Don’t Mess With Sister

My father’s favorite childhood memory, retold many times around the dinner table, was his besting of the nun who tried to give him a good rap across the knuckles for his misbehavior in second grade. Hands out, ready for punishment, he swiftly lowered his hands just as the ruler descended, causing Sister to whack herself instead of him. Not many can boast of escaping Sister’s wrath (and he never reported on what happened afterwards). In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof – We Are All Nuns – and Maureen Dowd – Bishops Play Church Queens as Pawns – offered their opinions on the Pope’s confrontation with the nuns, who are “accused…of worrying too much about the poor…” It isn’t hard to predict who will win.

In addition to recounting the legendary but truthful tale of Sister Rachele of the Congo who managed to “browbeat a native warlord into releasing the great majority of girls” who had been kidnapped from her Ugandan Girls’ School, Kristof offers this caution:

“…the Sisters may be saintly, but they are also crafty. Elias Chacour, a prominent Palestinian archbishop….once asked a convent {to} supply two nuns for a community literacy project. The mother superior said she would have to check with her bishop. ‘The bishop was very clear in his refusal to allow two nuns,’ mother superior told him later, ‘I cannot disobey him in that.’ She added: I will send you three nuns.'”

Having had the personal experience of being indoctrinated by nuns through twelve years of schooling – with some memories that are scary, most benign, a few endearing – I wondered about fiction – who wrote about nuns? I remember two books I’ve read and enjoyed – how about you?

Related Article: Vatican Reprimands US Nuns


National Book Giveaway

Modeled on a British program that distributed over 1 million books, World Book Night in the United States recently gave away 500,000 free paperbacks to potential readers who may not otherwise be able to own a book – no e-books; all physical books in hand.

A list of 30 titles for the giveaway, compiled by librarians, bookseller, and publishers, included:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Zeitoun  by Dave Eggers
  • A Reliable Wife  by Robert Goolrick
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • The History of Love  by Nicole Krauss
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

For the full list, go to “World Book Night List of Books” – here

How many have you read?


In a fictional account narrated by Rasputin’s daughter, Masha, and the young heir to the Russian throne, Alyosha, Kathryn Harrison recreates the final months of Tsar Nicholas II and his doomed family in Enchantments.


Rasputin’s strange death opens the story; the politically influential mystic who was seen as a holy man by some and a degenerate womanizer by others –  was almost impossible to kill.

“Enough cyanide to finish off ten horses. A dozen bullets. An ax to the head. And still they had to drown him.”

With hope that Rasputin’s mysterious power to stop the bleeding of their hemophiliac son had been passed on to his daughter, the royal Alexandra and Nicholas decide to adopt Rasputin’s young daughter, Masha, after his gruesome death.

The Royals

Masha and her sister are brought to the palace to live, and the tale begins.  As the days grow grimmer, with Nicholas forced to abdicate and the royal family imprisoned, Masha shows her power not to be mystical or medical.   Her talent lies in weaving stories – some based on folklore, others on her father’s exploits – that distract the young prince from his constant pain.  The prince cannot be relieved by morphine in the fear that he would become dependent on the drug.   Through Masha, the narrative goes back and forth from opulent times of the past to their current imprisoned state.

Harrison uses her own power with language to inform the reader about the lives of the royals with their sumptuous surroundings and expensive trinkets (those  Fabergé eggs among them).   To follow Harrison’s meandering from Nicholas’s courtship of Alexandra to Rasputin’s early escapades before becoming the tsarina’s advisor, it would help to know the history of the Russian revolution. Harrison ruthlessly hopscotches back and forth and sideways through the years, and it’s easy to get lost.

Although the execution of the royal family is well documented in history, Harrison’s description of their death is no less jarring, and with more brutal impact because the scene does not appear chronologically.  Harrison inserts the details unexpectedly, between blithe stories of Rasputin’s escapades and Masha’s new life with her husband, a royalist supporter who never abandons hope that the tsar is alive and will be reinstated.

Just as in real life, Masha eventually makes her way to America to become a lion-tamer in the Ringling Brothers Circus, and  Alyosha’s diary of his last days, is mysteriously delivered to her, confirming his death and the end of the dynasty.

With young Alyosha’s bravery as he grows into a manhood suddenly cut short, and Masha’s circumspect observations of Rasputin as a kind  and loving father, the historical fiction becomes a poignant account of a brutal time in Russian history.  Not an easy read, Enchantments requires undivided attention to follow, but if you’d like to imagine how these legends of history lived, loved, and managed each day, Harrison offers a believable possibility from a different perspective.

The Book of the Future

Grant Snider created a cartoon for the book review section of the New York Times that defined the book of the future.

To accomodate complaints of low-lighting on breakable e-readers that may strain eyes, Snider suggests redesigning books by:

  • making them interactive (by turning pages by hand)
  • using non-glowing type encased in a protective layer of wood pulp (paper)
  • and giving books a home decorating function (as in book shelves).

Could books go full circle? from to

Check out Snider’s cartoon – here.

An Available Man

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest commented on life after the death of a spouse, noting …

“… dear Lady Harbury… since her poor husband’s death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.”

In An Available Man, Hilma Wolitzer explores the life of Edward Schuyler, a 62 year-old science teacher, after the death of his wife – not a biting satire like Oscar Wilde, but a comedy of manners with a poignant mix of humor and pathos that addresses a life after death.

Edward thought he was managing – just some out-of-sight crying in the basement, wearing his wife’s neck chain for his glasses so he could see to screen phone calls, and ironing his dead wife’s blouses for comfort. He’d avoided well-meaning friends attempts at match-making, but then his children placed a personal ad in the newspaper for him. Responses poured in; one of my favorites:

“We have many beautiful Russian brides waiting to meet you.”

Edward hesitatingly gets back into dating, and one response surprisingly takes him back to his broken past and the one who left him standing at the altar.  As Wolitzer takes Edward through a series of misbegotten adventures with his family as well as his dates, his life becomes a series of lessons easy to observe as a reader but probably hard to actually live through. He even suffers the death of the family dog, but finally Edward finds true love again, in an unlikely possibility, and receives the gracious blessing of his dead wife’s ninety year old mother.

When I was floundering, trying to decide what to read, my good friend came to the rescue with this book, and I am thankful for its witty and thoughtful tonic.  I needed a happy ending – and Wolitzer delivers – without cynicism.