Tag Archives: Catholic Church

Listen In! Jenny talks about HOME on Epic City

caroliviaRecently, I was honored to join author and talk show host Carolivia Herron on her weekly book program, Epic City, on the brand new Takoma Park radio station WOWD, broadcasting worldwide on takomaradio.org. Carolivia and I met through Upshur Street Books when I read there in July, and–among many other things–she is very interested in the underappreciated Battle of Fort Stevens. We discussed that in detail during the hour-long program, and I read from the chapter in Up the Hill to Home that’s all about the battle, “Jubal’s March”. We also talked about D.C. voting rights, the various characters in the book, and the surprising parallels between black and white family experiences in the then-segregated city.

You can listen to the discussion section of the program by visiting Epic City Broadcasts and scrolling down to the October 18th entry. The program is separated into four sections.

The music used in the program is not included here, but Carolivia introduced me to a haunting song written and sung by Bob Weir called “Lay My Lilly Down”, which she played during the broadcast. You can listen to it here.

2015 Gold Medal from Readers’ Favorite

On the heels of receiving a five-star review from Readers’ Favorite, Up the Hill to Home was also named the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal recipient in the category of Christian Historical Fiction. Though readers may be surprised by the category, since the book does not necessarily fit the traditional image of Christian fiction, Up The Hill to Home tells the story of a Catholic family for whom faith is a crucial element of both personal identity and community, and the theme of faith as a bedrock of this family suffuses every part of the story.

It’s interesting to note that Up the Hill to Home is demonstrating wide appeal among readers of many different genres, since the book also garnered a Perfect 10 rating from Romance Reviews Today, making it eligible for RRT’s Best Book of the Year designation, even though the book also doesn’t fit the mold of what most readers would consider a romance novel.

In her review for Readers’ Favorite, Tracy Slowiak highlights the book’s evocation of time and place in history:

“I loved, loved, loved Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s new book, Up the Hill to Home. This debut novel is so beautifully and lovingly written that if I didn’t know that it was based on the author’s ancestors, I would have assumed as such. Up the Hill to Home follows the life of Lillie Voith, beloved wife of Ferd, only daughter of Emma and Charley Beck, and mother of nine, soon to be ten. When Lillie discovers her pregnancy, she happily asks Ferd to bring her the treasured memory box, the sweet custom she follows when she is expecting each of her children. When Lillie takes a fall in the basement one day, then develops a worrying cough, everyone starts to fear that they may lose the glue that holds the family together.

“Up the Hill to Home is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a masterpiece in the genre of historical fiction. Taking place in the late 1800s until the 1930s, the experiences, conversations and surroundings of the Beck and Voith families ring so truly of the time period that when I needed to take a break from reading, I’d have to shake my head a bit to clear my mind and bring myself back to the present moment. This book would appeal to any reader of authentic historical fiction, any lover of fiction in general, and any reader longing for a story that showcases true familial love and connectedness. I simply cannot recommend this book any more. Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s Up the Hill to Home is a treasure, and one to which you should definitely treat yourself.”

WIROB Review of Up the Hill to Home

In today’s edition of Washington Independent Review of Books, reviewer Katy Bowman offers a lovely and detailed critique of Up the Hill to Home. Ms. Bowman says, “Yacovissi shines in her descriptions of daily life, whether that life is taking place in Civil War-era Washington as Jubal Early and his Confederate troops are closing in, or in the crowded mid-1930s household that Lillie calls home as the book begins.” Particularly gratifying is her assessment of the book’s “complex characters,” in which she notes, “She brings the people and the places to life in such a way that they take up residence in your imagination, fully formed and breathing.”

Book Review: Love’s Alchemy, a John Donne Mystery

With his debut literary historical novel Love’s Alchemy (Five Star Cengage, 392 pp), author Bryan Crockett has managed his own dazzling bit of alchemical wizardry: he has unearthed a tiny undocumented slice of the otherwise outsized, thoroughly recorded lifetime of one of literary history’s earliest rock stars, John Donne, and turned it into an engaging, intriguing, and fully realized bit of who-can-say-it’s-not-so alternative history.

Calling this “a John Donne mystery” implies both that there is something of a whodunit surrounding a body, and that this is one of a series of books featuring everyone’s favorite Jacobean poet as a 17th century sleuth. Labels aside, the choice of Donne as a protagonist is a brilliant bit of casting. The perfect embodiment of the tug-of-war between the sacred and the profane in both his poetry and his life, Donne’s presence opens the window on so many elements of his time—political and religious perhaps even more so than literary—and Crockett takes advantage of them all to weave an erudite and compelling tale.

