Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy
by Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1979
The best book I read in 2011 was Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden. At the beginning the novel seems sensational rather than metaphysical even though the title refers to the fifteen decades of the Roman Catholic rosary. And the culminating crisis in the novel is a little melodramatic but by then as a reader I didn’t care. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is such an engrossing novel that all I knew was that I couldn’t stop reading. And I left the novel filled with a sense of peace and beauty that doesn’t usual come in a novel of prostitutes, poverty, prison, and murder. The basic plot entails the story of a French Madame and manager of a whore house who kills her lover and goes to prison for ten years and then becomes a nun in the order of Dominicans, the Sisters of Béthanie. The main character Elizabeth Fanshawe becomes Madame Ambard, also known by the name of La Balafrée (The Branded One), and eventually Sister Marie Lise of the Rosary. Falling into a novel and being consumed by it is an experience that I, as an academic librarian who reads for a living, don’t often have anymore. But the worlds of the story are so beautifully created that it’s impossible not to. Although the entire novel takes place in the years following World War II, the whore house sections feel like the 19th century French nightlife represented by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec while the convent scenes transport the reader to a mysterious medieval world, and the prison scenes could have taken place during pre-revolutionary France. Not until the very end of the novel does it strike the reader that the story is taking place in the modern 1970’s. This sense of timelessness and time are because Sr. Maria Lise of the Rosary gives her self up completely – and eventually to God. God does not live within time – all time is one to Him. Our lives, like that of Sr. Marie Lise of the Rosary, move seamlessly from joy to sorrow to joy again, and within the joy there is always sorrow and within the sorrow is joy.
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by Walker Percy
Some people love Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and some people hate it. Some find the book a comedy (both in the classical and the modern sense of the term) and some find it full of nihilism and despair. Why do I like it? I like Binx. I like that he struggles against ordinariness in a search for something, some greatness, some significant or dramatic meaning in life. And I like that he rejects his Aunt’s version of greatness. The greatness of monetary and career success, the greatness of being a genius at research or being a “Creole Cato.” Binx eventually finds his greatness in ordinariness. He sees his step-brother’s greatness in ordinariness. He experiences the greatness of the ordinariness of flawed love. This is the spirituality of the 20th century. Our saint is not Teresa of Avila but Therese of Lisieux. The Dark Night of the Soul is beyond our abilities; only The Little Way is within our grasp.
The 20th century is also the age of fracture. The fracturing of society and our sense of self after World War I, after the Crash of 1929, after the dropping of the atom bomb, after the Vietnam War and Free Love. Rather than face our shattered lives, we hide behind a façade of gaiety, glamour, and lots and lots of money. If you like the cable TV series Mad Men, you will probably like The Moviegoer, for though set in New York and New Orleans respectively, they both expose the first cracks in the veneer of one era’s prosperity, sophistication, and complacency.
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by Dennis Lehane
William Morrow, 2001
Mystic River is a dark, somewhat creepy novel. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops film reviews said of the movie (starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, directed by Clint Eastwood) that is it is “morally unsatisfying.” This is an apt description of the novel as well. All the loose ends are not tied up; not all the good are rewarded; not all the bad are punished. If you like your detective fiction where the detective brings all the suspects into a room, points out the guilty parties who then confess and are met with both appropriate punishment and mercy and order is restored to the world, this book is not for you. If you like your fiction more realistic and gritty, this is definitely a book you will like. Here sin is not ambiguous but the guilt of the sinners is. Here the questions of where does evil come from and how responsible is a man who sins because he himself had been sinned against are raised but not completely answered. This is not great, Pulitizer Prize winning literature, but it is definitely above most best-selling novels. In some places, the language reaches the level of lyrical. Most of the Catholicism in the book is cooincidental to the characters; however, it is always interesting to see Catholics practice their faith in form (go to Mass, participate in the Sacraments) and then move easily into a world dark with sin and wonder how easily would I do the same and what provocation would it take?
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A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press, 1980
“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.” — Jonathan Swift
And the dunces are all in a confederacy against poor Ignatius J. Reilly, the central, larger-than-life, character of A Confederacy of Dunces. His mother wants him to get a job, his employers (when he has one) want him to perform some work, his neighbor wants him to quit playing the trumpet and/or television so loudly she can hear it across the alley, and his “girlfriend” wants him to get out of bed and put into action his unique worldviews (e.g. establishing a divine-right monarchy). Ignatius on the other hand would rather eat his wine cakes, drink his Dr. Nut, attend to his delicate valve, be appalled by the latest Hollywood travesty at the local movie theater, and contemplate the appropriate sense of theology and geometry a young man should have. Unfortunately for him, and most fortunately for the reader, Ignatius is thrust out of the womb of his house on Constantinople Street by the combined machinations of his mother and his nemesis Patrolman Mancuso. He is forced to “go to WORK!” Out in the world he meets the senile octogenarian Miss Trixie of Levy Pants, the avant-garde fashionista Dorian Greene and the embittered Mr. Clyde, fork-wielding owner of Paradise (hot dog) Vendors. Ignatius tries to incite a Civil Rights movement and to engineer a political coup by sneaking the more colorful members of the homosexual population of New Orleans into important government positions. Alas, the dunces are stronger than Ignatius.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a classic of Catholic Fiction. Publication of the novel was made possible by Walker Percy who describes the tale of its origin in the introduction. Set in New Orleans, Dunces has, of course, a strong and unique Catholic milieu. Blessed Virgins can be found everywhere, including suction-cupped to the top Santa Battaglia’s televison. People send Mass cards and say rosaries for anyone who’s passed – even if they don’t necessarily know the deceased’s family. Juvenile delinquints try to find rest and respite in cathedrals. The Catholicism of Dunces may not be of the most orthodox variety but it is certainly of the people, and so ingrained in them that it becomes almost as delightfully madcap as they are.
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The Company of Women
By Mary Gordon
Ballantine Books, New York 1980
The Company of Women is a gift of God. It’s one of those books you cry when you near the end, not because it’s sad, but because you feel like your best friends are moving away. Although, reading the book, I did not feel that I was friends with each of the characters but that in some way I was each of the characters. It always amazes me when an author can create just such a connection between the reader and each character no matter how diverse they are. In fact these characters range from a cantankerous, arrogant, intellectual, conservative priest, to a self-effacing, child-like, priest worshiping movie theater usherette, to a rebellious, fatherless teenager. The other characters include a simple, practical single mother, a timid, bookish, abandoned wife, a bitter spinster, and a cultured heiress and talented business woman. And yet I saw myself in each one of them. How these characters found themselves together and how their lives came to be centered around the arrogant Father Cyprian and the rebellious Felicitas is told from the point of view of each of the characters in the first part of the book. The second part tells the story of Felicitas as she leaves this protective circle and enters the similarly rebellious world of the 1960’s. The circle reunites in the last section of the book, this time with Felicitas are part of the circumference centered around her own fatherless daughter Linda. This time the characters narrate their own sections, even Linda, whose voice ends the novel.
The novel addresses many of the “great” issues of humanity such as the relationship between religious observance and true spirituality and how these two conceptions come together differently in each one of us. But mostly the novel addresses the nature of friendship – friendship between women, friendship (or lack of it) between a man and woman, and finally friendship that transcends both gender and sex, age and education, doctrine and belief. This is the friendship of Father Cyprian and Felicitas, a friendship so powerful it almost destroys but also heals.
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Mr. Ives’ Christmas
by Oscar Hijuelos
Mr. Ives’ Christmas is a melancholy tale that emphasizes the grayness and coldness of winter. One may not want to actually read it at Christmas depending on whether one’s outlook on the holiday tends to be on the darkish side or not. I read it this past spring, and although most of the story does not actually take place at Christmas time, the setting and tone did seem incongruous with the bright world outside the book. It was quite an enjoyable read however. The story definitely centers on Mr. Ives who is a rather formal, albeit sentimental, man so that the author’s consistent referring to him as Ives or Mr. Ives does not seem unnatural. Ives is passionate about only three things – his Catholicism, sex with his wife (an intensity that somewhat befuddles him) and his son. Unfortunately this beautiful, holy boy is murdered a day or so before Christmas when he was only seventeen and about to enter the seminary (this is the opening of the book so is not a spoiler). Hijuelos takes Ives back to his early childhood as an orphan and brings him forward to the present day to show how this monumental event affected his entire life. And more to the point, his soul.
There are no theological controversies in the book, and no critiques of clergy, religious or Church hierarchy. The story concerns one man’s overwhelming grief and how his spirituality does or does not enable him to handle it. Mr. Ives’ Catholicism is more emotional than rational, but the author points out that this makes his faith more vulnerable to tragedy. Yet, it is this child-like emotionalism combined with an unfathomable mysticism that vies with the rationalism which overtakes Ives after his son’s death.
