What Was In Lady Vivienne’s Poison

Standard

cinder allia

I almost never post the kinds of things fans seem to want from an author: short story spinoffs of novels, cut scenes, behind-the-novel glimpses into how a story evolved. I suppose it’s because I’m not a very good fan myself. I want to read a book (or watch a movie, etc.) and judge it on its own merits. I want it to be complete unto itself, to satisfy my appetite for story in its own right, and I don’t much care what else might be out there to supplement it, especially because the supplements are usually of lesser quality. I don’t begrudge anyone for being a fan. To find something you like and desire more of it is far more sensible than my approach. It’s just not an approach I know how to take.

Not surprisingly, I write the way I want to read: with an aim toward creating the most complete, satisfying work I can, which needs no supplementation. If I cut something, there was a reason, and it needs to remain cut. If I left out a piece of information, it’s likely I don’t know it any more than you do. You can ask me until the cows come home how Helen turned Jennifer into a vampire in Jennifer the Damned, and my answer will always be the same: Jennifer doesn’t know, therefore she never told me.

But I do know what was in Lady Vivienne’s poison in Cinder Allia, and I’ve decided it’s time to let my fans know, too.

If you haven’t read Cinder Allia, fair warning: there are spoilers ahead!

If you have read it, you know that much of the plot centers around the fact that the invading Darrivant army is using poison-tipped arrows that steal the Arman soldiers’ free will and turn them into mute slaves who must fight for the enemy cause—and it is Allia’s wicked stepmother, Lady Vivienne de Camesbry, who brews the poison. In the book, I never told you how she did it because there never seemed to be an appropriate moment when Vivienne—the only person who knows—would dare to mention it, even to herself. The secret is far too valuable.

Prince Raphael conducts experiments to try to distill the poison’s secrets. “He was certain the potion contained iron, granite, nightshade, and traces of some creature’s blood, but none of that information put him closer to understanding how it worked.” If he had only had a way to identify from which creature the blood had been procured, he would have found his answer.

It came from a fairy.

Lady Vivienne has never shrunk from murder. Exactly how she killed a fairy… I suppose that’s the stuff of the kind of spinoff I usually never write, isn’t it? Since I haven’t written it, I don’t know the answer. But I do know that she only had access to the blood of a single fairy, and therefore she could not have continued producing the potion forever. There was always a time limit on her decision to either defect to the Darrivants or to secure her place among the Armans by selling the secret of her potion… and, of course, blaming her stepdaughter for its existence.

The only magic in Cinder Allia is fairy magic. The fairies themselves only employ it for good, even if they are not always successful in achieving their aims. It takes a human with murder in her heart to appropriate such a pure gift for an evil purpose.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Advertisements

Reading Without Pictures

Standard

open-book-pv

For the past eight years, my husband and I have been enveloped in the world of communication disorders because both of our children have difficulty comprehending language. However, it is only in recent weeks that a particular symptom was brought to the forefront as a factor in our children’s difficulties: they don’t visualize what they hear or read. Words don’t form pictures in their heads, or at least not very vividly.

When I heard this, I thought, So what? I don’t visualize words, either. I listen to them.

It shocked me to discover that the speech-language community views this as a symptom of poor language comprehension. I’ve scored at the top of every verbal aptitude test I’ve ever taken, earned a master’s degree in screenwriting, published two novels, and I have the privilege of being the managing editor of Dappled Things. I think it’s safe to say that my language comprehension is just fine. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that my children inherited this particular symptom from me.

I took an informal poll of some of the smartest people I know, and as I suspected, I am not alone. I don’t know how many of us are out there, but there is a small percentage of people who do not experience language through visualization, yet we are strong, avid readers. Our experience of story is just as vibrant and affecting as the imagined movies that most strong readers report seeing in their heads. However, we experience this sensory immersion primarily through sound. For the sake of posterity, or curiosity, or just because I’m still trying to figure out what, if anything, all this means, I’ve decided to try to articulate to the visual-dominant world what it’s like to be an aural-dominant reader.

I do not have aphantasia, or “mind’s eye blindness,” a condition in which someone is unable to form any mental visualizations. I can bring to mind pictures of things I have actually seen as well as the next person. I can close my eyes and still “see” the computer on which I am typing this, complete with all the clutter on the desk around it. The breakdown for me enters with language: words do not usually translate into pictures. If you say, “cat,” I can picture a cat if I want to, but the word itself does not trigger the image. “Cat” to me is a symbolic representation of an abstract idea, much like a number.

