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Archive for November, 2021

Priestdaddy won the Thurber prize, was on many best books lists, and earned Patricia Lockwood all kinds of acclaim. So you’ve probably heard about it. I did when it was winning all those accolades, but I hadn’t read it. When I finished Lockwood’s novel, No One Is Talking About This, I decided to check it out. Like the novel, Priestdaddy is recognizably a memoir but uniquely its own thing, too. Parts of it read like poetry. It’s about Lockwood’s growing up, but the frame is a period of time when she and her husband moved back in with her parents in a rectory in the midwest, where her father is a Catholic priest. If you’re wondering how that works, he became a priest after being ordained as a Lutheran, and later converted. Under those rare circumstances, married priests are allowed to serve in the Catholic church.

Lockwoods’ parents are very conservative, and her father is very patriarchal, they denied her and her sister the opportunity to go to college, she describes several unpleasant moments in the family’s history, and yet she portrays her parents fairly affectionately (especially her mother). She writes almost as an observer of her own life, seemingly without bitterness even about the most difficult circumstances, including growing up near toxic waste that may possibly have caused a number of serious health issues in her friends family.

Those sections are written in a more serious tone, but there are funny parts of the book, too, funny in the same zany, slightly off kilter way that No One Is Talking About This is funny, where you feel as if the narrator is bringing you in on a private joke. And then there are thoughtful sections, where Lockwood is assessing how she came to be a writer and what has made her the person she is. For example, when she is talking with some teenagers exploring some coral off a beach on Key West, she observes,

“The girl stands very straight at the top of the pile and surveys everything around her with the fresh completeness of a discoverer, who has just felt the right key slide into her lock, the last piece pressed into her jigsaw. She stands and speaks with the sunlight fearlessly. Her ear, tilted up to it, is transparent. She bends toward the water, to get a closer look at some flashing silver school, and I watch her all the while in silence. Part of what you have to figure out in this life is, Who would I be if I hadn’t been frightened? What hurt me and what would I be if if hadn’t?”

One of the major themes of the book is how belief and unbelief have formed her. Towards the end of the book a monstrance her father ordered has arrived at the rectory. Her husband doesn’t know that that is and thinks he hears her father say it’s a “monster.” Lockwood writes:

“‘No, no,’ I tell him, ‘a monstrance is a sort of twenty-four karat gold sunburst that holds the body of the Lord.’ There’s a window at the center and a thousand rays reach out of it in every direction, so it stands on the altar like a permanent dawn. The word ‘monstrance’ means ‘to show,’ and when I read it, up rises that round image of the bread through the glass — bread that my own father has consecrated, at the climax of a metaphor that is more than a metaphor, at the moment where real time intersects with eternity. How to explain this moment to someone who never believed it, could never believe it? That bells ring, that the universe kneels, that what happened enters into the house of what is always happening, and sits with it together and eats at its table.”

That’s a pretty amazing description, isn’t it?

it’s hard to understand how someone could write so joyously about things that are still painful or troubling. But that’s the point, Lockwood explains:

“I know all women are supposed to be strong enough now to strangle presidents and patriarchies between their powerful thighs, but it doesn’t work that way. Many of us were actually affected, by male systems and male anger, in ways we cannot articulate or overcome. Sometimes, when the ceiling seems especially low and the past especially close, I think to myself, I did not make it out. I am still there in that place of diminishment, where that voice an octave deeper than mine is telling me what I am. . . . I did not make it out, but this does. Art goes outside, even if we don’t; it fills the whole air, though we cannot raise our voices.”

In her writing, she says, “I am no longer whispering through the small skirted shape of a keyhole: the door is knocked down and the roof is blown off and I am aimed once more at the entire wide night.”

An interesting, thoughtful, funny, tender, challenging, beautiful book.

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I was looking at the shortlisted Booker prize nominees the week the winner was announced and came across this video of Rowan Williams talking about No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. I adore listening to him explain what a social influencer is. And to the way he explains that in this funny but serious novel, the narrator’s “social media prattle is somehow enlarged, extended, deepened to try to cope with an experience it’s really not designed for.” Which kind of sums up the book: in part one, the narrator is busily commenting on the world from within “the portal” — Lockwood herself is very active on Twitter, and that seems to me to be what the portal is based on — sharing thoughts and images that veer from profane to profound and back again. In part two, her mother sends her a couple of texts asking her to come back home, because her sister has learned that her unborn child has Proteus syndrome.