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The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret Life of Bees is the story of Lily Owens, fourteen years old in the summer of 1964. Lily’s mother is dead, and she is somewhat precariously cared for by her abusive father and black housekeeper Rosaleen. Lily, a social outcast and loner, spends a great deal of her time thinking about her mother and her own participation in her mother’s tragic death. Until Rosaleen tries to register to vote and gets beaten and jailed. Lily rescues her, and they must leave town, fugitives from the law. Lily decides to go search of her mother’s past though the only clue she has is a Black Madonna icon with the town name Tilburton, South Carolina stamped on the back.
Lily’s search leads her to a group of woman whose lives are focused by a female theology centered on Our Lady of the Chains, their private title for the Blessed Virgin. Here Lily and Rosaleen find not only safety but the sweetness of life symbolized by the honey production of three sisters known as “the calendar girls.” But they find that even in safety, no one is protected from pain. However, the spirituality of the sisters – from the wailing wall to the Mary Day ritual – gives these women strength and hope and joy.
The Secret Life of Bees was recently made into a film starring Dakota Fanning as Lily, Queen Latifah as August and Jennifer Hudson as Rosaleen.
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by David Lodge
A cultured, British academic joins a tourist group on a “Hawaiian Paradise” vacation package so his father can visit his dying sister. The British academic also happens to be an ex-priest who is barely making a living as what we would call a part-time adjunct at a second or third rate university. He is no longer respected as a theologian since he left the priesthood, but he has little faith left to teach or write about anyway. This is an amusing book but told with melancholy sadness. This so-called paradise includes a dying aunt and an aging, cantankerous father hoping to inherit his sister’s large fortune. The setting is tourist Hawaii as well as the realities of Hawaii as a place real people live and love and die. The tackiness of the tourist package is incongruous with the tragedy of people’s lives. Even the minor characters have sad lives. The ending remains hopeful though. The second rate academic, ex-priest is no more incongruous here in paradise than he is anywhere else. And there are elements of the myth of paradise on earth that are real. The weather is all sunshine and warmth, and there is a healing aspect to that. For the most sensitive of readers, the hero is a laicized priest, and there are one or two tame sexual encounters involving him (after his laicization), but for the most part, the book may be a little sad on the subject of faith but is not offensive.
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The Last Catholic in America
by John R. Powers
E.P. Dutton, 1973
The Last Catholic in America, like Catholics by Brian Moore, has been recently re-published by the Loyola Classics Series.
The Last Catholic is typical of the many “I Survived Catholic Schools” memoirs about parochial school life before Vatican II. It’s humor is affectionate and genial. However, it does include the usual stereotypes of harsh nuns, obsessive priests, and parents unquestioning of the Church. Also typical is the drama created by a growing boy’s tension with (and misinterpretation of) the Church’s view of human sexuality. These are among the book’s funniest scenes including an attempt to buy soft-porn and a talk on the “facts of life” delivered to the eighth graders (segregated by gender) by an octogenerian priest — a talk which mysteriously turns all eight grade girls against the boys.
The Last Catholic in America is a refreshingly comic novel although it does have the occasional moment of poignant nostalgia. John R. Powers followed The Last Catholic with Do Black Patent-Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up which continues his fictionalized memoirs with his adventures in a Catholic all-boys high school.
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Franny and Zooey
by J.D. Salinger
Little, Brown and Company, 1955
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (which is actually two longish short stories published together as a novel) is not what’s usually thought of as “Catholic Fiction.” However, I have a tradition of giving it to my nieces and nephews when they receive Confirmation, along with its companion work The Way of the Pilgrim.
Franny is a senior in college when she runs across the slim volume The Way of the Pilgrim, a spiritual work by an anonymous 19th-century Russian Orthodox peasant searching for the means to carry out St. Paul’s directive to “pray without ceasing.” Franny begins to see, or to think she sees, that everyone around her is, in her words, “all ego.” (Holden Caulfield would say they’re all “phonies.”). In other words, she finds that this life, especially its intellectual pursuits, is “all straw.” However, instead of leading her to higher spiritual insight, this idea leads her to depression. It takes her brother Zooey, in his epymonious story, to help her find the peace through prayer that she seeks.
The Glass children, of whom Franny and Zooey are the youngest, are half-Irish Catholic and half Jewish, and they were all mentored by the eldest brother Seymour in Eastern spiritualities. The religious references in the book are eclectic but ultimately Zooey closes the stories with one of the most christian, and catholic, insights I’ve ever read. Certainly, it lead me to go on to read The Way of the Pilgrim when I myself was a senior in college and then onto the collection of Eastern Christian spiritual writings called The Philokalia studied by The Pilgrim.
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