“Ya Hey” Part II (or, you don’t even say your name)

Onward!

So, to briefly recap from last time (this is a continuation of “Ya Hey” Part I, found here [so read it {things'll, you know, make a hecka lotta more sense if you do}]), we’re talking about the poorly-named Vampire Weekend’s poorly named album Modern Vampires of the City which, in addition to being the worst-named record of 2013 (I mean, seriously), was hailed by media kings Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Slant Magazine and some guy named Robert Christgau as the year’s best. More specifically, we’re getting round to track ten of twelve: a glorious little ballad called “Ya Hey.”

The fact that it appears near the end is no accident, as there’s been a buildup to it through the entire first 80% of the album. As mentioned before, songs like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You” have songwriter-vocalist Ezra Koening with his back up against the wall, hackles raised in a white-collared, impeccably-arranged bout of rage/confusion/longing/ultimate defiance against the Triune God. He is, needless to say, a tad anxious of trusting Him.

funny-pictures-cat-bubble-bath-trust

But why? What doesn’t he trust God to do? To take care, maybe – to be more than ‘good.’ Merciful, perhaps. To hold everything together. “We worshipped you” he deadpans on the thusly titled song, “only in the way you want it / only on the day you want it…energetic praise you wanted / any kind of praise you wanted” – followed closely by a plaintive afterthought: “won’t we see you once again?” The flippant is always paired with longing for the God he perceives to be absent or indifferent. “Who will guide us in the end?” he asks, closing out the song with the twin senses of disappointment and desire.

Koening’s lyrics always stand with a double edge – but, compellingly enough, where most indie protests seem to appear pastoral with a barely concealed, lurking hostility, Koening’s bitter words can’t ultimately throw off the sense of tenderness he carries towards his Accused. And, having finished the first nine songs (some among which bristling with a few Adonai-directed barbs) he finally drops the mask.

And the gloves. The wisdom teeth are out. Track ten begins with the intimacy reserved for lovers:

                                                            “Oh, sweet thing                                                                                                                        Zion doesn’t love you                                                                                                                And Babylon don’t love you                                                                                                                But you love everything”

There’s no criticism here, no laying into the seemingly neglected responsibilities God owes to His people. All of a sudden the roles are reversed: whereas the tension before was always on what He is or isn’t doing for humanity, here we have the eternal, undeserved Love of God contrasted with the petty inconsistency of human commitment.

But he goes for the throat here: anyone could have remarked on the staggeringly minute levels of love lost on the part of Babylon towards the Creator…but Zion? He’s not just talking about the historic Hebrew people here, he’s talking about us, with our liturgies and hymnals and mission statements and seven highly effective habits and love languages – we’re the ones, in Koening’s estimation, without love. Which is something I deeply, deeply identify with.

Full disclaimer: I made a conscious decision years ago to stop using the word “love” when I talk to people, something that still holds at least for now. Around the time I was eighteen I was going through a shift where I was moving from seeing love-as-feeling to love-as-choice to, finally, Love-as-Person (AKA: God, yo), meaning that, every time I used that four-letter word in ways that fell short of God’s way of Loving (which was, like, all the time), I felt like I was lying somehow. Or at least using the word in a way that sounded like a hollow joke. It’s something I still need to work through but haven’t found a way around yet – it annoys my family to no end and I hope they haven’t felt hurt, which probably can’t be avoided. And I can’t imagine being a dad who doesn’t feel comfortable telling his kids that he loves them (but, fortunately, being a dude who likes dudes while practicing Catholicism kinda puts the kapow to that).

kapow

I digress.

But we’re taught that no one is good but God alone – that no one truly Loves but God alone.

                                                              “Oh, you saint                                                                                                                         America don’t love you                                                                                                                So I could never love you                                                                                                                  In spite of everything”

And here’s where Koening’s deeply complex relationship with God really starts to set off some sparks. There’s no doubt about where he says he stands – whether he’s an atheist, agnostic or something in between (¿athnostic?) he’s certainly not a card-carrying congregant of your typical Christian church. He claims unbelief but then, like a man in the confessional, admits that his inability to love somehow stands “in spite of everything.” In spite of what? From the position of a confused postmodern, he admits of reasons to love God back: God’s own love, to start. And His presence in the muck of our indifference. And the sentiments only deepen:

                                                         “In the dark of this place                                                                                                              There’s the glow of your face                                                                                                         There’s the dust on the screen                                                                                                             Of this broken machine.”

