Books and Book Reviews: April 2006 Archives

Austen, Austen, Everywhere


We went to the bookstore this evening to pick up Throne of Jade. While I was browsing the 3 for 2 tables, I noticed no fewer that 4 Austen-themed new major novels. In addition, there is the mystery series (is it Stephanie Barron?) staring Ms. Austen herself, and a new mystery with the 19th Century's answer to Nick and Nora, you guessed it. . .

What brave new world is this? What form of Austen zeitgeist has invaded the collective unconscious? Do we approach an anniversary? Or are we seeing a nostalgic bloom of longing for novels that had characters, dialogue, plot, and wit? Is this the postmodernist bust, which has been too long in coming? "Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

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The title says it all. Think of all of the ways in which the word "finish" can be used and this school exemplifies them.

A recent review in First Things lamented the fact that the insanity of society has outpaced those who could conceivably satirize it, and so satire fails. And perhaps as satire, the book isn't as powerful as say Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies. On the other hand, it is very, very amusing and never brittle.

Ms. Spark may satirize and she may be caustic, but she lacks Waugh's vitriol. She likes her characters too much. Which is not to say that she sympathizes with their foibles. No, indeed, each is forced to live out their insanity; however, she neatly and carefully disposes of each of the major characters in the novel in two pages at the end. Each leads the life that has been presaged in the pages preceding.

While this may not be the height of her art, it is certainly not a failure as a swan song. Beautifully written, insightful, and extremely amusing throughout. Definitely for adults, but as adult entertainment, certainly superior, and possibly only excelled by her own earlier work.

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The Collar by Jonathan Englert starts out to be an exercise in objective journalism that seeks to trace the formation and decisions of five men involved in the process of discernment for the priesthood. The Seminary is Sacred Heart, which is said to specialize in "second-career" Vocations--that is, the return of older men to the Seminary. The span of time is a single year in the life of the formation and discernment process at the seminary.

The book focuses on five men and attempts to relate from the point of view of each the struggles and decisions that go into formation for the seminary. Interestingly and very probably deliberately, the five men seem to represent a cross-section of Church life. For example, two of the five start their vocations with the idea of changing the Church one to the "school of social justice," one to "reestablish the glory days." One is deeply aware of the call of God and a couple are less aware, but becoming all the more aware. I dare not give details because half of the fun of the book is to try to discern before they discern--who will make it, who will turn away. And yes, some do turn away.

The remarkable journalistic feat is the seeming objectivity of the reporting. Every candidate, no matter how "extreme" his views is presented in his own light. As I was reading, I tried hard to discern where the author stood in all of this, and mercifully I could not.

The book touches upon the pedophilia scandals and upon seminarians who had been involved. It even touches upon the events of 9/11.

According to the notes, the author started this exercise at two different seminaries before cooperation was withdrawn in the light of the scandals. All to the good, because where he ended up produces a superb story. It struck me as evidence of God's hand even in the creation of such a work.

The book is worth you time for several reasons--it is not sensationalistic. It does not seek to rake up scandal, but it does not avoid scandal when it is present and part of the life of the seminary. It attempts to tell the story of five men who think they are called, and who are all approaching the seminary for quite different reasons. It provides leaven and balance to the rather more overwrought work of Goodbye, Good Men.

Another point that the book emphasizes is that there IS a vocations crisis. It is not how many men go to Seminary that one should report on when countering the question of a crisis, but how many men actually end up ordained. In one passage of the book, relating the story of the father of one of the men, Englert notes that when this man's father entered the Senior Seminary, there were 40 men studying for the priesthood. The man chose to leave and go to college. By the time he completed college, only six men were left in the class and of those only about half were ordained. If these numbers hold true, then one can expect about 5% of the population of a seminary at any time to go on to the priesthood. This may be an underestimation, but because the priesthood is a discerned, sacramental vocation, it hardly seems unlikely that many might feel called while few indeed are actually chosen. On this matter, I can only share what the book reports, having no knowledge of what the graduation and ordination rates really are.

