Here are some things Mike Tyson and I have in common. We’re both from Brooklyn. We both have Italian-American men as mentors and role models. We both love Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. We both believe in redemption. Iron Mike looks to Mecca for his understanding of redemption, and I look, as the days of December wind down, to Bethlehem and also, of course, to Calvary.
I haven’t yet read Tyson’s new memoir Undisputed Truth or seen the HBO movie of the same name, but there has been a lot of press surrounding both. Joyce Carol Oates has an excellent review of the book in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published a short article by Tyson in which he discusses what he likes to read. He writes,Read more
I saw the movie Philomena last weekend: It is a movie about an Irish woman who had a baby out of wedlock, and was coereced into giving up her little son nearly half a century ago by the nuns who took her in. She ends up collaborating with a posh English journalist to find out what happened to him: As it turns out, he was adopted by a well-to-do American family, grew up to be handsome and smart, and became a lawyer. Actually, he became a key legal strategist for the Republican party, eventually rising to the position of Chief Legal Counsel for the Republican Naitonal Committee. Yet Philomena does not get the resolution she hoped for: it turns out her son died several years ago, his meteoric career cut short by AIDS--he was not only a Republican, but a closeted gay Republican. His ashes were buried on the grounds of the convent where he and his biological mother lived together during the first few years of his life.
I thought the movie was good. In fact, Judi Dench was brilliant--she acts with her entire body, not merely by emoting her lines. IMHO, they made a huge mistake in killing her off in the Bond movies--she was wonderful as M, too.
But it wasn't great. I do not agree with this reviewer, who lavishly praised the movie's storyline. You may say that the plot I recounted above is too incredible to make a plausible movie; but in fact, all that stuff actually did happen. Philomena's son Anthony became Michael Hess--"a man of two countries and many talents." Truth is stranger than fiction, and it's no crime for a storyteller to take advantage of strange truths.
At the same time, I did have three basic problems with the film's framing of the story.Read more
Fans not just of baseball or of baseball writing but of writing in general will be happy to hear that Roger Angell has won the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award. As New Yorker editor David Remnick notes in his post announcing the news, the recognition has come none too soon: Angell, ninety-three, has been writing on baseball for decades and seemed, perhaps because of his literary associations, overlooked in favor of famous beat-writer Cooperstown inductees like Red Smith and Ring Lardner.
The Summer Game, Angell’s first collection of baseball writing, was published in 1972 and contains essays dating to the 1962 season – including “The ‘Go’ Shouters,” one of several on the nascent New York Mets and their fans, whose ranks I was doomed to join. “The ‘Go’ Shouters” was the first thing from Angell I ever read, and it stands alongside “The Web of the Game” (recounting a Yale vs. St. John’s pitchers’ duel between future big leaguers -- and Mets -- Frank Viola and Ron Darling) and the palindromic-headlined “Not So, Boston” (how the 1986 Red Sox snatched defeat from the jaws of victory) as my favorites. The latter is collected in Season Ticket, for which Angell borrows a quote from Ted Williams to adorn the contents page: “Don’t you know how hard this all is?” Williams meant batting in particular and baseball in general, but it could also apply to writing well, not just about baseball but about anything.
Angell has made it look easy for many years – whether in his reviews or in his “Greetings, Friends” Christmas verse in the New Yorker or in his pieces on baseball – but his awareness of the effort required is apparent from the careful composition and the clarity of his prose, his respect for the work reflected in the thoughtful regard in which he holds his subjects. Maybe his even longer career as fiction editor at the New Yorker has had something to do with it? In any case, the magazine has posted links to a number of Angell’s baseball pieces here.
The setting of Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is the vale of tears. This campus novel transcends genre largely through the psychological effect of place. Not so much as a New England college town but as the trial ground where acts of faith, betrayal, retributive justice, and redemption take place, and where, of course, evil constantly threatens.
