Archive for the ‘2023 Books’ Category

Burning it down

Well, that was pretty weird.

Over the past couple of days, purely by chance, I read two novels, written 50+ years apart: both murder mysteries (sort of), both with a setting of a struggling Catholic school, and both involving not only murder, but fires or bombs. Flames. Ashes. Scorching.

Very different though. And neither that great, so I’ll try not to spend too much of my life in this space talking about them.

The books were: Ashes to Ashes (1971) by Emma Lathen and Scorched Grace (2023) by Margo Douaihy.

But first: why?

Well, with Ashes to Ashesthat was thanks to a reader who mentioned it in this comment. I read it via Archive.org. Scorched Grace was – you guessed it – on the “new books” shelf at Homewood Public Library. You can probably tell from the cover why I thought I’d try it out.

Ashes to Ashes was written, as I said, by Emma Lathen, but Emma Lathen is not one person. It’s a pseudonym for two women who partnered to write many mystery novels – their story is here. (Quite accomplished women, getting graduate degrees – in economics and law – from Harvard in the early 1950’s.)

Their detective, John Putnam Thatcher is a banker. The plot:

The St. Bernadette’s Parents League was formed to save the old, bankrupt parochial school from being replaced by a twenty-story apartment house. The irate protesters had sentiment and Francis P. Omara on their side, Unger Realty had John Putnam Thatcher of Sloan Guaranty Trust, four million dollars, and the Archdiocese of New York behind them. Francis P. Omara was a powerful spokesman for his cause – but so was an unknown killer with a butcher’s mallet who was determined to have the last word…. And so John Putnam Thatcher, the Sloan’s urbane V.P., finds himslef out of Wall Street, in the heart of Queens, and smack in the middle of unholy murder!

Not unholy murder??!!

Scorched Grace:

 Sister Holiday, a chain-smoking, heavily tattooed, queer nun, puts her amateur sleuthing skills to the test in this debut crime novel.

When Saint Sebastian’s School becomes the target of a shocking arson spree, the Sisters of the Sublime Blood and their surrounding community are thrust into chaos. Unsatisfied with the officials’ response, sardonic and headstrong Sister Holiday becomes determined to unveil the mysterious attacker herself and return her home and sanctuary to its former peace. Her investigation leads down a twisty path of suspicion and secrets in the sticky, oppressive New Orleans heat, turning her against colleagues, students, and even fellow Sisters along the way.

Sister Holiday is more faithful than most, but she’s no saint. To piece together the clues of this high-stakes mystery, she must first reckon with the sins of her checkered past-and neither task will be easy.

Okay, I know a lot of you stopped reading at queer nun, but bear with me.

(And for the record, Sister Holiday is celibate and committed to her new life. Not celibate in her memories, though, so be warned if you are thinking you’ll take a look.)

Of course, these are very different novels. Ashes to Ashes is boilerplate midcentury mystery that tells us a bit about the time in which it was written. Scorched Grace, written in the first person, tells us more about her (and her creator) than about its time and place – supposedly New Orleans of the early 21st century. 

The reason Ashes was recommended to me was, indeed because of the picture it paints of that mid-century, just post-Vatican II world of mostly ethnic Catholics in Queens.   The treatment of the murder was odd – there were stretches of the book in which it drops out of sight, no one’s talking about it, and you almost forget it happened. And the solution is very much in the genre of “Guy figures out who did it from a bunch of information that the reader has not had but is laid out at the very end.”  That didn’t do much for me at all.

But I was interested in the glimpses of Catholic life in this period of transition in church and culture. For example – once the protests against closing the school ramp up, another group shows up on the doorstep, so to speak, to join forces – aka gain publicity for their own cause:

Another protest ends up in chaos as a group of chanting “Bhagavad Catholics” show up – with bags of contraceptive pills to distribute to anyone, including curious teenaged girls. That was…very weird.

That’s outlandish, of course, but what isn’t are a few conversations in the novel between women: some indifferent to the birth control advocates, others shocked at the very idea that any Catholic woman might be contracepting and still others outraged that these grifters have shown up, attaching themselves to a legitimate cause.

And how about this take on the changes in the Mass (this is 1971, remember)

Now that’s something I hadn’t thought about before – all this talk about “having the Mass in the vernacular” – what about in those communities in this era, in which there were still large pockets of non-English speaking immigrants in English-language parishes? Huh.

The synopsis of Scorched Grace was not promising, but I forged ahead. I’m interested in how people experience and create work with a faith angle, no matter what their perspective, for it gives me insight into how faith is, indeed experienced by a variety of people. What do they see when they see “Catholic” or “Christian?” What do they think that means in the world?

