Monday, September 2, 2013

On Tolstoy, Summer and Gold in the Sand

Ivan Kramskoy, The Unknown Woman, 1883

Summer is half way over, and I’m just now getting into the groove. Staying up a little later, waking up later, too. Letting things go slack, allowing everyone a little more space, more time, more freedom.

It’s like I’ve exhaled, finally, from the school-year before. And I realize how much stress I carry with me during those days. I know I spend much time thinking of my children, praying for them, hoping the best for them… obsessing maybe? Just a bit? “Well, if you keep THAT up (grades, behavior, practice schedules, grooming habits) you’re going to have a rough go of it.”  At the time, it seems like the ‘right thing’ to do. I’m caring, involved, proactive. And stressed out.

Why do I now feel lighter, happier, like a huge weight has been lifted?

It’s not that I’m less busy! I’m driving and and cleaning and coordinating and working just as much. Am I that much less consumed by thoughts of my children’s achievements and future?
Do I really hold such a grip – the white knuckled kind – on everything when school is upon us? So much so that when I let it go, I’m almost different person?

Is that why we have summer vacation? Is it really for the moms?

I’ve been reading Anna Karenina this summer. It’s long, it’s intriguing, and it makes you both wince in distress and bounce with joy over various characters. And, if you know how it ends, which most people do, a part of you is just waiting to see how it all falls into place, and hoping that your book might contain the secret alternative ending that Tolstoy really intended.

As with others of Tolstoy’s writings, I am completely intrigued with his knowledge of the human heart. Where does he get this stuff? How does he KNOW? And it is his secondary characters who have won me over utterly.

I read this passage the other day, and… well… :

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A review of "My Sisters the Saints"

My Sisters the Saints, by Colleen Carroll Campbell

Colleen Carroll Campbell is definitely a working Catholic mom! Her newest book, My Sisters The Saints reveals Colleen as a strong, vulnerable, and capable leader, following a familiar journey of faith – those of many of us women, and in particular, those of 6 beautiful female Saints.
Colleen writes in a way that weaves the stories of six power-house female saints – St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Faustina of Poland, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Our Blessed Mother Mary – with her life, as she walks her own journey of faith. It is a beautiful story of women walking on a journey, struggling with their sins and frailty, and determining to follow the way of the Lord.
What I like most about this book is that it isn’t clean…In other words, faith is complex…it doesn’t come in nice clean packages. Colleen answers a big question for women of faith: Yes, the Christian walk is a walk of suffering…but it is redemptive, beautiful, and unifying in the body of Christ.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

More of Emily's thoughts on Never Give Up

Here's a link to another book blog that I have.  It's a separate blog because I get books for free from a publishing house so long as I blog about them and review them on Amazon or some other website.  Anyhoo....I wrote a long post over there about Never Give Up.  Really, I think I could write an essay about this book.

Well, if you're interested...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Nearly the best book I have ever read

Now, don't get me wrong. It's not as though there's anything wrong with "Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy" that's holding me back from giving it the best qualifier, it's my own 'I don't want to be wrong, how can I evaluate all the books I've ever read? Certainly there's something better. Maybe I can categorize it' stuff going through my head. So, the other thing, if you didn't pick it up, is that I have a wee bit of anxiety in my family. It wasn't until after the birth of my third child that someone (a Dr. friend, no less) pointed out that I should focus more on the anxiety and not the worries the anxiety was causing. Talk about an eye opener!!  More on that later, let's focus on the book.

**pause, screaming, poopie diaper***

I've been formulating this blog post in my head for weeks, ever since I finished the book in 2 days while agonizing in bed with a flu-like cold.  Here is a run down from some notes I made.  Brilliant is the word that comes to mind most often when describing this book.  It has the BEST description of mental illness that I've ever read.  John is a brilliant theologian.  It has the best description of love, God's love, that I've ever read.  I love the chapters describing Mary, her love and how she is bringing us to Christ.

Never Give Up reminds us constantly of God's love.  That God is waiting for us, holding us, loving us.  We are children.  We act like children, we whine and complain, we don't understand.  We will learn some while we are here but most we will only learn in the next phase of our life with Christ.

***pause, screaming, more coffee***

I like how he relates our initial reaction to suffering as an "invasion of 'my life'" because this is exactly how I used to feel (and often still do) when presented with a challenge.  John reminds us that it's always better when we accept suffering as part of God's plan for our life.  Thank you, Lord!