Koening recognizes that even though he can’t muster the case to ultimately believe (especially in light of all the things that don’t make sense to him), he still can’t shake the sense of the hidden God behind it all. A benevolence behind the curtain. Nothing solid enough to tell what (or where) it is, but suggestive enough to keep him up at night wondering what holds it all together. The words make me think about the engine in an aging television, the core of a tiny planet, fossilized fingerprints from way, way too long ago.

All of it builds to his most personal confession yet: “And I can’t help but feel / That I’ve made some mistake…” he sings, and the bitterness of the earlier songs falls away and Koening is left standing with nothing but his vulnerability. He reaches across the divide towards territory he’s not at all comfortable with, to a paradigm that’d change everything in his life, one that’d justify the suspicions he can’t dismiss about the world. He sees it. But those looking for a happy ending will be disappointed as he continues: “…but I let it go.”

Out of the whole song, this is the line that haunts me most. Here we have this guy, a smart, articulate dude who not only has the desire and the empathy to feel for a God he can’t trust to exist, but writes to Him with such tenderness. A guy who admits the possibility that he’s wrong and that maybe in the end there’s a God whose loneliness is worth mourning, whose Love is worth trying to return. He feels it. It confuses him. He lets it shake him. But he let it go, saying “Ya hey.”

Which, as Michael mentioned, is pronounced Yahweh.

Koening is bought to the brink but still can’t step over the edge into the actual Everlasting Arms. And we, who believe, watch on as he continues: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am / But who could ever live that way?”

We can!” we might say, but we’re not Ezra Koening – and we don’t know his conditions for belief. It’s a kinda strange passivity we’re left with – we’re the audience to an angst we believe we have answers to, but he’s a world away. Maybe other people come to mind, the ones close to us who, for their own reasons, can’t believe – reasons that, to them, are all too legitimate. Maybe we want to cry out with Koening at the God who stays hidden – at the God who, at times, allows things that make it so hard to find Him. Mysteries upon mysteries. And the chorus circles round as it continues, repeats. Repeats.

 

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ut deo

 

 

                                                                      Ya hey

 

 

burning-bush

 

 

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

“Ya Hey” Part I (or, beat to the punch)

I woke up last Monday morning and found, to my dismay, that fellow DT blogger Michael Renner had written a few words about Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City. Which would normally be excellent, but the problem for me is that I’ve spent the week cooking up my own response to the album but was beat to the punch – even though, as Michael said, both of us are about a year late in listening to the thing. Shame on us. Luckily for me though he mainly wrote about the album’s relationship to Brideshead Revisited and only touched briefly on the song that took me so aback: “Ya Hey.”

wpid-final-poster-for-breaking-dawn-part-2-116435-470-753

NOTE: as the words “Vampire Weekend” and “Modern Vampires of the City” conjure up terrible connotations of angsty-though-well-intentioned teeny-bop chastity metaphors, they shall for the rest of the article be called “the band” and “the album” respectively.

I think what kept me from listening to the album for so long, even in spite of the BEST-OF-2013 hype, was the fact that the vibe of their earlier two albums kinda turned me off. Yes, musically they were a lot of fun but they ultimately came off as a bit show-offy, especially with the constant throwaway references to various trappings often enjoyed by upper-class, cultured New Englanders – which, to be honest, doesn’t quite do it for this Canuck. The fans of the band don’t really help either – the ones I meet are often those guys at the party all trying to make the most ironic comment around the (cheap) wine table (Note: Dappled Things isn’t the first mag I’ve worked for – I’ve been to a number of these parties).

That being said, when I finally gave it a spin I was impressed. It’s pretty short and easy to listen to – the album clocks in just under the forty-five minute mark and has enough variety in each song to make it seem much shorter (in the good way). But what makes it so surprising is how much territory the band covers over such a small period of time – adulthood, the nostalgia for/boredom of youth, loneliness, wisdom, unemployment, compromise, connection and religion. If it all sounds too heavy, no worries: the music and delivery make the album a pretty constant (if melancholy) delight. There’s no space for defeatism here.