I have no idea what this author’s religious background is – her background describes her as Lebanese-American, and the Catholic elements of this novel are not unknowing, although the central set of characters – the four sisters, counting Sister Holiday – are the weakest element by far, not rooted in much that is real.

That is to say – Sister Holiday’s thoughts and even prayers reflect something authentic. The way in which she relates God, her faith and the events around her ring true – for this character. But the picture of the lives of these sisters is more fantastical and fable-like. They are mostly caricatures – one is absurdly mean, all the time – and their order, as written, is a mess. They dress very traditionally, but they are long known for their social justice stances. Which is not impossible, of course, but in the context of contemporary religious life, doesn’t make sense.

It brings up the question of suspension of disbelief and how “real” does a fictional world have to be, and I have no firm answer for that. I mean, how can you have a book about a talking spider who weaves words to save a talking pig from letters brought to her by a talking rat and then say…hmmm…I don’t think White gets this detail of what a mid-century country fair would be like quite right.

But if he didn’t get it pretty much right…we wouldn’t be as engaged with the spider, the pig and the rat, would we?

I’m sure the scholars have it sorted out and probably even have technical terms for it, but I don’t.

Anyway, Douaihy writes a lot of words getting the setting, the feel and the sound of New Orleans right – she wants to make sure we are living in this place and it’s real to us. So I suppose, in that context, the broad-brushed drawings of these sisters who bear no relationship to any sister I’ve ever known – and I’ve known all kinds – breaks the book for me. In addition, the stream of consciousness style diluted tension and ended up being rambling, not surprisingly.

Which is too bad, because despite the trendy punk rock queer nun business and just some general overwroughtness  – Scorched Grace has something valuable to say about what our sins do to us and what it takes to start again, and yes, burning has something to do with it. I spent a lot of this book wondering, Okay, why is this woman joining this community? And blaming the author for not being clear about it – when, turning the page – well, she tells us, and it made sense. The reason was, as much of the book, rather obvious and (I’ll say it again) overwrought and even feverish, but it fit and was even affecting.

Well, that’s a long journey isn’t it? From Catholic women shocked at the thought of contraception to a punky gay sister solving crimes between smokes.

But guess what – these books do have something in common – besides the schools and the fires, that is. Something very, very important: the Bad Guys.

No, no – not the “bad guy” as in “murderer,” but the Bad Guy as in a general, malevolent force for ill that cares more about institutional values than human beings. In both books it’s…..

The archdiocese.

Some things… just don’t change.

Now there’s a book group discussion starter for you….

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This was an excellent bit of history – well-written, clear, and faithful to the sources.

I came upon it when I saw the author – UC Berkeley history professor Margaret Chowning’s most recent book (published this month) mentioned in list of forthcoming historical works. The new one is Catholic Women and Mexican Politics, 1750–1940 – “How women preserved the power of the Catholic Church in Mexican political life.”

I thought – well, that’s interesting. I’ll have to read that. It’s too early for it to be available via interlibrary loan, so I wondered what else she’d written and found this. Let’s go.

Before I present the summary (which I am going to crib from another website) – let me tell you what I appreciated about the book, what it illuminated and the context it helps establish for thinking about religious life today. The summary I’m going to post is pretty long, and some of you might drift away before the end of that, so I’ll make my points first.

I say to you again and again that reading history – and by that I mean accounts relating small corners of the past, not sweeping general works – can be very helpful in keeping your bearings in the present. Of course, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of the past, especially if we’re talking Church, which we are in this space, most of the time. But beyond that, to read a monograph like this – or to even a summary of it – highlights a lot of plain truths, mainly this one:

Life in the church is always lived by complicated human beings in complicated times. Church structures are always impacted by their cultural, social and political context. They shift, change and develop. People argue. People fight. People in spiritual positions act out of non-spiritual reasons all the time. In fact, in this life on earth, in this incarnational existence, is there any other way?

So in this case, I was prompted, for one, to think a lot about the role of religious orders and their sustenance. Very often today, we look at the struggles and the general decline (with some exceptions) of women’s religious life, and we compare it to the apparent flourishing of the same in the past, and we can see nothing but a reason for condemnation of the present. Faithless, we say. Look what previous generations were able to support!

Well, let’s look at how those Mexican enclosed convents existed. The choir nuns – fully professed – were at the center of convent life. These choir nuns had to be of certain racial stock (not indigenous, not even a drop), and they entered with a dowry. The dowry was then generally invested and used as a lending source. In short, most of these convents were banks and mortgage institutions – that’s how they financially survived, and for a time, flourished. It wasn’t because of incredibly faithful donors who sacrificially made it all possible. It was because of canny financial activities. There was a time in which the convent at the heart of this book suffered financially, for several reasons, including an excess of expenditures, but also because the majordomo hired to collect rents and interest wasn’t doing his job well.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that system. I don’t know enough to judge that. It’s just the way it was. All I’m saying is that knowing this gives essential context when we attempt to compare the apparent strength of religious life in respective eras.