The section comparing grumbling and lamenting has really opened my eyes and given me some freedom. I've repeated this lesson to others on multiple occasions, so far.

Throughout the book, John is constantly reminding us of God's love, love, love and that we need to ask, ask, ask for mercy.  Over and over and over.  God never tires.  It quite reminds me of the message of our new Pope Francis.  God never gets tired of forgiving, its we who tire of asking.  We must never tire of asking for forgiveness and mercy because God's love is abundant.

**baby came in lap, sucking on the corner of John's book***

About John, as an author, he is saturated with knowledge of the truth.  He doesn't need to quote catechism or papal encyclicals because it comes out of his pores.  It's how he thinks, it's the truth.

This concludes the notes I made in my phone a couple weeks ago.  I'm being overrun by the demands of a 2 year old, at present.  There is so much more that I'd like to say about this book.  I have ink throughout it, stars in the margins, etc.  *crying baby at my side*  But I can't put off these children any longer and I'm not going to grumble, either.  :)  Thank you, God for my babies!!!!  They dictate the actions of my life and right now they're saying, "ME ME ME!!!"

I will try to write more on this book, later, but for now, here you go.  I truly hope that this book brings you some peace in your heart as it has brought to mine.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Final Reflections on Persuasion by Dr. Ken Bugajski

(The Bookish Catholics Resident Professor is back again! We welcome Dr. Ken Bugajski, Associate Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He shares his thoughts with us as we read Persuasion by Jane Austen.)

Persuasion is, as I said, my favorite Austen novel. One thing I like about it, and what sets it above Pride and Prejudice for me, is the importance of the past and the novel’s sense of loss. Now, that may seem a strange reason to like a book, but...I'll get to that.

There are a number of losses in Persuasion that stand out from Austen's other work. Of course, Sir Walter is a widower. We don’t get too much information about his wife, but Chapter 1 suggests that she was the kind of woman who made her husband a better man. An older character who is a widow or widower is not uncommon in Austen, but there is also Benwick, who is near the same age as our main characters. Benwick has also lost his love, and there really isn't any other character in Austen's novels who has had a loss--and a reaction to that loss--quite like Benwick. And though it is only temporary, Anne and Wentworth have, of course, also lost their loves. The permanence of Sir Walter's and Benwick's losses reflect on our main couple, and the knowledge that there are instances where lost love cannot be recovered heightens the drama when Wentworth and Anne meet again.

There is an autumnal feel to Persuasion as well, and Julia's favorite quotation (that she posted to Facebook) presents one passage where Austen incorporates this idea of autumn. There are others too, though they are small passages that are easy to miss. In chapter 5, for example, Anne dreads having to go to Bath and grieves having to miss "the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months in the country." Later in Lyme, Anne reflects on the beauty of autumn when out walking. In literature, autumn is, almost always, a symbol of endings. Like Benwick and Sir Walter, these autumnal shadows increase the stakes for our heroine and hero. Anne and Wentworth are older, and they are in their own autumns--at least as far as being an eligible bachelorette and bachelor goes. One gets the sense this is their last chance before winter sets in.

Let me be clear here: I love Pride and Prejudice; it is a great novel, and surely Austen's prose in this novel is unmatched. But Pride and Prejudice--for all its sparkling wit and heightened romance--is spring and summer. Lizzie and Darcy face their obstacles and challenges, to be sure, but to be honest, from the first time Darcy refuses to dance with Lizzie, I never doubt they’ll end up together. For Lizzie and Darcy, it is all new beginnings; Pride and Prejudice is a book about falling in love.

Persuasion, though, is different in its emphasis. Anne and Wentworth have already fallen in love, long before the time when the novel begins. Their early relationship is marked by mistakes, and those mistakes have long-term consequences for both characters. Persuasion acknowledges that the past influences the present, that mistakes will be made, that lovers will hurt one another, and that heartbreaking loss exists. But love still wins. For Anne and Wentworth, it is all about choosing to begin again. For me, Persuasion is a book about being married--and that's why I like it better.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Only Anne, by Dr. Ken Bugajski

When we talked about North and South last fall, I nattered on about identity and the ways different aspects of Margaret Hales life and identity shift in the early chapters of the novel. Throughout Persuasion, Annes identity changes, too, but her story is different than Margarets journey.

To start thinking about Annes identity, we can look at what Austen says about her early in the book. When Austen introduces this character in Chapter 1, she writes, Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way;--she was only Anne.

