Thomas Merton after 50 years

Fifty years ago, December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton left this world. His prophet words serve as a warning to the people of our times.

The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s autobiography of faith tells of God’s subtle enticement of Merton’s spirit. The ruins of Cistercian monasteries in France fascinated Young Thomas. He read a range of philosophers including Jacques Maritan and other Catholics who convinced Merton that Scholastic Philosophy offered the best explanation of reality.

Most of all, Merton was drawn by example. Before his conversion, he sat near a young woman at Mass. Her fervor and sincerity convinced Thomas of the strength of her faith and encouraged him to deepen his own.

Baroness de Heuck, a Russian immigrant, shaped his concept of social justice. During the Great Depression, Communist recruiters opened soup kitchens in Harlem. When hospitals refused medical treatment for persons of color; when landlords denied housing, and employers, jobs; Communists brought doctors, rented apartments, and offered financial support.

The Baroness noted that it was once said: “See how these Christians love one another.” She observed no sign of Catholic love in Harlem. The Cardinal and Bishops dined with the wealthy but ignored the poorest within the Archdiocese.

The Baroness frightened establishment Catholics with her application of the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius IX. She embarrassed pastors in Harlem who hired white tradesmen to repair their buildings when Harlem residents stood in unemployment lines. She claimed that the Catholic Church was “just a front for Capitalism.”

She established Friendship House and Blessed Martin de Porres Center—Catholic Christian responses to the social needs of Harlem. Merton worked there briefly, but the experience influenced his social justice message.

In Merton’s discussion of sins and virtues, he noted that during the period leading up to the Great Depression, the Capital Sins of Pride and Greed had become virtues. Americans of the 1920s chose personal and national greatness over goodness and humility; unregulated growth and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few over a disciplined and reliable economic system that allowed everyone to benefit. Merton’s words warn Americans about the consequences of its Roaring 20/20ies economic injustice—redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich and the threat of another depression. Greatness is not measured in triumphalism or superiority but love and justice.

America ignores the prophetic words of Thomas Merton, Popes Leo, Pius, and Francis at its peril.

 

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

This #1 National Bestselling novel begins as Flight 613 lifts off the tarmac. Serious concerns plague more than half the travelers—concerns they set aside until after the hop from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

Sixteen minutes later the plane crashes, leaving only two passengers alive: JJ, the four-year-old son of a multi-millionaire, and Scott Burroughs, an artist in his forties.

In Before the Fall, Emmy, Golden Globe, PEN, Critic’s Choice, and Peabody Award winning Noah Hawley, writer, and producer of the hit TV series Bones, applies his stagecraft and cinematographic skills to the verbal autopsy of each occupant of the doomed jet.

Like pieces of wreckage fished from the sea, he cleverly introduces fragments of backstory amplifying the scream of conflict and the bellowing suspicion as to who benefits from the disaster. A team of federal investigators from the NTSB, the FAA, the FBI, and other agencies attempts to determine the cause of the crash and assign blame. Since JJ is too young, and the other travelers aboard Flight 613 are dead, only Scott Burroughs remains to soak up censure, deserved or not.

The death of JJ’s father, David Bateman, director of the ALC news-as-entertainment-network, launches ALC-anchorman Bill Cunningham on a mission of retribution, delving into Scott’s disaster-ridden past. Cunningham spends weeks delightedly defacing Scott Burroughs’ heroic image, but Cunningham has secrets of his own.

The primary protagonist, Scott Burroughs, tries to understand how, after pulling together the rubble of his own life and finally standing on the brink of success, he stumbles into his current quandary.  More importantly, how should he deal with his damaged reputation and threats from law enforcement? The reader rides the rapids of Scott’s stream of consciousness to a dramatic climax. Have his past tragedies prepared Scott to cope with his present dilemma or will he return to his alcohol addiction and lose everything?

Written by a multitalented author, Before the Fall offers a survivor’s view of an air disaster with all of the public, legal, and psychological fallout. It generates excitement, outrage, and incredulity as conflicting agendas gather like vultures over the wreckage. It fully deserves the NY Times rating as one of the year’s best suspense novels.

Hawley’s narration often imitates a camera zooming in on an object, but when the narration zooms out, the object rests in a totally different place, time, and context. The unexpected scene change advances the story while raising suspense about the broken storyline.

Hawley weaves his characters in and out of his narrative by suddenly switching viewpoints. He carefully develops each character so thoroughly and sympathetically that every plane crash death renews the reader’s pain of loss.

