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I was looking around for a classic to read for my book bingo card, which is filling up nicely. More than once in the past couple of months different people whose reading tastes I admire recommended Graham Greene, so when I saw The End of the Affair on a list (something like “classics you may never have gotten around to reading”) I checked it out. I’m embarrassed that this 40-something English major librarian had never read Greene.

It’s a lovely book, and an interesting read during Lent. It’s about Maurice Bendrix, an author living in London, and Sarah and Henry Miles who live across “the Common” from him in London. Maurice and Sarah have the affair in the title, and are happy, although Maurice is a jealous lover. One night towards the end of WWII, a V1 hits Maurice’s house and Sarah thinks he’s dead. Unbeknownst to him, she makes a deal with God: “I shut my eyes tight and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive and I will believe. . . . But that wasn’t enough, It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance . . . .”

As you can guess, Maurice wasn’t really dead. Most of the book is from his perspective, as he and Henry talk about Sarah, engage a private detective to see who else she’s been seeing, and learn why the affair actually ended. I don’t want to give away what she is up to or what happens to the three main characters, but I will say I didn’t want to put the book down.

But it’s so much more than a novel of manners. Sarah and Maurice in particular, and to some extent Henry, wrestle with God’s existence and whether — and what — to believe. It was this aspect of the book I found especially interesting, in particular the way Sarah’s doubt, which is steadfast before her moment of prayer in the bombed house, slowly evolves, even though she is angry with God. She is smart, and a person fully of her time, married to a government minister, perfectly satisfied with her secular London life. She even meets regularly with an atheist who preaches rationalism on the Common.

But God gets in. Not through her happiness, but through her pain. She write in her journal, “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too?  Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” I think that’s one of the most rawly human streams of thought I’ve ever seen expressed in fiction.

Maurice even shows signs of believing if not exactly in a favorable manner: “With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God. I hate You as though You existed.” Wow. That’s a seriously powerful line, especially as it comes towards the end of the book, and readers aren’t sure what will happen to Maurice. It’s also a perfect bookend to the first page of the novel, where Maurice tells the reader, “this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .”

I didn’t want to put it down. Would any of them be happy? Did any of them actually love each other? What the heck IS love, actually? And hate? And how in the world do we deal with God, who is both real and “a vapour” as Sarah says? The End of the Affair is a beautifully written book, exquisitely structured, suffused with its London setting, which wrestles with some of the greatest questions people face. I loved it. Thanks, Juliana and J for the recommendations!

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I recently heard Nadia Bolz-Weber talking about her memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Sainton the American Public Media program “On Being.” If you aren’t familiar with it, the show is a very interesting look at ethics, ideas, beliefs, the “big questions,” of human existence, which are important in everyday life because they influence the way people interact with each other. As someone who works with the public, it seems very important to my “humanity education” to learn as much as I can about what makes us tick.

Bolz-Weber works with the public too, as a “pastrix” (female pastor). On the surface our jobs may seem vastly different, but they share something important.: public libraries and churches (as well as hospitals) are open to all. You never know on any given day who will come through the door, what experiences have brought them there, or how best to serve them, and that’s a topic of great interest to me.

In her memoir, Bolz-Weber, a recovering addict, stand-up comedian, and refugee from a conservative Christian upbringing, writes about finding that the God her fellow addicts referred to in twelve-step meetings isn’t the one she learned to fear growing up. This God is “a higher power she can do business with,” one whose grace is available to all. When she met her future husband Matthew at “the sacred breeding grounds of tall people” — a volleyball court — she was intrigued to learn he was a seminarian studying to become a Lutheran pastor.

Fast forward a few years and Bolz-Weber herself graduated from seminary and founded The House for All Sinners and Saints, a church “with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination” where “it’s pretty easy to look around on any given Sunday and think, ‘I’m unclear what all these people have in common.'” Her congregation soon includes everyone from transgender teens to a well-known former con artist and strangest of all to Bolz-Weber, khaki clad suburbanites. Kind of like any given day at a public library.

As she describes her work, Bolz-Weber manages to make difficult theological concepts at once relatable, clear, contemporary and profound, and she’s also a great storyteller. Her irreverent but completely open-hearted observations about contemporary American life and faith are smart and provocative. Part memoir, part spiritual autobiography, entirely in-your-face and often funny, Pastrix will open your eyes to the saint and sinner in everyone. The concept of treating everyone with radical hospitality — within boundaries, but assuming an attitude of equal acceptance of all who enter — is a valuable idea for anyone in public service.

Pastrix is my November staff pick at Gibson’s Bookstore.

 

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