The first descriptions of a character are always important. Just like in life when we meet someone new, we will form important first impressions. Authors know this as well as anybody, and so their initial descriptions of characters will always tell us something useful. In this case, we learn that in her family, Anne is neither respected nor cared for, and you might even go so far as to say she lacks an identity. Anne, after all, was nobody.

But then we get some surprising information: a few years earlier, Anne had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early . . . now she was faded and thin. So, *thats* interestingAnne used to be quite pretty. What happened that caused her bloom to fade? 

(Austen answers this directly, by the way, a few paragraphs into chapter 4, when she repeats that ideaearly loss of bloomas the result of some past events.)

Austen gives us these pieces of information right next to each other, separated only by the brief introduction of Lady Russell. Because these two descriptions of Anne are so close together, it is perhaps not too big of a leap to see a connection between Annes physical appearance (faded and thin) and Annes personality (Annewas nobody). We might keep that relationship between physical attractiveness and perception of personality in the back of our minds as the book continues.

So, if you remember Margaret Hale, her identity was destabilized when all of the different aspects of her life were changed due to the move to Milton, and she had to reshape her identity in the face of enormous change. For Anne, things are a bit different. She still faces changes (specifically a change of location, just like Margaret), but she starts the story without a defined identityshe is nobody. The Big Question for her is not Can she reshape her identity? but: Can she be anybody at all?

Friday, February 1, 2013

On Persuasion, by Dr. Ken Bugajski

The Bookish Catholics Resident Professor is back again! We welcome Dr. Ken Bugajski, Associate Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He shares his thoughts with us as we begin reading Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Hello again, everyone. It is great to be back with you this month to talk about Jane Austen. I should say from the beginning that I know Bookish Catholics has a number of Jane Austen devotees, and so I hope I don't waste your time telling you things you already know.

Where to start? Well, I may as well tell you that Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. I know that Pride and Prejudice is the choice for most people--and it is a wonderful book--but I have always liked Persuasion better, even though the ending has some flaws. No spoilers--I mean only that because Austen passed away, the last chapter seems not to have been fully revised. To me, the end lacks the polish of her other prose. Even so, Persuasion remains my favorite, and for my money, it contains one of the best literary love letters I know of, even better--yes, I will say it--than Darcy's to Lizzie.

As always for Austen, marriage is of primary concern, and I think of all Austen's novels, Persuasion considers marriage the most. Through our single heroine, Anne, Austen shows us the difficulty and challenge of finding the right person to marry, but the novel also presents a number of different models for what a married couple can be.

So what can marriage be like? First up are Charles and Mary Musgrove, who seem to present a model that is less than ideal. Charles is dutiful but distant from Mary. Mary cares for their children to the extent that she can do so without their displacing herself as the center of attention. As Austen says, Charles and Mary “might pass for a happy couple,” but once we spend some time with them, we see below that surface level. They often do not agree nor do they communicate about those differences; both resort to passive/aggressive behavior towards the other.

The Harvilles, who we meet in chapter 11, exemplify another type of marriage, and perhaps they represent what could have become of Anne and Wentworth had they been married when Anne was 19. They seem happy enough, but their house is always stretched to the limit in activity and money. When Anne and the others come to visit them in Lyme, for example, Benwick has to move out because there is not enough space for him.

Captain Benwick, who we also meet in Lyme, although he is single, also shows a third possibility for Anne. Benwick has lost the love of his life, and we can interpret him, perhaps, as a potential inverse of Anne. Had she and Wentworth married and Wentworth continued his naval career, perhaps Anne would have lost her love in the line of duty as Benwick has lost his love due to illness. Austen goes out her way to note that Anne and Benwick are similar to one another—even Anne recognizes it—and so here is another version of what married life might have been like for our heroine.

The first married couple we meet, the Admiral and Mrs. Croft, provide a final possibility for Anne (the Crofts are, incidentally, my favorite literary married couple).* The Crofts are always together, and Austen goes on at length the emphasize this. We learn in chapter 4, for example, that the Crofts have been travelling together and have just returned to England. Chapter 8 features a long discussion of whether wives of sailors should be allowed on naval ships, and Mrs. Croft expresses definite opinions about this matter. At one point, Austen’s describes the Crofts—who have been married for a long time—as acting “in a way not endurable to a third person.” Clearly the romance is alive in their relationship.

