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In 1975 Annie Dillard took up residence on an island in Puget Sound in a wooded room furnished with "one enormous window, one cat, one spider and one person." For the next two years she asked herself questions about time, reality, sacrifice death, and the will of God. In Holy the Firm she writes about a moth consumed in a candle flame, about a seven-year-old girl burned in an airplane accident, about a baptism on a cold beach. But behind the moving curtain of what she calls "the hard things -- rock mountain and salt sea," she sees, sometimes far off and sometimes as close by as a veil or air, the power play of holy fire.

This is a profound book about the natural world -- both its beauty and its cruelty -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dillard knows so well.

Published: HarperCollins on Oct 13, 2009
ISBN: 9780061871658
List price: $6.99
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Annie Dillard writes boldly and brings the same devoted attention to a dusty beetle carcass or a weather pattern that she brings to the mutilation of a child, to human relations and to god. She is earnest in a rare, humble and humorous fashion, never flippant or cheap and occasionally riveting and wise. Because of the passages that she gets right, I don't feel like ripping apart the weaker places in this book where she seems to fall short, channeling, for instance, the least exceptional moments of Walt Whitman or Hart Crane or the passages where, for one reason or another, I don't wrestle along beside her with whatever tragedy or injustice she spends pages piling objects and experiences around. I have patience for her because she has at least three distinct ways of getting it right: Her focus on small things generally seems warranted, even when she doesn't tax her subjects with becoming metaphors that help her assemble spiritual thoughts. To me, such passages can be a useful reminder to slow down and pay attention; to get outside of myself. And they are written nicely, reminding me of Francis Ponge, "There is a spider, too, in the bathroom, with whom I keep a sort of company. Her little outfit always reminds me of a certain moth I helped to kill. The spider herself is of uncertain lineage, bulbous at the abdomen and drab. Her six-inch mess of a web works, works somehow, works miraculously, to keep her alive and me amazed. The web itself is in a corner behind the toilet, connecting the tile wall to tile wall and floor, in a place where there is, I would have thought, scant traffic. Yet under the web are sixteen or so corpses that she has tossed to the floor." When she admits other humans into her narrative, she treats them with tender care and assembles, quite deliberately, the circumstances that make them sensible, "She saw me watching her and we exchanged a look, a very conscious and self-conscious look--because we look a bit alike and we both knew it; because she was still short and I grown; because I was stuck kneeling before the cider pail, looking at her sidewise over my shoulder; because she was carrying the cat so oddly, so that she had to walk with her long legs parted; because it was my cat, and she'd dressed it, and it looked like a nun; and because she knew I'd been watching her, and how fondly, all along." And she inevitably (at least in her works that are not novels, in which she can comfortably announce, "Nothing is going to happen in this book") gets to talking about god or about divinity or immanence or transcendence, or whatever she is comfortable calling it. She forages through the mystic tradition of various religions unearthing salient little quotation gems (though mostly from Judeo-Christian sources) and unflinchingly adds her own prerogative, which is reliably unorthodox in a fashion that is both critical and accepting. She is also more than comfortable launching small attacks against god and theology: "Did Christ descend once and for all to no purpose, in a kind of divine and kenotic suicide, or ascend once and for all, pulling his cross up after him like a rope ladder home?" I can imagine her utterances about God proving abrasive to some readers and a real cynic might associate some of her musings with a thinly elevated chicken soup for the soul sort of pocket philosophy; but I don't think that Dillard is trying to write manuals or aphorisms and I like that she is unashamed to mix her personal doubts and struggles into the thoughts and observations that she is good enough to share. This book is scarcely fifty pages long and it is not nearly as good as "Teaching a Stone to Talk."read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Richard Eder tells of a reader who, in an effort to make the book last, limits herself to three chapters of Don Quixote at a time (NYT, 14 Nov 2003). I move even more slowly through Holy the Firm, but from engagement rather than discipline. Early pages provide such rich soil that I cannot read on; passages require multiple sittings, multiple years to mine, and reading cannot be rushed. Any action or happening is impetus for Dillard's relentless scrutiny and consideration. Similarly, her work cannot be devoured; it must be absorbed, as she is, in detail.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.

Reviews

Annie Dillard writes boldly and brings the same devoted attention to a dusty beetle carcass or a weather pattern that she brings to the mutilation of a child, to human relations and to god. She is earnest in a rare, humble and humorous fashion, never flippant or cheap and occasionally riveting and wise. Because of the passages that she gets right, I don't feel like ripping apart the weaker places in this book where she seems to fall short, channeling, for instance, the least exceptional moments of Walt Whitman or Hart Crane or the passages where, for one reason or another, I don't wrestle along beside her with whatever tragedy or injustice she spends pages piling objects and experiences around. I have patience for her because she has at least three distinct ways of getting it right: Her focus on small things generally seems warranted, even when she doesn't tax her subjects with becoming metaphors that help her assemble spiritual thoughts. To me, such passages can be a useful reminder to slow down and pay attention; to get outside of myself. And they are written nicely, reminding me of Francis Ponge, "There is a spider, too, in the bathroom, with whom I keep a sort of company. Her little outfit always reminds me of a certain moth I helped to kill. The spider herself is of uncertain lineage, bulbous at the abdomen and drab. Her six-inch mess of a web works, works somehow, works miraculously, to keep her alive and me amazed. The web itself is in a corner behind the toilet, connecting the tile wall to tile wall and floor, in a place where there is, I would have thought, scant traffic. Yet under the web are sixteen or so corpses that she has tossed to the floor." When she admits other humans into her narrative, she treats them with tender care and assembles, quite deliberately, the circumstances that make them sensible, "She saw me watching her and we exchanged a look, a very conscious and self-conscious look--because we look a bit alike and we both knew it; because she was still short and I grown; because I was stuck kneeling before the cider pail, looking at her sidewise over my shoulder; because she was carrying the cat so oddly, so that she had to walk with her long legs parted; because it was my cat, and she'd dressed it, and it looked like a nun; and because she knew I'd been watching her, and how fondly, all along." And she inevitably (at least in her works that are not novels, in which she can comfortably announce, "Nothing is going to happen in this book") gets to talking about god or about divinity or immanence or transcendence, or whatever she is comfortable calling it. She forages through the mystic tradition of various religions unearthing salient little quotation gems (though mostly from Judeo-Christian sources) and unflinchingly adds her own prerogative, which is reliably unorthodox in a fashion that is both critical and accepting. She is also more than comfortable launching small attacks against god and theology: "Did Christ descend once and for all to no purpose, in a kind of divine and kenotic suicide, or ascend once and for all, pulling his cross up after him like a rope ladder home?" I can imagine her utterances about God proving abrasive to some readers and a real cynic might associate some of her musings with a thinly elevated chicken soup for the soul sort of pocket philosophy; but I don't think that Dillard is trying to write manuals or aphorisms and I like that she is unashamed to mix her personal doubts and struggles into the thoughts and observations that she is good enough to share. This book is scarcely fifty pages long and it is not nearly as good as "Teaching a Stone to Talk."
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Richard Eder tells of a reader who, in an effort to make the book last, limits herself to three chapters of Don Quixote at a time (NYT, 14 Nov 2003). I move even more slowly through Holy the Firm, but from engagement rather than discipline. Early pages provide such rich soil that I cannot read on; passages require multiple sittings, multiple years to mine, and reading cannot be rushed. Any action or happening is impetus for Dillard's relentless scrutiny and consideration. Similarly, her work cannot be devoured; it must be absorbed, as she is, in detail.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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