Saints and Rascals . . . A Catholic Worker Memoir, by Geraldine DiNardo


Aside from celebrity memoirs, most memoirs published these days are highly polished stories that read like novels. That is, they incorporate many of the elements of fiction, such as characterization, setting, story structure, and theme.

Especially the latter because it is usually only the exploration of a larger theme that a memoir by a non-celebrity can capture the interest of the reading public. Yet there are other reasons to explore memoirs. One is that these first-person narratives can take us into worlds foreign to us, enhancing our empathic abilities by allowing us to see life through someone else’s eyes.

Another reason is that memoirs can give a voice to those who have none. That was the mission that drove me to write my memoir of my time on welfare: I wanted to counter media stereotypes of welfare recipients by telling true stories of my experience and that of people I knew.

It’s also the reason why I value so highly this new memoir from Geraldine DiNardo, co-founder of the Mustard Seed, a Catholic Worker house in Worcester, Massachusetts.

After giving a brief history of the Mustard Seed and the Catholic Worker Movement in the Worcester area, DiNardo turns to the meat of the book: individual portraits of people who lived or worked at the house during DiNardo’s years there. Each portrait is brief, followed by a poem addressed to the person. Without shying away from their faults, DiNardo finds a way to celebrate each one and bring out some detail that makes the person come alive for the reader.

My favorite is Mrs. Elizabeth Fish Kennedy Fish, a name she chose for herself. An amazing seamstress, she made elaborate and beautiful outfits for herself and others by hand, all covered with words and phrases written in Magic Marker. Schizophrenic and sometimes combative, she was protected not just by the Mustard Seed people but by the whole neighborhood. In one instance she managed to get herself lost in a distant town, but had the phone number of the Pickle Barrel, a neighborhood restaurant. Employees left work to find and bring her home.

Many of the stories here are comic; all are in some way tragic. Indeed, all of us are damaged in some way; all of us have griefs and troubles. Many of DiNardo’s saints and rascals have passed away, most far too young. I saw that, too, when I went to look up people I’d known. Recently, a study was done to show life expectancy by neighborhood in Baltimore, where neighborhoods are closely tied to socio-economic status. It ranged from 67 in poorer neighborhoods to 81 in wealthier ones.

I first learned about the Catholic Worker Movement while I was living in Worcester in the 1970s (note: I knew of the Mustard Seed and met DiNardo, but was not closely associated with either—something that I now regret). Started by Dorothy Day in 1933 during the Depression with the assistance of Peter Maurin, the movement asked people to live according to the tenets of Jesus Christ. In practical terms this meant providing food, shelter, clothing and a welcome to those in need. In addition to Catholic Worker houses, a newspaper still published today, and Catholic Worker communities that are active in social justice, civil rights, and labor issues.

I was deeply moved by the idea that someone could actually live according to her principles. Dorothy Day is still the greatest of my heroes. Living as I did among the lesser-privileged citizens, I knew just how hard her work and that of had to be—no rose-tinted glasses about the needy for me. I’m not surprised that DiNardo eventually had to back off from the Mustard Seed; she’s still involved but not to the extent she had been.

I’m grateful to DiNardo for these portraits. I’ve always thought it a uniquely New England quality—though I expect I’m wrong—this stubborn going on when there doesn’t seem to be any hope, this scraping by somehow when you have nothing. I treasure it, as I do these stories. The book is free but contributions to the Mustard Seed are welcome (PO Box 2592, Worcester, MA 01613).

Have you read a memoir that introduced you to a world new to you?


The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins


I didn’t want to read this 2012 runaway bestseller simply because of the title. I have had it with grown women being referred to as girls. No one would refer to a 32-year-old man as a boy. The misogyny makes me want to spit.

However, a book discussion group I’m in selected it, so I gave in. In short, it was a fast read about a bunch of extremely unpleasant people. The voice of the initial first-person narrator, Rachel, felt genuine and well-written. The voices of the other two women narrating the story equally well-written, aside from not seeming different from Rachel’s. There was plenty of suspense from one page to the next, though the solution seemed clear early on, but little else to recommend it. However, as writers, we can always learn something from a book.