The plot centers on the adulterous affair that Professor Steven Brookman has with his beautiful, brilliant and possessive student, Maud Stack. The title leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the affair. Vehicular homicide ends their parting quarrel. Her death is at the center of Stone’s meditations on love, the sanctity of life, abortion, vengeance, and fate – providence if you will, in the Divine Economy. Some critics have mentioned that they find the central relationship between Brookman and Maud insufficiently developed. But frankly I found myself too bound up in the peripheral characters who form a virtual chorus of speculation and assertion on deep matters of conscience, to be too concerned with the affair. The moral geography of the novel is never less than that of a battlefield, with real weapons and fatal or near fatal encounters.
The sense that the horizontal events of earthly life intersect with the verticals of the spiritual radiates throughout the book.Read more
Now on the website: Jerome Kramer reviews David Schickler's memoir The Dark Path, and interviews the author. From the review (which you can read in full here):
In a few strokes, Schickler [sets] up the twin impulses that propel his provocative and ambitious book. He loves girls to the point of distraction, is fascinated by them, moved by them, pulled to them, wants to marry and sleep with them; he is also drawn to Catholicism and specifically, he thinks, to its priesthood—which is, problematically, celibate. So what’s a passionate young man to do?
And something from Schickler himself, in the interview (read it all here):
Honestly, if I hadn’t been raised Catholic, or raised religious, and I heard the kind of bubbly-safe stuff that some religious people say, I would dismiss it. I would think: This is silly. I mean, I do believe in a leap of faith—at some point reason is only going to get you so far—but reason brought me to my faith, as opposed to crushing it like a bug. But my point is, I recoil from safey-safe, kid-glove approaches to talking. Christ wasn’t like that.
Commonweal contributor Rand Richards Cooper flags a typically blunt reaction from Diane Ravitch to news that U.S. students performed less well than kids from other countries on international standardized tests. Ravitch castigates what she calls the Bad News Industry for making a big deal of this because the United States has never, in half a century, performed much better than it did this time and, further, it probably just doesn’t matter how our kids stack up against their counterparts in Finland, Japan, or Germany.
In my recent book, Reign of Error, I quote extensively from a brilliant article by Keith Baker, called “Are International Tests Worth Anything?,” which was published by Phi Delta Kappan in October 2007. Baker, who worked for many years as a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, had the ingenious idea to investigate what happened to the 12 nations that took the First International Mathematics test in 1964. He looked at the per capita gross domestic product of those nations and found that “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth-the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.” He found no relationship between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores. Nor did the test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. And when it came to creativity, the U.S. “clobbered the world,” with more patents per million people than any other nation. …
Never do [test proponents] explain how it was possible for the U.S. to score so poorly on international tests again and again over the past half century and yet still emerge as the world’s leading economy, with the world’s most vibrant culture, and a highly productive workforce. From my vantage point as a historian, here is my takeaway from the PISA scores … If they mean anything at all, [they] show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.
Ravitch can always be counted on to re-introduce rationality to the debate over education “reform,” whether via her rapid-response blogging or opinion pieces in the press. The recent book she refers to was of course reviewed last month in our pages by Jackson Lears – a review Ravitch herself called “The. Most. Brilliant. Review. of. Reign. of. Error. Ever.” [punctuation hers] If you want to know what’s being done to schools (and to kids, teachers, and communities) in the name of “reform,” it’s always a good time to read it -- maybe no more so than when the Bad News Industry is on full alert.
