Ellen's Reviews > A Thread of Grace

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
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Jun 29, 10

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Some of the best scenes in literature:

1. The Idiot - mock execution

2. Macbeth - Act 5; Scene 5 - Macbeth's world is crashing around
him when he hears of his wife's death. He remarks, laconically, "She
should have died hereafter," and then delivers what might be the most perfect lines in literature:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

...Nowhere in literature is despair and futility communicated better.

3. Invisible Man - Liberty Paints Factory or battle royal

4. Flannery O'Connor - too many to list

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Janie telling Joe Starks, "When
you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh
life."


The few examples above come from "Tier One" literature. While this sounds hierarchical, I guess I do view books in general categories. For example, though Mary Doria Russell is an excellent writer, she doesn't make my Tier One list. And, I'm no elitist, but I'd be willing to bet most of us have some sort of invisible line that separates truly great literature from the rest. Then, there is schlocky literature and those books - like Glenn Beck's recent foray into literature (and I'd rather check out Hell for a few days or rip my face off than read The Overton Window) - that are beneath contempt.

However, in Tier Two literature (very good but not great), Russell's scene between Werner Schramm, an SS deserter, and Father Osvaldo Tomitz, an Italian priest, is absolutely unforgettable. Schramm has been dogging Osvaldo for some time, hoping to have him hear his confession. [If you consider this excerpt a spoiler, don't read it.:] Osvaldo wants nothing to do with Schramm, but Schramm persists and starts by asking Osvaldo a number of questions concerning faith, and then begins his confession:
"A priest's office is to instruct the faithful!" Schramm shouts. [Osvaldo is disgusted but resigns himself to hearing the confession.:] ...

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, he says when he can speak again. "I have murdered 91,867 people."

Osvaldo laughs. You're joking, this laugh says. You can't be serious! "Ninety-one thousand," he repeats. "Eight hundred..."

"And sixty-seven. Yes."

The number is absurd, but Schramm does not laugh. [Schramm tries to makes excuses, to clarify the situation, but Osvaldo cannot comprehend; it is beyond belief.:]

Osvaldo looks at Schramm, at the goat, at the diamond studded-sea in the distance. Mind racing, he tries to imagine what he can possibly say to this...this demon. His mouth opens. No words emerge. He lifts his hands, drops them, and begins to walk over.

"Wait!" Schramm calls. "You must-- What is my penance?"

Osvaldo turns and stares. "Mein Gott, Schramm, what did you expect? Rosaries?" Bending suddenly, leaning hard on hands that clutch his knees, Osvaldo chokes back vomit. Trembling, he lifts his eyes. "Shoot yourself."


I've eliminated both parts of this scene and its ending. It has to be read in its entirety.

The book's title is perfect, for grace does thread its way through this book. Though the plight of the Italian resistance, Jewish refugees and many others in this book prompt situations that are wrenching, the book is uplifting as well.

A poignant and memorable read.
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Comments (showing 1-28 of 28) (28 new)

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message 1: by Buck (new)

Buck So this book is more like "Pier One" literature, then?


Ellen Buck wrote: "So this book is more like "Pier One" literature, then?"

Ha. You're mocking me, right? Yeah, Tier One isn't exactly the best description. But really, don't you have a distinction between stellar classics and those books that are excellent but not quite at that level?


message 3: by Buck (new)

Buck Mocking you? I wouldn't dream of it. Pier 1, on the other hand...

But, yeah, I guess I have the same distinction. I think of it in terms of books I'll read on the subway and books that I won't.


message 4: by Manny (last edited Jun 29, 2010 11:47AM) (new)

Manny I liked the review - but with regard to the Schramm/Tomitz scene I thought Vonnegut did it better in chapter 83 of Cat's Cradle, "Dr Schlichter von Koenigswald Approaches the Break-Even Point":
'If you aren't "Papa's" doctor,' I said, 'who is?'
'One of my staff, a Dr Schlichter von Koenigswald.'
'A German?'
'Vaguely. He was in the S.S. for fourteen years. He was a camp physician at Auschwitz for six of those years.'
'Doing penance at the House of Hope and Mercy, is he?'
'Yes,' said Castle, 'and making great strides too, saving lives right and left.'
'Good for him.'
'Yes. If he keeps on going at his present rate, working night and day, the number of people he's saved will equal the number of people he let die - in the year 3010.'
Somehow, the fact that Vonnegut presents it as a joke makes it even more horrifying.


Ellen Manny wrote: "I liked the review - but with regard to the Schramm/Tomitz scene I thought Vonnegut did it better in chapter 83 of Cat's Cradle, "Dr Schlichter von Koenigswald Approaches the Break-Even Point":'If ..."

