Reading Notes March 2018

Finished in March

1. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
This was not my first visit to Brede Abbey. I’ve read the novel a few times. But recently the Kindle edition was on sale and I snapped it up, thinking it might be handy to have. I was very glad that
I had my Kindle in the emergency room and I read a good chunk of the novel there during the copious amount of waiting I had to do. And most of the rest in the days that followed. Brede is a good place to spend some time during Lent.

This time through I found myself paying much more attention to the Japanese nuns and the project of the Benedictine monastery in Japan while thinking of Endo’s Silence. They would be two books that would be interesting when read side by side.

In this reading I paid much more attention to the novel’s structure and the technique. The indirect dialogue, intercut with other dialogue and with bits of memory and description, which you cannot pin down to a particular time and place. Like when in the beginning Philippa is telling a story to one of the sisters and then remembers telling the same event to Richard and then it goes back to the dialogue with the sister again. Or the snippets of the scene with Keith in the cave that keep popping up which you don’t understand until Philippa recounts the story quite late in the novel. Somehow it’s hard to tell exactly when and where you are in the narrative. There’s a timelessness to it which also appears in some of Godden’s other novels like China Court and Fugue in time. It suits the story of Brede particularly well since the Abbey does exist in the intersection of the timeless with time (as Eliot calls it in the Four Quartets). In this reading I realized what a very modern novel it is in structure, how much it owes to Wolfe and Eliot and others. And I’ve been trying to pinpoint the particular narrative quirks that make Godden distinctly Godden. She’s hard to pin down, but she certainly has a distinctive voice.

I’ve also been pondering the ways in which Phillipa is and isn’t the protagonist in Brede. In some ways she clearly is. And in other ways the house itself, Brede is the protagonist. While it is Philippa whose story is most dominant, all the nuns stories are woven together. They are a community and the novel’s form and shape really conveys that, so often the voices are anonymous, the nuns becoming hard to distinguish one from another just as they are, the identities are strongly there and yet in groups the habits make it hard to tell one individual from another. I like how Godden plays with that, the one and the many.

2. Lights in a Dark Town: A Story about John Henry Newman by Mariol Trevor

Last year I began reading a biography of Newman by Mariol Trevor. I was really enjoying it, but it was a library book and I had to return it. I was excited to find that Ignatius had recently published this book about Newman by Trevor, which is a novel for young readers. It clearly draws on Trevor’s extensive knowledge of Newman as his biographer, but also on her talent as a storyteller, which has charmed me in her children’s novel Sun Slower Sun Faster as well as in her adult romance novel series, the Warstowe Saga.

Emmeline’s father was an English artist and she spent her childhood mostly in Italy and France. Her mother is half French half Irish. After her father died, she and her mother were invited by his mother to live with her in England. Sadly, the grandmother, who had cut her son out of her will after his conversion to Catholicism, died before they arrived and had not changed her will. Emmeline’s Aunt Louisa feels no need to share the inheritance with Emmeline and her mother and so they are trapped in England, unable to afford to return to Italy. Emmeline’s mother settles in Birmingham and finds work teaching French and music to young ladies. 

Emmeline is lonely and bereft, but soon begins to make a wide circle of friends, including Father Newman and the priests of the Oratory. Some of her friends are Catholic, some are not, some of those who encounter the priests and brothers of the Oratory convert or at least become more friendly to the plight of Catholics. There is drama and political unrest about the appointment of a Catholic archbishop of Westminster. Emmeline encounters some virulent anti-Catholic sentiment. And yet Father Newman is serene and unaffected by the hatred and vitriol he encounters and helps Emmeline and her friends to understand and forgive the anti-Catholics they meet. 

The novel does not neglect to introduce many of the ideas and themes of Victorian England, complete with excitement about the railroads, a glimpse of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and visits to Oxford and to the Crystal Palace. It would be a perfect accompaniment to any study of the Victorian Era. 

This is a beautifully told story, lively and moving by turns, a story of loneliness and friendships and community. Though written with a younger audience in mind, I think the novel would be perfect for readers both young and old. It grapples honestly with questions of faith and doubt, with death and illness and poverty and social justice and yet never falls into sentimentality or didacticism. I look forward to passing it on to Isabella (11) and Sophia (10), I know they will love the story and characters as much as I did.

