A History of Loneliness

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne was one of the more difficult books I’ve read in recent memory. It made me sick, angry, and incredibly sad. Sometimes all at once.


Odran Yates is a Catholic priest. He’s been moved from the school where he was happily looking after the library and feigning an interest in rugby for the boys, to the parish of his old friend Tom Cardle. He misses his school and looks back over his life to try and figure out how he ended up here. We go back to the week at the beach in Wexford with his family that had such tragic consequences; the day his parish priest came to talk to him about inappropriate conduct with the neighbour girl; his time in Rome for his final year of seminary and how it all kind of came undone. Tom and he were roommates at seminary and through the years they continue their friendship, even though Odran finds it odd that Tom keeps getting moved; Tom comes to say the mass when Odran’s mother passes away, stays with the family for the night and afterwards Odran’s nephew Aidan seems different somehow; Odran stays with Tom and his housekeeper keeps trying to insist that he stay with Tom while he goes about parish business.

I’m a lapsed Catholic. I grew up in the Church, went to Catholic school, Sunday mass, dreaded the years where Christmas fell on a Wednesday since it meant I’d have to go to mass every three days for two weeks. I liked the rituals, the marking of time by the liturgical seasons. But then some things came up with the Church that I had a hard time swallowing and I stopped going to mass as regularly. I became a Christmas and Easter person for a while until I stopped altogether.

A History of Loneliness was at once completely familiar and totally unrecognizeable. It evokes a time and place, an Ireland whose life revolves completely around the Church. Priests are deferred to in all, mothers bringing their wayward sons to the local priest to have them guide their boys towards adulthood. Young men told that they had a vocation in the Church, sent to seminary at the age of 17, sometimes completely against their will. Modern day Odran struggles against the new reality of the Church in Ireland, people that are angry at and suspicious of the priesthood, ensuring that their children are supervised at all times, looking for the Church to be held accountable for the untold damage that has been done. Eventually Odran has to confront what happened which is when I broke down reading it.

This book is the definition of the Edmund Burke quote “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Even though Odran himself has never done anything other than the work that his mother told him was his vocation, he’s had to have thought over the years that something wasn’t right. Even when he’s confronted with the truth, Odran still can’t believe that this was covered up, that it went all the way to the top, that the Pope knew and did nothing. He realizes that he’s been a kind of accessory, has hidden himself away in the library, behind his books, pretending like bad things haven’t been happening.

Boyne pulls no punches. He calls out Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI for knowing about the abuse suffered by boys at the hands of their priests and doing nothing. For hiding behind the power of their office, their infallibility as the head of the Church, and moving the problem to other parishes. It’s a fictional book but you know that it has it’s roots firmly planted in truth.

This is a book that will stay with me for a long time – I think I’m still working through my feelings about it. It is an exquisitely rendered story based on excruciatingly difficult subject matter. I’m not sure that I’m doing this book any justice. Just know that it is something else.


God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

This was an interesting and eye opening read.

Christopher Hitchens, a well known atheist, takes it upon himself to debunk the ‘myth’ of God and to illustrate how religion really effs things up.

Having struggled with matters of faith and religion myself over the past few years, I gave this a read for a different perspective. I was blown away. Not just by the things that I was reading but how thorough and brilliantly laid out it all was. Hitchens definitely didn’t believe in doing anything half-assed. His knowledge of biblical, theological and humanist history is astonishing and his essays are understandable and relatable.

His main thesis is, of course, that religion poisons everything. Religion doesn’t make people better or more moral human beings, in fact, more often than not it does the opposite. He touches upon the scandals of abuse at the hands of religious elders in many faiths, delves into the similarities (referring to them as plagiarism) between the big religions and even some pagan rituals and history, and does his best to rationally state the case for atheism.

I was in the book store today and saw that God Is Not Great was on the table for books that had changed people’s lives. I have no doubt that people read this book and thought, possibly for the very first time, about the role of faith and religion in their lives. The very basis of faith is that you just believe, you don’t question it. Hitchens forces you to confront your beliefs – he’s not gentle about it. I can’t imagine ever getting in a fight with him…

Being an outspoken Atheist did not come without risks. He speaks freely about the death threats he and his family received because of his stance. He talks about Salam Rushdie and the fatwa placed on his life after the debacle surrounding The Satanic Verses. But he’s also uniquely experienced in the ways of religion. He was raised in a Protestant country with a quasi-Jewish mother and married in a Greek Orthodox Church (ergo, he converted). He’s been to places ripped apart by questions of faith: Belfast, Beirut and Baghdad to name a few. And his theological knowledge could probably rival that of most pastors.