Out of the twelve tracks there are four or five that directly address religion, or, at least, religion in America.

Because America is The World

Because America is The World

Given that vocalist-cum-songwriter Ezra Koening and the rest of the band are caught up in the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the songs on the album are all in the inevitable context of what some people refer to as the “culture war.” AKA, the rabidish opposition between two sides vaguely identifying as conservative and liberal, the apparent leaders of which mostly appearing to snap at “wishy-washy” attempts to communicate usefully or explore the common ground spontaneously emerging in the airwaves, government or blogosphere. With these songs, Koening and the band can’t help but pitch a tent in that middle space, complicating both urges to accept and reject God.

Take “Unbelievers,” for example – it’s the jauntiest song I’ve ever heard about prepping oneself for the possibility of hell. And no, I don’t mean the Rolling Stones/Lady Gaga “hell’ll be a big par-TAY!” kinda afterlife – “we know the fire that waits unbelievers / all of the sinners the same” sings Koening, “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.” This isn’t a defiant “whatever” to God (though it will endlessly be misinterpreted as such), mostly because through the whole thing there’s a sense that he’s constantly processing the stakes behind his worldview. And he’s definitely leaving room for doubt, especially as a few minutes later he’s asking if there’s enough holy water around, if there’ll be anyone who’ll “save a little grace” for him. The unbeliever. There’s already a powerful divide in his heart between the unbelief he can’t help occupying and a desire for faith – a desire just strong enough for him to dream of tasting the reality he can’t fully bring himself to believe in. And that’s only track two.

I’ve a feeling that most people who don’t trust God do it mostly because they don’t trust His servants – and, even though that’s a pretty blatant ad hominem argument, it’s a fairly understandable position given our track record. But I get the sense that Koening doesn’t trust God because he feels he just can’t trust Him. He hums “the ‘Dies Irae‘ as you played the Hallelujah” in “Everlasting Arms” (the title of which, along with “Worship You,” sounds like a highlight from a praise & worship session), wondering how God can expect us to rejoice not only in the face of suffering and death, but also the shocking, sickening, potentially unredeemable horror that is hell. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, more than forgivable. And the beefs don’t end there: “I took your counsel and came to ruin” he sings, mentioning how being in His arms sometimes feels like “being locked up, full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down.”

That being said, throughout his whole tirade of resistance one gets the impression that he can’t escape the sense of God’s presence – but, in the end, he “thought it over and drew the curtain.” He hums “hold me in your everlasting arms” both ironically and pleadingly, “leave me to myself” but “don’t leave me in myself.” This doesn’t sound like someone in denial so much as someone who’s agonized over the choice without being able to come up with a compelling enough case to make the leap of faith. And he’s pissed.

If his anger was the bulk of his response to God, though, it would be pretty run-of-the-mill for modern rock. But the yelps of unbelief, the desire to be left alone, the constant “calling for the misery to be explained” fall away when he finds himself face to face with YHWH in “Ya Hey.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything”

 

(Hey! Check out Part II!)

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Hope For The Biblical Picture

noah

Having settled in my not-entirely-un-pew-ish seat, stolen various unhealthy morsels from my friend’s platter of popcorny goodness, tried to force the 3D-glasses to stick to my face, slouched myself to optimum comfort and mutually agonized over whether the film would be in Romanian with English subtitles or English with Romanian subtitles (don’t ask), the lights went down and verses from Genesis came up, buffed by dramatic percussion and violins.

Noah is a bizarre movie” reads the opening line of almost every review* you can find on the damn thing and you can’t really blame them. Genuine spiritual angst lies underneath the big-budget special effects: you have unresolved monologues on the nature of justice and mercy, armies of angry neighbours, golem-ish stone angels (sorry, can’t help the reference), a porous border between the sacrificers and sacrificed, wise old men, messages from God that confuse even His own prophet – oh, and sin. That awkward, uncomfortable, dirty-dirty word. In short, this is Darren Aronofsky being given the reins of a Hollywood blockbuster and the multi-million dollar budget that goes right along with it. Spoiler: almost everyone on the planet dies. Take that, Michael Bay**.

Some background could be pertinent.