Rachel rides the commuter train back and forth to a job she pretends she hasn’t been fired from. Morning and evening, she gazes at her former home where Tom now lives with Anna, the woman he left Rachel for, and their baby. She also speculates about the loving couple a few doors down, making up names and stories for them. She also drinks. A lot.

Her excessive drinking has cost her not only her job and marriage, but made her fat and ugly, at least according to her account of what people say to her. More misogyny, anyone?

From the train, she witnesses a disturbing incident at the neighboring couple’s home, and soon after learns that the woman, whose real name is Megan, has disappeared. In between binges, blackouts and drunken, begging calls to Tom, Rachel decides to help with the investigation. In different chapters and a separate timeline, Megan tells us about events prior to her disappearance, lounging at home months after her gallery closed, feeling sorry for herself. Our third narrator is Anna, smug and arrogant in her marriage, while complaining about Rachel constantly barging in and the incessant trains passing behind the house. She misses the excitement of being a mistress rather than a wife; she misses clubbing and nights out.

What these three thoroughly unpleasant women have in common is that they are bored women living privileged lives yet finding endless complaints to fuel their self-pity. Rachel could set aside her multiple gin and tonics or bottles of wine and get another job. A job would be even easier for Megan; all she has to do is get out of the chair. Anna could find social groups and volunteer activities like other stay-at-home moms. Instead they just whine. The men aren’t much better. They all behave badly, and stereotypically so: abusing the women in different ways.

So what makes this novel so popular? I am somewhat mystified. The theme of work versus marriage and children, which could make it resonate for young women, seems falsely set up to me. Everyone behaves badly at home. We only see Rachel at work, and then only an embarrassing memory. One person in my group suggested that Rachel displayed elements of Bridget Jones and so attracted that audience.

I kept feeling that I was immersed in the 1950s—women stuck at home with or wanting babies while under their husband’s thumb—yet I understand that I’m old enough to have been through several increasingly complex waves of dealing with these issues and that each young generation of women has to address them all over again. I also understand that feminism in the UK is on a different timeline from the US. Still, I didn’t think the story treated these issues with subtlety or awareness of all the social history packed into them.

One reason for its popularity could be that it combines genres. It’s been called a literary thriller, a literary mystery, and a psychological thriller. Also, for those looking for a classic hook, it’s a Hitchcock mashup, combining elements of Rear Window, Stranger on a Train, and a third I won’t mention so as not to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it.

Yet, mystery fans will find it very thin, with the red herrings barely mentioned before being casually ruled out and the ending well-telegraphed. The two detectives are barely mentioned and have almost no role in the book. Fans of literary fiction will also find it thin. Rachel is the only one whose inner life is developed, though her character is given plenty of layers and her inner monologue very well-written. More development of the other characters, better tying up of loose ends, and a few subplots would have made for a richer story.

I think it is too shallow to qualify as literary fiction. Outside of the three women the characters are not developed and, while there are plenty of layers to Rachel’s story that are reflected in Anna and Megan’s, there are no subplots involving the other characters.

I guess it’s the thriller aspect. Hawkins does a good job of adding microtension to each page. This keeps the reader engaged and the suspense ramped up, even when you know what’s going to happen. I liked the cover, too. With a blurred background fronted by large juddering text, it grabs your attention and conveys the essense of the story.

Is there a wildly popular bestseller that either thrilled or disappointed you? Why?

In Black Bear Country, by Maureen Waters


Waters says in the Preface, “The bears, which appear in the title poem, are intended to suggest unpredictability, the mysterious and dangerous aspects of experience as well as the possibility of love.” The image and her explanation of it serve as a thematic summary of the poems in this collection.

In the title poem she says of the bears, “For all their size, they move silently, uprooting boundaries, nudging possibilities.” I like the way she challenges boundaries herself, immersing herself in Ireland, its myths and the place itself, the place her parents left for the U.S. Her description of the roofless house of gray Connemara stone, “the storied source”, and the ancestral memories it calls up is stunning in its controlled emotion. She says, “even the ghosts had vanished.”