The narrator still describes the world the way she did when her whole life was the portal, but her whole life now is her family, especially her sister and niece. Which is what Rowan Williams is talking about — the “prattle” exits the portal and enters the experience of this family trying to live with what’s happening. Someone who became famous for posting “can a dog be twins?” and laments that the world is so messed up, “that people had stopped paying attention to celebrity dogs” now describes her baby niece: “Her face was luminous, as if someone had put flesh on the bones of the moon, and her beautiful blue eyes were larger than ever, as if coming to the end of what there was to see.”

The narrator comments, “That every person on earth might be watched in that way, given a party whenever she waved and raised her little arms arms, breathed just like the rest of us.” She notices her own response, too, in much the same way she noticed her own presence in the portal before, “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life. She was a gleaming sterilized instrument, flashing out at the precise moment of emergency . . . . She wanted to stop people on the street and say, ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!”

Lockwood is a poet, and this novel’s style is a cross between poetry and “social media prattle” (I am really pretty obsessed with that characterization). The narrator observes society, comments on the human condition, and wonders at our capacity for dealing with love and loss. She is also someone who “loved to yell, loved to be inconsistent, loved to make no sense in the little awestruck hours of the night, which stared up at her as a perfect audience with their equal little heads.” She can be both absurd and brilliant.

No One Is Talking About This is definitely one of those books that is its own thing, not like anything that’s come before it. I found it funny in places and tender in others. And I was so intrigued by the time I got to the end that I checked out Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. It’s a book that leaves you wanting to know more about the author.

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I was happy to see a Europa Editions book selected for the Booker prize: The Promise by Damon Galgut. If you follow book news, you know this wasn’t the first time Galgut was nominated. It’s the first of his novels that I have read. The Booker judges call The Promise “a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world?” If that’s the driving question of this novel I guess the answer is not clear cut. It’s not a book that ties up all the loose threads by the end. Characters who act in ways that are just and those who don’t both suffer in this book. But the two characters who seem to care for others and each other more than themselves are not ruined by suffering and loss in the way that the self-centered, immoral, uncaring characters are, which could be described as a kind of justice, perhaps?

The story begins in 1986, on the day Amor Swart’s mother dies. Her unkind aunt and uncle pick her up from boarding school and take her home to the family farm outside of Pretoria, South Africa. Her newly widowed father promised her mother, in Amor’s hearing, that he would give the family’s maid, a black woman named Salome, the house she lives in. Amor is still enough of a child at thirteen to believe that adults’ promises will be kept. But her father, deeply influenced by the local evangelical preacher and by the apartheid system he has benefitted from all his life, has no intention of keeping the promise. Which would have been a gift in name only in 1986 anyway, as Salome wouldn’t have legally owned the house even if it was given to her.

Amor’s eldest sibling, her brother Anton, is serving in the army to protect white South Africa from the unrest of apartheid’s last years. He comes home for their mother’s funeral, the first of four Swart family funerals in the book. He’s both a perpetrator and, to a much lesser extent, a victim of violence. But as the book unfolds it becomes clear that Anton actually begins to lose his life from the moment he takes another’s. Despite (or maybe because of) his confused thoughts about his recent violent incidents, Anton goads his father about the promise Amor overheard. The third sibling, Astrid, is only on the periphery of the conflict at the time of their mother’s funeral, but we learn enough to see she is self-absorbed and hungry for a more glamorous life.

From this beginning, the novel threads its way through the siblings’ adult lives. In fact I’m realizing Amor gets her first period at her mother’s funeral at the beginning of the book and is experiencing menopause at the end. Key moments in South African history — Mandela’s presidency, the 1995 rugby World Cup, the AIDS epidemic, the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies, the recent infrastructure issues and water shortages — are the backdrop to the Swart family’s dramatic unraveling. The novel’s structure includes patterns and chronology (the historical timeline, the family funerals) but the narration is unusual and a little less clear. The narrator is sometimes inside characters’ minds and sometimes observing. Likewise, the narrator sometimes seems to be reliably describing events and is sometimes clearly imagining them. For example, towards the end of the book, when Amor is living in Cape Town, we read: “She has a cat curled up on her lap. No, she doesn’t, there is no cat. But allow her a couple of plants at least, growing greenly in their tins on the windowsill.” Which makes it hard to know: what has been real and what has been imagined? You might think you know, but do you?

