Saturday, January 30, 2021

Redburn: His First Voyage by Herman Melville

I went into Reburn thinking I’d like it, but it exceeded my expectations. It’s no Moby Dick or The Confidence Man, but few books are. Here I see glimmerings of what will come in Moby Dick, but yet it is it’s own work.

It is narrated by Wellingborough Redburn, a greenhorn if there ever were one. His family has fallen on hard times, and, lacking better options, he takes a berth as a boy (referring to his rank as well his age) on a ship called the Highlander bound across the Atlantic to Liverpool England. Though he is poor, he has no idea how to function aboard ship. He is a pious young man. The early stages of the book are both his maturing/learning the ropes of sailing and a very funny satire that pulls the rug from under that piety and represents the skewering of society that Melville’s later books would perfect. It is not as boisterously multicultural as Moby Dick, nor as harsh on slavery as The Confidence Man. It is not as funny or openly proto-existentialist as those either, but it does represent an early instantiation of those themes. 

Near the end, Melville takes a strong stance against the anti-immigration movement of his day; on the return voyage from Liverpool, the Highlander takes on a large number of Irish emigrants. The anti-Catholic immigration rhetoric of the 1840’s and 50s is a copy/paste away from fitting into current attitudes toward muslim and hispanic refugees. For whatever casual racism of the day that lingers in his language, Melville really understood these things, an insight that reading Typee gave me. I’m not arguing that Melville was “ahead of his time.” I have used that formation before, I know, but I’ve come to think it’s rooted in an wrongheaded view that progress is inevitable and easily understood. That said, Melville was on the right side of a lot of issues of his day.

Some of this is clearly rooted in his autobiography. It is an excellent coming of age story mixed with an equally effective seafaring adventure. While it’s clearly not as good as Moby Dick, it is very good, and I can see how this would be a bestseller. And the things that made Melville’s later work so special are here as well, if not quite so well developed. I will be rereading this, I’m sure. And I’m even more looking forward to White-Jacket and Pierre now.

Highly Recommended. 

Owned But Previously Unread 2021 

Friday, January 22, 2021

Circe by Madeline Miller

One of the highest compliments I can give this book is that it reminded me my favorite novels, Till We Have Faces, to mind. That’s unfair, as the books are vastly different in point of view and theme. But I haven’t read any literary retelling of myth that came close to holding up to Faces until this. It is outstanding.

It is narrated by the titular demigoddess/witch. It starts with her early life in the court of her father the Titan Helios and carries it past her affair with Odysseus. Along the way it hits the myths of Daedalus and Icarus, Scylla and Charybdis and others. 

One thing I loved about it is how it reframes Circe's turning of sailors into pigs as a defensive move. This was like seeing Noah and realizing that if I had seen EVERYONE in the world die, I might want to get drunk to blunt the PTSD too. Something that was obvious once I saw it, but that I had missed every previous time I'd thought about it.

I don’t have much to say about this other than it was a transcendent reading experience that will stick with me for a while. The prose is perfect, as is the mood of loneliness it evokes. I will be reading this many more times, I’m sure. And anything else Miller writes.

Canon Worthy

Bad Men by John Connolly

This is the first book I’ve read by Connolly. I had a copy of one of his YA books on the shelf for a while, but then traded it in without reading it. Recently, though, I heard Connolly described as obsessed with James Lee Burke and his work being similar, but with a cosmic horror twist. Over the past few years Burke has become a favorite crime writer. His prose style is as good as anyone. And gradually I’ve become a horror fan over the same span. So, naturally I had to try Connolly out. He is best known for a series of books featuring a detective called Charlie Parker, though I was advised to start with the second book. But this is a relatively standalone novel, and I found it at a used book store. I say relatively, because Parker does make a couple of cameos, but has little to do with the main action of the book. But this was actually a great place to start.

The book opens with the dream of a man named Moloch who is remembering events that happened on an island called Sanctuary in colonial times. Brutal events, as if he were the one commiting them. The action moves then to the island itself. The lone policeman who lives there is a giant (7’2”), whose family has been there for generations. He knows the history, both mythic and mundane, of the place and something of a keeper. Since the events recalled in Moloch’s dream, the island is alive with the presence of the dead, who tend to settle scores with any who take innocent life. There is a woman there who is hiding with her child, and seeing the giant policeman. Moloch is a criminal who escapes prison, and he and his colleagues are not the only characters who live up to the book's title, but they fit it very well. Eerie things begin to happen on the island which escalate even as Moloch and company head toward the island. And the conclusion is perfect.