What do you picture if you see

1 + 1 = 2?

Do you picture one apple, or one person, or one piano, which then has another apple or person or piano added to it? Or do you understand that there is an abstract concept corresponding to the symbol 1 that your brain can access without the need for concrete imagery? If the latter, then you can understand my response to “cat.” I access it as an abstract concept, not an image.

But words do not only exist as single entities; the genius of human language is our ability to combine these abstract symbols into infinite permutations of sentences, paragraphs, and longer works that convey everything from tax codes to the divinely-inspired Word of God. Understanding the one-to-one symbolic equivalence of

cat = a four-legged furry creature that says “meow”

is called decoding, and it is only the first step to comprehension. There are other technical skills, such as fluency and sight-word recognition, that must be learned to facilitate reading, but I want to focus on the more mysterious skill that allows a reader to feel transported by a book, especially a work of fiction. This skill allows us to experience life through the characters’ “eyes” and be fully absorbed into the world of a story. It is usually called visualization, but I would like to propose a less sensory-specific term: immersion. To become immersed in a story is to experience it at the deepest level of the imagination. But despite the visual roots of the word “imagination” and the lack of an aural-equivalent English word, this immersion does not necessarily have to happen through pictures.

The ultimate goal of fiction—the true benefit of immersion—is empathy. Countless authors, readers, and critics have emphasized this across centuries:

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.” – George Eliot

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” – David Foster Wallace

The goal, then, is not to see what the character sees, or to experience the majesty of an unfamiliar time period, country, planet, etc., although these can certainly be part of the pleasure of reading. The true goal of immersion is to feel what the characters feel and to find in them some glimmer of one’s own self. For an aural-dominant reader—or at least for me—this experience of empathy is very similar to finding an emotional connection to a piece of music. The imagined sounds of the words, combined with my abstract knowledge of their meaning, create a soundscape through which I experience all the highs and lows of human drama. I hear the text as if a world-class voice actor were reading every word, highlighting rhythms and cadences, a symphony of elongated vowels and clipped consonants that sweep me along at the exact tempo of the action. The literal meaning is important; without 1+1, I cannot reach the conclusion, 2. The concepts behind the words provide the structure, but the emotion is built into the sound. The way I felt after reading The Book Thief was very similar to the way I felt after hearing a live performance of the Shostakovich tenth symphony. Both were exhausting in the most glorious way, as if my soul had run a marathon using my ears as propulsion.

Immersion is not possible for me if the language does not have cadence, rhythm, and tone. I cannot become immersed in clunky prose no matter how glorious the story it attempts to convey. I also cannot become immersed in language with too many minute visual details. Much of what visual people call “description,” I call “breaking up the flow.” Perhaps it is my screenwriting background more than my aural dominance, but INT. JOE’S APARTMENT — DAY is adequate scene-setting for me. Any details an author chooses to include must reveal the tone of the story or the characters’ interior lives, or else reading them is like listening to the same boring I-IV-V-I chord progression over and over again.

I do sometimes create pictures in my mind when I read, but doing so requires conscious effort, and I use the strategy only as a last resort. If I stop to visualize, it means I’m confused. The language has become too focused on pictures for my aural/ abstract processing to handle. I can build images in my mind’s eye, but they are strictly functional. Take the blue coat; layer it with gold embroidered flowers; add a ruffled collar and a head protruding from it that bears a handlebar moustache. It’s tiresome work and, for me, it does not produce immersion. It creates the new concept file of “what this character is wearing,” but that’s all. Sometimes these files are necessary for comprehension; sometimes they’re a lot of excess fluff. Either way, they require work to build, and they inhibit immersion. Any attempt to describe a foreign or fictional country in map-like terms might as well be written in Greek. Or twelve-tone. My brain doesn’t know how to listen.

What about the fun stuff? Pirate ships and hoop skirts, Gothic spires populated by gargoyles, desert wastelands and tropical jungles, wizards with pointy hats, talking trees, disembodied aliens? It’s all fun stuff to me, too. If I had lived in a time before movies and television, I suppose it’s possible that I would have been unable to form reasonable concept files to access these kinds of images, but here in the twenty-first century, they’re all duly tagged and stashed away. If I did not have those ready-made pictures, perhaps I would have been a less avid reader. Or perhaps I would have done the tedious work of visualization. Or perhaps I would have been perfectly happy not to know what such things looked like, because after all… Gothic spires populated by gargoyles. Isn’t it music?