Aronofsky, like most hefty products of our gradually post-christian culture, is God-haunted.*** His repertoire wouldn’t necessarily go over well when discussed over a church fundraiser but that’s part of what makes the whole thing so compelling. Take Pi, his first film, which is completely obsessed with the connection between God, mathematics and deterministic patterns (expressed via a paranoid man’s journey of escape from both wall-street toughs and a Kabbalah-lusty orthodox Jewish community (shot in glorious black and white)). Then there was the nightmare that is Requiem for a Dream with its dark, incessantly bleak fall into the intensely personal circles of hell belonging to a cadre of addicts.

2007′s The Fountain returned to the search for God and starred Hugh Jackman as a man whose search for a cure to his wife’s cancer just barely conceals an obsessive quest to cure death once and for all. In the film, Jackman also happens to be a 15th-Century conquistador. And maybe a spaceman hurtling towards a dying star in a bubble with the Tree of Life (which may or may not also be his wife).

Yup. I love it to pieces.

Yup. I love it to pieces.

His later, more popular works focused on the sacrifices of art – 2008′s The Wrestler and 2010′s Black Swan both circled around two performers (one on the rise, the other at the end of his rope) and their mutual self-destruction as they try to get at whatever truth, goodness or beauty lies on the other side of uncompromising commitment to art. These are deranged explorations of obsession, repressed sexuality, drug escapism and creative neurosis. And this is the man who returns, in the end, to the Bible for inspiration. Needless to say, there will be no hint of “Precious Moments” in this incarnation of the patriarch.

But this, I argue, is precisely what we need – we’ve become so used to expressing the stories of scripture in ways that pare them down and make them about as compelling/fierce as a colourful circus of tame lions. What keeps me out of most Christian bookstores are the shelves upon shelves selling ceramic statuettes of cute angels, cute apostles, cute parishioners and even cute trinities. We’ve allowed the Bible to pass into pop-kitch.

I don't want to know where this water came from.

I don’t even want to know where this water came from.

It’s easy to think of the rainbows and returning ravens and pairs of animals, but Aronofsky reminds us of the screams of the drowning, the uncertainty in the face of painful mission, the drunkenness (and resulting butt cheeks) of Noah, the range of innocence among the condemned. And again, the sin – the film was originally written as a French graphic novel titled “Noah: For the Cruelty of Man.” Violence and madness and sex and betrayal and divine wrath. These inescapable parts of our spiritual heritage.

Given some of the intense subject matter in the film I was pretty surprised at the positive response from most religious groups, both Jewish and Christian – it’s a sign that we’re moving into a place as a culture (and Christian subculture) that’s getting over the need for and constant falling-back-on black-and-white artistic metaphors of the spiritual battle.

Here's looking at you, Frodo.

Here’s looking at you, Frodo.

But it’s also a huge opportunity for connection – I mean, how are we supposed to relate to the non-orthodoxly God-haunted? What kinds of conversation can we expect ourselves to start wading through?

This is a big deal. While there’s never been a dearth of spiritually-inclined, challenging film out there (The Seventh Seal being a fantastic example), once Charleton Heston put down his tablets there weren’t a whole lot of mainstream movies that’ve had the guts to start asking big questions of the Christian tradition.

Except this one.

Except that one.

It’s pretty interesting, though, to contrast these two films – actually, what happens when Noah goes up against The Passion in the ring? If we start asking the question, “which film is better?” or “which one is more culturally important?” we can start getting into some pretty deep, murky waters. Just how different are these two works of art?

In a word: very.

In thirteen more words: it’s basically the same difference between “How Great Thou Art” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” One is a piece of worship and/or devotion while the other seeks to address, chronicle and ultimately validate humanity’s mess of a search for God in the midst of a batshit, shattered world. We can shout until the cows come home about which one is “better” and completely miss out on the fact that each film has an entirely different, and essential, mission.****

The Passion is an earnest, straightforward exploration of the salvific mission of Christ, told with a barely-held-back fire that occasionally breaks through the elegant cinematography (Satan writhing in hell, anyone?). It’s purpose: to praise God and convict us all of both His mercy and the price thereof.

But what about Noah? What’s this flick trying to do?

