Books and Book Reviews: January 2004 Archives

Comfort Literature

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A few days ago Don (of Mixolydian Mode) published a list of literature that he found comforting or "a nice escape." This followed from a post by Terry Teachout regarding literature he often retreated to. This got me to thinking and I decided to list work that I found strangely engaging and, indeed, comforting.

One of my selections agrees with Mr. Teachout (as I recall) the others are uniquely mine:

(1) The King James Version of the Bible, particularly Psalms and The Song of Solomon.

(2) Rex Stout (Mr. Teachout's choice)

(3) Henry James--particularly the short stories

(4) Agatha Christie (I can't explain it other than an early childhood attachment)

(5) Tom Sawyer (and only Tom among the works of Mr. Twain)

(6) My Antonia

(7) The works of Jack Vance and Clark Ashton Smith (sheer joyful playing with language)

(8) Dubliners most particularly the serenely frighteningly magnificent "The Dead"

(9) James Lee Burke--The stories disturb me but the masterful control of language and the atmosphere engage me.

(10) John Keats

(11) "The Tempest"

That's how I see the list right now. I'll need to do more thinking and try to understand what factors control these choices.

With all of them except Christie, part of the attraction and appeal is the deft handling of language. And even with Christie to some extent--her writing is rather flat, but predictable and comforting in the way of a Grandmother's stories.

Before you get the idea of some high-falutin' literateur, I should mention that I love the turns of Henry James's sentences and the constructions both of story arc and character in all of their convoluted neurotic glory. I don't claim any great understanding of true appreciation of his art.

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Reading List

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Having recently finished Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (a wonderful, gentle, and fine tribute to Jean-Marie Latour--a fictional biographical retelling of the story of the life of the first Archbishop of Santa Fe) it behooved me to hie me to the bookstore and seek out what lay upon the remaindered shelves.

Doing so I discovered the following delectable commodities and took it upon myself to acquire them:

Steven Millhauser--Martin Dressler
Tom Wolfe--Hooking Up (with its amazingly excoriating look at John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer called "My Three Stooges."
Frank Kermode--The Language of Shakespeare a magisterial, but approachable study of the Bard, examining the growth and development of the poetic genius through the entire corpus of his work.

These three have been added to the list to read nearly immediately along with C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. (I suggested that we also look at The Snakebite Letters by Peter Kreeft and Lord Foulgrin's Letters by Randy Alcorn to see how the genre, small though it is , has prospered.)

Missed the discussion yesterday of Our Lady of the Forest largely because I could not penetrate its murky depths because I simply didn't care.

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More on The DaVinci Code


For those who simply can't get enough Noli Irritare Leones has a well-considered review of the merits and demerits of the book. As the blogmaster does not come from a Catholic point of view she is less likely to be offended by much that put-out the Catholic Audience.

Father Jim of Dappled Things also chimes in with an opinion with which I heartily concur. Read Foucault's Pendulum instead. (But do not look for thriller-paced writing. While a wonderful, fascinating, and compelling read, it is, after all Umberto Eco. ) (And scroll up a bit for a well-considered "Southern" view of Robert E. Lee and the mysterious phenomenon of the close celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. day and Lee-Jackson day. (Used to be, just after the announcement of a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., that Virginians had a single holiday Lee-Jackson-King day.))

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For the Terminally Curious


I have replaced Ella Enchanted with a delightful (so far) little ditty by James McKean titled Quattrocento. Seems booksellers are having a brief renaissance theme of recent date. What with The Quarrel that Started the Renaissance, Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, The Passion of Artemesia, Quattrocento, and perhaps others I am unaware of, we are having a veritable renaissance boom.

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I had previously reported reading a book by Jacques Maritain titled Art and Morality In fact, that is a single chapter of a larger work titled The Responsibility of the Artist which is available through the Maritain Center.

I share a brief reflection based on part of the text.

from The Responsibility of the Artist
Jacques Maritain

Artistic value and moral value belong to two different realms. Artistic value relates to the work, moral value to man. The sins of men can be the subject-matter of a work of art, from them art can draw aesthetic beauty -- otherwise there would be no novelists. The experience of moral evil can even contribute to feed the virtue of art -- I mean by accident, not as a necessary requirement of art. The sensuality of Wagner is so sublimated by the operation of his music that Tristan calls forth no less than an image of the pure essence of love. The fact remains that if Wagner had not fallen in love with Matilda Wesendonck, we would probably not have had Tristan. The world would doubtless be none the worse for it -- Bayreuth is not the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yet thus does art avail itself of anything, even of sin. It behaves like a god; it thinks only of its own glory. The painter may damn himself, painting does not care a straw, if the fire where he burns bakes a beautiful piece of pottery. The fact matters to the painter, however, because the painter is not the art of painting, nor is he merely a painter. He is also a man, and he is a man before being a painter.

