Mary, by Vladimir Nabokov

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Mary (Mashenka) is Nabokov’s first novel, written in his mid-twenties while he and his wife Vera were living in Berlin. It is brief, what we would consider a novella today, and has some the characteristics we have come to expect from first novels.

Lev Glebovich Ganin is a 25-year-old Russian émigré living in a pension in Berlin, nostalgic for his lost country, and unsure what to do next. It is hard not to suspect autobiographical parallels.

The year is 1924, early in the Weimar Republic, but Ganin’s Berlin bears no trace of the gaudy gaiety I associate with that time. Instead, the city and its inhabitants are depicted as tawdry and unattractive, even repulsive. The unsubtle piling on of dingy details seems overdone, not unusual in a novice writer.

Ganin wants to move on, calling it “nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land,” but he is marooned by depression. In the first scene Ganin and the new arrival to the pension, Alfyorov, are stuck in the elevator. Later in his career, I’m sure Nabokov would have left it up to us to see the connection, but here he makes it explicit. Alfyorov says:

“Don’t you think there’s something symbolic in our meeting like this, Lev Glebovich?” . . .

“What’s symbolic about it?” Ganin asked gloomily.

“Well, the fact that we’ve stopped, motionless, in this darkness.”

At one point Ganin cannot even rise from the chair in his room, “powerless because he had no precise desire” yet “vainly seeking something to desire.” That something is provided by Alfyorov who, unable to leave any thought unspoken, tells Ganin that his wife Mary is arriving on Saturday. His description of Mary prompts Ganin to decide that mysteriously, miraculously, this Mary must be his own lost love, their last contact some letters while he was at the front.

Nabokov uses an omniscient point of view, staying mostly with Ganin, but sometimes moving from one character’s thoughts to another’s, even within the same paragraph. Today we call that head-hopping and consider it a beginning writer’s mistake because it is disorienting for the reader, but I believe it was not uncommon at the time this novel was written. It’s been a while since I’ve read Nabokov’s later novels but remember them as staying closely with the protagonist.

Yet even with these marks of a first novel I can trace qualities I’ll value in the later books, especially the theme of memory and the delicate interweaving of past and present. Ganin and his Mary’s past is gradually revealed, as he continues to interact with Alfyorov and the pension’s other occupants. In particular, he tries to help the elderly poet Podtyagin obtain the passport and visas he needs to go to Paris. Through these interactions some sweetness and generosity begins to shade these characters and the story becomes more complex and intriguing.

This copy was given to me by my friend Hayley. It’s part of Penguin’s series on Great Loves. From the back copy, it seems they included it because of Ganin’s attachment to Mary, his first love. While that drives the plot, a stronger love here is for his lost country. Ganin’s reminiscences contain less detail about Mary than about the places where they met: a boat poled on the river amid fir and mimosa, the pavilion with its diamond-shaped panes of colored glass, the terrace of a deserted mansion shaded by lime trees.

Proust wrote, “les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus” which, while open to discussion, Scott Moncrieff translated as “The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.” Nabokov’s loss of the paradise of his youth and the theme of memory are constants in his work. In contrast, Berlin had to seem unvaryingly dark and ugly.

What paradises have you lost?

Fear of the Dark, by Walter Mosely

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Mosely’s fans know that his many novels, including the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries, are rousing adventures that navigate the liminal areas that lie in the shadow of good and evil, guilt and innocence. While we race along with the narrator, trying to avoid danger and death while figuring out just what is going on and what to do about it, we are testing our own moral code.

This addition to the Fearless Jones collection is narrated by Fearless’s friend Paris Minton, bookstore owner and ferocious reader. Most of Paris’s problems follow visits from his cousin Ulysses “Useless” Grant, a petty crook who spreads trouble in his wake. Although Paris turns Useless away at the door, refusing to help him, trouble comes in the door anyway. Luckily Paris can turn to his friend Fearless—a man Paris says is “outside the law” and “stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met.”

For me, the great joy and value of fiction—all fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, genre or literary, ebook or audio, text or graphic novel—is the chance to live someone else’s life. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the biology behind our deep-rooted desire for virtual adventures: stories are how we learn about the world and test our abilities. Most of all, to my mind, they increase our empathy by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and by forcing us to fill in the gaps with our own emotions and experiences.

