I only finished two books this summer but I started quite a few more and I thought I’d do a quick rundown of what I’ve been dabbling at. (Hush! Yes, I know we’re almost done with September and I’m only now getting around to posting my summer reading roundup. I’ve been… preoccupied. Or something.)
Books I finished:
If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome by Devin Rose. I read this on the Kindle app on my iPhone when I went to Florida in June. I like to read apologetic works because they help me to understand my faith a bit better and because I really don’t know how to deal with conversations about faith with people who don’t agree with me. I picked this one up mostly because I like Devin and admire his writing and wanted to be able to recommend his book to people based on having read it. It was a good read, quick and smooth. I think it would be very helpful for a protestant trying to understand a Catholic take on a bunch of the thornier issues of contention. I feel bad that I can’t think of anything more intelligent to say about it, but it’s been a couple of months and I was a bit distracted as I read.
The other book I actually finished was The Spear by Louis de Wohl was one of the books I received for my birthday. I discovered de Wohl’s historical fiction last year and I’m kind of hooked. I’m reading all I can get my hands on, which is limited by my budget as I’ve already read everything my library system had (about five books). The Spear is probably de Wohl’s best known book. It’s the one he himself considered his masterpiece. It’s the story of the crucifixion from the point of view of Cassius Longinus, the Roman centurion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear.
When I first heard of de Wohl, I was skeptical. Historical fiction, especially popular historical fiction about saints has the potential to be so saccharine and sentimental. But de Wohl’s saints are fully human. His novels are full of robust characters. And he is always respectful of their historical personhood and the historical milieu. Where, as with St Benedict, the historical details are rather skimpy, de Wohl creates fictional secondary characters whose plot lines intersect with the saint’s life and provide an interesting contrast or complement.
Anyway, I don’t feel up for a full review. I’m too lazy for that kind of writing really. So i’ll just mention a few things I liked. One of my favorite characters in The Spear was Mary Magdalene. She’s one of my favorite saints anyway and I love how de Wohl shows her as having such great insight into Jesus’ divinity. I liked the treatment of Pontius Pilate and Caiphas. In this story each is a person for whom one can feel a measure of sympathy. I loved the attempt to show the various reactions to the crucifixion by various people who were there based on the way they saw the world rather than a modern perspective. One of the Roman soldiers is very shaken but doesn’t quite get it: I think we killed a god, he says.
I could definitely see myself re-reading this novel during Lent.
Books I read sizable chunks of:
I’m thinking the reason I slowed down over the summer and found myself plodding along with several books is perhaps that all of them were non-fiction and are so much easier to put down one when I get to a bit that’s slow.
I’ve been enjoying Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset; but I’m not moving through it very quickly. You can laugh if you want to, but I was several chapters in before I realized it was a biography and not a novel. I know I’m not a careful reader, but it was still pretty funny. I found myself thinking: “This book really reads like a biography.” And then I actually looked at the cover and discovered it is a biography.
