Books and Book Reviews: December 2004 Archives

All of you have undoubtedly experienced types of books that you simply cannot read, or types of movies you cannot watch. In movies, for example, I have yet to be entertained by any film about organized crime--no matter how "well made" no matter how wonderful--they leave me cold. Two notable exceptions are the comedy Some Like it Hot which needs organized crime to drive the improbable plot, and Pulp Fiction which like most of Tarrantino is a live-action cartoon.

So also in literature, I am left cold by certain genres--two in particular. I have never cottoned to the "spy story." And to this date there has been no exception to this--Le Carré, Ludlum, Deighton, Hall, Buchan, Clancy, you name it, I don't care for it. This goes all the way back to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and even includes The Man Who was Thursday, which, while not strictly speaking a "spy" novel, partakes of too many of its tropes for me to really enjoy it. My dislike of it is so strong that it even includes redoubtable Golden Age Mystery writers like Agatha Christie who wrote some deplorable Fu Manchu-like "spy" stories. Now, I don't feel too bad about not liking this particular group of things--after all it is a fairly contained limited genre. Yes, it would be nice to appreciate Rogue Male and some of Greene's "entertainments" but if it is not to be so, I can live with that.

One that I find more disturbing though, and the reason for these thoughts, is sea stories. In this I have had a few minor breaktthroughs--Conrad's Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, Billy Budd and even some parts of Moby Dick. (I once read an edited version that removed all the flensing and rendering and whale anatomy and boiled the story down to its bare bones and found the whole thing a compelling allegory.) And of course, one of my favorite books of the Bible--Jonah--begins with a sea-story.

But, in particular, the sea stories I would like to like and would like to have reason to read are some that are extremely popular around St. Blogs (another reason for mentioning them.) I have tried now eight or nine times to make it through Master and Commander. Every time I am occasionally pleased by the language and invariably confounded with the glacial pace of the action. Page after page after page of a description of two boors at a chamber music recital. Or maybe they aren't boors, as I progress through the work. But what I lack is a compelling reason for continuing through the story. The movie version of these characters I found even more off-putting. As I have descirbed it to friends--a soggy Ivory-Merchant wannabe with characters out of Gosford Park.

Nevertheless, people whose writing I enjoy and whose insights I find notable enjoy these books. Some seem to enjoy them as much as I might enjoy Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Good writing, is, after all, good writing. And it may be only a matter of time before I grow into an appreciation for these books. After all, it took me twenty years of trying before I became an ardent life-long admirer of Henry James and of Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, there's always hope.

What I'd like to ask as a favor is that those who truly admire the work write more about it. Cite passages, give me some insight into why these are compelling and interesting reading. Share your favorite moments. I'll be stopping by at least two places frequently. And I'll post the occasional reminder. I love the language of the books, now I want to have the drive to get over whatever it is about them that I find so alienating. That will require some introspection, of course. But, in all, it probably boils down to a lack of charity and a great deal too much judgment being exercised. That is usually the source of problems. And yet, I do, in some things follow the great Thomist line that knowledge brings an increase of love (I understand that the reference is to matters divine, but I think it is true of all matters not sinful). So, perhaps if I know more, I can break down my resistance and begin to appreciate an oeuvre that truly seems to be worth the effort. The tantalizing through of twenty unread books, presents a vista of possibility for me--a vista that I truly do want to explore. So I look for a reason.

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Walking a Literary Labyrinth


Sister Malone's book is a vexingly disappointing effort, leaving nearly all of Tom's questions unanswered and not truly developing the thesis of the work. The book turns out to be more the literary perusals of a nun at various stages of her life. And while this holds some interest, the difficulty is that she expressly denies the intent and apparently genuinely purposes something different.

Unfortunately she doesn't achieve it. In fact, even as a "biography in letters" as it were, the book fails. There is entirely too little about the substance of what she read and how it influenced her intellectual life in any significant way.

But worse than that are numerous points at which the Sister gives me too much information. For example at one point she tells me that she would rather miss her daily required prayers than to miss her time reading. And while I can sympathize with that viewpoint, it is hardly edifying to conjure up the image of a Nun reading The Cardinal Sins in preference to evening prayer. More than that, we get a nun's lecture on reading erotic literature--by which she means such things as the collected works of John Updike. She then uses this little apparatus to give us a polemic on what is wrong with the Church's teaching on sexuality--the details of which I sha'n't regale you with, but suffice to say that it is the standard diatribe post Humanae Vitae.

Okay, so it is evident that I was never successful in separating the person of the nun from the content of the work, try as I might. Moreover, most of what I found difficult, I would have found difficult to read written by any professing Catholic. It is especially difficult coming as it were from the reserved center of the Church, and, in a way, indicative of present trials in the church. If the core is like this, what can one expect from the periphery?