Walter Mosely’s novels let me encounter the world as a black man, an especially difficult and valuable stretch for me. This particular book is set in Los Angeles of the 1950s: not the easiest time to be a black man in this country. Without disrupting the flow of the story or preaching, Mosely gently reminds us of just how different life was and is for a black man than for someone, say, like me.

The most explicit moment comes when Paris comes upon a white man lying dead on the bookstore floor. He calls Fearless for help, and he brings a friend to help dispose of the body. Paris says:

There I was, in a truck with desperate men. I was a desperate man. It was hard to believe that a milquetoast coward like myself could be involved in such a clandestine and dangerous operation. But the reasons were as clear as the quarter moon shining through the windshield.

All three of us were living according to black people’s law. The minute I came upon that white boy’s body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice. Not even that—I was guilty. There was no jury that would exonerate me. There was no court of appeals that would hear my cries of innocence.

I wasn’t a brave man like Fearless or a born criminal like Van Cleave, but we all belonged in that truck together. We had been put there by a long and unremitting history. My guilt was my skin, and where that brought me had nothing to do with choice or justice or the whole library of books I had read.

This is not empty polemic. It is a necessary explanation of why Paris doesn’t just call the police when he finds a dead body on his property. It is why this quiet man gets drawn into the dangerous currents of the criminal underworld.

Being such a big reader explains Paris’s voice being a little more florid than today’s readers might be accustomed to. One area where I particularly noticed his voice was in the descriptions of every character, even the most minor walk-on extra. As David Corbett points out in a recent blog post, “the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference.”

In this story Mosely mixes it up. He makes use of faces, posture, clothing and behavior to bring his characters memorably to life. Here are some examples:

Jessa was wearing an orange sundress that had little white buttons all the way down the front. The collar had a little dirt on it. Her red purse was scuffed.

Mona was a beautiful young woman. She was Negro and she was brown, but the brown mixed with gray everywhere in her appearance. Her skin was touched by it; her eyes sometimes shone with lunar possibilities. Even her hair seemed to be lightened by the midtone color.

Rinaldo had copper skin and slicked-back hair that did not seem straightened. He was missing one tooth and stood and walked in a hunched-over posture that he blamed on forty years leaning over pool tables.

Cleetus Rome, an elderly white man, . . . was old and toothless. He smelled something like dust or maybe even loam and he always bought magazines from me that had swimsuit models on the covers.

I was especially interested in the different ways Mosely describes skin color. He never falls back on the overused “coffee” or “mocha” but instead imagines the particular tone of a character’s skin.

As a writer and as a person I am learning a lot from this book. Even after providing an exciting read, it continues to reward further study.

Have you read a mystery or thriller that transported you to another world?

The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

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Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, tthis dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

Ramanujan was born in southern India 1887. Although his family was Brahmin, they were not wealthy. Ramanujan’s mother treated him like a little prince, probably in part because he was her only child until he was ten. From his first experience with school at age five, he rebelled against its teachers and rules. “Even as a child, he was so self-directed that, it was fair to say, unless he was ready to do something on his own, in his own time, he was scarcely capable of doing it at all.”

Anyone with a gifted child in a bureaucratic school can recognise this situation, but Ramanujan’s gifts were so extraordinary that, once he discovered mathematics, he could not bring himself to work on anything else. As a result, he failed the all-important exam which dictated who could go to university.

Kanigel’s story details Ramanujan’s obsession with mathematics and subsequent struggle for recognition and for the means to support himself and his family. By the time Ramanujan came to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a result of a letter to G. H. Hardy, he’d reinvented much of the then-current mathematical theory that hadn’t been available to him at home and gone far beyond it. Even today mathematicians are building entire careers working on portions of the book of theorems he brought with him to England.

Caught by the Great War, Ramanujan stayed at Trinity from 1914-1918, working with Hardy and others. Kanigel details his difficulties with the cultural differences, the racial prejudice he encountered, and his own personality. Perhaps most significant was the problem of simply getting enough to eat. A devout Brahmin, Ramanujan would not eat anything with an animal product in it. Today that would not be a problem, but at that time there was little he could eat and even that diminished with wartime restrictions. The effect on his health from a poor diet, the cold climate, and his passion for his work was catastrophic. In 1918 he went home to India near death from tuberculosis.

As in other nonfiction, writing a biography presents certain challenges. You want to write an engaging story, but unless the subject has left revealing diaries or letters, you don’t have access to their emotions and motivations. Despite years of research, you may still be missing information about critical areas of your subject’s life, but you cannot just make up things to fill in the gaps. If you speculate about his or her feelings, you must be sure your readers know that’s what you’re doing.