Empathy through fiction comes to me as darkness. I hear the roaring tempest of my new friend’s thoughts as he tries in vain to sleep. I hear the cries he is too afraid to utter. I hear his conscience like a pedal tone, unchanged despite the long cacophony of sin that has deafened him to its pitch. I hear the hallowed whispers of his joy. Empathy comes to me as warring melodies that fight to be heard, as discord, as harmony, as suspended chords that may or may not resolve. Empathy comes to me as conversation. I hear you, my friend. Sometimes, it seems as if you can hear me, too.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Cinder Allia – Finalist in the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards!

Standard

Indie_Announcement_new

Cinder Allia has been named a finalist in the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the largest not-for-profit awards program for independent books, namely those that are self-published or from small presses. This is in addition to being tied for the best fantasy novel of 2017 at Catholic Reads.  I am honored to see my little fairy tale take wing. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division. Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. 

cinder allia

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Being Lazarus

Standard

lazarus

In my parish, every year we read the “Optional for use with the RCIA” readings for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent, which means that this past Sunday, we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus as presented in the scriptures is a bit of an enigma. He might be the titular character, but his sisters Mary and Martha get most of the screen time, so to speak. Lazarus only appears long enough to stagger out of the tomb “bound hand and foot”—a feat of amazing dexterity, especially for a guy who’s been dead for four days. Lazarus never responds to his miraculous comeback. The scriptures do not record his gratitude to Jesus, nor perhaps his criticism—because who is to say that Lazarus wanted to come back? St. John did not record the answers to the questions Lazarus must have gotten tired of hearing. Where were you? What was it like? How did it feel to come back? Why don’t you write your memoirs and solve this whole question of the afterlife once and for all?

Of course, St. John knew his business, which was to bring his readers to know and love Jesus Christ, not Lazarus. He may not have satisfied his readers’ curiosity, but neither did he distract us from the central character with wild subplots. He left that up to less important writers like me.

Of all the characters in the story of Lazarus, Lazarus himself is the one with whom I most easily identify. I have had my opportunities to play Martha and Mary, weeping over the death of a loved one, “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died.” But I also have entirely too much experience being Lazarus. I have not spent four days rotting in a tomb, but I have come a good deal closer to death than most living people—twice.

During my first semester of college, at age eighteen, my appendix ruptured, but I did not realize what had happened. I spent two weeks in my dorm burning up with fever, too weak to walk across campus to the infirmary. I thought I had the flu. Finally, I asked my parents to take me home and then said, “Mom, you’d better call a priest.” Yes, I asked for a priest before I asked for a doctor. A doctor could not have helped me at that moment. There comes a point when only Jesus can say, “This illness is not to end in death,” because the body has no resources left with which to fight. I knew instinctively that I had reached that point. Our parish priest anointed me that afternoon, a Sunday. On Monday, my father took me to the doctor, who sent me to the hospital, where I had surgery on Tuesday.

By the time I actually went under the knife, I had already recovered. The fever had broken, all of my other symptoms had disappeared, and the doctor remarked how silly he felt wheeling what appeared to be a perfectly healthy eighteen-year-old into the O.R. What he actually removed was not my appendix but the hard shell my body had formed to contain the pieces after it ruptured. There was no infection at all. “There are no recorded cases of anyone surviving a ruptured appendix without surgery,” my doctor said, “And there still aren’t because I operated on you. But you would have lived regardless.” I have never seen the expression my doctor wore that day on any other person’s face before or since. I don’t think he used the word “miracle,” but those were the eyes of someone who has beheld an event that he cannot explain.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how nonchalantly I received his news. Nor did the doctor, who kept trying in vain to elicit some kind of reaction from me beyond a shrug. What he said wasn’t news to me, except in the medical details. I already knew when and by Whom I had been healed. True grace comes very much as a matter of course. Miracles are inevitable in the light of God’s true love.

The second time I almost died was just a year ago, in March of 2017. I had surgery that was supposed to be minimally invasive, usually done as an outpatient procedure. It did not go as planned. I lost a great deal more blood than I should have, but no one told me that when I woke up. All I could find the strength to say was, “It hurts to breathe.” This prompted my nurse to pump me full of painkillers. All through the night after my surgery, I woke up every four hours or so to say, “I can’t breathe. It hurts to breathe.” Then I was given narcotics to put me back to sleep. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I knew the drugs were making it worse, even though I was too weak to say so. There came a moment when I received the latest dose and as I drifted off, I knew: I’m probably not going to wake up.