3. Edmund Campion: A Life by Evelyn Waugh

I started this years ago, a book I keep picking up and putting down. But this time I’ve got past the first section which is mostly background about Elizabeth and the Pope and the state of England and of Oxford. Finally got past that and made it to the continent and Campion joining the Jesuits and now back to England to begin his dangerous mission and that has much more momentum. It didn’t take so very long to finish once I got past that initial hump.

Unlike Waugh’s Helena, about St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, Campion is non-fiction. I think Waugh is something of a trailblazer in popularizing Campion and also revisiting the English Reformation from a Catholic perspective. He’s very conscious about challenging the dominant Protestant narrative, building on Belloc. So he spends a lot of time setting the scene and explaining the politics. It’s helpful, but a little heavier going than I expected after Helena and Brideshead and Sword of Honor.

Of course what we know about Campion is fairly thin. We don’t have much of his writings. We don’t have a deep insight into his interior life. And yet the witness of his deeds and the writings that do remain are moving. The figure of Campion has spoken deeply to me since I first learned his story. I supposed in a way he represents that part of English history— and of Catholic history— that I never learned about in school… or out of it, for that matter. Campion’s Brag stirs my heart with its bravado and poetry, but his trial and torture and death also tug at me. I can’t put into words what it is that his witness means to me.

4. Shadows and Images by Meriol Trevor

Another Meriol Trevor book! I’m really falling in love with her writing more and more with every book I read. This one is another novel “about” John Henry Newman. It’s about Newman inasmuch as he is in the protagonist’s orbit. She knows him socially, though not deeply. She was friendly with his sister Mary, the one who died suddenly. And Newman values her for his sister’s sake and they have a few brief moments of intimate conversation about spiritual matters. But if Newman is not really a main character— though he does come to greater prominence in the second half of the book— his influence casts a disproportionate shadow over the novel.

The first half of the novel reads like a romance novel. Like many of Trevor’s romance novels, it feels vaguely like a Georgete Heyer plot. Only with a lot more about religion and with Catholics— and their marginal place in English society— playing a prominent role in the story.
Clem — short for Clemency, a name she hates— is the only child of a Cornish clergyman who is more interested in natural history than in religion. Clem is drawn to Oxford and to Newman’s circle not so much by the ideas as by the sense of life and energy and the person of Newman. She’s also bored and lonely in Cornwall where her only purpose in life is caring for her crotchety father who can’t imagine that she should do anything else. When he dies Clem moves in with her cousin Bertram, another Oxford clergyman, to be governess to his daughter. It’s either that or find a position in a stranger’s household. She had gone to school with her cousin’s wife, Lucy, but finds Lucy is a sickly and shallow woman. 

Eventually events happen that make staying on with Lucy and Bertram intolerable and Clem finds herself running off with Bertram’s cousin Augustine, who has fallen in love with her although she does not love him.

And why is it that I love this kind of plot above all other romance novel plots? I love reading the story of a marriage of convenience that deepens over time into one of true love. Why do I love the upending of the narrative of falling in love and then getting married. The surprise of it, maybe? Perhaps it’s the revelation that marital love isn’t always rooted in passing fancy or “chemistry” but sometimes grows out of mutual respect and a non-erotic affection. 

Georgette Heyer wrote this plot very well several times. And yet in Trevor’s hands there’s an added dimension. Because Clem is protestant and her husband Augustine is Catholic. And they elope to his home in Rome and are married by a Catholic priest. And the marriage is only one turning point in her life and falling in love with her husband is not the climax of the story. The deeper romance of the novel is not the romance of marriage and family but the romance of hearing God’s call and answering it. All romance novels are shadows or reflections of the great romance, as St Paul says all marriages are an image of Christ the Bridegroom’s love for his Bride the Church; but some image it in a distorted way and some image it in a clouded way and some are much clearer mirrors.

The second half of the novel is satisfying in a different way… it’s the part of the story that romance novels don’t show you: the happily ever after, the longer domestic drama of married life. There are many sad notes, of course, there are deaths and sicknesses; but overall the story of two married people who love each other and who help each other to grow in holiness.

