I walk out the door of my suburban newspaper office, out to the parking lot, in the harsh sunlight of dusk on an early Friday evening. It’s been a long day. It’s been a long summer and autumn. I’m drained and want nothing more than to get in my car and head back into Chicago, to my empty apartment, for a supper of carefully calibrated proportions and a night of whatever’s on television. The year is 1981. It’s late October. I’m dieting. I’ve lost 40 pounds in the last four months. I don’t eat desserts or anything else made with processed sugar. I’ve quit cigarettes. I’ve given up caffeinated coffee. I feel like a monk. Or, more accurately, a prisoner, living a circumscribed existence dictated by my body’s confusing signals of distress and my doctor’s grasping for answers. At this moment, though, I have to make a choice.
“Cloud Atlas,” the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, is a daring book. And, more than three-quarters of the way through its pages, Mitchell includes a daring passage. One of his many (or is it few?) characters, Robert Frobisher, is writing a letter in 1931 to his friend and former lover Rufus Sixsmith and describing “a sextet for overlapping soloists” that he is composing and that, the reader knows, will be called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. It is a work, he writes, for “piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?” That final sentence is the daring part. You see, at this point, the reader can see the parallels between the Cloud Atlas Sextet and Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” novel. Like Frobisher’s musical composition, Mitchell has created a highly and unusually structured work. The novel is, in fact, six novellas, each of a different form and told in a different voice. There is (1) the sea journal of Adam Ewing, a rather stuffy, naïve 19th century American , (2) Frobisher’s […]
In May, 1912, the St. Gertrude parish, where I am now a member, was just five months old, and Sunday mass was being celebrated in a temporary wood-and-steel structure on the site of the present rectory. Six miles to the south, a 15-year-old girl, living on Webster Street one block from Lincoln Park, fell in love for the first time. Her name was Dorothy Day. I love the idea of a saint who falls in love — falls in love over and over again throughout her teens and young adulthood. A saint who made mistakes like the rest of us, some of them soul-shattering, such as submitting to an abortion, a decision she regretted the rest of her life. I also like it that Dorothy was a journalist and that, although she’s identified with New York City, she lived in Chicago from 1906-14 and, later, in her twenties, from 1921-23. During that second sojourn, she worked at City News Bureau where I worked half a century later. Dorothy — who started the Catholic Worker movement, edited the Catholic Worker newspaper, ran a “house of hospitality” in the New York slums and went to jail in protests on behalf of the […]
Abramin and his two confederates are bandits. Although they’re not exactly Robin Hoods, they live by burglary, not by violence. Abramin and his wife Susanna have a beautiful baby son Dismas. But Dismas is a leper. When Dismas fusses, Abramin says, “Give him to me; I’m going to chant a little song for him that will make him dream of glory and bravery.” He sings, and the boy goes to sleep. These are some of the characters in the short play “The Flight into Egypt,” one of eight edifying theatricals (or “pious recreations,” as the Carmelites called them) that were written and produced by the young Therese of Lisieux.
I’m not sure how to think about miracles. I mean, about what the story of a miracle may mean in my life. But here’s a miracle I can relate to: When Therese healed a little Irish child, she appeared to her as a little child in her First Communion frock, and shook hands with her as she left, and the radiant little patient who had been unconscious and at the brink of death, sat up and told her mother to bring her her clothes, and food because she was starving. This is from “Therese,” the biography of St. Therese of Lisieux that was written in 1960 by Dorothy Day. It’s such a homey touch that the cured little girl wanted to get dressed and eat “because she was starving.” It’s like Peter’s mother-in-law who, after being cured by Jesus, got up and began cooking for her guests.
Terry Pratchett’s new novel “Dodger” strikes me as his most personal book. He calls it “a historical fantasy…simply for the fun of it.” Yet, it’s much different from the 51 fantasies that he has produced since 1971, including his Discworld Series (40 books so far). And it’s doesn’t share much with the straight-ahead speculative science fiction that he and co-author Stephen Baxter offered in “The Long Earth,” which hit bookstores in June. Instead of the science fiction of “The Long Earth,” Pratchett offers a history lesson in “Dodger” about London early in the Victorian era — a horrid, noxious and deadly place for anyone poor. Rather than an imaginative look into the future, he is taking an imaginative look back. A tosher The central character is Dodger, a 17-year-old who survived childhood in an orphanage and now lives by his wits, mostly as a tosher, i.e., someone who scavenges through the sewers of London searching for valuables.