Tag Archives: faith

FREE for a short time: After the War

Three and a half years ago, I self-published the novel After the War. You can download it to your Kindle for a short time for free. Go here to grab a copy.

After the War was the first story I’d ever thought of writing. It just took me years–a decade?–and many published books to get this first tale into print.

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Maybe the new cover? Maybe not?

I’m offering it for free for several reasons: first, I hope readers will grab it, read it, like it and post a review; second, I’m getting ready to redo its cover and even go through the novel to see if I want to make any refinements, so think of this as a going-out-of-print (temporarily) sale; and third, it is a story with faith elements, and I’m getting ready to have another book with faith elements, Fall From Grace, released this fall by Bancroft Press.

The faith elements in After the War center on the characters of Margaret, a nun, and her sister-in-law, Paula–their struggles with religious rules and with love, both Christian and romantic, ten years after the end of World War II. Margaret (Sister Francis Marie) suffers a nervous breakdown that puts her in the psychiatric wing of Johns Hopkins, while Paula looks for ways to start pre-baptismal counseling so she can convert to Catholicism before her husband discovers she’s not Catholic, after all.

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Maybe the new cover? Maybe not?

When I first wrote After the War, I had a different title in mind: The Conversion of Paula. Pretty clever, huh? Luckily, I dropped that and focused instead on a simpler title: Margaret. That changed, too.

As I pondered how to tell you more about the story, I thought maybe just sharing my note to readers at the end of it would sum it all up best. I’ve added a few details to help explain the story and left out some spoilers. After you read it, let me know which cover design you like best. Thanks in advance!

Dear Reader,

When I first penned this story, it focused exclusively on Paula and Margaret, two women whose approach to life and whose histories were almost direct opposites. Paula, despite her good upbringing, was to be a Mary Magdalene character, while Sister was something of a zealot for whom faith and religion meant rigid adherence to a set of rules. I wanted the book to be an exploration of their approach to faith, Paula’s springing from a desire to be loved and love in return, and Margaret’s coming from a desire to feel safe.

But as I wrote it and rewrote it—I started it years ago and returned to it over time—other characters called out to me to tell their stories. The nurse Kate, who ministers to Sister in Hopkins, for example, had always been a part of my tale but way in the background, her struggle with what to do with her life after accepting widowhood playing out only in relation to Sister Francis Marie’s travails.

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The old cover: I’m not sure the nun picture works so well.

Dr. Kaplan’s point of view as Sister’s psychiatrist hadn’t been in early iterations of the novel, and Father Al, the priest whom Paula consults with, hadn’t made an appearance at all.

As I included more about Kate, however, I realized I had to share more about Dr. Kaplan. And I also realized I couldn’t very well write a book that touched on faith issues and not include something about the priest to whom Paula goes for baptismal instruction.

This is when the book’s overarching theme deepened and diverged from my original goal. My initial objective, in fact, became less attainable for me as I realized I didn’t want to write a theological discussion on faith and certainly didn’t feel qualified to pen one even if my inclination was there. I wanted to show how ordinary people dealt with the doubts and assumptions about their faith, if they had any at all. I wanted to show them wrestling with their beliefs as many do today.

Each had had their faith tested, in large and small ways. But in some way, each test was related to…the war.

All the characters had, in some significant way, been affected by the war. As I wrote their stories, the book became about that effect and their reactions, their accommodations to life after the war. Intertwined is the story of faith, but binding it all together is that “after the war” theme.

When I realized this was what I was writing, I thought, “of course.” As a Baby Boomer, I grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s. World War II was still a tangible event, still something that hung over my parents’ lives and that of my friends’ parents, as well. My father’s army uniform (he served in the Philippines after the bombs were dropped) hung in our basement. He’d met my mother when he was stationed at a camp near her Indiana home. My friends’ fathers had served, some in combat. I often felt, in fact, that those years were like a long, warm summer after a bitter cold—and deadly—winter. I might not have experienced the war, but I lived through the collective sigh of relief afterward.