If in the end I felt I knew more about Hardy as a person than about Ramanujan, that says more about me and my prior knowledge than the book. It was also probably unavoidable since Hardy lived longer and wrote and spoke much more than the man he championed. Given that Ramanujan’s only writings were professional papers and a few letters, Kanigel does a good job of teasing out the internal and external forces working on him. One of the most interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s personality that Kanigel brings out is the Brahmin’s blend of science and spiritualism.

An added difficulty is that your subject’s area of expertise may be too esoteric to easily present to a lay reader. Kanigel does an excellent job of presenting tidbits of mathematics in easily digestible chunks anyone can understand. The reader can certainly skip over them without losing the story, but reading them helps deepen your appreciation for Ramanujan’s extraordinary accomplishments.

The relevance of his story for us today is best captured in this quote from Nehru’s Discovery of India, provided by Kanigel:

Ramanugan’s brief life and death are symbolic of conditions in India. Of our millions how few get any education at all; how many live on the verge of starvation . . . If life opened its gates to them and offered them food and healthy conditions of living and education and opportunities of growth, how many among these millions would be eminent sceientists, educationaists, technicians, industrialists, writers, and artists, helping to build a new India and a new world?

It’s impossible not to apply Nehru’s words to our own slums and impoverished rural communities, plagued by poor education, food insecurity, vanishing job prospects, and often inadequate health care. What geniuses are lost to us? As Kanigel ably points out, we cannot rely on the bromide that genius will out. Ramanujan’s story shows how much was lost by his long obscurity and early death, how many times his eventual recognition hung in a precarious balance.

Today’s uber-wealthy, comfortable in their gilded fortresses, may write off great swathes of people, but by doing so they may be depriving themselves of the person who might one day have cured their cancer or discovered a new and more profitable energy source.

It’s no wonder Ramanujan’s story has gripped the imaginations of so many people. It is inspiring to see what a single mind may be capable of. And sobering to see how easily it could be defeated by society’s strictures.

Have you seen the film or read the book? What did you think?

The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

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There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. What seemed like a monolithic category when I was a child—probably because I read everything on the children’s side of the local library—is actually broken into picture books, middle grade (MG) or juvenile (ages 8-12), and young adult (YA) (ages 13-18). Of course, there are gradations within each of these categories; a story aimed at an eighteen-year-old may not appeal to a thirteen-year-old.

There are also differences other than age at play. YA books are longer and have fewer restrictions on content. More interesting to me is that while YA characters are able to see the world through the eyes of others and to face real-world problems, characters in MG novels are quite different. Like children of that age, they are still the center of their universe and likely to see every setback as the end of the world.

Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is classified as juvenile/MG. It is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood.

In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

Twelve-year-old Rosalind feels the responsibility of being oldest keenly. Skye, the next youngest, is pure tomboy, determined to go her own way. Then comes Jane who at 10 has her head in the clouds when she isn’t writing flamboyant novels about an adventurer named Sabrina Starr. The youngest is shy, four-year-old Batty who wears butterfly wings all the time and communes with Hound, the most beloved of dogs.

While tunneling though a hedge in the forbidden Arundel gardens, Skye runs into a boy—literally—who turns out to be Mrs. Tifton’s son. Jeffrey quickly becomes an honorary Penderwick and the girls rally to his cause when Mrs. T. and her boyfriend, the Dreadful Dexter, decide to send Jeffrey to a military boarding school.

Individually and collectively the children scamper through the story, having adventures and escapades. Although I’ve enjoyed the post-Potter deluge of magical childrens’ advetures, I especially liked that the only magic here is the ordinary magic of childhood, when so much of the adult world seems incomprehensible.

Most of all I loved the family rituals the girls have developed, such as calling a MOPS (meeting of Penderwick sisters) or understanding the responsibility of being the OAP (oldest available Penderwick). Having grown up in a large family, much of this rang true for me, as did the way the sisters sometimes had to transcend their different personalities to respond to various crises.

One of my adult sons reads across all the categories of children’s fiction. They are a good balance for his serious reading and his often stressful job. One aspect that he particularly appreciates in them is the focus on right and wrong, good and evil.

