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Archive for the ‘faith’ Tag

Sitting in Awe, Not in Judgement   1 comment

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I read Tattoos on the Heart several years ago. Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries (HBI) in Los Angeles, wrote about his experiences working with gang members. Each chapter left me in tears at the heartfelt stories Boyle shared of those attempting and often overcoming daunting challenges of their life circumstances and poor choices.

Barking to the Choir, Boyle’s new book, is more introspective. It has plenty of heartbreaking vignettes of homies facing incredible odds, but its pull on the heartstrings is looser. In both books an abundance of joy fills most pages even in the direst situations; but this time Boyle’s messages about hope and acceptance are tempered with his interpretation of understanding God’s word. This isn’t a bad thing.

Simple acts of kindness, not just from Boyle, but among the marginalized he writes about are moving. Major leaps of faith, again, not just from the author, but among those populating his world are thought-provoking. I’m left to consider blessings in my own life and the positive choices I’ve been able to make because of the family environment I had.

Father Boyle injects a healthy amount of humor while recounting events of those who pass through HBI’s doors. He isn’t preaching, or barking, but he certainly leaves the reader with much to consider. Two ideas, in particular, in the book resonate with me: awe and judgement. The former is what we should aspire to in our interactions with others; the latter is, unfortunately, more prevailing.

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2017
210 pages

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Pervasive Superstition   Leave a comment

Hannah Kent has a gift for describing squalor and the role of superstition among the most vulnerable. This talented writer, whose debut novel, Burial Rites, was set in Iceland, now transports readers to rural Ireland in The Good People. The ambiguous title refers to the name given to evil faeries and those with virtuous, albeit misdirected, intentions.

Set in nineteenth century rural Ireland, Kent’s engaging narrative follows three women: Nora, a recent widow, with a sickly grandson; Nance, known for her curative powers; and Mary, the young maid Nora hires to help care for the boy who can neither speak nor walk, although he once did.

Nora’s shame for her grandson is so extreme she keeps him hidden and is surprised to learn from Mary that the villagers know of his presence. In fact, they have already deemed him a changeling, a creature from another world, that of the Good People. How else can the locals explain the ill fortunes that have recently befallen their community: death, cows no longer milking, illness and more.

Nora unsuccessfully seeks medical help, then solace from the new priest who both believe the lad will soon die.

Imagining that her grandson has been abducted and the withered but breathing body is left in his place, Nora turns to Nance who is certain she has a cure. Young Mary empathizes with the helpless child and is caught in the middle. She’s skeptical of the older women and their motives. Yet, the question regarding Nance’s powers lingers.

The Good People
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
380 pages

A Little Life, A Lotta Book   Leave a comment

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To say A Little Life is a big book is an understatement. At slightly more than 800 pages it’s, in the words of my greatest presidential fear: Huge, very, very huge. Hanya Yanagihara has crafted a novel that traverses several lives, particularly Jude St. Francis’s. The name is not insignificant. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.

Jude is one of a quartet of friends, Willem, Malcomb and JB, who meet in college. Although the friendships among the four are always part of the story, most of the narrative revolves around Jude and Willem. Their backstories, their lives before college, define them. In fact, Jude’s past is what drives the novel.

From the onset, it’s clear that Jude has secrets. His inability to reveal them is a compelling, and often frustrating, element. It is also evident that Jude is the physically weakest of the foursome. He walks with a limp, which he reluctantly and vaguely attributes to a car accident. He has no family or past connections. He’s awed by the care and companionship of his friends.

Yet, little by little Jude’s history is divulged. As the four men grow older their friendship is often tested. They each pursue different careers, but Jude and Willem remain particularly close throughout.

The power of Yanagihara’s work lies in the personalities and the situations she creates. The author illustrates the definition of friendship through the actions of the characters and shows that the strongest bonds are made of trust. Then love.

A Little Life
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Anchor Books, 2016
816 pages

Street Cred   1 comment

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Full disclosure: I’m a John Irving fan. However, at around page 39, in Avenue of Mysteries, I wondered if he’d lost his touch. Before I knew it, I was on page 100 and realized I had nothing to worry about Irving’s storytelling mastery.

