Band of Sisters, a new documentary film now showing at New York City's Cinema Village until January 30th, features sisters from eleven different congregations who all share the unique story of being American Catholic nuns who entered convents before Vatican II, and whose vocations were radically transformed by the council's documents.
American women religious are portrayed as themselves -- obedient risk-takers whose elevation from selfess servants to community leaders is natural and justified. The sisters narrate their story against a backdrop of juxtaposed images and stories: black-and-white footage of thousands of habits bending to pick lillies on convent grounds; today's sisters in overalls showcasing their organic farms; hundreds of pews full of heads bowed in prayer; nuns well into their eighties lobbying for access to immigrant detention centers; the letter from Pius XII urging U.S. congregations to create "a network" that would become the LCWR; Rome's investigation of the LCWR's "faithfulness to mission" under Benedict XVI; collared schoolmarms keeping order in classrooms; grey-haired women getting arrested at the School of the America's protest; and much more.
Pharrell Williams is arguably the most influential producer in the American music industry. He's also a talented and successful singer, rapper, songwriter and musician.
On first listen, his latest hit song, "Happy", is four minutes of pure pop confection---one written for the soundtrack of Universal Pictures' billion-dollar hit movie Despicable Me 2.
The video is a sweet confection too: shots of Pharrell and seemingly random Angelenos lip-synching and dancing around their city to the song. (Because this is Los Angeles, it also includes celebrities like Kelly Osborne, Magic Johnson and Steve Carell. Because there's a movie tie-in, it includes characters from Despicable Me 2.)
But "Happy" is much more than that, because there's "24 Hours of Happy".Read more
Robert Stone’s latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is a bleak academic story centered on what can—and no doubt often does—go wrong in a student-professor affair, and the consequences for everyone in their worlds. Set in a fictitious, tony New England college, perhaps Wesleyan or Bowdoin transferred to Massachusetts, it tells the story of Maud Stack and Steven Brookman. Stack is a brilliant but erratic student, Brookman a self-satisfied professor with a wife and child. When Brookman wants out and Stack doesn’t want to let go a public confrontation ends in her death. This is not a spoiler because (a) you saw the book’s title and (b) this is really only the beginning of the story. Stone, like Stone, is much more interested in the life and death of the spirit in the many characters he places around Maud and Brookman. Strangely, neither of them seems to concern him much at all. Maud is intensely secular and strangely unfeeling, Brookman is about as spiritually empty as anyone could be, and neither seems to have any time for religion. But Brookman’s wife Ellie is a deeply pious Mennonite, Maud’s father Eddie is a “lapsed” Catholic with more than a little holy water still in his blood, Jo Carr is an ex-nun working as a therapist at the college, and the Dean’s wife, Mary Pick, has the casual upper-class English anti-clericalism of a conservative Catholic who goes out of her way to find a Latin mass once a week but has very little time for the clergy. They all give Stone the chance to explore the tensions of his own religious dialectic.
The somber tone of the story and the human misery of most of the characters do make one wonder if the current fashion for dystopia isn’t a kind of escapism. When we read Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy, even Orwell or Aldous Huxley, are we dreading the future they depict or refusing to face what Stone would probably call the sin-saturated world we actually live in? Stone’s unnamed college is the site of duplicity and cowardice while the Catholic church in which Eddie wants to place his daughter’s ashes by the side of those of her mother is callous and legalistic. Alcoholism, insanity and religious fanaticism abound and against that background the casual lechery of Brookman would have seemed of little consequence had it not led to the unraveling of a young woman who thought she was in love. We read detective fiction for the ordered world we crave in which the miscreant is always punished. But perhaps we sometimes want to distract ourselves in the opposite way, calling up images of a world so much worse than our own. Stone would not let us have this luxury and paints an unflinchingly realistic picture of our contemporary grey everydayness.
At the same time, Stone doesn’t seem to want to give up on faith entirely. Towards the end there is what is surely a kind of private joke as the newly-introduced psychiatrist Victor Lerner tells Jo that “people always want their suffering to mean something” (Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning really did believe that suffering could have meaning). The rest of Lerner’s remarks are drowned out by the sound of the train on which he is traveling, says Stone, so we will never know the full story. But if Stone really thinks suffering cannot have meaning, that “history is poisoned by claims on underlying truth,” why is Mary Pick the most vigorous and sane character in the book? Certainly she seems to represent the hope that eludes most if not all of the others.
Just posted to the website, our January 24 issue. Among the highlights: The first part of an exclusive excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s forthcoming book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God Love (subscription required). An excerpt from the excerpt:
“Ask the beasts and they will teach you,” we read in Job (12:7). My new book takes its title from that verse, placing the natural world as envisioned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in conversation with Christian belief in a loving God who creates, redeems, and promises a blessed future for our world. When we ask the animals and plants about their origin and relationship with God, a picture emerges of how they are cherished by divine love prior to, and apart from, the emergence of humanity. The evolution of the human species introduces sin into the world, seen today in our destruction of habitats and the resulting extinction of species. In this context, listening to the beasts fosters a deep ecological ethic as humans aim to replace their domination over nature with mutual regard and responsible care in the community of creation. The goal of this dialogue is to discover how love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of believers’ passion for the living God—to practical and critical effect. In this essay, the first of a two-part series, I hope to make clear how Darwin’s work changed our understanding of nature and humankind’s place in creation.
