Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filth took my breath away, pun intended. At the end of what others perceive as a nothing-ever-happens life, Old Filth finally makes a stink. All his life, he’s been handed from one person to the next, and, one by one, they leave him. But when his wife dies, he decides to leave, to DO something. He goes visiting all over England and has a heart attack. Then, in the hospital, his confession comes out, a noxious tale he’s been holding in since age 8. Freed of its smothering fumes, he makes one final journey. “[T]he East hit him full in the face.” I put the book down at this point, about a paragraph from the end, and had to catch my own breath.  I’d been repressed along with Old Filth the book long, following his story at a polite distance, just as he held himself aloof from his own past.  It is nothing less than redemption when he unburdens himself to a priest.
Jane Gardam crafts Old Filth, Sir Edward Feathers, also, Fevvers, or Eddie, in fits and starts, flitting from past to present as Old Filth himself experiences life. “Memory and desire” is his refrain. He wants to make sense of what’s happened to him but it seems an impossible task. “Only God could do it,” he remarks to himself. Jane Gardam acts as God, capturing his memoire for him, for us, when he feels himself unable. Yet, she manages to stay out of the way. It isn’t God (or author) who emerges but Feathers, in all his woe-be-gone glory. Jane Gardam’s unadorned style fits Old Filth’s understated manner; she serves him well. She starts, “He was spectacularly clean.” And he remains so, even after dirtying himself in sin; he is wiped clean in his telling, and we are all given a fresh start, a new breath.

Saved by Beauty by Michael O’Neill McGrath, OSFS


To artists, writers, lovers of beauty: read Saved By Beauty as a model for weaving together stories, commentary, psalms, and illustrations. Michael O’Neill McGrath leads us on a pilgrimage that makes us want to take one of our own.

The book is divided into sections corresponding to sections of Dorothy’s life: pre-conversion, life at the Catholic Worker, and her twilight years. Each chapter begins with a quotation from Francis DeSales and ends with a psalm. McGrath refers Dorothy’s life to the saints, in particular to DeSales as the patron of writers, journalists and the Catholic Press, as well as to his own. “This trinity of ‘coincidence’ that so presented itself to me couldn’t be more obvious: Grace and beauty abound in the most unexpected places, and community and the love of friends help us discover them.” In this constant dialogue between “conspirators in the Spirit,” he manages to pray his work, to enact a holy communion, rather than merely depicting it.

Setting himself as the lynchpin between characters, as well as telling his own story in word and art, McGrath runs the risk of doing too much. He fills some gaps with unnecessary opinion and commentary. After a lengthy passage from A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a play reflecting Eugene O’Neill’s life, McGrath concludes that “he made great works of art from his pain, and in doing so, became a wounded healer. God’s grace is ever at work, even in the tortured soul and drunken ramblings of a doubter.” One wonders if Dorothy, or O’Neill for that matter, would have agreed with such an explanation. The creative genre of the book allows exploration into the connections between people and God, but also limits the characters in the book to the sense the author makes of them.

Brother McGrath captures one of his most vivid stories at the end of the journey. “The church was filled with the people of the streets, the regular guests of the Catholic Worker houses. One of them stretched out in the back pew for a nap during Communion and another, visibly moved, kissed Dorothy’s body and lamented, ‘She loved us, she listened to us, she loved us.’”

In the description of Dorothy’s funeral, McGrath conveys with words what his paintings show: colorful details, images of people, birds, boarded-up windows, alley staircases, beer bottles, trash, signs, all of which catch our eye and not just our intellect. His art breaks up the canvas like stained glass — jagged shapes of solid color, each outlined by black line, little illuminations composing a whole scene. Artists can thank Brother McGrath for modeling this kind of visual and spiritual attention to the world around us, as well as the worlds we can encounter in our Church’s history if we take the time, as he did, to imagine and engage. To this end, the book concludes with a few pages of resources on McGrath’s work, Dorothy Day, the saints, lay communities, and pilgrimages.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx


Barkskins is no walk in the park; at 713 pages, instead, it is a trek through multiple forests. The story begins as two French men disembark a ship in New France. After both working for the same boss for a time, each goes off on his own. Rene marries a Native American medicine woman. He and she work the forest sustainably. Charles eventually looks for someone who can provide him heirs for the wealth he plans to make in the lumber industry. Each man has sons and those sons have sons until the trek through the forest became also a trek through a widening family tree.

