the thorny grace of it, by Brian Doyle

Because I am acquainted with the author, I feel a certain trepidation in commenting on this new (2013) interesting collections of essays, essays in which each one carries a small spiritual or family message. The emphasis is on the smallness, for these essays run only three or four pages. But each makes a pithy statement that crosses our spiritual heritage with our common humanity.

In fact, I would not ordinarily write a comment about a book like this. But I do so, because I relate to it. The author has a spiritual perspective that I share. And I have long realized that making a comment helps me to think further about a book—and appreciate it more.

In retrospect, what strikes me first is that, in this era of Church factions, it is impossible here to assign Doyle within the Catholic political spectrum. He comes closest when he evaluates Pope John Paul II, both his strengths  (“a man of stunning presence and charisma, a corporate leader of wonderful creativity, a figure of light and hope for many millions”) and his weaknesses (“ a man who choked off liberation theology…a man who presided over a church riven with the rapes of children…a man who…dismissed women from any serious role”).

And one senses that this political reticence is deliberate. That neither he nor the publications he wrote for wish to make a political statement regarding Church doctrine. Instead, he explores the common elements in our daily human experience, an experience that often but not always arises out of our spiritual life.

He subtitles this book Essays for Imperfect Catholics. For he is often exploring the human weaknesses in our family life and our spiritual life. That we do not always live up to our idea of spiritual perfection. Or human perfection. And what Doyle does here is recognize this—and in doing so acknowledges his past naïveté, his current regret, or his often belated understanding.

Most of his essays reveal something of his own inner life, but a few also touch the reader’s own sensibility. For me, these include: exaggerated speculation on Jesus’ life in his missing teenage years; a humorous evaluation of Catholic writers by the imaginary Saint Francis de Sales Parish Book Club; an archbishops letter of resignation at age 75; a brother’s advice on how to keep a priest off-balance when in confession (keep bringing up lust); and the memory of hauling storm windows up from the cellar each winter.

Some essays are humorous, some are touching, some strike a cord of memory. An example of the humor: “From the age of thirteen when a boy in Jewish tradition enters manhood, to the age of thirty, when a boy in Irish-American tradition enters manhood.” An example of both empathy and self-awareness: “On the way home, I thought about…how these sweet honest funny moments [a baptism] are so holy I cannot easily find words for them, which is why we share these stories, which is what we just did.”

Other essays range from a regret at the life Osama bid Laden chose; to an essay on his father, his own fatherhood, and the Father; to the story of a star basketball guard who turns down scholarships to enter the marines—and loses his left hand in battle.

The range of these essays portrays a man who understands that a full life includes a spiritual life. He is a man who understands the meaning of family, of community, and of our eternal destiny. But he is also a writer who understands the power of a revelation to be found in a single moment, a moment we may all have experienced but most likely have never thought of again.

This is a modest book. It is for a very special audience. An audience which acknowledge its spiritual life and makes it a part of its daily living. It is more a book to be dipped into as a reminder of that life than a book to be read in one sitting. It is a book that enriches the reader who pauses and thinks for a moment after reading each essay. And in offering a special opportunity for reflection, each of these essays opens to ourselves an opportunity to review our own experience with our family and our church in a timeline of eternity. (January, 2014)

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Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith

This 2010 work is a disappointment. Cruz Smith still has his novelistic skills, but he reaches here too high in terms of a mystery story.  That is, there is still the marvelous atmosphere of Moscow, the Russian environment, and the Russian people, especially Arkady Renko, his hero detective. And he has set up two intriguing stories, and some intriguing relationships. But the stories never come together, the criminal intrigue is too complex, and the resolution comes after a car chase, meaning with  too sudden a burst of action.

The first story is about a prostitute, Maya, fleeing to Moscow with her newborn baby, and then distraught because her baby has been stolen. The second is the mysterious death of a ballet dancer in a construction trailer, her body left to suggest she was a prostitute. Arkady’s renegade foster son, Zhenya, becomes involved with Maya, trying to help her. And Arkady himself is suspicious of the ballet dancer’s death, with his efforts to determine if it is suicide or murder increasing his conflict with his boss Zurin, and resulting in his being suspended. (And not the first time.)

The action for theses two stories occurs mainly around the Three Stations in Moscow, where train and bus lines come together, and where the poor and criminal elements congregate to prey on others. And these underground people complicate the story when they come into possession of the baby. In fact, we are sidetracked from both Maya’s and Arkady’s stories every so often, in order to check out what is happening to the baby. (Not to mention the violent deaths these underground people suffer when they unwittingly disturb the local drug trade.)