So, as Anne navigates her life—the move from Kellynch, seeing Captain Wentworth again, meeting Benwick—she encounters different examples of what married life can look like. Austen puts Anne in the position of being able to see how differently relationships can function and so that she can determine what she herself might wish.

*The Crofts are also responsible for one of my favorite scenes in all of the novels I know. But I don’t want to spoil that for you!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

After This: Authentic and Catholic

*Spoiler Alert*

I'd like to say I've been at a loss as to what I might write about our January selection, After This, by Alice
McDermott, but that would not really be the case.   Instead of loss, my hesitancy is caused by gain--by an abundance-- of beauty, truth, and strength.   This book is so beautiful and so close to perfection that it almost seems like a violation to approach in terms of review or analyzing.   I finished this book being truly awestruck by a writer whose talent goes beyond great to the level of literary genius.

After This defies categorization for me.   It is not a traditional plot-driven novel with a recognizable problem and resolution.   It is character-driven, with the Keane family made up of parents John and Mary, along with children Jacob, Michael, Annie, and Clare, being the focus.   The family members are fully developed by McDermott through their words, spoken and unspoken, and their interactions with the people and places around them.   McDermott's words are sparse, but powerful and so loaded with information that it is sometimes necessary to read sentences and whole passages more than once.   Such re-reading is not arduous, though, but instead is closer to excavation, as with each new dig the reader discovers some new detail that adds to the experience of revealed treasure.   Another feature of After This is McDermott's ability to make the reader feel like he has intimate knowledge of each character and moment whilst simultaneously being a distant observer of an expanse of time, much as we might consider the lives of acquaintances and neighbors.   After This is a period novel, set in America during the post-war and Vietnam eras and yet it speaks to the changes, hopes, and concerns of today.   We recognize the images of the past, but all of the thoughts and actions of the characters could easily be placed in a current setting.

In reading biographical information about Alice McDermott, I found out that she, like the Keane children, was raised in an Irish Catholic family in New York.   This book is a thoroughly Catholic book in its appeal, style, and themes.

After This is universal in its appeal.   Anyone can relate to these characters and to their lives.   The Keanes and their friends are normal, flawed people who have what is necessary, from within and without, for both good and bad.   John and Mary Keane love their children and they worry for their futures.   The Keane children love their parents, but must face the usual challenges of facing the world as individuals and deciding what to keep from the past and the present.

In several passages, John's fear of his daughters is expressed as he feels such love for them, but often doesn't understand their feminine ways.   After his youngest daughter, Clare returns from an excursion to see a play in the city, John sits, trapped by a contraption of his own means that is an attempt to heal his aching leg.   She recounts the dramatic details of the play as he observes the young lady she has become.   The feelings possible from any father of a girl are expressed in this short passage.

She paused.   Looked at her father and shrugged.   he suddenly realized that she was about to cry.
"That's too bad," he said.   he knew enough not to laugh at her.   He had already offended her, more than once, when he'd teased her about her easy tears....
And then, to his great surprise, she began to sing.   her voice was sweet, lower than he would have expected, although surely he had heard her singing around the house a thousand times before.   But now she was singing for him, much as she used to do when she was very small, her hands at her sides, her eyes half closed.   The cotton shirt not too long, perhaps, but wrinkled front he hours she'd been sitting.   The little-girl knees, although her body was growing lean.   She sand and he was both enchanted and embarrassed by her earnestness.   Both hopeful that neither of the boys would come upstairs (Jacob would only roll his eyes but Michael would sing along with her, mocking, howling the words to run, where the brave dare not go ow ow) and yet wishing that they would because there was something painful in it, watching her, another kind of pain altogether than what he'd been fighting these past two days.   The boys had their lives off in the wider world, he thought, but girls, his daughters, they had their lives far wider and far more inaccessible, right before his eyes.   

In meeting to discuss the book, our book club members expressed enjoyment of the details of the Keane's house, its normalcy and homeyness easily related to our own.   Also, the relationships between the siblings were authentic with their interactions which where a delicate balance between antagonistic and loving.   

In addition to its universal appeal, After This is Catholic in its style.   This is not a dialogue-driven piece.   Characters do not work out their problems or thoughts through detailed conversations.   There are no monologues which declare to the other characters and the readers what thoughts are taking place.   Instead, with a Catholic sensibility for relating to others through sign and symbol, McDermott chooses words with artistic precision to illustrate using characters' thoughts, clothing, surroundings, and closest friends.   In one passage, Mary has come home from the hospital, with baby Clare in her arms and her other three children overjoyed at her return.   They only know how to express their love by acting as if they hated Pauline during the time she baby-sat them.   It gives insight into the workings of childrens' minds and what must have been the nurturing motherhood of Mary Keane.   Instead of conversations or vignettes of family scenes, this is how McDermott tells us what kind of mother Mary Keane was to her family.