It is 1604, and James I has been on England’s throne for less than a year. Though he was Elizabeth’s most obvious successor, his ascendency was far from certain; thus, one way James sought to strengthen his base was to promise Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and defender of Catholics, that he would be lenient toward Catholics as long as they didn’t openly flout the laws against religious practice. Once crowned, though, James and his Secretary of State Robert Cecil—chief strategist in bringing James to the throne—have clamped down on practitioners of the faith, mirroring Elizabeth’s brutal intolerance. Catholicism is treasonous, of course, since Catholics hold their highest earthly allegiance to the pope, and Jesuits in particular have a history of and reputation for inciting violence and promulgating martyrdom as an effective agent of social change.

In this, Donne’s backstory is particularly on point. He comes from a prominent—the Crown says notorious—Catholic family, in which two of his uncles were leading Jesuits, one having spent time in the Tower of London before being banished; his mother, great-niece of the martyred Thomas More himself, lives in exile in the Netherlands after helping another Jesuit escape prison; and Jack’s own beloved younger brother Henry died in prison from the plague after being tortured for harboring priest William Harrington, who in turn died an ugly martyr’s death. This last episode more than any is the one Donne points to in explaining why he lost faith in Catholicism and became a Protestant, but it is a question he wrestles with throughout the novel, believing that both sides are misguided.

Against this backdrop, we’re introduced to the young Donne family, which is going through its own trying times. At 32, Jack, as we come to know him, is already well-schooled, well-traveled, and well-known, especially as a ladies’ man and writer of titillating poetry. He has had the beginnings of a good career in the law, with a seat in Parliament and a position as the chief secretary to Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton, which makes his prospects at court favorable. All that has crumbled, unfortunately, in the face of what Jack himself might decry as cliché: he fell in love with the Lord Keeper’s young niece Anne, entrusted to him by Egerton himself to tutor appropriately. The two married in secret, without her titled father’s permission. The upshot of the ensuing unpleasantness is that Jack now has no position, no income, no home of his own in which to shelter his growing family—Anne is already expecting their third child in three years of marriage—and virtually no prospects. He is currently hoping to cultivate a wealthy patron for his poetry, the oh-so-enticing Lady Lucy, Countess of Bedford. Crockett uses the opportunity to imagine Donne’s creative process; almost as the story opens, we hear the poet playing with the building blocks of the novel’s title poem.

Jack’s late-night summons by none other than Robert Cecil, the king-maker himself, propels the action of the story. Employing a deft mix of enticements, tokens of sincerity, and veiled threats to convince Jack to cooperate, Cecil recruits him to a particularly distasteful bit of spying: Jack is to pretend to convert back to Catholicism to ferret out a mysterious but apparently very dangerous man known only as Guido. As proof of his good intent, Cecil offers Jack some delicately personal information about himself that involves Jack and Anne, but it’s clear to Jack that he needs to figure out Cecil’s endgame before he becomes its victim.

So the mystery is not a whodunit but a whoisit (and where, and what is he up to, and why does Cecil care), and the tension builds as the outlines of a plot come into focus and Jack has to decide whom to trust. Left at home, Anne proves herself no passive Penelope, instead using her own smarts to make crucial connections and further Jack’s cause. If Anne in particular appears to have more modern sensibilities than we might expect from a woman in the early 1600s, her character still feels right; she would need to be an exceptional woman to capture and keep the heart and head of Jack Donne.

Crockett builds a marvelous fiction out of what is almost entirely known fact. Virtually all of his characters are historical figures, and he has captured them doing much of what they are known to have done; he simply adds in a few what-if plot points along with behind-the-scenes action that, it’s plausible to imagine, simply never made it to the history books. Even the cover art harkens to the historical record: it shows a dark and smoldering Jack Donne, only his face and full red lips illuminated, with an impossibly broad-brimmed hat pulled down to cover part of his face; that artwork is clearly a reflection of the famous 1595 portrait, in which his younger self gazes out—same red lips, same illuminated flesh—but with that broad-brimmed hat pushed back to frame his entire face. At times, the richness of the history dazzles in a mere hint, as when Crockett reminds us that Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne were all immediate contemporaries, living and working in the same city at the same time. Imagine the possibilities, then, as Anne describes what happens after she and Jack go to see King Lear at the Globe Theatre: “ . . . he saw me home and then went to the Mermaid to drink with the author. It was almost dawn when he came home, drunk and full of the raucous life of the alehouse. He wanted to bandy words with me, as he had done with Shakespeare, Jonson, and the others.” Talk about a pub-crawl for the ages.