I think my greatest disappointment (but one I half expected) is the fact that the wonderful and workable symbol of the labyrinth is once again dragged into the camp of those who do not really agree with church teaching. (Although I would say that Sister Malone, despite professed disagreement on many points, certainly seems to walk the walk. I think about the parable Jesus told of the two sons, one of whom said, "Go away, no way I'm going to do that," and then went and did it, the other of whom said, "Right away," and never stirred his bones. Unfortunately our witness is at least two-fold--what our lives teach and what our words teach. It were better were they consonant.)

I like the symbolism of the labyrinth--not the endless Cretan maze of lore--but the long and winding path that at one moment seems directly aimed at the goal and then in a moment takes you swooping off in another direction. That does seem to speak deeply of my spiritual journey. For short segments I'm right on and certain that I'll make it to my goal, and then for wide stretches I'm wandering around uncertain of where the center is and if I'll ever make it. The hope lies in the fact that it is a single path and the center pulls with a pull stronger than any gravity. I'm off the point here, and I'll have to get back to this idea in a different post, but the thrust here is that once again a rich symbol has been usurped by a group with whom I have little in common intellectually.

Sister Malone's book is not a scandal, nor is it a success. What it sets out to do she wanders far from leaving me alone to try to divine the answer to the question as to whether reading has a spirituality and causing me to wonder if the initial assertion of a similarity between reading and other aspects of spirituality is indeed valid. As a lifetime reader, I definitely hope so; unfortunately the book provides no ammunition or support for an exceedingly interesting notion.

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I should have guessed as much given the title with "Labyrinth" as a keyword. But putting that aside, I thought perhaps there would be something here for me. However, at every turn I bump up against one or more absurdities--things I shouldn't mind so much, but do.

For example, about twenty pages into the book Sister Malone gives us an outline of the history of reading. And what to my wonder eyes should appear but the date of 1000 C.E. I know it is a little thing, but why can't a nun, one sworn and betrothed to Christ, run against the PC culture and call it what it is--Anno Domini A.D. It is no more a common era than it is anything else. This was simply a PC disguise for the fact that the world's dominant cultures date all things from the appearance of one Man who was also God. That appearance that we honor this evening and tomorrow is dishonored by caving in, for whatever reasons, to the idiocy of academia.

I'm sure I will find other sore points as I continue. Perhaps I would do better were I to forget that this is supposedly one of Christ's Brides, and think of her rather as a curmudgeonly old lady professor who, like Harriet Vane, has something to prove by what she writes. I'll try that and let you know how it goes.

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More Catholic than the Pope

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More Catholic than the Pope
Patrick Madrid and Pete Vere

Bought this on a whim yesterday. I've been accosted by the various arguments of the ultratraditionalist/schimatic crowd and had not even realized that these were some of the pervasive themes of discontent. Perhaps you've seen them as well--"Vatican II wasn't a doctrinal council, merely a pastoral council, " etc. The first time I encountered this, I hadn't the foggiest notion that there was such a distinction (as Madrid and Vere explain, there isn't) and didn't know what to make of it even if there were.

This book is a mite too technical for me. Mr. Vere is a canon lawyer, and the first half of the book is a detailed description of exactly what went on in the establishment of SSPX and the schism of Archbishop Lebfevre. (And, schism it was by any version of Canon law you care to use for analysis.) They also explain the phenomenon of Campos, Brazil (a former SSPX diocese reunited with the Catholic Church).

The second part of the book is an exposition of several arguments used against the Catholic Church by SSPX adherents. For example, the St. Pius V edict assuring the availability of the Tridentine Mass in perpetuity, the "heresy" of Paul VI (implicity I suppose of John XXIII) and of John Paul II (often compared to the "heresy" of Pope St. Liberius, etc.).

What was nice about this book is that it clarified for me certain points that I have seen made by the adherents of SSPX. What it doesn't really provide, and cannot in the scope of so short a study is the psychology behind it. This must come from the extreme traditionalists themselves. (And I assume that the "extreme traditionalists" that Madrid and Vere refer to are, in fact, schimatics of various stripes--not those who while remaining within the Church and loyal to Rome demand access to the wonderful treasury of riches that is the Tridentine Mass.

What I fail to understand, and what I would like to see more of a discussion of, is why the Tridentine Mass was suppressed in the first place. That seems to have been a major tactical error on the part of the Council--or perhaps a usurpation of the council's good meaning by those who had in mind a new agenda. I suppose I shouldn't speculate as to reason, given that I have a very poor understanding of events overall.

