Archive for the ‘Small town fiction’ 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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Wise Blood
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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The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, 2002
ISBN 0670894605

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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The Cape Ann
by Faith Sullivan
Penguin, 1989
ISBN: 978-0140119794


The Cape Ann begins as an innocent coming of age story about a young girl, Lark Ann Erhardt, preparing to make her First Holy Communion and planning with her mother, Arlene, to build a house based on floor plans called The Cape Ann.  The story is set during the Great Depression, and the family has been living in makeshift quarters in the train depot since Lark was a baby.  Lark is still sleeping in her crib in her parents’ room.  Their plans are complicated by Lark’s father’s gambling the savings away as well as her aunt’s money and love problems.  Along the way towards their dream, Lark and Arlene interact with their community of Harvester, Minnesota, and Lark learns much about humans and human nature, especially compassion and the lack of it.

The Cape Ann uses the Catholic culture of the Depression years as the background for the tale.  Part of the humor in the book comes from Lark’s misunderstandings about theology.  For the most part that is the role Catholicism takes in the book.  However, complicating Lark’s Catholicism is the fact that Lark’s mother is a convert, so she is a device for analyzing the outsider living within a community – half-in, half-out.

Most of the characters know little more about Catholic theology than Lark and also suffer from misunderstandings, from either ignorance or expedience.  They also have a pre-Vatican II view of many theological issues – such as whether a suicide can be buried from the church and on consecrated ground.  Catholics with an understanding of our own history can see these discrepancies, but I always wonder about how non-Catholics or uneducated Catholics read literary portrayals of these ideas.  Do they know what theological issues have changed?  Do they know that Catholics often don’t understand their own faith?  But that’s not the fault of the book.  And probably not it’s responsibility either.  A careful and educated reader will see through the flaws of the characters to find a study of strong women struggling to grow within the confines of their place and time.

I do think it would be fun if some author wrote of growing up as a Catholic in my childhood – what we like to call “the felt on burlap” era.  Changes from Vatican II were just beginning to settle in – most of the fighting and bitterness were over.  It was an odd time – a time of somewhat loose theology and odd liturgical proceedings.  Most of the music was bad and most of the churches were ugly.  Vestments were dominated by butterflies and rainbows.  But it was certainly a time of great enthusiasm and joy and involvement.  As an early teen I was conflicted by my annoyance at the tackiness and my appreciation of the relevancy to my contemporary way of life.  I was conflicted by an enthusiasm for belting out “And They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love” at the top of my lungs and a longing for the quiet beauty of “Panis Angelicus.”  It’s a great era for a coming of age tale.  I challenge someone to write it. 

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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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Morbit Taste for BonesA Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael
by Ellis Peters
Mysterious Press, 1994
ISBN: 978-0446400152

A great way to handle the stress of the end of the semester is with a nice, short, light, comforting book like one of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters (pseudonym for Edith Pargeter).  Relaxing with some light reading is a great way to cleanse the mind without deadening it, such as zoning out in front the TV tends to do.  It’s like eating sherbet to cleanse the palette between courses in a gourmet meal.  To prepare for my exams in my undergraduate days, I would insert reading Sherlock Holmes short stories between studying and taking the tests. 


Brother Cadfael is in many ways like Sherlock Holmes.  He uses forensics coupled with a little psychology to solve crimes.  But his forensics is based on clear observation of the natural world around him for during his medieval era there was more suspicion than science when dealing with murder.  As the herbalist of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael has a vast knowledge of area flora and fauna as well as rare plants and medicinal practices he brought back from the East.  As a former soldier in the Crusades who entered the monastery when he was forty, he also has a vast knowledge of human nature and its passions.


The Brother Cadfael stories are set during the civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Maud in the twelfth century.  The Normans only relatively recently occupied England in 1066, and there are a lot of interesting cultural observations of the mixing of the Normans, the Saxons and the Welsh.  Cadfael himself is Welsh but can also speak in English (and one presumes in French since he has many conversations with the Norman nobility).  Peters not only develops the historical ambience of the period, she also re-creates the world of a medieval monastery, and there is much reference to the daily life of the monks including singing the daily Office, offering hospitality to strangers, confessing before the abbot, etc.  She also addresses the political relationship between the monastery and the town which mirrors the relationship between the larger church and the secular government. 