Bonus material for 2013: Did you know this was based on a true story? True story.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
As would be clear to anyone who read the review in Commonweal of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel The Childhood of Jesus, the work is not a biblical narrative concerning the Holy Family. Serious playfulness to the point of obscurity challenges a reader of any of Coetzee’s works. It is as if one sits across from a great chess master in part in awe, in part in frustration as he moves his pieces in ways that both befuddle and illuminate. I find his prose and his unique insight compelling, if not compulsive, reading. The plot suggests some sort of parable in that the story concerns a young boy who in the course of the novel emerges as demanding, gifted, visionary, and troubling. He is accompanied by an adult who assumes responsibility for his well-being. When on the ship that transports them and unspecified others to a new life, the boy loses the papers that should establish his identity. The frame of the story involves a journey to a new beginning (Novilla is the city where Simón, the adult, and David, the boy, arrive.) They receive new names. [There are no surnames.] Simón reflects that they have been washed clean of their memories: their identities, adult and child, are fluid, unfixed by parentage or nation. The novel ends in a journey to another new beginning: the impulse grounded in escape from the society to which that have been inducted, one, although benign in intent, threatens the uniqueness of the child David.Read more
The prize-winning Irish novelist, John Banville, leads a double authorial life writing detective mysteries under the penname, Benjamin Black. I have a friend who refuses to read Banville’s Dr. Quirke detective stories because he, my friend, ruined a summer holiday by starting an early novel in the series. Quirke’s character simply depressed him too much to finish the book, and by extension, he spoiled his vacation. I must admit that Quirke as a pathologist and canny Watson to a dour Holmesean DI Hackett affects me in the opposite manner. Banville creates, with an admittedly dismal joy, a neurotic near-alcoholic sorting out the dingier crimes of Dublin in the nineteen fifties. With a nod to that other Dubliner, James Joyce, Banville offers an array of characters that populate an equally broad array of watering holes. And the patter of the speakers might mix happily with that of those who accompany the journeys of Leopold Bloom. We know of the childhood darkness that feeds the melancholy root of Dr. Quirke’s soul: his abusive upbringing at Carricklea, a Christian Brothers’ orphanage, and his subsequent adoption by Judge Garret Griffin who with his natural children simply complicate the primal scene of Quirke’s upbringing. Quirke suffers yet another blow, the loss of his wife, and then the aching burden of discovering his daughter, who had believed she was the child of Quirke’s step brother. No wonder the man has hands shaped to fit a glass that holds the spirits that will lift his own – or not.
The latest novel in the series, Holy Orders, offers us an apparently inexplicable murder, a Gypsy “tinker” encampment, threats to Quirke’s daughter, an avenging sibling, and a pedophile priest. Yet the real heart of the work is Banville’s development of Quirke.Read more
Poor, prescient Don DeLillo, forever to be condemned for his ability to tell us how we live now a quarter of a century before we start to think about it ourselves. Rereading Libra during what Paul Elie calls “assassination season” I’m struck again by DeLillo's ability to anticipate (foretell? Warn of?) the ripple effects of each small advance in technology, every incremental expansion of media’s reach – including especially the shrugging acceptance of the manipulation of word, image, and what has come impersonally to be known as personal data. One of the characters in DeLillo’s 1988 fictional reimagining of John F. Kennedy’s assassination assembles a plot centered on a fabricated killer, a would-be assassin conjured out of fake ephemera:
He would show the secret symmetries in a nondescript life. An address book with ambiguous leads. Photos expertly altered (or crudely altered). Letters, travel documents, counterfeit signatures, a history of false names. It would all require a massive decipherment, a conversion to plain text.
The italics are mine, and meant to highlight DeLillo’s particular expertise in concisely expressing how reality can be made to seem more real by making it seem less so. A lot of “seems” in there but that’s the point; Libra is a hall of mirrors about a hall of mirrors. The notion of fractured images endlessly reflecting back on themselves, a jumble of past, present and future, is captured in the lines of another character:Read more
Two minutes of silence are observed in the UK at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: November 11 when the guns of the Great War fell silent in 1918. The U.S. has renamed this "Veteran's Day," in honor of the fallen from all of our 20th and 21st century wars, but in the UK, World War I is still is considered the Great War. Here is the BBC story of today's observances.
Today is the 95th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the slaughter of the Great War. Very soon, 2014, we will be observing the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Several books have appeared retelling the story of the events leading to the outbreak of hositilies in August 1914. I am currently reading Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace, and during the summer finished Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europse Went to War in 1914.