In all, a very fine, understated journey of discernment and exploration, detailing the intricate stories of five men as they look at the priesthood. Whether it reveals the reality of seminary life, I cannot say. But then, could anyone really reveal the complexities of life in any institution of extended learning. As I read the book, I thought, "What would be the shape of a book about five people in graduate school at Ohio State University?" (my own personal experience). I decided, whether completely accurate or not, the selected details were sufficient to give a sense of what seminary life was like, while truly highlighting what was, to the author, the point of this whole work--discernment.

Highly recommended to the lay person who is interested in what priestly formation is like. I don't know how seminarians or priests would view the work. I think that might be a very interesting perspective.

Later: Mr. Englert informs me: "I am speaking in Washington D.C. this coming Monday (1 May 2006) at Olsson's Bookstore in Dupont Circle at 7pm." For those of you fortunate enough to be in the area, this would prove well worth your time.

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What is Jealousy?


from The Finishing School
Muriel Spark

What is jealousy? Jealousy is to say, what you have got is mine, it is mine, it is mine? Not quite. It is to say, I hate you because you have got what I have not got and desire. I want to be me, myself, but in your position, with your opportunities, your fascination, your looks, your abilities, your spiritual good.

Chris, like any of us, would have been astonished if he had known that Rowland, through jealousy, had thought with some tormented satisfaction of Chris dying in his sleep.

Now, to start with, one hopes that Spark is using jealousy here loosely to mean envy. Because what she describes is the great sin of envy. To desire what another has, to long for that trip to Hawai'i is not in itself sinful, though not perhaps an optimal state of mind. To be moved to the point of murder (even if only in thought) to get that trip is envy.

Many of us experience small twangs of desire when we hear about people doing things we would very much like to do. Most of us are able to push these aside for the moment and wish the person doing them the best of luck or a pleasant time, or whatever congratulations are in order. And we don't revisit it time and again. After Natalie tells you that she's going to the Cote d'Azur, your initial response might be, "Oh, how I wish I could go there." And it would probably be followed by a very generous and genuine, "Natalie, I hope you have a wonderful time, and bring back lots of pictures so you can share it with us."

But in this passage Ms. Spark gets at the deadly core of envy, something most of us have experienced very rarely, but probably all have experienced at least once. "So and so got the promotion that I deserved and I should be sitting in that office right now." "So and so got the girl (or guy) I had my eye on and he doesn't deserve her like I do." And so on. When harbored, cherished, and nurtured, envy turns into a life-consuming monster. It consumes both the life of the envious, and in extremes, the life of the one envied. It can cascade rapidly from a thought crime into a real crime against a person. It can take advantage of any opportunity to lay the opponent low and assume what is, by all rights, mine.

Never experienced envy? Rejoice. I think there are some souls who really have not, and I can say for myself that it is not the highest on my list of temptations to sin--however, I do find myself from time to time turning over that stone about one thing or another. To wish ill on another is to have already done it--when we go about turning over rocks in the parched aridity of our envious souls, we shouldn't be too surprised if we find more than a few scorpions.

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Present Reading


I am about to finish Jonathan Englert's The Collar, about which, more later when I've finished. However, present reading goes in another direction.

By now, anyone who really cares in St. Blogs has heard of the death of Muriel Spark. Ms. Spark was the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie which brought Maggie Smith to our notice. For this alone she deserves our eternal gratitude. However, Ms. Spark was a remarkable prose stylist producing some of the most elegant and odd novels of the latter 20th Century.

While Jean Brodie is her most famous and I have not read widely enough in her canon, my particularly favorite is a ghoulish little trifle titled Memento Mori--in which a mysterious voice calls over the telephone to individual members of a group of Octogenarians, each phone call presaging the recipient's death. Very interesting, and surprisingly funny.

