fascinating.

In closing I would just like to try and assert my love for Salman Rushdie’s writing enough to maybe get a few others to try him. These books are not all he has written, but just the most important to me. He has also written two novels aimed at younger people, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life; along with other novels, essays, and short stories. He is a heartfelt and important contemporary figure in English literature.

--El Gaucho is a pseudonym of Stu Moore. Stu spends his time considering Registrar-related activities at a small liberal arts Jesuit college in the South, and how they might relate to his background in English and Theology.

[Editor's Note: Let the record show that the 52 Authors project was originally proposed by Stu.]

I Had My Doubts About This

That boy who, with his father, wrote a book describing his experience of heaven after a near-fatal accident has now says the story was false

These return-from-the-dead stories appear from time to time, and I usually find them both intriguing and puzzling. But they aren't all equally plausible, and this one struck me as less so than others--based on what I read about it, that is, as I haven't read the book. So I can't say I'm very surprised by this turn. (And yes, his name makes it a little funny.)

Doug MacLeod: The Entitled Few

I've been watching the 35th Annual Blues Music Awards, recorded a while back from PBS, in segments of fifteen minutes or so every day while I eat my lunch. This is taken from that broadcast. I had never heard of Doug MacLeod before Tuesday.

"Protest songs," as they used to be called in the '60s, generally fail to move me. They tend to be heavy-handed, and are almost by definition didactic, and more importantly too general and abstract. It's difficult to speak movingly of broad conditions: of poverty, war, racism, or unspecified "injustice." This song can be taken as a broad social complaint, and it isn't exactly subtle, but one reason it works is that it's directed at specific acts on the part of individuals. I don't think the person addressed is necessarily a single actual person, but he's a type we all recognize (probably). It's a relatively small crime, but I find the abuse of handicapped parking by able-bodied people especially contemptible. Like this singer, I would not be able to respect anyone who did it. I mean, really, man?



52 Authors, Week 2: Thomas Howard

Then where I bode alone with a small band I prayed unto the cross, with blithesome heart, enduring courage. My soul was yearning for its journey hence. Too many a weary hour have I abode. Now have I hope of life, that I may seek that victor-tree, revere it well more oft than all men, Wherefore I have exceeding joy in heart, and my hope of succour is set upon the rood.

--Dream of the Rood

About 15 years ago I attended a conference where Thomas Howard was slated to be one of the speakers, but instead of giving a talk, he stood before the large audience and read The Dream of the Rood. The atmosphere in the stadium was absolutely electric, and there was no sound except the sound of his voice. I'm not sure why he didn't give a talk, or what caused this effect. The Dream of the Rood does not affect me in any heart-pounding way, but the feeling in that room was tangible. Perhaps it was his love for the poem which he had taught for many years. Then again, perhaps it was something else, for Howard has an uncanny ability to see through the veil that separates our daily life from the glorious reality that surrounds us and waits for us. Thankfully for us, he also possesses the ability to momentarily pull back that veil for us, so that we may glimpse our hope and our glory.

Thomas Howard was raised in the home of what a friend of mine once called "the best sort of evangelicals." They were grounded in the Scripture, centered in a life of personal prayer, dedicated to mission, and serious about education. They were the sort of Evangelicals that I associate with Wheaton College, and indeed, Howard, and I believe all but one of his six siblings did attend Wheaton where his father and grandfather were trustees.

A description of the Howard home reveals a father who rose early in order to have time for long prayers on his knees before the rest of the family awoke, and a mother who prayed every day after she sent her family off for the day. And music. The whole family sang hymns together daily--all the verses. There seems to have been a deep closeness between the family members, and a single-minded devotion to the Lord.

But for some reason, this was not enough for Howard. As he reached his adolescent and young adult years, he began to question many of the rules that were almost foundational in his church, and his questions seem to have sprung in great part from a dissatisfaction with the gnostic atmosphere of his evangelical background. Why, he wondered, could they not play cards, go to movies, or drink alcohol? Why could girls wear powder but not lipstick? He saw religion as a sort of retreat into a fortress of tranquility. "It was simply that," he says, "to my mind, religious faith ordinarily seemed to crowd one into a sort of corral, and I wanted to be free to caper across the downs."

I sometimes wanted to drive madly through the streets in a troika like Dmitri Karamosov, flogging the horses into a bloody lather, or fling, black-browed and gnashing like Heathcliff, across the moor under raggedy clouds, or to sit, specterlike, at a table in Saint-Germain, brooding over coffee and cigarettes. If this was what life held for the person who wanted to find it all out, then this was what I wanted. The imagery appealed to me far more than cardigans and pine needles.