In this book, while we clearly start with Mrs. Tifton and Dexter as thoroughly evil, by the end they have acquired more subtle shadings. They seem more misguided than cruel. When it comes to Jeffrey and the Penderwick girls, their essential goodness doesn’t prevent them from behaving badly at times.

Also, there are shadows in this lovely world. Their mother’s death when Batty was born affects the girls just as Jeffrey’s missing father affects him, though these griefs do not weigh heavily on the story: a difficult trick that Birdsall pulls off beautifully. A missing parent is a common trope in children’s stories. Being left unprotected, or less protected, enables the child to be the protagonist, to be the one to solve the problem, instead of expecting an adult to take care of it.

This book and the others in this series are a delightful reminder of my own childhood, back in the days when children were tossed out of doors to entertain themselves without parental oversight. We got into trouble and found our way out of it. And even then I loved stories like this one about mischievous but good-hearted children.

Is there a children’s book that you enjoy reading as an adult?

Skydiver: Poems for My Daughter, by Rosa Glenn Reilly

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There’s been an interesting discussion going on over at Writer Unboxed this past week. In the blog post David Corbett peels open some of the ideas Donald Maass has put forward in his blog posts and his new book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Corbett suggests a distinction between emotion and feeling and the implications for us writers as we try to summon both in our readers. Maass responded, and others jumped into the discussion.

One of Maass’s great insights, which I’ve been trying to unpack for myself for several months, is that a reader’s emotional response is far more complex than you might think. He says:

Psychological research into that question has surprising answers. For instance, fiction writers assume that readers will feel what their characters do. They don’t. Readers instead react: weighing, judging, comparing and creating, moment by moment, their own emotional journey.

If you want a textbook on how to create an emotional response in readers, look no further than this collection of poems.

Almost every poem left me gasping, which may be why I chose to start this post from the distant perspective of a writer studying craft. Reilly takes us through the stages of her daughter Tina’s illness: Diagnosis, Metastasis, Hospice, After. But these are not poems of grief. Well, they are of course, but grief a steady continuo behind the melodies and counterpoints of particular moments. Everyday details cluster in these poems, countering the solemnity of what we know is coming.

We see Reilly change. For example, “Tattooed Angel” celebrates the pierced and decorated stranger—the boyfriend she’s only just met—who promises to take care of Tina. Despite Reilly’s “cautious/mother antennae” she sees that “the bathroom is clean/the dishes are washed”, knows that he has been counting Tina’s pills and measuring her fluids. Most of all, he still sees Tina as the “bold and sexy” woman she had been only seven days ago.

Reilly also uses reversals to surprise us into emotion. In “Memorizing” she describes “a lazy/sunlit afternoon” with her daughter, filled with specific sensual details, culminating in the two of them falling into a nap “curled/twin embryos/facing one another/only our hands touching”. Peaceful if sad, yes? But they have fallen asleep “she/exhausted from radiation//me/worn thin from holding/my breath”.

Another technique is imagery. In “The Alamo” Reilly uses our knowledge of that brave and hopeless fight to underscore her own outrage and fury when Tina’s cancer comes back, cutting short the promised years of remission.

Humor also can get under our defenses. In “Sisters” Reilly gives us a beautifully detailed account of a moment between sisters which starts: “your older sister drapes/your limp right arm/around her own neck//she waits/bent patiently/as your left arm slowly rises”. As Tina is carried to the porch, Reilly remembers moments from the girls’ past, all with these superbly accurate details. When her sister tells Tina to stay put, Reilly hears “. . . your younger-sister response/halting/each carefully found word/a lilting/defiant tease//You are not. The boss. Of me.

Even punctuation carries emotional weight. There are no commas at the end of lines, no periods at all except in quoted dialogue, as though Reilly cannot bear the thought of any end, much less a hard one.

Normally I avoid giving away endings, but here, with every poem so powerful, I’ve given you a couple. I wanted to show you how unusual and effective these poems are. When you’re done, read the poems again to see how brilliantly Reilly encourages us to summon our own memories and experiences to fill the white spaces between the lines.

But first read the poems for the experience. If you, like me, are hesitant to open yourself to another death, and the death of a child at that, then believe me you will find more of love than grief in these poems. They will open your heart to the everyday magic of our lives.

What book have you read that inspired moments of strong emotion or feeling?

Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

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The last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about books that inspired Dorothy Day, who devoted her life to working for peace and social justice. Always her focus was on ordinary people: working people held back by low wages and bad working conditions and those most vulnerable in our society such as people living in poverty. With Peter Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker Movement with the intention of actually living according to the precepts that the Catholic church and indeed all Christian sects preach.