It was a moment of pure peace.

As in my other brush with death, the worst had passed before the doctors did what was necessary to save me. I was conscious and breathing without pain by the time the morning nurse came in, looked at my chart, and called the doctor to say, “Have you seen her numbers? I really think you should give her a transfusion.”

I did not experience cardiac arrest or brain death on either occasion, although I know I was very close. I did not have the “near death experience” of walking through a tunnel of light toward the open arms of Christ or my loved ones. I never saw any visions or heard any voices. But in my moments of greatest weakness, I learned that the veil between this world and the next is imperceptibly thin and easier to slip across—from both directions—than we care to admit when we’re healthy. I do not know if everyone experiences death the same way, but I know that I experienced near-death the same way twice. I shall be terribly surprised, the last time I go, if it is different.

In my experience, the approach leading up to the veil is a terrifying darkness filled with pain, but there is a kind of event horizon beyond which fear and suffering have no meaning. They simply don’t exist. There might be a medical reason for this, that the brain is too weak to produce the necessary chemicals to perceive those emotions, but on both occasions when I realized I was much more likely to die than to live, every care I had ever known dissolved in pure surrender. There was no danger on the other side of the veil. The toil and heartache are all here, in this world, in the months of excruciating recovery and the trials of life yet to come. It is not exactly true to say I didn’t want to come back. But it is true that the only answer I could give—the only answer I would ever want to give—to the peace of that surrender is, “Yes.”

Writing those words frightens me. I do not want to die. I have a husband and children who depend on me, family and friends who would grieve, books I still want to write, places I still want to visit, things I still want to accomplish in this life. I’m only thirty-eight. I’m too young to die—a ridiculous fallacy, but one I cannot shake despite all evidence to the contrary. It does no good to admit, either silently or aloud, that I know I really will be better off when I’m dead. It sounds like lunacy, even to me. But this is nothing compared to the lunacy of believing that a passage through the veil is The End. The veil is only the threshold of something unequivocally beautiful. That, over there—that is life. What we call life here is not even its shadow. It is the shadow of a shadow of a shadow.

Coming back from that state where I could “see” (for lack of a better verb) beyond this life, I am changed, but perhaps not in the ways one might expect. Death is not magic. I’m the same person now that I was before, with all the same strengths and weaknesses and failings I cannot seem to overcome. I am grateful to be here again, but the primary imprint the experiences left on my soul is not gratitude. It is mission. I did not get up and walk out of my metaphorical tomb by myself. I had no power to do so. Like Lazarus, I was called so that others “will see the glory of God.” It’s a far less dramatic mission than it sounds. My assignment is still the same as it ever was: to love the Lord my God with all my heart and to love my neighbor as myself. If it is marginally less difficult to do that now, it is only because I have less doubt about the outcome. I do not claim to have no doubt. My experiences are, after all, unverifiable, and for the second one, I was heavily drugged. Nevertheless, the testimony of my senses asserts that the hope of salvation is not hoped in vain.

For me, the knowledge of death is irrevocably linked to the knowledge of God’s eternal love. I have known that love here on earth in many ways: through the love of others, through the sacraments, through prayer, but it was in dying that I knew Him best. Rising back into this world is, by comparison, a tepid anticlimax. Perhaps that is why Lazarus never wrote his memoirs. Perhaps, like me, he could only shrug at the miracle. I AM is, and His words are true. Beside that knowledge, no miracle could ever be astonishing.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Art of Plagiarism

Standard

plagiarism

Artistic influence is a strange, enigmatic, and terrifying realm. To probe it even superficially reveals the strands of threads that lead to words like copying and theft. I remember in high school having to learn the sources from which Shakespeare took his plays—Romeo and Juliet came from Tristan and Isolde, Julius Cesar came from Plutarch—and thinking to myself, What a fraud. Why do we revere this guy? Actually, knowing High School Me, I probably didn’t just think it. I probably complained about it loudly to the class. Who could blame me, when the very same teachers who made us memorize Shakespeare’s sources also gave regular lectures about the evils of plagiarism and the penalties that would result therefrom?