He’s definitely an equal opportunity offender – he states the case against Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, even Buddhism.

This forceful portrait of the evils of religion was an eye opening read. I’m not sure where it left me in terms of my own struggles and thoughts but I’m glad I read it. It was the different perspective that I was looking for.


The Kennedy Women

Months ago I read Laurence Leamer’s The Kennedy Men. And I was blown away by the honest portrayal of these men of Camelot.

The same day that I bought The Kennedy Men, I purchased the companion, The Kennedy Women. For reasons that I will never understand given my penchant for biographies of famous women, The Kennedy Women languished on my shelf for months! Whenever it came time to choose a new title, I would inevitable pass over The Kennedy Women for another shinier, newer, easier read.

Having just finished it I can’t think of a single reason why I wouldn’t have picked this up sooner. It is spectacular. And so thorough! Leamer manages to go back to the original Kennedy woman – Bridget Murphy. She was, let me see if I get this right, Joe Kennedy’s grandmother. And she was the first Kennedy woman in America. She came over on a boat along with thousands of other Irish Immigrants hoping for a better life in the new world. She married Patrick Kennedy not long after and they had 3 daughters and the longed-for son before Patrick Kennedy died 10 years after they were married (in a bizarre coincidence Patrick Kennedy also died on November 22nd) leaving her a widow with 4 children. Bridget ended up starting a successful general store and was able to set her only son Patrick Joseph (PJ) Kennedy up in politics and that was the beginning of the fortune the Kennedys would eventually have control over.

The Kennedy Women – the book and its subjects, amazed me. All of these women were taught from day one that their role was to support the men in their lives. They were to put their brothers, fathers, husbands and sons before them in everything always. And yet they managed to leave their mark on the world.

Rose Kennedy was content to live a life completely separate from that of her husband, turned a blind eye to all of his indiscretions (there were many) and was content to live through her children. She buried 3 of her sons, one of her daughters, a daughter-in-law and a son-in-law, had to live through her daughter’s botched lobotomy and through it all somehow managed to keep the strongest faith in God and her Church. At the end of her life (she lived to be over 100!) she was the celebrated matriarch of an American dynasty.

Eunice Kennedy – what a woman. I knew she started the Special Olympics but I never realized what an active role she played in changing the attitude towards people with disabilities. She was especially close to her ‘special’ sister Rosemary, visited with her when no one else would, and all that she did for those with special needs was due to that relationship. Through it all she managed to be the wife of an ambassador, have 5 successful and bright children, and again play an active role in the campaigns of her brothers.

We covered a lot of Kennedy women – Eunice, Rose, Jean, Pat, Bridget, Josie, Maria, Caroline, Ethel, Jackie, and Joan but for me, aside from Eunice, the ones that stay with me the most are Rosemary and Kathleen. Rosemary was always their dirty little secret – the eldest daughter that was always a little bit behind everyone else. Until her father decided she should have a new procedure done – a partial lobotomy. And then no one ever spoke of her again. But she was so beautiful and radiant and loved to be a part of the family. It was tragic what happened to her.

Kathleen was always so full of life and laughter and was an Anglophile at heart. Like her sisters, her Catholic faith was an important part of her life and identity but she gave it up to marry the love of her life, the Duke of Devonshire. When she was left a widow shortly thereafter she was heartbroken. When she found new love, her life was tragically cut short in an airplane accident.

I learned so much from this fascinating portrait of the women of Camelot. The first time I ever heard anything about the myth of Camelot was when Jackie Kennedy Onassis died and that was in 1994. My mom tried to explain to me about why people were so sad when she died. But it wasn’t until much later that I finally understood it. There is obviously quite a bit in the book about, arguably, the most famous Kennedy Woman but I was much more intrigued by Joseph P Kennedy’s daughters.

You should read it. It is compulsively readable, sometimes shocking, always exquisitely executed. One of my favourite reads this year.