Podcast (June): Edward P. Jones

In 2020 The Catholic Reading Challenge is reading 24 different short stories by 12 different authors. Each month we will focus on one author, reading two stories by that author. During each of our bi-weekly podcast episodes we will discuss the stories in turn.

When we were making the selections for this year several months ago, we came across a connection between Edward P. Jones and James Joyce. We had already decided to include Joyce, as we wanted to read selections from The Dubliners. Apparently, Jones was inspired by Joyce when writing his own collection of stories, Lost in the City, set in his own hometown city of Washington D.C. Our selections for this month are taken from this volume. Here’s an excerpt from the Amazon description:

A magnificent collection of short fiction focusing on the lives of African-American men and women in Washington, D.C., Lost in the City is the book that first brought author Edward P. Jones to national attention. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and numerous other honors for his novel The Known World, Jones made his literary debut with these powerful tales of ordinary people who live in the shadows in this metropolis of great monuments and rich history.

Theses tales are quite powerful, and the characters in them could be people you pass every day on the streets of D.C. We’re looking forward to discussing the two stories listed above, but you may very well be compelled to read the whole collection. And don’t miss the author’s introduction (from the anniversary edition); it gives an important glimpse of him in his own words and an understanding of his motivations and feelings in writing this compilation.

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey

The “Non-Option” of Despair

My husband and I are currently working our way back through Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The other night we were watching this scene from The Two Towers, in which 300 men are preparing as best they can to defend the fortress of Helms Deep against 10,000 orcs that will besiege their gates by nightfall. Legolas, in great anguish, is calling Aragorn’s attention to the obvious: most of them are either too old or too young and are hopelessly outnumbered by the enemy…they are all going to die. Aragorn’s response: “Then I will die as one of them!” The video link above then skips to Legolas’s apology later, right before the battle begins: “Forgive me,” He says to Aragorn. “I was wrong to despair.”

I remarked to my husband how significant Tolkien’s theme of hope is throughout this trilogy. The company of joined Middle Earth forces is facing an enemy that has both the desire and ability to wipe them out completely. In reality, their only option is to fight this evil; their only choice is to bravely face the enemy and hope for their realm to once again be at peace, ruled by a just and noble king. In this particular scene we see what happens when hopelessness begins to blur the clarity of this reality: it causes us to abandon our cause and actually prevents us from any action. Despair freezes people

The funny thing about despair is that it pretends to give us an alternate option. But Tolkien’s depiction of hope in his sweeping narrative and through his compelling characters most powerfully reveals that despair is actually not an option, though it seems like such a viable and reasonable one in our moments of weakness and hopelessness. I can’t help but draw parallels from this film scene in our own responses to the spiritual warfare we experience in the pilgrimage of the Christian life. 

How many times do we face overwhelming odds and, over time, when things are at their darkest, get worn down to the point of complete despair? The thing about Legolas is that he is actually an extremely brave warrior and dedicated friend who, up to this point, had been a hope-filled comrade to Aragorn and the entire “Fellowship of the Ring.” He was the kind of guy who rallied the troops. But, we see that even Legolas can become despondent, given certain circumstances. We too, after fighting so bravely, can find ourselves vulnerable to the lie that the enemy whispers to our hearts: “Your hope is not a sure thing. Don’t be a fool. Save yourself the disappointment at the end. Stop moving toward heaven; it’s out of your reach.”

When we think of “options,” we think of alternate routes to get to an end goal or destination. The lie from the enemy of our souls is that despair is an option—our only option—that it has an end in store for us that is better than what we risk losing if we choose hope. But it’s a lie. Despair just arrests and binds us in fear. It is when we hear the lies being whispered that we need, more than ever, to hold on to God’s promises, to recognize and listen to the voice of the Father. This is what He says:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

“See, I am making all things new… [my] words are trustworthy and true… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”(Revelation 21:5-7) 

When next the enemy tells you that despair is your only option, remember and respond with triumph that though you are afflicted, you are not crushed; though you are perplexed, you will not be driven to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8).

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey

Podcast (May): Eudora Welty

In 2020 The Catholic Reading Challenge is reading 24 different short stories by 12 different authors. Each month we will focus on one author, reading two stories by that author. During each of our bi-weekly podcast episodes we will discuss the stories in turn.

We are reading another American Southern author this month — Eudora Welty. I recently read her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, and found parts of her life quite interesting. For example, her father was from Ohio and her mother from West Virginia, but when they married they settled and raised their family in Jackson, Mississippi. Welty recalls the family’s annual trips north to visit family in their automobile. Her mother monitored the map, and her father kept his pistol in the side of the driver’s side door–just in case. (Indeed… remember O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? If only that family had had a pistol in their car door.)

I really cannot imagine what it would have been like for a family in the early 1900s with three young children (one a baby at the time riding on his mother’s lap in the front!) to make such a long trip every year. Even with iPads, unlimited snacks, GPS directions, iPhones, and numerous pit stop options, my husband and I get a little nervous about traveling with our kids for more than six hours! So those kinds of stories of her life provided some insight of Welty’s parents’ influence on her scope and view of the world.

She also worked as a journalist for a time, writing and taking photographs; and I came away having the sense that she was someone who watched and listened to the people around her, perhaps people that others overlooked. I think that such habits of life may be evidenced in the stories that we read by her this month. As we have discussed on the podcast many times, good novelists and short story masters are able to help us see what is real–real people, real places–the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is certainly no different with Welty and the characters of her stories.

I will be reading both stories from this little collection I picked up at a local book sale. I absolutely love the picture on the cover. But there are many other compilations available online or through your library. I hope you read along and listen in to our discussions!

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey