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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

I read two novels this week – in print! Thank you, libraries!

The first, Blackwood , by Michael Farris Smith, is a Southern Gothic type novel that didn’t quite work for me.  The central, driving tension did: how we cope with what we have done and what we have failed to do – and what has been done to us. Basically (and I’ll say it outright, since it’s the opening scene of the book) – a man, who, as a boy, witnessed his father’s last moments of life, a suicide. (But I’ll hold something back here, since its reveal is a good, jolting shock) – He spends his life wondering about his own role and bearing wounds of childhood trauma that even precedes his father’s death.

And I’ll say, that the way in which all of this circles around at the end is, indeed, grace-filled and redemptive, and even surprisingly so.

But the other part of the story is gothic, haunted, creepy, with kudzu as the metaphor and strange, damaged, damaging people doing strange deeds under the vines. Life is being choked out, the doings are hidden, and, it seems, nothing short of burning it all down will rid the world of the evil.

I mean, okay. And it was pretty readable, albeit sad, but the Gothic-ness was a little labored for me.

So let’s move on to Followers, which was more interesting, but flawed as well.

amy_welbornHere, we jump between time zones, so to speak: the recent past (2015/6) and the future (2051). In the recent past, we focus on Orla and Floss – one aspiring writer, stuck on a celebrity blog who believes she can and will do better and more, and the other an aspiring celebrity with all of the self-regard and conniving that aspiring celebrities generally have. And so, they join forces in order to reach those planets of fame and fortune.

In the future, we have Marlow, who has been raised in a place called Constellation, which is essentially a 24-hour Land of Social Media, where everyone’s lives are lived online, so to speak, in front of millions of followers.

Somewhere in between the two eras was a mysterious (for most of the book) disaster referred to as “The Spill” – which seemed to have wiped out the internet and the means of communication and information sharing that we know today, and the reaction to which scared everyone off the Internet,  which then allowed the government to step in and take control of it all. The Spill and the aftermath also made devices as we know them today, obsolete – replacing them with “Devices” that are implanted in the wrist and feed everything – thoughts, information, images – directly to the brain, confusing the individual as to what he or she is generating and what’s coming from outside.

Pretty complicated, but it mostly works, although I felt it was a bit long. Author Megan Angelo casts a healthy critical eye over the power of social media and the Internet, and what it does to us as individuals and the kind of culture it builds and supports.

Ellis thought so, too. “Hold on!” he said, waving his hands. “Save it, Mar. This is your authentic reaction to becoming a mother. You’ve gotta share it with your followers.” He opened the bathroom door and prodded her out, to where she could be seen. 

It’s about the hunger to influence, to matter in a big way, to feel important, and to do so by getting people interested in you or your narrative. I think the novel does a good job of exploring this in an imaginative way, skewering what highly merits being skewered, but there’s a missing piece. The focus is on characters who hunger for the influence –  but just as interesting to me is what makes that possible: the hunger to be influenced. What drives, not just those who want followers, but the followers themselves. That’s the other part of the dynamic and it could use some skewering, too.

But for the most part, Followers is a pretty entertaining, sharp look at the power of the Internet and social media, and how stupid it all is, and how, in the end, it distances us from the Real – as in this really quite beautiful and true passage:

Where could Marlow possibly be, besides, where she’d been told to go?

Here. Here, cutting through choppy, silt-filled water, away from all of them and closer to the truth. Marlow had been taught that being watched put food on the table, that there wasn’t a better way to live. But she had seen, on the sidewalks of New York, all the happy nobodies — people whose days weren’t built around lengthening the trail of attention spans floating behind them. They were paunchy and muttering and somehow more alive, and they made Marlow feel sorry for Floss and Ellis, with their endless performing, and Honey, with her army of dark-hearted disciples. They might have had all the followers, but they were never finished chasing.

Marlow was done being looked at. Now she was doing the looking, and finally seeing things differently. She found, in the sunrise, all the colors the pills had kept from her for years: a shade of orange she loved. A yellow that reminded her of when it was her favorite. A pink that might have been fine after all. She was hearing something, too, in the space her device used to fill: a brand-new voice inside her head, telling her to keep going. 

She leaned over the boat’s railing, into the spray, and listened to the voice. She was almost positive it sounded like herself. 

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St. Patrick's Well, Orvieto

What is this and what does it have to do with St. Patrick? See the end of the blog post…

From The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

How do you teach a classroom that’s as big as a whole country? How do you teach a whole country about God?

St. Patrick’s classroom was the whole country of Ireland and his lesson was the good news of Jesus Christ. How in the world did he do it? Well, it was only possible because he depended totally on God.

….

God gave Patrick the courage to speak, even when Patrick was in danger of being hurt by pagan priests who didn’t want to lose their power over the people.

Patrick’s most famous prayer shows us how close he was to God. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” A breastplate is the piece of armor that protects a soldier’s heart from harm.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.

I also have a chapter on the beautiful Lorica prayer – or St. Patrick’s Breastplate in The Words We Pray. You can dip into it here and buy the book here. It’s one of my favorites of those I’ve written.

Here’s the last page of the chapter:

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The point of St Patrick to me has always been he went back. He (like Isaac Jogues and many others) returned to the people who had caused him much suffering. Why did he return? Because he knew, first hand, that they needed to hear the Gospel. The Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Who better to bring it to them?

St. Patrick's Breastplate

St. Patrick’s Breastplate in a Wordcloud. Wordcloud made via this. Feel free to share.

The photograph at the top of the blog post is of St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto, Italy, taken during our 2016 trip. No, St. Patrick never traveled to Italy, and no one thinks he does, either. The assumption is that the name of this very deep, intriguingly constructed well is derived from the awareness of “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” in Ireland, a cave so deep it led to Purgatory.

This incredible 16th century feat of engineering is 72 meters (174.4 feet) deep and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. Two staircases circle the central opening in a double-helix design, meaning that one person (or donkey carrying empty buckets) can travel down the staircase in one direction and never run into another person (or donkey carrying full buckets) coming up in the other direction. Seventy-two arched windows in the interior wall of the staircase filter light through the well and illuminate the brick and mortar used to seal it.

Why does a tiny town on top of a plateau of volcanic rock (or “tufa”) have such a thing? For the same reason it has such a stunning duomo! After the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII was held hostage in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s holy fortress, for six months. He finally escaped dressed as a servant and took refuge in Orvieto. It was the perfect spot with its vantage point over the valley.

It didn’t, however, have a reliable source of water without descending from the plateau, something the Pope feared could be a issue if it were sieged. To solve the problem before it existed, Pope Clement VII commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a visionary young Italian architect, to create a well that was at that time called “Pozzo della Rocca”, “Well of the Fortress”. Research had already been done to find the most suitable spot for a well and so the design and construction of Pozzo della Roca was begun immediately. It was finished 10 years later in 1537, under the reign of Pope Paul III.

It wasn’t until the 1800′s that the well got its new name, as it reminded some of the “well” or “cave” in Ireland called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory”.

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(I always like these vintage books more for the art than the text….)

