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Magnificent Memoirs

How long have we been living in the Age of the American Memoir? Autobiography has existed for centuries, of course, but sometime in the past couple of decades, in this country anyway, true-life stories seemed to overtake the novel in their mass appeal.

Funny thing is, while I have continued to read novels and various kinds of nonfiction books during this time, I pretty much stopped reading memoirs. Not sure when, exactly -- or why, exactly. Maybe it was in 2001, when the journalist and essayist Meghan Daum turned thirty and wrote a book called My Misspent Youth. I was forty-two then, and I recall chortling at the absurdity of the youthful memoirist – how much life can you have to retell, how much perspective to offer, when you are a callow thirty?

Of course it is true – or at least, I believe it is – that a great writer can make almost anything interesting. My turning-away from contemporary American memoirs may have more to do with the new prominence of certain themes and approaches – confessional chronicles of family dysfunction and the therapeutic modes associated with them – and the retreat of themes more appealing to me. Somehow, in my mind anyway, the contemporary American memoir got lumped in with reality TV and Jerry Springer-like talk shows where engineered conflict, personal damage and a penchant for noise, buzz and “edginess” were the rule.

And so – fairly or not, and surely in some cases to my detriment -- I have missed, or dodged, such sensations as Girl, Interrupted; The Glass Castle; The Liars’ Club; A Wolf at the Table; Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood; The Kiss; Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness; and many many more.

The memoirs I have admired most in my life – and admiration is not strong enough a word to describe the almost deliriously affective pull these books had on me – engage other themes:  love; loss; memory; the enigma of mortality; the battle with time and its implacable henchman, change; the allure of art and the kinds of life that can serve as springboard to it. The memoirs I read in my twenties and thirties take up these themes, often with writing that combines sharp insight with a capacity for opulent lyricism. Some of these memoirs are works of literature as precious to me as any.  

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Elie Wiesel on What to Do with Suffering

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, renowned author, and Auschwitz survivor has died at the age of 87. In an interview with Commonweal from 1986, Wiesel discusses his writing process, his love for—and distance from—Indian mysticism, and how he views his role as a messenger. However, the main thread throughout the interview is the nature of pain and suffering.

The interview begins with asking Wiesel whether he resonates with a suggestion made by  Beethoven’s biographer: that the composer’s creative genius was born from suffering. Wiesel answers in the affirmative. “Maybe it is impossible to create without pain. ...It is impossible to write out of happiness.”

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The Timid Souls and Their Drowsy Minds

The ample talents of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have been put to better use than with the short story about the 2016 election she has written for this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. “The Arrangements,” set in the run-up to the Republican convention, centers on a day in the life of Melania Trump as she plans a dinner party for her parents, her husband, and a few close guests. “Melania decided she would order the flowers herself” is the familiar-sounding opening line, and in a close third-person narrative we experience through the consciousness of the fictionalized potential first lady what it’s like to be married to the presumptive Republican nominee—while also dealing with children and adult step-children, florists, Pilates instructors, and the pressures of an unlikely presidential campaign.

A lark? A plunge?  An unneeded exercise—another in an ineffectual but still-expanding regimen—in subjecting the candidate to scorn? As has been noted elsewhere, the likely Republican nominee has shown imperviousness to slings and arrows of this and lower sorts, while proving adept at returning fire and deploying other unsuspected skills on the campaign trail (I will not mention here his flair for apophasis). Besides, would anyone who’s supposed to “appreciate” the Mrs. Dalloway framing (or anyone who’d read Adichie or Virginia Woolf in the first place, or the New York Times Book Review itself) be influenced either way? In empathizing with its protagonist, it necessarily does the opposite with her husband. So who does a piece like this aim to persuade?

The abundance of other, similar material speaks to the broader shortcomings in the coverage of this candidacy. Yes, reputable outlets are turning out more solid reporting on suspicious bankruptcies, overstated charitable giving, and possibly fraudulent business practices. And yes, satire can be an effective mode of puncturing an over-inflated public figure, even when the satire might not be mistaken for Aristophanes or Voltaire, H. L. Mencken or Jon Stewart. Yet there remains a tendency toward complacent dismissiveness, which simultaneously showers with free publicity a candidate regarded as a legitimate threat to stability and security. (It was estimated that as of mid-May, the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in free media had been doled out to him.) Some recent polls may bring comfort to those hoping for a more qualified person in the White House, others may not, but either way polls aren’t election results. If this is no joke, then why the practice of so lazily treating it like one?

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Commonweal Interviews, in the News

Sunday night in New York, the Tony award for best play went to The Humans, by Stephen Karam (it also took best featured actress, best featured actor, and best set design). Mollie Wilson O’Reilly interviewed Karam for Commonweal back in February of this year. Among other things, the playwright spoke of compassion, prayer, and how faith and fear figure into his work. There’s more for Karam in 2016, including an adaption of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard set to premiere on Broadway in the fall, along with two films. You can read Mollie’s interview with the acclaimed (and busy) Stephen Karam here.

In the New York Times Book Review this weekend, John Williams wrote on The Sport of Kings author C. E. Morgan, whom he notes “has never divulged much about her biography.” True in so far as it goes—although she shared a relatively good amount about herself with Anthony Domestico in a Commonweal interview in May. Williams cites Tony’s interview in his write-up and zeroes in on some key quotes, but you’ll want to read the entire thing on our site if you haven’t already. (It will also be featured in the print edition of our upcoming Summer Fiction issue.)

