Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Children Act

Ian McEwan's new novel, The Children Act, is about three of my favorite subjects: law, sex and religion.

Fiona May is a fifty nine year old British High Court Judge in the Family Law Division.  As the novel opens, she is working on an opinion in a child custody case between an Orthodox Jewish Father and a now Reformed Jewish mother.  Her previous case, about conjoined twins whom the conservative Catholic parents do not want to separate and kill one to save the other, has haunted her.

Because of her preoccupation with cases, Fiona has not had sex with Jack, her husband of over thirty years.  Jack, a college professor going through his "early old age crisis," has picked out a twenty nine year old statistician whom he wants to have an affair with.  Jack tells Fiona that he needs to have a passionate love affair before he's too old for it, and that he wants her permission.  In response, Fiona throws Jack out and changes the locks on the apartment.

Author Ian McEwan

Fiona's new case is an emergency hearing about a teenage Jehovah's Witness, Adam Henry, who is suffering from leukemia and will need a blood transfusion to survive.  The parents refuse permission on religious grounds and the hospital seeks a court order to overrule them.  Adam, who is 17, is only months away from his eighteenth birthday which would give him the authority to decide for himself.

Fiona goes to the hospital and interviews Adam and is smitten with him.  Adam is an intellectual, a gifted poet and a talented musician.  Fiona ultimately rules that the Court has a duty to save Adam from his religion.  Ultimately, this casts Adam adrift and causes him to loose his staunch faith.  He replaces his faith in God with a romantic obsession with the Judge which results in tragic consequences.

I enjoyed The Children Act a great deal.  It was not nearly as good as Sweet Tooth, but it was a very good read from one of the best contemporary British novelists.  Four out of five gavels.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Winnie and Wolf

I enjoyed A.N. Wilson's 2007 novel Winnie and Wolf a great deal.  If you like this book you probably have two characteristics: (1) You're a fan of the music dramas of Richard Wagner and (2) You're interested in the history of Nazi Germany.  If you don't fall into one of those categories this might not be your novel.

"Winnie" is Winifred Wagner, the wife of Richard Wagner's son Siegfried.  "Wolf" is the affectionate nickname given to Adolf Hitler.  Hitler was an ardent fan of Wagner Operas.  During the 1920s he started going to the Wagner home at Bayreuth and became good friends with Siegfried and Winifred. In fact, the Wagner's supplied Hitler with the paper to write Mein Kampf while in prison for leading a failed coup d'etat against the government of the Weimar Republic. 

Winnie & Siegfried early in their marriage.

After Siegfried's death, rumors circulated that Hitler and Frau Wagner were about to marry.  There is no doubt that Winifred Wagner was one of Hitler's closest friends and the "Uncle Wolf" was very close to the Wagner children.  A.N. Wilson has taken these facts and extrapolates what might have happened if Winnie & Wolf's relationship had been sexual and had produced a child.

The real Winnie & Wolf

The novel is narrated by Herr N_____, whose name we never learn.  Herr N._____ served as the personal secretary to Siegfried and then to Winnie.  Although we never learn his name, Herr N_____ is a finely drawn character whom, by the end of the novel, we feel that we know intimately.  

Frau Wagner greets the Fuhrer

There is a lot of real history in this novel.  The fictional narrative is seamlessly interwoven with the real history of Germany.  Wilson also shows a deep knowledge of Richard Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival.  Wagnerians should love this book.  The novel is presented as a long letter to Herr N____'s adopted daughter who is really the love child of Winnie and Wolf.  The novel is well written and hold's the reader's interest well.

   A.N. Wilson

While this material may not be to everyone's taste, I absolutely loved it.  FIVE OUT OF FIVE viking helmets.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Perry Lentz (b. 1943) is a retired Professor of English at Kenyon College.  In 1967 at age 24 he published The Falling Hills  a novel about the notorious “Fort Pillow Massacre” during the American Civil War.

The Modern Reconstruction of Fort Pillow

Fort Pillow was located on the Mississippi River above Memphis, Tennessee and was garrisoned by a regiment of white Tennessee Union Loyalists and two regiments of black Troops.  When the Fort was stormed by the Confederate Army of General Nation Bedford Forrest in April, 1864 the majority of the black Union soldiers were killed, many of them after throwing down their arms and trying to surrender.

Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, C.S.A.

Lentz, a native of Alabama, clearly shows his prejudices.  When dealing with the Confederates, Lentz’s writing is vivid and his characterizations are life like.  We come to know and to like both the fictional characters and the real historical figures, like General Nathan Bedford Forrest, that populate the narrative.  The white Union soldiers, both historical and fictional, are generally disreputable and dysfunctional.   There is not a single black character in the novel who is not a caricature of a stereotype.

The main Confederate character is Captain Hamilton Leroy “Lee” Acox.  A Tennessee lawyer, Acox served in an infantry regiment in the Army of Tennessee through all of the terrible battles fought in that theater of war from Shiloh to Chickamauga.  Wounded at Chickamauga, Acox goes home with a commission as a recruiting officer hoping to sit the rest of the war out.  Acox desperately does not want to leave his wife, Amanda, who has just suffered the devastating deaths of the couple’s two children from disease.  However, Acox is reluctantly drafted to lead a company in the cavalry corps of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The main Union character is Lt. Jonathan Seabury.    Seabury is from a family of Bostin Brahmins and is young and idealistic.   A fervent abolitionist, Seabury wants to command black troops.  With his romantic and idealistic notions, Seabury is soon disillusioned by the reality of garrison duty with former slaves in the Western Theater of operations.

The other fictional Yankee is John Arness Suttell, who is best described as a homicidal sociopath.  The novel opens with Suttell, then a corporal, leading his squad in ambushing a group of Confederate officers as they come out of a house after having dinner with their mother.  Suttell, the son of a poor hardscrabble farmer from West Tennessee, harbors a deep hatred for the planter aristocracy of South, who he believes are responsible for the deaths of his father and younger brother.

Lentz is excellent in describing the horrors, deprivations and sheer savagery of war.  I was especially fond of Chapter 7 which is basically a short story stuck in the middle of the novel.  It involves the life and death of a Confederate trooper named Bob Perry who was a former “slave catcher.”  As I said, Lentz is much better when dealing with the Southerners than with the Yankees,  and the story of Bob Perry is one of the best works of fiction which I have read in a long time.

Fort Pillow was commanded by a regular army officer named Lionel Booth.  When Booth was killed during the battle, command passed to Major William Bradford, a minor Tennessee politician who was loyal to the Union.  In real life, when Forrest demanded the fort’s surrender, Bradford pretended to be Booth and refused.  In actual history, not covered in the novel, Bradford was taken prisoner and shot by Confederates several days after the battle for allegedly attempting to escape.

In Lentz’s hands, Booth is a washed up old regular army officer, just trying to survive the war so he can retire with this pension.  Bradford is depicted as a cowardly political opportunist.

I couldn’t help thinking that by today’s standards The Falling Hills is probably a racist book.  As I said there is not one fully developed black character in the entire novel and the black characters who are described are stereotypically lazy and ignorant.  Although there is historical truth in the lack of training and the assigning of second rate officers to command black troops, I feel that Lentz probably crosses the line.  Although this book is still in print, thanks no doubt to Professor Lentz’s stature as a distinguished literature professor, I doubt it could be published today.  The Falling Hills would have been a much better book if at least one black Union soldier had been fleshed out and made into a fully realized human being.  A student of literature and future professor, Lentz’s writing sometimes seems like it came out of Willy Wanka’s Faulkner Factory, and can be pretentiously literary.
Dr. Perry Lentz

Having said that, for those into Civil War literature, The Falling Hills is a great read.   The Bad Catholic gives it four out of five Rebel Flags.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hi, I'm Bad Catholic and I'm a Book Hoarder

I just joined a new organization I started - Book Hoarders anonymous.  I simply have to stop BUYING books and start READING them.  If I had all the money I've spent on books over the years I'd be rich beyond the wildest dreams of avarice.  So, we're going to institute some new rules:

(1).  I HAVE TO READ 100, count em, 100 books before I BUY another one.  (That doesn't count what I can get for free through rewards points, gifts, etc. , heh, heh, heh.