About three-fourths of the way through the novel, I lost the thread of who-belonged-to-whom. New generations spring up as fast as the old ones pass away. (No two characters die in the same way – peculiar deaths, ironically, provide a comic theme throughout the novel). And as the generations enfold, the forests disappear. Rene’s family is run out of their native land while Charles’ family business, Duke and Sons, eats up Maine, then Michigan, then Australian forests. I eventually decided not to lose the forest for the trees. I forged ahead in the story, not bothering to keep track of family ties but to find out how these two families would meet up again.

The coming together of the families, in a plot twist, also brings about a healing of the forests. The book ends on a hopeful, yet sobering note, not to be left in its pages. We readers take it to heart, having traveled so far, over some 300 years, with our character-friends.

Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing


What can you say about a book entitled “…On Writers and Drinking”? It’s not a confession, an autobiography, a biography, nor an argument. It’s a travelogue of sorts, following Olivia Laing’s trip to Echo Spring, literally and figuratively. She says the phrase refers heading to the liquor cabinet for a taste of Echo Spring label liquor, and, more symbolically, “to the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily, at least, with a sufficiency of booze.”  She follows John Cheever, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, and Tennessee Williams (not necessarily in that order) through alcoholic writing careers. Some of them survive, some don’t. It’s also her own journey as the author-child of alcoholics. How does one respond to such a story? Perhaps as a member, as always all these authors were at some point, of AA would: by listening and witnessing to the struggle.

This is a demanding read. You can’t simply read this book and walk away. It compels us to some reckoning, some response. Like her latest book, Lonely City, Olivia Laing takes on a tough topic, one few want to face. Indeed, she cites “denial” as one of the buzzwords surrounding alcoholism. Not only is the subject demanding, the structure is demanding, as well. Sometimes it’s hard to track which author we’re following. Fitzgerald and Hemingway knew each other, as did Carter and Cheever. Their stories overlap and inform each other. Laing wades through an astonishing amount of material: personal notes, biographies, autobiographies, tales from spouses and friends in their own books and letters. And, she does so while taking an arduous journey by train across the country.

Not surprisingly, in the middle, Laing gets weighed down by all the sadness and travel. (And at that same point, I got almost fed up trying to remember where she’d been and where she was going – if there even was a destination). She takes solace in Key West, where Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Williams all retreat for months and sometimes years at a time. She takes a swim, as they do. Water is a theme throughout the book, relating to alcohol: “drowning your sorrows.” It drowns and it pretends to cleanse.

The water theme helps makes some sense of the muddled trip. Taking on these writers’ sorrow, Laing makes herself a part of their story. It’s as though she’s seeing and experiencing life from under water, murkily, not quite in focus, a little strained for breath. This interlude in Key West is the best example of the ways Laing herself is a bridge – transitioning from author to author, from research to the here-and-now, from the story of her trip to these authors’ stories, and form herself to us as audience. Having a theme besides alcohol to draw all the stories together together helped me as a reader, by balancing despair and relief, drowning and purifying.

Perhaps a drawback of the book is that it isn’t about anything. But perhaps that’s its beauty, too. I read it like I listen to new music: a little shocked and uncomfortable, not knowing how to confront the newness. When I let go and listen like listening is my only job, I come away with a ton of compassion.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen


I recommend this book to grey thinkers. Beware, those who read it looking for black and white answers about the Vietnamese War. The Sympathizer is a character study more than a war novel. Written as a confession, the narrator grapples with the Marxist dialectic to which he is indebted. He is a communist Viet Cong infiltrating the South Vietnamese army as a captain; he’s both thesis and antithesis. We never learn his name, nor the name of several characters. Rather than coming out on one side of the dialectic or the other, the captain falls between the cracks, or, rather, confesses the folly of the whole thought system, in the end calling for revolution of an unexpected sort.