Reading with Ramona

When I wrote a post here on April 12 to mark the occasion of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, I had already filed the column that has just been published in our Spring Books issue ("Ramona the Real"). I mention that because anyone who read the comments on that blog post, which were largely about how contemporary children respond to Cleary's books about Ramona Quimby, might assume my column was inspired by them. It was a happy coincidence -- and evidence that the intensity of my kid's identification with Ramona is far from unique. Though I haven't read or watched Game of Thrones, I've watched friends react to it online, and to say, as Abe R. did, that "the scene where Ramona tears up the owls is basically my 5 year-old's Red Wedding" is both funny and exactly right -- the shock of it all! The carnage! The desolation and despair! My not-quite-five-year-old was climbing the couch cushions with his hands clapped over his ears as I read that chapter of Ramona the Brave.

"Feisty, imaginative Ramona is Cleary’s crowning achievement and the reason she will be revered for generations to come," Ruth Graham writes in an essay at Slate's Book Review. She goes on to sing the praises of some books I haven't read, Cleary's "unjustly forgotten teen novels," and her take makes me want to read those next (probably without my son at my side).

At Christianity Today, D.L. Mayfield writes about reading the Ramona books in Cleary's own town of Portland, Oregon, with his five-year-old daughter named Ramona. Now that's a fan.

I didn't intend for my column in Commonweal to dwell so often on reading with my kids (see here, and also here). But it's something I spend a lot of time doing, and it's been fascinating at every stage to experience books I think I know well through their eyes, and to see the world as they do thanks to those books. We have left Ramona behind for now -- after we followed her through first grade, I decided my rising kindergartener needed a few years to catch up with what comes next. But we are still reading together, a chapter at a time, in the afternoons while his two little brothers take their naps. Now we're working through Eleanor Estes's books about the Moffats, which are written with a similarly keen understanding of how children look at the world and what they think is important. The experience is less stressful for my son -- Rufus, the youngest Moffat and the one with whom he most closely identifies, is as independent and impulsive as Ramona, and even more alarmingly unsupervised, but his escapades generally turn out just fine. For example, both Ramona (in Beezus and Ramona) and Rufus (in Rufus M.) try and fail to get library cards of their own -- believing, falsely, that they know how to write their names. But where Ramona refuses to be corrected and ends up (spoiler alert!) scribbling her "signature" all over her sister's library book so that she can keep it for herself, Rufus buckles down and spends all afternoon learning to write, and back at home his mother praises his accomplishment without asking how it came about. Cleary focuses on the embarrassment the situation causes for Beezus, Ramona's big sister; Estes has Rufus going alone to the library because the rest of his siblings are too wrapped up in their books to pay any attention to him. The Moffats books also have a more "historical" feel than even the oldest of Cleary's, having been published in the 1940s and set a generation earlier. But if the outer trappings of World-War-I-era life are unfamiliar, the children's inner lives, their emotions and logic, are completely relatable. Reading those books aloud makes me appreciate how Estes adopts a child's perspective even in her storytelling style and pace, repeating herself and dwelling on details that would seem insignificant to adults. She knew that kids would know just why they mattered. They are funny, too, and often Marty has surprised me by laughing at a situation I would have thought he'd be too young to see the humor in.

But enough about us. I want to hear more from you all about reading with your kids, or any kids. What have you enjoyed? What did you learn? What should I look for next?

Dodging Satan

My colleague at Purchase College, Kathleen Zamboni McCormick, has published her first novel, Dodging Satan, and it’s one that will be of particular interest to Commonweal readers. It tells the story of Bridget Flaherty, an Irish/Italian girl growing up in the greater Boston area, trying to negotiate the various claims upon her identity: her Catholic upbringing, her Irish and Italian heritages, and her emerging sexuality.

The novel’s first paragraph sets the tone for what follows:

The Italian and Irish sides of our family can argue about almost anything—the thickness of porridge, how much people can drink before they’re officially alcoholics, and which side acts more like “bloody foreigners.” But they all agree on the sacredness of the crucifix. An uncle on each side survived an attack in WWII that killed the rest of their platoons—all because they were wearing their crucifixes.

This is a novel filled with arguments, and McCormick is particularly adept at showing how frequently family gatherings—Christmas parties, in particular—can shift from celebration to adjudication, becoming a forum for the airing of past grievances. Bridget’s aunts and uncles flit in and out of the novel, serving both as a chorus and as the background against which Bridget must carve out her own sense of self.

A deep part of this self, affecting everything from Bridget’s imagination to her sense of physical embodiment, is her being raised Catholic. The novel opens with Bridget’s First Communion, and it ends with her taking a Diocesan exam on which this question appears: “Our Lady has blessed children all over the world by appearing to them. Today she has chosen to appear to you alone. Describe, step-by-step, what your words and actions would be with the Blessed Mother.” Bridget struggles with her faith throughout, often in comic fashion, in particular trying to figure out how female sexuality fits (or, as she comes to believe, doesn’t fit) within the Catholic church.

Dodging Satan manages to be both theological and comical. Indeed, it finds comedy in theology, even and especially when it’s taking theology seriously. Take Bridget’s thoughts about the Incarnation, how this incursion of the eternal into the temporal might have affected a very human, very young woman: “I mean, you have a baby and it turns out to be God. Where does that leave her? She can’t even discipline Him. And talk about on-demand feeding. He’s God, for heaven’s sake. What He wants, He has to be given.”