It wasn't that they'd found Pauline unlovable.   The entire world of adult strangers was more or less unlovable, with their huge earlobes and their smoky breaths, their yellow teeth, their intrusions.   It was only that the house was empty without their mother in it.   Recognizable still in all its familiarity: the vestibule where they dropped their book bags and (at Pauline's insistence) hung up their coats, the living room where the slipcover was newly dark, the cluttered dining room, the Formica counters in the kitchen, the Dutch Boy cookie jar, the worn carpet on the stairs, the sunlight through the windows of their bedroom which seemed always, from the time they woke until darkness fell, the sunlight of four thirty in the afternoon, all of it familiar but seen, for the first time, as it might look when it was empty, with none of them there.   This both puzzled them (because all three of them were indeed there, and Pauline was there, and by nine o'clock each night when visiting hours at the hospital were over, their father was there) and filled them with despair, which was what made them tell their mother, once she had returned, the baby in her arms, that they hated Pauline.   That they hoped they would never be left in her care...
It wasn't true, they hadn't hated her at all..., but it was an explanation that lingered, a conviction they would share for the rest of their lives.
Also, McDermott handles time in a very Catholic manner.   The Church teaches that God exists outside of the constraints of time.   He is not limited to the constraints of time.   We, with our feeble attempts, use the boundaries and markings of time to make sense of our world.   To bring about order.   McDermott has a way of referencing the past and future in the midst of the present without the use of flashbacks.   It is fluid and aided by combining the intimate with the distant.   Just as we understand that our prayers can have affect on the future, we see in After This how moments have significance and affect on the past and present.   In a favorite passage, Jacob and Michael walk ahead of the family after the first mass held in the newly renovated church.  They joke, tease, and even manage to share some secrets with each other in this rare instance of being open with each other.   McDermott writes beautifully, with her ability to be intimately up close with a character while relaying it all as an observer who sees from a distance of both location and time.   Any reader can find himself in this transition from childhood to young adulthood.

The route was all familiar--gray sidewalks and driveways, green rectangles of lawn, cars, bicycles, houses and trees.   The familiar streets.   He and Jacob could name nearly every family as they passed.   The O'Haras' house, the Krafts', the DeLucas', Levines', Perichettis'.   They'd been in most of their kitchens or front hall-ways, they'd collected paper-route payments or candy on Halloween, gotten glasses of water or Kool-Aid from them on hot summer days.   As he walked beside his brother, Michael's recollection of these days made them all seem soft-focused and gentle, an easy roundness about things that had since given way to something thinner, something grown sharper in threadbare sort of way.   Maybe it was the clean-edged aluminum siding that had replaced the aging shingles on most of the homes, or the sleeker cars, or the sun catching the chrome on Tony Persichetti's motorcycle in the driveway, where he once would have left his bike.   Maybe it was just the sense of it coming to an end, his time in this place, his childhood.   Maybe it was that the place had worn thin only for him, that he was already worn out with waiting to leave it and get on.   

I would also submit that this book's Catholic style can be seen in the way good and bad are portrayed realistically.   The difference between sin and virtue are shown in a subtle, artistic manner.   Characters who sin are not automatically smote by God.   The sadness, scars, and effects of sin are left for the reader to realize, amongst the actions of life.   Is that not how it happens in real time, in real life?   It would be a disservice to only portray extreme examples of only virtue or only sin and then show clear-cut immediate consequences of those actions as being easily identified to everyone.   It would be as misleading as Annie's friend, Susan's father, who would sit on the couch in months to come, bidding his sweet innocent daughter a farewell, while being unaware of  recent events and the way they changed his daughter forever.   A few weeks ago, as a friend and I discussed the movie we had just viewed, Silver Linings Playbook, we expressed a common feeling that while we loved the world of period dramas such as Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, sometimes we needed to see well-done films in a form that looked more real and more relevant to our own lives.   McDermott uses contrasts and inner thoughts to illustrate the reality and effects of sin.