And then there is John Henry Newman, the convert, the priest who becomes more and more of a part of the story as the novel goes on and he eventually settles into the role of old family friend. And yet… there’s always something a bit more of him in the novel than one might have expected. Ultimately, the novel is as much about Newman as it is about Clem. It’s not that her life revolves around his, but that his presence helps her to make sense of the pattern of the story of her life. And she is the lens through which the reader comes to understand and appreciate and even love John Henry Newman.

6. The Samurai and the Tea: A Legacy of Japan’s Early Christians by Cathy Brueggermann Beil
I really like the concept of this novel: a young Catholic Japanese-American boy travels back in time via a 16th century tea cup given to him by his grandmother and the traditional Japanese tea ceremony which she insists that he learn; and in his travels through time he learns about his ancestors and his faith. I love the concept, but was a little disappointed in the roughness of the execution.

First Michael finds himself in his own house but when his grandmother was a girl. He meets and befriends his great uncle as a youth, and witnesses the internment of the Japanese and the death of his great, great grandfather. Then he leaps back to 16th century Japan where he meets some of the Japanese martyrs as well as the maker of both the cup and the family’s treasured swords. Then forward again to 19th century Japan where he accompanies the secret Christians to meet the first priest to come to Japan in hundreds of years and then forward again to Nagasaki during the twentieth century where first he meets Dr Takashi Nagai and St Maximilian Kolbe, from whom he receives a Miraculous medal. He jumps forward again to witness the bombing of Nagasaki and stays to watch the rebuilding and to hear Takashi Nagais’s famous speech. And then he jumps to France and the WW2 battlefield where he witnesses the heroic death of his grandmother’s brother. Along the way he learn many things he never knew about Japanese culture and the roots of his Catholic faith.

The time travel conceit of the novel reminds me of one of my favorite juvenile novels, Meriol Trevor’s Sun Slower Sun Faster, about two British children who travel back in time to learn about their family’s Catholic roots in England stretching back to the time of Roman Britain. But The Samurai and the Tea is not nearly as polished a novel. It has good bones, but it needs a good structural editor to help shore up the weak parts and to flesh out the thin parts. 

I kept thinking, perhaps a little unfairly, that I”d love to see the story that I did enjoy in The Samurai and the Tea remade in the hands of a master craftsman like Meriol Trevor or Rumer Godden who could polish the story and place it in a beautiful setting. And yet, that does seem unfair because it does not honor the story as it is told by the author whose story it is to tell. I do hope that Beil continues to work on her craft and perhaps could revisit this novel again and revise it into something that truly shines.

But all unjust comparison aside, The Samurai and the Tea is a gripping story that tugged at my heart and made me cry. Although there were elements that I found discordant, it’s not at all lacking in excitement and it does bring the central problem of the problem of faith to life. The beginning especially feels a little rough. The conflict between father and son feels cliched and a little forced. I also found it a little unbelievable that living two blocks away from his Japanese grandmother, to whom he feels much closer than he does to his own father, Michael would have learned so little about Japanese culture and customs and be so rawly ignorant of basic table manners, for example. I understand that the novel must be a journey of discovery, but the premise feels a little forced. Either he should know more about the culture or should be more distant from his beloved grandmother or else some account should be made in the story about why the grandmother has failed to pass on any of this cultural heritage. 

I wanted to know more about both Michael’s grandmother and his father, neither of whom got enough time to be developed into well-rounded characters. And I’d have loved to have part of the novel told from his mother’s point of view as well. The glimpse we get of her at the end is intriguing and left me wanting more.

Also, I liked the idea of Michael’s struggle with understanding martyrdom and with understanding the faith that leads people to want to give their lives for God. His anger is believable. But I’d have liked to see it handled with a bit more nuance. I’d like to see more of Michael’s struggle with coming to an understanding of God as a person with whom he can have a relationship. I could have wished to have a greater sense of his prayer.

7. The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig

A young Jewish girl and her family are deported from the Polish city of Vilna and sent to the steppes of Siberia during the second World War. Simcha Fisher recommended it and I got it for the girls. Sophie and Bella devoured it and then I picked it up. It seemed like the right book for the moment.