That is good, and I liked Vonnegut's earlier works better in general.


message 6: by Manny (new)

Manny Ellen wrote: "I liked Vonnegut's earlier works better in general."

I completely agree. The early ones are often quite brilliant, the later ones very disappointing.

I can't understand why no one has filmed The Sirens of Titan!


Ellen Buck wrote: "Mocking you? I wouldn't dream of it. Pier 1, on the other hand...

But, yeah, I guess I have the same distinction. I think of it in terms of books I'll read on the subway and books that I won't."


So which are which? I assumed the subway books were those requiring little concentration, but then thought perhaps the A-team books merit the subway as they look more impressive.

And - only two categories? This won't do :).


Ellen Manny wrote: "Ellen wrote: "I liked Vonnegut's earlier works better in general."

I completely agree. The early ones are often quite brilliant, the later ones very disappointing.

I can't understand why no one h..."


I stopped reading Vonnegut when he started re-cycling his characters and excerpts from his writing. It was like self-metafiction.


message 9: by jo (new) - added it

jo i like this review very much because 1. it gives us that great passage from macbeth, 2. it glorifies flannery o'connor, and 3. it gives us a great passage from A Thread of Grace. plus, i really like books about priests.

"what did you expect? rosaries?" "shoot yourself."

chilling lines. why didn't osvaldo want to hear Schramm's confession? it's not like priests get to pick and choose. bad priest, osvaldo.


Ellen jo wrote: "i like this review very much because 1. it gives us that great passage from macbeth, 2. it glorifies flannery o'connor, and 3. it gives us a great passage from A Thread of Grace. plus, i really lik..."

Thanks for the comments - obviously I agree with you w/r/t Macbeth, O'Connor and this book.

In addition to being a former member of the SS, Schramm had been drunk and contentious. I did shorten and truncate this scene, and I think, perhaps, the priest's behavior makes sense in the context of the book, which I liked very much.


message 11: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Mother Night is so underrated. It's one of my favourites ever. (I love Sirens of Titan, too. But yeah, I quit automatically reading him after Deadeye Dick, I think.)


Ellen Moira wrote: "Mother Night is so underrated. It's one of my favourites ever. (I love Sirens of Titan, too. But yeah, I quit automatically reading him after Deadeye Dick, I think.)"

MN and SoT are among his earliest works (1961 and 1959), which I didn't recall. My favorites are Welcome to the Monkey's House, Cat's Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five.


message 13: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell I actually liked the autobiographical parts of Slaughterhouse-Five but Billy Pilgrim got to me after a while. Ditto Cat's Cradle - I just thought a lot of it was twee. But I adore God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. I forgot Breakfast of Champions (which I did like) was supposed to be his metafictional farewell, and I do think everything after that just wasn't good (even tho Updike drooled over Slapstick).


Ellen Moira wrote: "I actually liked the autobiographical parts of Slaughterhouse-Five but Billy Pilgrim got to me after a while. Ditto Cat's Cradle - I just thought a lot of it was twee. But I adore God Bless You, Mr..."

You're probably right, but I was reading Vonnegut in my late teens and early twenties, and I think my twee tolerance was significantly higher back then.

Humpf. I'm not sure how influenced I am by Updike's drooling.


message 15: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Ellen wrote: "I'm not sure how influenced I am by Updike's drooling"

OMG MY BRAIN WENT TO THE BAD PLACE //cries


message 16: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 29, 2010 06:49PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) jo wrote: "... plus, i really like books about priests. "
Ellen wrote: "I think, perhaps, the priest's behavior makes sense in the context of the book, which I liked very much."


Russell writes priests well. Hers are altogether human. They drink, fight, cuss, masturbate ... the whole nine yards.

jo, did you read The Sparrow or the sequel, Children of God? Lots of priests in both.

I'm enjoying Russell, but like you Ellen, I have her relegated to a different category of novelists. Perhaps it's not a fair criticism, but there's something about her character development and dialogue that feels a little too ... glib, maybe? She relies on stereotypes a lot as a short-form for character. She sure knows how to pack a plot with an emotional punch, though.


Ellen Eccentric Muse wrote: "jo wrote: "... plus, i really like books about priests. "
Ellen wrote: "I think, perhaps, the priest's behavior makes sense in the context of the book, which I liked very much."


Russell writes ..."


I didn't mean that Russell alone was a slightly less than A-Team writers, but simply that there are the superstars and then the majority of writers, who may be excellent, but just not in the same category as the luminaries.

I think you meant The Sparrow, which - along with the sequel, I also liked very much.


