For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Novel

Susan Howatch, A Question of Integrity, London: Warner Books, 1997, 680 pp.

Susan Howatch, Glittering Images, London: Harper, 1987, 504 pp.

41FEVHBSZKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_These novels were a gift from a church member, who shared that they were her favorite books. She prayed for me diligently during my treatment, and often at St. Marylebone Parish Church, whose healing ministry provided the inspiration for one of the churches in the stories. I didn’t get a chance to read them during treatment, so I am catching up.

Glittering Images is the first in the five-volume Starbridge series, and A Question of Integrity is the first in the St. Benet’s Trilogy. I read them back-to-back, and they were similar enough for me to decide to write one review instead of two. Both novels feature lead characters who are male clergy in the Church of England with have strong intuitive, if not psychic, powers that they deploy in their ministry. The stories explore how these powers work for good in their healing work and even exorcisms, but the bulk of the plot in both books comes from the clergy’s more sinister desires, especially around sex. Glittering Images uses the metaphor of a public “glittering image” that masks a true self mired in desire, unfulfilled longing, and wounds of old relationships with family and lovers. A large part of the content of both books consists of conversations and monologues with the main characters (clergy and non-clergy) baring their souls to one another or a spiritual director, narrating therapy sessions where they construct a catalogue of their desires, sins and secrets.

11245Glittering Images is set around the fictional Starbridge Cathedral and surrounding area, in the late 1930s. Scholar-priest Charles Ashworth is sent as a spy by the Archbishop of Canterbury to discover any improprieties in the living arrangements of the Starbridge bishop, Jardine, who shared his home with both his wife and her female companion. Ashworth and Jardine become entangled with one another’s secrets, lovers and desires as they both must confront their twisted interior lives against the respectable public personae.

A Question of Integrity takes place in the late 1980s in London, in a fictional parish whose healing centre is modeled on St. Marylebone Parish. Descendants of the characters from Starbridge appear as well. There are five main characters: Alice, a young woman in crisis attended by the healing ministry, who joins the staff and becomes a healing presence to all; Lewis, a cantakerous older priest with a dodgy past trying to live a pure and celibate life and use his psychic powers for good; Nicholas Darrow, a dashing superstar healer with enormous powers and a dangerously inflated sense of his own moral compass; Rosalind Darrow, his wife who seeks her own way apart from him; and Stacy, a young curate trying to sort out his own identity and missing his family. The narrative is told it five sections, with each character narrating one in first person (except Stacy, Alice gets two), each battling with their own sexual desires.

I was intrigued enough by the first book to immediately read the other one, but I am doubtful if I will continue with either series anytime soon. I think the stories attempt to portray the lives of the clergy in a way that humanizes them, but in the end made them seem extreme in both their gifts and their sins, which makes them even larger than life. Also absent are the lives of women in ministry, who always draw my interest far more strongly. The clergy in the stories are all redeemed in the end by their efforts at honesty, self-disclosure and truth-telling.

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SilenceSilence by Shusaku Endo, London: Picador, 1969 (English translation, original Japanese published in 1966), 267 pp.

I had not heard of this book until the Martin Scorese movie came out a few years ago. Ever since, I was intrigued, thinking that the story said something that mattered to me as a pastor myself. However, I knew the content involved cruelty and torture, and I could not bring myself to be haunted by images. The book was the way to go, so my imagination could both connect and disconnect as my mind and heart could handle.

Silence is, at face, a story about the secret Christian missions to Japan in the early 17th century, and the Japanese Christians that survived persecution. However, it is really a story about what the Christian faith means, what it means to profess your faith versus live its values, and what courage and faithfulness looks like when those two things collide.

The story revolves around Sebastian Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest, who makes his way to Japan full of passion and youthful self-confidence, but also curiosity, to hear of a beloved mentor who is reported to have apostatized. Christianity is illegal, but Rodrigues is aided by secret Japanese Christians before he and they are caught and tortured, with tricks and twists to encourage them to apostatize.

Endo’s writing is powerful, and the inner journey of Rodrigues compelled me as a reader to my examination of conscience.

A few passages that spoke to me:

We priests are in some ways a sad group of men. Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task. (22)

A chilling bit of foreshadowing in the novel, but a truism to the heart of any pastor–for none of us truly measure up to the task set before us.

Reminiscent of Romans 5:6-8, and worth remembering as a restatement next time I preach on that passage:

But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt–this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time. (47)

The silence of the book’s title has many layers in the story, but one of the frequent ones is the silence of God in the face of suffering. Endo writes powerful of the feeling of God’s silence in several passages.

Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God… the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent. (79)

On sin, with the distant context of the missionary’s missteps in an unfamiliar culture:

Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious to the wounds he has left behind. (114)

Silence is a beautiful, powerful novel. Although it telegraphed early how the story was likely to unfold, and the moral choice Rodrigues would face, the looming knowledge only made Rodrigues’ surprise and naivete more evident. This would make an excellent book for discussion in a group, especially a group of people that sees themselves as servants or missionaries or ministers to others on behalf of Christ, and wants to explore questions about their assumptions and impact.

 

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, New York: Washington Square Press, 2014, 337 pp.

Man called OveI will probably not be able to consider this book without connecting it to a particular season of life. We were moving to London, and I had planned to read my mother-in-law’s copy of this book during our three week sojourn in our hometown before departure. A novel on vacation usually takes me only a couple of days to read. Then I got diagnosed with cancer. I did start the book, but in the three weeks, I only made it halfway through before having to abandon it and head to London. My mom delivered it to me over a year later, the same copy, to be returned when next we travel to the U.S. This time, I finished it in just a few days.

I picked up Backman’s My Grandmother Told Me To Tell You She’s Sorry when I was home last year for my father’s funeral, and returned to Ove with that background. In both books, a seemingly unlikeable curmudgeon becomes the savior of a tiny community. I love it. I want more of it.

Ove is a widow who has been forcibly retired from his job. A man who has lived by strict principles of hard work and duty now feels alone and adrift, as though his life no longer has meaning or purpose. The book slowly coaxes Ove out of his depression and isolation, as his principles lead him into relationship and even a care-taking role for all his neighbors–though caretaking in an irascible, agitated, curmudgeonly way. The book moves backwards and forwards through time, unpacking the story of Ove’s life and the ways he has known and shown love over the years, while also showing the way his life is being saved by the help and saving grace he extends to others in his initially bleak present.

A Man Called Ove is about Ove, but it is grows into an ensemble piece as Ove’s isolated world expands and connects. Backman creates a tiny community of neighbors, each with their own story and personality and evolution in the story. They are diverse and rich, not stock characters at all. To me, this portrait of an international community was my favorite element of the book.

It’s a good novel, good story, beautifully written. Read and enjoy.

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy, Alfred Knopf, 2013, 326 pp.

Week in WinterThis is my first Maeve Binchy novel, though I know many who love her. There is an odd pattern between A Week in Winter and A Wedding in December, both about inns and innkeepers in winter, and both unfolding stories of multiple characters centering on their time spent together at the inn. The novels share more subtle similarities too–lovely writing, characters that are charming and entertaining but not gripping, a good story for beach reading (or a snow day!).

A Week in Winter centers on a small inn in the town of Stoneybridge on the west coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr, after years away in New York living what everyone assumed was a happily married life, has returned to Stoneybridge to renovate an old home into an inn, bringing experience running a boardinghouse. Everyone things she is crazy, because no one would want to visit Stoneybridge.

The first chapter belongs to Chicky’s story, and each subsequent chapter adds a new character to the week at the inn, unpacking the journey that got them to that one place and time together. The second and third chapters bring in the employees of the inn. Rigger is a troubled youth sent to family in Stoneybridge to hide out from his life in Dublin, and makes a life for himself there. Orla found success as a young, professional woman living the fancy life in the city, but could not find all she wanted there. She puts her business sense to use at the inn and finds hope.

The guests each get a chapter to tell their story as well. They include an unhappy schoolteacher who leaves soon after making everyone miserable, a movie star trying to escape attention and travel incognito, two young doctors who have been broken by seeing too much death, a mother and her potential daughter-in-law who do not like each other yet refuse to give up on the man they both love, a Swedish young man choosing between what he loves and what his family expects of him, a librarian troubled by visions of the future, and a couple who is disappointed that they won a contest’s second-prize trip to Stoneybridge instead of the first-place trip to Paris.

Each chapter is like a short story of its own, interwoven together by setting and integrating one another as secondary characters. The stories are charming, hopeful and endearing. I was reminded of Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which keeps everything nice. While the stories do approach life’s difficulties, they allude more than explore, and most characters find redemption. It’s a feel-good book all around, and I didn’t mind a bit.

 

A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve, Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 325 pp.

Wedding in DecemberAs we prepare to move,  it has been overwhelmingly busy. My normal brisk pace of reading has suffered, but I needed to get lost in a book just to escape. I also needed to read through some books that I want to read but not pack. This one has been on my shelf for a long time, but never caught my fancy. It was too light, too simple–until now. It was just the breezy read I needed.

The story takes place at an inn in western Massachusetts, where a group of high school friends have gathered for a wedding reunion more than 25 years after graduation. Two of the classmates, Bridget and Bill, had been high school sweethearts who broke up suddenly in college when Bill met (and eventually married) someone else. They have gotten back together, and the classmates are celebrating their wedding. It is their first reunion since graduation, which was marred by the tragic death of Stephen Otis, one of their circle. They carry the guilt and grief of that day into their adulthood.