Despite these historical and cultural details, Brother Cadfael himself has a modern sensibility.  Cadfael was a soldier of the Crusades, and he does not regret it, but much emphasis in the stories are on the waste and repetitiveness of war, particularly civil war.  Cadfael also takes a mild view of sexual indiscretions, and although he calls those he counsels to a stricter form of living, it is for their psychological and spiritual health that he is concerned rather than their potential destination in the afterlife. 


Cadfael also takes a modern, somewhat skeptical, view of the accouterments of Catholic spirituality.  In the first book of the series, A Morbid Taste for Bones, Cadfael joins in a pilgrimage to Wales to gather the relics of one Saint Winifred who was martyred there.  Cadfael is asked on the journey because he speaks Welsh, which the Norman Prior Robert does not, not because he has any interest in bones of a young girl.  Prior Robert wants the relics because having them at Shrewsbury Abbey will turn it into a pilgrimage destination with all the fame and money that would entail.  The final major member of the journey is Brother Columbanus, a delicate young monk susceptible to visions and catatonic fits.  The members of the Welsh village do not want to give up their beloved Saint Winifred, but these English monks cannot understand their reluctance.  Soon the leading figure of the opposition to monks winds up dead.  Brother Cadfael eventually brings peace to all concerned, and Saint Winifred becomes his life long patroness even though he cares not at all where her physical bones may actually lie.  To Cadfael, she is always with him, and he returns in prayer for her help many times throughout the series. 


Although the twenty one Cadfael books are developed chronologically, there is no need to read them in any particular order.  Any necessary details from previous stories are seamlessly reintroduced when needed.  Cadfael paperbacks are short, small, easy to carry and available almost anywhere such as area public libraries and used bookstores.


The entry on Cadfael in Wikipedia lists the publication dates as well as the dates of action of the books. 

This site developed by devoted fan Steve C. gives a good deal of background to the books.


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Circle of FriendsCircle of Friends

by Maeve Binchy

Delacorte Press, 1991

ISBN: 0385301499

When I first read Circle of Friends many years ago, I had planned to read a little bit while I was eating my lunch and then go back to the paper I was working on.  I stopped to eat lunch about noon.  I finally put the book down when I finished it at 3:30am.  The second time I read the book, I did the same, even though I already knew everything that was going to happen.  Binchy is perfect for airplane reading.  I’ve easily endured even a ten hour flight with one of her books for they are engrossing but not mentally taxing.


Maeve Binchy writes what we in library land call a “domestic novel.”  A domestic novel emphasizes the relationships among characters more than thrilling or unusual plot elements.  Writers of domestic fiction include Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot.  Modern practitioners might be Rebecca Wells, Amy Tan, and Sue Monk Kidd.  Domestic novels are not the same as “Chick Lit,” but they do tend to appeal more to women than to men.  The stories often center on a small group of people such as members of a family or town.  However, Binchy’s novel, like the novels of Charles Dickens, begins with several disparate groups of people who have no relationship and nothing in common and ultimately intertwines them all with each other.  Even characters that may run into each other only once can have a profound impact on each other’s lives.


Circle of Friends is ostensibly about the pains of first love.  Bernadette, or Benny, Hogan is the adored and overprotected daughter of older parents in a small Irish village.  Her best friend is the orphaned cast-off of the village’s richest and most powerful family.  At college they join forces with the ambitious, proud, icy daughter of a tawdry working class urban family.  Benny is the plainest of the three, but she catches the eye of the college darling, wealthy, handsome, charming Jack Foley.  In 1950’s Ireland first love includes facing moral questions of whether to “go all the way,” and what happens when somebody does.  But that’s just a minor part of the story.   The main subject is the growth of a young woman from timidity and self-doubt to strength, self-assurance and economic independence.  This independence is reflected in Ireland’s growing economic independence through the years.                                                                                                                                                        

Catholicism permeates Binchy’s novels because Catholicism permeated the lives of the Irish – especially in the middle of the last century.  As Ireland has become more secularized so have Binchy’s plots.  However, the ultimate force that enables the Benny to achieve her independence gathers strength from her traditional background which includes association with the Church.  Clergy and religious women are treated by Binchy as any other characters.  Some are villainous or stupid as other non-religious characters also are.  But for the most part characters in religious life are like any other – mainly good, sometimes somewhat flawed, trying to get by and get along with others as human beings do.     


Circle of Friends has been made into a movie starring Minnie Driver and Chris O’Donnell.  It was ok as movie adaptations go, but as always the book is so much better. 

Circle of Friends is available at Doherty Library or any public library.

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