Fourteen-year-old Juan Diego and his younger sister, Lupe, are dump kids in Oaxaca, Mexico. That is, they live and work among the trash heaps where garbage is sorted, saved and burned. Through books he’s salvaged, Juan Diego has taught himself to read and learn English. He also serves as translator for Lupe, whose words are unintelligible to everyone else. What she lacks in comprehensibility, she compensates for in her mindreading ability. She’s no fortune teller. Although she has a sense of what will happen, she knows peoples’ histories.

The narrative moves between Juan Diego’s youth and his adult self, a successful writer living in the U.S., who visits the Philippines. Juan Diego’s dreams reveal his past: the dump, the Catholic Church, his mother (the prostitute and cleaning woman for the church), the would-be priest from Iowa and the circus, among many other elements. It wouldn’t be John Irving without the numerous components and the way they intersect.

As he travels, Juan Diego’s state of mind is manipulated by the medication he takes and forgets to take, as he meets Miriam and Dorothy, introduced as mother and daughter. The relationships with the women and a former student are complicated and interesting, but not nearly as engaging as Juan Diego’s earlier life.

Avenue of Mysteries
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
460 pages

The Confessions of Frances Godwin   Leave a comment

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Our youngest son recently graduated from Knox College; I’d been vaguely aware of it years before because of Sixteen Pleasures, a book I enjoyed for its setting (Florence, Italy) and strong female narrator. This same son gave me an autographed copy of Hellenga’s most recent work, The Confessions of Frances Godwin, which had been languishing on my nightstand far too long.

The setting is mostly Galesburg, Ill., with Knox figuring prominently; other locales include Milwaukee, Rome and Verona. With Frances, Hellenga introduces another female narrator. I admit I’m intrigued by his ability to create such true female voices.

It’s 2006 and Frances has retired from a career as a high school Latin teacher. At first, the novel appears to be a vehicle for her to reflect on her past because she soon recounts how she met her husband, Paul, a Shakespeare scholar from whom she took classes (at Knox). She tells of their affair, their eventual marriage and life together in Galesburg. They have a daughter, Stella, who as a grown woman appears to make a series of bad choices when it comes to men.

The story is occasionally heavy handed. Consider, Frances’ name: Godwin. Several times, she converses with God, who, among other things, entreats her to go to confession. By this point it’s clear that she does have more than a few things to own up to.

Love and guilt are not unusual companions; for Frances, they’re a large part of who she is.

The Confessions of Frances Godwin
Four Bookmarks
Bloomsbury, 2014
305 pages

Women of Conviction   Leave a comment

Depending on perspective, the good or bad thing about historical fiction is knowing
how something will end – at least generally. Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers
may have Masada in ancient Israel as its setting, but her novel about four strong,
captivating women is all new. It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that, yes, nearly every-
one dies; nonetheless, Hoffman’s characters are so vibrant and remarkable that
they make their home in our minds and hearts.

Hoffman typically combines the supernatural with the ordinary, but this is the first
time she blends these with history and religion. In her hands, the concepts are not
as incongruous as might be expected. Along with what could be perceived as a little
magic, other attributes shared by the women include survival, desire, love and relig-
ious conviction; these qualities move the fast-paced story toward its inevitable con-
clusion.

Hoffman clearly did her research. Rich with descriptive language of the harsh land,
the brutality of men, and Judaic traditions, Hoffman details the lives of the women
before and after their arrival in Masada. The four, Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah,
fill the pages with joy and heartache. They are of various ages, backgrounds, and
experiences; all are intelligent, sensual, even daring characters. Although each wo-
man shares her narrative, the voices are not that distinctly different.

In some ways reminiscent of The Red Tent for its portrayal of women in a Biblical
context, The Dovekeepers is a gripping representation not just about the existence
of faith but of its necessity.

The Dovekeepers
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Scribner, 2011
501 pages