Mary Johnson joined the Missionaries of Charity as a teenager, in the late 1970s when becoming a nun was hardly a mainstream or popular choice for a young girl. Even her devoutly Catholic family didn’t entirely understand or support her choice, but Mary had no doubts: she was called to a life of service.
An Unquenchable Thirst is the story of her twenty years in the order and why she finally left — not just that religious order, but ultimately the church and Christianity as well. It’s a well-told, compelling story, though there are no shocking exposes of Mother Teresa or the Missionaries of Charity as some readers might be expecting.
Essentially, Johnson’s (or Sister Donata’s, as she was during her years in the order) vocation faltered on two of the three religious vows: poverty wasn’t a problem, but chastity and obedience were. She joined as a teenage virgin, never having had a dating relationship at all, thinking herself, as many teenage girls do, unattractive and unsexy, and assuming that giving up something she’d never had would be no problem. Of course, it turned out to be more complicated and that, and given her cloistered life it may not be surprising that her sexual awakening came at the hands of other nuns. Eventually, though, it was a relationship with a man — a priest — that made her realize she was cutting out a vital part of her life; not just sex but the ability to intimately love one other human being.
I’m a big ol’ Gandhi fan, so I was intrigued to learn about this new biography that’s so controversial it’s been banned in some parts of India. It’s a big, hefty biography that devotes as much time to Gandhi’s early career in South Africa as to his better-known years in India leading the non-violent movement for independence there. It’s also very much what they call a “warts and all” biography rather than hagiography: Gandhi is presented as a real man with struggles, flaws and failures.
The controversy has come almost entirely from a tiny portion of the book in which Lelyveld argues that Gandhi’s relationship with his friend Hermann Kallenbach had a romantic and perhaps even sexual element (though the sexuality was doubtless repressed, since Gandhi was obsessive on the subject of celibacy). Frankly, given that everybody already knew that in later life Gandhi used to “test” his celibacy by sleeping next to his scantily-clad young niece, I can’t imagine how the fact that he wrote coy, romantic letters to a close male friend is such a shocker. The guy obviously had his quirks and kinks, which were probably made quirkier and kinkier by his insistence on denying any legitimate sexual outlet. The fact that “Oooh, Gandhi might have been a bit gay” is enough to get this book banned, really says more about homophobia than it does about either Mohandas Gandhi or Joseph Lelyveld.
When Wendy McClure was a kid, she really loved those Little House on the Prairie books. Like, really really loved them, possibly as obsessively as I loved the Anne of Green Gables books. But because the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were based on the author’s life story, there was at least the illusion of being able to experience the “real” story — finding out about the real lives of Laura and the Wilder family, which continued to fascinate McClure after she grew up. The Wilder Life is her often funny memoir of visiting, as an adult, the sites of her childhood obsession, in an attempt to capture the “real” Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Of course, there’s more to it than just visiting places where the Wilder family lived, although there are plenty of those and a booming tourist industry around many of them. McClure also rereads the books with a critical adult eye, checks out the TV series that was so loosely based upon them, which she did not watch as a child, learns how to do Wilder-like things such as churning her own butter, runs into some moderately scary back-to-the-land survivalist types, and looks into the real Laura’s biography. There she discovers, as is to be expected, some discrepancies between the real world and the book world. McClure emerges with her love for the Wilder stories intact, but with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world and the woman that created them. Even if you weren’t a big Little House fan, you’ll enjoy this memoir — especially if you’ve ever been entranced with a book and tried to find out the real “story behind the story.” Most of us bibliophiles can relate to McClure’s quest here, I think, and it’s enjoyable to ride along with her as she crisscrosses the US in search of Laura.
Historical fiction is my favourite genre to read, but it’s also a tricky one. I can pick up, as I did a few weeks ago, a novel set in a time and place that absolutely fascinate me, and I can be so bored with the execution of the story that I return the novel to the library unfinished (I won’t name that book and author). Then I can come across a novel about a time and place I’ve never had a great interest in — for example, Colonial America — and in the hands of the right writer, it can be absolutely riveting.
Geraldine Brooks is the right writer. Everything I’ve read by her before has been compelling: she is just so competent at not only bringing the past to life, but people it with fascinating characters. Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, which was earlier than you might think — indeed, earlier than you might even think there was a Harvard. More broadly, it’s a story of New England life in the 1660s and 1670s, a rough-hewn and challenging world in which the colonists were embarking on the massive task of building a society almost from scratch — which included an insitution of higher learning almost as soon as they were settled in the new land. Most of all, it’s the story of people figuring out how this new society of theirs was going to co-exist with the society that already existed, that of the Native Americans. While some of the paternalism and prejudice that came to characterize English/native relationships was there from the beginning — all the English characters take it for granted that the natives have to be converted to Christianity — it’s also fascinating to realize that the complete domination of one culture by the other was not as inevitable as it later came to seem; there was, for a time, at least the possibility of peaceful if not quite equal co-existence. An “Indian College” at Harvard was founded almost as soon as the school itself was, and two young Native American men from what’s now known as Martha’s Vineyard — one of them the Caleb of the title — attended there in its early days.