So, hearing of Ms. Spark's death and desiring to make further acquaintance with her work, I went to our dismally stocked local public library and found the two works on the shelves by Ms. Spark--The Finishing School and Aiding and Abetting. Of this latter, many reviews considered it slight and not up to her other work, though still entertaining. Presently I am engaged with The Finishing School. It is a very slight novel. The hardbound edition is the size of a paper-back. It runs 181 pages of very large-leading prose, so it probably amounts to about 990 pages of real book-size prose. But the delights between the covers are extraordinary.

Take for an example, this toss-off,

Tilly took herself, tall and lonely, away to another part of the house to spread her story.

This after Tilly has shared her secret suspicion that the headmaster of the school was "making advances at me." Not only is it in a single sentence the life of a romantic teenager, it is a model of construction of melodic prose with the internal assonance and consonance. Ms. Spark's origins as a poet cannot be denied, and lend themselves to supple, sometimes gorgeous prose.

Muriel Spark starting her writing career near the end of Evelyn Waugh's and there are some striking similarities in story lines and in "hidden Catholicism" that informs the books of both authors.

In all truth, I can't recommend The Finishing School, as I've only just begun to read it, but my intuition and my experience with Ms. Spark's other books suggests that this one will be a delight. Ms. Spark is the hidden treasure among Catholic writers, not nearly so well-known as she has a right to be, not nearly as well appreciated in the world of Catholic readers as she ought to be.

Once I've finished these two Muriel Spark, I have set aside (and in fact already started) Madeleine St. John's The Essence of the Thing. Ms St. John is another Catholic writer, recommended sometime back in an article in either Crisis or First Things. Her prose is not as poetic or taut as Ms. Sparks, and she relies heavily on dialogue to carry the story; however, she deals with important themes and issues as most of the masters of Catholic writing do.

I'll keep you informed as to the progress of the books.

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His Majesty's Dragon

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His Majesty's Dragon is a debut novel by Naomi Novik and to anticipate myself, I can't wait for the next. Ms. Novik creates an interesting, indeed startling world of the Napoleonic Wars. Her premise is about as interesting as it comes.

Set this squarely on your SF shelves--that's right, not fantasy, but SF in the Anne McCaffrey tradition of Dragons not in the realm of folklore but scientifically studied, bred, and kept entities. In Novik's world, Dragons have been our companions for several centuries and of relatively recent date, we've learned how to harness, ride, and use them in warfare.

An English sea-captain, in the course of taking a light French clipper, is appalled at the carnage the French Captain allowed and is inclined to treat him poorly until he discovers in the hold an unhatched dragon egg. Said egg is hardening and it is a sign that it will soon hatch. At hatching a kind of imprinting or bonding occurs, or the dragon become a rogue. The dragon hatched can speak fluently and makes his or her own choice as to rider.

The aerial corps for reasons you discover in the course of the book is not looked well upon by services outside. And Laurence has no desire to join, but Termeraire (the Dragon) has quite a different intent--and so the story starts.

Except for a few rough places, the prose is smooth and efficient--never magnificent, but certainly up to its goal. The story is light, fluff, but very entertaining, and there are a couple of thought-provoking moments--mostly when the author isn't trying so hard to make for thought-provoking.

Both Linda and I were absolutely enthralled and read it very quickly. For fans of SF AND Patrick O'Brian you cannot hope for better. Although, be warned, there is nothing of the complexity, thickness, or opacity of O'Brian's prose; nor is there the depth of characterization and world building some claim for O'Brian. (I cannot speak authoritatively on the matter because I still haven't managed to finish even one book in O'Brian's series.) This is intended to be light entertainment, and as such, fits the bill perfectly.

