Monday, July 21, 2008

#17: The Tulip and the Pope

50 BOOK CHALLENGE 2008 #17: The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story
AUTHOR: Deborah Larsen
YEAR: (2005, Knopf, hardcover)
GENRE: memoir
PAGES: 256

The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story by Deborah Larsen

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book had a lot of unexplored potential. To be fair, I think writing a memoir about one's time as a nun (after the fact) must be a very difficult task. Karen Armstrong expresses this in her preface to The Spiral Staircase, her account of leaving her convent and a sequel to her memoir of her experiences as a nun (Through the Narrow Gate). Armstrong says:

Writing Through the Narrow Gate, some twelve years later, was a salutary experience. It made me confront the past, and I learned a great dal. Most important, I realized how precious and formative this period of my life had been, and that despite my problems, I would not have missed it for the world. Then I attempted a sequel: Beginning the World was published in 1983. It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print. (xvii)

Deborah Larsen's account of entering the convent of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1960 is a conflicted memoir--not in her feelings about her time as a nun, but in her choice of narrative voice. She has tried to accomplish in one memoir what Armstrong struggled to do in three. She explains in her author's note: " My remembrance of 1960-1965 never felt like a conventional narrative, thought it had progressions. My sense was more of a string of paper lanterns...lit spottily against the dark along a dock, where some days, even now, waves dash." This explains, but does not ameliorate the odd sense of detachment for the reader.

A lot of value in memoir is hindsight. Larsen's reluctance to allow herself deeper reflection upon the events of the 60s left this reader disappointed. It isn't until Larsen considers leaving the convent that the narrative becomes potentially more interesting. Not only has she been released to re-engage with the world in the memoir, but it seems that Larsen-as-author releases her cloistered style as well and the reader begins to understand the point of the first two-thirds of the book:

If you are capable of pushing, then a you is assumed; you must exist if you can push.

Maybe that was it.

There must be an identity or at least an entity; there must be a you.

Or was it the
act of pushing, your choosing, your summoning up courage, created the you? (205)

I'm not sure Larsen's switch in style was conscious, but it makes for a disparate reading experience with the first part of the book.

What Larsen does accomplish however, is a beautiful set of vignettes from both inside and outside the community. She appreciates the nuns' aesthetic sense: "Black became us almost thrillingly, I thought. Clerical, but classy." Moments like this make the reader smile as she recognizes the nineteen year old in the nun.

For some, this memoir will feel remarkably undramatic--Larsen moves from a state of naive obedience to disciplined questioning. However, it is this lack of drama that gives the book a good part of its value. Larsen has demystified the choice to enter a convent, and reveals obedience, chastity, and poverty to be simply another set of options in the lives we choose to lead.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

50BC08 #15 & #16: Crafts and Nuns

50BC08 #15: Artful Cards
AUTHOR: Katherine Duncan Aimone
GENRE: crafting, scrapbooking, how-to

Artful Cards: 60 Fresh & Fabulous Designs Artful Cards: 60 Fresh & Fabulous Designs by Katherine Duncan Aimone

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked what this book had to offer in terms of ideas and explanations. It covers basics and some more advanced techniques. Unlike other card/scrapbooking books, this is more than just layout after layout. The ideas are creative and will help you develop our own offshoot ideas.

50BC08 #16: Bad Faith: A Sister Agatha Mystery
AUTHOR(S): Aimée and David Thurlo
YEAR: 2002 (read 2003 Thorndike Press large print ed.)
GENRE: mysteries, fiction, series

Bad Faith Bad Faith by Aimee Thurlo

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, this was a fun start to my month long NunRead. :-) I've long been a fan of nun mysteries (Sister Steve of the Father Dowling series on TV, Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma)...actually make that clergy mysteries, period. Of course Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is on top of the list.

This first book in the Sister Agatha series has the earmarks of a first novel in a series in that it is lacking in character development but has all the components of a good story. Nuns make pretty good sleuths and convents tend to be inherently mysterious, partially because they are cloistered away from society. The Thurlos hit the mark with the right amount of sub-mysteries (those mini-plots you need as diversions from the main Whodunit); false leads (proving the prime suspect innocent); and an interesting sleuth. When the protagonist is a nun, there is a reconciling of past and present lives that is the most interesting. While we get SOME of that with Sister Agatha, we don't get nearly enough.

In addition to wanting more of Agatha's back story (no doubt revealed in later books in the series), the lack of physical description of any of the characters was particularly vexing in the case of the Reverend Mother who, unlike most of the other featured nuns, seems to have very little history or personality beyond her wisdom. I felt in this respect, and in some of the revealed secrets of the convent, the authors relied on too many clichés. The Thurlos work arduously to present an accurate portrait of modern convent life, but it comes across as proselytising, particularly when put forth through Agatha's thoughts about and conversations with Sheriff Tom Green.

I wanted Agatha to be more spunky. Her upbraiding of Tom Green became tiresome, as it was too one-sided. Supposedly he's a good guy and we are supposed to sympathize with him because his wife is an over-protective shrew, but he is definitely postured as the quasi-enemy. The gradual peace accord between Sister Agatha and Tom doesn't really work because their relationship doesn't follow any kind of rhythm. The character of Tom Green presents an excellent opportunity for complexity, and I hope this is further developed in later offerings in the series.

All that said, there is something unavoidably whimsical and entertaining about a nun with a broken vehicle (irreverently called the "Anti-Chrysler"), who rides a Harley without a second thought, and plays billiards. In some respects, it is probably a good thing that the Thurlos chose not to show more of their hand in regard to Sister Agatha's character. They crafted a mystery that is good enough to get me to read the next in the series.