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Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary

The author Beverly Cleary—whose fiction for children introduced the world to Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse, and many other well-loved characters—celebrates her hundredth birthday today. The milestone has been an excuse for me to reread a number of her forty-some books and share a few with my oldest son. I wrote about that for my next column (keep an eye out!), but I did not get a chance there to recommend Cleary’s terrific memoirs.

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet are a compelling chronicle of childhood and young adulthood in the Depression-era Pacific Northwest: the story of how Beverly Bunn, Oregon farm girl, moved to Portland, developed her keen sense of children’s character and perspective through her own childhood adventures, worked her way through college in California, became a children’s librarian, worked in a children’s bookstore, served in army libraries during the war, and eventually became a successful author under her married name. (When she first started writing home from college about her beau Clarence, her pioneer-stock parents guessed from his surname that he must be a Catholic. Break it off, her mother told her, you know you can’t marry a Catholic. They were truly dismayed when she went ahead and did so.)

Cleary’s mother is a fascinating, frustrating character, intellectual and ambitious, possessive and controlling. “Some mothers kiss their little girls,” Beverly tells her after witnessing a friend’s mother cuddle her children. Her mother responds with a laugh and an embrace—“a sweet, isolated moment. It was never repeated.” Through adolescence, Cleary’s mother is overly invested in her only child’s social life. She says she wants Beverly to be popular but seems more to crave attention for herself, and so she encourages an older suitor to continue to call on her daughter and coerces Beverly into going out with him despite her obvious discomfort. When Beverly leaves for college in California (where the tuition was free) at the end of A Girl from Yamhill, she is exhilarated at having escaped her parents’ supervision. But even from a distance, Mother looms, a destabilizing rather than supportive presence—she seems anxious for Beverly to earn good grades that could lead to a steady career, but when Beverly writes home to say she needs eyeglasses to do her schoolwork, her mother advises her to drop out rather than mar her appearance by wearing them.

On this subject Cleary is gentle, honest but fair. She writes simply of the hurtful things her mother said and did, and also what she suspects lay behind it all—the stresses of the Depression, the sense of potential thwarted (her mother, too, was an ambitious reader and a fine writer), the strain of caring for an elderly mother with dementia, and simple loneliness. It is a compassionate portrait, one of many things about those books that has remained in my memory since I first read them when I was a teenager.

Cleary’s big birthday was the subject of a feature on the Today show a few weeks ago, and of a writeup in the Washington Post books section. Like the title character in her Newbery winner Dear Mr. Henshaw (a staple of middle school reading lists in my day), Cleary does not seem like an easy interview—“Don’t expect me to analyze my books!”—but then the questions she is asked and the way she is written about are often childish, whether that is because she is elderly, because she is a children’s author, or a combination of both. Still, the books do speak for themselves very well. And, thank goodness, they remain very easy to come by.

I haven't been very enthusiastic about the commercialization of children's literature,” Cleary told an interviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. “Kids should borrow books from the library and not necessarily be buying them.”

You heard the lady. Get yourself to a library and celebrate.

National Poetry Month: Les Murray's 'Waiting for the Past'

“The Black Beaches” serves as a perfect opening to Les Murray’s latest collection of poetry, Waiting for the Past. In it, we see Murray’s complete command of form—of rhyme and half-rhyme, of imagery and tone. The poem also reveals one of the collection’s major thematic threads: how any single moment of existence is overlaid with many other moments of existence; how, to modify T. S. Eliot, time past and time future are both perhaps contained in time present.

Yellow rimming the ocean 
is mountains washing back 
but lagoons in cleared land often 
show beaches of velvet black 

peat of grass and great trees 
that were wood-fired towers 
then mines of stary coals 
fuming deep in dragon-holes. 

This morning’s frost dunes 
afloat on knee-sprung pasture 
were gone in a sugar lick 
leaving strawed moisture 

but that was early 
and a change took back the sun 
hiding it in regrowth forest. 

Coal formed all afternoon.

Notice how Murray, arguably Australia’s greatest living poet, builds drama through the careful deployment of syntax and enjambment. The poem is elegantly compressed: four stanzas with four short lines each. Over the course of the poem, we move from an eight-line, completely enjambed sentence to a seven-line, completely enjambed sentence to a final, end-stopped, single-line sentence: “Coal formed all afternoon.” The sentences narrow as the poem proceeds, and Murray ends not with the perfect rhymes we’ve grown accustomed to (back/black, coals/holes, pasture/moisture) but with an imperfect one: sun/afternoon.

These formal effects cause us to linger over the poem’s final image of coal formation: geological time (the years needed for coal to form) held within human time (the span of a single afternoon). “The Black Beaches” gives a sense both for time’s fleetingness—“This morning’s frost dunes” are “gone in a sugar lick,” vanished in a single line—and for the continued presence of the past. Lagoons show beaches of peat, and this peat contains within it, if we would only look, its many past lives, first as “wood-fired towers / then mines of stary coals / fuming deep in dragon-holes.”

