Open Book, April 2017: “Gosnell”

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

Gosnell by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer is not easy to read. The style is smooth and fluent, but the topic’s a tough one: Kermit Gosnell, former abortion doctor, now serving life in prison. He killed children who survived attempts to abort them. He was found responsible for the death of a woman who came to him for an abortion and died under what passed for his “care.”

He committed terrible crimes. He is in prison now. Reporters covered the trial as it happened, once they were shamed into it by people like journalist Kirsten Powers. Three years after Gosnell’s conviction, there is now a book that sets down not only what happened, but tells more about the people who were involved. As McElhinney and McAleer tell their stories, the book becomes less about a court case and more about human beings, capable of good choices and bad ones.

I listened to McIlhinney and McAleer talk about their book at CPAC, a political conference in Washington. An odd venue, but perhaps that was the place to reach readers who might not otherwise hear of the book. McAleer was a quiet man, leaving most of the talking to his co-author (who is also his wife).

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McIlhenney was not at all quiet. She was passionate and angry as she talked about Gosnell. She was indignant. She called Gosnell “America’s biggest serial killer,” and she meant it. She made no bones about it: she had no objectivity left regarding her subject.

Familiar as I was with the Gosnell case, and as impressed as I was by McElhinney’s passion, I wondered what could be new in the book. As I read, I quickly realized that the close attention to the individuals involved in the case, starting with the investigators, set Gosnell apart from anything else I’ve read on the subject.

The authors’ perspective is unique as well, as McElhinney explains in the preface: “I never trusted or liked pro-life activists. Even at college I thought them too earnest and too religious.”

Fast forward to April 2013 and Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia, when everything changed….[T]he images shown in the courtroom were not from activists, they were from police detectives and medical examiners and workers at the 3801 Lancaster Ave. clinic….What they said and the pictures they showed changed me. I am not the same person I was.

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Open Book, January 2017

The first week of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

Not long ago, I was in Boston for a program on Catholic education. Among the speakers was Paul Elie of Georgetown University, of whom I hadn’t heard until that day. As authors are wont to do, he brought a pile of his books for sale and signing, and I’m glad I took the time to visit his table. I picked up a gem, in the form of his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

The Life You Save is a work of spiritual biography, weaving together the lives and vocations of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. All were Catholic writers, although “writer” was not necessarily the principal earthly vocation. No two of them became and remained Catholic via the same path. As Elie writes in the Prologue,

It is in their lives and their work together that their influence is found, and that this telling of their story is meant to explore. Today, as when they were alive, they are representative figures, whose struggles with belief and unbelief are vivid and recognizable. At the same time, as they venture forth together, their story suggests a series of different ways of pilgrimage, with the episodes highlighting patterns that the yearning for religious experience can take, in their time and in ours.

I’m taking my time with The Life You Save. I find myself re-reading passages two or three times, and then reflecting for awhile before reading on.

I was surprised to see that the book was published in 2003. How did I not come across it until now?


During the recent holiday break I treated myself to a much more casual read-it-in-two-sittings novel: Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham. Pure fun.

Graham was one of the Gilmore Girls, a series my daughter and I know line-by-line (including last November’s Netflix sequel). Her name caught my eye in a recent book review of her new memoir. The reviewer mentioned Graham’s earlier novel. Novel? What novel? I went straight for the library shelves and found Someday, Someday, Maybe.

It’s the story of an actress-in-training, or rather in-hoping, trying to break into the business in New York City. She sets herself a six-month deadline to Make It, after which she’s resigned to returning to her home town. The journey as mapped by Graham is hilarious and touching and hopeful.

Open Book, October 2016

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately. 

Theodore Rex was as good as its early chapters promised. I’m impatiently waiting for a copy of Colonel Roosevelt, volume three of this Theodore Roosevelt biography written by Edmund Morris.

I’m fortunate to live only a few minutes away from the offices of Sophia Institute Press, with its extensive catalog of Catholic books. One of their titles recently caught my eye: Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal – a particularly timely topic. I’ll be reading it through most of this month, resolutely ignoring as many political-campaign phone calls as possible. (Are voters in every state assaulted with so many calls? New Hampshire only has four electoral votes. Lord have mercy on the bigger swing states.) The book is a selection of writings by Jacques Maritain, edited by James P. Kelly III, exploring the theme of how Christianity and responsible citizenship go together. This is a welcome subject to me, in the age of personally-opposed-but.

Stark Decency deserves greater fame. New Hampshire readers like me can find it in any local bookstore or library shelf, while the rest of you must trust to online sources. Allen V. Koop’s book about a World War II prison camp in New Hampshire reveals a bit of American history little-known outside my Granite State. In 1944, German POWs were sent to the small upstate town of Stark to cut pulpwood for a local paper mill that faced wartime production demands.In an unlikely place and an unlikely situation, friendships developed between some prisoners and guards, and later between prisoners and townspeople. Koop sets out the story in just over 120 pages, ending with an account of a 1986 reunion at which five former POWs returned to Stark for a celebration of friendship and peace. “Camp Stark did more for people and peace than for pulpwood,” he notes. I love the book’s calm and undramatic style, which suits the story.

While motoring in the north country on New Hampshire highway 110, I once came across the state’s historical marker describing the camp. I’m glad the marker is there, and I’m glad Allen V. Koop wrote the story of what’s behind it.

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Marker in Stark, New Hampshire. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

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Banned Books Week: thanks, but I’ll pass

It’s “Banned Books Week.” The American Library Association rolls out this observance every year to “highlight…the value of free and open access to information” and “draw… national attention to the harms of censorship.” As an American who prizes the First Amendment and who writes and reads what she pleases, I suppose I should be all in with the ALA on this. Something here doesn’t pass the sniff test, though.

I’m not all in, for the simple reason that the ALA conflates the banning of books with the challenging of books. 

A government or school agency that prohibits the publication or ownership of a book, and is willing to back up the prohibition with threats of fines or loss of liberty, is in the banning business. Rights of publishers, owners, and readers are denied outright in such a situation.

On the other hand, my right to read isn’t undermined if someone objects to an item on my public library’s shelf. The rights of the kids in my neighborhood aren’t affected if someone challenges the inclusion of one book or another in the local public school’s curriculum. The challengers in those cases aren’t banning a book any more than the people who chose the book for the curriculum or library in the first place were banning alternatives. 

Such challenges might annoy me or amuse me or trigger an eye-roll. What they don’t do is amount to a ban. And that is apparently where I part ways with the estimable folk at the ALA with whom I share deep respect for literacy and the freedom to read.

Something else I respect is the power to question authority, including authorities who select media for libraries and schools. Why this book? Why not that one? What are you teaching? To whom are you offering or denying a platform? 

A community might be discomfited when a book is challenged. Better the challenge, though, than unquestioning acceptance of what the professionals decide ought to be on our school and library shelves.

Yes, people of all ages have a right to read. They also have a right to know that questioning authority does not amount to censorship.