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Evil Within

In her essay, “Love of Religious Practices,” Simone Weil addresses the condition of those afflicted by “the ugliness in us. The more we feel it, the more it fills us with horror. The soul rejects it in the same way as we vomit. By a process of transference we pass it on to the things that surround us.”  Persons in such conditon include prisoners in cells, drudge workers in a factory, and patients in a ward or care home. “In this exchange the evil in us increases. It seems then that the very places where we are living and the things that surround us imprison us in evil. . . this is a terrible anguish. When the soul, worn out with this anguish, ceases to feel it any more, there is little hope of its salvation.”

Such dark analysis might serve as a thematic statement for a worryingly good novel, The Rack, by the pseudonymous A. E. Ellis, published almost sixty years ago and at least twice reprinted. Graham Green hailed it as one of the great books, rising “like monuments above the cemeteries of literature.” And he suggested that the novel ranked with Clarissa, Great Expectations, and Ulysses.  My wife called attention to the title when she looked up the website of a favorite author and found the book listed as a shaping influence. “The Rack”? Curiosity (and humiliation – I’ve not heard of it, and Green liked it!) had me ordering a copy and then, slowly and painfully, as befits the work’s title, I read it.

Simply put this is the story of a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the French Alps set immediately following the end of the Second War. Reviewers noted similarity in concept to Mann’s Magic Mountain. But this is not a novel of philosophical discourse. Rather The Rack is a novel of treatment, excruciating clinical procedures, recurring x-rays, painful and intrusive puncturings of the chest wall, and attenuated hope withered by signs of improvement dashed – again and again.

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Quirke and the Mother of Mercy Laundry

Benjamin Black, the noir disguise of Booker Prize winner John Banville, has returned us to 1950s Dublin and to its genteel but menacing mean streets. Even The Dead is the eighth in the series of detective fictions which follows the life of the functioning alcoholic and pathologist Dr. Quirke. A peculiar family history and the established powers of the church and government burden Quirke. Of course, family and church and politics are in league; the revelations of that alliance challenge the doctor and in some cases imperil him through his many professional years.

Black/Banville has layered remarkable complexity in developing Quirke’s character over these eight books. It would be a long paragraph to summarize them here, but the complications are as much a part of recreation of an Ireland of sixty years ago as the murders and violence that Quirke and his ally Inspector Hackett confront.

Quirke is burdened by a past: he was raised in a brutal orphanage, “adopted” by a powerful judge, well educated in Ireland, and as a doctor in Boston. His melancholy and self-doubt ground his alcoholism, just as the death of his beloved wife leads to his profound sense of loss. Not quite a Byronic figure, but certainly a man who would appreciate the notion that he is an ironic approximation of one. Quirke’s every pleasure is won from guilt and every self-assertion a claim for respect from an authority that will mock him. His compassion is his hair shirt. It is to strong women that he turns to face himself in their eyes.

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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.


Knowledge of Angels

Knowledge of Angels—an objective or subjective genitive? What angels know or what one knows of angels? The ambiguity of the expression, the title of Jill Paton Walsh’s remarkable novel (1994), poses a theological problem that teases throughout its pages. The author takes the issue head on in a disarming preface which promises us as readers the knowledge of angels, as we read this book and indeed virtually every text: “the position of a very like that occupied by angels in the world, when angels still have any credibility.” Note those sly tenses—“is” “still have”.

Jill Paton Walsh is veteran novelist; you might know her as the author of Peter Wimsey novels (which continue those of Dorothy Sayers) and of a score of children’s books. Knowledge of Angels was short-listed for the Booker prize when it appeared over twenty years ago, and reveals the author’s deep engagement with her Catholic faith. It is, for want of a better term, an allegory, the quest of a devout cardinal/prince for the assurance that the knowledge of God is both innate and discoverable by the application of reason. Such are the beliefs in the imagined fifteenth century, pre-reformation island world, presided over by Serveo. He is a just and learned lord, whose life is disrupted by two extraordinary events: the arrival of a mysterious cast-away who against all odds survives a fall from a ship to swim to the island’s shore, and the discovery of a feral child, suckled by wolves, and isolated virtually from birth from human contact. The cast-away declares himself a prince and, more troublingly, an atheist from a far-off land, unknown to the inhabitants of the island. The child, savage and without language, is more beast than human, eats only raw flesh, and attacks any who approach.

Serveo, in an act he ultimately comes to see as testing all his easy assurances, determines to conduct a trial: was the child born with an innate realization that God exists? Can his close friend and theologian Beneditx lead by reason the foreign atheist to the acknowledgment that there is a God. We have then a novel of ideas, worked out between Beneditx, the believe, and Palinor, the foreign atheist. In the latter we meet a tolerant, broad-minded ruler, now dispossesed of his kingdom by his chance fall into the sea. He converses ably in Latin, understands the arguments of his monk /educator Beneditx, and who lives an ethical materialist code—one might say a secular humanist, respectful but rejecting of the arguments for belief. Indeed so gracious an interlocutor is he, the Beneditx is increasingly drawn into admiration—as is the Cardinal Serveo. The caveat: atheism is punishable by death on the island.

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The front cover board of David Mitchell’s new novel, Slade House, is cut out in a squat rectangle to reveal on the facing page an intricate geometric design, the plan of the eponymous Slade House. Open the cover and even more detailed and cryptic symbols, faint scripts, and maze-like divisions are inscribed on the plan and suggest that the site will be mysterious, nay, nefarious. It is. The design promises revelations, but you have to squint to make out the signs. That in a way is the effect of the novel as a whole: psychic eye strain.

Readers of Mitchell’s previous, The Bone Clocks, will recognize the source of Slade House’s conflict, a spiritual war between the forces of light and darkness, delivered in the energetic, multi-voiced style that has made Mitchell such an entertaining writer:  witness Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. For whatever reason Mitchell has turned his imagination towards supernatural struggle, waged by Atemporals, those few individuals whose great power allows them to defy mortality by feeding on the souls of the “engifted” to preserve their shape-shifting lives. Their adversaries [particularly one Horologist, Marinus] equally powerful, but for the plot’s sake, fewer in number, muster a reactive defense, determined to stop the disappearances unto death of the victims of those who follow “the shaded path.” They have compassion, respect life, and have resources that appear to give hope for the future. (God is not present to assist.)

A reader gets hints of the larger superstructure loosely governing this duel of giant forces  whose combat literally swallows up hapless mortals. There are ancient savants, sites of power hidden in far lands, and, it would appear, schools of learning that allow the haughtiest of actors to speak with the condescension of all arch-villains. How much is camp, how much nudges and winks us into complicity? Is Mitchell wrong-footing us throughout with his apparently technical vocabulary: psychovoltage, orisons, and banjax?

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Genesis 3:16

It is not too far a stretch to say that Anne Enright’s Booker Prize winning The Gathering (2007) is a gloss on this verse from Genesis.

To the woman he said, “I will multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”

Here is Veronica, the forty year old narrator, an Irish middleclass mother of two, reflecting on her mother’s life.

[My father] did love my mother. There is always that unpalatable fact – the fact that my father loved my mother, and she loved him right back. But he did not love her enough to leave her alone. No. My father, I imagine, had sex the way his children got drunk – which is to say, against his better judgement; not for the pleasure of it, so much as to make it all stop.

The result: twelve children and six miscarriages. Veronica’s vision sees sex as a force to be managed, one that takes its toll, and leaves a woman burdened. Paradoxically, sex produces the children that are her joy, the living extensions of herself. In her ordeal, and this book traces Veronica’s ordeal, her husband is estranged by his very desire. What will he do “to make it all stop”? Veronica can imagine the worst, just as she condemns herself for such imagining.

Being a mother, a spouse, and a sibling in so large a family, is an issue that wraps itself around a secret—indeed, a putative crime. We learn in the novel’s first line that: [Veronica] “would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event.”

She does finally write “it” down; the impetus is the death by drowning, a suicide, of Liam, Veronica’s younger and closest brother. “The uncertain event” is the cause, so Veronica comes to believe, of self-murder.