While I am not a Catholic myself, I turned to this short biography because Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Unlike the other Teresa, St. Teresa of Avila who was an activist and reformer as well as a mystic, Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24.

Upon entering an enclosed Carmelite convent at the young age of 15, she spent her time in prayer and performing the hard work necessary to the community of 20 nuns, such as the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand outdoors in winter. Near the end of her life, she was asked by the prioress to write an account of her life, an autobiography that has comforted and inspired many people

What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality. What she called her “little way” consists of practicing the presence of God and offering each moment to Him by making it an act of love. If another nun teased her by splashing her with dirty water, she responded with affection instead of anger. If she was assigned some hard task, she performed it without complaint, even when she was in great pain from her illness. Day says that Thérèse described these “irritations encountered in her life with twenty others under obedience . . . to show of what little things the practice of virtue is made up.”

Not all of us are broken on a wheel or shot full of arrows. The stories of most saints are dramatic and heroic. Thérèse’s everyday offering, though, is something we can all do. We can all strive to be a little bit better in everything we do.

In his Introduction, Robert Ellsberg says:

From Thérèse, Day learned that each sacrifice endured in love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. She extended this principle to the social sphere. Each protest or witness for peace—though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond—might send forth ripples that could transform the world . . .

Thérèse’s little way, in fact, offers an essential key to interpreting the message of Day. In a time when so many feel overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world, she bore witness to another power, one disguised in what is apparently small and weak. Certainly, life at the Catholic Worker offered daily, hourly, opportunities for self-mortification—the little decisions to sacrifice one’s time, privacy, comforts, and cravings for the sake of others. It was the practice of these small, daily choices . . . that equipped Day for the extraordinary and heroic actions she performed on a wider stage.

These days I often feel “overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world” and take comfort in the idea of small actions: a call, a postcard, a rally. I struggle to find the right balance between resisting being bullied and responding with love. This account of Thérèse’s life helps me look at these issues a different way. Complete and unquestioning obedience like hers is not right for me, but I could be more compassionate.

In a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, I read of an elderly woman in rural England during the Blitz. Unable to help those being bombed in London in any practical way due to poor health and fortune, she did the only thing she could: she prayed. My practical nature resists the idea that prayer and good intentions actually help others, but they can’t hurt, and I certainly know that some small action can have huge consequences later. We don’t know how another person may be influenced by what to us is a casual aside.

It is Thérèse’s parents whom I’ll remember from this book. Both wanted the religious life but were rejected by the holy communities they sought to enter. Day says of Thérèse’s father that “he made up his mind to live a holy life in the world.” This, to me, is the essential problem: how to live according to your ideals in this flawed world where temptations abound and compromises are the norm.

For Louis and Zélie Martin, their way was to work hard—he as a watch and clockmaker; she as a maker of fine Alençon lace—and raise their five daughters according to their beliefs. Day says of Louis “It was through marriage and the bringing up of a family that he was to play his great and saintly role in the world.” The same is true of Zélie. To the joy of both parents, all of their daughters became nuns. All are remembered for their goodness.

We can each of us play a “great and saintly role in the world” even when our lives are quite ordinary. Whatever we call our practice—compassion, mindfulness, or the presence of God—we can pursue it as our gift to the world.

What book has inspired you?

The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos

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Like Bread and Wine, this book was one that Dorothy Day reread frequently. It is a fictional diary of a young, unnamed priest assigned to his first parish: an isolated, rural village in 1930s France. As it opens, he stops on his rounds and looks out at the “miserable little houses huddled together under the desolate, ugly November sky” and is overwhelmed by his own inadequacy.

We can all of us manage to peel potatoes and feed pigs, provided we are given the orders to do so. But it is less easy to edify a whole parish with acts of obedience, than a mere community of monks. More especially since the parish would always be unaware of them, and the parish would never understand. [author’s emphasis]

This is, in fact, what happens to him. Mocked by the children, the target of gossip by the adults, he struggles with self-doubt and despair. He suffers from stomach pains that make it impossible to eat anything but bread dipped in wine, leading the village to think that he is a drunk. They take advantage of his unworldliness to cheat him and play pranks on him. From a peasant background, he feels awkward dealing with the inhabitants of the Château. He does find a few friends to confide in, particularly an older priest, the Curé de Torcy, but continues to feel like a failure. Even at the end of the book he calls himself “a very commonplace, very ordinary man.”