(2).  Even after I've read the 100 I get to get ONE BOOK.

I'm asking all of you out there in blog land to help me.  I have a serious problem.  Help me to JUST SAY NO!!!!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Vicar of Sorrows

The Reverend Francis Kreer has a problem, he no longer believes in God.  However, he doesn’t find this to be too much of a problem in his job as an Anglican clergyman and in traditional British fashion he just gets a stiff upper lip and carries on.  Francis has other problems at home, though.  He is bored with his wife and bored with his life in general.  When his mother dies and leaves half of everything she owns to her former lover, this pushes Francis over the edge.  Francis suffers a nervous breakdown, has an affair with a hippie who is young enough to be his daughter, and gets fired from his job.

Author A.N. Wilson with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams

This is the basic plot of A.N. Wilson’s 1993 soap opera The Vicar of Sorrows.  Although it had its moments, Vicar is about 150 pages too long.  Mrs. Kreer, the mother, gets mad at Francis for something he didn’t say and leaves half of her estate to a former R.A.F. pilot whom she had a passionate affair with during the Blitz.   Being an Anglican Church groupie, I liked all the long winded passages about the ecclesiastical politics of the Church of England.  Francis’ best friend Damien is a gay Anglo-Catholic priest who has lost his position because he was caught out in public in a compromising position with another man.   By the end of the novel, as Francis’ career as a clergyman has crashed, Damien has been rehabilitated.  The Archdeacon of the Diocese thinks Francis is a kook but doesn’t have a problem with Damien:  “(The Archdeacon) who derived most of his views from liberal newspapers, took a very lenient view of Damien’s proclivities: but one had to be sensible, and think of the ‘old dears’ in the pew, who might be slower than the rest of us to realize that fornication, when practiced by homosexuals, was no longer exactly a sin.”

A.N. Wilson

Overall, The Vicar of Sorrows was probably not worth the time it took to read the 391 pages of it.  It could have been a humorous little satire if it had been about 150 to 200 pages shorter.  Two out of Five.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Book of Lights

Ever since I read The Chosen and The Promise, Chaim Potok (1929-2002) has been one of my favorite authors.  As has been noted by literary scholars “All of Chaim Potok’s novels vividly depict the study of sacred texts as central to the Jewish tradition.”[1]  Instead of Torah and Talmud, the texts which interest Potok in The Book of Lights (1981) are the medieval Jewish mystical writings called the Kabbalah.  The novel's title is derived from a central mystical text, The Zohar.  The actual title of the work, the Sefer ha-zohar, means “the book of lights.”

Light is very important in Jewish mystical theology.  “Kabbalists believe that the universe was created by a light ray that poured into containers, some of which broke, thus causing evil to enter the world.  Pieces of light are everywhere.  When the spilled light is gathered up by humankind, people will become immortal.  For kabbalists, the two-thousand-year dispersal of the Jews is to prepare the world for the Messiah who will come when the lights are recovered.  Kabbalists naturally would be fascinated by light, for God said “Let there be light,” just after creating the heaven and the earth.  Before light the earth was “without form, and void” (Genesis).  Like mysticism, light is incorporeal.  But as particle and wave it has substance, motion, and power.”[2]

As with the protagonists of Potok’s earlier novels, The Chosen, The Promise, and In the Beginning,  the main character of The Book of Lights is a young rabbinical student who lives in the Jewish section of Brooklyn, New York.  Gershon Loran is a lackluster student of Talmud but becomes excited about the study of Kabbalah.  The novel opens in the early 1950s when Gershon is a student in a seminary.  Gershon’s parents were killed in a cross fire between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem in 1937 when Gershon was eight years old.  Orphaned, Gershon has been reared by his aunt and uncle.  His uncle owns a run down Hebrew bookstore and his aunt has never recovered from the death of the couples’ only son during World War II.