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The Green Road

Emily Dickinson set a high standard for recognizing a great literary work. “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” Something cranial but a bit less drastic occurred to me when reading  Irish  novelist, Anne Enright’s recent book, The Green Road. My head did not lose its top; rather it seemed to be displaced, removed into a way of thinking different from mine – disconcertingly different. The novel introduces us to the Madigan family, an Irish matriarchy ruled by Rosaleen who responds to the trauma she engenders by resorting, as her son Daniel terms it, to “the horizontal solution.” She takes to her bed, disappears from family life for days, only to explode from her chamber in rages that dwindle to fondling expiation. This tactic develops in multiple ways, appearing in manifestations that challenge her rare set of children. Here is the elder daughter, Constance, now a mother of three, waiting for the results of a mammogram. What mark has maternity left on her?

She was back on the road at Bunratty, cutting thought the field  - the impossible ease of it – and she remembered the undoing of her own bones as the children were born. Her pelvis opening – there was pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn – as the baby twisted out of her. It was all so simply done. And the baby was such a force, each time. Donal, with a grumpy look on him, Shauna who came out in a blaze of red hair, and her sweet-natured middle son, Rory, who turned his mother into a bit of dual carriageway herself, at the last with such a bad tear. He took both exits, as she said to Dessie [her husband] at the same time.

The prose mimics the free flow of thought without resorting to stream of consciousness techniques. Enright’s ability to project distinct voices and the habits of mind is enviable.

The novel’s structure is one of chronological growth of the Madigans. We have an opening chapter that introduces the family, and then we follow the lives of Rosaleen and  Pat and their children, in discrete chapters, over a period of thirty years. The novel jolts its way to an end with the Madigans various converging on the family home for a last Christmas dinner. Rosaleen, now a widow, intends to sell the site of so many family crises.The children gather with a sense of foreboding: what new confrontations await?

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Translation as Meditation

MFA studies at the Iowa Writing Program took Aviya Kushner from the intimate world of her close reading of Hebrew scriptures to a first time encounter of the bible in English translation. Luckily, the dissonance that she encountered, caused by translations, was met with understanding, nay happy encouragement, by her teacher, Marylynne Robinson. Their discussion led Kushner to write The Grammar of God over a period of many years. She shaped the book into a personal account of meeting an interpretive world that had only fleeting resonance with the Hebrew she knew from childhood. A poet and an exegete, Kushner reads the Hebrew in direct English interlinear translation, and comments on what the bare substitution of English for Hebrew can never reveal. She then lists seriatim, five or more differing English translations of the same text, suggesting how each attempt tries to capture what the Hebrew says.

The philological study is not barren, rather meditative and prayerful. Every reader comes to the scriptures with a history. Kushner, raised as a Chassidic Jew with family lost in the Holocaust, traces the legacy of reading to the German city where her family disappeared – to be shot and buried in unmarked graves. Her account of her upbringing – her father a theoretical mathematician and her mother an expert in Ancient Near Eastern languages – stresses the interpretive traditions of the rabbis. She was born into the dialogue of centuries of commentary. Her brother can recite whole sections of the Torah from memory, and she spent years sometimes as a poetry student of Derek Walcott in Boston, or in other pursuits in Israel, and then in Iowa in the Writing Program, coming to terms with burden of her belief, her history, and her own aspirations as a writer.

This book is an invitation to challenge readings of familiar scriptural texts. All translators betray what they attempt to convey – this is a truism. But Kushner is particularly sensitive in her desire to show how English translators through the centuries struggled to open to believers that ancient text they so revered. Quite an experience – to be brought into the scholar’s understanding of Genesis, Psalms, and the Law. But this is passionate understanding, indeed.

The Illuminations

True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool. 

O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.

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What is "I Refuse"?

The fiction of the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, particularly his Out Stealing Horses, published almost a decade ago, has received general critical acclaim. Character, setting, mood and landscape open up a world familiar and strange. When I read him, I find a singular point of view, a consciousness shaped in a world in extremis – and all the more dramatically powerful for that.

The phrase, “I refuse” occurs three times by my count in Petterson’s new novel of the same name. It is spoken as an encouraging assertion of life over death – as in “I refuse to die.” So Tommy, one of the chief characters, to his mortally sick, adoptive father Jonsen – who dies soon after.  It is also a denial of family or marital obligation. Tommy refuses to bear responsibility for his aged, abusive, real father; and a waitress, Berit, refuses to wear her wedding ring, despite her husband’s demands, to free herself for an assignation with Tommy. Refusing becomes a form of independence, an assertion of the self, against the constraints of family ties, vows, or the menace of death. In their contexts, the refusals seem desperate, and ultimately unfulfilling. The sources or motivation for the decisions “to refuse” lie unexplored, rather stated as facts.  The Norwegian world of Per Petterson is not simply physically chilling, but deeply emotionally so.