There are pros and cons to writing a novel in the form of a diary. Its main advantage is the reader’s intense immersion into the protagonist’s thoughts. However, this can become a liability if the protagonist does not hold our interest. I struggled with this novel for the first half of the book, bored by his endless complaints, his timidity, and the monotonous routine of his life.

What redeems the book is the second half, where we—or I at least—begin to understand that this is the story of a spiritual journey. He himself believes that he is becoming more and more incompetent; he cannot even pray anymore. Yet we see that he is actually beginning to have an effect on those around him.

Another problem with diaries is that we only told about events from the protagonist’s point of view and only what he chooses to share with his diary. Bernanos avoids this problem by having his priest copy down long speeches from other characters. While this could open the novel up to the dreaded “nothing is happening” accusation, in fact these voices are so individual and so forceful that I looked forward to these passages.

They are mainly extended conversations on the nature of God and other spiritual questions. While such questions are of little interest to me at this point in my life, I can see how they would be treasured by Dorothy Day, who converted to Catholicism in 1927. Also, in her Houses of Hospitality, I’m sure she sometimes had to deal with people as difficult as those in our priest’s parish. I expect she found strength in his humility and patience, and comfort in his experience of grace.

Have you read a book that has given you strength or comfort?

Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

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I’ve been reading books by my great hero, Dorothy Day. Throughout her life she worked for peace and social justice. She truly lived by her ideals. With Peter Maurin, she started the Catholic Worker movement which, among other great works, has resulted in the founding of Houses of Hospitality across the U.S., which provide free housing for those in need. As Thomas Merton said in a letter to Alfonso Cortés, “the humble, the poor, and especially the disinherited are the ones who before all else deserve our attention and our compassion.”

I’m also reading books that influenced her, such as this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled. Ignazio Silone is a pseudonym adopted by Secundo Tranquilli because of threats by Mussolini’s government against his family.

The main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. At the beginning of the story, Spina sneaks into Italy after thirteen years of exile. Although he is in ill health, he is determined to organise the peasants to rise against the fascists.

In Rome, he finds his former comrades in disarray. Two friends smuggle him into the countryside dressed as a priest. This disguise causes him much inner turmoil, since he faults the church for supporting the fascists and for not doing more to help the poor. It also causes him outer turmoil because the small village where he’s been sent has not had a priest for some time and the residents want him to hear confessions, confer blessings, and perform other holy duties.

The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation. He muses on his childhood “infatuation with the absolute, the . . . rejection of the compromises and pretenses of ordinary life, even the . . . readiness for self-sacrifice.” Later, still in disguise, a chemist in the village expresses compassion for Spina saying that “‘His revolt is illusory . . .’”

And Spina is becoming disillusioned. The same chemist knew Spina’s father when they were students and remembers him saying later, when life had changed him, “ ‘The poetry has finished and the prose has begun.’” For Spina, it is his failure to interest the peasants in politics. The conversations fascinated me with their insight into what it does to a person to toil endlessly on the land and still not make enough to feed your children. Spina tries to make them think “of the use to be made of our lives.”

How is one to live? That is the question I see threaded through all of these books I’ve been reading: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Georges Bernanos, Silone. I’m interested in alternatives to resignation when our youthful ideals meet the inevitable limitations of our society, our fellows, and ourselves.

How do we resist facism? Do we continue to give of ourselves? How much? It is said of one character that she “‘did not follow rules, but her heart.’” This idea gives me hope.

What book have you read that has influenced how you live your life?

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories, by Ian Rankin

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Two weeks ago I was thrilled to hear Ian Rankin speak at my local indie bookstore. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since the early 1990s when I picked up one of his books at a store in Toronto. I’d seen high praise for his work on DorothyL, a listserv for mystery enthusiasts, but his books were not available where I lived and online bookstores were only just getting started.

Rankin’s books feature John Rebus, following him from his early days as a detective sergeant in Edinburgh as he moves up through the ranks. In the last few years, Rankin has started another series with Inspector Malcolm Fox, but this volume of short stories is all about Rebus.

It’s surprising to me that short story collections are not more popular, especially now when there are so many entertainment options and our attention spans are said to be shrinking. One reason that I sometimes resist short stories is that I find the beginning of a story requires the most concentration. With a novel, the payoff for that investment is much larger than with a short story. However, here the familiar characters and setting make the stories easy to move into.

