Archive for December, 2009

Best of the Decade: Books

December 31, 2009

I had planned to crown this series of “Best of the Decade” posts by looking at books, but that plan has fizzled.  The trouble is that I’ve read very few books published this decade — so few, in fact, that the exercise hardly seems worthwhile.  I’ll give a short list, but mainly I’d like to use this post to solicit recommendations for good books published between 2000-2009.

My favourites, culled from a list of a couple of dozen eligible volumes, are these:

  • David Bentley Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite (2003): It took me about six months to work my way through this book, and I understood very little of it — I never grasped the meaning of analogia entis, and this proved a tragic fault — but it was still a great pleasure to read, if only for Hart’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes.  (Try this one.Millinerd agrees that it is a great book, and he says why.
  • David Heald — Architecture of Silence (2000): A book of black and white photographs of Cistercian monasteries.  It is a very beautiful and surprisingly instructive book that quietly conveys something of the spirit of Cistercian devotion.
  • Cormac McCarthy — The Road (2006): Quiet and austere on each page, but devastating in its cumulative effect, this was among the most memorable novels I read this decade. (Book Note)
  • Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note)
  • Tom Wolfe — I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004): An unpretentious and heart-breaking portrait of the moral decline and fall of a bright-eyed young woman on one of America’s elite college campuses.  (Book Note)

As I said above, I would like to hear about your favourite books of the decade.  Feel free to leave a comment.

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If, for amusement’s sake, I relax the constraint I have been observing and admit for consideration anything I read this decade, regardless of when it was first published, I arrive at a different set of favourites.  Leaving aside those widely acknowledged as classics (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Confessions, and so on), my list includes:

  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609): A fascinating first-hand account of life in the Jesuit underground during the reign of Elizabeth I.  (Book Note)
  • Søren Kierkegaard — The Sickness Unto Death (1849): A rather personal choice, this book found me at the right time, and has had lasting good effects in my life.
  • C. S. Lewis — The Discarded Image (1964): This is perhaps the best book I know about the medieval period in Europe.  Lewis, with great sympathy and insight, describes the worldview of medieval men, helping us to see the world as they saw it.  (Book Note)
  • Thomas Mann — Doctor Faustus (1947): A seriously great story about music, ambition, and the decline of Western culture.  Too big to grasp in one reading, but I grasped enough to recognize its worth.
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note)
  • Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire (1962): By a wide margin the best murder mystery that I have read.  It is an amazing genre-busting tour de force by Nabokov, and a hilarious one too.
  • Josef Pieper — Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952): A book that brings together many of the central themes of Pieper’s work.  It is a tremendously insightful, wise, and thought-provoking book that ought to be far more widely read.
  • Kenneth Grahame — The Wind in the Willows (1908): Somehow I missed reading this when I was a child, but it is a book for adults too, and I took great delight in it.

***

Happy New Year!

Christmas Eve at Westminster Cathedral

December 30, 2009

I once spent a week living in a flat directly adjacent to Westminster Cathedral.  Seeing this makes me wish that I could have stayed there permanently.  This was filmed at Midnight Mass a few days ago:

(Hat-tip: NLM)

Best of the Decade: Film

December 28, 2009

Resuming the “Best of the Decade” theme, here are my Top 10 favourite films released between 2000-2009 (or nearly so).  Although I am not much of a cinephile, putting these lists together has been so much fun that I could not resist doing one for films.

This list is in rough order of preference, from most favourite to only-slightly-less favourite.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy [Peter Jackson; 2001-3]: I know that some have complained that these films are, to a non-negligible degree, unfaithful to the spirit of Tolkien’s story, and while I can see the force of that objection I still think that this trilogy is an astounding cinematic achievement. I have seen the entire thing three times (in the extended version, no less), which is highly unusual for me.  Here is the opening of the first film:

Остров (The Island) [Pavel Lungin; 2006]: Остров (transliterated: Ostrov) is a Russian film about a saintly Orthodox monk with a history.  I have praised this film before, and I will continue to do so.  It is extraordinarily good, in many senses of the word.  If you have not seen it, I urge you to do so.  In this short clip we see Fr. Anatoly, working in his makeshift hermitage, receiving a visit from a fellow monk.  The subtitles are in Arabic, but you’ll get the idea:

Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) [Philip Gröning; 2005]: This documentary film takes us inside the great Carthusian monastery of Grand Chartreuse to witness the lives of the men who live there.  The film is a pool of silence into which one falls, and it gives us a taste, however small, of the beauty of the monastic life.  A treasure.

Magnolia [Paul Thomas Anderson; 1999]:  Magnolia was released in the last week of 1999, so I feel justified in including it on this list.  I hesitate to actually recommend this film to anyone, saturated as it is with extremely vulgar and profane language, and every kind of vice.  But the truth is that, if you can stomach it, it is an amazing film, a truly cinematic film, with profound themes running through it.  All the wickedness has a point, for one cannot make a film that takes grace seriously without also taking sin seriously.  The first time I saw Magnolia I did not understand it (and in fact quite disliked it), but it opens up on repeat viewings.