It’s not surprising that Undset is a good biographer since she is such a great novelist. She does know how to pace a story. And I love the way she approaches medieval history from a modern viewpoint. She explains those aspects of the medieval world that she anticipates will be strange for a modern audience so as to make sense of Catherine’s life as a product of the world, but she doesn’t let the historical details get in the way of showing who Catherine was as some historians seem to do. As a believer, Undset takes Catherine’s faith seriously. When dealing with the miraculous she walks a nice path between being willing to credit eyewitnesses and accept the possibility of the miraculous, while also satisfying a more modern taste for critical examination of the credibility of witnesses. Here’s a passage that exemplifies her approach:
But in our time and the language of our time the expressions we use for religious emotions and religious experience have become worn out and meaningless; words which in Catherine’s language are as shining as new-minted gold, become, when repeated by us, worn-out coins, which have almost gone out of circulation. Catherine speaks of VIRTU, and for her the word retains its full weight; it means a vital and powerful pursuit of high ideals. “Virtue” in English has no connection in the popular mind with capability, capacity for goodness; we think rather of virtue as something slightly sour, weak, and boring. Catherine’s eternal cri du coeur, GESU DOLCE—GESU AMORE, is filled with very different associations from those which occur to us when we read “Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.” A sweet-Jesus, a lady-Jesus; Jesus-Love—a substitute or sublimation of sexual love. In Catherine’s language, and when she lived, sweetness was also a name for strength, for all that is good and at the same time gentle and merciful. That goodness must also at times be hard and aggressive, no one knew better than Catherine. For her and her contemporaries, even for the hosts of people who in practice tried to forget or deny it, it was acknowledged that AMORE, love, is fundamentally an expression for the connection between God and the soul of man. Analogously one can speak of AMORE, love, between people—between children and their parents, between man and wife, between lovers, between brothers and sisters, between spiritual relations; and it can be a power of good or evil, according ot whether earthly love is in harmony or disharmony with the will of Him who is AUCTOR VITAE—the origin of life. It is perhaps even more difficult for present day people in Protestant lands to understand her attitude towards the two Popes whom she can in the same letter call Christ-on-earth, the immortal Peter whom Christ has built His Church upon, and advise, command and admonish them for their human weaknesses; or she can turn to the Pope like an unhappy little girl to her father, calling him Babbo—“Daddy”, in Italian baby talk. For her it was no contradiction, beyond the fact that all human relationships are full of contradictions, that Christ had set a vicar over His faithful as long as they live on earth, and that He demands we should show His vicar honour and obedience, even though the vicar may be unworthy to fulfil his mission. No one can know whether the Holy Father has been a holy man until his death—and as it has been put in the hands of men to appoint a man a the Vicar of Christ, it is only to be expected that the voters will all too often vote from impure, mean, or cunning motives, for a man who will become an evil to the Church of God on earth. God will nevertheless watch over His Church, raise and restore again what mankind may ruin or soil; it is necessary, for mystical reasons, which the saints have partly seen and understood, that the offence should occur. But woe to that person through whom the offence comes. . . .
I think I got bogged down and lost steam when the focus of the book shifted from Catherine’s interior life to her political activity. Her early years are all lived quietly at home in Siena but then she receives her marching orders and starts writing letters to Popes and various political figures. All of that requires quite a bit of explanation so as to follow the intricacies of medieval European politics and I think I just find that less interesting than the interior stuff that is directly about Catherine.
I’ve been having similar problems with A Man of the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati. It’s a good book by Frassati’s sister, Luciana, but much of the focus is on his social and political life and the interior life isn’t as clear. The first book I read about him was the second book she wrote, My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days. I think by the time she wrote that book, Luciana had grown in understanding of who her brother really was. It is a much deeper, more thoughtful book, but it has a very limited focus, recounting only the details of the final week of Frassati’s life. I’d love to read a book that examines his entire life with the insight Luciana turns on his final days. Anyway, my interest started to wane in a section where Luciana recounts Pier Giorgio’s political activities. Notice a trend? I have a very short attention span for politics and political history. All the political parties and minute details of shifting power kind of make my eyes glaze over. Especially when I’m trying to snag brief reading snacks while hiding in the bathroom as the children squabble outside the door.
Other books in my summer reading pile:
Weightless: Making Peace With Your Body by Kate Wicker. Beautiful. So much richness to ponder about body image and where is God in all of that. I want to hand a copy of this book to every young woman I know. And for that matter most of the older ones as well. I’ve only just dipped in a few times though, so I’ll save my full comments for later.
A Little Way of Homeschooling edited by Suzie Andres, which I’ve now mentioned in two other posts in contexts which tell you much more about the book than a dry review would, so I think I’ll let those stand on their own without tasking my brain too much here. Suffice it to say this is a book I’ve been recommending to all my friends whether they are unschoolers or not, whether they are homeschoolers or not. Good stuff for any parent to chew on.
I’ve been reading a lot more this month so I’ll have a much fatter list with some good stuff on it in a week or so. And then I’ll finally feel much happier about my book blogging. Except I’ve been absolutely wretched about recording all the cool books the kids have been reading. It seems I can do one or the other but not both. Oh well. Maybe I’ll hit a kids book blogging frenzy sometime soon.