Also featured in the new issue: Jo McGowan with a personal reflection on moving her aging father into assisted living, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels on the peril of letting an ally determine our foreign policy, and Nick Ripatrazone on a new book of poems from Averill Curdy.
And we’ve also posted E. J. Dionne’s latest column, on the problems New Jersey governor Chris Christie could face with conservatives in the still unfolding “Bridgegate” scandal.
A friend reminded me of the artistry of Middlemarch when he mentioned how much he enjoyed listening to an audio book of the novel on his way to work. I had to reflect that I had read Eliot first fifty years ago, under a magnolia tree in Fordham’s Rose Hill in the Bronx, caught up in Dorothea’s story but equally aware that I had yet another novel to read that week for Dr. Santaniello’s English Fiction course. So taking up the book again, I was surprised and humbled by the number of times I had to read the following passage, Edward Casaubon’s proposal of marriage (in letter form) to Dorothea.
I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.
The knottiness of this passage, reminiscent of the frustrating Latin of Cicero, whose periods made me weep in the frustration of incomprehension, works in veritable counterpoint to the fluency of composition – and the ease of the prose rhythms. Casaubon’s self-regard, rendered in the subordination of the clauses and in the parenthetical notes to his own assertions are all too great warnings against the very proposal that Dorothea accepts. The weight of the words simply and ironically crushes any hope of realizing the “affections” that he mentions but are somehow buried in the qualifications that he has laid out earlier.
Perhaps it is too easy to comment that novelists do not write like this anymore. But I have to ask if that also means that our contemporaries do not make the demands upon us that the great Victorian writers did?Read more
Right now, two new pieces from the upcoming issue.
First, James L. Fredericks and Andrew J. Bacevich in an exchange on Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of History in the age of Obama:
Barack Obama has vigorously prosecuted the war against Al Qaeda even while ending U.S. military engagement in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan. These seeming paradoxes make Obama an ironic figure of the kind that interested Niebuhr most—the self-conscious, existential irony of a man who knows he must act in history while being unable either to control the outcome or to escape the moral ambiguity of his choices.
Read it all here. Also, Richard Alleva reviews Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks. On the performances of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the former:
Critics speak about the autumnal grandeur of “lateness in art”—the tranquil power of Beethoven’s late quartets or the swan-song poignancy of Verdi’s Falstaff. Judi Dench has that quality as an actress nowadays, and it’s not just an inevitable feature of her old age. She’s in possession of a still center, and from that center she radiates. But the critical praise heaped on Dench shouldn’t keep us from noticing that Steve Coogan’s wry underplaying of Sixsmith makes Dench’s beatific comedy possible. With his boredom-glazed eyes desperately beseeching invisible gods for mercy as she blathers on and on, and his smooth baritone subtly inflected by covert sarcasm, Coogan is the Oxbridge Oliver Hardy to her female Stan Laurel. And would Stan be truly funny without Ollie?
Read it all here. And come back to the website Monday, when we'll be posting the rest of the new issue.
We probably don't highlight the poetry that appears on our site enough, but we do want to bring to your attention a new poem from Michael Robbins that was just posted (and that will appear in the upcoming print edition of the magazine). Robbins is the author of the collection Alien vs. Predator, about which John Wilson had this to say in our pages in December 2012:
Every once in a while, a book appears as if out of nowhere, uncanny in its authority, combining the shock of the new with the shock of recognition. Michael Robbins’s Alien vs. Predator has given me a sense of what early readers of The Waste Land must have felt in 1922, what it must have been like to pick up a copy of Wise Blood at the bookstore in 1952.
For such works, the usual terms don’t apply. You don’t necessarily “like” or “dislike” them; rather, you circle them warily, marveling, curious, seeking to understand.
Read Robbins’s “Springtime in Chicago in November” here.
"Dream Baby Dream" is a 1977 song by the more-influential-than-successful punk band, Suicide. This new version by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band meets what I've come to think of as the First Rule of Cover Songs: You've got to bring something new to it.
Musically, Springsteen and his band fill out the empty spaces in "Dream Baby Dream" and smooth off its rough edges, beginning with just an old pump organ, slowly building to a climax and then receding back to silence. It's no longer a young man's nervous, edgy song. It's an old man's prayer, infused by the hard-earned wisdom of his life's ups and downs.
Visually, editor Thom Zimny captures the quasi-religious nature of Springsteen's live performances with the E Street Band: the ecstatic peaks of mass communion, the quiet, interior moments of contemplation reflected on individual faces, the call-and-response exchanges---both among the musicians and between them and the audience.