That leads me to another point that I hope bodes well for my own diocese. Our Bishop (a good, weak man) has recently retired and the Adjutator Bishop recently had been installed (or perhaps will be installed--much goes on at that level that I am out of touch with). It is my profound hope that this changing of the guard will allow us to have established within the diocese at least one place at which one might attend the Traditional Latin Mass, and thus I would finally have an experience of it. We'll see.

Anyway, back to the book--for those interested in the division caused by Archbishop Lefebvre and the canon law and statues surrounding it, this book is an excellent, beginning resource. I found some of the "what if" scenarios a tad wearisome, but I don't think I was the intended audience for them. Messers Madrid and Vere are speaking to people like me, but one of the real audiences for this book are those who are considering abandoning the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church for the preservation of a cherished past. Nevertheless, the book overall is quite fine and does provide a reasonable and interesting assessment of the Lefebvre affair and its schismatic aftermath.

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Henry James

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(As if you care.)

I know, you mention his name to clear out the room. However, the plan of my reading is comprehensive and evolutionary. There was a time in which the mention of James would have sent me running. But I find that James and Hawthorne are presently figures I am returning to again and again. Despite certain similarities in complexity of style, there could not be two more different writers or two more different sensibilities.

Compare, for example, a couple of the masterworks from each The Scarlet Letter and The Golden Bowl. Now, I could probably find two works that had more in common, but there is enough here for the cursory note I want to make. The stories are vaguely similar about distorted and "illicit" love affairs that effect the lives of more than the two or three involved. But James is a psychological realist--to the point where the figures in The Golden Bowl become almost avatars of the psychology within. I remember in reading the book my impression that there were four or five people floating in a cloud of their own anxieties and competition through a ghost-like world. There was no real sense of anchoring in events. I remember hearing about someone making a movie of the book and I thought, "How in the world could they do that?"

Edith Wharton famously commented on The Golden Bowl. She asked the James why his more recent work seem to be so lacking in atmosphere and were ‘more and more severed from that thick nourishing human air in which we all live and move.’

Of The Golden Bowl itself she asked, ‘What sort of life did they lead when they were not watching each other and fencing with each other? Why have you stripped them of all the human fringes we necessarily trail after us through life?’ James looked at her in pained surprise and she wished she had not asked the question. He thought a while and then, plainly disturbed, said, ‘My dear, I didn’t know I had.’” (Quotation from A Backward Glance. (found here)

In some ways, this exactly describes my experience of reading The Golden Bowl and yet, something of the book lingers in my mind several years after the initial read. And this is what I find of the very best of James's work--it is very difficult going, but it stays with you, hauntingly and suggestively and gives other experiences a richer, more robust, more three dimensional feel.

Hawthorne on the other hand, a interesting and subtly amusing prose stylist is the antithesis. He is a romantic, writing romantic tales in romantic mode. In fact, he refers to his novels as romances, and each that I have read is indeed such. While one can sympathize with Hester Prynne, or can follow and believe incidents of The House of the Seven Gables, these are romances. They offer no great insight into life or into how people function, nor are they intended to. They serve more to entertain, amuse, and perhaps act in some cases as allegories.

James admired Hawthorne. Some of his later prose reflects the complexities of Hawthorne's style. Henry James is not easy to read. But reading James is a source of infinite delight and joy. It is also a source of profound frustration. One wishes to fashion sentences like Henry James's. One wants to produce characters as memorable as Quint, Isabel Archer, or Daisy Miller. One want to be able to capture the atmosphere and meaning of "Altar of the Dead," or to be able to recount with as deft a hand the conflict imbedded in The Spoils of Poynton. James is one of those writer relegated to the backs of shelves and to hidden places and times. It's a shame because reading his work is more profoundly affecting than almost any other writer of the time. The paths he explored and the details he noted in human behavior have never since (nor for that matter before) been so successfully recounted. Part of the breathlessness and the "closed" feeling of The Golden Bowl comes not from any deliberate exclusion on James's part, but on the laser-like focus on the state of the four main characters involved in a twisted dance of selfishness and despair.

I suppose that I think of James because one of his great stories "The Turn of the Screw" is the exemplar of a category of "Christmas Ghost Stories" that start in the telling at a club. Robertson Davies in High Spirits seems to take some of his inspiration from James. Stephen King says as much in Four Seasons when introducing the last tale of the book. James may be in some ways out of date and out of fashion, but what he has to say is not confined to any time, and his neglect is due more to the progressive deterioration of the art of reading and the impulse to use reading as recreation and escape rather than as a learning experience. I suppose it is the inevitable result of the training of generations of children in the reading of substandard multi-culti literature. It is a shame that great figures of the past can no longer command attention merely because of their race and sex. In more enlightened times such an attitude would have been labeled, parochial, or perhaps even sexist.

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Just What I Needed

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A nun justifying one of my worst habits. Ah, I suppose I should count it a Christmas gift.