If the event of Susan seeking an abortion had been written from a Puritan standpoint, I think there would have probably been two possible story-lines.   One, Susan would have been saved from the abortion, either by a last-minute persuasion by Annie or by harsh treatment by the abortion clinic staff which would shake Susan into a realization of what she was doing.   Two, Susan would have had the abortion and then died from it or been seen later in the novel as psychologically traumatized or unable to bear children.   It would have been cautionary hellfire and brimstone in novel form.   Instead, I see McDermott's treatment of this event as much more powerful.   I cried and I still can't get it out of my mind.   My heart aches more for Susan and for Annie in her involvement much more than it would have in either of the two story-lines above.   We have Susan first coming to terms with her abortion.

If Annie hated her for what she had just done, Susan thought, then she would be alone in the world, as lost as her crazy brother screaming in her dreams...

Then, sitting in a diner with what would normally have been a fun meal of perfect hamburgers and egg creams with her best friend, we find them unable to eat, as Annie tells Susan she "lost it" and had to leave the waiting room.

For Susan, the thick pad and cramps and the terrible word--curettage--that set her teeth on edge, all gave way to the sudden descent her heart took.   If their places were exchanged, Annie wold not have done what she'd done.  And there was no undoing it.   

Then, Annie proceeds to tell Susan that it was the events of the book she brought along, A Farewell to Arms, that had caused her to cry in a bathroom stall for twenty minutes.

Intolerable and terrible and made even more so by the fact that within the same hour of her reading, the book had convinced her (there in the softly lit waiting room of the abortion clinic) that despite war and death and pain (despite the way the girl with a woman who might have been her mother seemed to gulp air every once in a while, a handkerchief to her mouth), life was lovely, rich with small gifts: a nice hotel, a warm fire, a fine meal, love.

And then comes what breaks my heart because it is so tragic and so real.   Teenagers who have sought answers within themselves instead of turning to God or to trusted adults.   Trying to convince themselves, trying to dust themselves off and move on, without pain or guilt.   An attempt at justification we have all experienced at different points in our lives, but particularly during our formative years.

Annie threw the balled-up napkins onto the table.   "Christ," she said, "what is wrong with them?   Why do these crazy women want us to read such depressing things?"
"They want us to suffer, " Susan said, sarcastic so that Annie wouldn't see how much she wanted to cry.  "They want us to be afraid."
"They want us to be nuns," Annie added, so she wouldn't have to say, Oh, Susan, oh, my poor friend.

And in that last exchange between the girls we know.   We know the pain and guilt that will haunt Susan.   We know that Annie wouldn't have done that and that she knows it was wrong.   We know that she feels guilty for her involvement and late realization.   We just know, because we are intimately familiar with childish logic and as adults we are all too aware of its consequences. 

 The themes of this novel are unmistakably Catholic, and therefore, really, they are classic.   The theme of a full life is delivered through the major events of this novel which usually deal with sex (and childbirth) and death.   Always, there is a common intertwining between pain--not always in terms of being hurt, but sometimes in sweetness of ache-- and pleasure, joy and sorrow, not presented as some sort of lecturing illustration, but as a true depiction of a life fully lived.   A full life is an open one, an openness that cannot be selective in regards to suffering without also closing itself off to the fullness of love.  Christ on the cross.

We first see a glimpse of this theme as we are introduced to Mary, who, in her early thirties, seems destined to be single.   We are along on her date with George and then there on the following morning when a handsome stranger stands waiting for her at the door of her usual lunch spot.   

Only him, again, leaning by the door, suit jacket and fedora, the sunlight striking gold, the leg he had favored bent back and pressed against the building.   He was smoking a cigarette.   He was the handsomest man on the block.   He was waiting for her.
She felt Pauline beside her, stiffening against his greeting .   She thought, giving him her name, how there was a trace of sorrow in every joy.   She thought, as he held the door, smiling at her, Poor George.

You can further see this theme in comparing the love scene between the married John and Mary which occurs toward the beginning of the novel (the baby grand) to the scene of Michael and Beverly, when he recalls the words of a prayer.   Compared to the range of emotion and experience of his parents love which ends with them sharing tenderness, we have Michael and Beverly, speaking of nothing of consequence with only alleviation of boredom and attainment of pleasure as their goal for joining.

She only stirred and then slowly climbed over him, spreading herself over him, no weight at all.

There is McDermott's description of my favorite piece of art, Michelangelo's Pieta, as seen after a long wait in line on a hot day.   Once inside the cold marble is before them as the air conditioned air now makes them shiver.