The story is tragic but the majority of the characters are pretty hard to feel badly for. The ones that do evoke some empathy appear less frequently, away from the main action, and Galgut doesn’t reveal much about them. All in all a unique read, one I’m still thinking through today after finishing the book last night.

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For some reason I’ve read a few books featuring nuns during the pandemic. In summer of 2020, I read The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s black comedy set in the 1100s through the1300s at a convent. Back in January I read World Without End by Ken Follett (also set in the 1300s) one of the Pillars of the Earth series, in which a nun nurse introduces masks as a way to protect against the plague. Then recently, I read Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix, set in the 1100s. After I finished Matrix, I decided to pull out a novel I’d picked up on either a library book sale shelf or free cart at some point, In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. Unlike those other three books, this one is set in relatively contemporary times, opening in 1954. Like the others, it is set in England.

Like Groff, Godden sets her book entirely inside a community of nuns, in this case Benedictines in England. The central character, Philippa, comes to the monastery (which is what Brede Abbey is — a Benedictine monastery, which can be a community of either nuns or monks) later in life, after a successful career in some kind of government service. At the beginning of the book she has arrived as a postulant, and by the end of the book she’s been at Brede fourteen years and is a fully professed nun. The nuns at Brede are an enclosed order, meaning they separate themselves from the world; in the church and in the parlors where they may speak with visitors, they have a grille in place that mark this separation.

All of the little details of their communal life are fascinating, the descriptions of the “clothing” ceremony when a postulant becomes a novice nun and wears a habit, the different vows taken, the division of labor, the singing of the services, the hours of prayer, the pattern of life and of the seasons, both natural and liturgical, at Brede. Although much of the novel follows Philippa’s progress, there are many other nuns that feature, including Abbess Hester, who dies without confessing a secret she’s sworn the cellerar, Dame Veronica to, and Abbess Catherine, who has to manage when she uncovers the secret and its cost. In that regard, as with Matrix, readers get a glimpse into the way a monastery is run and all that is involved. Godden, like Groff, also relates the ways that an enclosed community, like any community, has to work out differences of opinion, personality conflicts, jealousies and hurt feelings, etc.

In This House of Brede is different in that Matrix was also concerned with the way Marie, the abbess, bends the community to her will, which she discerns in part through her visions and in part through her extensive political network who keep her informed of what’s happening outside the abbey, especially at the royal courts of France and England. But In This House of Brede‘s central concern is the development of the different characters’ vocations within the monastery, and of their spiritual lives. It’s a fascinating look at how a life centered in prayer and community subtly molds the characters. It doesn’t change who they are, but it changes how they are, how they relate to one another and how they live. You would think such a topic would not lend itself to much of a plot, but there are several interesting twists here and there, and those keep the story moving.

Godden’s writing is lovely. The only other book of hers I’d read is Impunity Jane, a children’s story about a pocket doll that was a favorite around here. This passage nicely conveys how Godden conveys Philippa’s inner thoughts as she waits to hear whether she’s been accepted for Simple Profession, the first set of vows a Benedictine nun takes:

“If a place has been filled with prayer, though it is empty something remains: a quiet, a steadiness. Philippa had thought of a mosque she had seen in Bengal, a mosque of seven domes, eleventh century, and as with all unspoiled Moslem mosques, empty, not a lamp or a vase or a chair; only walls glimmering with their pale marble. She remembered how, her shoes off, she had stood there, not looking but feeling. No one is there; God is there. And here, in Brede Abbey, the quiet was stronger — and close. The light flickering by the tabernacle was warm, alive, and as if they were still there, she heard what the nuns had sung last night at Benediction: ‘Christus vincit, Christus regnat. Christus imperat,’ with its three soft repeated cadences. ‘Christus vincit,’ and ‘Thank you,’ Philippa had whispered, ‘thank you for bringing me where I am,’ and, ‘Even if you send me away, I shall be here forever.'”

A fascinating and beautiful read.

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