I remember us walking out of that Romanian picture house, wondering what exactly we’d just seen or what kind of ironic remark would put everything back into place but we didn’t have anything. The fierce earnestness took everybody aback and no one quite knew how to react. What does this story have to do with us, now? What does it mean when a God says He loves but destroys? When He saves one family but leaves a girl stuck in a bear trap to be trampled to pulp by marauders? When His messenger begins to think the completion of God’s will requires doing something gut-wrenchingly, proto-Abrahamically horrible? When he is prepared to do such a horrible thing? When his weak, agonizing inability to do it was God’s plan all along? When by saving even just one portion of the human race, the cycle of sin sets right back on it’s track? The same pain, the same cruelty, over and over again. Until Christ. And even afterwards.

The Passion strives to be a artistic approximation of the God-Man’s last hours. Noah broaches the human paradoxes of faith more boldly, more courageously and, Entish-angels notwithstanding, more realistically than perhaps any biblical film we’ve yet come across. Even The Passion never touched the pain of our many confusions in the face of God’s wider plan, our lack of immediate consolation.

I feel sorry for the poor marketing agent at Paramount who had to deal with this conundrum – I mean, how do you sell something like this? As a Heston-grade biblical epic? A blockbuster disaster movie? An antihero-wielding bit of revisionist spiritual fuzz? A 2+ hour long commercial for Green Peace and/or WWOOF? Oprah’s next Big Thing?

Among these, it also turned out to be a quiet blockbuster – easily earning back the hundreds of millions of budget cash (here in Mother Russia it was the 10th highest grossing film of all time) while not really making much of a buzz on the blogosphere or with the Greater Cultural Arbitors.***** Why, if it made that much money, is nobody talking about it?

Because, as mentioned above, it’s a bit of an oddball – a pop-yet-morally-earnest slice of spiritual turmoil without the constant, safe reassurance of the Almighty’s presence. Or, if not His presence, then at least confusion over the exact nature of what His goodness and/or mercy requires. It’s a film that somehow tries to span both the providence and punishment of the Am that Is with the casts of Gladiator, Harry Potter and Requiem for a Dream. The average moviegoing mind is certainly forgiven if things just don’t seem to add up.

But, all the flaws of the film aside (and there are many, gosh), maybe there’s part of us that responds to someone crazy enough to engage with some of the questions we might not feel like airing either in the church or in the office. How does one reconcile genuine faith to genuine doubt? Why is God there and then seemingly not? Why are His words so hard to interpret? Are we getting this wrong somehow? It straddles our deep, powerful religious tradition while being fully able to keep close the scandalously legitimate questions of the postmodern age.

Maybe, in the end, the reason why Noah is so important is that it’s messy. Here is a Noah who’s confronted with the fact that he thinks he must do something terrible in order to fulfill God’s plan but can’t go through with it. In his mind that’s a weakness – a lapse of faith, strength and drive. But in the end it proves to be the right thing and you can see in his eyes that he can’t make any of it fit together. His family is broken just as it begins its mission to bring life back to the world. He somehow feels abused and grateful. No one can answer for the girl left in the bear trap.

The film’s not afraid to leave the pieces where they lie, to acknowledge that, sometimes, we can’t just make things add up. In the midst of a religious sub-culture that sometimes places too much of a value on having an answer to everything, we’re all left with a moment to quake in the mystery of I Am. We’re not pressured to have the easy-bake response or expected to breeze over terribly complicated questions. We’re left with mystery. The mystery is left with us. My friends and I walked into the Romanian night not knowing what to say. And a rainbow stretches to cover every possible angle of sky.

*

*This one was Matt Zoller on behalf of rogerebert.com – a bit of a minor tragedy as I’m convinced that the recently-deceased Ebert was one of the few giants of modern criticism that could have really appreciated what Aronofsky was going for here.

**And George R.R. Martin

***I stole that term from somewhere but I can’t for the life of me recall where. It’s, like, my pick for word of the month.

****I don’t know if it’s the fact that North Americans in particular (sorry to my European compatriots) have just gotten comfortable with searching for the better/best thing (noble in its own right, awful when everything becomes a competition with space for only the one winner), but sometimes it leaves our particular set of cultural lenses less likely to admit the fact that sometimes two things can be act as compliments rather than UFC partners.