Finally, you might be interested in this, dug up from the Internet Archive: A Rhymed Life of St. Patrick by Irish writer Katharine Tynan:

Irish nationalist writer Katharine Tynan was born in Clondalkin, a suburb of Dublin, in 1859. She was educated at the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine and started writing at a young age. Though Catholic, she married a Protestant barrister; she and her husband lived in England before moving to Claremorris, in County Mayo. Tynan was friends with W.B. Yeats and Charles Parnell.

Involved in the Irish Literary Revival, Tynan expressed concern for feminist causes, the poor, and the effects of World War I—two sons fought in the war—in her work. She also meditated on her Catholic faith. A prolific writer, she wrote more than 100 novels, 12 collections of short stories, reminiscences, plays, and more than a dozen books of poetry, among them Louise de la Vallière and Other Poems (1885), Shamrocks (1887), Ballads and Lyrics (1891), Irish Poems (1913), The Flower of Peace: A Collection of the Devotional Poetry of Katharine Tynan (1914), Flower of Youth: Poems in Wartime (1915), and Late Songs (1917). She died in 1931.

 

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The introvert is recovering from over a week of not-solitude. I’ll get there.

MondayLast week was spring break in these parts, and we stuck around. Our one adventure was a day trip to Cheaha State Park, chronicled here. It was fine. Older son worked, younger son got a lot of music in, we had some family visitors. Nothing wrong with staying home and not spending a lot of money.

We have a great deal of travel coming up – still trying to figure out the parameters of Spain in June – and of course, there’s next year Roadschooling, so yeah.

Anyway, to a digest.

Watching: Lots of basketball, of course. People around here are ecstatic about Auburn, but the Vol and Gator in this house keep their distance.

We did watch the film Inception – which I’d never seen. I hadn’t intended to watch it, either, partly because I don’t like Leo, but also because I was convinced that I would end up simply letting confusing images wash over me for two hours. But I ended up sitting there, anyway, and mostly understood it, but it also left me mostly indifferent to the characters’ fates – I mean…they were in mental spaces, right?  

It was mildly thought-provoking on the subject of the power of ideas, which was, I suppose, the intention. The youngest came into my room some time after the movie was over, puzzling over one aspect of it, and said, I just can’t stop thinking about it…

To which, of course, I had to respond…So..it’s like someone implanted it in your brain???

In this category, I suppose I’ll put the two minutes it took to watch the trailer to the new Mary Magdalene movie. Here it is.

Just FYI, this movie has been out for a year in other countries, so reviews are easy to find. Here’s one from the Australian Catholic Conference and here’s one from an independent Catholic website.

My take, just from the trailer? I’m up for Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, but I’d also probably watch Joaquin Phoenix as  Queen Elizabeth, so take that into consideration. But of course, from the trailer and the reviews, the movie seems to get a zillion things wrong or weirdly interpreted. The effect of this seems to be, as it so often is, the ironic outcome of trying to be more contemporary, less traditional and straying from the narrative as we have it is a flattening of the story that buries the truly radical nature of both Jesus’ treatment of women and his message in general.

It’s an interesting take – Luke tells us that MM was possessed by seven demons (the number seven being, in part, symbolic of completeness). Jesus freed her from those demons and in response, she followed him – but not alone. In Luke 8, she’s described as being a part of a group of women who became disciples. The movie renders this “possession” as a social construct: MM doesn’t want to follow traditional female norms, so, of course, everyone thinks she’s crazy.

As I said – sticking with the Scriptures would seem to me to be far more compelling.

Hey! Here’s a book on Mary Magdalene!

Cooking: Since we didn’t travel for spring break, we traveled through area restaurants. I didn’t cook much, but the kitchen is seeing life again today.  For some reason, I keep thinking I’m out of celery when I go to the grocery store, but I never am, so one of the goals for today is Use All the Celery.

A thrilling prospect for my customers, I’m sure.

Reading: 

My son on some weird movie. 

It’s almost like there is a lesson, and that there is evil in the world that can’t be accommodated. Invite the evil in, treat it kindly, and it will still have no objective other than to destroy you. The only thing to do is to prevent evil from coming into your house.

Over the weekend, I read the novel Talk to Me by John Kenney. Why this? The usual – I was in the “new books” section of the library, read the description and the blurbs, and felt it might be worth a look. It was – a very quick read that I finished in the space of twenty-four hours and enjoyed quite a bit.

The plot: A nationally-known and beloved television news anchorman is recorded doing something bad just before a broadcast. Nothing sexual, just – very abusive and hurtful. Of course, it goes viral, and the book is about contemporary internet culture and society through the prism of that fallout. It’s complicated and enriched by family matters – the anchor’s adult daughter works for a Buzzfeed – type outfit and has her own deep issues with her father. If the plot only existed on the level of viral video, memes and comments sections, we wouldn’t have much here. But the family and relational elements give it a necessary and even moving depth and raise questions quite fundamental to this whole wretched scene – as in: why can’t we just live in privacy and peace….well…why don’t we live like this? Why do we choose to subject ourselves to the online life and how does it change us?

The book is easy and amusing and, as I said, even moving at points. What interested me, as it would, is that ONCE AGAIN, a fictional protagonist accesses hints of a way forward in this terrible situation via the sounds, symbols and just simple existence of Catholic things. It’s not ham-handed or painfully direct, but it’s definitely there. His thoughts about seeking forgiveness coalesce as he stumbles into a church, and then a sense of his unity with struggling, weak humanity comes to him as he’s walking around the city, observing people…with Gregorian chant playing in his earbuds.

Trust it. Trust that faith we’ve been given, try to live it and let it live in the world. People are looking for it.

Writing: 

Back to work. I have Living Faith stuff due this week. 

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amy_welbornWell, good morning. I’m going to have a couple of other posts up this morning, so this truly will be a digest without rabbit trails. I’ll force the rabbit trails onto the other posts.

Let’s start with:

Writing: I put the finishing touches on a longish short story called The Absence of War that I’ve posted for sale as an Amazon Kindle ebook – it clocks in at 7000 words or so, so you might get your .99 worth! 

Steve McEvoy has kindly reviewed it here. Go to Steve’s site and enjoy his many many reviews of books. It’s an invaluable site.

What touched me most, and to be honest will have a lasting impact is the sense of other. Or to be more specific the recognition of other, not our impression, and kindle covermemories, but a true encounter. It is not said, but what it reminds me of is the passage ‘Lord open my eyes to see.’. And that is what the story has done, helped me to see differently. 

An excellent story. More than worth the price and time to read. And I can only hope that Mrs. Welborn decides to share more of her fiction with us, If it is as good as this it will be a treat indeed!

Thanks, Steve!

(Steve has also reviewed my son’s short story collections and novel here.)

Over the next week, I’m probably going to put up a novel I wrote a few years back. I’ve gone back and forth about what to do with this book. I actually had an agent agree to represent it and she worked hard to sell it, but obviously without success. But why not just self-published and get it, too, out of my brain and into yours?

I’m also working on another short story. And I have a project due in early January that I finished a solid first draft of mid-summer that it’s time to pick up and revise- that’s what I told myself I’d spend December doing, and wow…it’s almost here.

Reading:  Besides post-election and USCCB stuff, mostly J.F. Powers short fiction, and re-reading for the fifth time or so David Lodge’s Souls and Bodies. Read all the bloggers you want, if you really want to even begin to understand the Church (in the U.S. and England at least…) over the past fifty or sixty years and didn’t live through it yourself, these two are really the way to go.