Caleb is a real historical character, but very little is known about his life, leaving Brooks free to imagine many details. Caleb is not the viewpoint character: the story is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, a young minister’s daughter who befriends Caleb and becomes fascinated with native lifestyle and beliefs, even as she chafes against the restrictions placed on women and wishes she, too, could obtain a Harvard education. Brooks does well what so many writers do badly — creates an ambitious young female character who has difficulty accepting the narrow life of women in her time, yet isn’t anachronistically feminist or rebellious. Bethia dislikes the fact that her father, brother and other men in her life don’t believe she should be educated, yet she doesn’t question their fundamental right to make decisions for her nor their belief that God’s will (as interpreted by men) must determine her life choices.
Like all the best historical fiction, Caleb’s Crossing offers a vivid, tantalizing glimpse into the past that makes me feel like I’ve really been there — and that I wish I could extend my visit!
My friend Christine is amazing. She has this impressive gift of being able to pick the right books for the right people, whether as gifts or loaners. One day several months ago she showed up at coffee with our coffee clique, the Strident Women, carrying a book to loan to everyone. Mostly they weren’t ones we’d asked for or even discussed — just books she thought we’d like.
Mine was Between Mothers and Sons, appropriate I guess since I’m the mother of a son. But since it was nonfiction it got laid aside for awhile, until the moment arrived when I saw it on my headboard, picked it up and said, “Why haven’t I read this book yet?”
Once I did pick it up, I devoured it in a day. It’s a collection of essays by women writers about their relationships with their sons. There’s a lot of territory covered here — raising young boys, relationships with adult sons, difficult and broken relationship as well as close and nourishing ones. What they have in common is that every one is beautifully written. When I put down the collection, I wished I could read an entire book — a memoir — by each of these writers, because they all wrote so beautifully about their lives and families, I wanted more. Even if you’re not the mother of a son, if you appreciate well-crafted personal essays, you shouldn’t miss this book.
Lev Grossman’s last book, The Magicians, was an interesting read, often described as a grown-up Harry Potter. In fact it was almost literally that — the story of a young man on the verge of graduating from high school who finds himself invited to a secret college for magicians. Grossman’s magical world is far less magical than Rowling’s, though it does have spells and travel to other worlds (owing more on this score to the Narnia books than to the Potter series); in many ways it’s disturbingly pedestrian, with the young magicians as obsessed with sex, drugs and self-loathing as any other urban young people of the twenty-first century, except they have these magical powers and often aren’t sure how best to use them.
The Magician King takes the story a step farther — main character Quentin and his friends are exactly where Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were near the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They’ve found the magical kingdom of Fillory, won the war there (at considerable and tragic cost) and are now ruling as joint kings and queens — but what next? Without a quest to complete or a villain to defeat, turns out ruling a magical kingdom is actually kind of … dull. Quentin starts to wish for something more.
This is a promising start, but the novel suffered from two problems that caused my attention to waver at times. Though Grossman’s writing is always inventive and often funny, the plot took a very long time to get going — it was three-quarters of the way through the book before I felt anything was really happening. Also, I didn’t really warm to Quentin as a character — I didn’t like him much even in the first book, and until very near the end of this one I didn’t care much what happened to him. The one thing that kept me going was the story of Quentin’s co-queen, his only friend from his pre-magic days, Julia. Julia didn’t get into the magic school Brakebills and became a magician on her own, and nobody knows how her missing years were spent, but they’ve obviously left her quite damaged. Her story is told in flashbacks alternating with Quentin’s and I found the Julia storyline really compelling.
As for Quentin, I wish I liked him better and cared more about his fate, since he’s carrying the weight of the whole narrative, but I was still engaged enough with the concept and storytelling (and a bit by Quentin himself, near the end) that if there’s going to be a third volume, I’ll read it.
I followed up my re-read of Little Women by reading the two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. The original four March girls are all grown up, and as adult lives don’t make very interesting children’s literature, the focus of the story shifts to their children and to the boys who live and go to school with Jo and Professor Bhaer at Plumfield, which has been turned into a sort of boys’ home/boarding school. These two novels follow that generation until they, too, are on the brink of adulthood, marriage and career.
I think I read both of these books long ago, but they didn’t stick with me like Little Women did and I’ve never felt the urge to reread them. As a result, almost everything in them seemed new to me. The one detail I’d retained from my long-ago reading was from Jo’s Boys, in which the now-middle-aged Josephine Bhaer has become a celebrated novelist whose career rather closely parallels that of her creator, Louisa May Alcott. The chapter where she writes about a day in the life of a novelist much sought-after by her public is great, but the one and only detail that stuck with me from the books was the fact that Jo’s writing goal (as we would say today) was thirty pages a day. Assuming she was writing longhand (as she had no other choice) on a sheet of paper similar in size to our 8.5×11 pages and she had average-sized handwriting, Jo was logging over 7000 words per day, which puts NaNoWriMo -ers to shame.