In the absence of all color and all other light, the white marble held every nuance and hue a human eye could manage.   Here was the lifeless flesh of the beloved child, the young man's muscle and sinew impossibly--impossible for the mother who cradled him--still.   Here were her knees against the folds of her draped robes, her lap, as wide as it might have been in childbirth, accommodating his weight once more.   Here were her fingers pressed into his side, her shoulder raised to bear him on her arm once more.   Here was her left hand, open, empty.   Here were the mother's eyes cast down upon the body of her child once more, only once more, and in another moment (they were moving back into the darkness) no more.

In contrast, we are given the character of Pauline, Mary's former co-worker who becomes an extended family member.   Pauline has had a hard life.   She does not go to church or seem to have any real belief in anything beyond what she can plainly see before her.   Her attempts are always directed at control, order, and safety, all pushed to the limits in an attempt for an imagined perfection.   We alternate between feeling Pauline is pleased with her arrangement and that she finds much loneliness and despair in her life. She is guarded.   She is closed.   In her effort to save herself from pain and discomfort she has also closed herself off from pleasure and joy.   She, like us, cannot escape the messiness of life and we see that she cannot escape suffering, but hers is even more keenly felt because it does not have joy as a counterbalance.   

Another theme explored is the Catholic balance of the old with the new.   This is a greater problem for the Church than any other institution due to its existence for over 2000 years.   It is understandable in smaller portions, though, as McDermott illustrates the American eras in which the novel is set.   We see the changing face of war, that continues today.   A relatively large portion of the book takes place at the beginning when the Keane family takes an impromptu picnic on a Sunday during an approaching storm.   Michael and Jacob play out the battles of World War II with their toy soldiers in the midst of this ordinary scene of family life.   It is play full of heroes, bad guys, and recognizable goals with measurable results.   It represents the nostalgic view of World War II that became a part of American culture.   The Vietnam war, however is portrayed in the stark rawness of Jacob's life being lost and Tony Persichetti's breakdown upon return from his tour of duty.   The mere mention of the Vietnam War leads to argument or silence on the part of those for whom the tragedy is just too real.   Too real to expose their loved one's memory to debate.

Then, there is the center of the novel.   The center of the family, the center of their world.   Their Catholic parish.   Their church, St. Gabriel's, first introduced as a traditional building showing signs of age and later taking the form of what Jacob would think of as a "flying saucer" from an airplane taking him to Basic Training.   The excitement of raising funds to give the parish a new place to worship.   The good intentions.   Then, the disappointment as something seemed missing, from the moment the old building was demolished.

In the days before the dismantling and after the demolition itself, McDermott lets us know the place the parish building held in the hearts of the Keane family.

A rumor spread among the younger ones, Clare Keane included, that the unused staircase at the back of the church, with its wide marble banister and its velvet rope (and its scent, when you got near it, of incense and attics) was an entrance to heaven.

The descriptions of the workmen carrying out the last statues and pictures while the school boys watched were beautiful.   Jacob watched it all with the other boys and

...swore that the smell of incense still came from the hole where the church had been.   He made the other boys pause and sniff the air.   Yes, they nodded, their chins raised, they could almost agree.

I think it's significant that it is Jacob, with his Jewish name, who senses a loss from the past and leads the others to notice it.   Jacob actually plays a role throughout the novel in giving other characters pause to look at things differently.

Now, I know some think I should read into the new parish building all the horribleness done in the name of Vatican II.   I should decry churches without altar rails and say that we are in the mess of modern society today because the people built modern buildings and we can't have authentic Catholic lives without Latin and buildings built from yellowed architectural renderings, but the aftermath with which we are now faced  is more complicated than that.   I see Latin mass as the most beautiful form of worship we can accomplish on earth, but since one of the major reasons I am Catholic today is my belief in the authority of the Church, I accept that I can worship in the vernacular without getting angry about it, since the Church says it is licit.   I love my parish building with its modern space, its ceiling that looks like the hull of a ship and never fails to remind me of the fulfillment of God's promise he began with Noah and the safe haven of Peter's Barque.  But, I also love visiting the adoration chapel of a local church, with its abundance of dark stained wood, statues, stained glass, and lingering smell of candles.    I often let my mind drift to memories of worshiping at the Cathedral in Liverpool, England.   It's a modern structure formed of massive amounts of concrete and stylized stained glass; it has been a topic of controversy since it was completed.   It is breathtakingly, achingly beautiful, with its ceilings' skeletal structure made to represent the Crown of Thorns.   The beautiful side St. Joseph's altar, made from carved wood elements.  It takes up a huge amount of the skyline of Liverpool, and like a nun's habit, when you look at it, no matter what your background, you stop and think of God.   And I loved the glorious churches from previous centuries in all their beauty and glorification of God.   I love them all because I can go to all of them to receive the Eucharist.   That's what matters most to me and I am so in need of Christ in the Eucharist that I will go to any of His sanctuaries to receive.