As the bastard son of a French priest and a Vietnamese mother, the captain sees himself as half of everything. His mother calls him twice of everything. He’s English and Vietnamese bilingual (having lived in America as a college student) but doesn’t identify as American, nor as French. He loves women but can’t commit to one. He tells the tale of two murders he commits; instead of eradicating those he kills, those characters cling to him like sub-personalities. He’s either divided or he’s multiplied, but he’s definitely not one-dimensional.

The book turns more and more philosophical toward the end. When he’s captured by the Viet Cong during a plot by his General to re-start the war in Laos, he’s asked, “what’s more precious than independence and freedom?” He answers, “nothing.” This is not enough for his capturers. He edits and re-edits his confession for the Commissioner, but never to his satisfaction. He hasn’t gone far enough, he’s told. He confesses that while in America, he worked as a cultural attache to the Auteur of a film about the war, but fails to set the record straight about the plight of Vietnamese peasants. Nor does he kill his French father when he wishes him dead. His biggest crime is that of omission.

Spoiler alert: the answer to his torturers’ question is right in front of his nose. One of his torturers is his best friend. It is this, among other paradoxes, that allows our captain to see what he’d been missing. Commissioner/Man (who has two names to our narrator’s none) struggle for and against each other until finally the Commissioner sets the captain is free. The novel ends on a hopeful, yet joking note. The captain’s confession, as we have it, is complete, but he promises to keep writing as he heads back to America for the third time.

Many of us reading will never know what it’s like to be a spy, not Vietnamese nor the victim – as well as perpetrator – of torture. However, perhaps the most masterful device of the author’s was to give us readers an in: the nameless narrator/captain at the end becomes “we.” He could be any of us, or all of us. His story is not yet complete, and nor is ours. The revolution is in our hands.

Shelter by Jung Yun


I spent the whole book wanting the author to show more and tell less, until I couldn’t wait for her to tell me more! Shelter is about telling the truth. It’s not pretty, nor polite, and it’s not subtle nor nuanced, but it’s highly satisfying. The truth wins in the end.

Kyung is on the verge of economic collapse. He and his wife have maxed out their credit cards. They have a four year old son whom it’s easier to buy for than spend time with. Gillian, his wife, is in school. At the very moment Kyung’s family could use some help financially, Kyung’s parents are burglarized and tortured in their own home. Along with Gillian’s police officer father and brother, Kyung and Gillian help pick up the pieces of his parents’ shattered lives. Through the process, Kyung reckons with his father’s abuse of his mother, and his mother’s abuse of him, Kyung. He learns that the crisis hits his parents while they are at relational – unlike his economic – rock bottom. The parents recover financially and even pull Kyung’s family out of debt. Emotionally, on the other hand, the crisis leads to Kyung’s mother, Mae’s suicide and the dissolution of Kyung’s marriage. Not all is lost, however: at rock bottom, Kyung and his father forgive one another and start out a new phase of their relationship in each other’s arms.

What makes the book a good read is its cinemographic insistence on the revelation of plot. One crisis leads to another; the drama never ceases. At times I craved more time to linger over details, that the description of scenes would carry the plot. Instead, characters’ pasts get explained in generalizations (“Their arguments always begin like this…,” “Absence was always his best weapon against Gillian”) in order to move the plot along. The author analyzes characters’ actions for us, e.g., “It’s sad that she thinks this way, but this has always been her problem.” She explains characters’ actions before they do them. Before Gertie (a realtor hoping to sell Kyung’s parents’ house) is “running to a faucet, opening cabinets, cracking ice from the tray into the sink,” “[Kyung] wishes she would leave, but it’s obvious she doesn’t intend to.” Her actions could have told us this before the author tells us.

Kyung makes speeches at several junctions in the book which I found unbelievable. These outbursts don’t seem to fit Kyung’s repressed nature. And yet, I cheered for him at the same time. He is moved by what has happened to him and to his family. The plot has worked on him, and worked on me, the reader, leading us toward empathy for all the characters. Kyung unleashes the repression and the pent up anger he feels and speaks the truth. For once, and most likely for all, he is not hit for it, but hugged. He’s sorry and his father is sorry. It’s a relief that’s worth the ride.