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Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in December 2016, and downloaded Purple Hibiscus in the Cleveland airport along with The Refugees as I was considering how to get more narrative plenitude into my to-read pile. Where Americanah is about the immigrant experience in America and how coming here for more educational opportunity is not necessarily the end of people’s stories — it’s not for Adichie’s characters, who leave to complete their degrees when Nigeria is experiencing university strikes and disruptions but return when America doesn’t turn out to be all it’s promised — Purple Hibiscus is about growing up in the conditions that lead to civil strife. In the book there is turmoil in the government and that in turn leads to uncertainty in people’s lives, which lead to strikes.

While those themes are present, the book is really the story of Kambili and Jaja, teenagers growing up in a strict and wealthy Catholic household in Enugu, Nigeria where their father, Eugene controls them and their mother. Eugene is a difficult character because like many autocratic dads he tells the children that what he does, he does for their own good. He is in many ways a well respected “big man” who provides for many people’s well being, and he even publishes a newspaper that dares to take on the government. How can someone whose beliefs are strong and in some ways good, who fights for what’s right, also hurt the people he loves most?

The drama in the book is not only the conflict in Nigeria about government control, freedom of expression, and civil society, but also about Eugene’s restrictive, dutiful Catholicism contrasted with his sister Ifeoma’s, which is more expansive. When Kambili and Jaja go to stay at Aunty Ifeoma’s their eyes are opened to a different way of living, where children can speak their minds (within reason — even Ifeoma has her limits when her son is rude to a University colleague) and Catholicism can rest side by side with their “heathen” grandfather’s traditional beliefs. Kambili in particular begins to see herself in a new light, not only because of Ifeoma and her cousins, but also because of her friendship with Father Amadi, a young priest who visits Ifeoma and her children often.

When Kambili watches Father Amadi coach some boys who are practicing for a track meet she has an insight: “It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.” She sees that despite their wealth and all its comforts, Aunty Ifeoma’s family, where food is scarcer and there isn’t always gas to get to work, is the more comfortable.

So you could say Purple Hibiscus is about which way of being produces more functional humans — autocracy and uniformity of belief or some version of democracy and pluralism? Of course it isn’t that simple; it’s also a book about all of the emotions and damage that are caused by a loved one hurting someone. The abusive Eugene, for all his philanthropy, and for all his own scars, would never be anyone’s idea of a good parent. But Adichie manages to write make him both hateful and pitiful. And she also writes, in Purple Hibiscus, a thoughtful socio-political novel, a frank book about belief and tradition, and a moving coming of age story, and makes it all beautiful.

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