The Book of Lights has many more literary devices and metaphors than Potok’s earlier novels.  Gershon’s aunt and uncle live in a ramshackle apartment building.  Gerhon’s uncle acts as the building supervisor and collects rents for the unknown absentee landlord.  “They lived in a sunless ground-floor apartment in an old five story redbrick building where his uncle collected the rents for the owner no one ever saw.  The house was the talk of their Brooklyn neighborhood.  There was something wrong with it, something had gone awry from the beginning.”  This suggests a metaphor for the world where “something had gone awry from the beginning,” and suggests the role of the Jews as God’s chosen people who serve the unknown absentee Creator of the Universe in his broken world.

One night, on the roof of the apartment building, Gershon has a mystical experience which he believes is God revealing himself.  Throughout the novel, Gershon has visions of people and places and seeks to recapture the experience of the night on the roof when he touched the stars and all things seemed to be one.
Gershon is sent to an Orthodox yeshiva where he has a lackluster academic performance.  After graduation from the Yeshiva, Gershon enrolls in a non-orthodox theological seminary.  Gershon is a competent student of Torah and Talmud but his academic career does not take off until Jacob Keter, an expert in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, arrives to teach at the seminary.

Gershon’s roommate is Arthur Leiden.  Arthur’s father is a famous physicist who worked on the development of the atomic bomb.  Arthur’s mother is a noted professor of art history.  Arthur has chosen to be an observant Jew and to study to be a rabbi in apparent rebellion against his parents who are secular Jews.  Arthur drinks too much and is often unprepared for class.  Gershon is dating Karen Levin who is studying for her doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University.  Karen’s father is a noted rabbi, and Karen makes it clear to Gershon that she does not intend to be the wife of a “pulpit rabbi.”  Nevertheless, Gershon and Karen continue to see each other.

Due to a lack of Jewish chaplains in the armed forces, seminary administrators make it a requirement for ordination that all graduates serve two years as a military chaplain.  However, Gershon’s military service is delayed for a year when he wins an academic scholarship, endowed by Arthur’s parents and named for Arthur's dead brother,  which enables Gershon to do graduate study on Kabbalah with Professor Keter.  Finally, his year of graduate study over with, Gershon reluctantly joins the army.

Worship in a Shinto Temple

Sent to Korea as a chaplain just after the end of the Korean War, Gershon is a great success as an army chaplain.  He is well respected by both the officers and men, and gains a reputation as a good chaplain.  In Asia, Gershon’s perspective is considerably broadened.  He realizes that there may be other ways to God than Judaism.   During a trip to Japan, Gershon and another soldier watch people pray at a Shnto shrine:

               “In the indoor shrine at the end of the street, people crowded before an altar on which stood an image.  Candles burned in tall black metal candelabra.  Women stood with their hands together, praying.  Children prayed softly.  Before the altar was a railing.  An old man stood at the railing.  He wore a hat and a brown coat. He had a long white beard, a flowing beard that lay upon his chest and seemed possessed of a life of its own, like a waterfall.  It caught the soft lights of the candles and glints of the sunlight that came through the door of the shrine.  In his hands he held a prayer book.  His body swayed back and forth, back and forth, as he prayed.  His eyes opened and closed behind rimless spectacles that flashed and flared with the lights of the candles and the sun. Gershon looked at him.  Had he seen him somewhere before?  He could not remember.
                “Do you think our God is listening to him, John?”
                “I don’t know, chappy.  I never thought of it.”
                “Neither did I until now.  If He’s not listening, why not? If He is listening, then-well, what are we all about, John?  That’s my thought for tomorrow.  It think we ought to go back to the hotel.”
                The day was Friday, Gershon’s Shabbat began with dusk.  He remained by himself in the room; John went out for a walk.  He sat in an easy chair, reading a work by Chaim Vital on the kabbalistic thought of Isaac Luria.  He put it aside after a while and took up the second of the two books he had brought with him, a volume of the Zohar.  He began to read the commentary to the Torah portion of that Shabbat, the section that tells of the Revelation at Sinai.
                He read, “When a man spreads out his hands and lifts them up in prayer and supplication, he may be said to glorify the Holy One in various ways.  He symbolically unites the ten sefirot, thereby unifying the whole and duly blessing the Holy Name.”  He read this and thought of the Japanese he had seen praying in the shine.”

