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Archive for the ‘Love stories’ Category


Odd Thomas
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.

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Quo Vadis
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.

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The Moviegoer
by Walker Percy
Knopf, 1961

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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Paradise News

by David Lodge

Viking, 1992

ISBN 0670842281

 

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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Even though I’ve already suggested one book by Jon Hassler (Dear James), since he has recently passed away, I would like to honor him with another entry.  All of Hassler’s works are eminently worth reading, but three of my personal favorites are The Dean’s List, Simon’s Night, and North of Hope.

The Dean’s List is the first Hassler novel I read.  It is an immensely funny depiction of academic life from the point of view of a weary administrator (who’d rather be a faculty member).  Edwards lives with his mother whose death he must soon face; he frequently runs into his ex-wife with whom he still has a friendly and loving relationship.  He occasionally runs into the friends of his teaching days (whose adventures are recounted in Hassler’s earlier novel Rookery Blues).  But something is missing from his life, something that’s been missing since his father was struck by lightening when Leland was fourteen.  He’s the dean of a mediocre university with a more than mediocre president.  His mother, a local radio personality, outshines him and controls him.  Then arrives on campus the noted poet Richard Falcon (a sort of Robert Frost-ish kind of poet)  whom Leland is supposed to keep track of.  Chaos, hilarity and pathos ensue.  And in the process his life changes.

Simon’s Night begins at what Simon Shea assumes is the end of his life.  He’s eighty now and having difficulty living by himself.   He has lived alone since his wife abandoned him years ago.  Simon’s commits himself into the Norman Home for the Elderly, a place filled with the most amusing old people ever described by a warm and loving author.  These are not caricatures or stereotypes of crazy old people – although they are to some extent crazy.  They are very much real people with faults, annoying habits, and deep, sympathetic souls.  Much of Simon’s story is his remembrances, and these flashbacks contain one of the most beautiful descriptions of making a choice between, not really good and evil, but between a good and The Good ever written.  Simon is ultimately faced with another choice in this novel – a choice between wasting his life or beginning it anew.

North of Hope is perhaps Hassler’s darkest novel, and it is also perhaps his masterpiece.  There are still amusing characters, however, such as the old parish priest who feels compelled to spend most of his day praying for all the people he once said he would pray for and all the souls of the dead he has ever buried through the years.  He questions at what point a person can stop praying for another, but since he has no answer, he continues in his duty though it leaves him little time for anything else.  Father Healy, the assistant pastor, originally chose the priesthood because it was his mother’s dying wish when he was eleven.  When this familial legend comes into question, his whole vocation comes into question.  He is the one in this novel faced with the choice – the choice between love and Love.  He must choose between a vocation that has recently left him empty and weary and a woman whom he has loved since a teenager and who now  desperately needs him. 

We have lost a great storyteller in the passing of Jon Hassler, one who so eloquently and sympathetically delineated our choices between good and the greater good.  Choosing between good and evil isn’t all that hard, but choosing between two loves can be.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. 
And may perpetual light shine upon him.

Requiescat in Pacem.

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The Poems of Alice Meynell
Scribner’s, 1925

April is National Poetry Month, so even though Alice Christina Meynell did not write fiction, I’m going to recommend her Catholic writings anyway.  The first time I ran across Meynell, I was in a gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I discovered a delightful little book of love poems illustrated with paintings from the museum.  I didn’t buy the book because it was too expensive, but I quickly memorized Meynell’s name and the first lines of her two poems in the collection and found them the next day using Granger’s Index of Poetry.  They became two of my favorite poems.  I give them to you here:

 

Renouncement

  

I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,

I shun the love that lurks in all delight–

The love of thee–and in the blue heaven’s height,

And in the dearest passage of a song.

Oh, just beyond the sweetest thoughts that throng

This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;

But it must never, never come in sight;

I must stop short of thee the whole day long.

But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,

When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,

And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,

Must doff my will as raiment laid away,–

With the first dream that comes with the first sleep

I run, I run, I am gather’d to thy heart.

 

After Parting

 

Farewell has long been said; I have forgone thee;

I never name thee even.

But how shall I learn virtues and yet shun thee?

For thou art so near Heaven

That Heavenward meditations pause upon thee.

 

Thou dost beset the path to every shrine;

My trembling thoughts discern

Thy goodness in the good for which I pine;

And, if I turn from but one sin, I turn

Unto a smile of thine.

 

How shall I thrust thee apart

Since all my growth tends to thee night and day–

To thee faith, hope, and art?

Swift are the currents setting all one way;

They draw my life, my life, out of my heart.

 

Meynell converted to Catholicism in 1868, and there is a romantic story that she fell in love with the priest under whom she received her instruction and that these poems are addressed to him.  We do like our poets and their poems to have such tender stories attached to them.  How delightfully melancholy to be torn by the paradox of a love which makes you a virtuous person (as true love should) but a love that you cannot as a virtuous person have.  Most of Meynell’s poetry is Catholic in subject matter and “closely examines the human role in constructing and celebrating the Catholic faith, and it repeatedly explores the relationship of faith and art.”*  Meynell married her husband Wilfred Meynell in 1877 and together they edited and wrote for the Catholic publications The Weekly Register and The Tablet.  Meynell also contributed essays to The Spectator, The Saturday Review and The National Observer.  Her poetical output was actually rather small and during her life she was admired as much as an essayist as a poet.  She counted among her close friends the other members of the Catholic Literary Revival of the 1890’s including G.K. Chesterton, Francis Thompson, and Hilaire Belloc among others. 

 

Doherty Library has two collections of Meynell’s poetry and one collection of her essays.  I haven’t read her essays yet, but intend to do so this weekend.    

 

 


* Gray, F. Elizabeth.  “Alice Meynell.”  The Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature.  Ed. Mary R. Reichardt. ( Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 462.

 

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