Before the summary, I’ll skip to the end of the story. The Mexican government suppressed all convents in 1863. Many enclosed nuns tried to stay together after the suppression, taking up residence in private homes, attempting to maintain some sort of common prayer life. The Purisma nuns were apparently not able to do so – Chowning can’t find any evidence. However, in a rather moving coda, when Chowning visits San Miguel in the writing of the book, a sister at the church tells her the story of more recent history. Four sisters attempted to return in thee 1920’s, but were driven out, of course, by yet another revolution. But then:

So here you go – this is from a review of the book, found here:

Before you read, however – something this reviewer omits is that the foundress was a (very) young woman from San Miguel named María Josepha Lina. An orphaned heiress, she very much wanted to continue her father’s wish for establishing a convent in the town. She was influenced to support the Conceptionists, despite the fact that she had reformed (austere) tendencies – and that had been her father’s intention – probably because of a spiritual advisor’s ties to the Conceptionists. The Conceptionists were not reformed – they followed the more worldly model of female religious life. So you can see that there are potential problems from the beginning. So:

The rebellion revolved around the issue of reform. La Purísima was established as a reformed convent, where nuns strictly observed their vows of poverty and enclosure and lived the vida común (common life), sharing meals and sleeping in communal dormitories. Donadas (lay sisters) and nuns did convent work, in place of personal servants.

The first abbess interpreted the convent’s mission narrowly, insisting on a taxing devotional schedule even though nuns had multiple responsibilities beyond spiritual duties. A rebellious faction emerged, led by Phelipa de San Antonio.

Like the abbess, Phelipa had come from an unreformed Conceptionist convent in Mexico City to help found La Purísima. She was the first to suffer an illness that later moved among her followers. Described as the salto (jumping sickness) or the mal, it was characterized by sufferers’ trancelike state and jerky movements. Afflicted nuns stayed in their cells, received extra food, and were released from many obligations. Contemporaries suspected fakery, although Chowning considers the possibility of somatic causes, at least in Phelipa’s case. Yet Phelipa and others may also have manipulated the symptoms in order to resist the vida común and undermine the authority of the abbess and bishop. The abbess and her like-minded successor were forced out after the first period of rebellion and, after six peaceful years, Phelipa became abbess. Reform-minded nuns complained to the bishop about Phelipa’s administration. Under her tenure nuns wore secular clothes, received male visitors, and mounted plays.

It was during this period that the salto spread. Although an episcopal investigation failed to remove Phelipa, she was not reelected, probably due to factors including rigged elections and the untimely death of the esteemed pro-reform foundress, possibly seen as a martyr.

In 1792, however, Phelipa’s wishes came true (although posthumously); the bishop imposed the vida particular (individual life) on La Purísima, with nuns receiving stipends for their individual needs. This was touted as a solution to ongoing financial problems, partially caused by the remarkable, and endowment-depleting, practice of letting dowryless donadas profess as white veil nuns after a decade of service.

However, the adoption of the vida particular was as much an ideological as a financial decision; Chowning argues that it was inspired by the belief of the bishop and his advisers in free market ideals such as rationalism and individualism. The convent, like the region, suffered economically during the war of independence, but recovered afterwards, although recruitment, a longstanding problem, decreased precipitously. This was due partially to anticlerical characterizations of nuns as prisoners and non-service convents as useless, and to laws making church property taxable, which affected finances. Both factors made convents less attractive to potential novices and their families. In addition, the bishop forced La Purísima to radically limit admissions—because it was not attracting elite, dowried women, new entrants added nothing to the endowment. Finally, with the Liberal government’s closure of convents in 1863, the nuns were turned out.

As I said, this was well-written history. The only thing missing was a timeline of major events. That would have been helpful. I’m looking forward to reading her newest book:

What accounts for the enduring power of the Catholic Church, which withstood widespread and sustained anticlerical opposition in Mexico? Margaret Chowning locates an answer in the untold story of how the Mexican Catholic church in the nineteenth century excluded, then accepted, and then came to depend on women as leaders in church organizations.

But much more than a study of women and the church or the feminization of piety, the book links new female lay associations beginning in the 1840s to the surprisingly early politicization of Catholic women in Mexico. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials spanning more than a century of Mexican political life, Chowning boldly argues that Catholic women played a vital role in the church’s resurrection as a political force in Mexico after liberal policies left it for dead.

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