Adaptation [Spike Jonze; 2002]: Charlie Kaufmann is certainly one of the best screenwriters working today.  Many critics have been putting his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on their “Best of Decade” lists, but I think that Adaptation is even better.  It is a wild, thrilling, puzzling film about, of all things, orchids — or, better, about the difficulty of writing a film about orchids, or maybe it is about the difficulty of writing a film about the difficulty of writing a film about orchids.  Anyway, whatever it is about, it is hilarious.  Like Magnolia, though not to the same degree, this is a truly cinematic film, one which I could not imagine being told in another medium.  Nicholas Cage, playing twin brothers, is superb.  Say what you want about those National Treasure films; Cage is one of our best actors.  Here is the film’s trailer:

O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Coen Brothers; 2000]: Not only is this the best musical comedy of the decade, I would even say that it is the best Coen Brothers film of the decade.  The idea to set Homer’s Odyssey in the American south was an inspired one, and the movie sparkles with hilarious and wholesome cornball humour.  The music is good too.

The Departed [Martin Scorcese; 2006]: Despite his reputation as The Great American Director, I have been mostly underwhelmed by the Scorcese films that I have seen.  But I loved The Departed.  I have now seen it several times, and the story stands up well on repeat viewings.  (Indeed, I had to watch it again just to make sure I understood the many complexities of the plot.)  It is the most intelligent thriller that I saw this decade.  The clip below shows my favourite scene from the film, in which the two main characters have a phone conversation — sort of.  Wrenched out of context I can see that this clip doesn’t make much sense; in context, one’s mind is racing at the many implications of what is happening.  That he can invest such a simple scene with so much meaning is, I suppose, part of what they mean when they say Scorcese is a great filmmaker.

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) [Tomas Alfredson; 2008]: I do not often watch horror films, but good reviews across the board convinced me to watch this Swedish vampire movie.  It is bleak, cold, and dark, just like the Swedish winter in which it is set.  The story, about a friendship between two children, is told quietly and unsensationally, but it builds an eerie tension and is genuinely disquieting.  Like the best horror movies, Let the Right One In understands that fear is a psychological state, and it can be cultivated without anything scary jumping into the frame.  Here is a trailer for the movie:

Once [John Carney; 2007]: This is my favourite romantic film of the decade, and my second favourite film about artistic creation.  (For my favourite in the latter category, see the next entry.)  Once is an Irish production about a pair of street musicians who, through their music, are trying to break through the surface of life to touch something real, something golden, and to their surprise they find one another, and friendship.  For me, the film is notable for the way it evokes Sehnsucht, that indefinable longing for something good.  The ending is sweetly melancholy.  Here is a montage of scenes; the music is one of the songs featured in the film.

I’m Not There [Todd Haynes; 2007]: A strange but intriguing meditation on the life and music of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There is meat and drink for Dylanites.  Director Todd Haynes is obviously deeply interested in what makes Dylan tick, and his movie is an imaginative exploration of various aspects of Dylan’s creativity.  Six different actors (including, most unexpectedly, Cate Blanchett) play Dylan, sometimes fairly realistically, sometimes almost allegorically.  I recommend it to fans, of course, but also to those who don’t really understand what all the fuss is about Dylan.  You will at least come away knowing that the fuss is about something.

***

Runners-up: Memento [2000]; The Others [2001]; Kill Bill [2003-4]; The Incredibles [2004]; Walk the Line [2005]; Letters from Iwo Jima [2006]; Zodiac [2007]; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007].

**

I’d love to hear what your favourite films of the decade were.

Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence)

Merry Christmas to all!

December 25, 2009

‘And so, my son, if you would witness to the truth, do not forsake the inn at Bethlehem.  There the infant Word lies wailing in the crib, yet that cry is far more eloquent than Cicero’s oratory or even than the angels’ silver tongues, for it gave fluency to children.  There he who feasts the angels is sustained with a little milk, yet our simplicity nourished at this humble source will grow into adulthood.  There inaccessible light is wrapped in common swaddling clothes, which yet serve to wipe away the grime of sin.’ — Adam of Perseigne

**

UPDATE: Benedict XVI delivered a very good post-tackle homily at St. Peter’s on Christmas Eve.  Read it here. NLM also has a set of good pictures of the evening.

O Antiphons 2009: VII. O Emmanuel

December 23, 2009
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

O Antiphons 2009: VI. O Rex Gentium

December 22, 2009
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

O Antiphons 2009: V. O Oriens

December 21, 2009
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Antiphons 2009: IV. O Clavis David

December 20, 2009
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Antiphons 2009: III. O Radix Jesse

December 19, 2009
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

O Antiphons 2009: II. O Adonai

December 18, 2009
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
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