(Along with Frank Sheed’s The Church and I.)

Oh, also reading TripAdvisor forums on a destination to which we’re traveling this weekend. It will just be for the weekend, and we’ll be in town most of Thanksgiving break, but I’m taking advantage of new direct fares from a discount airline to a place we’ve never been – it will be a quick trip, but, since it will be new to all of us and cheap, hopefully worth the time and money spent! Check out Instagram this weekend for the updates on that. 

Watching: Almost halfway through the last season of Breaking Bad with the guys. Not anything besides that for me.

Listening: Since last we spoke, the daily watch/listening of We are the World has continued apace for some reason, along with other random 70’s and 80’s music videos.

I listened to my son play his Beethoven at his recital – Instagram selection here – and listen to practice organ at various churches around town (we’re up to three different practice venues now – 2 Catholic and 1 Methodist) and to him play with his jazz assignments on his keyboard.

Kind of boring, but it’s 7:21 and so thanks for participating in my early-morning writing exercises….

 

 

 

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— 1 —

It’s the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

Here’s my now-17 year old on the steps back in 2006.

I have a few memories of this Basilica:

  • Our first visit, back in 2006, the stop at St. John Lateran was part of a day led for us by then-seminarian and anonymous blogger Zadok. Remember at the time, my now-almost-13-year old was a bit over a year and was being transported everywhere one someone’s back. We traded him off.  It was a great day, but exhausting as we walked and walked – and if you have been to Rome, you know that the walk between St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major is uphill…way…uphill.
  • I have often referred to the enormous statuary inside St. John Lateran, in which each of the apostles are represented, as is traditional, with the instruments of their martyrdom, St. Bartholomew depicted holding his own skin, as he is traditionaly remembered as having been flayed.
  • As interesting as the church itself is the baptistry, which is enormous.
  • We were in Rome right around Ash Wednesday, and the day we were at St. John Lateran was a Sunday, so the plaza around the church – the area around the obelisk (the oldest  Egyptian obelisk in Rome) – was filled with children dressed in costumes playing games at booths and so on – the Bishop of Rome’s church just like any other parish church during this carnevale
  • We ended up at St. Mary Major during Vespers, and there in a side chapel was Cardinal Law.
  • Back in 2012, the boys and I returned to Rome – in late November as a matter of fact.  My main memory from that trip’s visit to St. John Lateran was a rather aggressive beggar inside the church who was approaching visitors and berating them when they didn’t give – he ended up being driven out rather forcefully by security.

— 2 —

From 2008, Pope Benedict XVI:

The beauty and the harmony of churches, destined to render praise to God, invites us human beings too, though limited and sinful, to convert ourselves to form a “cosmos”, a well-ordered construction, in close communion with Jesus, who is the true Holy of Holies. This reaches its culmination in the Eucharistic liturgy, in which the “ecclesia” that is, the community of baptized finds itself again united to listen to the Word of God and nourish itself on the Body and Blood of Christ. Gathered around this twofold table, the Church of living stones builds herself up in truth and in love and is moulded interiorly by the Holy Spirit, transforming herself into what she receives, conforming herself ever more to her Lord Jesus Christ. She herself, if she lives in sincere and fraternal unity, thus becomes a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God.

Dear friends, today’s feast celebrates an ever current mystery: that God desires to build himself a spiritual temple in the world, a community that adores him in spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4: 23-24). But this occasion reminds us also of the importance of the concrete buildings in which the community gathers together to celebrate God’s praises. Every community therefore has the duty to carefully guard their holy structures, which constitute a precious religious and historical patrimony. For this we invoke the intercession of Mary Most Holy, so that she might help us to become, like her, a “house of God”, living temple of his love.

— 3 —

Tomorrow is feastday of St. Leo the Great.  Here’s a good introduction to this pope from Mike Aquilina.

The Tome of Leo on the nature of Christ.

He’s in The Loyola Catholic Book of Saintsunder “Saints are People who are Strong Leaders.”

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— 4 —

From the Catholic Herald – “A visit that confirmed all my prejudices about England’s protestant revolution:”

Norfolk, I discovered, is full of suppressed Catholicism; every field seems to contain a ruined abbey, every house a priest hole. The most impressive hideout is in Oxburgh Hall, home to the recusant Bedingfields. It’s an assault course: you have to lower yourself down a trapdoor right onto your bottom, slide along the floor beneath a sunken wall and then pull yourself up the other side into a tiny cell with a wooden bench.

Coming out again, backwards, is even harder. How many arthritic clerics went down that hole and never returned? As I squeezed myself into the cell, I imagined finding there a couple of priests from the 1500s, covered in cobwebs, drinking tea. “Is the Reformation over yet?” they ask.

Sometimes it amazes me that English Catholics don’t get angrier about all of this: the desecration of the faith was appalling. What remains of Castle Acre Priory gives visitors an impression of what was lost. A giant Norman religious establishment that housed perhaps 30 Cluniac monks, its enormous west front still stands in tall weeds, almost intact, and the foundational outline of the rest is clear enough that you can trace the nighttime run from dormitory to latrine.

— 5 —

From Crisis: “Recognition for a Much-Neglected English Catholic Artist:”

Dilworth maintains David Jones was a British original: sui generis. Perhaps that is why Jones is also neglected today. Even those interested in English poetry of the twentieth century will have rarely read his work—at best a cult figure for a few. And yet Dilworth argues that Jones’s place is with the greatest literary exponents of the modern era—Joyce, Eliot and Pound. Dilworth concludes his biography claiming that Jones “may be the foremost British [literary] modernist” and that his “creative life is probably the greatest existential achievement of international modernism.” These claims are especially interesting given Jones’s heartfelt and overt Catholicism, a trait clearly evident throughout his work, and, thanks to this biography, no doubt one that will be investigated further in the years to come.

— 6 —

If you do Twitter, check out the account and the hashtag: Before Sharia Spoiled Everything. 

— 7 —

And well…this is actually happening:

 It appears that there will be a Breaking Bad movie, but it is unclear what role that the one who knocks will have in it, according to the man himself.

Bryan Cranston, who claimed four Emmys for his performance as chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-lord Walter White in AMC’s critically worshipped drama, has confirmed that a Breaking Bad movie is happening, though he revealed that even he was in the dark about the details.

“Yes, there appears to be a movie version of Breaking Bad, but honestly I have not even read the script,” Cranston told Dan Patrick on The Dan Patrick Show. “I have not gotten the script, I have not read the script. And so, there’s the question of whether or not we’ll even see Walter White in this movie. Ohhhhh! Think about that one.”

I trust Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to do right by this. There is no way they’d tackle it if they didn’t have a clear vision.  People had doubts about a BB spin-off, but Better Call Saul is quite a different show from Breaking Bad and just as good, in its own way (and some say – even better.)

I say….

Gus-Fring-Wants-You-To-Do-It-On-Breaking-Bad

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Sorry for the initial mis-dating. I started this yesterday…

Good morning. Of course lots has happened since we last met, all of which I spent much time following and thinking about, but for today I’ll stick mostly to my formula in this digest. Maybe another post in a bit on something else.