Unpredictability is everywhere, whether it is a house fire, sudden storms, the aftermath of Katrina. Most of all it is apparent in the losses, the loss of herself, of her son. She says, “these children are not predictable.” And later: “On the lawn Brian is beginning to climb / the voluminous branch of a willow tree. / He cannot know / that it will snap / in the prodigious grip / of a tornado.”

This is a stunning way to approach great grief, obliquely, using a screen of imagery. The tree and tornado. And she speaks of him as having crossed a boundary. I think this use of imagery is one of the great benefits of using poetry to delve into memoir. Through a poem’s music and concise imagery, we bring the reader with us into the experience.

Another benefit is that these brief poems, most no more than a page, often capture a single glimpse of the past, a single moment we remember out of all the moments we’ve experienced. And this is how memory works sometimes: throwing up a scene seemingly at random. The poet then must make sense of it, as she does remembering a joyful moment of picking hyacinths with her sister. “Yet, this was earthquake country,” she says. Although “we sensed the trembling of the earth, / the sullen hiss of rising tide” they are carried away by their bliss, sure that such beauty would last forever.

I appreciate her poems of the Hudson River Valley. No delicately dancing daffodils, Waters gives us hawks and vultures, ruined gardens and floods. She believes the hemlock—“Seared by lightening [sic], wind and blight”—is the spirit of the place. Yet she finds hope in small things: “the precise point a rivulet wells up into / a pool . . . we cannot detect / the slightest movement. But something is / surely there.” I treasure that “surely”, the pause it creates, the certainty behind it.

There is love, too. Not just the love of children and rough nature, but an exploration of a thirty-year marriage to a man “known and yet unknown”.

These are poems to read again and again.

Is there a memory you have of some event, some moment so insignificant you don’t know why it has stuck with you?

Euphoria, by Lily King


King’s exciting novel, which has gotten mostly rave reviews, tells the story of three anthropologists doing field work in New Guinea: Nell Stone, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson. The three meet up when Nell and Fen are fleeing from the suddenly threatening tribe they have been living among and studying. The couple are in bad shape: both are unwashed and ill with malaria; Nell has lost her glasses and broken her ankle. They are a godsend, though, to Bankson, so desperately lonely that he’s recently attempted suicide.

Nell’s latest book has become a surprise best-seller, leaving Fen fiercely jealous of her fame. Fen, who seems to prefer hanging out with the men and living a native life rather than actually completing the field work he’s taken on, soon has more to be jealous of when Bankson falls for Nell in a big way. First, though, Bankson falls for them as a couple and persuades them to study a tribe not far from the one he lives among, so that he can see them occasionally.

The novel, this month’s read for my book club, is “inspired by” the true story of Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune, and the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. The three worked together on a 1933 field trip to New Guinea.

King has done her research. I especially appreciated the portrait of Mead. This is a heroine who is not gorgeous. In fact, she’s described as “a sickly, pocket-sized creature with a face like a female Darwin.” What’s beautiful about her is her brain. The passages describing her novel ways of interacting with the women and children of the tribe and those describing her talking about and writing up her findings are mesmerizing.

It’s rare enough that we get a portrait of the role of a career in a woman’s life. For me, the most thrilling scene in the book is not one of the many involving physical or emotional danger, but the scene where the three of them come up with a new way to look at cultures; the mounting excitement as they build on each other’s ideas left me breathless.

Much of the novel is accurate, but some—disturbingly—is wildly fictional. And this brings me to my major concern with the book. Since it is widely acknowledged and even included in the book’s front and back matter that the book is based on the lives of three real people, it seems to me unconscionable to take such liberties with their lives.

For one thing, Fen is presented as almost completely negative. He’s a cad, a bounder, a good-for-nothing. Granted Bankson as the narrator has little reason to see good in Fen as he becomes more and more attached to the man’s wife. Yet, the occasional excerpts from Nell’s diary don’t redress this imbalance. Perhaps Reo Fortune was indeed all of these things, including the darker hints at violence. I don’t know. But trampling a man’s reputation when he’s not alive to defend himself is a low blow.