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In common terms, sloth.

from "The Deadliest of the Sins" in One Half of Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies

I have never been able to make up my mind which it is that people fear to feel most--pain or joy. Life will bring you both. You will not be able to escape the pain completely, thouogh Acedia will dull it a little. But unfortunately it lies in your power to reject the joy utterly. Because we are afraid that great exultation may betray us into some actions, some words, which may make us look a little foolish to people who are not sharing our experience, we very often stifle our moments of joy, thinking that we will give them their outlet later. But alas, after a few years of that kind of thing, joy ceases to visit us. . . There is an old saying of medieval teachers which I recommend to your special notice:

Time Jesum transeuntem et non revertentem.

I shall translate it thus: 'Dread the passing of Jesus, for He does not return.' And thus it is with all great revelations, be they relgious or not. Seize them, embrace them, let them engulf you, draw from them the uttermost of what they have to give, for if you rebuff them, they will not come again. We live a world where too many people are pititfully afraid of joy.

Acedie is one of the most dreadful of the deadly sins because it sneaks up on you. It slowly grows until it has a complete grip and suddenly you can't find the way out (if you even recognize your predicament.) Not so lust or gluttony, which while persausive and powerful, are generally of a moment and recognizable. Most people can recognize when they commit these sins--but most are ignorant of any signs of Acedie. In a time of waiting, look inside and see what is there--look for signs of joylessness of being above the fray, sophisticated, and too advanced for those emotions that drive hoi polloi.

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You might want to take up Abbot Vonier's Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, now available through Ignatius Press and also through Zaccheus Press. By buying and reading this book, you are both surrounding yourself with an introduction to Eucharistic theology and supporting the efforts of a new, independent, and very promising book seller. Use my search box in the left hand column to look up previous mentions of this wonderful book. Tom at Disputations also had one or two posts in the pst about it.

Anyway, it is a suggestion. (After of course Ecclesia de Eucharistia and Mane Vobisum Domine.

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Not a Stalwart Chestertonian


No, I'm not. I like some things, find many things rather poorly written, and find the poetry often all-but-unreadable (there are notable exceptions--sections of The White Horse and Lepanto). But as many are perfectly will to tell you there are some wonderful treasures. In the e-books I posted a link to the other day I found this delightful excerpt of an essay:

from "A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls" in The Defendant
G.K. Chesterton

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically--it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.

In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole
under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again.

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The Celtic Riddle--Lyn Hamilton


Lyn Hamilton has produced a series of mysteries that have the subtitle "An Archaeological Mystery." While this might not be technically correct for the present book (it is more like an Ethnographical mystery or a Cultural Anthropological Mystery), I am certain that the subtitle attracts more than its share of people interested in the subject.

In the present case, Our Heroine, Lara McClintoch journeys to Ireland with her friend and employee Alex to hear the reading of a will in which Alex is left a small cottage on the Irish coast by someone he met once, a long time ago. As part of the will, the Decedent set up a treasure hunt for an enormously valuable relic. The purpose of the hunt was to get his dysfunctional family to work together. The result is a triple murder.

Now, an inveterate reader of mysteries will know "whodunit" before the heroine. I know I did. There's just something a little coy in the writing that, if you have learned to pick up on it, triggers a kind of intuition. That is certainly true here. The mystery is not tightly constructed (oh, how I miss the golden age)--largely because much too much attention is lavished on the truly interesting treasure hunt.

I'm a sucker for treasure hunt books. It's why, much to everyone's chagrin, I liked both Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code and it explains a certain amount of my myopia concerning them. I could care less about the trappings, its the fun of moving from one clue to the next (regardless of how hare-brained they might be.) In this case you haven't much opportunity to move from one to the next unless you are intimately familiar with Ireland, here legends, and her history. Nevertheless, the author deftly guides you past the clue and even at one point gives you a map to help you to try to decipher the location of the treasure. In the course of all this, she makes one enormous gaffe (having the sun rise in Ireland in the northeast) and may make others.

But somehow, all of that does not matter. The heroine is fun, interesting, and not a know-it-all. The novel is interspersed with tales from The Book of Invasions told, more or less accurately (from my recollection--it's been a while). We encounter all the major figures of Irish Mythology--Nuada, Lugh, Fionn. Cuchulain, Maeve, Almu, the Morrigan, etc. All of this with official eccentric Irish Orthography.

The book is fun, light, entertaining, and informative. There are some serious faults, but not something that most people will mind (I'm a stickler for "fairness" and for Golden Age plotting a clue-laying). And for the price of admission you get a fairly good story and a nice does of Irish Mythology.


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About this Archive

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

Books and Book Reviews: November 2004 is the previous archive.

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