This poem looks carefully at time’s strata. So too does the rest of the collection. In particular, Waiting for the Past is filled with poems about Murray’s childhood in rural New South Wales—a time and place that seem to have passed away (Murray was born in 1938) but that remain alive in the poet’s memory and in his work. “Growth,” one of the book’s truly great poems, begins like this:

One who’d been my friendly Gran

was now mostly barred from me,

accomplishing her hard death

on that strange farm miles away.

 

My mother was nursing her

so we couldn’t be at home.

Dad had to stay out there, milking,

appearing sometimes, with his people,

all waiting for the past.

There are so many things to savor in lines of such hard-won clarity: that sharp sense of how, to a child, illness seems to possess a terrifying and transformative power (the person who had been Gran is now someone else); the formal language that we use to deal with such frightening transformations (“accomplishing her hard death”); that puzzlingly lucid and dazzlingly complex final line, “all waiting for the past” (the speaker’s father is waiting for Gran to pass, to become the past; the speaker is, in the moment of composition, waiting for the past to make itself present once again).

Many other poems contain similar evocations of a rural and personal past: those “years when farm wives / drove to the coast with milk hands / to gut fish, because government no longer / trusted poor voters on poor lands”; the year 1960, when electricity first came to New South Wales, and “Old lampblack corners / and kero-drugged spiders / turn vivid and momentary / in the new yellow glare / that has reached us at last.”

Murray is seventy-seven years old, and he feels time in his bones. The poem “Vertigo” begins with darkly comic lines—“Last time I fell in a shower-room / I bled like a tumbril dandy / and the hotel longed to be rid of me”—and ends with this lovely, quiet description of how age changes the way people negotiate the world and those around them: “Later comes the sunny day when / street detail gets whitened to mauve // and people hurry, or wait, quiet.” That last line, set off as its own stanza and containing two pauses within its short span, asks the reader to slow down, to consider, to look again.

Murray has published over thirty collections of poetry, and those familiar with his earlier work will find many of his regular strengths in Waiting for the Past. I marveled, once again, at his Lawrentian attention to animal life, especially the lives of cows and horses: “the oaten seethe / of thoroughbred horses,” their “loose-lip sigh.”  Also worth remarking upon is Murray’s deeply Catholic sensibility. The collection is dedicated “To the glory of God,” and it contains a brilliant poem called “Jesus Was a Healer” as well as “Persistence of the Reformation,” previously published in Commonweal under a slightly different title. Finally, readers will recognize the trademark distilled energy of Murray’s short lines, as in the ending to “Winter Garden”: “wirraway crack! / pigeon zoom / grass pheasant whirr."

Waiting for the Past is a brilliant collection by a brilliant poet. As in “Time Twins,” with which I will end, Murray reminds us of the strangeness of time, its ruptures and its braidings:

A youth, rusty haired

as I was in my time,

rocked atop a high stool

as he read a book from

the stock he was to sell.

 

His left leg kinked under

his right knee, as mine does.

We had likely both of us

floated that way before birth

in separate times and wombs.

 

From the Archives: A Review of Raymond Arroyo's Mother Angelica Biography

The death on Easter Sunday of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, has received coverage both in the United States and abroad, with obituaries both brief and lengthy, along with remembrances, accounts of her last days, and articles on everything from her legacy as a “female broadcasting titan” to her impact on tourism in Alabama, where EWTN is headquartered.

In 2005, Michael O. Garvey reviewed Raymond Arroyo's biography of Mother Angelica for Commonweal. Some excerpts follow.

The most conspicuous concern of Arroyo’s narrative is what he describes as Mother Angelica’s “public and private war for the future of the Catholic Church.” [His] reconnaissance of the battlefield is as predictable and prepackaged as anything else on big network news: on one side are Our Lord, Mother Angelica, and EWTN. On the other are “recreant bishops and theologians” and the “liberal church in America,” an amorphous conspiracy promoting eucharistic irreverence, gender-inclusive liturgical language, and altar girls. ... What readers make of the story will likely depend on which side they choose to take in this war, or whether they believe such a war is going on to begin with. ...

[Mother Angelica’s] relations with other sisters were, as her relations with so many of her coreligionists are now, tumultuous and overly susceptible to what she describes as “my Italian temper.” … [T]his shrewd woman with a sense of divine mission [had] an eye for the main chance. She had a quick wit, a gregarious manner, and an evangelical bent. Calling herself “a conservative liberal who happens to be charismatic,” she had become a popular speaker on prayer and the spiritual life. ...

The rags-to-riches growth of EWTN composes the background of the rest of the story, while the foreground concerns Mother Angelica’s ongoing battle against the encroachments of (American) ecclesial bureaucrats, her enlistment of more highly ranked (Vatican) bureaucrats, and her jeremiads against the dreaded “liberal church in America.” Nobody in these pages comes off very well. If Mother Angelica occasionally seems little more than a foul-tempered old harridan who confuses the promptings of her ego with the imperatives of the Holy Spirit, her opponents just as often seem little more than disingenuous defenders of their own institutional prestige.

You can read Garvey’s full review here. On Friday, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will preside over the funeral Mass for Mother Angelica; it will be broadcast live from the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, on EWTN.

Holy Week Staff Picks: 'The Art of Losing'

I love Lent. I love that we’ve carved out an entire season for painful introspection, undertaken individually and collectively—a season to resist my natural inclination to believe I’m immortal, to confront the weakness of my faculties and the graveness of my imperfections, to take stock of the damning and precarious pitfalls of human finitude.