The last lines of this are the most stirring and dreadful. God will not judge us on fine writing or persuasive reasoning. He will judge us on right thinking, believing, acting on the truth, and ultimately right living that stems from these. Art, as fine and as consoling as it can be, does not save us. That is done by Christ alone, who can begin to be known by art, but who ultimately is known by Himself entirely. He makes Himself known through the power of the Holy Spirit to the person who, through whatever means, becomes aware of Him and seeks Him in fullness of heart and mind.

from The Responsibility of the Artist

Any man who, in a primary act of freedom deep enough to engage his whole personality, chooses to do the good for the sake of the good, chooses God, knowingly or unknowingly, as his supreme good; he loves God more than himself, even if he has no conceptual knowledge of God.

Praise God! I do not need a complete conceptual understanding of God, or even a particularly good one, in order to truly love God in my actions. True, more of these actions are inspired in greater love based on knowledge--but it isn't knowing that is the key--it is ultimately loving. Even if you do not know why you are obedient, obedience to the law of love is love of God.

(Interestingly the passage directly above comes after a demonstration of the "good love" Antigone demonstrates toward her brothers and toward her people through the rebellious act she commits.)

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Ella Enchanted--Review

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Ella Enchanted
Gail Carson Levine


I found the book delightfully written--the "backstory" to the fairy tale we know as Cinderella. It takes place in a land of magic, ogres, elves, fairies, and dragons and there is vivid imagination at work here.

But the book is intended for young people and as such it left me with a very strange aftertaste. I don't know if the author intended it, but there is a very strong whiff of atheistic nihilism in the story. When the heroine's mother dies (extremely early in the story--I'm not giving anything away here) the heroine laments about never, never, never, never seeing her mother again. This assurance remains undiluted throughout the narrative. The only sense of the supernatural that comes through is that fairies are apparently immortal.

The premise of the story, while clever, is also disconcerting. The heroine is enchanted with a "fairy gift" of complete obedience. If an order is given Ella must execute it no matter what the cost to herself or those around her. The idea here is to show how a good thing might not be so good. But it also suggests, it seems, that there are ways of being obedient that adhere to the absolute letter but not to the spirit--and as far as the author is concerned, that's perfectly okay because obedience is not what it's cracked up to be.

So, while I think it's a very fine book, well-written, clever and full of ideas, I cannot recommend it to the audience for whom it is intended. If you intend to allow your child to read this book or to see the movie made from it, you would do well to preview it yourself and be ready to discuss it with your child.

It is books like these, well executed but (perhaps unintentionally) filled with insidious messages that pose the real threat that people associate with the Harry Potter books. The Kingdom of Fairy is treacherous.

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Reading List Revisited

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Presently in addition to the list of last week I have added:

Abbot Vonier A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist available from Zaccheus Press

Gail Carson Levine Ella Enchanted

Robin McKinley Spindle's End

Gerald Vann O.P. The Aquinas Perscription

Joel Giallanze CSC Questions Jesus Asked

Jacques Maritain Art and Morality

All very fine books. I am also looking into the "Redwall" series of Brian Jacques, although with a bit of trepidation--I've not cared for Animal centered books post Wind in the Willows. I found Watership Down obnoxious and wearisome--though I must confess a weakness for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. so it's possible that the Jacques book may be to my liking. I couldn't find the first in the series (Redwall? ) so I've got a copy of Mossflower.

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Shadows over Baker Street--Review


Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)
Summary: About twenty short stories that combine the world of Arthur Conan Doyle with the cosmos of H.P. Lovecraft.

Review: While a pleasant walk down nostalgia lane, revisiting two of the most frequented sites of my youth, still not a particularly strong anthology. As one would expect with pastiche or hommage stories, there is much here that is slick and superficial and that fails to get at the depth of the appeal of either author.

Possibly one of the reasons for this is that it wasn't particularly the world of the authors that was appealing in itself--it was that world and the language that created it. Thus, present the world without the language and there is much to be desired in the writing.

Still, if you enjoy both characters this is worth a look for a couple of stories, most particularly the final one in the anthology. Also there are a couple that elaborate on Watson's Afghanistan experience that are fairly interesting. Still and all, nothing that really recaptures the sense of awe and dread of H.P. Lovecraft, and the usual slick Holmsian surface without the resonance of Doyle's presentation.

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I have really been enjoying this book and learning a tremendous amount about theology of the Eucharist. At least it is a beginning. I know that I'll have to temper it with other things--but this acts as a kind of "outline" of the issues. If you haven't looked into such things in depth, you might find the book an interesting beginning. It isn't terribly difficult to read, but it goes slowly because each chapter is a stunning revelation.

from A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist
Abbot Vonier

[long Latin quotation of St. Thomas Aquinas with accompanying translation omitted--but worthy of attention]

Every sacrament, then, has something to declare: it recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future. If the sacrament did not fulfill its function of sign proclaiming something which is not seen, it would not be a sacrament at all. It can embrace heaven and earth, time and eternity, because it is a sign; were it only a grace it would be no more that the gift of the present hour; but being a sign the whole history of the spiritual world is reflected in it: "For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come." What Saint Paul says of the Eucharist about its showing forth a past event is true in other ways of every other sacrament. (p. 14)

Abbot Vonier goes on to elucidate what exactly is revealed of the past, present, and future in the sign of the Eucharist. And he makes an exceedingly important point that the Eucharist is indeed a sign in the fullest sense of what a sign is because what it signifies, it brings about.