--Christ the Tiger

We recognize this, of course, as being caused at least in part by the usual restlessness and desires of callow youth, but there was another factor quietly at work in Howard's desire to escape from a religiosity that sundered body and soul. We first see this when he describes paying a short visit to a Catholic Church with a friend when he was twelve.

My most vivid recollection from that visit was a tiny prick of light from a lamp hanging near the altar. I did not know what it might be, but it lodged itself forever in the firmament of my memory, like Arcturus or some other infinitely remote star. I was filled with awe, and even something like rapture, at how beautiful, how august everything was.

With what, had he been impressed, he asks.

Beauty, of course, but beyond that, what I had seen was an array of symbols. It seemed that all the things that I had read about in the holy Scriptures concerning the majesty of God, the centrality of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mysteries of Creation and Redemption were suddenly on display here.

--Evangelical is Not Enough

As the years passed, this longing for beauty and the sacramental elements in life and in worship, and an impatience with evangelicalism's dismissal of these things grew within Howard. Eventually this longing led him through the Anglican and into the Catholic Church.

By profession an academic, Howard taught English Literature for 40 years, first at Gordon College, and then, after he was fired at the time of his conversion, at St. John, the Archdiocesan seminary of Boston. He has published many magazine articles having to do with English Literature, and on writers such as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and T. S. Eliot. A good sampling of them can be found in the collection, The Night is Far Spent, collected by Vivian W. Dudro and publish by Ignatius Press.

His books for the most part concern two themes. One is his own ongoing spiritual journey. The other is the way that the unseen world informs all of creation, and how even the most seemingly prosaic elements of our daily lives grow from a tacit acknowledgement that there is more here than meets the eye. In most of the books, the two themes are intertwined.

One can follow the thread of Howard's spiritual progress through Christ the Tiger, Evangelical is Not Enough, The Secret of New York Revealed, and finally, a small book about his conversion to Catholicism, Lead, Kindly Light. The first (I wouldn't recommend this one unless you are really interested in Howard's life) records his young adult questioning and doubts about his faith, and ends with a newly understood relationship with and commitment to Jesus, although how he got from the first to the second is impossible for me to discern. The second chronicles his growing understanding of the importance and beauty of liturgy. The last is a very excellent little book that explains his conversion to the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. At one time, I bought several of these and gave them to friends who were thinking about making the journey themselves. More about The Secret of New York below.

Perhaps my favorite two books by Thomas Howard are the two that don't fit the mold. One is C. S. Lewis, Man of Letters, now being published as Narnia and Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C. S. Lewis. (This change of name irks me but is understandable. The book was originally called The Achievement of C. S. Lewis.) I love the Narnia Chronicles and the Space Trilogy in part because they draw me into a place beyond this one--not just into the places where the stories occur, but even further in than that. Twenty years ago, when I was sitting on a porch overlooking a beautiful forest and reading this book, I was surprised to find that Howard's essays on these stories brought me in in just the same way as the originals. I'm not sure if this would still be true after 16 years of discussing Lewis monthly and changing a great deal myself, but I hope to find out soon. I really wanted to reread the book in preparation for this post, but I just ran out of time.

The second of these books,The Novels of Charles Williams,is similar. When I read these essays, I had made one attempt at reading a novel by Charles Williams,War in Heaven, but was so overwhelmed with apprehension after the first few chapters that I never have finished it. After reading Howard's commentary on Williams's novels, though, I was able to read four of them, two of which I really love. Again, it's been about 20 years since I read the book, but I would highly recommended it to anyone who is having a hard time reading Williams. In a way, it played the same role in my ability to enter into Williams's work as Habit of Being did in opening up Flannery O'Connor's work to me.

When I was preparing to write this post, it was my intention to read through all of Howard's books (I have more than I remembered), and when I looked at his author page on the Ignatius Press website, I found that there was a book,The Secret of New York Revealed, that I had not seen before. This book was written from journals that Howard had written around the time of his marriage and early married life, but which was in the possession of a student with whom he lost touch for many years. Secret was finally published in 2003. This book is perhaps the best example of Howard's ability to see the world beyond this world. It is filled with joy, and while I was reading, I found passage after passage that was worthy of quoting. He writes about the unsuspected mysteries revealed in our wedding rituals, in a night at the opera, in the poems of T. S. Eliot, and in child bearing and raising. I'll close with this long quote about the work of Charles Williams, because it also describes that of Howard himself.

