This month’s recommendations from The Common’s contributors and staff deal with the intersection of old and new, ancient and modern, on every level—personal, religious, political, even supernatural. Perhaps in the spirit of the season, we seem preoccupied by stories of intergenerational strife, love, and ambition. In their urgent focus on belief and truth-seeking, these books represent a literature of searching, a catalogue of quests across time and around the world.
To the End of June by Cris Beam, The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz, We Others by Steven Millhauser, Hum by Jamaal May, High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire.
In the early 1990s, John Darnielle set “some of his poetry to music, using a guitar he’d gotten for a few bucks at a nearby strip mall music store. His idea at the time was that eventually his day job would be ‘poet.’ …Young men have all kinds of crazy ideas about what they’re going to end up doing for a living,” says his website bio. He went on to found the popular folk-rock band, The Mountain Goats. Its fans are drawn to Darnielle’s simple instrumentals and powerful lyrics.His song “You Were Cool” sums up his approach and the band’s appeal: “This is a song with the same four chords / I use most of the time / when I’ve got something on my mind / And I don’t want to squander the moment / Trying to come up with a better way / To say what I want to say.”
Now, Darnielle has fulfilled his day-job fantasy in another way—he has written a National Book Award-nominated debut novel, Wolf in White Van. Fans of Darnielle’s music will not be disappointed. Darnielle writes in the poetic, playful tangents characteristic of his lyrics, often grasping at a passing image or emotion and describing it from every angle before rejoining the unfolding story.
Today’s service is the blessing of the animals, and the congregation is clustered on the lawn with designer dogs on extendable leashes and mysterious scuttling boxes lined with hand towels and one leopard gecko that, waiting for its blessing, relieves itself on its young owner’s father. He scrubs at his shirt at the sink in the church basement, where J and I are helping to set up for the post-service coffee hour, halving banana bread and quartering bagels and decimating cantaloupe. The man blessed by his son’s gecko may need to be reminded of the copy on the service’s tri-fold program: We do not bless animals to make them holy; we bless them because they are already holy. The program asks us to save animals like Noah, to care for them like Francis. It reminds us of upcoming youth group events.
If it weren’t for its title, you’d be hard pressed to pin down the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story to a location. True to the traditions of theatre and the Hollywood Golden Age, the film’s sets are few and mainly interior. Socialite Tracy Lord teeters on the brink of remarriage, with a catty-charming ex-husband, populist tabloid reporter, and absentee father descending on her parents’ mansion for the occasion. The beloved characters, expertly played by Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart, hardly venture beyond their manicured lawns. They speak in their famous transatlantic voices, the fine-bred, trained accents of no town and no country. It sometimes seems that the film may as well have been set on the moon as in Pennsylvania—as long as there could still be fine drawing rooms and elegant patios, of course, for class conflicts play a much more vocal role in the film than regional color. The Philadelphia Story treats place much the way Tracy herself does: when Macaulay Connor asks, “Say, this is beautiful country around here. What is it all, anyway?” Tracy replies flippantly, “Oh, part of our place.” And on the story moves, as dismissive as Tracy herself.
Homesickness for “The Philadelphia Story” and Other Fictions