So the “after the war” theme felt natural and real to me, as much a part of this story as Paula’s struggles with love or Margaret’s wrestling with her vocation.

A few words about Margaret’s convent life: I researched the life of nuns in various convents as I wrote this story, and I’m very grateful to Sister Ann Marie Slavin, OSF, for her insights and help. My research provided me with bits and pieces of the convent life in which I wanted to place Margaret. But the Order of Sisters in my novel, as well as their specific Rule, is entirely fictional, and not based on any particular convent or its Rule.

Libby Sternberg

So, that’s the story! I hope you pick up a free copy and enjoy this story, the first one I ever contemplated writing.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

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Favorite novels with faith elements

The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday book review section (which is excellent, by the way) runs a regular feature called “Five Best,” five one-paragraph reviews of books that aren’t new releases, all on one theme, chosen by a writer who might have a book coming out (or just released) that touches on the theme. For example, today, February 18th’s theme is “novels of political protest.”

I always enjoy that column and have ripped it out more than once to save for later book purchases.

Because I have a novel coming out this fall that deals with religious faith (Fall from Grace, Bancroft Press — you can read more about it here), I’ve been thinking of what I’d include in a list of favorite novels with faith elements. Here are three, for a start:

The first, and most recent, one that comes to mind is Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (2004). Like all the novels on my list, I’ve read this more than once, and it never fails to move me. Set in 1956 at the end of Rev. John Ames’s life, it consists of a letter he writes to his young son to explain his family, his history, his relationship with God. The climactic moment of this novel is a quiet scene that creeps up on you as you realize that you, too, might have had moments of singular grace such as this, but hectic schedules and the duties of daily living could keep you from recognizing them. One of the most profound scenes in the book, though, occurs fairly early in the story when John relates a tale of his abolitionist preacher grandfather being confronted by his son (the narrator’s father) about his activities. “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt,” the father says, “And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing…” Keep in mind that the grandfather was on the right side of the Civil War battle, yet his son justifiably chastises him for using his pulpit to push for war.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1944) has been a go-to for john_15_12_love_one_another_poster-rac0d4c53566348458f59796e03c63b1a_au58_8byvr_512me over the years for quiet, even nostalgic introspection. You don’t have to be British to feel the bright sunny pre-war mood of the upper-class characters in this tale of an aristocratic Catholic family in Anglican England. Although I’ve reread the story many times, I still have trouble remembering plot points as the various Flyte family members marry, separate, marry again, and reconcile over the years. The climax is, as in Gilead, quiet, yet breathtaking in its impact as the estranged husband of Lady Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die and be reconciled with his faith.

J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961) immediately appealed to me on the first reading, even though its characters were as removed from my own experience of life as the author’s most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield never grabbed my attention or sympathy, though, because he, with his upper-class New York wealth and advantages, seemed like, well, a spoiled ungrateful brat. But while both Franny and Zooey come from that same kind of background, they always appeared to me to be more humble about their place in life, more thankful. And Franny’s inner torment is universal. This book, originally two short stories printed in the New Yorker, is odd in that it consists mostly of long conversations between Franny and her brother Zooey, as he tries to coax her back to living when she suffers a breakdown of sorts as she confronts how empty her life is. While faith discussions are sprinkled throughout the novel, it is Zooey’s patient explanation of who an unattractive “Fat Lady” really was in their now-deceased brother Seymour’s life that lights up the tale: “And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

Let me know your favorite novels with faith elements — I’d love to add to my list!

___

Fall from Grace by Libby Sternberg (Bancroft Press, Sept. 2017; ISBN: 9787-1-61088-205-7): When Eli Baine, son of celebrity evangelicals, is caught using a prostitution ring, he has to relearn early faith lessons to find his way back to family and true Christ-like love.

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Year of Wonders — Book Review

This bestselling historical novel of a plague-ridden 17th century village by Geraldine Brooks has been praised for its “rigorous regard for period detail” and “elegant prose.”  Let me expand on that — Brooks’s period detail is woven seamlessly into the storytelling so that she doesn’t have to stop to explain to the reader, in parenthetical phrases, archaic words or practices that are mentioned. You understand the details because of the context in which she places them. That’s real skill, a writer at the top of her craft.