Book Review: A History of Loneliness

This review was originally published on 27 February 2015 in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Very early in John Boyne’s latest novel, A History of Loneliness, we are given the measure of Father Odran Yates, and it is the man himself who reveals it. His second sentence to us is, “I might start with the evening I showed up at my sister’s home for dinner and she had no recollection of issuing the invitation; I believe that was the night when she first showed signs of losing her mind.”

He describes going to Hannah’s house for dinner almost a year since last being there after her husband Kristian died at only 42. It is just Hannah and her shy, awkward 16-year-old son Jonas there; the angry, older son Aidan has moved to London.

Odran describes the painful evening and how his beloved younger sister moves back and forth between lucidity and confused non sequiturs. And even as Jonas catches him on his way out and tries to articulate his concerns for his mother — during the same instance that Odran has asked whether everything is alright and says he and Jonas should talk more — we see Odran escaping out the door, cutting Jonas off and refusing to acknowledge that anything is amiss: “But I didn’t let him continue…I felt the guilt of it but could do nothing.”

If, at this point, readers are thinking, “How could you?” then they should get used to thinking that consistently throughout this story, with growing urgency and disbelief.

Odran is a middle-aged Irish priest working in a private school for privileged boys, teaching English, celebrating daily Mass, and keeping the library organized. He’s held this position since his ordination in Rome 27 years before, and he is safe and happy here. Not everyone has felt the same, though, because, as it turns out, one of the school’s teachers has recently been sentenced to six years in prison for sexual abuse of minors.

We learn this fact when Odran is summoned to a meeting with his archbishop, which he fears may be an interrogation about what he knew or suspected. Instead, it turns out to be something much worse: The archbishop is yanking him from his cloistered existence and reassigning him to a parish for the first time in his clerical career. The move is at the suggestion of Tom Cardle, the priest whose parish Odran will be taking over.

The reader spends most of the novel understanding far more of what’s going on than Odran, who, like a deliberate Forrest Gump, skates over the surface of his life, innocent and unaware, assiduously avoiding having to put two and two together. In choosing willful ignorance, Odran churns up a wake of pain and devastation, which cuts through his own family, while he plows along, unseeing.

For Boyne, Odran represents an entire denying populace. A History of Loneliness is a horrifying tale primarily for its truth, but it’s at its weakest when Boyne cannot find a way to channel his anger and vents it directly onto the page.

Archbishop Cordington — later made cardinal as a reward from “the Polish pope” for many years of service — embodies all of the brutal inhumanity of the Catholic bureaucracy, and therefore his character is a ridiculous caricature. The back-and-forth arguments and diatribes later in the book seem gratuitous and unnecessary; nothing will convince the church’s protectors that they were wrong, but for the rest of us, Boyne is preaching to the choir.

Odran tells us that he and Tom are best friends, but we never see what bonds them beyond proximity and time, and perhaps that is truly all that is there, and it is Odran who mistakenly equates time with closeness.

Certainly nothing recommends Tom to the reader. No matter how damaged we understand Tom to be — and we are sure to understand far more than Odran does — he is never a particularly sympathetic character. Thus, it seems odd when, later in the story after the extent of the abuse has been revealed, Odran denies knowing Tom three times in a row when he is called out in a hostile public situation, even though he has known Tom since their first day together in seminary.

Boyne uses the same device in The Absolutist, but the Christ/Peter analogy is far more apt in that story. Here, it’s a true head-scratcher as to what he wants the reader to think of his likening an unrepentant serial pedophile to Christ.

Through Odran, Boyne displays real affection for the newly elected Pope John Paul I, whose willingness to question Vatican finances and other apparent church corruption made him dangerous. When we finally learn what failure Odran committed the night the pope died, we are stunned by Boyne’s implication about historical events. Even after this, Boyne’s narrator, in true Odran fashion, retreats into self-absorbed obtuseness, noting that the events result in a black mark against him, effectively eliminating any hope of advancement in the church.

Odran isn’t despicable, and we are pressed to question how well we would do in his stead. In some ways, especially later in the book, I found myself thinking that Boyne might have done better developing a nonfiction treatise on inherent church corruption, and the protectionist attitude that has damaged the institution and all the people the institution betrayed. In particular, he highlights the endemic misogyny of the church to raise a thought that perhaps there’s a connection from that to its rampant pedophilia and tolerance of it.

Finally, Boyne argues that Ireland is particularly vulnerable to this type of abuse because it is so thoroughly Catholic. Indeed, it’s hard to find a parallel example: Italy, in comparison, may love the pope, but only about 10 percent of the population attends Mass. A History of Loneliness highlights the dangers of allowing one institution to wield that much power over a society. Even today, Boyne reminds us, the church runs 90 percent of the schools. It’s a chilling thought.