Although the hardships the Rudomin family face are intense; the account is told from a child’s perspective and is meant to be read by children. The memoir is as much about Esther’s love of the steppe and the young girl’s putting down roots in Siberia as it is about the harshness of life in soviet Siberia. The impetus for the book was Adlai Stevenson’s visit to the town of Rubtsovsk, the town in Siberia where the Rudomins lived. The author read some articles he wrote and sent him a letter in which she recounted her own impressions of Siberia. Stevenson urged her to write a book on the subject.

Reading about the deportation is certainly unpleasant and life on the steppe is harsh but the account is never graphic and somehow the most terrible incidents are recounted in a matter-of-fact way that insulates the reader from the immensity of the horrors, such as finding out that almost all of the family members who remained in Vilna did not survive. The feeling of the novel is at times close in tone to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Like them it has moments that hint at much darker topics than the child might be aware of; but it’s written in such a way as to protect innocence while being truthful about the difficulty of life in Siberia.

I think it’s a good introduction to some of the grim realities of WW2 and will stand alongside The Winged Watchman as a book I’d be happy to give to a mature child of 9 or 10.

One of my favorite scenes is when Esther gets lost in a snowstorm on the steppe:

“Suddenly, the wind carried a new sound, very faint: the sound of my name. ‘Esther . . . Esther . . . ‘ it seemed to say. I thought I was going mad. [. . .]

And then something else. I couldn’t make out what.

Mad or not, I went toward the sound, which kept repeating itself. Any step that took me away from it I counted a wrong step and corrected myself.

‘Esther . . . Esther . . . ‘

And then, ‘Sh’mah Israel . . . ‘

With every ounce of strength I had left, I forced myself toward that sound.

In the swirling blackness I saw a figure.

‘Sh’mah Israel . . . ‘

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.

I fell into my mother’s arms.

There was no doubt about it. She had saved my life.

Standing in the middle of the road, a few yards from our hut, endangering her own life, knowing that I was out there someplace, she had turned herself into a human beam, homing me as surely as if I were a plane being homed in on an electric beam.

Sh’mah Israel . . .

Books in Process

1. The Borrowed House by Hilda van Sockum

I was thrilled to see this book had been republished recently. It’s a sort of companion novel to Hilda Van Stockum’s excellent WW2 juvenile novel The Winged Watchman. The characters aren’t the same, but the setting is similar (The Netherlands during the German occupation) and the themes are similar. But in this novel the protagonist is not Dutch like Joris but a German girl who goes to live with her parents, actors living and working in Amsterdam, performing plays for the German occupiers. Janna is ripped away from her friends and life in the Black Forest, from her position in the Hitler Youth, and finds everything she knows is challenged by life in an occupied country. She slowly grows into an awareness of the injustice of the war, the persecution of the Jews, and the bravery of the Dutch Resistance. And she also grows closer to her parents, from whom she’s been separated much of her life because of the nature of their work. Like The Winged Watchman, The Borrowed house makes very a very difficult time in history understandable to young readers, it doesn’t shrink from the ugly, but it does present it in a measured way so as not to overwhelm the reader and it balances is with lessons of courage and self-sacrifice. Janna’s growing understanding is completely believable, handled deftly. It unfolds slowly over time, the pacing is never rushed and she proceeds in starts and stops as she learns the world is much more complicated and terrible but also more beautiful and meaningful than she ever guessed.
One of my favorite moments in the book is when Janna finds a hidden room in the house that was formerly a priest hole and another which was a hidden chapel, a nod to a different time in Dutch history when terrible things happened and people had to hide in fear of their lives.

2. God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel

This is a book to read in snippets. Philosophy to be digested slowly. I’ve probably only read a few pages this month. But it feeds my soul as well as my brain.

3. Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master by Fr. Robert Barron

I started this years ago, really enjoyed it. Read about half of it, and then got sidetracked somehow, I don’t remember by what. I saw someone recommending it recently on Facebook and thought I should dig it up and finish it. But then when I flipped to the bookmark I was totally lost. So I think I’m going to go back to the beginning and start again. And read more slowly perhaps, this time?

4. 1776 by David McCullough

5. The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur

6. Death of a Hornet: And Other Cape Cod Essays by Robert Finch

A really lovely collection so far. The first handful of essays was quite captivating.

Being laid up after surgery certainly increased the number of books I read this month.

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