How did the war break out? It depends on when the authors think incipient hostilities began.Read more
"With guns of love brought into battle, the nights will burn like never before;
Pride will fall and foundations rattle, when guns of love put an end to war."
“Consonance” echoes in my head: reading Edward Williams’ 1968 novel Stoner I felt I was hearing my own thoughts. There is more than wishful thinking here. The prose is enviably compelling, but, hubris apart, I find that the narrator’s voice mimicked the inner monologist that, for want of a better phrase, talks my thoughts to me. I know that I am not alone in this. The book’s reissue some years ago occasioned remarkable reviews. A brief look at the Amazon web page that features Stoner will more than confirm that.
The plot of the novel is devoid of grand incident: the title character, a poor farm boy, manages to work his way through the University of Missouri. He develops a great love for literature and has a clear aptitude for analysis and criticism. His mentor, a senior professor, guides him through his dissertation and also manages to divert him from enlisting to fight in the First War. Stoner becomes a brilliant teacher, a hen-pecked, nay pathologically dominated husband, and ultimately a victim of his wife’s malice. She estranges their daughter from her doting father. Stoner’s passionate and liberating love affair with a graduate student collapses, despite great depth of affection, before the pressures of university politics and the threat of scandal. Stoical acceptance balances the support of literature and scholarship as Stoner unselfconsciously finds his way to eccentricity – yet all within the compass of his small university classrooms.Read more
Just posted to the website, our November 15 issue.
Highlights include Jackson Lears on Diane Ravitch and education reform:
In reasserting the claims of public education, Ravitch is swimming against a strong current of conventional wisdom. Privatization is a bipartisan cause, though the word itself is rarely mentioned. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and Obama’s Race to the Top, along with most of the mainstream media, have embraced the corporate reformers’ worldview in all its bullet-point banality. This view depends on a series of assertions, from general assumptions to specific recommendations. Here are the key points: Education at all levels is about training students how to succeed in a globalized economy; declining test scores and graduation rates demonstrate that schools are failing our children; poverty is just an excuse for failing schools, and great teachers by themselves can counteract its effects; teachers unions protect mediocre teachers through outdated policies like tenure; standardized tests (sold by various companies in the education-industrial complex) should be used to evaluate teachers as well as students, and teachers whose students’ scores fail to rise should be fired; a nationwide network of privately run (but publicly funded) charter schools should be encouraged as an alternative to public schools. This last is another arena of consumer choice for beleaguered parents oppressed by the “public-school monopoly.” What could be more American than that?
Also, Agnes R. Howard on the Christian response to prenatal death:
Death before birth brings a profound grief to a family. It blunts hope and forces mothers, in a very immediate, physical way, to confront death. It is a problem of public health, but also a theological problem—“Why does God let this happen?”—and a searing one in the lives of many parents and families.
Christian churches have been strong defenders of the unborn, with Catholics particularly active in opposing abortion and embryo destruction. These positions demonstrate a strong commitment to life before and after birth. But perhaps insufficient care—both in teaching and pastoral settings—has been given to the puzzle of children not aborted who nonetheless die before birth. About twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage (and, given the difficulty of counting early-term loss, the actual rate is higher). Churches that locate life’s beginning at conception ought to meet these losses with gravity, both for the benefit of grieving families and for the witness to life it demonstrates. Difficult questions of science and theology stand in the way of easy answers or comfort. Yet the problem is big enough and occurs frequently enough to require more sustained attention. Churches should do a better job of recognizing this as a theological problem and offering liturgical and pastoral support to those affected by it.
The Exorcist is a movie that could perhaps count as many viewers as people who have refused to see it. It's a movie you’d watch only if dared, on Halloween night. It has been famously called “the scariest movie of all time.” It makes visceral a very old question: Does The Devil exist?