Hiroshima after the Bomb

For a while, Gershon is the only Jewish chaplain in Korea.  Finally, a new Jewish chaplain arrives, Arthur Leiden.  Arthur desperately wants to travel to Japan and especially want to visit the cities of Kyoto and Hiroshima.   After first going to Hong Kong, where they meet a Muslim lawyer and his daughter, Gershon and Arthur arrive in Japan.  Arthur wishes to see Kyoto because his mother was instrumental in saving the city and convincing the army not to drop an atomic bomb on it due to all of its ancient art treasures.  He wants to see Hiroshima due to guilt that his father helped to build the bomb which killed thousands of people.  At the shrine to the dead of Hiroshima, Arthur says the Kiddish, the traditional prayers for the dead.   Near the end of the novel, Arthur is killed in an airplane crash attempting to return to Japan.


After leaving the army, Gershon returns to the United States after visiting Arthur’s parents he spends time with Karen who has accepted a job teaching philosophy at the University of Chicago.   Gershon tells Karen that he cannot go with her and that their marriage will have to wait.  Gershon then travels to Israel to continue his Kabbalah studies with Jacob Keter.  At the end of the novel,  Gershon is sitting in a garden in Jerusalem, waiting.  We can infer that he is waiting on God.

The Book of Lights is a very deep and involved novel. This discussion only scratches the surface of the riches of this book.  The atomic bomb is itself a kind of divine light and, like God, the physicists who created it also unleashed evil.  Gershon’s first name is a variation of the name Moses gives to his son which means “stranger.”   Gershon’s last name, Loren, is an acronym for a navigation device.  Gershon is a stranger seeking God but he is navigating in the right direction.  Arthur’s last name is also symbolic.  Leiden means suffering in German.  Karen, the student of philosophy who rejects the life of her rabbi father, is the secular humanist who demands certainty. 

Chaim Potok (1929-2002)

The Book of Lights is the kind of novel that demands a lot from the reader.  It is well worth it.  Shalom.

Works Cited

Soll, W. (Spring, 1989). Chaim Potok's Book of LIghts: Reappropriating Kabbalah in the Nuclear Age. Religion & Literature, 111-135.
Sternlicht, S. (2000). Chaim Potok: A Critical Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

[1] (Soll, Spring, 1989)
[2] (Sternlicht, 2000)

Saturday, January 25, 2014


This is not my first Jim Thompson novel.  A number of years ago I read The Killer Inside Me, which, along with Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, ranks with the top ten novels which have tried to get within the mind of a psychopathic serial killer.

The book presently under consideration is, perhaps, Thompson’s most famous and infamous novel.  Famous because of the two Hollywood adaptations of it, and infamous because of the allegorical surrealist ending which has both intrigued and baffled readers for decades.

The Getaway (1958) begins as a conventional crime novel about a bank robbery.  The robbery happens at the very beginning of the book.  The mastermind, Carter “Doc” McCoy, has recently been released from prison after Doc’s wife, Carol, seduced and bribed the parole board chairman. Doc has been holed up in a seedy hotel casing an isolated bank in a rural town.  Except for killing a bank guard with a long distance rifle shot, Doc is not doing the dirty work himself.   Ace thug Rudy Torrento and his young side kick have been assigned to actually rob the bank.

Just about everybody in The Getaway is out for themselves.  Rudy kills the young side kick, then Doc tries to knock off Rudy to get him out of the way.  After Doc plugs Rudy, Carol is waiting to pick him up and haul ass.

Of course, everything goes wrong.  Rudy survives being shot by Doc and kidnaps a veterinarian and his wife. The wife goes crazy for Rudy and the milquetoast husband commits suicide.  It seems to be a theme in The Getaway that girls love the bad boys.  We learn that before meeting Doc, Carol was a homely librarian. Doc swept her off her feet and she eagerly joined Doc in his life of crime, even being disowned by her parents.

So Doc and Carol haul ass across the country with the loot being pursued by both the police and Rudy Tarrento.  As Carol and Doc flee, the body count continues to mount up.  In fact, it is alluded to that Doc and Carol have killed more people during their getaway than is directly recounted.  Anybody that gets in their way or is an inconvenient witness is ruthlessly eliminated.

Finally Rudy and his new girlfriend catch up to Doc and Carol in a Southern California Motel.  Doc kills both of them and he and Carol must again run like hell.