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when, on my very first day as a music major in college, the Assistant Dean of the music school told all of us incoming freshmen that “In music, plagiarism is the highest form of flattery.” He was careful to warn us that this view did not extend to tests and term papers, but it was hard to deny that, when it came to music, he was right. Variations on a theme by [Insert Composer Here] is a very common title. Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s piano composition Pictures at an Exhibition, and his work became more widely performed than the original. Gounod superimposed a melody over a Bach piano prelude, added the (definitely not original) text of the Ave Maria, and, hey presto, Gounod’s new composition became immortal. In music, the line between original and derivative is paper-thin, if you can see it at all. And music is all the better for it.

Shakespeare wasn’t a thief; he was a composer.

I have come full circle now. I not only recant my complaints against the unoriginal Mr. Shakespeare, but I have begun my own project of adapting someone else’s words into a book that I will eventually dare to call my own. I no longer imagine myself to be Bach creating preludes from scratch, but Gounod, crafting a melody that will (hopefully) adorn the extant harmonies with new layers of beauty.

My capitulation to the artist’s role as plagiarist has been gradual, and I daresay it is not yet complete. For a very long time, I have prided myself on writing stories no one else would dream of, crazy stuff like reimagining Crime and Punishment as the story of a teenage vampire, or that weird screenplay where I explored Augustinian philosophy through the lens of neuroscientific research. (Trust me, you don’t want to read that one.) I have not lost my penchant for odd juxtapositions; I’m currently writing about a French countess who confronts alligators and Indians while still wearing her Parisian lace. But I have gradually accepted that my cherished originality was just another form of plagiarism. I did not write Crime and Punishment, after all. The slippery line between being influenced by and stealing from gets slimier with every story, until I wonder what, if anything, I myself have actually created during my tens of thousands of hours spent typing. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Yet there is value in even the most derivative works of art. Bach wrote Piano Prelude No. 1, but he did not write Ave Maria. No one knows who first wrote Tristan and Isolde, but whoever it was, he did not write Romeo and Juliet. There is a spark within the metamorphosis, a tiny ounce of creativity—not the birth of something out of nothing, but the rebirth whereby something old becomes something new. Even the most innovative artists have only the world for their materials, only existing human languages in which to write (assuming they want to be understood), and only the realm of human imagination from which to draw their subjects. None of us create the clay. We only sculpt it. But in the sculpting, it is possible to transcend the clay, to make an asymptotic approach toward the act of creation as a folk tale becomes royal theater, a piano prelude becomes a prayer, and clay becomes beast, or man, or god.

All art is plagiarized to some degree; it must be, for there is only one Creator. But He, in His goodness, granted us both the desire and the capability to shape His creation, to take the work of His hands and transform it with ours. The longer I spend in acts of human creativity, the more convinced I become that God’s purpose in gracing us with this gift is to give us a window whereby we might peer, however darkly, into His own truly creative mind. If we open ourselves to come to know Him in the act of artistic creation, we can glimpse a few atoms of His genius and generosity. Through our art, we have the opportunity to love as God loves, by giving life to a thought, by imbuing humble things with lofty beauty, as He did when He created our lumps of human clay to become His own children.

I am trying to let go of the pretensions of originality I once held, though as with all human failings, old habits die hard. I am working to be content in my role as a mere plagiarist of the Creator. The act of plagiarism has become my prayer, that I might conform my feeble mind more fully to the mind of the only true Artist.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Black Bottle Man

Standard

Black Bottle Man

Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010; 176 pages
Gold Medal, Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, Young Adult Fantasy/ Sci-Fi, 2011

What do you do when your two childless aunts sell their souls to become pregnant? According to Black Bottle Man, you cut a deal with the devil and spend the next eighty years trying to find a champion who can beat him at his own game.

In 1927, Rembrandt is only ten years old when his loving Canadian farm family tears itself apart over his aunts’ dabbling in black magic. Determined to save the two women’s souls, Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson cut a deal with the Black Bottle Man, Satan’s rather uninspiring earthly persona. The deal requires them to never spend more than twelve days in any one place until they either find a champion to defeat him, or die. Pa and Uncle Thompson only make it for a few years on the road. The rest is up to Rembrandt and the magic he’s learned to do using hobo signs.

If that description doesn’t tempt you, well, it didn’t really tempt me, either. Craig Russell contacted me last year, wanting to send me a review copy, and at first I think I didn’t answer. (Sorry!) He tried again a few months later, sending along an outstanding review from a blogger I usually agree with, so I cautiously agreed to give it a read.

Thank you, Craig, for persisting. This story is wild, ridiculous, serious fun.