Watching: As I do every two years, I watched some cable news on election night. You Thursdayknow, when you only see a group of people once every 700 days or so, you can really track the aging process and note how everyone just gets….older and fatter. Except Wolf Blitzer, who hasn’t changed in decades. And Laura Ingraham? What is the deal there? If I had the sound turned off, I would have thought, Huh, another cable news blonde. I didn’t  recognized her at all until she started speaking. What has she had done with her face? I spent the whole time she was on camera, every time, trying to figure it out  – lips? Eyes? General facelift? We’re almost the same age…uh…amazing.

Listening: The Edith Wharton episode of In Our Time. An interesting discussion in which the fraught and shifting views on Wharton as a female writer – feminist or no? – were fairly covered.

The thread that was introduced but not really tied up, though, involved an aspect of her background I’d not known about. She was tutor and self-educated (coming from a wealthy family) and when asked about her reading, one of the panelists emphasized the importance of the works of evolutionists from Spencer to Darwin and others. A few minutes later, as they discussed her predominant themes, they sketched a picture of a changing world, yes, but also a deeply hierarchical world in which the “lower” classes and non-Europeans were given scant attention and that, mostly dismissive. That is to say – a world very reflective of social Darwinism, although no one ever explicitly made that link.

Someone dropped a comment during the discussion about Catholicism, though, that sent me on a rabbit trail, which transitions us to….

Reading:  Aside from the very hot stream of  Super Hot Takes on the election, a close read of the great J. F. Powers story, “The Lord’s Day” – this was about all I managed:

So, as I mentioned, one of the In Our Time scholars mentioned that the Church had condemned or at least criticized Wharton’s work. The impression I got from the discussion was that any Church criticism must have had to do with sexually-scandalous material.

Well, the rabbit trails indicated that was only partly so.

The main critique is related to a poem Wharton wrote on Margaret of Cortona. You can read it here, along with an accompanying Howard Pyle illustration.

Reminder: Margaret of Cortona lived with a man outside of wedlock for nine years and bore him a child. The man was murdered, and upon discovering his body, she converted to a life of penance and charity, eventually becoming a Franciscan tertiary.

In Wharton’s poem, published in Harper’s Monthly in 1901, we meet Margaret on her deathbed, confessing to a friar – is it her son? I don’t know.

The gist of the poem, and what got Catholic readers up in arms,  is that Margaret is torn between her love of Christ and her love of her dead lover – and perhaps even not so torn, since she makes it clear that what she had found with the earthly lover seemed pretty close to heaven. Here on her deathbed, she has prayed and prayed, but has been met with silence, while she knows that if her lover were alive, at least he would respond to her.

I have lain here, these many empty days
I thought to pack with Credos and Hail Marys
So close that not a fear should force the door –
But still, between the blessed syllables
That taper up like blazing angel heads,
Praise over praise, to the Unutterable,
Strange questions clutch me, thrusting fiery arms,
As though, athwart the close-meshed litanies,
My dead should pluck at me from hell, with eyes
Alive in their obliterated faces!…
I have tried the saints’ names and our blessed Mother’s
Fra Paolo, I have tried them o’er and o’er,
And like a blade bent backward at first thrust
They yield and fail me—and the questions stay.
And so I thought, into some human heart,
Pure, and yet foot-worn with the tread of sin,
If only I might creep for sanctuary,
It might be that those eyes would let me rest…

You can see how this would make people unhappy. From an article on “The Catholic in Fiction” from a secular journal called The Reader:

It is incredible that a writer of Mrs. Wharton’s refinement and ability should have taken a canonized saint as the subject on which to exercise such an unseemly flight of fancy….Mrs. Wharton makes this holy woman, after years of repentance, avow on her death-bed a preference for her lover’s caresses and the comfort his impassioned ardor, to the divine love of the crucified Lord whom she had so diligently served for years. Mrs. Wharton is entitled to no consideration for this affront, unless on the ignoble ground of ignorance.

Of course, I understand this objection, but I did read the poem from a slightly different angle as well.  The contrast between Christ and the earthly lover is certainly the major theme – in which Christ comes out less favorably – but there’s also, it seems, some grappling with an irony of the spiritual life which must strike any thinking person: you might even call it the irony of conversion. She’s asking: if I hadn’t been living a sinful life, would I have met Christ?

As well as, in a general way, the questions all of us have about the direction our life has taken as we look back on it:

 

Ah, that black night he left me, that dead dawn 
I found him lying in the woods, alive 
To gasp my name out and his life-blood with it, 
As though the murderer’s knife had probed for me 
In his hacked breast and found me in each wound… 
Well, it was there Christ came to me, you know, 
And led me home—just as that other led me. 
(Just as that other? Father, bear with me!) 
My lover’s death, they tell me, saved my soul, 
And I have lived to be a light to men. 
And gather sinners to the knees of grace. 
All this, you say, the Bishop’s signet covers. 
But stay! Suppose my lover had not died? 
(At last my question! Father, help me face it.) 
I say: Suppose my lover had not died – 
Think you I ever would have left him living, 
Even to be Christ’s blessed Margaret? 
– We lived in sin? Why, to the sin I died to 
That other was as Paradise, when God 
Walks there at eventide, the air pure gold, 
And angels treading all the grass to flowers! 
He was my Christ—he led me out of hell – 
He died to save me (so your casuists say!) – 
Could Christ do more? Your Christ out-pity mine? 

No, the poem is not anything great, and I certainly understand the reaction against it, but still. There’s a glimmer of truth in there.

I just spent a lot of time on that, but, of course, it wasn’t my intention when I began writing this to go as much into the poem as into the reaction to her novel The Valley of Decision. This was Wharton’s first published novel: a historical novel of 18th century Italy that, it seems from plot summaries, positions free-thinkers against Church and tradition, etc. I have zero interest in reading it, but when I searched for “Edith Wharton” and Catholic Church condemned – this was, besides from the poem, what popped up.

So initially I thought, “Oh the early 20th century American church criticized this content for sexual-related content it deemed immoral, obviously.” But..maybe not?

What I found was, of course, no “official” condemnation, but a strong critique published in Catholic World, which, in turn, reprints a critique from the Chicago Chronicle.

And what’s the basis of the critique?

The answer will surprise you!

The focus is the treatment of the primary female character, Fulvia, and specifically the role of education in her life. The critique takes on Wharton for, the author claims, indicating that higher education corrupts a woman’s character.  I’m going to reproduce this section at length, because I want you to participate in one of my favorite activities: Dispel myths about the past.

In this case, the myths are: No one believed that women should be educated before 1970 or so. In particular, the Catholic Church was opposed to women’s intellectual development.

Not to mention that this contemporary critique adds to the discussion about Wharton. It may or may not be an accurate read of her character, but the fact is that in this case, her narrative was received as anti-woman’s education and moralistic. Interesting.

The severest blow dealt against the higher education of women has been delivered by one of themselves, the author of The Valley of Decision, a somewhat tedious two-volume novel of the spurious “historical” variety.

It has been claimed by the opponents of equal education for men and women that whatever the intellectual results of the attempt, the moral result would be injurious to the family and society. It has been specifically urged that the tendency of the higher education would be to draw women more and more toward the laxer social standards of men, and to make women impatient of those restraints which until now have constituted the bulwarks of the home.

