Books Worth a Look

  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave - This book is a must read. Better than anything else I've read, it takes you vividly into the life of a person in the 3rd world who has no choice but to escape. It is brilliantly written & works well as an audio book. Often I've sent info about the wonderful refugees I've met in Europe. We know only so much of their plight as it is painful for them to recall much less live through again by recounting it. But over time it is clear what they've lived through. This book is excellent as you discover the horrors of their world. Somewhat how to me, it is like being in Europe near a Concentration Camp. One has an obligation to visit it. 'Never to Forget.' In this case, to have our eyes opened.
  • Garbage King by Eliz Laird - The book is set on the streets on Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia and here lives Mamo and his sister Tiggist. When Mamo's "uncle" offers a job, he soon sets out on a bus to work. Little does he know that he is actually being sold into slavery...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

City of Belief - book review by Jim Forest, The Netherlands

a review published in the February 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine

City of Belief
by Nicole d'Entremont
publisher: CreateSpace / ISBN 978-1442138506
250 pages, $16

reviewed by Jim Forest - (my friend in Alkmaar, Netherlands.

In 1965, Nicole d’Entremont, a not-quite college graduate, was one of the young volunteers working at the New York Catholic Worker -- St. Joseph’s House -- on Chrystie Street, a short walk from the Bowery in lower Manhattan. These days the area is fashionable and the rent high, but in 1965, a two-room, cold-water flat could be rented, along with its cockroaches, for as little as $25 a month.

For New Yorkers at the time, the Bowery conjured up images of homeless, alcoholic men panhandling in the day and sleeping in doorways at night. When an ambulance was summoned to aid one of the unwashed men who had collapsed on the street, it could easily take half an hour before it arrived. Dying men in that neighborhood were not a priority.

In a mainly unwelcoming world, one of the few places street people could find a meal and a measure of care was St. Joseph’s House. It was probably the only place in town that provided decent food and a welcome with no strings attached, no sermons to hear, no biblical readings to endure, and no program to submit to.

The year 1965 was also when things were rapidly going from bad to worse in Vietnam -- bombs falling like rain, thatched huts in peasant villages set on fire with Zippo lighters, bewildered U.S. army conscripts as much victims as executioners. Among the war’s casualties was one of the newer members of the Catholic Worker community -- Roger LaPorte, 22 years old. Before dawn on Nov. 9, while standing between the U.S. Embassy to the United Nations and the U.N. headquarters, he poured gasoline on himself and struck a match, exploding instantly into flame. Rushed to Bellevue Hospital, his body 95 percent burned, LaPorte lived more than a day, managing to say that this was a religious act (that is to say, not an act of despair) and that he was “against war, against all wars.” He lived long enough for a priest to hear his confession.

D’Entremont was one of those at the Catholic Worker who was closest to LaPorte. She and a friend had been with him the evening before his self-immolation, unaware of what he was thinking about doing. She was vaguely aware of something LaPorte couldn’t -- or dared not -- put into words, but that hung unspoken in the air. Now 45 years have passed, nearly half a century of trying to understand what she lived through -- and not only herself but LaPorte, Dorothy Day, and the others who were part of the community, young and old, novices and veterans, articulate and inarticulate.

The result is City of Belief, a remarkable novel in which d’Entremont herself is simply one of the people through whom the reader experiences life at the Catholic Worker in 1965. Some names are unchanged (Dorothy Day is one), others altered. D’Entremont has become Del, LaPorte has become Jonathan, St. Joseph’s House has become St. Jude’s, the community journal The Catholic Worker has become The Agitator.

City of Belief is also a portrait of a time when, for an amazing number of people, the goal of life was much more than making a living, being comfortable, and having security. It is startling to recall the sacrifices many made at the time in their struggle to end the war and create a more compassionate society.

While City of Belief has elements of autobiography, it is mainly a work of art. D’Entremont records events not only as she saw them but through the eyes of others, seeing herself with amazing clarity and detachment. Her book also describes in a compelling way her struggle with faith and doubt.

LaPorte’s self-immolation happened at 5:20 in the morning. Twelve hours later, the lights of New York and most of the Eastern Seaboard went out. For nearly twelve hours, New York became a moonlit paradise. The crime rate plummeted; the good-deed rate soared. New Yorkers had no idea how talented they were in finding ways to help each other. It was a night of love in all its varieties. Nine months later, there was a tidal wave of births.

Was there a connection between what happened after sunset and before sunrise? City of Belief suggests the answer is yes.

1 comment:

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

I think it's a book that you will really appreciate.



Thoughts on the amazing people I get to meet.

Rich, my 19 year old friend, soon to be Franciscan and recent community member at Haley House in Boston. An article he wrote.