The novel is completely effective as both a bleak crime novel and an eerie gothic horror one. The prose is excellent at evoking a choking horror mood. It does resemble Burke’s in that sense, though there are very few authors in any genre who can live up to that. Still it’s perfect for the story being told. Like the best horror and crime, the bleakness is as much a product of the people as the supernatural elements. Once the stage is set, the book is a tension machine. This gets brutal at times, but was an excellent first book to read. I will be reading many more, starting with that second Charlie Parker novel.

Highly Recommended

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand

I’m on record as saying that Elizabeth Hand became my favorite living writer last year. I just realized that was true halfway through a story in her first collection Last Summer at Mars Hill. Those were largely horror adjacent literary fantasy stories. I also read her novel Glimmering last year, her big swing for the fences novel which is a masterpiece. Both were on my best books read for the first time in 2020 list. In recent years she’s been writing more crime than anything, and 2019’s Curious Toys and Generation Loss, the first Cass Neary book are some of her best work. The next two Cass Neary books were also very good. So I was primed to really enjoy this. I did enjoy it, if not quite so well as the rest of her crime novels.

The Book of Lamps and Banners picks up in the aftermath of the previous book with Cass Neary stranded in London. She runs into Gryffin Haselton, a rare book dealer who was a character in Generation Loss. He has in his possession the titular book, which is beyond rare. He is poised to sell it to a tech billionaire who views the book as a primitive code that can alter the minds of readers, even if they don’t understand the language. She is working on an app that does similar things. This allows for a low burn scifi element that is absent from the other books. But the middleman in the transaction is murdered, the book stolen, and thus begins Neary’s trip through another harrowing, case is the wrong word, but a series of events. There are white nationalists, murderers and aging British singers. Neary’s aging punk world weariness and borderline nihilism makes her one of the most compelling characters in contemporary fiction. Her world has been moved forward in time, so that these events happened just before the pandemic hit.

That said, I felt like the, admittedly mild, sf elements of a dangerous app conceived to help assuage PTSD but instead triggering it, falling into the hands of dangerous neonazis sat oddly in a Cass Neary book. I like both the noir novel and the sf novel well enough to recommend this, but it did bring it down a notch or so from the previous books for my money. I almost wish they were two separate books. But I still recommend it. Start with Generation Loss, though. If this is the end of the Neary series, I like where Cass ended up, though I would read another without hesitation.

Recommended/Highly Recommended.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

I would like to move toward reading more books about nature, and specifically animals. I’ve long been a fan of Annie Dillard, and I loved H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. I feel that my knowledge of the world of nature is lacking. The press for Soul of an Octopus says it does for Octopuses (within the first few pages, Montgomery makes it clear this is the proper plural form) what the MacDonald did for falcons. I didn’t like this as much as Hawk, but it is a great introduction to Octopuses.

And it turns out that Octopuses are amazing. Montgomery is a well established naturalist, and she spent several years bonding with a series of octopuses that lived at the aquarium in her town. Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma each had a different personality. This is not as much memoir as H is for Hawk or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but as Montgomery chronicles her interactions, even friendship, with the octopuses and the other people who worked and hung out at the aquarium mixed with a popular level summary of the current state of scientific study of the creature, she builds a convincing case that octopuses have a much higher level of consciousness than we (certainly than I) expected. Each of the four octopuses she gets to know has a distinct personality. I immediately wanted to go to the aquarium! 

This isn’t quite up there with Dillard or MacDonald for me, but I do recommend it without hesitation, and have plans to read more of Montgomery’s work.

Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Tindalos Asset by Caitlin Kiernan

Caitlin Kiernan is firmly ensconced in my top tier of writers. Her gift for language, the mood of dread and wonder she consistently evokes, the mashup of cosmic horror with literary modernist techniques, and her frank and searing approach to writing about mental illness make her works indelible. Her sense of the darkness and cruelty of the world is as bone deep as McCarthy or Ellroy. She is endlessly creative. I’m not sure if its because they were the first things I read by her, but her previous Tinfoil Dossier books, Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters, were among my favorites of her work,  the latter only challenged by The Drowning Girl or maybe The Red Tree (pending reread) at the top of the pile. Adding a John Le Carre by way of X-Files element really works. The Tindalos Asset is the most recent entry in that series, and it is worthy of its predecessors.