The Valley of Decision supports this theory. The heroine around whom the sympathy of the story is concentrated enjoys from early youth the advantages which other women, at least in the United States, must acquire, if at all, by long years of labor through primary and secondary schools into colleges and universities. A name of evil omen, whether in Roman history or in Ben Jonson’s “Catiline,” Fulvia starts the heroine out on a path of aspiration, independence, erudition, and ruin.

Her learning fails to develop moral or spiritual growth. In full womanhood, having had abundant experience enabling her to see the evils of society in the fullest glare of their malignity, Fulvia voluntarily accepts an unlawful and immoral social status from which all right-minded women instinctively recoil. She becomes the willing victim of a profligate weakling on a petty ducal throne, and feels neither shame nor remorse in her degradation.

The malign influence of such a novel upon the aspirations of American women for university privileges is made by the author the more certain and the more emphatic because the scene of the sinister fiction is laid in the country which was the first to open university doors to women. The poet Alfieri is dragged into the story to heighten the proportions of its all-pervading moral squalor. Sneering at the idea of a woman taking the degree of doctor of philosophy, the poet is made to say: “Oh, she’s one of your prodigies of female learning, such as our topsy-turvy land produces; an incipient Laura Bassi or Gaetana Agnesi, to name the most distinguished of their tribe; though I believe that hitherto her father’s good sense or her own has kept her from aspiring to academic honors. The beautiful Fulvia is a good daughter and devotes herself, I am told, to helping Vivaldi in his work, a far more becoming employment for one of her age and sex than defending Latin theses before a crew of ribald students.”

But Fulvia’s father was a sympathizer with his daughter’s tastes, which he habitually promoted. To make the lesson of the moral failure of the higher education of women still more convincing, the author of The Valley of Decision reserves the bestowal of her final degree upon Fulvia until after the university and the whole town are familiar with her adoption of a shameless life and her open rejection of religious or conventional standards.

In Italy the universities were open to women soon after their foundation in the Middle Ages. At Bologna, which for centuries was one of the greatest universities in Europe, a number of women justly attained distinction as professors of the sciences, languages, and law. Laura Bassi was of a comparatively late time. So great was her reputation for learning, but also for virtue, that her doctorate was conferred under circumstances of civic and academic pomp. She married happily and became the mother of fourteen children.

Two sisters Agnesi were distinguished in Italian higher education. One, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, was an eminent professor and author in the exact sciences during the eighteenth century, and lived to be upward of eighty years of age. A younger sister was distinguished as a pianist and composer. Upon the entire array of the learned women of Italy whose careers have been historically noted there was never a breath of moral reproach.

The injury which The Valley of Decision inflicts upon the contemporary higher education of women is shrewdly designed in the contrast which this repulsive novel makes in its alienation of the higher education from religious and moral control.

The atmosphere which is created for the reader of The Valley of Decision is the most repulsive ever introduced into an American literary production. In the large company constituting the chief participants in a story projected along hackneyed guide-book information there is not from the first cover of the first volume to the last of the second one honest man or virtuous woman.

The moral squalor of J he Valley of Decision is the more surprising because the scene is laid in the land which has given to literature and life the paramount group of ideal womanhood, Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Michael Angelo’s Vittoria Colonna; and to Shakspere his two most engaging characters, blending in their mutual devotion of a noble womanhood erudition and chastity, Portia and Nerissa.

The womanhood of the United States may justly deplore that such a volume as The Valley of Decision should have its origin in the United States, in which the experiment of the higher education of women has thus far been courageously carried to an advancement which few of the universities have been able to withstand.

 

And if you’re interested, go to p. 596 in the same volume of the 1902 Catholic World and read an article about Bologna called “A City of Learned Women.”

The universal spread of knowledge and literary culture among women is no doubt one of the boasts of modern civilization. We point to it with pride as emphasizing the superiority of this age over its predecessors; exemplified by the thorough training of mind and body considered equally necessary nowadays for girls as well as boys. Nevertheless, if we go a little more deeply into the matter, we shall find once more at the bottom of all our researches the most discouraging but true old adage embodying the world-weariness of the wisest king of old: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It is a shock at first to realize that our progress is not so wonderful as we imagined; and that, instead of inventors, we are only “revivalists”; perfecting perhaps what has gone before, with the help of added centuries of experience and science; but still only reviving things dormant, or at best forgotten. In an atmosphere of self-congratulation upon Women’s Colleges and Universities and the Higher Education of Women, can it come as anything but a revelation to find one’s self face to face with a city of learned women of long centuries past, who spread the light of their knowledge through a land which bowed before their intellect while reverencing their true womanhood?

Such was the revelation which disturbed my new-world complacency one bright morning in the ancient city of Bologna, in this year of the twentieth century; wandering through stately halls of learning where for centuries women had held intellectual sway. No fair girl-graduates were these, drinking their first draught at the fountain of mighty knowledge; but women whose powers of intellect had placed them in the professorial chair, instructing on equal terms with the men-professors the students who flocked around them.

I keep saying it, in one way or another: My Hot Take on 20th century feminism is that it happened because the Protestant Reformation, secular intellectual currents and the industrial revolution pushed Western women into the confined, defining space of a domestic sphere that didn’t exist in a holistic Catholic context.

There. 

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— 1 —

The big news down here was of course, Hurricane Michael. We were well out of the way of anything except some clouds, but of course the Gulf shore is “the beach” for this part of the country. We’ve never actually been to Mexico Beach, but many people do spend time in that area – and of course many live down there and have seen their lives turned completely upside down in this devastation. I can’t see how an area recovers from this.

Before and after photos here.

 

— 2 —

Reading: A couple of days ago, I read the novel The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen. I had read her The Great Man and thought it was just okay – but this was on the new books shelf at the library, it vaguely appealed to me, and I wanted to have a real book on hand to read one evening as a prophylatic against the temptation of screens, so there you go.

Like the other – it was okay. It kept my interest, and I enjoyed reading about food – from one of the ship’s chef’s perspective – and music, from the perspective of an aging Israeli musician on board. In fact, both of those subplots – about the Hungarian sous-chef trying to figure out his path – and the string quartet composed of one woman and three men, all elderly and all veterans of life in Israel during its formative years, including military service – were absorbing enough. But the rest of the characters were too lightly sketched or too (surprisingly) stereotypical representatives of ethnic groups. I thought she could have done a lot more with the setting and bigger theme – this “last cruise” is on a smaller cruise ship being retired after this voyage, a ship that enjoyed its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s , and the voyage was themed to be a retro celebration of all of that. There was also just a bit too much busy-ness in the plot and honestly, the main female character (not the musician) wasn’t interesting at all.

A lot of readers on both Amazon and Goodreads hate the ending – and so I was prepared to hate it, too, but…I didn’t. When you have a book set on a ship, you’ve got a ready-made metaphor for Life right there, and it just seemed to me that the ending was, if not emotionally satisfying, true to the way that life goes, all of us knocking about on this ship, subject to uncontrollable forces, doing what we can, be surprised by each other along the way.

Some reader-reviewers say that the end is too much like the climax of The Perfect Storm, but since I’ve neither read nor seen it, I can’t speak to that.

— 3 —

Well, we’ve got some canonizations this weekend, don’t we? Romero I get of course, but Paul VI? Really? Well, I take that back. Since I have no illusions about ecclesiastical politics and ideological agendas, sure, I get the push to canonize Paul VI. But…yeah. Tell me about all the popular devotion to Paul VI out there. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

/cynicism.