This is a complex and teasing narrative, built around sharp disjunctures in time sequence and narrative voice. First person accounts by the two principals, Tommy and Jim, extremely close boyhood friends, reveal their chance meeting at the very beginning of the novel.  They have not seen each other for over thirty-five years. There are third person accounts of the events that caused the break in their friendship and reveal how Tommy’s mother disappeared and how he came to be raised by Jonsen. Siri, Tommy’s sister, recounts her brief romance with Jim, and his painful, inexplicable rejection of her.

The plot, if plot there is, takes its energy from the first, chance meeting, and through time shifts, alternation of voices, works its way to the frustration of any future meeting, and suggests the major theme of the novel – the isolation of each of us, and the corresponding inability to know the other person. Deeper still, Jim, whose adolescent ability in school, and his blond good looks, appear to set him apart and give him the advantage over his rough and unpredictable friend Tommy, suffers deep emotional depression, and scarcely survives a suicide attempt.

One typical Petterson scene points both to the inscrutability of motive and the lingering effects of guilt.

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Atticus Lish and Next Lives

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s extraordinary novel seems material for the perfect melodrama: a vet returned from the horrors of war, Byronic wounds setting him apart; the plucky immigrant woman, a survivor, canny and intent on saving the wounded hero. The backdrop: New York City where anything is possible. Given the pretext of the work, a reader can’t help but wonder if the love affair can not generate the compassion to redeem the soldier and make real the dream of the woman? Lish’s world is not that of melodrama: he subverts the expectation through unsparing realism. In the process, his vision leaves desiccated flabby assumptions about PTSD and the underworld of illegal aliens. Love simply is not enough to buoy the pair above the wash of the City’s violence and exploitation. 

The novel has had high praise in many reviews, principally for Lish’s ability to create dialogue, or perhaps more accurately, the speech, demotic, of the outer boroughs of the City. The progress of the plot is almost cinematic – by way of montage, scene juxtaposed on scene. The abrupt changes of place and character create a sense of energy, almost manic energy, particularly in so far as Skinner (the Iraqi vet) and Zou Lei (the part-Uighur, part Chinese illegal) share an obsession with physical training. They literally pursue each other in sweat drenched, convulsive runs – or rival each other in squats and lifts.

In remarkable explorations Lish takes us into the shadow economy of undocumented immigrants – the punishing work in over-hot kitchens, or clattering rag-trade sweat shops. Skinner’s altercation with the son of his landlady puts him in the holding cells of a local precinct, and Lish manages to channel in rapid fire speech all the riot, aggression, taunting and fear of the men jailed. He has the same ability to convince that he knows the many different Chinese dialects and the Pidgin English that serves as common speech as well as the clannish tensions that push Zou Lei down the pecking order of kitchen hierarchies.

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John Boyne's Lonely Priest

John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness asserts through its title that we will be confronted with a story of one isolated or excluded. The history is a confession, addressed to readers as “you” and by extension the history is a testimony. The narrator, Father Odran Yates, is a witness to the transformation of the Irish Catholic church – particularly to the esteem accorded priests and the institution of the church by lay people. At the end of his priestly career, Father Yates finds himself disillusioned and alone – divided in his self-condemnation and his remaining faith in his vocation and the church.

One would expect a hostile review of forty years of recent Irish Catholic history from a John Boyne who said in an interview: “my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn.” Indeed the author is gay, and records callous beatings and harsh spiritual strictures leading to extensive bouts of depression. His subject in the novel is the pedophile scandal that scarred so many boys and adolescents and which was willfully hidden, despite the risks to so many young people. The salvific aspect of the novel is that his narrator is a good priest, one who recognizes the strength of his own vocation, and in so far as he trusted the hierarchy which he obeyed he fell into the sin of omission. He refused in an unsettling denial to suspect those closest to him of “interfering” with children.