The novel opens with the Signalman, an aging agent who made a cameo in Black Helicopters and was the protagonist of Agents of Dreamland, shows up in the squalid apartment of Ellison Nicademo, a former assassin with a supernatural familiar who worked for the agency. Her life has spiraled since a truly grotesque failed attempt at killing the leader of a cult trying to raise the Ancient Gods. As with the previous books, the story is told achronologically, jumping from perspective to perspective and back and forth through the years and decades building to an apocalyptic ending.

Black Helicopters is still my favorite of hers, but this is excellent. As much as I enjoy her earlier work, the stuff she’s done lately is astounding. This could be an ending point for the series, but I would read as many of these as she writes. I cannot recommend these books enough.

Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy

Everything Else 2021 4/50


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Ambergris Omnibus by Jeff Vandermeer

City of Saints and Madmen, the first Ambergris book was my introduction to Jeff Vandermeer. The second, Shriek: An Afterward cemented him as one of my favorite writers, and is among my favorite books. Finch is a fitting conclusion. They span many genres, from faux-history guidebook to decadent third person memoir to noir. There are many narrators, nearly all of them unreliable, and often conflicting. 

City of Saints and Madmen was one of the first books (along with Fifth Head of Cerberus and Pale Fire by Nabokov) that put the story suite/mosaic novel/fractured narrative book among my favorite storytelling techniques. I got the most recent (prior to the omnibus version) edition. The first iteration had four novellas and the subtitle The Book of Ambergris. The later edition had an appendix that was as long as the first part that had 11 or so short stories. The conflicting unreliable narrators were an ingenious way to display aspects of the City of Ambergris, an alternate world fantasy city state with no real central government that at the time the novellas are set is in an early modern period technologically. For a time artists, particularly an opera composer called Voss Bender, exerted a relatively high degree of control, though that was fading and in the conflicts that followed, the House of Hoegbotton and Sons, a mercantile interest that has been on the rise for decades begins to take over. The atmosphere is fungal and filled with spores. The city is in a decadent period socially. The buildings themselves are being colonized by various fungi. An apparently native race, the Mushroom Dwellers, or Greycaps, a fungal based species, have reemerged after decades, maybe centuries of absence. Their presence and plans are a mystery that plays out over the course of the three books.

For the omnibus, City of Saints and Madmen goes back to the “Book of Ambergris” edition reprinting the four novellas with the addition of one longish story from the appendix. I have mixed but mostly positive feelings about that. It weakens the book as work in itself; the interplay of those stories really adds a lot to one’s understanding of Ambergris and its history. But, as a prelude to the other two books, it really works. If you’re considering Ambergris as a single work, then these four set the stage well. (And I logged the shorter “Book of Ambergris” version on Goodreads as I didn’t read the rest of the Appendix this time. The book opens with Dradin in Love, the story of a monk who returns to Ambergris after a stint as a missionary in a jungle setting. He arrives during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, an annual event commemorating early Ambigrisian history. Some years violence erupts, and the Greycaps have something to do with this, though it’s not entirely clear from just this story what part that is. This is among the most violent on record. It’s an effective introduction to the city in addition to being a harrowing horror story written in a decadent style. Despite its third person narration, another of the stories reveals it to be a memoir written by Dradin himself. This starts the trend of the stories as actual published artifacts in the imagined world that continues throughout; the protagonist of Finch reads Shriek: An Afterward, for instance. The next novella purports to be a travel guide/brief introduction to the history of Ambergris, and this does a lot of the exposition heavy lifting in a way that is very enjoyable. It is written by a fringe historian named Duncan Shriek whose digressive footnotes keep this from being an infodump. Here the city’s founders are chronicled, the Monk Samuel Tonsure, whose journal is a key to the whole Ambergris cycle is introduced, and one of the central mysteries of the series The Silence is introduced. That last involves the complete disappearance of 25,000 citizens of the city. Many blame the Greycaps, many of whom were massacred by the early kings of Ambergris. That this history doesn’t feel like homework while setting the stage so well for the rest of the series is a remarkable accomplishment. The omnibus then inserts the story The Cage from the appendix. It’s the story of the first Hoegbotton to open a store called Hoegbotton and Sons in Ambergris and is a masterful weird tale. It stands alone, but introduces a major player, or at least the founder of an organization that is key to understanding the politics of the city. The Transformation of Martin Lake shows the bohemian artistic circle that formed around The New Art at a gallery owned by Janice Shriek, brother to Duncan Shriek who wrote the Hoegbotton Guide to Ambergris. The final novella is the only one I have hesitations about. It’s about an author in an asylum that thinks he’s made up Ambergris and the world it’s in. I do like it, but I might have preferred to see a couple more of the stories from the appendix in the omnibus instead. I hope that the longer edition of this gets released again, but as prelude, this really works, each tale a weird one despite what other genres are mixed in. But in aggregate they provide the beginnings of the history, politics and feel of the place. It does in part what the series as a whole does. Coming at Ambergris from a variety of angles, the city that emerges lives in the mind.

