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Summer reading club

A while back, some of our commenters were floating the idea of a dotCommonweal "book club," inspired by the conversations this blog often hosts about this or that literary work. I like the idea, but I'm not ready to volunteer to coordinate a reading schedule... But that's mainly because, in a sense, the other editors and I are already doing that, trying our best to give you a steady supply of thought-provoking material to read and discuss. (You are reading the magazine, aren't you? We depend on our subscribers!) Now that fiction has returned to Commonweal's pages, maybe we really can have an informal "book club" here on our blog. If you haven't yet had the chance to read Alice McDermott's short story "I Am Awake," which is featured in our July 17 issue, take some time to check it out. Then come back here and share your impressions with the rest of us. I'll get things started by noting what struck me when I first read it: the portrayal of how teenagers think and act seems remarkably authentic and contemporary to me. That's something that I think is difficult for many authors to pull off, even authors who are writing expressly for the "young adult" audience. I don't have a teenager handy to test this out, but I think most high-schoolers would recognize the world McDermott describes in this story. So I'd be interested to hear from parents: would you give this to your teens to read? And what did you make of it yourself?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I agree, Mollie, this story was terrific. It was one of those pieces that left me grabbing everyone I met for the next three days and saying "read this!" (Full disclosure: when I linked to it on my blog I suggested that a subscription to Commonweal would be a good thing!)What I wasn't prepared for was the response of a few folks my age--fifty-ish -- who seemed, clucking, to think that it was a cautionary tale about teenage drinking. HUH??? On the contrary, I found this to be a cautionary tale for parents (like me) who all-too-often miss the fact that their kids' lives are profoundly holy; how they (teenagers especially) hew to the sacramental all around them, are driven to it like the starving thirsty pilgrims they are. I keep returning to the final image of that girl, flying completely under her parents' radar, slipping out of the house to seek the company of the communion of saints for morning mass...But there was a christology here, too, yes?

Nancy, thank you for the comments -- and the subscription plug! I guess seeing the cover illustration -- gravestone plus beer bottle -- might lead you to expect a cautionary tale about the dangers of drinking, but I certainly don't think that's what the story delivers. I like your take on it, though.

When I read the story, I was reminded of that when my kid was 4 or 5, we had to have one of the cats put down. I kept finding these weird "shrines" all over the house. The kid would take a night light and plug it in, and then arrange one of my cat figurines or a photo of the cat under it, and set out cat treats (which the other cats ate), cat toys and the like. The weirdest thing was a kind of triptych he drew showing the cat on the cross, in his grave, and then in heaven with a little halo. He made no comment about any of this, and said he didn't want to talk about it. I was pretty astounded, because this was the same kid who whose Catholic school teachers were complaining daily about his behavior and his acting up at Mass. I like how Nancy put it--there is something profoundly holy in children. But I also think Catholicism--and McDermott--recognizes the need for ritual as a way of driving home in tangible ways that life is holy and that death does not sever our connection with loved ones. Where there is no continuing ritual, people will make them up--beer bottles in a cemetery, cat toys under a nightlight. Might remind everybody that Commonweal has always published poetry, some of it very good, and that might be worth talking about as well.

I Am Awake is a lovely piece of work, and although I dont at the moment have a resident teenager to share it with, and I think my college students would have loved it. Stories and poems have a way of interacting richly in the classroom, and I always liked to pair them for discussion. This one would be perfect with something like Joyces The Dead. McDermott takes some similar themes and imagesyouth and age, times effect on feeling, the figure of an intensely alive boy whose influence lives on after his death in those whose life he has touched, the way in which the generations do and dont understand each other. She even uses an Irish lament as a key symbol. Both stories involve social communion, and the creation of rituals that perpetuate and celebrate the past. But instead of ending with the fall of an isolating, numbing snow falling inexorably over the universe, McDermott gives the reader life-giving rain, and the warmth of a band of friends making room for someone else who has been awakened and is fully alive. A thoroughly grace-ful story in many ways.

From one of my teenage granddaughtersHi Grandpa,Thanks for sending me the article! I definitely think it exemplifies my generation's determination to replace traditional ways of dealing with life's obstacles with practices we feel are more relevant and personal. Its about building a society to fit individuals instead of trying to shape individuals to fit into society. I'd like to talk with you more about this article sometime, and hear your thoughts on it. Love,Alexis You betcha

As a high school teacher and coach, I am immersed in the world of teens on a daily basis. I agree that the story did a great job of authentically portraying the teenage perspective. We lost one of our students about five years ago. I regularly drive past the pole that he wrapped his car around, and I never fail to be struck by the fact that his friends still maintain a little shrine there for him with mementos and notes tied to the pole.

I loved the story and found that it really stayed with me in so many ways. As others have said before me, the portrayal of teenagers seems so realistic. As the stepmother of a 13 year old, one I am grateful to have an excellent relationship with, it gave me a lot of food for thought.What Nancy said about the holy and sacramental nature of teenagers went right to the heart of what I really loved about the story. I see this play out in the life of my aforementioned stepdaughter who in the past, and completely of her own volition became Catholic. The sacramental nature of life is so essential to her and her friends, in ways religious and otherwise. This had taken me quite by surprise when I came to awareness of it in the past year.

"I am Awake" does portray teenagers quite well, in that they usually are not aware of the true meaning of death and the pain and anguish that comes along with it. We are always bombarded with news of deaths and killings, but it never really hits home until you lose someone you love. These teens do not have an outlet for their suffering and have no real way to cope with their loss, however they finally take refuge in going to Mass.It saddens me that it takes such great tragedy to bring a teenager to consider a religious outlet.

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