I found that I was being summoned into a world as I sat there reading Williams. It was as though you were being beckoned through a gate and then led along ways that wound deeper and deeper into a landscape. But the odd thing was that the further you got into the new world, the more familiar everything looked....

But the air seemed extraordinarily clear here. Everything seemed starker. Things stood out with a glory you hadn't noticed. Ordinary things that you had walked past for years were suffused with a light that seemed not so much to shed itself on them as to elicit from them some illumination already lying inside them. The clumps of trees, the houses, the hedges, the fences--you knew this neighborhood, but it was as though you had been until now a man almost blind or a man rushing by with preoccupations. You had missed most of it somehow.


--Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Authors, Week 1: Flannery O'Connor

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.

Moving out of 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s untimely passing, and into 2015, the eightieth anniversary of her birth, it’s fitting to begin these 52 weeks of writers with a look at the sharp-tongued master of Southern Gothic and doctor of sacramental vision. Her place in the American canon is secure. O’Connor is arguably first among American women who wrote fiction, first among American Catholic writers, first among short story writers, and second only to William Faulkner in Southern letters.

Her literary landscape is filled with Bible salesmen stealing prosthetic legs, misfits murdering grandmas, hermaphroditic freak show performers inspiring piety, racially offensive statues teaching proud and ignorant racists something about redemptive suffering, fools picking fights with gorillas, and nihilistic revivalists blinding themselves. Somehow all these violent and grotesque stories were born of a woman convinced that grace had invaded our world. With every wicked turn, there is a profound sense of the sacred that pervades O’Connor’s work.

Granted, O’Connor’s devout practice of Catholicism has not always won favor for her works. There was a considerable controversy in predominantly Catholic South Louisiana back in 2000 when Bishop Edward O’Donnell banned her works in response to parents upset with her use of the “N-word.” Perhaps we shouldn’t hold out much hope for the irate ignorant leaving room for historical context or literary intent. 

But even more recently, an extremely well-educated writer in Crisis magazine offered a caution against the works of Flannery O’Connor because she opted for revealing grace subtly in the grotesque rather than celebrate triumphant grace and beauty [Ed.: really, he did.]. Perhaps we should expect all the captives held in the sway of violence and despair to just show up in our most ornate cathedrals when we are assured choirs of angels will sing their souls into glory. But just as Jesus dwelled with sinners, O’Connor shines lights in moments of incredible darkness.

O’Connor’s name has been invoked a lot recently in the debates about the current state of religion in literature. Paul Elie, the author of a book about O’Connor and three of her Catholic literary contemporaries, cannot find worthy successors in this generation. Writers of faith stop short of actually presenting belief as believable, leaving ultimate questions unanswered.

Gregory Wolfe has challenged Elie’s analysis. Wolfe is the founder of Image Journal, a serious and well respected effort at bridging faith and imagination entering its 26th year of championing the writers Elie is disregarding. Wolfe, admirer of O’Connor that he is, doesn’t find room for someone like O’Connor to have the same effect in our postmodern society. He wrote, “Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted. Perhaps a new Flannery O'Connor will rise, but meanwhile we might try listening more closely to the still, small voice that is all around us.”

While I agree with this response to Elie’s somewhat forced dilemma, I’m not sure we need another Flannery O’Connor shouting today. She’s been dead for fifty years, but I still hear her shouting, and I know I’m not alone. In the last few years, O’Connor has been celebrated with the release of her college cartoon work and her youthful prayer journals. Critics, not all of whom are Catholic literary types nostalgic for a mythic golden age, have rejoiced in a few more sparks of inspiration from a flame that was extinguished too soon. What wit! What a practical theological imagination! What might have been!

I’ll admit I’m a bit biased about Flannery O’Connor. Before I met my wife, I was involved in a very complicated Facebook-official relationship with Flannery. It was a joke that hid a severe truth. Even in the eighties and nineties, there are parts of my childhood reminiscent of O’Connor’s Christ-haunted South. More than her fiction, her letters and lectures, collected in The Habit of Being and Mysteries and Manners respectively, became near-devotional reading for me, shaping the way I see the world.

I’ll be introducing my high school upper classmen to Hazel Motes and his church without Christ later this spring. If I know these kids, and I think I do, they will be just as spellbound by O’Connor as I was when I first encountered her. The times may not be right for another Flannery, but the great writers are timeless.

--Toby D'Anna is an LSU alumnus teaching high school English in Arlington, Texas. He blogs at