If I could only keep ten books, Shriek: An Afterword would be one of them (or maybe the omnibus for context, but Shriek is the big draw for me). This is the most Nabokovian work I’ve read that wasn’t by Nabokov. And yet, as a weird horror story and fantasy thriller it does things that Nabokov never did. There’s a character named Sirin; an author, editor and shadow player in the politics called Sirin who is obsessed with, among other things, literary games. Sirin was a pseudonym used by Nabokov when he was writing in Europe. If the language and structure didn’t give away the Nabokovian influence, this certainly did. Aside from the fantasy/horror elements he adds, Vandermeer is more overtly political than Nabokov. The latter struck an apolitical pose, though all his work was informed by a hatred for the Bolsheviks who drove his family out of his native Russia, and politics did intrude into the works, most intensely in Bend Sinister. Nabokov is an avatar for fiction as art for art's sake. Vandermeer is as obsessed with art, and makes the art the primary point. But in the background of these books the ways politics impinges on art becomes undeniable. 

The book begins as if Janice Shriek, introduced in The Transformation of Martin Lake, is writing an afterword to her brother’s historical guide to Ambergris. Like Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, it cannot remain one thing though and becomes a family history and a chronicle of the first in what will eventually be revealed to be a series of Civil Wars between Hoegbotton and Sons and a rival mercantile operation trying to make inroads into Ambergris. The manuscript was found by Duncan, and he wrote responses to everything that Janice said about and their lives. Janice’s dissolute and debauched life runs parallel to her brothers rise to prominence as an historian obsessed with the Greycaps, the Silence and the city that exists under the city proper. His fall, in part, involves a decades long feud with a former student whom he slept with. It’s one of the few times the teacher/student relationship trope works, partly because the interplay between Duncan and Janice’s voices shows the ways in which he was deceiving himself as much as the school. War breaks out and everything changes. Duncan’s body becomes infested with fungus and he is gradually changing just as the city is. Both Shrieks become war reporters. The mystery of the Silence begins to come into focus even as war comes and goes and Janice and Duncan’s careers wane. This is a flat out masterpiece.

The third volume, Finch, is the most straightforward narratively, even as it adds another genre to the mix and another angle on the history of Ambergris and the prose becomes more fragmented. It is a straight noir that happens a century after the events of the two previous books. The Civil Wars had picked up again, a struggle that was made moot by the rising of the Greycaps to rule the city with fascist-like control. John Finch, not his real name, is a collaborator of sorts who works for the Greycaps. The book opens with a double murder, a human and a Greycap and his case is inseperable from the history of Ambergris. He’s caught between his cruel bosses, other collaborators called Partials (humans who have been colonized by fungi), forces from outside the city, and the revolutionaries who are fighting the Greycap regime. The city and its inhabitants are succumbing to the fungal spores that permeate the atmosphere. The deteriorating streets are as mean as any in Ellroy or Hammett. But like the other Ambergris books, it performs double duty as the history of an alternate world.

All in all, I can’t recommend the Ambergris books highly enough. I hope that City of Saints and Madmen gets a release in its fullest form at some point, but otherwise I have no hesitations here. These are the books that sold me on Vandermeer. The variety of genres and narrators at play reveal an alternate world as elaborate as any I’ve encountered. It’s political but not polemical. The narrative of colonization is subtle but powerful. It revels in art and language. It’s utterly compelling. Shriek at least is going on my yearly reread list. I’ve not read anything by Vandermeer that I didn’t at least like, but these (especially Shriek) and Dead Astronauts are his best for my money.

City of Saints and Madmen- Canon Worthy in this form, Canon in the more complete form. My final reread of 2020.

Shriek: An Afterward- Canon- Yearly Reread 2021 1/8, Rereads and Everything Else 2021 1/50

Finch- Canon- Rereads and Everything Else 2021 2/50

Sunday, January 3, 2021

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

As a kid I read the first three books of Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle (all that were published at the time), his take on the Arthurian legends. I also read an account by Sir James Knowles that a family friend gave me. I’ve encountered versions of it since then (most notably the Fisher King stuff in Last Call by Tim Powers, among my favorite novels). But Arthurian legend isn’t a genre I automatically seek out. But back in 2016 I discovered Lavie Tidhar and had read eight of his books. He is a master of taking disparate genres and making them work together when it really seems it shouldn’t. The elevator pitch for this was that it was Arthur by way of Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas, so given my previous experience with Tidhar’s work, I was sold immediately. And, having read so much Tidhar, I should have known that wouldn’t be all.

That is an accurate take on the beginning and then the ending of the book. After a brief (and brutal) account of Uther, Arthur’s father’s rise and fall (which set the tone for Tidhar’s take on political power as gangsterism), the book picks up with Arthur and Kay as fifteen/sixteen year old gangsters running a protection racket in post-Roman Londinium . This was catnip for me. I love genre mashups and I love both crime and fantasy fiction. It directly references Tarantino and Scorcese and probably more I missed. But Tidhar doesn’t hold that vibe, which could eventually grow old and make for a too on the nose political point, past it’s breaking point. He gives you just enough, before turning to a more fairy/fae/elfland style fantasy, albeit one whose politics mirror the Londinium ones. And before that could grow old, it morphs into a wuxia/kung-fu movie by way of Jewish diaspora. Then it flash forwards to a Roadside Picnic style scifi. (If you’re unfamiliar, that was a big influence on Annihilation, both the Jeff Vandemeer novel and the movie. It was the basis for the Tarkovsky movie Stalker. For the record, I haven’t read the book, but was spoiled on its story.)  Then all the genres and plot strands come together in a big battle that is more Gangs of New York than Minas Tirith. And as divergent as these genres are, Tidhar makes them into a unified whole while creating an absolutely convincing world and point of view.

I do not like didacticism in fiction as a rule. If a novel gets too didactic it puts me off unless there are a lot of other things I love about it to counterbalance it. Wendell Berry does a great job of making me overlook his didacticism. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like books with a strong political point. If the point doesn’t arise naturally from the work, or if it overwhelms the art of the story, I generally get so annoyed that I dock the book, even if I agree with the point. If I want to read an essay or a tract, I’ll read an essay or a tract. I don’t like being preached at. By Force Alone is a clinic in how to do it right, even if he toes that line a couple times. The book’s title becomes a bit of a refrain early on, talking about how power is gained by force. But he stopped that before it became onerous. And by illustrating how much the native characters saw the Angles and Saxons as outsiders invading their country he illustrates how ridiculous white/Anglo-Saxon supremacy is, and makes a strong point about the movement driving Brexit without being preachy. It’s impossible to miss the point, but the book is first and foremost a compelling adventure novel, and the point is made all the more strongly for it. Try explaining to an alien completely unfamiliar with centuries of mythologizing why Arthur is a hero and not a thug. Chivalry would seem like a bad joke to these characters. The book is unrelenting in its portrayal of the brutality that people are capable in their quest for power. It understands that quest is usually built by demonizing another group. 

But for all that, it’s primarily a well written, hyperviolent, funny and compelling adventure novel. I read it in a single day. Tidhar is a master, and this is one of his best books.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 1/

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

I have a vague memory of an interview with Dennis Lehane in which he said something along the lines that the big social novel of years past had been, to large extent, subsumed into the crime genre. Certainly Lehane’s novels set in Boston (highly recommended, especially Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River), fit that description. Ditto for fellow The Wire writing room alumni Richard Price’s (set in New York) and George Pelecanos’s (set in DC). James Ellroy in LA (for a nihilistic twist on the social novel). Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. If The Cold Cold Ground is representative, McKinty does the same for Ireland during the height of the Troubles.

