Books bring Catholic men together

| November 16, 2015 | 2 Comments
Catholic men discuss mainly classics during a mentally meeting of the Misfits men's book club in Stillwater, MN. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

Catholic men discuss mainly classics during a mentally meeting of the Misfits men’s book club in Stillwater, MN. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

On a soggy November evening, 14 Catholic men sloshed their way to a taproom in Stillwater, shook off the rain, grabbed a craft beer and headed up to the mezzanine to talk about “A Tale of Two Cities.”

At least at the start they did.

For the Misfits — a men’s book club that has been meeting for 13 years — discussing fiction is simply the launch point for conversation about, well, about anything.

After reading about the bloody slaughter of the French Revolution that Charles Dickens used as the basis in his classic 1859 novel, some of the group couldn’t help but make a modern-day connection.

“The atmosphere reminded me of ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” said Mark Druffner, a physician.

Joe McGrath, a retired chemist, added, “Its got its 20th century counterpart in the civil war in Rwanda — and in ISIS, with the beheading.”

The Misfits — named for a character in Flanney O’Conneor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” — brought all different versions of the book to the monthly session: hard covers, e-readers, paperbacks well-cared for, others thumbed through with bent covers, and even a library book.

The Misfits — named for a character in Flanney O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” — brought all different versions of the book to the monthly session: hard covers, e-readers, paperbacks well-cared for, others thumbed through with bent covers, and even a library book.

Buzz Kriesel, whose prior life as U.S. Army special forces colonel sneaks into his leadership of the book club, noted the memorable, iconic phrases at both the beginning and end of the novel:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” at the beginning, and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” at the end.

Thomas Loome, a retired theologian and bookseller, picked up on the latter line.

He sensed that Dickens portrayal of a man who gives up his life for another was written “that we might see Christ better.” The character (spoiler alert!) who switches places with the condemned man is held up for readers’ admiration, Loome said. He’s the image of Christ, even to the extent of being followed by a crowd on the way to his execution “in an overtly Christian way,” Loome added. “I was not prepared for that.”

The Misfits — named for a character in Flanney O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” — brought all different versions of the book to the monthly session: hard covers, e-readers, paperbacks well-cared for, others thumbed through with bent covers, and even a library book. Meeting at the Maple Island Brewing taproom was a first for the group; they usually meet in the St. Thomas More Library up the hill in Stillwater at St. Michael Church.

They came at “A Tale of Two Cities” from various perspectives, too. Some questioned the significance of some of the lesser characters, how some Dickens had drawn in detail and others were very one dimensional.

The book first appeared in serial form as chapters in the newspaper, banker Scott Wagner reminded: “People who wouldn’t normally read history read it because it was a novel and Dickens was such a good writer.” The literary device of ending a chapter leaving the newspaper reader in suspense was like a modern television drama’s close, Wagner quipped, “Stay tuned for a message from our sponsor.”

It wasn’t to be the last of the interjections that brought laughter to the book club meeting.

The taproom atmosphere must have been behind the suggestion for a new craft beer named after Madame LeFarge, a bloodthirsty leader of the guillotine-loving mob in “A Tale of Two Cities.” It would have to be a red beer, one wag tossed out, “And there’s no head on it!” joked McGrath, busting up the crowd.

Opinions not always the same

John Leonard, an attorney, pointed out the contrast that British Dickens draws between the justice of London and the brutal, gory injustice of Paris. “You do pick up a nationalistic tone,” Leonard said, but another lawyer and history buff, Carl Blondin, noted, “The English like to forget their own revolution . . . they were as bad.”

Leonard also voiced a comment from his wife. “She said, ‘Dickens doesn’t do women well,’ ” which brought about the general agreement that, at least in “A Tale of Two Cities,” female characters are very one dimensional.

Mark Druffner, a physician, chipped in, “If I were a writer, I wouldn’t write about women well either. I think women have a certain perspective of the world I don’t have.”

Blondin generalized, “It’s hard for the majority culture to write about the minority,” to which Druffner added, “Either that or women are more insightful than men.”

Sitting in an uneven circle around four tables pushed together, the men tossed out their personal analyses, that they got a good feel for the times of the French Revolution, that the collapse of all of society was depressing to read, that Dickens showed his lack of understanding of Catholic culture.

They chewed over the contrast between the revolution in France and the revolution that resulted in the founding of the United States, even though both occurred in relatively the same time period late in the 18th century.

While differences of opinion were expressed, particularly when a bit of American nationalism popped into the discussion, the conversation never got heated, with men willing to share their knowledge and willing to listen and learn from others as well.

Some of the group are self-taught history buffs, but all have a common base in knowledge about their faith, one gained by taking a year-long course on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The 48, 90-minutes classes were led by Loome, who taught theology at the then-College of St. Catherine before opening a bookstore in Stillwater.

Loome and Kriesel shared the credit for deciding that the book club would read fiction. “Apologetics puts me to sleep,” Kriesel said. “We read literature because it’s exciting and timeless. It’s transformative. It gives you insights into man’s condition that are remarkable.”

Wisdom found in the group

Brad Lindberg, a teacher, said, “I’ve been exposed to books I wouldn’t otherwise have read,” and the group tossed out the titles of some of their favorites: “Sword of Honour,” the trilogy by Evelyn Waugh; “A Postcard from the Volcano” by Lucy Beckett, and “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset.

Titles like “Silence” by Shusako Endo and “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G.K. Chesterton were also mentioned. (See complete list of all the books the club has discussed here.)

The fellowship their meeting offers, however, is as important to the Misfits as all they’ve gained from the classics they’ve read and discussed over the past 13 years.

Druffner suspected that there aren’t many men’s groups that meet in as intimate a way as the Misfits. “The group challenges us to talk about and think about things going on inside that we normally don’t,” Druffner said.

McGrath said he appreciates being about to talk about spiritual, ethical and moral things, “and getting insight from the group.”

Wagner explained, “These books have shown us how broad and diverse the Catholic Church is. Look at this group, all the different professions contained here. The greatest benefit is our getting together as Catholics exploring the richness of our faith.”

Artist Nick Markell found that richness in the “communal dimension” of the men’s book club.

“Wisdom,” Markell said, “comes through the community.”

 

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