Well, that’s not honest because my cynicism is never off. Sorry.

Anyway, more important than my snide remarks are the lives of the five other saints being canonized today. Here’s a report.

Blessed Nunzio Sulprizio was born in Pescosansonesco (Italy) on 13 April 1817 and died in Naples (Italy) on 5 May 1836. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI on 1 December 1963.

Blessed Francesco Spinelli, diocesan priest and Founder of the Institute of the Sister Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament, who born in Milan (Italy) on 14 April 1853 and died at Rivolta d’Adda (Italy) on 6 February 1913.

Blessed Vincenzo Romano, diocesan priest, who was born at Torre del Greco (Italy) on 3 June 1751 and died there on 20 December 1831.

Blessed Maria Caterina Kasper, Foundress of the Institute of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ who was born on 26 May 1820 in Dernbach (Germany) and died there on 2 February 1898.

Blessed Nazaria Ignazia March Mesa (in religion: Nazaria Ignazia di Santa Teresa di Gesù), Foundress of the Congregation of the Misioneras Cruzadas de la Iglesia Sisters who was born in Madrid (Spain) on 10 January 1889 and died in Buenos Aires (Argentina) on 6 July 1943.

— 4 —

Samford University, a local Baptist institution, is hosting a conference at the end of the month – on teaching Dante. 

In a 1921 encyclical marking the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death, Pope Benedict XV praised the great Florentine poet as “that noble figure, pride and glory of humanity.” Few writers have shaped the Christian intellectual tradition and imagination more than Dante, this noble figure whose work stands between two worlds, embodying the creative genius of the Middle Ages while anticipating and shaping the Renaissance to come. “Teaching Dante” will bring together more than thirty scholars from across the disciplines to explore effective strategies for introducing a new generation of students to Dante’s achievement and influence.

Hopefully, we’ll get to the free lecture, by Notre Dame’s Theodore Cachey, called “Mapping Hell.”

— 5 —

Next Monday is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. She’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, and Loyola has a very readable excerpt here 

(If you would like to read a pdf version, click here.) 

amy-welborn6

 

 

St. Ignatius of Antioch coming up, too – October 17. Go here to prep for that!

— 6 —

If you don’t come here regularly during the week, check back a few days to the big post I did on our long weekend trip to the Kansas City area. 

 

More travel coming fairly soon: to NYC this time, so stay tuned here and to Instagram for that.

Just a reminder: if you cast your eyes up the screen a bit, you see a couple of tabs up there – and they will take to pages with blog posts focused on those topics: homeschooling and travel. The travel page isn’t complete, but I’m getting there.

Also – I’ve posted some more general interest posts of old to the Medium site. 

 

— 7 —

Coming soon: Posts on Better Call Saul and Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I read on the plane to Kansas City.

Hopefully, early next week.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Is it Thursday already? Well, well. A busy weekend is coming, and it involves travel. You Thursdaymight want to follow on Instagram for a taste. It’s not an exotic or novel destination, but hopefully, we’ll see new things.

Today’s the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, of course. Go here for a mega post with links to some of the many things I’ve written about St. Francis over the years. Bottom line takeaway? Read Francis for yourself. He didn’t write much. It’s all available, free. You might be surprised. 

So, on to the digest routine. Today it will be just reading:

Reading: I finished 1808: The Flight of the Emperor. How a Weak Prince, a Mad Queen, and the British Navy Tricked Napoleon and Changed the New World.  It was a decent, popular introduction to the events, but left me with many questions – there are works out there that go into more depth, but, as  I said, this serves as a good, easy-to read introduction.

(Reminder: I knew nothing about this before a couple of weeks ago, when I listened to a BBC 4 radio program on the creation of the nation of Brazil.)

Short version: Brazil was, of course, a Portuguese colony. In 1807, Napoleon was about to invade Portugal, and in order to save, if not that slip of the Iberian peninsula, perhaps the core and economic engine of the empire, the Royal Court hopped on boats and sailed across the Atlantic to Rio. All of them. Plus thousands of retainers and lesser nobility.1808 brazil They just….left.

It was certainly interesting to read about the stark contrast between aristocratic life in Portugal and the roughness of life in Rio. What’s most interesting though, as it usually is, is the inevitability of the Law of Unintended Consequences – for the ironic result of the decampment was, ironically, the independence of the colony, which came sooner than anyone could have predicted, and probably much more peaceably, because of the presence of the royal family in the land for more than a decade and the continued presence, even after everyone else had returned, of regent Pedro I.

And…then…there are the rabbit trails. My ‘satiable curiosity leads me down many, which is why sometimes it takes me longer to read a book like this than it should. Today’s rabbit trails were all about slavery – specifically slavery and religious orders in Brazil.

Ahem. [Clears throat for rant.]

History. It’s a wonderful thing. Really. What do they say? To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant? Well, not they, but Cardinal Newman, of course.

And I do agree with that. But that doesn’t mean that I also agree with the way that most religious history is presented most of the time by most well-meaning Catholics.

For the truth is, the triumphalist narrative, while not as overt as it was, perhaps before Vatican II, still reigns. That narrative which drains history of complexity and ambiguity and which lives in fear, most of all, of a secularist or (just as bad!) Prog Catholic being able to chortle See! The Church does change! 

And I get it. I taught high school, for pete’s sake.

So what passes for passing on our Church’s history is really a lot of  intense apologetics – much of which is truly quite legit – and parsing to make sure that we all understand that it wasn’t, strictly speaking and properly defined, the actual Church that was responsible for this bad thing or seemed to have maybe perhaps changed. A little bit.

But guess what? That smooth narrative isn’t real, isn’t honest, and, in the end – as we see in the present moment – makes the sins and inadequacies of the Church even more of a shock to the system and harder to deal with and understand – and, I might add – fix. 

So, take slavery. If you have only the most cursory understanding of the Church and slavery – from the sympathetic side – all you have probably heard is Bartolomo de las Casas – Church always taught slavery was intrinsically wrong – everything else anti-Catholic Black Legend Stuff. 

Well, this brief blog post isn’t about theology or ethics, but just history. And to be honest about history demands that we admit that for most of history, the Church did not present a 100% counter-cultural face when it came to the institution of slavery – although one can argue that the Catholic view of the humanity of enslaved persons was counter-cultural, yes. In a way.

I’ll just limit this to sharing what I read related to this very narrow slice of history, a couple of articles digging a little more deeply into various aspects of this issue.

“The Plantations of St. Benedict: The Benedictine Sugar Mills of Colonial Brazil.” 

-Sugar plantations which provided the economic foundation of Benedictine presence in Brazil and which were worked primarily by enslaved persons, as was the the case with most religious foundations in the New World, with the exception of those run by the Franciscans.

The author examines the economics of the system, but also makes some observations about treatment, arguing that the Benedictine plantations treated slaves more humanely than did most others, encouraging marriage and some independent economic activity.

“Slave Confraternities in Brazil: Their Role in Colonial Society.”

This article interested me because I’m particularly curious about how the official Church explained and co-existed with very official slavery. If you care to create a JSTOR account and log in, this article offers another, fascinating layer to the story.