***** New Yorker, I’m looking at you.

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Book Review: Reflections

Jonathan Potter

Reflections
Poems by Ruth Asch, with art work by James Tyldesley
Saint Austin Press, 2009
136 pp.; $10.00
ISBN: 978-1901157468

When I first opened Reflections, Ruth Asch’s extraordinary first collection of poetry, I did that bad thing readers are not supposed to do: I turned to the last page. The little poem, poised there on page 129, stared me in the eye, smiled, and then kicked me in my reviewer’s shin just hard enough to smart a little and make me grin at the task ahead of me. [Read more...]

Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Book Review: In the Custody of Words: Poems

Billy Middleton

In the Custody of Words: Poems
by Philip C. Kolin
Franciscan University Press, 2013.

Philip C. Kolin’s new chapbook In the Custody of Words begins with a Latin epigraph of the opening lines from the Last Gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The importance of words and language as a fundamental element of creation informs this collection. God, as creator, is the divine wielder of words. [Read more...]

Book Review: Ignatius Critical Editions

Ignatius Critical Editions
Edited by Joseph Pearce

Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
312 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17261-9

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
596 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17263-3

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
365 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17262-6

Reviewed by Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Is Hamlet so rampant with bawdy jokes that it is simply a very long, very dirty “shaggy dog story”? [Read more...]

Republished by Blog Post Promoter

The Painted Veil

It took me a long time to warm up to this book, about 90 pages, in fact. As it’s not even 250 pages long, that’s a sizable warm-up period. I suspect that the original editors didn’t do such a good job, but, since it is at this point a book with a history, their original mistakes were left (lots of run-on sentences, a word missing from a sentence here and there, you get the idea). Also, it struck me as a trashy romance novel with no admirable characters. I was dismayed, as I generally trust recommendations from Heath Misley, a compatriot from my Wasting Time in the Western Tradition days in Manchester. So, I gritted my teeth, and pushed on. And I’m glad I did.

I know a movie was made based on this book. I think I even saw it a long time ago, but I don’t remember much of it. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the book, even if you have already seen the movie. I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away (there were a lot of things that surprised me as I was reading, and I want you to be surprised, too). But, why should you read it? It admirably handles the problems of human weakness, pettiness, silliness and selfishness. All of the characters are real, and uncomfortably so. It’s never pleasant to realize that a writer so clearly understands human failings. It’s like when you go to mass and come away with the sure knowledge that the sermon was written with your unholy soul as a target. But, it’s also comforting to know you’re not the only one who’s ever been an idiot, to whatever degree that might have been. Maybe we’re not all so tortured as the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, but a failing is a failing. So, with that vague summary in mind, read it and prepare yourself to become attached to some less-than-worthy fictional characters.

The novel is set in the British Empire during the 1920′s. It’s primarily about the development of one Kitty Fane. Out of boredom and some curiosity, she acquaints herself with the Mother Superior of a Catholic convent (she herself is not Catholic.) As she leaves the convent for the last time, the Mother bids her goodbye. I’ve truncated the scene:

Kitty had a wild impulse to shake her, crying: “Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone? Can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion?” To Kitty’s surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. She held her for a moment. “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” (Vintage, 204-06)

Kitty is deeply flawed in many ways, but her biggest problem is that she is incredibly selfish. I suppose one might say that the book is really about her learning what it means to love. She goes through the paces of a few things, even marriage, because they are what she is expected to do. But, never having received real love from her parents, and being encouraged in a solipsistic existentialism, she’s a brat. The mother superior has told her exactly what she needs to hear, and, really, exactly what all of us need to hear.

If we gracelessly go through the paces of life, grumbling as we take out the trash, swearing at other drivers during the morning commute, blandly reciting our prayers, impatient at having to change yet another diaper, angry at disruptions of our dutiful routine, we’ll be utterly miserable, and so will everyone with whom we come in contact. It is far better to be 5 seconds later to work than to cut off someone trying to merge onto the highway. No one will be thankful that you took out the trash if you guilt-trip them about how much work you do around the house. A grumpy recitation of a 20-decade rosary has less merit in it than a 2-second shout-out to God of sincere gratitude for a piece of chocolate. And if you resent every diaper you have to change, or even every other diaper, don’t think your child will grow up unaware of that resentment. Kitty isn’t perfect at the end of the book; she does progress, but boy, she sure slips up pretty horrifically. Sadly, so will you and I (as we’re both already aware, I’m sure). I know it sounds trite and corny, but at least try to love people, really love them and be kind to them, as you go along making mistakes and inadequately performing your duties for them. Love covers a multitude of sins, and leads you to that happiness which surpasses all understanding. So go have some chocolate, or, better yet, buy chocolate for someone else, and thank God you can.