I use the word “salvific” carefully: the novel should be read as way to a just response to the great crimes of abuse. Boyne’s handling of Father Yates’s voice is the central achievement. The viewpoint is one of hindsight; the revelations of duplicity and complicity in suppressing the predatory treatment of children isolates Yates. He seems, in self-accusation, to lose affect, to view his ministry as one lived by false surmise – about the integrity of his superiors, the honesty of his fellow priests. The narrative tone resonates with the “loneliness” of the title; indeed, Yates might feel as if he alone did not see what was going on around him, particularly in the life of his oldest friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle.

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Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

"In Paradise" - Another View

I found myself disagreeing with Paul Johnston’s review (3/6/15) of In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen’s last novel. I fear that his sober, almost disappointed judgment, putting stress on the author’s failure to engage the Shoah with sufficient spiritual vision, will put readers off.  Johnston asks for a novel that “requires us to remember – to insist- that the world is God’s creation and not our own, and that all people, including those unlike ourselves, are created in the image of God.” One can scarcely disagree with such a belief in the Incarnation, but Johnston is really posing a broader question: can literature, fiction, say anything adequate about the Holocaust? He raises a standard that is exclusive, and I would hold absolute in a way the hedges out the imagination. In the course of the review, I find that Johnston’s shows his own hesitation at the conclusion he reaches. While he admits Matthiessen achieves partial success, he notes that Matthiessen’s Buddhism keeps his vision from transcendence. As if looking back over his shoulder, Johnston can’t help but admire that struggle that is this artistic grappling with the past. The failure of the novel is what it says or doesn’t say to us and to those in the future. 

In Paradise takes us to an interfaith retreat at Auschwitz fifty years after the liberation of the camp. The participants are Buddhists, Jews, Christians, atheists, relatives of former Nazi guards, local Polish residents, and Clements Olin, a Polish American academic with family roots in Oswiecim, a town near the camp. Olin is the center of consciousness, ostensibly doing research on a Holocaust survivor, Tadeusz Borowski, and author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He is also attempting to discover his own family history, especially the facts surrounding his birth and sudden removal to the USA. The novel explores the holocaust through Olin’s interactions with the other participants and those residents of the Polish village of his birth. The plot structure allows Matthiessen to provide a chorus of voices, some pious, others abrasive, some accusatory, and other proprietary. In sum, the characters grope in speech to confront the events that took place around them fifty years before. The weight of genocide burdens those in silent vigil upon the entry ramps. Their evening statements of witness after long reflection in silence find not consensus but divisiveness, and provide real opportunities for the novelist’s characterization.

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Booker Prize Guarantee?

Ambiguity in response to a novel rests with judgments that test values - literary, stylistic and ethical. I read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North ready to turn away from the page at the shock of his recreation of a WWII Japanese work camp in Burma; but I could not deny the power of the writing. The novel might cover the same territory as the Bridge on the River Kwai, but Flanagan’s account makes tactile the foul degradation and suffering. His characterization takes us into the minds of the Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors, in particular that of the officer Doctor Dorrigo Evans, the Aussie chief, and his counterpart, Captain Nakamura. On the one hand, the novel offers us the mentality of the Captain who can justify working men to death even as he demands they be beaten to insure their compliance; and on the other hand, the mentality of his opponent who encounters such treatment and yet does not collapse, rather finds the strength to accept cruelty, resist with caution, and remain generous. Such focus has little by way of sentimentality. The extremity of the situation is evoked in measured, unadorned prose. Flanagan gives us two men who reveal themselves in acts of self-justification. Each asks: am I a good man? Their answers lay out a moral spread that stretches from assurance to distrust. If a claim can be made for the novel’s stature, it is in its willingness to entertain such moral contrasts. This is fiction that takes us into dark places.

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Mental Loops

The vivid expression “earworm” suggests a voice, perhaps a song, or some phrase or fragment, that plays unwanted in a continuous mental loop. Subliminal sometimes it may be, but persistent, even distracting, as we might wish to concentrate all our attention on a problem or text. I think that times of stress brings the voice on. I have heard inside my head my voice audibly repeating the short prayers that the nuns in grade school would unselfconsciously tell us were "ejaculations." Those moments when anxiety threatens to screech its nails down fearful chalk boards – then I am likely to repeat as litany Domine adjuvanda me festina.