My Lent came early this year. My world has been all ashes to ashes since the early fall, when it was my brother’s ashes, and not just a hastily recited phrase and a blackened thumb tracing the outline of an ancient instrument of death onto my forehead (and then another forehead, and then another forehead). Two months after his death, a friend sent me a book of poetry. At the time I was taking a writing class with Christian Wiman, who kept insisting on my need—both in writing and in life—for the kind of emotional vividness that poetry uniquely delivers. Language fails during seasons like Lent—seasons of dryness and distance and darkness—but poetry deals in lyric and image as much as in words—and so I cracked open the compilation she sent, and I haven’t closed it yet.

It’s called The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, and it’s edited by Kevin Young, a poet, professor, and curator of literary collections at Emory University. The collection features all the names even a poetically undereducated person like me can recognize: W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Seamus Heaney, Les Murray, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, Anne Carson, Czeslaw Milosz, e.e. cummings, and dozens more.

Young compiles 150 different poems into sections that seem to reflect the experience and process of grief: I. Reckoning; II. Regret; III. Remembrance; IV. Ritual; V. Recovery. Some of the poems strike me; others don’t. Regardless, it feels like a privilege to read someone else’s story of grief and affirm it alongside my own, even if I don’t connect deeply with it. It reminds of the liturgy, actually, and of Holy Week in general. The ritual of it all suddenly gives wider expression to my personal experience, making it into something common, something collective, though it remains distinctly mine. The psalm on one day is some tortured jeremiad, and that’s for me; on another day it’s a joyful song of praise, and that’s for the couple a few pews up with a new baby—but either way, they’re singing my psalm and I’m singing theirs. The Art of Losing has managed to do something similar. The poems give me intimate access to another’s very particular world, even for a brief moment, and allow me to see my world expressed in ways and places I did not believe it could.  

Holy Week Staff Picks: 'Holy the Firm'

Back in the spotlight with the release of a new collection of old essays, Annie Dillard recently described in an NPR interview how it took her eighteen months to shake off the pressure of winning the Pulitzer prize and write her seventy-six-page masterpiece of 1977, Holy the Firm:

I kept trying to build myself up into a pitch where I could even understand what I'd written the day before. It's metaphysics. And it turns out that not a lot of people are comfortable with that, but I was. I guess that's why they told me I had a masculine mind.

I’m honestly not sure what she means by “masculine mind,” but like so many of her provoking, confusing phrases, I’m sure it will linger in my own mind like a hypothesis, or a dormant revelation.

For Dillard hypotheses are dormant revelations and for Dillard God does reveal truths to humans in the language of metaphysics as much as in the language of theology; in the form of a poem as much as in the form of a joke; and most likely in the form of nothing our minds can comprehend but which regardless physically exists as—for example—time does.

Holy the Firm is set on northern Puget Sound in Washington, where Dillard lived for two years in a one-room cabin with her cat Small. Over the course of three days, the first-person narrator asks herself questions about time, reality, salts, minerals, sacrifice, death, and the will of God.

Day one is glorious. In awe, the narrator observes the landscape, seascape, shifting patterns of sky in “this world, a dream forced into my ear and sent round my body on ropes of hot blood.” Her descriptions hint at the presence of an animating force beneath the surface of everything. (“The hill creates itself”; “The sky is gagging on trees”). She repeatedly introduces us to “the god of today,” whose characteristics are manifold: “rampant and drenched"; "pagan and fernoot”; “wholly here and emptied.” Day two is violent. A little girl’s face is burned off—her skin melted—by a spout of jet fuel burst from the wing of a falling plane. That day God is “a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged.” She questions faith, and whether God has any “willful connection with time whatsoever, and with us.” By day three she “only know[s] enough of God to want to worship him, by any means at hand.” In the last pages of the book, through an acrobatic display of theological, scientific, poetic, and crude language, the narrator somehow resolves nearly all of her unresolved questions.

Some surmise that the three-part, three-day structure of Holy the Firm is meant to accompany the three days in the Triduum. Dillard hasn’t confirmed this, but it nevertheless seems plausible. Try Holy the Firm this year. I promise you’ll want to read it again soon.

Holy Week Staff Picks: 'Plainsong' & 'Eventide'

I knew little of Kent Haruf until hearing him interviewed on publication of his 2004 novel Eventide. It was a sequel to 1999’s National Book Award-winning Plainsong, both written the way Haruf wrote all his novels: blindly, with a cap pulled over his eyes, as a way to block out the analytical impulses he feared would undermine his artistic aims. And spiritual ones: Haruf, the son of a Methodist minister (“gentle, non-evangelical, non-proselytizing”) told his interviewer he resented and rejected the idea there was nothing religious in his books, and not just because he considered the effort to write well a religion itself. There is a spirituality underpinning both Plainsong and Eventide, hinted at in the titles, made more evident over the course of the sparely wrought narratives, which are set in the small plains town of Holt, Colorado, and follow the interactions of farmers, teachers, children, and shopkeepers, ordinary folks whose reticence hides multitudes. “Many of my characters,” Haruf said, “knock on doors seeking solace, seeking sanctuary, and they get it frequently, and that to me is a religious act.” Haruf made it plainer than most writers how generosity and compassion shaped his portrayals, and he spoke of his writerly duty to “pay close attention to what [my characters] reveal, because their revelation is often very subtle.” Novelist Richard Russo said Haruf understood something essential—that the more specific a thing is, “the more it’s universal.” It took a long time for Haruf to arrive where he did; he spoke of having to tend his “pilot-light-sized flame of talent… religiously… like a kind of monk or acolyte.” He didn’t publish until he was in his forties, but the discipline never waned: At the time of his death in 2014, he was putting the finishing touches on what would be his final novel. Read Plainsong and Eventide both, but note well: it’s important they be read in order.

