Monday, October 27, 2014

Andy Catlett

I am pretty mesmerized by Wendell Berry's Port Williams books. I believe this is the fourth book in the series I have read. Unlike Nathan Coulter, Andy Catlett relates the same historical connection that Berry does with Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow. Like Nathan Coulter, however Andy recounts the events of a specific period of time. He just does so in a way that ties the history together.

It is interesting to read more about the Feltners, Andy's grandparents and at the time of the story Hannah's in-laws. Both recount them as the type of neighbor you want to have. Both remind me of my grandmother. Thrift. Kind. Stern. Loving.

Andy however reminds me of the side of myself that people say reminds them of my uncle Dick. Not just the storyteller, but the friend who knows everyone. Like Andy, I pause wishing I had asked my elders questions. Like him I see a history vanishing among us, a tie to the land, and battles fought not just on foreign fields, but in the heartlands, a history where homesteading was a way of life and not the newest fad.

Andy Catlett is the musings of an old man; it’s a longing for an older time. It’s a good book. It does not match the strength of Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter, but those are near perfect books. Berry may not have another book that matches the depth of those two. But what Berry master’s in each book is embracing the persona of the same cast of characters. Nathan Coulter is not the same as Jayber Crow. Their writing styles may be similar, but that is accounted for by growing up in the same community. However, where Jayber can write in beautiful, flowing language, Nathan writes in shorter thoughts. Andy writes with the words of a story teller. He does not get lost in details, but knows which details are important to the story. He has a mastery of tone that Nathan lacks.

The strength of this particular story is (in my reading) the love story of Hannah and Andy told from the younger perspective. These two share a love that both mention. And that love being told from Andy’s perspective is interesting. What does he remember feeling for Hannah at such a young age. The two are now older as this story is told. They have a very different relationship. But the kind affection is clearly there, just told differently as it was experienced differently.

Andy Coulter reminds me (as mentioned earlier) of the side of me that connects to the older world; that side of me that wants to pick up and move to the farm, to live an older life. In that sense I respect Andy, I understand him. But the depth of story, the heartbreak and emotion told through his story just lacks a little compared with his elders.

Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men into Authentic Brotherhood

I finished Nate Larkin's Samson and the Pirate Monks over the weekend. I read it over the course of a month or so. At first I didn't like Larkin's writing style; it almost seemed too conversational. The more I read it though, the more I embraced the style and enjoyed the substance. Larkin is writing as his true self, not in a way to attract and garner attention and praise. Although we probably would approach things differently I think we line up on this: the Church is failing men (not only men, but that is the focus of this particular book). It likes to put them in programs where they look handsome and successful. However, like so many other programs, these programs lack any substance. Surface presentations fall apart, and eventually people get caught.

Larkin presented himself quite well while deceiving a lot of people. Eventually the wheels fell off. He had to rebuild. What I particularly enjoyed about his story was simply this - he acknowledges that he started the journey with bad motives. I love it. He did what he did to get his wife back, not because it was the good, Christian thing to do. With bad motives he failed and floundered. He eventually found a place where he could meet with God and that made the real change

Since leaving behind the games of so many others, Larkin has found a place to minister out of his authentic self. That ministry has in turn changed the lives of other men. And that is what the Pirate Monks are all about: genuine male friendship and comradery. Larkin has surrounded himself with men and women that can speak into his life. He has not created the next big idea that is just a way to pad his pockets. Sure…he can sell some books, but so can any other member of the Samson Society. It’s a true society and not a one-man show.

I was encouraged that Larkin and his merry bandits understand that what they have is not a substitute for a church program. In fact, churches would probably water down and change the substance of Samson as it would not meet the needs of a church’s goals. In fact, we don’t go to church for authentic relationship anyway, right? Of course that is a stinging allegation, but in today’s society it is a critique that the Church must deal with. Many come to church not for authentic relationship and change through intimate relationship. They come to the country club; they come to be seen. Little do they know that places like the Samson Society provide avenues for them to be truly seen…as they really are, not as they present. And I think that is why these pirates understand that what they do and have is not something that can be bottled up inside the confines of a business institution like the Church. It is pretty refreshing to hear them admit as much. So…overall – good read.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nathan Coulter

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From my understanding Nathan Coulter was Wendell Berry’s first entry into Port William. It was for me however, my third visit. I had previously read Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter before picking up the inaugural writing of a place I have grown to love. Much of what I appreciated about the previous books holds true for Nathan Coulter. It is a good first-person narrative. Many of the same characters appear. It is great Americana. The story is natural. Berry’s soapbox issues of farming, urban flight, family and so much more are present.

But, and this is my own issue, the perspective of the character is different than I expected. Part of this can be contributed to who Jayber and Hannah were, and expecting Nathan to tell a story like them. Part of this can be contributed to Berry finding his voice later in the series. Primarily it has to do with a limited passage of time. Wherein Jayber and Hannah recount these beautiful full-life autobiographies, Nathan tells of a specific era of his life. We do not get the same birth-to-death type feel of the other books. Truth be told it works for Nathan when you read Hannah; I just expected more, because of what I know of the author.
Some people have compared Berry to Normal Rockwell for his type of filtered Americana and positive messages. I can see the comparison, but the reality is that dramatic plots do not necessarily mean that his work is any less intense. What gets me as a reader is the reality of the experience of his characters. They are in a sense more connected to things such as death. They have real responses and emotional connectivity to others. They simply act appropriately instead of glossing over internal emotions that interfere with proper plot points.
By way of critique, as I mentioned above, I wanted more of Nathan’s life. I wanted to see Hannah’s other half at an old age. What did he take away from the marriage? What was his experience through those same years? As someone who enjoys the Port William Membership I wanted that. And it was nowhere to be found.
However, what I got was a glimpse at Nathan’s family life and some periphery characters like Big Ellis that are barely mentioned in other works. Specifically, Nathan Coulter addresses the larger than life Burley Coulter. Burley seems to be the heart and soul of the Membership, yet, to my knowledge, he does not have his own work. Everything of we know Burley we learn from someone else. Nathan, by far, gives us the best picture of a man that may be the very heart of Berry’s works.
So, who is this for; who should read Nathan Coulter? I would say someone who has not ventured into Port William, but wants a short introduction to Berry’s style. Or, for those who love the stories of Port William and want another glimpse. Enjoyed the work. Typical Berry. Beautiful storytelling.