“One of the most important colonial institutions which joined church and society in the Brazilian cities were the lay confraternities which were attached to churches, convents and monasteries. These voluntary associations of laymen and women joined people of all classes and races in common religious activities and social works of mercy. In colonial Brazil there were separate lay associations for different races, although these racially suggested societies might parade together during religious festivals and share side altars in a common church. Free blacks, mulattoes and slaves joined separate religious associations since the white confraternities were very exclusive and discriminatory towards the poorer non-white population. The slave confraternities of the cities of 18th century Brazil were the only lay religious associations in that society which were open to all people regardless of class, race, sex or ethnic background. However as the century wore on some of the black brotherhoods tended to differentiate among themselves according to tribal distinctions, language, social condition and the extent of assimilation in Portuguese America. The larger slave confraternities like the Rosary brotherhood usually had a more diverse membership of free and slave brothers, mulattoes, Creoles and tribal Africans, blacks and whites.”

And finally, some chunks of a book on Jesuit economic activity – chunks because I read it on Google Books, and I only had about 75% of the pertinent pages available to me that way. If you’d like to take a shot at it, go here, and start on page 502. The author lays out – I think fairly – the conflicts within the order about slavery. There were voices opposed to it – powerful ones – but in the end, practical exigencies won out.

(Click for larger version – also go to above link.)

 

 

 

(Some of you might be aware that, of course, North American Jesuits were no strangers to slavery either – a couple of years ago, Georgetown University acknowledged the role that slavery had played in its beginnings – specifically, the 272 slaves that were sold by Maryland Jesuits to get then Georgetown College out of debt.) 

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Jesuits: Rationalizing capitulation to the culture since the 17th century!

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It’s a serious question, and an intriguing one. This isn’t the first time I’ve made this observation. I have no answer – just an observation.

If we critique the contemporary Church for capitulating to culture and powers and principalities – do we bring the same critique to the past? Or do we say, “Well, we have to understand the context – what else could the Church have done? Hindsight is 20/20, you know.”

If we’re super comfortable with the Church integrating certain novel aspects of contemporary culture into belief and practice – do we bring the same approach to the Church’s actions in the past? Or do we say, “The Church was wrong and sinful and should obviously apologize.”

Just something to think about.

 

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MondayGood morning, all. What a weekend. What a week on the horizon. And it’s only going to intensify over the next month before midterm elections hit us, and then we’ll have weeks of sorting through that….

My survival technique? Keep with what you want to follow, but prioritize real life in encountering people face-to-face.  Read old books. Look up and around and out the window. Say your prayers.

Anyway:

Reading:

The Burglar is one of the more astonishing books I’ve read in recent years. Not because it was magnificent, but because it the overall impact was so unexpected. What Goodis was trying to do was so unusual. It’s a book that I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about for a while, nor do I want to put it out of my head, either. It’s giving me much to think about –  mostly about how existential questions get filtered through pop culture in surprising ways.

I wrote about author David Goodis here. The Burglar is also in the Library of America collection, along with Dark Passage. This time, the protagonist is not innocent or unjustly accused – he’s a professional thief – but the novel is really not about his thieving. It’s about why he’s a thief, the sense of honor that binds him to the people he’s with and shapes his life, and ultimately it’s about the source and potential price of being faithful to one’s code of honor.

And because it’s mid-century, and because it’s noir, it’s a bleak, tight work in which we’re pondering a man who’s pondering the cold reality of being, in the end, alone. And dead.

What I can’t stop thinking about is that The Burglar has some fairly Deep Thoughts coursing through it and some evocative writing, all bound up in this package:

amy-welborn

The last two chapters are quite astonishing, really, and I keep imagining the reaction of the reader who picked up this paperback at the five-and-dime, settled down for a pulpy scorcher of a read, and ends up with our protagonist and the young woman he’s bound by honor to protect out in the inky-dark ocean off Atlantic City in an extended scene that is really a metaphor for life’s forces and our choices combining and pulling us down, down, down.

The plot is: Nat Harbin is a professional thief in his early 30’s. He’d gotten into the business when, as a starving teen orphan, he’d been picked up hitchhiking by a pro who had a young daughter. Eventually the pro is killed during a job and Harbin, the girl and two other men gradually form a family of sorts, a family in which each individual has a burglaring specialty. We meet them in the midst of a huge heist of a stash of emeralds from a Philadelphia mansion. What ends up happening is that a dirty cop decides to take advantage of the situation, enlists a woman named Della to ensnare Harbin, all with the end of getting the emeralds themselves.

Along the way, there are encounters that escalate the way they do only in noir and in the movies, life compressed into meaningful gazes across restaurants, quick cab rides and blunt statements of desire. Every time I read a noir novel, I can’t help but hear the male protagonist speak in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. Typical of Goodis, there is also this intense deep-dive into the protagonist’s consciousness, a commitment to show us what it’s like to see, feel and think.

The thing was purely a matter of timing. To know just when to walk out. And he knew as sure as he was sitting here, this was the time to walk out. Right now. To tell the driver to stop the cab. To open the door and slide out, and walk away, and keep walking.

She held him there. He didn’t know how she was doing it, but she held him there as though she had him tied hand and foot. She had him trapped there in the cab, and he looked at her with hate.

“Why?” she said. “Why the look?”

He couldn’t answer.

She said, “You frightened?” Without moving, she seemed to lean toward him. “Do I frighten you, Nat?”

“You antagonize me.”

“Listen, Nat—”

“Shut up,” he said. “Let me think about this.”

She nodded slowly, exaggerating the nod. He saw her profile, the quiet line of her brow and nose and chin, the semi-delicate line of her jaw, the cigarette an inch or two away from her lips, and the smoke of the cigarette. Then he took his eyes and pulled them away from Della, and then without looking at Della, he was seeing her. The ride to the library took up a little more than twenty minutes, and they weren’t saying a word to each other, yet it was as though they talked to each other constantly
through the ride. The cab pulled up in front of the library and neither of them moved. The driver said they were at the library, and neither of them moved. The driver shrugged and let the motor idle and sat there, waiting.

After a while, the driver said, “Well, what’s it gonna be?”

“The way it’s got to be,” she said. As she floated her body toward Harbin, she gave the driver an address.

What’s it gonna be? The way it’s got to be. 

Well.

What are we doing all of this for, this life business? These choices? Ever wonder? Harbin tries to convince Gladden to pursue a plan, even though it might take months:

She stared at the backboard behind Harbin’s head. “Emeralds,” she said. “Chunks of green glass.”

In a desperate situation, Harbin’s dealing with an antagonist who is probably going to kill him if he gets a chance. I was struck by this simple metaphor that succinctly captures an internal dynamic:

There was a sudden hysteria in Hacket’s tone and Harbin grabbed at it as though it were a rope dangling toward him with quicksand the only other thing around.

The dialogue in this moment – actually a dreadful moment – made me laugh out loud. Someone has a clear sense of reality:

As Della walked in, her eyes were pulled to the red on the floor and Baylock’s dead face resting against the shiny red. She turned away quickly from that. She waited until Hacket had closed the door and then she stared at him. Her voice was low and quivered just a little. “What are you, a lunatic?”

Hacket stood looking at the door. “I couldn’t help it.”

“That means you’re a lunatic.” 

