Thursday, July 31, 2014

2014 Catholic Arts and Letters Award Winners

Congratulations to fellow Catholic Writer's Guild Members Arthur Powers who won in adult fiction for A Hero for the People: Stories of the Brazilian Backlands and to Marilee Haynes who won in children's fiction for A.K.A. Genius

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mr. Blue - The Anti-Gatsby

In the June 2014 issue of Columbia Magazine, published by the Knights of Columbus, Alton J. Pelowski offered a profile of Myles Connolly (1897 – 1964), a former editor of that publication. A graduate of Boston College, he would serve in the Navy during the end of World War I, work as a reporter for the Boston Post, and then take over the helm of Columbia, a position he would hold for four years. Joseph P. Kennedy, who was starting a new Hollywood studio, offered Connolly a position as a screenwriter. This was a career in which he would excel, working with well-known directors such as the esteemed Frank Capra. Connolly also wrote four novels and one collection of short stories. The most famous of these is Mr. Blue, published in 1928.

Mr. Blue was a modern day St. Francis-type character. The narrator encounters him at various instances in his life and each encounter leaves him changed. In fact, this novel is less story and more a series of vignettes of moments in Blue’s life. 

Blue was a man in love with life and a servant to Lady Poverty. The narrator states that “it is impossible to be with him and not catch the glory of the present moment. . . He impressed one as a sort of gay, young, and gallant monk without an order. Or perhaps his order was life and the world his monastery.” 

At an early point in the story, Blue inherits two million dollars and established sixty-three checking accounts in order to be able to spend it freely. He enjoys spending the money, but when it runs out, he sells everything he has, pays his servants and then disappears. When the narrator runs into him again, Blue, now reduced to destitution claims, “Those millions were a trial set me by my Lady Poverty.”  The narrator then comments that “Blue had pledged himself to the service of Lady Poverty, and it was a service that called for a hero . . . but to such poverty Blue went like a man to his lover.”

Blue was also committed to evangelization. There are times when he preaches to the narrator about the importance of Catholic art and screenwriting. He advocates for the establishment of a school of religious art in the United States and offers a set of directions that Catholic artists and writers might want to take to heart nearly a century later:

Tell your artists to immerse themselves in the fresh waters of the faith and come up vibrant, clean, alert to the world around them. Then they are ready to design or paint, to carve or write or compose, ready to interpret eternal truth in living terms, eternal beauty in vivid images of the present. Great men dominate their age with their own art. But their art, when great, is almost as much of their age as it is of themselves. They do not try to cast their minds and imaginations into classic molds or Gothic molds or Renaissance molds. No. They take contemporary life avidly into their arms . . . and out of the union is born their art.

During another monologue, Blue lays out the entire plot of a movie about the end times and the last Christian on earth. The moving picture was still a relatively new development at the time in which this book was written and Blue has great hopes for its ability to change the world. “Now we have a new art, luminous, vivid, simple, stirring, persuasive, direct, universal, illimitable . . . It can create a new people, gracious and graceful, sensitive, kindly, religious, a people discovering in beauty the happiest revelation of God. No art has the future the motion picture has.” It is interesting that Connolly later had the opportunity to shape that future.
Ultimately Blue decides to live and work among the poor, choosing to be homeless and “live in the worst of hovels and the most repulsive of slums” in order to share with them the story of Christ.

In the introduction to the Loyola Classics edition of Mr. Blue, John B. Breslin, S.J. compares this work to The Great Gatsby, published three years earlier. “Jay Gatsby stands for everything that Blue, three years later, rejects: the pursuit of great wealth, the willingness to do whatever it takes to win, the craving for status and acceptance. Gatsby is also, as Blue turns out to be, bigger than life, lavish in style, doomed to die young, a striking figure who fascinates and puzzles his own half-admiring chronicler, the reserved future journalist Nick Carraway.” No doubt Mr. Blue was written, at least in part, as a response to the earlier work. The Great Gatsby is part of the canon of high school literature. What if Mr. Blue also joined that canon in an effort to present an entirely different world view?

In 1954, Connolly wrote a new foreward to the book’s silver anniversary edition in which he backed off the message of Mr. Blue a bit, claiming that “what is sauce for the bachelor may not be sauce for the married man and father at all.” Life circumstances change and vocations call for different ways of life, but Mr. Blue, a short novel with a powerful message, makes for thought-provoking reading for teens and young adults.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Prayer for Those Who Write Catholic Fiction

This prayer for all those who write Catholic Fiction is from What World Is This? and Other Stories, featuring the short story winners of the Tuscany Prize (excellent book, by the way).

To All Writers of Catholic Fiction 

May you know God's Beauty, Love, and Peace,
may your work be infused with His Grace,
and may Our Lady watch over you.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rare Finds: A Guide to Book Collecting

I've been buried in antique books lately, attempting to sell them for a friend. It's not a bad place to be, really. I love the smell and feel of old books and it's a delight simply to have them around and wonder about their history. I figured as long as was surrounded by such works, I might as well do some research on the subject. I have a few more books that I am waiting for at the library, but the first one that came in was Rare Finds: A Guide to Book Collecting
by David and Natalie Bauman, owners of Bauman Rare Books.

This is a beautiful book in itself, offering delightful photographs of treasured literary masterpieces. It offers an overview of the most highly collectible works, including some interesting facts about them. It is obvious on every page that the Baumans are truly in love with books. However, most of the ones they feature would be out of reach of everyone except the most well-heeled collector. For the rest of us, this book has value for the pleasure perusing its pages brings and the very useful list of references, explanation of bindings, and the glossary.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay
by Robert Dawson" (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) is more than simply a collection of beautiful photographs of libraries from around America. While that in itself would make an attractive book, this particular volume contains many reflective essays regarding the history of libraries and their current place in American society.

To complete this project, Dawson spent eighteen years taking pictures of hundreds of libraries in 47 states. He writes, "My photographs capture some of the poorest and wealthiest, oldest and newest, most crowded and most isolated, even abandoned libraries." On a personal note, one of the libraries included is Storrs Library in nearby Longmeadow, Massachusetts - my copy of this book came to me via inter-library loan from that very library.

In the Foreward, Bill Moyers writes that "when a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too." It is a place open to all where knowledge is free for the taking. Because they are open to anyone, libraries frequently become de facto shelters for the homeless. This puts librarians in the difficult position of acting like social workers, trying to help these poor and/or mentally ill get the assistance that they need.

Stuart A.P. Murray offers a historical perspective on how public libraries came to be in this country. There are also essays about the economic challenges libraries face. Ironically, as David Morris, relates, "not a single library closed its doors during the Great Depression [yet] nineteen states cut funding for public libraries in 2011. More than half of the reductions were greater than ten percent." Some of the most heartbreaking images in this book are of closed, run-down libraries.

Libraries are so essential to the educational, social, and political life of our country. The Public Library is more than an attempt to record the beauty and importance of these places, but also to remind readers that your local library is worth fighting for and supporting with tax dollars. Perhaps Ann Patchett sums it up best: "Libraries have always been defined more by their spirit than by their space. Even the smallest can provide that deep human comfort that comes from reading and ideas."