Wonderful, wonderful food for reflection. I have been blessed by reading just a little of this book. And glancing through the rest, it is exciting, challenging, interesting, and informative. I will continue to share on and off as I continue to read.

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For those who care (and I know I'm always interested in the readings of others):

Our Lady of the Forest David Guterson (a book-group read)

Death Comes for the Archbishop (The other book-group)

Shadows over Baker Street Hommage? Pastiche? I don't know, but it is pure fluff and I'm enjoying it (a lot).

A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist Abbot Vonier (see below)

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger Ronald Sider

The Company of the Commited Elton Trueblood

The Politics of Jesus John Howard Yoder

Utopia Lincoln Child (more mindless fluff by part of the team that gave you The Relic and Cabinet of Curiosities)

Digital Fortress by the much reviled Dan Brown--sorry folks, I just like his (lack of) style and can't get all that worked up over the content of any of his work. A cursory glance at Angels and Demons (which I enjoyed tremendously even with its evil renegade--oops, better not say too much--almost a spoiler there--suffice to say that we have a magnetic bottle of antimatter in St. Peter's Square--the bottle is deteriorating.) reveals that Brown is not so much anti-Catholic as completely ignorant and led by his sources.

Born Again Chuck Colson

Just as I Am Billy Graham

Roman Triptych His Holiness John Paul II (Fourth time through this, and praised as poetry by no less that Czeslaw Milosz. I hadn't been overwhelmed by the Holy Father's Poetry before, although I found it pleasant and sometimes inspiring, but this book simply blows me away every time I open it--Thanks D.)

Okay, it's a checkered list and doesn't include everything. I'm still struggling through M. Garrigou-Lagrange and of course a host of others, but this should suffice to whet anyone's appetite for more. And perhaps I'll talk about them after I've read them. Though Lee Ann and T.S. are so much better at that than I am, perhaps I'll leave it to them.

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I arrived home yesterday to find waiting for a me a delightful surprise. I had just received a copy of a new book from an new Catholic Publisher--Zaccheus Press.

Being the inveterate reader I am, I couldn't wait to plunge into A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Abbot Vonier. Also being an editor, I couldn't resist taking in the overall package. And let me say I am extremely pleased.

Generally I've become used to preconciliar books being published in less-than-handsome volumes. For example nearly everything of St. Louis de Montfort and St Alphonsus di Liguori is published in editions that have 19th century typefaces--crowded, dark-looking, fragmented letters, relatively poor printing. Don't get me wrong--no matter what the typeface or printing quality these volumes are worth having. Sophia Press, on the other hand produces some very handsome, but often bowdlerized and reedited versions of classic works.

The editor of this work assures me that it is completely intact. It has not been abridged, although spellings have been changed to conform to modern American English usage and a few other things have been updated. The most distressing thing about Sophia Press materials is the insistence upon eliminating that most valuable tool for any study, apologetic, or reference usage--the index. Contra Sophia's policy, the editors at Zaccheus have done the laborious work of adding an index to Abbot Vonier's book.

I haven't read the entire work--it is slow going, requiring some careful reading and thoughtful consideration. Moreover, I am not competent to judge the contents of the work. However, it is sufficient to me to know that Avery Cardinal Dulles considers the work "essential," Peter Kreeft recommends it to our attention and Father Aidan Nichols, O.P. gives it a resoundingly solid introduction.

If you are interested in understanding Catholic Doctrine, I recommed that you look at this book. While densely packed and written, the prose is exemplary of the clarity that often accompanied the best work of the eary Twentieth Century--Fr. Knox, Fr. Benson, Hillaire Belloc, and C.S. Lewis.

Moreover, apart from any considerations of the merits of the individual work, the foundation of another press dedicated to publishing solid Catholic works and explications of Catholic thought must be greeted by at least a small welcoming cheer. And a book so handsomely produced as this--well-bound with good cover and solid introductory and concluding materials is a welcome addition to any library.

Check it out at their site. The price is reasonable and the book has been so far very enlightening and very interesting. In addition to being a guide to the understanding of Catholic thought concerning the eucharist it also makes for a very interesting introduction to a small portion of Thomistic thought. Well worth your time and attention. And the publisher is interested in feedback to help him continue to improve the books he is presenting. So buy, read, and comment in order to get the kind of Catholic Books you want to see in the future.

Later: (Note for Erik). Fr. Nichols refers to Abbot Vonier's work as a "semiotic" theology of the Eucharist. I thought you might find that interesting, seeing as he likely was ignorant of Saussure but contemporary. This work is slightly later than The Course which, if I recall is 1916, 1918.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from January 2004.

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