The Duty of Delight
Edited by Robert Ellsberg
Marquette Univ. Press. 700p $42
This first edition of the collected diaries of Dorothy Day is bound to become a modern spiritual classic. Many Catholics already know some basic facts about the American-born founder of the Catholic Worker movement. But even those who have read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, will be unprepared for surprises that await them in this astonishing work. Sometimes portrayed as a woman who set aside family life to begin the Catholic Worker, for example, Dorothy is revealed as intimately involved in the lives of her daughter, grandchildren and, later, great-grandchildren. Her diaries, written over the course of almost 50 years, show a woman striving each day to become a better Christian, hoping to fulfill the “duty of delight,” in a phrase from John Ruskin.
I have never read the journals of any saint (or soon-to-be-saint) that are so unflinchingly honest. Some were written for publication. Others were sanitized to be more “edifying.” Here, though, is an achingly human testament, in which Dorothy frankly discusses the joys and sorrows at the Worker, her affection for a vast network of friends and her complicated reactions to a period of volcanic change in her beloved Catholic Church. In short, this is one of the most powerful works of Christian spirituality I have ever read.
James Martin, S.J.
The White King
By György Dragomán
Houghton Mifflin. 272p $24
A collection of short stories loosely based on author György Dragomán’s childhood in Romania, The White King revolves around Djata, a young boy living under totalitarian rule. Coping with the wrongful imprisonment of his father and a gnawing fear of authority, Djata finds himself surrounded by people who have internalized the government’s cruel tactics, their actions colored by intimidation and their own anxiety. The prose is often engaging and sprinkled with moments of levity, as Djata navigates the hazards of adolescence under extraordinary circumstances. But witnessing Djata’s constant pummeling at the hands of peers, teachers and members of the community takes a toll on the reader. Various authority figures wield their limited power with impunity, and there is an overwhelming sense of helplessness: a vicious soccer coach nearly beats one of his young players to death for the boy’s failures on the field (“End of the World”), while a teacher coerces Djata into participating in and losing a school competition (one that turns out to be fixed anyway). Djata’s schoolmates and peers react similarly to the oppressive climate; they stage territorial war battles against each other (“War”) and, in another instance, a few of them are about to strike Djata with bricks for winning at gambling (“Pact”). Dragomán succeeds in sharing a story that is steeped in brutal reality and undeniably affecting.
Why We Hate Us
American Discontent in the New Millennium
By Dick Meyer
Crown Books. 288p $24.95
Ever wonder how a sane person could live in a culture dominated by boorish cell phone and “crackberry” users, loudmouth talk-show hosts, hypersexualized advertising, absurd reality shows, attack-dog bloggers, media outlets focusing exclusively on “celebutards,” mendacious politicians and more “conspicuous consumption” than Thorstein Veblen could have imagined when he first coined that phrase?
Dick Meyer, a longtime journalist, wonders about that too in Why We Hate Us. At one time or another, all of us have fretted or complained about the stressors listed above, but it is Meyer’s insight to link them together as general indicators of a larger culture of selfishness. Each chapter takes aim at one aspect of our increasingly individualistic world, with plenty of hair-raising examples (they’re not hard to come by) and a full measure of wit (harder to come by). Along the way, the author proffers solutions: sacrifice, good manners and charity among them. He clearly admires Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone for its emphasis on the lost art of community; he also points to virtuous figures who embody “authenticity.”
One drawback is that Meyer devotes scant attention to the cohesive factor of religion and the way that it enables participants to embody a coherent moral code. And he is better at diagnosis than cure. His overall advice is, “Strive to make thoughtful choices using a sound moral temperament.” But which moral temperament? That is one area where a fuller discussion of religion would have helped. But overall Meyer’s book is insightful, provocative, funny, frequently brilliant and always fascinating. At the very least, you will never ever speak loudly on your cell phone again. J.M.
The Suicide Index
By Joan Wickersham
Harcourt. 336p $25
On a February morning in 1991, Joan Wickersham’s father woke up, brought in the newspaper and made coffee for his wife before retiring to his study, where he shot himself in the head. He left no note. Unexpected suicide, Wickersham tells the reader, not only severs the earthly connection between two people but kills “every memory everyone has of you. You’re saying, ‘I’m gone and you can’t even be sure who it is that’s gone, because you never knew me.’” Unmoored, Wickersham is forced to reconsider her entire conception of her father. In an effort to impose order on her chaotic feelings, she constructs an index with entries cataloging different aspects of her father’s suicide and its aftermath. Eschewing a linear structure and strict chronology, the memoir jumps forward and backward in time, showing how Wickersham’s recollection of past events helped to piece together a clearer, though still incomplete, picture of her father’s mental state. Wickersham finds herself moving forward but not toward a conclusive answer. Yet while the ultimate explanation for her father’s suicide remains elusive, Wickersham takes readers on a cathartic journey, gracefully rendering the pain and confusion that accompany such paralyzing loss. R.N.