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Present Reading


A passage from a book recommended in a list of Catholic Authors:

from The Essence of the Thing
Madeleine St. John

Guy entered the room. 'Tell us,' said Susannah, 'what could be better than marriage, Guy?' 'Salvation,'he replied. His elders howled. 'Where do you learn these words?' asked Susannah. 'I learned that in R.E.,'said Guy. 'I'm not sure exactly what it means, but it's meant to be very good, so it might be better than marriage.'

'Can you have both?'

'Well, I suppose so, but salvation is still probably the better of the two.'

'The better of the two,' repeated Susannah. 'Very good, Guy. Very good.' 'OK,' he said. He now remembered what he had come in for. 'Can I have another caramel?'

Something not very many people realize is that when reading fiction, you must talk to the book and ask questions. The same is true to a lesser extent with non-fiction. Normally the questions that result from non-fiction reading are of a very limited scope--either questioning the veracity of what one is reading, or looking for clarification of one or more points.

However, in reading fiction especially well-constructed, thoroughly considered fiction, there are a myriad of questions to ask, and answers to be had. What exactly is the author about. Why these words at this time in the mouth of this character? What exactly is her message regarding marriage and salvation? What does this mean for Susannah and Nicola (the other person in the room during this conversation)?

Fiction gets at the same truths as fact in a way that is very much different in technique and intensity. Fiction often slips in under the radar and we often toss it off as if nothing at all. But it is in a close look at fiction that we begin to uncover what is really going on.

It is because we have gotten lazy in our habits of reading that a trifle like The DaVinci Code stands to do as much harm as it may. People accept fiction uncritically as fact--and it helps that in the particular case the author is interested in making money and holds up his poorly executed research as fact. (A glance at any of his other published work will show that it is a worm and error-riddled as the work in question.) We think that because it is something for leisurely reading, fiction has no real effect.

The fact is, all of our choices have an effect. We can read light fiction and derive from it both pleasure and some insight, or be blindsided by it and find ourselves thinking through things we thought we had already considered. Every choice matters and is important. Thus reading critically is an important skill to cultivate, and it is not a skill that very many have. Many have not yet learned to converse with the work. They pop them into their brains like so many bon-bons and then it's on to the next work without much consideration of what one has just read. Most light works don't require much. Perhaps a review for the edification of others is sufficient to draw out all that can be gained from engaging such work. But some need extended conversation. We need to hone our critical faculties to determine which is which. Which work is substantive and worthwhile, and which merely a passing jeu.

Of the books before me now, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that The Collar is an interesting non-fiction read. It's substance is yet to be determined as I am only about half-way through, but it does raise some interesting questions. His Majesty's Dragon is a bon-bon, a froth, a zephyr on an otherwise overly warm day, and it appears that Ms. St. John's book shall be one that requires some extended consideration. She appears to be writing in the themes of Graham Greene and others, but in a more modern setting and mode. She is the companion along the way to the recently departed Muriel Spark, and to other such writers. I don't know if the work will hold the weight of much critical review and questioning, but until one starts to ask, it will be impossible to tell.

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At the Fountain of Elijah


There are several useful introductions to Carmelite Spirituality available today. One is by Father John Welch, who is the Prior Provincial of the Most Pure Heart of Mary Province of the Old Order Carmelites. At the Fountain of Elijah by Wilfrid McGReal is another.

If you are a frequent reader, you've already seen several excerpts from Father McGreal's work. It is short (about 130 pages), to the point and clear. There are excerpts of all the major Carmelite writers and they are placed within the traditions of the Carmelite family so that the relationship between the two branches of the Order are made more clear and comprehensible.

What is useful about these introductions is that while they introduce you to the major Carmelite Saints, they also introduce you to the essentials of Carmelite Spirituality--a point, as I wrote yesterday, that I seem to have been dodging until the last year or so when pieces began to fall into place. The "roots" of Carmelite spirituality go deep into scripture. It is from constant immersion in scripture that the Carmelite develops. One can read the complete works of all of the Carmelite Saints and seek to internalize all of the seeming teaching, but it one misses this essential point, one remains forever outside the fold. All of the great Saints of Carmel are overwhelmingly informed by Scripture, by lectio, and by spending time with the Word in the Word.

