Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
Curl up with a good mystery and gain some insights into priesthood

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the April 16, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

I missed the opportunity to hear Marilynne Robinson when she spoke at Gonzaga and Auntie’s Books in February. I hear she had sold-out audiences.

I have thought Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead was one of the great books of modern fiction. It told the story of a Congregational minister late in life, writing letters to his young child about his family. The letters went back to the minister’s grandfather in the Civil War and father in World War I.

John Ames as an old man had married a much younger woman, named Lila, who was from an entirely different background than he was. In the letters to his son written around 1950 he told of the grandfather who was an activist recruiter for the North in the Civil War and the father who was a pacifist in the First World War.

Now Robinson has written a third book in the Gilead series, titled Lila, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux at $26 list price.

In Lila we learn of the background of Lila, who becomes Ames’ wife. She was taken as a baby by an adult woman, Doll, who brings her up with a motley crew of itinerant workers. There is violence at times and Lila is protected by Doll’s knife. Eventually, Lila ends up in a house of prostitution in St. Louis. She escapes after a time with a woman traveling to Iowa by motor car. Thus she connects with John Ames, who comes to love her very much. They do have a child.

Lila is not a believer in the traditional sense and in one scene, she seeks to wash off her baptism. Her husband loves her greatly, no matter what. We journey with Lila as she asks some of the key questions of life and death.

There is little dialogue in Lila and much of the story is the internal thought of Lila which switches easily from time and place as she reflects on her life.

Lila does explain the quiet and unassuming Lila in Gilead rather completely. But for me, Gilead is the far superior novel.


For six weeks starting in January, PBS followed Downton Abbey with a Masterpiece Mystery titled “Grantchester.” The mysteries follow a Church of England vicar in a small parish outside Cambridge in the 1950s. The vicar is named Sidney Chambers and he was the head of a tank group under the Scots Guards in World War II.

The book version upon which the series was based is by James Runcie and is titled Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death. I know the title sounds like a 1940s movie serial, but it has a lot more going for it than that. It is published by Bloomsbury of New York for a list price of $16 in large-size paperback.

The author has a strong insight into the priesthood because he is the son of the famous Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who had hoped the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches would be united by the year 2000. Archbishop Runcie held his position from 1980 until 1991. Interestingly, Robert Runcie was a member of the Scots Guards and was a tank commander in World War II, just like the fictional character his son has created.

The volume includes six mysteries, four of which are fairly close to the television series. Two mysteries of the television series are said to be from the book but it is clear they are pretty much new stories. I would have to say the television series does a better job of making the characters of Sidney’s house keeper and his curate more real and forceful in the plots.

Yes, there are similarities to the “Father Brown” mysteries of G. K. Chesterton. To me, the Grantchester mysteries at least in the first novel present a more interesting priest-character who is wounded psychologically because of his war experience and is seeking some relief in whiskey and in solving mysteries.

Sidney has a platonic relationship with Amanda who, because of her more wealthy status, eventually marries a rich man. He also is attracted to a German woman, Hildegard, whose husband dies in the first mystery but at least for a while she returns to Germany.

The Grantchester series works because of Sidney’s friendship with Cambridge Inspector Geordie Keating. This enables him to have a connection with the police when he falls into some kind of mysterious event.

There are two more books in the Grantchester series. On the basis of the first one they are well worth reading if you like English mysteries. The author occasionally does bring in religious reflections, in homilies and discussions between the two priests. So one can say every now and then there is a “spiritual reading” gem in these somewhat formulaic mysteries.

Movie Reviews

A priest from the southern part of the diocese called in February and said to be sure to see the movie McFarland, USA.

Disney has produced and Niki Caro from New Zeeland has directed an enjoyable sports-and-culture film based on a true story from 1987. Sure, it is melodramatic at times and has the typical aspects of the feel-good sports feature, but it is a fine film for teens and their parents.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a football coach in Boise, Idaho, who throws a football cleat at a metal locker when a key player at half-time gives him a rough time. The shoe bounces off the locker and hits the young man in the face. So Jim loses his job. He takes the only position available, at a predominately Mexican-American school in McFarland, Calif.

The family can’t afford to live in distant Bakersfield like most of the teachers. The new home in McFarland is not quite up to what they are used to. Pretty rapidly Jim loses his assistant football coach position, but is kept on as a PE instructor. As the story goes on, with the help of his oldest daughter he realizes that many of the students are excellent runners. They run to and fro, between school and home and the farmlands where they pick before or after school. After he gets permission from the principal (Valente Rodriguez), Jim does everything he can to recruit students for a cross-country team.

Among the runners with much give and take are Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) and the Diaz brothers: David (Rafael Martinez), Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), and Damacio (Michael Aguero).

One stand-out effect of the film is how Jim White’s family learns from the Mexican-American culture of the town and how students and parents learn and come to appreciate the coach and his family.

The first race in Palo Alto does portray the white runners as somewhat elitists who look down on the McFarland team. Well, it is a movie that needs conflict, and maybe it was true.

Jim’s wife, Cheryl (Maria Bello), and the daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Etsie Fisher), eventually adapt well to their new town and its people. The neighbors put on a quinceañera for Julie, who has just turned 15.

The film leads up to the big state championship where McFarland is definitely not seen to be in competition.

Kevin Costner is terrific as Coach White. Carlos Pratts as Thomas is a fine actor, but as others have pointed out is a bit too old, at 28, to play a senior in high school.

I enjoyed the film and can recommend it.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG and Catholic News Service rates the film A-II – for teens and adults.


Some years ago I read Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel Still Alice. If my memory is correct the novel was written in the first person so you always knew what Alice, the Columbia University linguistics professor, was thinking. So at the end of the novel, when she can no longer express her thoughts because of the progression of the Alzheimer’s disease, you know that within she is “still Alice.”

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress acting role at the February Academy Awards for playing Alice in the movie version of the story. She does an extraordinary job.

But this is one time I do think the book is better than the film in its storytelling.

Alice Howard discovers by being lost in the familiar surroundings of Columbia University and some forgetfulness of words that she should go to a doctor for a check-up. She discovers she does have early Alzheimer’s, which can be genetically inherited by her children. One child Anna (Kate Bosworth) discovers she is positive, but her children are not. A son, Tom (Hunter Parrish) does not have the gene. The third daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) does not get tested but is the one who comes home from California to take care of her mother.

One of the key parts of the story is that Alice wants Lydia to go to college while the daughter prefers going after an acting career right away.

John, the husband, is played by Alec Baldwin, who is rather subdued. As the disease progresses John seems more concerned about his own career than his wife’s illness.

The movie is well worth seeing, although the acting by Julianne More and Kristen Stewart stands out more than the story itself.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 for language, sexual reference, and mature thematic material. The Catholic News Service rates the film A-III – for adults.

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)

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