Book Review: Redeemed

Katy Carl

Redeemed: A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding
by Heather King
Viking Press, 2008
238 pages, $24.95

After my recent conversation with Heather King, I am again left thinking about what self-gift means for the writer: “You willingly allow yourself to be consumed.” Of course, when King said this, she meant that writing consumes the writer, not that reading does. But “consuming” also connotes nourishment, refreshment. [Read more...]

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Hemingway Fan Fiction

Over the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in Lost Generation writers and artists. I, of course, am a little annoyed by this, as my previously held and possibly unhealthy fascination with that lot now seems to be merely a part of the cultural shift in attention back to the days of flappers, gin fizzes, and desperation. But, I’ll have you know, I owned the book Gatsby Cocktails long before the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, and I was positively stuck on Hemingway’s stark prose—and dark machismo—eons before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (“Your blood coagulates beautifully.”) But really, I can’t actually be as snobbishly annoyed as I might wish, because this widespread interest means I get company in nerding out, and I get to read and watch the fan fiction and movies that have sprung up around those stories and their authors.

A few months back I was in an airport bookstore. They are, as you well know, horrible places. As I scanned the shelves of trade paperbacks, tried not to be sick all over the harlequin romances and the popular selections for today’s teenagers, I prepared myself to leave with the aloof sense of intellectual and moral superiority that customarily and scantly comforts me in lieu of a good book in such scenarios. But, my preparations were all for naught. Somehow, my eyes got around a slightly corny cover (yes, I do judge by them), complete with “artistic” scroll work, and saw “A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s.” ‘Nuff said.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. It begins with their meeting and subsequent courtship, and follows their story through their years in Paris until their separation. From Hadley’s perspective, we see Hemingway’s emergence as a young novelist, insecure and raging and eager as he rubs shoulders with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and, of course, the Fitzgeralds. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Hadley is awake, pregnant and hungry in the early morning:

I wanted muskmelons and a really nice piece of cheese, coffee and good jam and waffles. I was so hungry thinking about this I couldn’t sleep.

“Waffles,” I said to Ernest’s curled back near dawn. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

When he didn’t rouse, I said it again, louder, and put my hand on his back, giving him a friendly little shove.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” he said, rolling out of bed. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s gone?”

He sat on the edge of the thick mattress, scratching one knee. “The right words for the sketch.”

“Oh, sorry then,” I said.

I watched him dress and move toward the kitchen. Within minutes I could hear the coffee boiling and smell it and it made me hungrier. I heard him get his coffee and then heard the chair squeak back as he sat at the table. Silence.

“Tiny?” I said, still in bed. “What do you think about the waffles?”

He groaned and pushed his chair back. “There it all goes again.” (161)

Somehow, Paula McLain manages to write about famous writers without sounding like she’s writing about writers. She’s a good writer on her own merit, and doesn’t skate by merely with writing about people whose lives are already popular. Also, even though Hemingway was an indisputably flawed, oftentimes selfish and arguably morally depraved man, and even though the story is told from the point of a view of the wife whom he cheats on and ultimately leaves, McLain somehow manages to keep him a sympathetic character. Though his faults are blatant, they are nonetheless understandable on some level. And while she paints the characters admirably throughout, makes them real and believable and even lovable, she has also done the research to make her story historically accurate.

Be warned, however, that since most of these characters are artist-y sorts of “liberated” people, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity, some of it less licit than desirable. (See what I did there?!) That being said, none of it seemed gratuitous or written lasciviously or salaciously. So far I’ve lent my copy out to three people. All of them, readers and writers themselves, have loved it. I imagine you will, too.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life

Reviewed by Meredith Wise

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
By Paul Mariani
Viking, 2008
496 pages, $34.95

“To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”: in this line, Hopkins could have been speaking of the treatment he has received from his biographers. Two full-length lives have already been published, and both, while impeccably researched, fail to credit the reality of Hopkins’ spiritual life. [Read more...]

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