I have lately been reading through three of Philip Roth’s novels from the eighties and nineties, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist. Each has its striking virtuosity of voice and of perception. The energy of the prose and dynamism of the plotting and the voices (heteroglossia of the first order) can sweep a reader along. I had to stop, however, over a passage near the conclusion of I Married a Communist. The chief narrator Murray records  experiencing an ear-worm like obsession in a moment of great anxiety. Murray has just left his brother Ira in his rustic shack in Pennsylvania. Ira is despondent, angry, homicidal. Murray knows how violent Ira can be, and he fears that his brother will soon attempt to kill his estranged wife. On the drive back to his home, unconvinced that he has dissuaded his brother despite taking his knives and pistol, Murray recounts his inner turmoil. He maintains his stability, more or less, by repeating a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They are Feste’s words at the conclusion of the play: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Now you must know that Murray is an English teacher and an acutely sensitive reader. He is relating this experience to Nathan Zuckerman, his former student and now an accomplished novelist. Murray considers what his mind was doing with Feste’s words.

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Cradle Taboo

“Cradle Catholic” has a muscular connotation for me - the learned response to the stimulus of the Holy Name. I nod my head down in a perfunctory bow. Half-conscious, almost automatic gestures are part of a legacy, and so are profound orientations, habits of mind. We don’t choose these ways of thought and action; sometimes they grab us and point a way.

Dennis Lehane has used his Irish Catholic background in very successful detective fiction set in the Boston underworld. He writes spare, realistic dialogue and his books translate easily to the Big and Small Screens. (Mystic River, Shutter Island, episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) Characterization is always strong; it appears that his understanding of motivation draws easily on the “Cradle Catholic” mentality of his saints and sinners.

The Drop, his latest novel and screen play, is a case in point. The anti-hero, Bob, is an observant church goer, a loyal parishioner of St. Dominic’s, soon to be closed in a diocese-wide consolidation of poorly attended churches. Bob seems at first a suffering-servant, the bar-tender helper of his wise-mouth, lowering Cousin Marv, who is indeed Bob’s cousin. He is the apparent owner of the bar called after him. Bob is a dog’s-body, almost obsequious in has toleration of Marv’s barbed put-downs. Bob has no friends, no girl, and despite his ability to negotiate the Mean Streets, he is honest and thoughtful. His quiet strength will show itself in ways that puts him at odds with his church-going self. As we discover, Bob and Marv have a history barely hinted at but finally revealed. The plot winds its way through a long-discussed disappearance of a patron, a Chechen Mafia threat, the rescue of a Pit Bull and romance for Bob and Nadia, whose concern for the dog set them at odds with a psychopath. But the plot of the story turns on a revelation by way of a Cradle Catholic habit of mind.

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The Secret Place

Anyone who has taught in high school realizes that instruction runs a tough second (or third or fourth) place to adolescent relationships. Hormones, evolving identities, developing sexuality, and competitive self-assertion – being “bloody minded” as the English say - make the years emotionally fraught. Friends are everything. To be “in” or to be excluded often appears a matter of life and death. Tana French, the Irish author who has had great success with who-done-its?  such as Broken Harbor and In The Woods, uses the antipathy and idealism of teenage friendship-groups to ground her latest thriller, The Secret Place. Ms. French has an unerring ear for dialogue, of teenagers in sulks or power displays, or raw Dublin detectives bantering with each other in deadly earnest. The characterization by voice is remarkable.

The story is set in St. Kilda’s, an exclusive Dublin girls’ boarding school. A student from the neighboring St. Colm’s School for Boys has been killed, his murder unsolved for over a year. A  new piece of evidence suddenly triggers Detective Stephen Moran’s reopening of the case. Moran also has to prove himself to a tough woman homicide detective, Antoinette Conway – a lady who has felt the full sting of male prejudice. She also was in charge of the investigation that earlier failed to find the killer. Egos are on the line for the adults as well as the children.

The plot unfolds through exhausting interviews of eight girls in the course of one day’s investigation. The eight form two rival groups of four who spar with each other and the detectives in the give-and-take that eventually exposes the murderer. One of the eight is the only one who could be responsible for the picture of the murdered lad with the legend, “I know who did it.” that has appeared on the The Secret Place, a Kilda’s bulletin board that gives the novel its title.

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