Holy Week Staff Picks: 'Faith Beyond Resentment'

When I think of what makes something “spiritual” reading, rather than informational or intellectual, I think of the disciples at Emmaus recalling that their hearts were “burning within” them as they listened to Jesus interpret the Scriptures. That passage from Luke came to my mind when I first encountered the theologian James Alison and picked up a copy of his book Faith Beyond Resentment (Crossroad, 2001).

Alison’s biography is already known to Commonweal readers from this profile by Christopher Ruddy and this interview by Brett Sakeld. He is an ordained priest and a former member of the Dominican order; a scholar of Rene Girard; a gay man interested in working through the obstacles that official church teaching creates for human flourishing among LGBT people. Faith Beyond Resentment caught my attention because it includes several essays on that subject, aimed at talking to gay Catholics about how their presence in the church can make the truth about Christ’s saving work more fully known. He discusses the disconnect between church teaching on homosexuality and the actual lived experiences of gay people, and also explores the scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up then erupting in the church. I am eager to see the church move past the defensive postures that push my LGBT friends and fellow Catholics to the margins, and reading Alison makes me hopeful that the day will come when we can commit more fully to supporting human flourishing for all—not by abandoning the faith tradition we live now, but by embracing its invitation to life more fully.

Beyond his attention to “matters gay,” Alison’s writings in this and other books illuminate the very basics of Christian discipleship for me. Following Girard’s mimetic theory, Alison reveals how accepted interpretations of Scripture tend to implicate God in the violent cycle that traps humanity, to place God “wholly within the framework of human violence and rivalry.” Instead, focusing in this book particularly on passages from the Gospel of John, Alison explains how God, through Jesus, offers a way out of that violent cycle. His readings of the stories from John gave me that heart-burning-within-me sensation of understanding something I thought I knew well in a new and clarifying light. Time and again I found him taking up a passage that I’d always found troubling or obscure and making it seem clear and vital. From Alison I learned to approach the Gospels from what he calls “the space of the heart-close-to-cracking,” to hear how the message of Christ sounds different, both more comforting and more personally challenging, more urgent, when “read from amongst the ruins.”

That the Gospels take on a new urgency for me when I hear what Alison has to say is an important point, because I know how easy it would be for me to be seduced by a take on Jesus’ message that challenged me less than the standard homily, that flattered my prejudices and then let me off the hook. Such a reading would end up leading me further from God by telling me that I’m close enough already. That’s not what I take away from Alison. His books, as Rowan Williams put it, “leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian.”

Staff Picks: 'What Happened to Sophie Wilder'

Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, I learned to associate religious conversion with certain dramatic trappings: the altar call and sensational personal testimony, the decisive moment when you fell to your knees and asked Jesus “into your heart.”

These early experiences gave me a fascination for how faith – if I can put it this way – is acquired. How we find our way to God, or don’t. And what I often wonder about the most is not just that clarifying moment, if it ever comes, when the convert says Yes to God, but what precedes that moment – and what comes after. What about those who fumblingly find their way to God, turning to the divine not with one burst of affirmation but a more complicated and uncertain assent?

Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder grapples with such questions, and does so as compellingly as any contemporary work I’ve read. It’ an engrossing, self-consciously literary effort, the title of which cleverly intimates its theme. Its story is alternatingly told by two main characters, Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder, who first meet in a fiction-writing workshop at a liberal arts college. The novel follows their love affair, separation and reunion, writerly endeavors and striving in New York City, and, among much else, Sophie’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.

The delights of this novel are many, especially if – like me – you revel in the many declarations about books and literature and writing that fill its pages. But what struck me most forcefully about Sophie Wilder is its rather convincing account of Sophie’s turn to religion. Since I owe my discovery and reading of the novel to the late literary critic D.G. Myers, here is his description of Beha’s masterful portrayal of her conversion:

What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

I can’t disagree with Myers’s judgment, or improve upon it – I only can implore you to read the novel for yourself to see what happens next. Sophie’s conversion is not the end of the novel, and what follows her reception into the Church is so unexpected that even now, years after the novel’s publication, it would be wrong to hint too much about how the story unfolds. The final page contains a revelation that transforms all that came before it.

There are few greater compliments I can bestow on Sophie Wilder than to say that, when I finished it, all I wanted to do was read it again: to see what I missed, to understand its beginning in view of its end, and to dwell a little longer on the mystery of faith that this novel so persuasively explores.