 

The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion

NY bridge

Don Tillman’s loyalty, self-sacrifice, and problem solving genius, make him welcome as a friend. We first met Don in the “Rosie Project,” the story of a high functioning Asperger’s individual in search of a “mate.” Don exhibits marvelous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills, a phenomenal memory, but he woefully lacks social skills. He holds to an extraordinary rigid moral-ethical code, based on logic and conventional norms rather than religion. Among his virtues or symptoms, Don could not tell a lie. Paul Levine, who also includes Asperger’s spectrum characters in his novels, subscribes to the same truth-telling characteristic. However, in “The Rosie Effect, Don, the compulsive truth-teller and honest man, learns to spare the feelings of others by shielding them from the truth. Unfortunately, he hopelessly tangles himself in the thickest web of deceit. His growing cohort of friends risk all to assist him extricate himself before the authorities and Rosie catch up with him.

In his first two and extremely successful novels, author, Graeme Simsion brings moments of genuine hilarity as well as deep pathos. His intense research allows his characters the freedom to walk, jog and subway about New York City, Columbia University, genetics, nutrition, human development, psychology and the pub scene. Ask Don to make you a cocktail sometime.

The devious Simsion snaps snares, large and small, catching his readers off guard. Just when Don seems to have escaped one threat, the trapdoor drops Don, and often his friends, into a deeper quandary. Through the Rosie Effect, Simsion takes the reader for a ride to a most unpredictable destination. Getting there is more than half the fun. Looking forward to the further exploits of Don Tillman and company.

 

Review (© 2015 Donald J. Mulcare)

Brooklyn Bridge, Nancy Ann Mulcare, Alcohol ink on yupo (© 2015 Nancy Ann Mulcare)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

File:53rd and Lexington Avenue station 2.jpg

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

A nerd geneticist went looking for a wife using the latest scientific advances. Yes, the story involved DNA analysis. The Rosie Project skulked through the dark recesses of the human mind where behavioral genetics loomed even more fantastic than sci-fi. The protagonist, Donald Tillman, PhD reminded me of Spock and Data from Star Trek, and Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal of Doc Brown in Back to the Future, but with less empathy. Don projected innocence with his strict adherence to data based, rationalistic ethics and morals, his health and environmental consciousness, and his constant avoidance of behavioral “objectification” of other humans, especially persons of the opposite gender. Unfortunately, many of Don’s close associates lacked his moral compass, leading Don into conflicts.

Don came into sharp focus when he delivered a seminar on the genetics of Asperger’s Syndrome to a group of parents in the company of their Asperger’s Syndrome children. The facilitator complained that Don’s presentation was too technical, meanwhile the children understood and probed with sophisticated questions. The facilitator described Asperger’s Syndrome as a “fault,” prompting Don to respond (in the voice of Christopher Lloyd), “Fault! Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s a variant. It’s potentially a major advantage.” The seminar ended with the children standing on the chairs and tables with raised fists, shouting “Aspies rule!” Don became their hero. The parents were less enthralled.

Admit it! Deep down inside, you know you’re not normal. Really, no one wants the “average” label. Don was neither normal, nor average nor conventional.  He and we all have something that makes us different from the norm and therefore uniquely valuable. Thank God!

The bulk of the novel described Don’s hunt for a suitable life partner, using the best scientific tools available. This may sound far fetched, but several recent statistical analyses have described successful approaches to maximizing the predictive value of on-line matchmaking services. Don’s adventure flew him the equivalent of twice around the world and he literally climbed a wall in quest of his “impossible dream.”

The author, Graeme Simsion earned tremendous credit for his faithful description of the university environment and the complicated skill sets the author had first to master to a degree where he could convince his readers of Don’ performance levels. Simsion bids us to reflect on ourselves and our idea of “normalcy and convention,” inviting us to appreciate the vast diversity within ourselves and other Homo sapiens. In the Rosie Project, he reminded his readers that they each have something special to offer and that they can work with their uniqueness, including their quirks to contribute to society, while maintaining their identity. Simsion extolled the value of good friends to whom Don was both a blessing and a burden. In particular, Simsion raised awareness of Asperger’s Syndrome: especially that this form of autism, although a variation from the norm, is neither a disease nor a defect. Actually it has tremendous benefit to society if it is understood and maximized.

A brief scene from the novel was set in the subway station depicted above.

Simsion, Graeme. The Rosie Project. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013.