For perhaps two thirds of this book, however, I was fascinated by the Russian atmosphere; the critique of modern, capitalist Russia; Arkady’s problems with his bosses; the conflicts within both the law enforcement officials and the criminal rings; the mysterious billionaire, Vaksberg, who seems to be running a charity event; the ballet company which seems to be hiding something; and Arkady’s young neighbor, Anya, a journalist, who is violently assaulted in the same way the ballet dancer was.

But as I realized the end of the book was approaching and a resolution was needed for all these developments, and as Arkady seemed to be no closer to the facts (plus, the author had left behind Zhenya’s concern for Maya, as well as Maya herself), I became restless. And soon after that the violence begins, with physical attacks on Arkady and a car chase, ending with an accusation of guilt that, despite only circumstantial evidence, is quickly confessed to.

I cannot deny the reading pleasure offered by the first two-thirds of this book. Yet it is as if Cruz Smith has dug himself into an intriguing narrative hole that he cannot dig himself out of. And this makes one suspicious that the author may have lost some of his technical ability to tie together disparate story lines.

Which suggests that future works may be fun to read, even enlightening, but that they will lack the sense of unity required for literary success—and negate any suggestion that in his future work Cruz Smith may take the next step in creating a true novel. (December, 2013)

The Words, by Jean-Paul Sartre

This 1964 work is a difficult book to review. It is billed as an autobiography, but it really is not. It is an intellectual exploration of Sartre’s formative years from about when he was five to when he was nine. The exploration is primarily that of his relationship with his mother and his grandfather, more significantly the latter.

Sartre’s grandfather kept challenging the boy, and to prove himself to himself Sartre imagined himself acting as a hero in different worlds (shades of Walter Mitty?). These worlds first existed as visual images, and then became expressed in words. The result here is a book of self-analysis, as Sartre tries to explain to us, and to himself, the origins of his intellectual life.

But it is an abstract analysis, an analysis of the intellect of a child, an analysis in which Sartre often needs to employ metaphors. It is not a practical analysis of external events. So with a child’s mind having no depth at that age, we see it only through the mind of this author of 50 years later.

Sartre’s effort to prove himself to his grandfather resulted in his imagining himself to be other people, much like an actor does. And much like a writer does when he tells a story through imagined people. Which meant to the author 50 years later that he was an imposter even as a child. He was pretending in order to win the praise of one man.

Sartre also states that his stories of imaginary heroism usually had no ending. That, in fact, he sought no endings. As if endings did not really matter—suggesting 50 years later that life did not need answers, or really had no answers. That faith was not an answer. All that mattered was one’s existence, the now.

The other repercussion of this false reality is that he later found it difficult to relate to true reality, to other people, and nurtured a sense of his own insignificance. As a youth, he even despised himself for this play-acting.

Of course, any anticipation that nine-year-old Sartre has about his future profession, his future philosophy, is not truly that of the boy. It is that of Sartre as he is writing this 50 years later. As he is trying to explain how his professional life emerged from his years with his grandfather and his widowed mother.

Sartre deals briefly with his turn to atheism after a religious upbringing. Very simplistically, he appears to attribute it to a religious paper he wrote in school that received a silver medal instead of a gold medal. Later, after accidentally burning a rug, his guilty conscience senses an accusation from God, and he curses Him. And 50 years later he writes: “He never looked at me again.” Which I interpret to be the determination of a mature man to lightly toss aside the reason for his lack of faith, and to suggest how insignificant any faith has become to him.

Note that it is only in the final pages that Sartre consciously leaves his boyhood years, and tries to connect his current thinking to those youthful years. He also suggests he plans a similar treatment of his mature years, but it is a book he never did write. Actually, I wish he had written it, and combined the two into one book, but at the same time omitted some of the speculation of this book. Surely, there were significant events, and even more complex thinking in his adolescent years, that led to the mature Sartre.

To sum up, this was not the type of work I expected. It is not the story of a life but an intellectual interpretation of the formative period in the life of a boy who became an intellectual. It reflects too much the author of today rather than the boy of yesterday. It also digs deeper into that boy’s mind than I cared to follow, and at times found difficult to follow. Because while the writing style is perfectly clear, and we understand what Sartre is writing about, his classical and metaphorical references cloud the relevance of these early days to his eventual career. That is, for one who does not possess the same intellectual and cultural context. (January, 2014)