Staff Picks: 'The New Jim Crow'

I’d heard a lot about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow before I finally got around to reading it—how “devastating” it was, how it would irrevocably change the way I looked at the world. And I saw a lot of it too, with people on the subway and elsewhere obviously absorbed by it. I became familiar with its haunting cover—two black hands clutching prison bars above the subtitle: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Alexander came around to writing The New Jim Crow out of her own skepticism about the severity of racial injustice. She was working for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in northern California when she saw a poster taped to a bus stop by “some radical group” that read: “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” She thought the characterization to be exaggerated, so she decided to look deeper into the history of the war on drugs. But what she found by digging through the fine print of the tough-on-crime bills passed in the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama years—and by reviewing the media campaigns against drugs—was that the poster had it right. The mass incarceration resulting from drug laws has essentially had the same effect as Jim Crow by creating and sustaining a racial “undercaste,” Alexander discovered, and like Jim Crow has also kept black Americans out of power. Since explicitly racist laws can’t be made, implicitly racist ones are. “It’s easy to be completely unaware that this vast new system of racial and social control has emerged,” Alexander told the New York Times shortly after the book’s release in 2012. “Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind.”

As someone who grew up in the “age of colorblindness,” I’ve experienced a sort of disembodied understanding of race, and I was taught that the United States had moved beyond a history of “racist” laws. Alexander’s book has led me to realize that it’s not only drug laws and mass incarceration that have created and helped sustained a new undercaste, but also the inaction of that part of America for whom the system works; by the complacency that comes with trust in the political system, they can help sanction injustice. Awakening to how I’ve been used in this way is freeing—things begin to make more sense when you understand why something you think is wrong is, in fact, wrong. Reading this book wasn’t as grueling as I expected it to be. Alexander’s writing is accessible and captivating. By the end, you feel galvanized.

Staff Picks: 'All the Light We Cannot See'

Ten years in the making, Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is a remarkable achievement of historical research, storytelling, and character development. The story centers on a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy whose lives intersect in the walled city of Saint-Malo soon after the Normandy invasion. Their respective journeys to that town on the English Channel, and the people and events that shape their lives and destinies, are rendered in meticulous detail with a lyricism that is captivating and unselfconscious. Unfolding in short chapters and across a nonlinear narrative, All the Light We Cannot See is an exquisitely crafted work, with time, place, and people coming fully to life. It’s a novel that will stay with you long after you’ve passed the book on, as I have, to family members and friends.

Staff Picks: 'The Quiet American'

The continued relevance of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was made clear once more thanks to Seymour Hersh's latest article in the London Review of Books. Hersh cites a highly classified report prepared by the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency that undermines Barack Obama’s repeated assertions that there are moderate forces capable of defeating Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “The assessment,” he writes, “was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the U.S. was arming extremists.”

A mythical “moderate” force is at the center of Greene’s novel. France’s intervention to maintain Vietnam within its sphere of influence after the Second World War is coming to an end, and a few vanguard Americans are actively supporting an apparently benevolent “third force” opposed to both French colonialism and communism. Thomas Fowler is a cynical British war correspondent who befriends one of these Americans, Alden Pyle, an idealist who is determined to do good “not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world.” Pyle is the perfect foil to the world-weary Fowler. When Fowler discovers the truth about Pyle and his much-hyped “third force,” Fowler is forced to choose between remaining a jaded observer or participating in the conflict.

Within the geopolitical triangle, there is a love triangle involving Fowler, Pyle, and a local Vietnamese woman, Phuong. This adds an element of ambiguity to the characters and keeps the story from being a simple parable. But Greene does have a message: if you believe in the essential goodness of American intervention abroad, then it is easy, perhaps necessary, to think that there are significant local forces that will share American goals--never mind intelligence reports to the contrary. Greene responds to this imperial hubris in The Quiet American, and the epigraph indicates which side he is on: “This is the patent age of new inventions/For killing bodies, and for saving souls,/All propagated with the best intentions.”

Powder Treason

I had The Year of Lear for a Christmas present. This is James Shapiro’s extraordinary account of 1606, the year in which Shakespeare wrote Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. As he did in his earlier 1599, Shapiro puts the Bard in living context. I stress living in that the pressures, political, financial, religious and artistic that the critic discusses allow us to see Shakespeare as a working artist – as responsive to his times as say Miller was in writing The Crucible. The themes of the plays, the conflicts the playwright engages, in Hamlet’s words: “[hold] a mirror up to nature: to show...the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shapiro takes us into the expectations faced by Shakespeare and his company, the King’s Men. The Royal demand for entertainments stretched the repertoire of the players. Shakespeare broke years of silence to pen Lear in the context of James’ push for union between England and Scotland, and he wrote Macbeth in part as a response to The Gunpowder Plot.  The latter event had the king, as Shapiro notes, deeply distressed and frightened of further armed rebellion. How was he to deal with the violent discontent of recusant Catholics and the excommunication issued by the Pope? What license did the Pope appear to be giving to his Catholic subjects? That the playwright should find a form of exploration in The Scottish Play says much – about James’ concern for possession by the Devil, the torments of conscience, and the brutality of a mind reduced to the will to destroy.

Shapiro devotes almost two chapters to a consideration of the Gunpowder Plot. I had paid little more attention to this event than as the occasion of Bonfire Night and the epigraph of Eliot’s The Hollow Men.” But in Shapiro’s clear presentation of the conspiracy I realized that had the Plot been successful, the King, his chief ministers, Lords spiritual and temporal, virtually all those responsible for running the state, and thousands of attending citizens (Shapiro tells us that contemporaries saw as many as 30,000 at risk.) would have perished in an effort to restore Catholicism to the country and establish James’ wife, a convert to Catholicism, on the throne.