Here’s where things start getting weird.  A lot of crime fiction aficionados don’t like the surrealist ending of The Getaway.  I think that the ending is what makes this novel special.  After all there’s a reason that a book published as a throw away pulp fiction paperback in the late 1950s is still in print and we are still reading it and talking about it.

Doc and Carol are headed for sanctuary in the Kingdom of El Rey which is described as a hideaway for fugitives in Mexico.  El Rey, which means “The King” in Spanish, has lavish first class accommodations.  In fact, residents are required to pay for first class accommodations, because they wanted everything first class in their previous lives.  However, when your money runs out, you are banished to an outlying village.  There is no food from the outside allowed in the village.  The residents exiled from El Rey survive by cannibalizing each other.  Therefore, couples who seek refuge in El Rey usually wind up murdering the other partner to conserve cash.  That is, the ones who don’t commit suicide out of despair.  So, in the midst of first class villas by the sea and unlimited gourmet food and drink, everyone in El Rey is miserably awaiting their ultimate demise.

Obviously, all of this is not to be taken literally.  Because it is a radical departure from the realism of the rest of the book, a lot of readers over years have despised the ending.  I think that the allegory really begins before the fleeing couple get to El Rey.  After killing Rudy and his girlfriend, Doc and Carol flee in a stolen taxi.  Facing certain capture, they are rescued by crime family matriarch Ma Santis.  Ma Santis hides the couple out first in underwater caves where the space is no bigger than a coffin and then in a lean-to hidden in a manure pile.

This entire episode is heavy with symbolism.  Doc and Carol have to strip naked and dive into a water filled pit to get to the cave hideaway.  The rooms in the caves are just big enough to lie down in and Doc and Carol are separated by a wall of rock.  Obviously, this represents death and the grave.

Then after coming up from the pit, Doc and Carol hide out in a lean two hidden inside a pile of cow manure. During the day, they are faced with swarms of flies and worms.  It’s not difficult to figure out that this represents that, although still technically alive, Doc and Carol are decaying corpses.

Then Ma Santis arranges for Carol and Doc to be taken to Mexico by a Portuguese fishing boat Captain. The body count again mounts up when they have to kill the crew of a Coast Guard Patrol Boat.  I think that the boat ride represents the ferrying of the dead across the River Stix to the underworld in Greek mythology.

El Rey is the Devil and his Kingdom is Hell.  For a novel that is a fast paced conventional crime novel until 2/3 of the way through, all of this symbolism and allegory has been tough for a lot of readers to take.

Steve McQueen fired Thompson from writing the screenplay for his movie version of The Getaway, and totally jettisoned the El Rey ending.  In McQueen’s movie version, Doc and Carol apparently escape into Mexico to live happily ever after.  But “happy ever after” is a really boring ending isn’t it?  And don’t Doc and Carol deserve to go to hell after the blood trail that they’ve left behind them?  If Thompson had written an ending where Doc and Carol were captured and went to the Gas Chamber together, there would be the possibility of redemption through suffering.  As it is, they get away to the place where they deserve to be and there is no possibility of redemption.

Interestingly, at one point in the novel, Doc and Carol hide out a with a group of migrant farm workers. Here among the poorest of the poor, Doc is happy.  The novel indicates that Doc would have been content to stay with them forever.  The irony is that Doc is happiest when he is with poor people who have nothing.  When he reaches El Rey and has every material comfort, he is the most miserable.  Be careful what you want, you might get it.

The Quentin Tarantino - Robert Rodriguez movie From Dusk Til Dawn follows the pattern of The Getaway.  It begins as a conventional crime story involving the Gecko brothers, George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, fleeing from a robbery.  Just like in The Getaway, they’re headed for El Rey.  Half way through the movie, it becomes a horror film when the brothers stop off at a Mexican strip club run by vampires.  On the commentary track, Tarantino talks a lot about the Kingdom of El Rey.  Tarantino is a big fan of Jim Thompson and The Getaway.

So if there’s one thing to take away from The Getaway, it’s “Don’t Go To El Rey!”


Jim Thompson (1906 - 1977)