Putting a story collection together can be tricky. When you put stories written independently next to each other, sometimes unwanted resonances or repetitions might emerge. Not here. The stories are chronological—one of the joys of the Rebus series is that Rankin has the character age in real time—and vary in interesting ways. For example, while all of the stories are in third person, some of them are from the point of view of characters other than Rebus.

We first meet him in his fifties, living alone since his wife left taking their daughter with her. Rebus doesn’t have much of a life outside of the job: just a few friends from work, a broad knowledge of the pubs in Edinburgh, and a love of music. He’s known for going his own way—a trait not valued in a bureaucratic organisation like the police—but also for solving the thorniest crimes. He carries emotional scars from his past, wounds that are chinks in his armor. And, like the best detectives, he has a strong moral code that is constantly being tested.

What I love most in Rankin’s novels are the complex puzzles. The name Rebus itself means a puzzle. In every story, there are multiple strands, later understood to be thematically related, that come together at the end. To my surprise, the stories here are also quite complex despite the smaller playing field.

I also love the huge role played by Edinburgh in Rankin’s work. I feel like I know the city even though I’ve never been there. We endure its weather, spend time in Rebus’s favorite pub, the Oxford Bar, and visit the tourist spots like the Royal Mile and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We find ourselves in less savoury parts of town and even explore secret places, like the city below the city. As we follow Rebus in his chase for clues, we start to understand the differences between Edinburgh and other places, such as Glasgow or Fife.

There was standing room only at my local indie bookstore when Ian Rankin spoke. I’m delighted that so many readers have discovered this fabulous author and that he is continuing to give us stories that challenge our minds, enlarge our world, and ask us to look again at our own moral code.

What mystery writers have made your list of favorite authors?

The Courage for Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen

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I’ve been looking to the past for ideas and inspiration about dealing with fascism and totalitarian regimes. I started with books by Dorothy Day, one of my greatest heroes, a woman who truly lived her ideals. From there, I’m moving on to the books that inspired her, by writers such as Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, and Ignazio Silone.

Then Jeremy distracted me with this volume of letters. Of course, I loved reading the descriptions and commentary on his own and others’ works. Merton especially loved the work of writers from Latin America, and there are many here to whom he’s written and whose work I’ll want to look up.

But what fascinated me was a theme that has come up a few times recently. As Christine M. Bochen, the editor of this volume, says in her Introduction, “Merton sensed in writers a hope for the future of mankind. Merton believed, as the title of this volume suggests, that the courage for truth was their special gift.”

In November I attended a writing conference which ended with a workshop led by Donald Maass. He asked us, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”

Don’t laugh. Novels have led to social change. Think of how To Kill a Mockingbird contributed to the Civil Rights Movement or The Handmaid’s Tale to the Women’s Movement. Oliver Twist drew attention to child poverty and All Quiet on the Western Front to the reality of war. Poetry, too, has been a powerful weapon, whether written or sung.

I have for some time been clear about my purpose for writing. I can’t do much that will affect those in power. But I can tell stories, as I did in Innocent, my memoir of my time on welfare. Many people have told me that reading Innocent changed their view of welfare recipients. What I’ve learned in my lifetime is that big social changes happen when the minds and hearts of the people are swayed. And stories are the way to do that.

In fact, reading any fiction opens your heart and mind to the lives of others. Studies such as the ones described in this article have shown the neurobiological basis for how reading builds empathy. The same areas of the brain are used when we read about a character’s experiences as when we experience something in real life. It only makes sense. When we read a novel, we see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once we experience what life is like for them, once it has become our life too, our intolerance and prejudices fade.

In a letter to José Coromel Urtecho dated 15 March 1964, Merton writes:

. . . the poets remain almost the only ones who have anything to say . . . They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker, and it is this courage that is most necessary today. A courage not to rebel, for rebellion itself tends to substitute another and louder noise from the noise that already deafens everyone, but an independence, a personal and spiritual liberty which is above noise and outside it and which can unite men in a solidarity which noise and terror cannot penetrate.

Of course, Merton recognises that there are risks involved when you take on the power structure. Still, in a letter to Boris Pasternak dated 23 October 1958, he says: “Both works (Dr. Zhivago and Vladimir Soloviev’s Meaning of Love) remind us to fight our way out of complacency and realize that all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.”

What novel or poem can you think of that has contributed to social change?