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Staff Picks: The Novels of Muriel Spark

My project for 2015 was to read all twenty-two of Muriel Spark’s novels in chronological order. I like reading an author who intrigues me from first to last. It’s a good way to see her evolution as a writer and the leitmotifs or phraseology that recur, and to hear how a voice may or may not change over time. As of this post, I'm on No. 16: The Takeover, from 1976.

Spark’s novels span six decades. Her first, The Comforters, was published in 1957. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer who has recently converted to Catholicism. (Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954 and considered it a major factor in her becoming a novelist.) Caroline starts hearing the sound of a typewriter and voices speaking the words that she is thinking, and to complicate things more, her boyfriend, Lawrence, discovers his grandmother is a smuggler. It’s a dark tale of intrigue laced with irony and wit. (NB: Evelyn Waugh was her champion and instrumental in getting The Comforters published.)

Spark’s characters are rarely sweet and nice. Instead, they have sharp edges and ulterior motives, and sexual tension often plays a role. Several of her books are set against historical and political backdrops, including her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), which takes place in Edinburgh in the 1930s. The unconventional Jean Brodie teaches at a school for girls, where she fills the heads of her impressionable young students with lessons on love, art, and the greatness of Il Duce. The theme of conversion appears once again, when one of Brodie’s students, Sandy, converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun. Another excellent novel with a historical backdrop is The Mandelbaum Gate (1963), the title of which refers to the checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors of Jerusalem, and which takes place during the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. A half-Jewish Catholic-convert Englishwoman, Barbara Vaughan wants to go on a pilgrimage to the Christian holy sites but must pass from Israel into Jordanian-held Jerusalem, which is dangerous because of her Jewish roots. Spark vividly depicts the Jewish-Muslim-Christian tensions in a way that humanizes all sides (for better and worse), and it’s striking how relevant and prescient her insights feel today.

Spark’s own favorite was The Driver’s Seat (1970). It’s a slim, action-packed story of a woman’s descent into madness—confounding, diabolical, and hilarious. It’s also my favorite, along with The Abbess of Crewe (1974), a satire about the Watergate scandal set in England at the Abbey of Crewe, which is in the midst of an election for a new abbess. There are wire-tappings by nuns, break-ins by Jesuits, and clandestine payoffs in public restrooms. It’s a vivid picture of abbey life, presented with great humor and affection and a heavy dose of irony.

The bottom line? All of Spark’s novels have so far proven excellent, well worth reading and up to the test of time. The problem is that I have only six more to go.

Staff Picks: 'Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs'

I read a lot of book reviews, have edited quite a few, and written dozens myself. The best reviews convey essential information about the book under consideration, but more important, either the reviewer’s honest disappointment or passionate endorsement. Dwight Garner is perhaps the most engaging, and fair-minded, of the daily New York Times book critics. I always make a point of reading him, and after coming across his utterly smitten review of the celebrated photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, I went right out and plunked down $32 for the hefty volume. As usual, Garner was right. Not only is Mann an exceptional photographer, a fan of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Graham Greene generally, but she is also a remarkably talented writer with a gift for acute social observation and disarming personal confession. The woman writes one beautiful sentence after another. On the challenge of landscape photography, for instance: “Working in the inexhaustible natural pageant before me, I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might in fact hold the key to the secrets of the human heart: place, personal history, and metaphor.”

The daughter of an artistically inclined family doctor and a liberal-minded mother who ran a bookstore, Mann grew up in the 1950s and ’60s near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Her father was an iconoclastic atheist from a wealthy Alabama and Texas family, her mother from more cramped and unconventional circumstances in Boston. As was the region’s custom, young Sally was raised by the family’s desperately poor but immensely dignified black nanny, always known as Gee-Gee, whom Mann remained devoted to as an adult. A rambunctious child and rebellious adolescent, Mann once returned home boasting of how she had defied local taboos by giving a young black man a ride in her car. Gee-Gee wasted no time in making it clear that what Mann had done was not an act of liberal-minded generosity, but had in fact greatly endangered the young man.

In writing about both her Southern and Northern ancestors, Mann is perfectly attuned to local culture and customs, whether the racial politics of the post-Civil War South or the social hierarchies of Brahman Boston. She also paints a disturbingly vivid picture of the thwarted ambitions and shocking murder-suicide of her husband’s parents, who struggled to climb the greasy pole of one of New York’s tonier suburbs. Mann herself graduated from the progressive Putney School in Vermont, and attended Bennington, only to return to her beloved Virginia where she and her husband raised their three children in modest circumstances. One of the more touching, if not astonishing, parts of Mann’s story is that she has been married to the same man since she was eighteen, a record of constancy hardly common among us baby-boomers.   

Mann is perhaps best known for a series of photographs of her young children, many of them nudes. The book, Immediate Family, was published in 1992, and caused quite a stir, with critics suggesting the material was exploitative, if not pornographic. Mann’s defense of herself and her art is rigorous and persuasive, and the photographs themselves have more than survived the test of time. On this controversy and others, Mann is as feisty as she seems to have been hard-headed as a teenager. Another of the great rewards of Hold Still is Mann’s detailed commentary on the process of making art, both as a photographer and a writer. As she ruefully notes, failure is far more common than success, and success when it comes is mostly a gift.

My only criticism of Hold Still is that Mann and her editors do not know what the Immaculate Conception refers to. Readers should also be aware that Mann is as fearless in confronting, photographing, and writing about dead—and even decomposing—bodies as young and healthy ones.