Nora, Stephen’s girlfriend, owns the inn, having made her life as the wife and helpmeet of a famous poet before his death and her new life on her own as an innkeeper. Harrison, Stephen’s roommate and best friend, was in love with Nora, but is now married with a family of his own. Jerry, the loud one, brings a younger wife and conspicuous displays of wealth. Agnes, the quiet one, has been carrying on a secret affair for years.

The story unfolds the unfinished business between the various classmates, both in their relationships with one another and their guilt over not having been able to save Stephen. It wasn’t a great story, but it was a good one. The writing is lovely and understated. The characters and story will not be seared into my memory, but I enjoyed journeying with them for awhile.

A Wedding in December is a striking portrait of middle age, an era I find myself entering as well. In preparation for our move, I am revisiting old things from high school, notes and letters from my younger self. Through the power of Facebook, I am able to reconnect with some of those old friends and tend to some unfinished business. Much like the characters in the novel, we are able to move beyond our 17 year old versions of ourselves and see one another as fully-formed adults. Again like the story, sometimes this lifts old regrets, eases old tensions and heals old wounds. Other times, it opens new dimensions and reveals that we are forever locked into the choices we made a long time ago.

I was finally ready to appreciate A Wedding in December at the time I read it. Perhaps you will be too.

 

 

Necessary Lies by Diana Chamberlain, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, 372 pp.

Necessary LiesLike recent reads What She Left Behind, Orphan Train and Orphan #8, this novel begins in the author’s discovery of a little-known aspect of history, one that focuses on the lived reality of a small subset of people often overlooked. Those books turned on the stories of orphans and mental health patients; Necessary Lies opens the story of forced sterilization among impoverished women in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. The story’s characters are fictional, but the author drew on historical research into the lives of the women impacted by sterilization decisions.

The main characters of the story are Ivy Hart and Jane Forrester. Jane is a college graduate newly married to a pediatrician, Robert, who expects her to align with the lifestyle of a doctor’s wife in 1960–Junior League, bridge club, social events with other doctor’s wives. Jane has her own ideas. She wants to use her degree and serve others, so she takes a job as a social worker for the county welfare. She drives all over fictional Grace County meeting clients, helping tend to their needs and making sure they are not duping the government. She is also charged with making the case for sterilization.

Fifteen year old Ivy Hart is one of her clients. She lives with her grandmother, her older sister, and her nephew as a sharecropper on the Gardiner family farm. She is in a loving romantic relationship with the Gardiner’s son Henry. They share the land with the Jordan family as well, an African-American woman and her five sons.

Jane’s supervisor and co-workers agree that Ivy should be sterilized, and her grandmother is eager to sign the permission form after her older sister’s pregnancy. However, Ivy dreams of a family. As Jane grows to care for Ivy and hear her story, she resists, with dire consequences.

The novel is a plot-driven page-turner. Ivy, Jane and the rest are likable enough characters, but this is not a book in which to find great depth or lasting characters or magnificent writing. It’s a great summer read, vacation read,  or escape read. The insight into a unique and painful piece of history was enough to intrigue me, and I enjoyed the story greatly.

 

 

Comfort and Joy by Kristin Hannah, Ballentine Books, 2005, 237 pp.

Comfort and JoyComfort and Joy is pure fun. I grabbed it from the pile to read on an airplane, and it was simply perfect. Nothing too deep, but a fabulous story told well, with likable characters that you want to find happiness and they do. There’s heartbreak and redemption and heartbreak again, and a bit of magic thrown in too.

The central character is narrator Joy Faith Candellaro, a simple school librarian from Bakersfield whose whole life falls apart when she discovers her husband and her sister are having an affair. The story begins as she anticipates her first Christmas alone. On a whim, unable to face the bleakness of a holiday with no family, she buys a ticket on a charter flight to the Pacific Northwest without telling anyone where she was going or even that she was leaving town.

Things don’t go as expected, and Joy finds herself the only guest at a closed inn. Her only companions are a boy, Bobby, and his father, Daniel. The boy’s mother has recently died, and his father has returned after their separation to close down the inn and move Bobby to Boston to live with him. Joy and Bobby become companions in their separate griefs, and they help one another heal through the holidays.

However, all is not as it seems, and just when Joy believes she has found a new and happy life, everything falls apart and she must return home to make peace with her life in Bakersfield. I can’t say more without giving away too much, but do not despair–the book lives up to its name. There is Comfort and Joy at the end of the story.

This book is a light and quick read, perfect for an airplane or a snowy afternoon. Get yourself some cocoa or hot tea and snuggle in for the smiles.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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