Interior of Liverpool Cathedral.   That's stained glass, not neon.

Interior of St. Etheldreda's in London

 The new St. Gabriel's seems to resemble the outside world of the characters.   It is more and more unfamiliar and less beautiful, but inside it, they can still find God in His Truth and Love.    The familiar has been taken from the parish, so that their homes become the only refuge in the chaos of the era in which they live.   

In her descriptions of the new building, we get a sense of true loss and diminishment, there is no doubt, but  McDermott manages to show the attempt to  reconcile the old with the new and make us think of our attempts to do the same.

Beside her, her husband noticed how the new pews lacked the small brass hat clips that had been secured to the back of every pew in the old church...He understood there was no longer a need for them--so few men wore hats anymore (he blamed JFK with his thick hair and his big Irish head for changing the fashion)--but the lack of them added to his dawning sense that the new church had turned the stuff of his past, his own memories, into something quaint, at best.   At worst, obsolete.
And yet, the smell of the incense from the center was the smell of the incense of the old, and the stately movement of the priests in their robes as they walked down the aisles swinging them, sending the pale smoke into the air, their free hands placed gently over their hearts, was as it had always been.

No matter how far the architecture wandered from the past, the central purpose of the building, the mass, was still there.   It exists regardless of the surroundings or the changing times.   So, it is for the truths taught within the parish's sanctuary and its school walls.   We see this later, with Michael as he is faced with navigating adulthood away from the safety of home.   

They were lying side by side, naked in the dark, and the old house, as it did every night, was steadily growing colder.   The drawings made him think of the satyrs and nymphs on Chris's dope box and then of Caroline opening her parka for Ralph, that motley crew of cherubim and seraphim all around her.   Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy.   Our life, our sweetness and our hope.
He thought how even after you'd disentangled yourself from everything else, the words stayed with you:
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.   Turn then,most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of they womb...
Words you could dismiss as a joke as readily as you could claim them as the precise definition of everything you wanted.  

It was still there.   The faith of his upbringing.   There for him to draw upon when he chose.   The outside world couldn't take away its presence and it will be his decision to claim all that it offered from the recesses of his mind.   Part of what makes the children's stories so emotional to read is an understanding that parents, relatives, teachers, priests can only do so much to lay the foundations, but at some point the children must make choices on their own as they grow older.   Just as the priests in the new St. Gabriel's still went about their duties as priest to give what their parishioners needed, parents must do the same for their children regardless of the surroundings.  McDermott makes us feel even closer to John and Mary, as like them, we can only wait and see the choices Michael will make.   That is almost as agonizing as the choices themselves.

 I see the title itself as an essential Catholic theme of this novel, as it is in our own lives.   To me, After This is a sigh.   It is acceptance, at times resignation, towards the events of our lives, joyous and sorrowful.   It is mustered resolve to face it and get through it.   Each event is met with this resolve by John and Mary, anchored in their faith and upbringing, while their children search for an anchor that gets them through in the turbulent world of their time.   It is a sigh of loss of the past.   Proud parents who miss the years of their grown children's childhood.   Adult children remembering their past with wistfulness.   But it is also a sigh of hope, behind it anticipation and expectation.   As scripture reminds us in I Peter 2:11, we are "aliens and strangers in the world."    As the prayer recalled by Michael implores, Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb. This earthly life is not all for which we were made.   We were created to love God and live with Him for all eternity.   Only then will our struggles be over.    Only then will we find the total, eternal fullness of peace, comfort and love.    And as we saw throughout this novel, that expectation of future joy is tinged with sadness, as our earthly minds can only imagine how God will reconcile the Love of Eternity with the earthly memories of our past.

There is so much more to consider after reading After This (like the ending: perfection from a literary standpoint).   It is a master work of fiction.   I had to stop marking pages and quotes because almost every line was worthy of highlight.   After This, in all its modernity, is still a deeply Catholic work which illumines the longings of every person and the very real world in which they seek the fulfillment of those longings. 

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