McGreal manages to nail this point several times in the course of the book. I think he may do a better job of it that Father Welch's book, but that is a subjective evaluation.

If you think you're called to be a Carmelite, or if you want to know more about what Carmelites are all about, At the Fountain of Elijah will provide you with a glimpse of the history, charism, and life of Carmel. It isn't the fullness of the Carmelite way, but it isn't meant to be--it is meant merely to introduce. And as an introduction, I would say that it is superb.

Highly recommended to those interested in the Carmelite way of life.

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Holy Week Reading

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As usual, I have several books going at once; however, they are unusual in the focus:

(1) (And pride of place this week) Death on a Friday Afternoon Richard John Neuhaus

(2) At the Fountian of Elijah Wilfrid McGreal

(3) Dove Descending Thomas Howard with Four Quartets T.S. Eliot

(4) Dark Night of the Soul St. John of the Cross

Next week, as soon as one of these is finished, I will jump into The Collar which just arrived. I've been looking forward to it for a while.

Linda picked up an interesting book this weekend His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik which is a fantasy/alternative reality story set in the era of the Napoleonic wars. The inspiration for the series is said to come from the novelist's favorite reading: Patrick O'Brien.

I also picked up a novel of interest, set in 12th century Wales--The Fool's Tale by Nicole Galland. As soon as I can get to it, I shall report on it.

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Thomas Howard assures you that outside of Four Quartets you will never ever see this word used. So in order to foster awareness and interest, I am going to use the word four times.





Now that it is emblazoned on your memory, go, use, and enjoy! :-P

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Being a lunchtime fantasia borne of reading Thomas Howard/T.S, Eliot and listening to Josh Turner at the same time.

Thomas Howard provides a very nice commentary to Eliot's poem, but there are points at which I think things are glossed in such a way as to convey a less full sense of the language in the poem. The following is an excerpt from the first of the Four Quartets, "Burnt Norton."

from Four Quartets
T.S. Eliot

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Hauntingly beautiful lines, that Howard does an excellent job of starting to unpack. (Of course he's writing a commentary to a point he's not going to unpack everything for us. Where I think there is a slight faulting is in Howard's analysis of "smokefall."

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

And what's this "smokefall"? There is no such word. No: but Eliot, the poet ("makers" is what Aristotle called poets), can make up the word, and none of us need be in any confusion as to what it means. High noon? No. Rosy dawn? No. The quivering heat of mid-afternoon? No. It is twilight, probably the most apt time for this sort of haunting vision.

I think this is partly true. But I think smokefall is also a reference to the timeless eternity of the blessing with incense. Perhaps at twilight, whose very atmosphere conveys the sense of smoke falling, but certainly as the altar is censed, and certainly as the people are censed, and as the Holy Relics are censed, there is smokefall with its blessing of the sense of smell, that momentary transport of eternity--a fragmentary blessing that blesses us even in the recollection of it.

I think smokefall suggests this moment in the draughty Church as much as it suggests twilight. Perhaps I read too much into it, but given the context of the rest of the poem, it fits nicely.

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Pub Info on the Insitutes


Books for the main Carmelite sources are often difficult to come by, particularly when the translation gives quite a different title. I'm home now and have the book to hand:

The Ten Books on the Way of Life and Great Deeds of the Carmelites (The Book of the First Monks)
Felipe Ribot, O. Carm.
Edited and Translated by Richard Copsey O.Carm.
2005 Saint Albert's Press and Edizioni Camelitane
ISBN (It has two and they aren't just ISBN10 and ISBN13)

Here's a link to a British Site with the book available. For O.Carms this book may be ordered through your provincial offices. I suspect the same may be true for OCD, but I know less about their administration.

Hope this is helpful in finding it if you are looking for it.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from April 2006.

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