Some other events are shockingly different from the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson—and not always to their credit. To me, muddying the record of real people’s lives oversteps a moral boundary. If the author is going to take the shortcut of using real people as characters, then she is responsible for sticking as close to the truth of their lives as she possibly can. Here, the story is so engrossing that readers, even those familiar with the details of Mead’s life, will come away imprinted with King’s strong scenes.

In Immortality Milan Kundera describes how people want the “immortality of those who after their death remain in the memory of posterity,” but after we’re gone we cannot control what that memory looks like. He gives many examples, particularly the way Bettina von Arnim controlled the image of Goethe after his death, inflating her flirtation with him into a grand and tragic romance.

My other concern has to do with the ending. King’s book is so well-written, almost too vividly bringing alive the jungle environment and the tribes who live there, building suspense that keeps the reader spellbound. And then boom! It’s over. All the story lines tied up a neat deus-ex-machina (and fictional) bow.

The members of my book club unanimously agreed that, aside from the abrupt ending, it was an absorbing read. We enjoyed learning more about the three anthropologists’ different approaches to their field. Some found their methods unscientific and flawed, without for example accounting for observer bias and the adulterating effect of their presence. Some objected to the portrayal of the native tribes: seen through Bankson’s eyes, they are like children compared to the mature western cultures. However, this is an accurate picture of the standard practices and theories of the time.

For writers of historical fiction, this is a constant problem: how do you accurately depict a past era’s culture while not repulsing the modern reader? It calls for a careful balancing act. I think King succeeds here by giving us a bit of the modern viewpoint in different characters. For example, Bankson begins to wonder if his living among a tribe has changed their habits and culture; Nell treats the women she is studying with respect and as equals, not as children or her inferiors.

While the story is basically a love triangle, the excellent writing and the stunning descriptions of the work lift it into something fresh and exciting. Just check out the facts about the three very real people whose lives have here been carved to fit the author’s glass slipper.

What do you think about using real people as the basis for fiction?

The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte


I came to Whyte’s poetry, somewhat to my surprise, through his writings about work, about how even seemingly mundane work can be a pilgrimage. I’m interested in that moment when work ceases to be just a job and becomes, in spite of all our kvetching, something that gives meaning to our lives, something that we can invest with our sense of ourselves. Easy enough to do when it’s poetry, but what about when it is selling perfume or delivering mail?

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Here’s the beginning of “What to Remember When Waking”:

In that first
hardly noticed
in which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
and frighteningly
where everything
there is a small
into the day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

The short lines make it feel as though he is groping his way, slowly, towards something that will turn out to be important. As the poem continues, the tone veers away from the informal and becomes that of a guru delivering wisdom before ending in questions. It’s an interesting sequence and representative of the poems here.

There is wisdom, and surprise. And the tentative groping, the occasional sermon, the questions give power to the insight that emerges.

These are what Ron Padgett calls “transparent” poems. As Leslie Ullman describes in “Press Send: Risk, Intuition, and the Transparent Poem” (The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol 48, No 4, February 2016), “By ‘transparent’ Padgett was referring to use of language that does not depend on form, sound-work, metaphor, condensation, or complexity of thought.” In other words, setting aside all those things that I particularly love about poetry in favor of straightforward language.

And yet there have been plenty of poems I’ve loved that would qualify as transparent poems, some of them in this collection. There are poems here about the night, about friendship and solitude that I will come back to again and again.

What makes them work? Ullman says, “. . . the transparent poem can be disarming, conversational, and to a degree easy to grasp in one sitting, but rich with implications and reverberations that expand during subsequent readings . . .The transparent poem takes what it [sic] is at hand, which more often than not is the accessible stuff of quotidian life, and makes it fresh. Pushes it a little beyond its expected territory.”

Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning. And I am reminded that even those jobs we take up thinking to earn enough to survive while holding our true selves aloof, even the least of them can accept all that we can bring. It is what we bring that matters, the challenge and the risk.

What is one of your favorite poems? What about it appeals to you?