What has the Catholic Book Club read recently? Novels.
Our two most recent selections in the Catholic Book Club are both set in the American Southwest and both are deeply Catholic in their themes and characters; both are also novels that their authors developed from previously published short stories. But maybe that’s where the similarities end.
The first one, A hymn for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller Jr., is a 1959 sci-fi tale about a desert monastery founded to preserve knowledge after a nuclear holocaust. The second, The five wounds, by Kirstin Valdez Quade, is a 2021 novel (developed from a short story published in The New Yorker in 2009) about five generations of a Catholic family in northern New Mexico, who find in life a tumultuous succession of moments of grace and tragedy.
Our Catholic Book Club moderator, Kevin Spinale, SJ, wrote essays for both books, including questions for contemplation and discussion. Our Facebook page continues to be the gathering place where our more than 7,000 Catholic Book Club members discuss every book.
A hymn for Leibowitz
Our discussion of the classic Walter Miller Jr. tale began in an entertaining way with a startling confession from Father Spinale. “I’m sorry, but I don’t like science fiction. So maybe a fruitful way to start a discussion about this novel is for me to admit that I don’t really like it, ”he wrote in his interpretive essay for A hymn for Leibowitz. Although he found it to be “premonitory” and “clever and funny in places”, he needed to convince that the book“Is, in fact, a great novel. “
The easy but sarcastic answer – that Father Spinale is a Philistine – made sense to me. I’ve considered Canticle a brilliant and thought-provoking story since I first read it in first year in high school. But some of our fellow readers, many of whom had also read it years ago, also had mixed reactions to the book. “Unlike Father Spinale, I love science fiction,” wrote Gerald Moss. “Like Father Spinale, I didn’t like this novel and I don’t understand why it continued. It frustrated me; it annoyed me; it seemed like the longest read I had come across in quite a while.
The easy but sarcastic answer – that Father Spinale is a Philistine – made sense to me.
When Canticle came out for the first time, David Doel noted, three novels about the end of the world as we know it were popular: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell 1984 and Nevil Shute On the beach. “A hymn for Leibowitz was just released in 1959 and is good enough to make the list, ”he commented. “Corn Canticle is much more than a dystopian novel. This time [reading it], I paid more attention to the Catholic aspects, and that made the book more interesting to me.
Miller had served as a tail gunner in World War II and participated in the controversial American bombing of the Italian abbey of Montecassino. Profiles of him after his death (he committed suicide in 1996) suggested that his experiences during World War II gave him a haunting sense of an apocalypse in the future of humanity. “I was struck by the fact that the life of this veteran after the war was spent working on the reality of nuclear weapons and war,” commented Rita Rings. Miller converted to Catholicism after the war, and it is clear in Canticle that he considered the Catholic Church as the only bulwark of the world against madness and decline.
So it’s no surprise that Miller found his world once again turned upside down with the many changes in the church that followed Vatican Council II. “Even though theologians, scripture scholars, and liturgists had been at work for years before Vatican II, it took place and came into effect at a time when cultures around the world were undergoing drastic changes,” he said. commented Sally Meyers. “Add a stable church to the mix and it was too much for many devoted believers to understand and accept.” This appears to have been the case for Miller, who eventually walked away from the church.
Liz Latorre noted that the dominant theme of the book was that “human intellectual progress will inevitably lead to destruction due to a decrease in dependence on God and an increase in dependence on God. humanity “. David W. Madsen commented that Miller had a fairly sharp (albeit sour) view of human nature: “George Santayana warned that history is useless unless people learn from its lessons. Miller seems to suggest (and, ironically, history would confirm it) that we don’t learn and therefore that does not provide “a respite from self-destruction.”
I’ve considered A hymn for Leibowitz a brilliant and thought-provoking story since I first read it in first year in high school.
The five wounds
We have just started our discussion on our last selection, The five wounds, by Kirstin Valdez Quadé. Readers of America may be familiar with Valdez Quade, as his writing has been the subject of several reviews and profiles, including a recent review by The five wounds by Jenny Shank. “While the new [from which the novel is developed] Dazzled by his humor, verve, daring use of Catholic imagery and shocking action, the novel sets in, ”Shank wrote. This longer work “lets the virtues and contradictions of its characters unfold and offers an in-depth look at how the stability of even a family filled with tension can serve as a saving grace for each member.”
The protagonist of the story is Amadeo Padilla, a local scoundrel who wants to be like Jesus, but in his own way. He was “not a Jesus with silky hair, rosy cheeks and honey eyes,” writes Valdez Quade. His brief moment of imitation of Jesus is not followed by grace and peace; rather, for Amadeo and her family, “life’s dramatic moments only set the stage for the hard, daily work of facing their consequences with determination and without despair,” Shank writes.
While Valdez Quade’s stories frequently feature Catholic figures, his own relationship with the church is complicated.
Some readers found Valdez Quade’s candid portrayals of sex in the novel off-putting, and some thought the hardened characters didn’t seem likely to find redemption. Others have argued that Valdez Quade presents believable characters with complicated lives. “I liked it,” Brian Lennon wrote. “I kept thinking that the ladies in my church probably wouldn’t appreciate it, but it’s real life.” Jeanne Blum thought the same thing. “It really presents a nice idea,” she wrote, “but it all falls into place towards the end. I loved the character development, which kept me engaged.
While Valdez Quade’s stories frequently feature Catholic figures, his own relationship with the church is complicated. “I consider myself Catholic,” she told Shank in a profile in America in 2018. “This story, this tradition, seems very central to my understanding of my family history and my place in the world. On the other hand, there are a lot of ways that I think it’s a pretty inhospitable religion for me. I think that’s another tension that I keep coming back to. What does it mean for me to love this religion that I don’t always have the impression that it wants me? So maybe it’s just one more similarity between A hymn for Leibowitz and The five wounds. The authors of both cherish their faith so much that it inevitably becomes the center of their fiction, and yet they struggle with the tensions of being Catholic in the modern world. Very Graham Greene.
We try to mix genres in our Catholic Book Club selections. In the past, we have covered biographies, stories, books of poetry, and many novels. We’re always interested in suggestions on what to choose next. Are you interested in reading and chatting with us? Join the Catholic Book Club at americamagazine.org/catholic-book-club or on Facebook at facebook.com/groups/americacbc.