Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Divine Sculptures; Heavenly Hogwash; and the Immortal Ian McEwan

bookie 17 Our Critics Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Divine Sculptures; Heavenly Hogwash; and the Immortal Ian McEwan Amazon seems to think it’s a children’s book (“Reading level: Ages 9–12”); the publishers’ classification over the bar code mentions African-American Studies—but I’d say that Elizabeth Spires’ I Heard God Talking to Me (FSG, $17.95) is a stunningly handsome art book, a fine tribute in poems and photographs to the sculpture of William Edmondson, the first black artist to be given a one-man show at MoMA. (That was in 1937, when Edmondson was about 63 years old, about six years after the retired hospital janitor had begun carving stone with a railroad spike and hammer.)

The photos in I Heard God Talking to Me, all black and white, are by Edward Weston and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, the Harper’s Bazaar photographer who brought Edmondson’s work to the attention of curators at MoMA.

Amazon seems to think it’s a children’s book (“Reading level: Ages 9–12”); the publishers’ classification over the bar code mentions African-American Studies—but I’d say that Elizabeth Spires’ I Heard God Talking to Me (FSG, $17.95) is a stunningly handsome art book, a fine tribute in poems and photographs to the sculpture of William Edmondson, the first black artist to be given a one-man show at MoMA. (That was in 1937, when Edmondson was about 63 years old, about six years after the retired hospital janitor had begun carving stone with a railroad spike and hammer.)

The photos in I Heard God Talking to Me, all black and white, are by Edward Weston and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, the Harper’s Bazaar photographer who brought Edmondson’s work to the attention of curators at MoMA. The poems are by Ms. Spires, and they are indeed easy to read; some of them are merely Edmondson’s own words arranged in stanzas. And the sculptures … well, the artist thought he was divinely inspired (“I’se just doing the Lord’s Work. I didn’t know I was no artist till them folks told me I was”); I may be a card-carrying atheist, but I wouldn’t want to argue with him: His figures are limestone brought to life.

I Heard God Talking to Me comes together in splendid harmony—a beautiful book, simple and powerful. Like Edmondson’s sculpture, it’s a work of art without being in the least artsy.

 

IF IT WEREN’T FOR the Philip Pullman blurb on the cover, I would assume that no atheist could properly appreciate David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives (Pantheon, $20), a collection of imaginative prose doodles about what could happen after we die. I found myself very occasionally amused, in particular by the scenario that has the virtuous rotting peacefully in their graves while the iniquitous endure suburbia for all eternity: “Only sinners enjoy life after death.” (Nice choice of verb.)

A neuroscientist who has three more books coming within the next two years, all of them purely scientific, Mr. Eagleman is a capable writer. But his ideas about the hereafter aren’t nearly startling enough. Almost all of them presuppose some kind of supernatural agency—which means I immediately lose any real interest. Inertia and mild curiosity kept me reading, even after the repetition of the standard formula “In the afterlife …” began to grate.

The author’s most successful trick is to play on our preconceived sense of scale. Humans, in this vignette, “are merely the nutritional substrate”:

“There is no afterlife for us. Our bodies decompose upon death, and then the teeming floods of microbes living inside us move on to better places. This may lead you to assume that God doesn’t exist—but you’d be wrong. It’s simply that He doesn’t know we exist. He is unaware of us because we’re at the wrong spatial scale. God is the size of a bacterium. He is not something outside and above us, but on the surface and in the cells of us.”

Wow. Takes me right back to those dorm-room bull sessions.

 

FROM DANIEL ZALEWSKI’S very long and somewhat solemn profile of Ian McEwan in The New Yorker (Feb. 23, $4.50): “The idea of an afterlife, that we’ll meet again in some … theme park? There seems no good reason to think so.”

Mr. Zalewski’s best moment:

“McEwan’s presiding interest has always been psychology, and, like many scientists of his generation, he has shifted his intellectual allegiances. At first, he studied perversity; now he studies normality. His first god was Freud. Now it is Darwin.”

Mr. McEwan’s, saved for the very end:

“You spend the morning, and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They’ve got that twist, a little trip, that delights you. And you hope they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row. They often come when you’re fiddling around with something that’s already there. You see that by reversing a word order or taking something out, suddenly it tightens into what it was always meant to be.”