Towards the end there is---as there was each night throughout the last tour---a brief "communion with the saints" as images of deceased longtime bandmates Danny Federici (organist) and Clarence Clemons (saxophonist) flash on the screen.
As marketing ramps up for the release next week of Bruce Springsteen's new album, High Hopes, it would be a shame if this lovely song and video---released in October at the end of his last tour as a kind of thank-you card to his fans---got overlooked.
If, like me, you are counting down the hours to Masterpiece Mystery!’s “Sherlock” Season 3 (launching later this month), you may appreciate the whodunit quotient in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” a very interesting documentary airing tonight, Jan. 7, 8:00-10:00 pm ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the American Experience series. A tale of the birth and maturing of forensic chemistry in New York City beginning in 1918, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” chronicles a series of murders and suspicious deaths that were solved by two scientists of Holmesian genius and rationality: Charles Norris, a groundbreaking New York City medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, the pioneering toxicologist who was Norris’s colleague.
Over several decades, starting around World War I, the two men worked on cases that had to do not only with cold, calculating homicide, but with Prohibition, Standard Oil and leaded gasoline, poverty during the Great Depression, and a notorious case of radium poisoning at a watch factory. According to the documentary, directed by Rob Rapley, the two men built forensic science into a respected institution—without them, there would have been no “CSI,” no Patricia Cornwell novels.
It’s a suspenseful yet educational documentary, packed with old film footage and shots of sensational early 20th-century newspaper headlines. It does use reenactments—a technique I usually find annoyingly cheesy. But these reenactments are atmospheric, and appear carefully done (lots of glimpses of early 20th-century laboratories and primitive-looking morgues). When I interviewed Rapley about a year ago about his fascinating documentary series “The Abolitionists,” he told me that he had initially hesitated to use reenactments, but ultimately had decided that they added a needed visual dynamism, and that an abundance of reliable written records allowed for scripting the reenactments with great accuracy. I haven’t spoken to him this time round, but after watching “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” I would assume that the rationale for reenactments in this case was the same.
The perennial popularity of police, detective and hospital story programs on television demonstrates that audiences love to get behind-the-scenes glimpse of professional procedure—the kind of detail that abounds in “The Poisoner’s Handbook.” The attraction is partly voyeuristic thrill, but I think procedure-heavy stories also give us the comforting illusion of being part of a team or select professional circle. In an era that often seems increasingly impersonal, when people telecommute, and text instead of talk, and work in specialized fields that others can barely comprehend, enthusiasm for behind-the-scenes police lab and medical diagnostic stories—stories that provide an illusion of professional companionship and inner-circle reassurance—will surely only increase. (Mystery fans will be interested to note that Dr. Marcella Fierro, a forensic expert interviewed in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” is the former chief medical examiner for Virginia who inspired the figure of Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell’s novels.)
After tonight’s airing, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” will be available on DVD or for online viewing on pbs.org, according to the press release. There is also a related “interactive online graphic novel.”
I have remarked in years past of my Christmastide ritual of listening to Bach's Christmas Oratorio.The Oratorio comprises six cantatas for the various days of the season, culminating in tomorrow's Feast of the Epiphany.
More and more I find listening attentively, with text in hand, a form of lectio. And it makes me appreciate more Bach's own careful lectio of the text.
Thus, in the Cantata for the Epiphany, in the simple recitative of the Evangelist, intoning Herod's words to the Magi, "bring me word that I may come and worship him also," Bach adds a slight trill to the final syllable of "worship," hinting at Herod's hypocrisy. And in the answering recitative by the soprano, Bach provides a striking dissonance on "falsches Herz," – "deceitful heart."
But, most impressive for me, is the concluding Chorale of the cantata. Here, joyful trumpets herald the salvation Christ has gained us: "humankind has been raised to the side of God." Our celebration of our salvation, however, is tempered by the recognition of its cost. The melody of the joyous outburst is that of the Passion hymn, "O Sacred Head, pierced by crown of thorns." Bach is both musical genius and profound theologian.
John Eliot Gardiner's new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven," makes for excellent lectio during long Winter nights.
On our website we're now featuring two special posts on movies. First is our year-end roundup of movie reviews, essays, and blog posts that appeared in our pages and online from Richard Alleva, Rand Richards Cooper, Anthony Domestico, Cathleen Kaveny, and others, with the spotlight on such major releases as The Great Gatsby, Twelve Years a Slave, and Gravity, along with smaller features and documentaries like Philomena and The Central Park Five. You can find our Year in Movies feature here.
Also featured is a collection of pieces from our current issue that reassess the theology in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life; you can find that here.
Many of the films featured are now available on streaming or DVD, and some are still even in theaters, so if you're trying to decide on something to watch or see in the coming days, why not read what our authors have had to say? Or, let us know what you think about the movies you've seen in 2013.
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