The film was of course based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel, and for this Halloween Throwback Thursday we're linking to our archived writing on both the book and the 1973 film that came of it (and that made Linda Blair infamous). Reviewing the movie, Colin L. Westerbeck found director William Friedkin successful in “possessing” his audience:
The keystone of the film is not in any of those scenes where Regan (Linda Blair) is being exorcised, spewing bile and howling blasphemies, but much earlier when doctors think her fits result from a brain lesion. In scenes where her brain is being X-rayed, Friedkin depicts with documentary explicitness the injection and insertion into her neck of probes for a spinal tap. As she cringes with pain, enormous machine lurch and clank with a mechanical vengeance more horrific than anything unseen spirits have done to her so far.
When indeed the X-rays do not turn up any brain damage,“Life becomes unbearable,” Westerbeck wrote. “It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the Devil.”
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., an associate editor of Commonweal in the ‘70s, and William O’Malley, S.J., the actor who played Father Dryer in the movie, both wrote articles in Commonweal’s pages either trying to redeem or to exorcise the aim of Blatty’s novel. Schroth argued that, regardless of what Blatty set out to write, what he ended up bringing forth was a “piece of Catholic nostalgia of more service to the cause of supersititon than to true religion.” O’Malley (admitting first his role-in-the-movie bias) contended:
Even Father Schroth can't deny that this novel has drawn many readers at least to consider the possiblity of a personal reality transcending our senses. If one can make an audience, jaded by immensity, do that, he deserves better treatment -- and deeper study -- than Ray Schroth gave Bill Blatty.
To which Schroth responded:
The sense of "awe" brought on by the sight of human suffering is a poor gimmick to inspire faith...Blatty's "devil" in Regan did not increase the faith of any character in the novel. It killed two priests and got Regan's mother to believe in Satan, not in God. Nor has it increased Father O'Malley's already strong belief in God nor helped him make up his mind on whether there are devils. That's not religion. That's not awe. That's Show Biz."
“Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable.”
That’s Stephen King in the note to his newest novel, Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining and a book he suggests wasn’t meant to be as frightening as its predecessor. I don’t plan on reading it, and not just because of the questionable return on time likely to be invested. It’s that I don’t want it to ruin my memory of The Shining, which I read in seventh grade, polishing it off within forty-eight hours of finding a paperback copy at the public library. That led me to Salem’s Lot and Carrie and then, a slight detour, to The Amityville Horror—not King—begun and completed in a couple of terrifying hours one gray November day home alone after school. Good scares, and “administered” is the only way to describe the method by which they were transmitted. I was young and impressionable and can’t say I necessarily enjoyed these experiences in the moment, though each was over before I knew it.
King’s probably right that nothing can live up to the memory. If you were scared by the film version of The Exorcist on its release forty (yes, forty) years ago, try watching it now. But scary reads are still out there, light on schlock, zombies, and vampires and unencumbered by genre conventions. And they’re not just by Henry James or Shirley Jackson.Read more
If you were near a radio in the mid-seventies you probably heard a lot of Janet Mead, even if you didn’t necessarily know who Janet Mead was. Her “rock” recording “The Lord’s Prayer” was, as they say in the business, burning up the charts in the late winter and early spring of 1974, peaking at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100--during Holy Week, as it happened.
Peaking, but never really going away, and not just because the song embodied what the word “earworm” must have been coined to describe. It became a Sunday-morning staple on New York’s WOR, to which the knob on my parents’ car radio was permanently fixed. The song seemed stuck in heavy rotation—programmed to play repeatedly during the hours we’d likely be on our way to and from Mass—in the years between my communion and confirmation, a period that spanned three presidencies, three papacies, and, closer to home, the loyal service of three different Plymouth station wagons.
What I didn’t know then was that Janet Mead was Sister Janet Mead, of the Sisters of Mercy order in Australia, where she taught music at a pair of Catholic schools. Originally recorded as a B-side, “The Lord’s Prayer” ultimately went gold—selling more than two million copies in the U.S. (more than three million internationally).Read more
Throwback Thursday, while around since as early as 2003, has become widely adopted on social media over the past year, particularly on the photo-sharing site Instagram. The concept is simple: users post old pictures—sometimes only a few days old, sometimes a few decades—to evoke a sense of nostalgia. Lucky for us at Commonweal, we’re 89 years old and have tons of old, archived throwbacks – that’d we’d now like to share with you.
