#FridayReads for 3/28/14

Lying AwakeEdward Bandera-Duplantier (Editorial Advisor) is reading Lying Awake by Mark Salzman.

Lying Awake is the story of a Carmelite nun who lives in a world without televisions, radios, and men. Sister John of the Cross has spent the last twenty-eight years searching for God, and like all the other Sisters there, she struggles to accept the reality that her life in service to God does not mean she will find God or meaning. Except Sister John does find it when she starts having waking dreams and visions of God’s radiance. Or so she thinks. As her visions lead her toward the deepest religious ecstasy she has ever known, and enable her to write amazingly powerful poetry, she begins to have headaches that recently have become more and more frequent until, one day, during nightly prayer she has a seizure. Are her spiritual gifts the symptoms of an illness and not from grace? This is the central question that Salzman uses to throw Sister John, and the Sisters of the Carmelite order, into extraordinary difficult situations. What if the cure means the end of Sister John’s visions? How can someone who has dedicated their life to God cut out His radiance from their soul? And Salzman asks these questions in a world most of us no nothing about. By far the strongest part of the book is his depiction of the nuns’ life in the monastery. The Sisters are funny, petty, and jealous at times. They bicker over how little space is left in the refrigerator and many are jealous of Sister John’s visions. But they are also amazingly kind to each other and when Sister John must make her decision they are there for her. Salzman’s writing makes this simple, mundane world somehow riveting. The book also contains some of the most beautiful passages of description I’ve read in a long time. The reader feels only sympathy for Sister John when Salzman writes, “For three astonishing years she had lived and prayed from the inside of a kaleidoscope. Everything fit into a design of feeling, a pattern linking all souls and minds together. She felt God’s presence in the design, and nothing seemed out of place. Every person was like a piece of glass in a giant rose window.” And it is these passages that make her decision more and more gut-wrenching. How could anyone give that up and go back to an unfulfilling life behind cloistered walls?

Power and GloryCourteney Palis (Editorial Assistant) is reading The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.

As a Catholic, it is difficult for me to imagine a world in which religion is outlawed, Mass must be held in secret, and priests are hunted down like dogs. Through rich description and a careful crafting of his characters, Graham Greene brings this complex and painfully realistic world to life in The Power and the Glory. Despite the brutal persecution of religious leaders in parts of 1930s Mexico, Greene’s protagonist, the unnamed “whisky priest,” stayed behind, thinking himself to be above the others that had fled or succumbed to the law by renouncing their priesthood and marrying. This arrogance was just one of the whisky priest’s many faults, but by revealing his sins (laying with a woman and fathering a child) and flaws (being a drunk), Greene complicates what it means to be a priest, what it means to be Catholic, what it means to be human. The broader questions that the whisky priest’s arduous journey posed but never really answered are what stuck with me after it finally ended. The whisky priest wasn’t my favorite character, but I found myself rooting for his survival and redemption anyway. After all, whether we’re “good” or “bad,” we’re all undeniably human.

Lets ExploreMelissa Graham (Senior Reader, Nonfiction) is reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris.

It’s been five years since David Sedaris released his last collection of essays, When You Are Engulfed In Flames. But Sedaris hasn’t missed a beat, his new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls showcases his talent for the absurd – in addition to funny anecdotes on the bliss of colonoscopy sedation, eating roosters for dinner in China, and acting as a friendly volunteer garbage man in England, Sedaris includes some very touching scenes, pulling from a seemingly bottomless well of family memories. What Sedaris does best is observational humor. He is a master of satire, and wisely captures even the most mundane of human experiences. His signature voice carries through 275 pages of relatable essays. I have been a fan of David Sedaris for years, and it’s not just because he’s a hilarious a writer, it’s because he spends time exposing and poking his own flaws. He embraces neurotic and unexpected behavior. And his willingness to share and explore the imperfections of his own character and those around him makes for perfect storytelling.