Jennifer (aka EM) Ellen wrote: "I think you meant The Sparrow, which - along with the sequel, I also liked very much. "

I did, fixed. :-) (swallows, sparrows ... i get them confused).

I guess I just wonder why Russell isn't (or isn't yet) considered one of the luminaries? What is that distinction? Even though I'm making it, I struggle to justify it. My explanation above re her character dev is sort of a post-hoc rationalization.


message 19: by Buck (new)

Buck To give you some idea, Ellen, I wouldn't read Pleasuring the Pirate on the subway. I wouldn't read a Derrida book there, either, but I'd hold it in front of my face provocatively. Or provokingly. One or the other.


Ellen Eccentric Muse wrote: "Ellen wrote: "I think you meant The Sparrow, which - along with the sequel, I also liked very much. "

I did, fixed. :-) (swallows, sparrows ... i get them confused).

I guess I just wonder why Ru..."


Having made a distinction, I'm uncomfortable with it, because I believe authors are often overrated by consensus and vice versa. I read an interesting interview by Eric Miles Williamson (whom I haven't read), and he made this comment about the whimsical reputation of authors:
So how about this, in answer to your question: American writers who are neglected by both academia and the mainstream press--Erskine Caldwell, especially God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Jack London, especially The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden, The Road, and his essays. Frank Norris's The Octopus and McTeague. No one reads Nelson Algren, and they should. Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith, Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and Work of Art. Ronald Sukenick's Narralogues, Mosaic Man, 98.6, and Out should be required reading, as should Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Call it Sleep, by Henry Roth, is a neglected masterpiece. Henry Miller is routinely left off syllabi, and he may prove to be the most influential American novelist of the 20th century. No one ever mentions Sherwood Anderson, but his Winesburg, Ohio remains the most important American short story collection of the 20th century, as important to us as Dubliners is to the Brits.

How about the opposite? Contemporary American authors who do get treated with respect and recognition and shouldn't be: John Updike, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chuck Palahnuik. There's no shortage of famous authors who write drivel.


http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-sh...


message 21: by jo (new) - added it

jo i'm totally going to read her books. i don't want the priests, though, to be bad priests. i am happy if they are human, but i want them to be charitable and loving too. bad priests, bah. i don't need to read about them in books.


Ellen Buck wrote: "To give you some idea, Ellen, I wouldn't read Pleasuring the Pirate on the subway. I wouldn't read a Derrida book there, either, but I'd hold it in front of my face provocatively. Or provokingly...."

Hmmm...but then what books are actually read on the subway?


Jennifer (aka EM) Ellen wrote: "Having made a distinction, I'm uncomfortable with it, because I believe authors are often overrated by consensus and vice versa. I read an interesting interview by Eric Miles Williamson (whom I haven't read),..."

Mr. Williamson had me up to the point he implied Toni Morrison writes drivel. Uhh, huh?

This just underscores that really, it comes down to a matter of taste and subjective opinion, the latter of which may be more or less learned and more or less well articulated (or influenced by fashion). All of which is fine ... I like subjective opinion anchored somewhere in a rationale other than the swell of the crowd, and I try--as I've seen most GRers whose reviews I read--to force myself to always present something of a "why". Like you, I feel a little wishy-washy on Russell, but the bottom line is: I find her stories compelling, well-told, moving and thought provoking. So that's that.

I'll have to move this one up on the to-read list, I think.


Ellen Eccentric Muse wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Having made a distinction, I'm uncomfortable with it, because I believe authors are often overrated by consensus and vice versa. I read an interesting interview by Eric Miles Williams..."

I agree with you, although I found some of Morrison's later books less engaging. Again, though, much of this - as you point out - is subjective. And Williamson's broader point, which I do agree with, is that politics/academia/promotion can dictate what is touted and what is not.


message 25: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 29, 2010 07:51PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) I'm a recent convert to Morrison, after A Mercy, which was my first of hers, remarkably. I was absolutely bowled over by it.

That article is excellent, although I don't 100% agree with everything he says. He sure calls it as he sees it [and names names:]! He has some very interesting things to say about so-called professional reviews, which was (maybe still is?) a hot topic here on GR after the pseudo-poll about possibly including them. Thanks for the link; I'll peruse it a little later. I'm heading back to Look At Me. Have a lovely evening.


message 26: by jo (new) - added it

jo thanks, abigail! i'll check him out.


message 27: by Kupus (new) - added it

Kupus I don't remember mock execution in "Idiot" - but I do remember Dostoevskys description of his execution which was halted before he was killed. (Fact not fiction)


Juliana I just want to say that this review convinced me to give this book a try, and I'm so glad I did. It was easily become one of my favorites. Thanks for much for writing such a brilliant review!


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