by Dean Koontz
Bantam Books, 2006
Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz was a joyful find. Most fiction that can be labeled Catholic is literary, that is fairly highbrow. Thus it tends to reach a narrow audience, and its influence is slim. But Dean Koontz is a best selling author of fiction, mostly in the genres of thriller and horror. Rarely does one find “secular” fiction told from a Catholic worldview. In Odd Thomas there are a few Catholic trappings — a minor character is a priest, one scene takes place in a church, etc. But it is the worldview of the story which makes it Catholic. For instance, evil does exist in the world and there are forces of darkness walking among us — some physical, some spiritual. Second, sexual relations are sacred and belong in a committed, monogamous (even married!) relationship. Third, we have all be given by God — even the simplest and weakest of us — a gift with which we must serve Him. If we do not, we cannot find peace. Fourth, living is hard work. We are walking through a valley of tears. But our reward in heaven — union with those we love — will be great. Finally, death touches us all, but love endures forever. Odd Thomas is the first of a series of novels featuring the protagonist Odd (his real first name) whose gift from God is to see the dead (including Elvis). The dead don’t speak, but they manage to communicate with Odd that they need justice before they can cross over. Odd, a mere fry cook in a diner, works with the chief of the Pico Mundo Police and the dead and sacrifices everything to protect the living.
Posted in Dark comedy, Love stories, Mysteries, Small town fiction | Leave a Comment »
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Translated from the Polish by Jeremiah Curtin
Little, Brown and Company, 1943
Quo Vadis is an interesting book. It is first interesting as a case in book history. Although it has fallen out of favor in the present day, it was sensationally popular in the United States in 1896 at the time of its publication in English, selling over a million copies. It remained a best seller for at least the next twenty five years. The film version, produced approximately fifty years after the print publication, was one of the most expensive films made up to that date. The film was also quite popular when it was released, and years later it had frequent showings on late night or Sunday afternoon movie slots. Even now the Curtin translation is reprinted by some publisher every couple of years. So the question is what about this novel causes its continued popularity. Probably not the language of the Curtin translation which is stiff and formal in modern ears and not notably beautiful. The characters are not complex nor do they have great emotional depth. However, this is not necessarily a criticism for characters in many broad, sweeping, epic 19th century novels are not particularly complex or multi-faceted (think Dickens), but that does not mean they are not well drawn and interesting. Many of the secondary character – Nero, Petronius, Chilo – engage both reader interest and emotions. The plot centers on the love story of a Roman soldier Vinicius and Lygia, a beautiful daughter of a conquered Polish ruler who, unfortunately for him, is Christian. Nero’s increasing hatred of Christians parallels their story. But Sienkiewicz’s major gift in Quo Vadis is his ability to bring alive scene after scene through physical and sensual description – particularly the decadence of Ancient Rome. If a reader prefers character driven novels, this book might be a tough read. But once one gets used to the unfamiliar style of language, those of us who enjoy becoming part of story by being immersed in sensuous detail will enjoy the sweep and scope of Quo Vadis.
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The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
Perennial Classics, 2003
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a modest yet clever book and, for me at least, a genuine lost treasure. In other words, I knew nothing about the book and had never heard of it until I read it at a Fides et Ratio seminar put on by the Faith and Reason Institute even though as an American Literature scholar I had done some study of Thornton Wilder. Most of what I knew concerned Our Town, of course, and I was also vaguely aware that his The Merchant of Yonkers (later revised as The Matchmaker) was made into the musical Hello, Dolly. Imagine my surprise to find this sweet, little gem of Catholic fiction. The Bridge of San Luis Rey (and that’s “of” not “over” as in “Bridge over Troubled Waters” or The Bridge over the River Kwai) is set in Peru in the 18th century; the bridge was real but its collapse was invented by the author. Wilder’s tale begins in July of 1714 as the bridge over a cavernous gap in the cliffs above the Apurimac River outside of Lima collapses. Five people plummet to their deaths. Their intertwining stories of how they came to be on that bridge are told through the eyes of a well-meaning, if somewhat naïve monk. This kind of event makes people question either God’s existence or God’s goodness, and Brother Juniper is determined to prove that not only did God intend for the bridge to collapse, He causes it for the good of all, especially the five who die. The book is an easy, quick read and highly entertaining. However, as one begins to think about the narration of the tales which are filtered through the participants and then through witnesses and then through Brother Jerome, the complexity of the work and the artistry of Wilder become plainly apparent. And the easy interpretation of the book becomes as shaky as walking across a rope suspension bridge high above a raging river.
Posted in Historical fiction, Love stories, Priests | 1 Comment »
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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.
Posted in Convents, Domestic fiction, urban fiction | 1 Comment »
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.
Posted in Dark comedy, Domestic fiction, Love stories, urban fiction | Leave a Comment »
by Flannery O’Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962
Wise Blood, like most of Flannery O’Connor’s works, is not an easy, comfortable read. O’Connor’s short stories (the most famous of which are “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People”) are often assigned in high school English classes and introductory college lit courses. The stories are bizarre, grotesquely funny, satirical of almost everything, and appeal to the ironic tastes of late adolescence. They are also full of the symbolism and imagery so dearly loved by English teachers trying to lead class discussions. Wise Blood, while having much in common with its short story cousins, is unlikely to be assigned to the typical high school reading list – particularly in the South. If it was, it would probably be banned faster than Harry Potter meets Holden Caufield. Here the critique of simple minded religion, played out by (fake) evangelical, fundamentalist preachers, is even more evident. The disdain of religion by the major characters is strong. The sex is more prominent. The violence, as usual, is, well, pretty violent. O’Connor called the book a comedy, but it’s not comic in the sense of causing laughter. It’s not a comedy in the Shakespearian sense where all the characters marry at the end. It’s dark, but not darkly funny, like “Good Country People” is. Of course, after one has stepped away from the book, remembering scenes such as the theft a mummified corpse from the museum or a character running through the city dressed in a gorilla suit do seem absurd and bizarrely humorous. Trying to describe what the book is about, particularly to a non-reader, one is faced with the faced with the completely absurd plot line. On the other hand, while reading it, one has a parallel, more serious, experience, of facing the darkest elements of the human condition. Do I recommend Wise Blood? I’m not sure how I feel about it. As I said, it made me uneasy. O’Connor thinks that’s good for us.
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