The story is a fictionalized account of the small Derbyshire town of Eyam whose citizens, in 1665, made the selfless decision to quarantine themselves when Bubonic Plague strikes the village, thus stopping infection from spreading to nearby communities. Anna Frith, a young widow and servant, is the narrator, and her evolution is the backbone of the story. Kind and strong at the outset of the tale, she becomes fiercely independent by the end of it.

After reading the description of the story on the back cover, I knew what to expect once the book got going–the witch accusations, the ghastly deaths, the violence. There was, in fact, a sense of “we’ve seen this movie before” reading them. Brooks was wise not to embellish her prose too much in these sections. The mere laying out of actions and reactions was enough. This was the strength of Brooks’s writing–her quietness, her matter-of-fact narration. This, along with that elegant descriptive prose and period detail, placed the reader squarely in the story so that you could not only see and hear the 17th century villagers but smell their town’s best and worst scents.

Despite admiring and enjoying these aspects of the author’s skill, I finished the book angry! Beware–if you’ve not read this novel, spoilers follow…

As you would expect, a story of such vast death and destruction confronts questions of good and evil, faith and faithlessness, God…and no God. Brooks does an admirable job of placing these weighty subjects in appropriate context and keeping them from becoming sermonettes. Anna Frith is Everywoman in this regard, struggling with these heavy topics the way ordinary men and women do when confronted with tragedy and unknowable pain.

But Anna, while the narrator, is not the only pivotal character in this book, and I found myself warming with irritation when the author took the respectable, if imperfect, character of the minister, Michael Mompellion, and turned him at the end of the story into a gross misogynist, whose past treatment of his wife Elinor was the epitome of lust-hating  but inwardly lustful zealot. I’ve seen that movie before, too. And its excesses seemed out of place in this nuanced and understated story.

In fact, the backstory of Elinor Mompellion seemed excessive as well, standing out in this quietly sorrowful story like a red blotch on a Monet lilypad painting. Why, I wondered, did Brooks throw that in? Well, to give her subsequent revelation of the minister’s dark side a foundation. These parts of the story and one other plot twist made me feel the presence of the author, smirking in the background.

What was the other twist? (Again, spoiler alert!) At the end of the novel, Anna leaves the village after the plague has passed, taking with her a newborn babe abandoned by its family, and she ends up in…an Arabian harem, happy as a clam with these gentle “Muselmen.” At which point, I found myself thinking, “Really? Really?” You paint poor misguided Michael Mompellion as a crude psychological abuser, and you think it’s just dandy that these “Muselmen” engage in the woman-degrading practice of polygamy? C’mon.

This moved my irritation up a notch. It finally exploded in anger, however, when I read the author’s notes at the end. Turns out there was a real minister of that little town of Eyam, a William Mompesson, whom Brooks describes as “heroic and saintly.” He did, after all, convince his fellow villagers to impose the quarantine on themselves.

So, Brooks took this real “saintly and heroic” man, Mompesson, and turned him into the priggish and boorish Mompellion (perhaps she thought changing his name to Schmompesson was too obvious?). In other words, she ruined his reputation with her fictional retelling. Sure, he’s long dead, and sure, we don’t know much about him except his good deeds, but….well…really? Why? Why bestow on Mompellion’s wife, Elinor, all the saintly characteristics? Why not give Mompesson some credit?

In her notes, Brooks blithely mentions her liberties with the truth. I get that — historical fiction is fiction. But why not make up another name for this dude instead of the lightly disguised Mompellion. I mean….c’mon. You gratuitously slammed what appears to have been a good man, and for what? Your novel was good but was it worth that?

So, while I give Brooks props for the storytelling, the historical research, the prose, I say “shame on you” for taking a real man and turning him into a misogynistic religious nut while at the same time giving readers the impression that Anna’s true paradise lay in the confines of a woman-degrading harem. Sorry, that’s just…nuts.

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