Black Bottle Man’s structure easily draws the reader into the culture of hobo freighthopping. It moves with the speed of a train, jumping between Rembrandt’s Dust Bowl-era travels and a “present” time in 2007, while throwing in the points of view of other characters along the way. Russell’s prose is crisp and effective. He has a knack for finding just the right image to quickly wrap a reader into a scene. His characters are a blend of ordinary and outlandish, and the balance between the two is just right.

Best of all, Russell has given us a story that works at every level. Black Bottle Man is a romp, and if you want to leave it at that, it will let you. But scratch the surface just a little, and layers of new meaning begin to emerge. Rembrandt’s two aunts literally sell their souls for a magic bottle that will give them babies; it’s hard not to read that as a metaphor for modern technologies like IVF. It’s also hard to resist the unrepentant Aunt Annie’s claim that her sin was worth it, to have her strong, good daughter. But the aunts’ souls are still worth saving, and it is only through the intercession and sacrifice of others that such a feat is possible. Rembrandt’s hobo signs are part of a very incarnational magic. Each word, or sign, brings its meaning into being; for example, the sign for fish makes actual fish appear. These signs are a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of grace. The story drips with symbolism, some explicit and some more subtle, and I suspect there is even more that I will uncover in subsequent readings. Black Bottle Man is the very best kind of Catholic fiction: it weaves a Catholic worldview into the fabric of its being, creating a story that is resplendent with grace without ever needing to preach.

Black Bottle Man is marketed as “teen fiction,” and it is a book I would happily give to a teenager. But I think that moniker might also be holding it back from reaching an adult audience, who can enjoy it just as much.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Immigrant

Standard

The Immigrant

I stumbled across a gem on Netflix this week: The Immigrant, a 2013 film from director James Gray that I had never heard of. I gave it a chance because Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix are both actors I trust to deliver good performances. They did not disappoint, though Cotillard’s character is more consistent than Phoenix’s. But the film also provided a visual feast of cinematography, plus something I never dared to hope for: a story laced with Catholic-flavored themes of forgiveness.

Set in New York in 1921, The Immigrant stars Cotillard as Ewa Cybulska, a young Polish Catholic woman who has fled war and famine to come to the United States with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). At Ellis Island, Magda is taken into quarantine for tuberculosis, while Ewa is labeled likely to become a ward of the state and tagged for deportation. Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), who claims to be from the Travelers’ Aid Society, bribes the officials to set her free; then, through a mixture of kindness and coercion, he leads her into the burlesque show where he serves as impresario and the prostitution ring where he serves as pimp. It’s evident early on that Bruno has fallen in love with her, but that does not stop him from selling her on the streets. Ewa goes along with the scheme because she must raise a large sum of money to pay the bribes that will free her sister from the immigration detention center—money she cannot earn legally because she has no legal status in the United States.

Enter the inevitable third party of their love triangle, Bruno’s cousin, a stage magician named Emil (Jeremy Renner). He offers Ewa the opportunity to escape her life of degradation, but Ewa cannot leave her sister behind.

To this point, the film is a well-crafted drama, a period piece that manages to be both intimate and grand, leaving nothing of the topless burlesques to the imagination yet handling the prostitution scenes with unusual subtlety and discretion. James Gray knows how to use a single touch to evoke more emotional depth than a graphic sex scene ever could. The plot hiccups occasionally, with a few scenes that are too contrived, but on the whole the script provides a worthy vehicle for its excellent cast.

But then—

The turning point comes when Ewa decides to return to church. She attends Mass, praying to Mary for help for both herself and her sister, then stays to go to confession afterward. Bruno eavesdrops to hear her sins, including the priest’s admonition that she must leave the man who is misusing her. From this point forward, there were so many ways for the plot to go wrong—so many easy clichés the writers could have chosen. Instead, The Immigrant does the hard work of being genuine. It resists clichés, as well as the all-too-prevalent temptation to graft modern ideologies onto stories about the past. Ewa and Bruno are granted the rare dignity of being allowed to be true to themselves. The final scenes are nothing short of beautiful. I can hardly remember a better cinematic expression of genuine love—yet not even so much as a kiss is exchanged.

In reading through a few of the secular reviews of The Immigrant, I cannot help but notice that there is virtually no mention of the film’s emphasis on love and mercy. The immigrant experience in America, Gray’s talent for evoking emotion, and the plot’s occasional missteps seem to have gotten all the ink. But to this reviewer, The Immigrant was not only a treat for my eyes, but for my soul.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.