This is the first in the Detective Sean Duffy series which was recommended often on The Coode Street Podcast earlier this year (I usually discover SFF books from them, but I’m glad these got mentioned). Duffy is a Catholic detective in an agency and city dominated by Protestants. The Catholics, most sympathetic the IRA, don’t care for Catholics working for the Police. So he’s dealing with his Protestant coworkers and neighbors who don’t trust him, and his purported cultural allies the Catholics who don’t trust him. When a serial killer who targets gay men (during a time in which homosexuality is illegal in Ireland) shows up, he’s left to solve that case and how it relates to politics among the various religious millitias.

That case is as good a crime thriller as could ask for in its own right. But what takes the book to another level is the setting. McKinty is masterful in making the tension of the Troubles inherent in the background build along with the tension of the murder case. I don’t know much about the Troubles (beyond being a huge fan of Seamus Heaney), but this book invokes the anxiety that must have been endemic to living in that milieu. It is tense. McKinty’s prose is excellent, and his outlook bleak. This is a great crime novel on all levels. A great social novel too.

Canon Worthy

Christmas Gifts and Everything Else 2020 48/35

(I love that all the titles in this series come from Tom Waits songs.)

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard (2020 reread)

Slightly updated review: 

I was right last year when I said I wouldn’t wait another seventeen years to reread this. I agree with what I said last year, in my review, copied below. I will add that I must have been in a different state of mind this year. I was in less of a mood for Dillard’s style, but since I had decided to put this on the annual reread list I pushed through, and was won over completely by the second chapter. Dillard’s prose is ecstatic and compelling. But moreso, her clear eyed approach to the evil in the world and frank admission of her doubt, while still believing (though I think in later years she may have left the faith) is bracing.

Still Canon, and now in the yearly rotation.

Rereads and Everything Else 2020 49/35

2019 Review: There was a time in the early aughts when I got a lot of flack from certain friends because I was always flogging the work of my three favorite writers at the time: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Annie Dillard (and to a lesser extent Frederick Buechner). I’m endlessly hopeful that people will like what I like, sometimes in face of evidence to the contrary. I didn’t manage to convince many of them to read the books. Over the years my affection for O’Connor remained more or less the same, even if other authors (Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, Elmore Leonard, Vladimir Nabokov, Kelly Link, Cormac McCarthy (for a time)) eclipsed her. I still like aspects of Percy, but I’ve grown cooler towards him over the years. As for Dillard, I nearly forgot her; or rather, I didn’t return to her as often as Percy or O’Connor. I reread The Writing Life a couple of years ago after remembering the line, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Otherwise it’s been over a decade since I read any of her work.

I’ve been planning to reread Pilgrim at Tinker Creek soon, having recently purchased the audiobook. This brought Dillard to mind and I remembered an online friend including Holy the Firm among his favorite books. I pulled it off the shelf to read a couple lines. I read the entire thing in one sitting. It’s short, so that’s not some great achievement time commitment wise. But the book is a marvel.

Dillard’s writing is Psalm-like. It is in an ecstatic mode intended to evoke awe at nature, often turning that towards God. That is what attracted me to her writing at the time. What discomfited me was how her God never really fit squarely with Christianity. As she said in a later work, For the Time Being, she was spiritually promiscuous. Much of her work seemed borderline pantheistic. Like Frederick Buechner, she dealt very frankly with doubt. I last read Holy the Firm at 2002. At the time I was devout and a stickler for orthodoxy. I was just then learning to doubt and feeling the first rumblings of the unease with Evangelicalism that ultimately led to me leaving it. I wasn’t entirely ready for the book at the time. Reading it again now without the need to try to squeeze it into an orthodox shape was a profound experience.

The three essays here contain some indelible images. A moth flies into a flame. A plane wrecks and injures an innocent child. From these Dillard crafts what are essentially prose poems. They are worth reading just for the prose. But her act of looking so closely at these images forces the reader to observe their own surroundings in a similar way.

 I will not wait seventeen years to read this again.