Book Review: A Good Hard Look

Having only read her short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, the one thing I really knew about Flannery O’Connor is that she died young. Strike that. I also knew she was Southern, but I didn’t know until recently that she was born in Savannah.

When I saw A Good Hard Look on the used books shelf at a local shop, I was instantly curious. It’s a novel of Flannery O’Connor, not a novel by her. The author, Ann Napolitano, created a possible world of Flannery’s last year in Milledgeville, Georgia, her hometown and the place she retreated to after being diagnosed with Lupus. She had already written Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. In A Good Hard Look there is talk of her writing, but whether it’s a third novel or a collection of short stories, it’s not entirely clear.

A_Good_Hard_Look-large_coverA Good Hard Look begins with the squawking of peacocks. They were so loud that all of Milledgeville heard them in the night. The birds kept people awake, put them on edge, and gave them pause, wondering why in the world someone would find the animals soothing. But Flannery did, and not only did she have a large collection of peacocks, she also had a menagerie of other fowl – ducks, geese, chickens, whatever. They roamed the farm outside town where she lived with her mother. Flannery wrote and tended to her birds, waiting to die.

The fiction bits are relational – friendships, romantic relationships, and parenting woes that are all made complicated by time. Flannery is dying and Cookie Himmel (her childhood nemesis) is newly married. The problem is that her New Yorker husband can’t understand why he and Flannery can’t be friends. There’s a housewife/seamstress whose life is jolted by a passionate affair with a teenage boy while her daughter searches for something that gives her life an ounce of meaning. There is an overbearing religious mother, a hard-nosed cop, and a baby. And as always, there are the peacocks. How they’re all connected requires reading the book.

Napolitano became infatuated with Flannery while in college. She familiarized herself with the writer’s voice and was inspired to immerse herself in the literary world because of it. Like Flannery, Napolitano was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and it left her in a bout of depression. When her wellness returned, she committed herself to A Good Hard Look, a love letter to Flannery that took her six years to write. It is a provocative story that engages the reader and a poetic tribute to the Southern Gothic writer who was robbed of her years.

Flannery’s prayer

Her journal is painfully honest. She asks for what she wants, admits she deserves none of it, and sits quietly in the presence of the One who loves her so.

Flannery OConnor prayer of thanksgiving

She kept this journal from January 1946 to September 1947, covering the earliest years in her 20s. She’d moved from Savannah to Iowa City to study journalism and longed to have her writing mean something. Three years after the close of this journal, she was diagnosed with Lupus, a disease that took her life in 1964. She was only 39 years old. It was in her deepest suffering of the disease that she wrote the novels and short stories she’s known for: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, A Good Man is Hard to Find

She was born in Savannah, 45 minutes from my birthplace, and died the day after my birthday. I’m not going to dwell on those parallels.

Lent Reading 2015

A few years ago I started observing Lent, but instead of giving up meat or coffee or carrots (which Jackson said he was giving up for Lent), I decided instead to take these forty days and immerse my brain in study. I pick a subject (or a subject picks me) and I read a selection of books that will stretch or test my faith.

This season of Lent will be about prayer. I’m starting with a super short book by Anne Lamott.

Help Thanks Wow

In truth, I’m terrible at prayer. I was that girl in the youth group who really tried, mainly because I knew I was supposed to pray so I could say YES when someone asked, “Are you doing your Quiet Time?” (I’m glad no one asks me that anymore.) I’d have bouts of regular prayer in adulthood, times here and there when I’d study something or pray for a very specific thing (like our adoptions), but nothing stuck. I’d get complacent and robotic. So I’d stop. I told myself that if it didn’t feel real, I shouldn’t do it. To be brutally honest, for many early years I was that person who used to say “I’ll pray for you” and never did, not because I didn’t care but because I didn’t understand how to make it a priority in a meaningful way.

Several years ago I stopped saying “I’ll pray for you” because I didn’t want to be disingenuous. I actually do pray for people, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s in the moment, at the second it occurs to me, and it’s usually very brief.

Lord, please make it easy for her today. Amen.

God, this feels so unfair. Make it not hurt so badly. Amen.

Heavenly Father, give him a moment to think. Calm him down. Amen.

Thank you for all of this, Lord. Truly. Amen.

Participating in responsive prayer has been helpful to me in recent years, but I know I’m still missing out on something. For that reason, I’m going to read about contemplative prayer during Lent, a practice I know little about but wonder if it will benefit my scatterbrained mind. After Anne Lamott will be a book by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who wrote extensively on contemplative prayer. I’ve also ordered Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, a book I didn’t even know existed.