For some fun this month, Travis has chosen five random books from our sweet, wooded companion of a shelf. What their message has meant and what I hope you might gain from reading them will follow. Ruminating possible metaphors I settled on coffee drinks because they’re universal and in many cases, vital.
“On Beauty” by Zadie Smith: The Cafe Au Lait
Funny and pleasantly tender-hearted that Travis would pick this jewel. It’s an absolute favorite, one that really connected me to contemporary literature in college. Zadie Smith has extremely enjoyable works (this one, White Teeth, Changing My Mind essays) and weird, non-relatable ones (NW, The Autograph Man). She reminds writers that it shines and also rains in creating art, and makes no apologies for it. The title came from “On Beauty and Being Just,” a small treatise from Elaine Scarry (a Harvard professor) that focuses on the outwardly focused, sacrificial side of beauty. Perhaps superficially, I liked Smith first because of honest portrayal of interracial dynamics. Outside of her own entertaining biography she gives readers a quest to understand numerous cultures at once. The story revolves around an established academic, his wife, their three children, and trouble-making friends and lovers. It’s uncomfortable (extramarital affairs) and her scenes are slightly jumpy, but the final painting they compose is richly satisfying. You are faced with complex men, women, and children; you balk at his nerve and her vulnerability; you feel as if bags are being packed from a month-long stay with the Belsey family. The right mixture of foamy character development and dark, vivid plot: a drink worth taking in on occasion.
Great Passage: “Three Tuesdays after the affair began Howard came into her office to tell her it was over. It was the first time either properly acknowledged it had begun. He explained he’d been caught…That day in her office Howard looked as if a good, comforting piece of verse was just what he needed. Throughout their friendship, Claire had satirized his scrupulous intellectualism, just as he had teased her about her artistic ideals…This was the general feeling in Wellington too: his students found it near impossible to imagine that Howard should have a wife, a family, that he went to the bathroom, that he felt love…They had no idea what the hell they were doing. Howard had no way of dealing with his new reality. He was unequal to the task of squaring his sense of himself with what he had done. It was not rational, and therefore, he could not comprehend it. For Claire, their affair was only confirmation of what she knew of the darkest parts of herself. For Howard, it was clearly revelation.”
“Les Fleurs Du Mal” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Howard: The Red-Eye
A red-eye, also known as atomic cowboy or shot in the dark, is wild and not for the faint of caffeinated heart. It’s black coffee with a shot of espresso. When I last downed one around eight in the morning, I didn’t fall asleep until five o’clock the next morning. The whole week produced twitches and bodily discomfort. Our red-eye equivalent here is “Les Fleurs du Mal” by French poetic master Charles Baudelaire. He is an impeccably dressed dandy by lyrical usage, but a nasty bottom-dweller by topic. Can anyone use images of lice and prostitutes beautifully? He proves it can be done.
Less frightening poems to embark upon include, “Hymne A La Beaute” (Hymn to Beauty), “L’Invitation Au Voyage” (Invitation to the Voyage) and “Recueillement” (Meditation), stunning verse that delights. More confrontational works begin with “Au Lecteur” (To the Reader), the very first piece and stuffed with ugly, demonic, dirty images. Bear with it, because it’s a fascinating study of human nature. Baudelaire’s arch spans art as a destructive and healing force, obsession, and the elusive creature Boredom. More than mere boredom, he investigates depraved, life-draining, undone boredom. His biographies are incredibly interesting to boot. I read him for a jolt of reality and gratefulness for mercy.
” Imagine the magic
of living together
there, with all the time in the world
for loving each other,
for loving and dying
where even the landscape resembles you:
the sun dissolved
in overcast skies
have the same mysterious charm for me
as your wayward eyes
through crystal tears,
my sister, my child!
All is order there, and elegance,
pleasure, peace, and opulence…” (from “Invitation to the Voyage”)
“Generous Justice” by Timothy Keller: The House Blend with Creamer
Mild, cream-laced house blends are what I drink 90% of the time in any cafe. “Generous Justice” by Tim Keller is what I return to over and over, quoting from at every tragedy. Do you like how I call him Tim, because in my head he’s a trusted personal pastor and counselor? This book is extraordinarily simple and perfectly wise. Picture a tapestry woven, connecting threads of people from all walks of life. This fabric is made by God’s own hands, guiding us to sew where we are. Biblical stories and instructions from both the Old and New Testament become newly illuminated, precious and true. If you’re a reset-button kind of person, always craving new beginnings be grounded in this call to serve/pray/give until you must cry out for strength.
Great Passage: “Now we are in a position to see even more clearly what the Bible means when it speaks of justice. In general, to ‘do justice’ means to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish. Specifically, however, to ‘do justice’ means to go to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it. This happens when we concentrate on and meet the needs of the poor. How can we do that? The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it. Human beings are like those threads thrown together onto a table. If we keep our money, time, and power to ourselves, for ourselves, instead of sending them out into our neighbors’ lives, then we may be literally on top of one another, but we are not interwoven socially, relationally, financially, and emotionally. Reweaving shalom means to sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others.”
“The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer: The Decaf Vanilla-Almond Soy Latte
Tackling the Prologue of this classic in Tenth Grade is both challenging and invigorating: experiencing one of the pinnacles of characterization in English. Even hip-hop savvy, restless, dreaming teenagers can appreciate the Knight’s sparkling honor or the Summoner’s gaudy liveliness. Though the tales in this collection bring wise loveliness, it’s a rare day that I’ll pick it up and read. When it happens, I’m glad for the decadent, deftly milked moral punch and combination of personality flavors. It’s powerfully fun to see the Host gather everyone for a pre-pilgrimmage meal and request thrilling, entertaining story– a microcosm of what Chaucer does. Favorite tales include The Knight’s, The Nun Priest’s, The Wife of Bath’s, and The Pardoner’s, shimmering in the author’s well-developed narration and dimension. I’m always happy thinking millions of writers across time and space look to this work for artistic inspiration. Sit back calmly, and sip leisurely.
” One thing I should have mentioned in my tale,
Dear people, I’ve some relics in my bale
And pardons too, as full and fine, I hope,
As any in England, given me by the Pope.
If there be one among you that is willing
To have any absolution for a shilling
Devoutly given, come! and do not harden
Your hearts but kneel in humbleness for pardon;
Or else, receive my pardon as we go.
You can renew it every town or so
Always provided that you still renew
Each time, and in good money, what is due.
It is an honour to you to have found
A pardoner with his credentials sound
Who can absolve you as you ply the spur
In any accident that may occur.”