Paid subscribers have access to the scores of archived material on our website, but we have even more in bound books lining the walls of our office. Starting this week, we will be posting articles from our historic archives that aren’t available on the site—as well as poems, videos, photos, and more.
This past week marked the 164th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death, so naturally, we at Commonweal are musing on the relevance of a man whose work was published nearly two centuries ago. We know about his life, his literary work, and his genius. We know about his tragedy, poverty, and addictions. We also know he is the only poet who has a U.S. professional athletic team named after one of his works—the Baltimore Ravens. And to top it all off, Poe’s chilling stories of two centuries ago remain relevant alongside the top writers of today. Why is his work still so compelling?
To start Throwback Thursday, here is a review of Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe by Hervey Allen, written by Padraic Colum in the August 24, 1927 issue of Commonweal.
“Poe’s work meant not only labor—it meant heroism. For a man to have produced such work as he produced, in spite of illness, disappointment, lack of appreciation, great sorrow, and the debility brought on by indulgence in opium, required an effort as heroic as an air-flight from New York to Paris. And there were no prizes to be received, no crowds to cheer, when the effort had been accomplished.”
To read three other reviews of Edgar Allan Poe’s work published in Commonweal between 1931 and 1947, download the tablet edition of the October 11th issue on your tablet or smartphone. Click here for more details.
I had been looking forward to reading Colum McCann’s Transatlantic since I first saw notice of its publication. His earlier Let the Great World Spin, which won a National Book Award, and Zoli I had found remarkable works. Transatlantic appeared last week in the New Books section of our library, but before I began to read it I came upon a particularly critical review in the London Review of Books, a condescending attack upon McCann first of all as a hyperbolic writer of blurbs for other people’s novels.
The guilt by association was clear: anyone who writes such wildly inflated comments as a critic cannot be expected to write a novel worth reading. The review went on to establish just that: McCann can’t write – except in so far as he associates himself with those he admires – Frederic Douglass and Senator Joseph Mitchell (of the Irish Good Friday Agreements), two characters who appear in the novel. Presumably this is so because he needs the bolstering of those relationships. Be near the great and some will rub off.
The effect of such a review is poison. The temptation is to agree and, from the critical heights of high art, find that the sycophantic efforts of the novelist are worthy of only a polysyllabic sneer. On the other hand, to start with a defensive, “I won’t let myself be influenced” is to surrender something before reading the first word –innocent expectation. The damage was done, and I found myself skimming the text, expressing surprise begrudgingly at particularly good metaphors or sections of dialogue, and yet inevitably leaving the burden of proof – that the novel was worth reading – to what I saw as an unsatisfactory conclusion. I did not enjoy the book.
I have always regarded the act of reading as contractual relationship, an agreement with the writer either in terms of the genre of the piece or the narrative stance or the structure or the setting, whatever forms the artistic whole. We agree to allow the fictional construct to work its way. If the novelist fails in the imagined contract: if the novel simply confounds its premise and seems dishonest, then the contract is violated. We stop reading with no regret.
The review I read defeated the free entering of the contract. I found myself unwilling to accept what had been so bludgeoned by the reviewer. Had I read the book and then the review, I could have judged the judgment. Alas, I had the jaundiced reading, the subliminal and then the overt sense that the narrative failed – particularly in the section set at the time of the Good Friday Agreements.
Perhaps time will offer a way to re-approach the book. I take some solace that the terribly negative tone of the review was noticed even in the TLS in a reference to the writing of blurbs. Perhaps there is an underlying literary battle going on and, at least in part, the attack upon McCann has another more personal source. What did Byron say about Keats being destroyed by the critics of the Edinburgh Review? Literary reputations are not the only casualties of the too trenchant word.