And then this, in which our protagonist expresses his essential solitude and the power of the crowd:

“One thing for certain. We didn’t do it. I wanted those three cops to live. I wanted Dohmer to live. I wanted Baylock to live. For Christ’s sake,” he said, and he saw her gesture, telling him to talk lower, “I never wanted anyone to die.” He stared ahead, at the people seated in the pavilion, the people on the boardwalk, and indicating them, he said, “I swear I have nothing against them. Not a thing. Look at them. All of them. I like them. I really like them, even though they hate my guts.” His voice went very low. “Yours too.”

“They don’t know we’re alive.”

“They’ll know it if we’re caught. That’s when it starts. When we get grabbed. When we’re locked up. That’s when they know. It tells them how good they are and how bad we are.”

If you check out other reviews of this book at Goodreads, you’ll find similar reactions.

On the boardwalk, he approached the hotel, he saw the sun hitting the silvery rail that separated the raised boards from the beach. There were a lot of people on the beach and most of them wore bathing suits. The beach was white-yellow under the sun. He looked at the ocean and it was flat and passive, with the heavy heat coming down on it, giving it the look of hot green metal. The waves were small and seemed to lack enthusiasm as they came up against the beach. In the water the bathers moved slowly, without much enjoyment, getting wet but not cool. He knew the water was warm and sticky and probably very dirty from the storm of Saturday night. Even so, he told himself, he would like to be in there in the ocean with the bathers, and maybe he and Gladden would have themselves a swim before leaving Atlantic City. The thought was an extreme sort of optimism but he repeated the thought and kept repeating it as he moved toward the entrance of the hotel.

I was going to take a break from all of this, but then I started Nightfall last night and was reeled in, both by the initial mystery, but also by the very real, affectionate relationship between a police detective and his wife – which warms my heart, but also fills me with dread because I’m thinking this can’t end well, because nothing ends well in this world.

Writing: I worked on the short story all weekend, pulled together some of the travel posts (see the page above) and tried to unravel All the Problems. Strangely, they remain knotted. I’ll be in Living Faith on Wednesday. Go here for that. 

Listening: My son’s jazz teacher gave him “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” to work on, with the Dave Brubeck variations on the same to listen to. It’s a beautiful thing, this Brubeck – he winds through some standard jazz stylings, then works out an invention/fugue type thing and then something that sounds a little like Liszt. So we’ve been listening a lot to that.

 

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Writing/Saying: 

I was in Living Faith yesterday – here’s that entry. 

I’ll be on the Spirit Mornings program on KVSS this morning at 8:40 central talking about the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols  – the Mondayinterview will probably already have aired by the time you read this, but I’m guessing it will be archived at their page. 

Two other posts published today  – both on St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate. One here and one here. I might have one more coming – not on St. Bernard – so perhaps return for that.

I am speaking in San Antonio on Saturday, so I outlined that talk.

Surfing: Kayak, Google Flights, the Marriott site. Trips west (Kansas) and east (NYC) in the works so far.

Reading: A few things, all over the map.

First, I reread Merton’s little book on St. Bernard, which I mention in one of the posts. You can find the book here, on Scribd. 

This is an excellent New Yorker article on the impact of e-commerce on rural China. Writer Jiayang Fan offers the intriguing observation that in the United States, the Internet had transformed and disrupted commerce, as it has replaced brick-and-mortar stores, but China did not have the same kind of commercial landscape so:

In China, what is sometimes called “the shift to mobile” never happened—hasn’t needed to happen—because the country’s wealth is too recent for people to have been swept up in the PC revolution, the way Americans were. Instead, they went straight to phones, an example of a phenomenon known as leapfrogging, in which non-participation in an older technology spurs early adoption of whatever innovation comes next. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has argued that the entire e-commerce sector in China exemplifies this pattern: people happily shop online because there haven’t been Walmarts everywhere. In the U.S., “e-commerce is a dessert,” he said. “In China, it’s become the main course.”

And it’s fascinating to read her description of drone delivery – which is extensive and more common by the day.

And then then my main course of the weekend – the novel The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.  Oh my word, I enjoyed this novel so much. It won’t be for everyone – but what is? That’s why I don’t get into the business of “recommending” books, movies or television shows. People have different tastes, what engages me might alienate you, what absorbs you might bore me. I’m just saying what I’m saying – that’s all.

The House of Broken Angels is the story of an extended Mexican-American family, told via the events of a day or so – the funeral of an elderly woman and, the next day, the birthday of Big Angel, her son – the patriarch of the family. Of course, the narrative flashes back and forth in time within that 36-hour framework, so we ultimately get the gist of this family’s whole story, beginning decades ago in La Paz, in Baja California.

Coming down from Seattle to the gathering is another Angel – Little Angel, the youngest brother of Big Angel, but a son of their dead father by another mother – an American woman named Betty. The two Angels, both broken in various ways, and their siblings, spouses and children embody all the varied layers of immigrant experience and the almost unimaginable distance between the struggle and poverty in Mexico half a century before and the present day, surrounded by English-only speaking, smartphone-wielding grandchildren.

The dialogue is sharp and realistic, both revealing and elusive, just as human language always is. The writing can be gorgeous:

And everyone loved sunsets. The light lost its sanity as it fell over the hills and into the Pacific–it went red and deeper red, orange, and even green. The skies seemed to melt, like lava eating black rock into great bite marks of burning. Sometimes all the town stopped and stared west. Shopkeepers came from their rooms to stand in the street. Families brought out their invalids on pallets and in wheelbarrows to wave their bent wrists at the madness consuming their sky. Swirls of gulls and pelicans like God’s own confetti snowed across those sky riots.

Pulling all of this together is the fact (no spoiler – it’s clear from the beginning) that Big Angel is dying, in the final stages of bone cancer. His mother dies, and his birthday will be the next day, so he’s convinced that this will be his last birthday. So the novel, even as it weaves many stories together, is essentially about Big Angel: his journey, his sins, the gifts he’s leaving and, in the end: his gratitude. For his friend and spiritual advisor, Fr. Dave, a Jesuit priest, has given him small notebooks in which he’s told him to note down what he’s grateful for.

The notebooks had a title: My Silly Prayers…..
marriage
family 
walking
working
books
eating
Cilantro

That surprised him. He didn’t know where it came from. Cilantro? he thought. Then:

my baby brother

Every day, he found his gratitudes more ridiculous. But they were many, and they reproduced like desert wildflowers after rain.

It took me a day or two to get into it, mostly because I found the riot of characters pretty confusing, and had to keep flipping back and forth to establish who was who and who was married to whom and whose kid this was. But when I finally got all of that straight, I couldn’t put it down. It was lovely and wild, jumping back and forth through time and space – which is my experience of consciousness and reality – and hilarious. Loved it.

Watching/Listening: Older son had to work into both Saturday and Sunday evenings, so there was no watching of things, at least by me. Sitting in the living room, reading St. Bernard, I listened to Thelonius Monk. Appropriate, I suppose.

Cooking: A batch of this Mexican Braised Beef, which is fantastic. It’s so simple – I replaced the plain canned tomatoes with Ro-tel or some other tomato/pepper mix. I also don’t have a slow cooker, so it’s all in the oven. Oh, and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. With the ritual burning of the second batch as I wander off and get distracted, of course.

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