Books and Book Reviews: August 2006 Archives

A Loss to the Literary World


Naguib Mahfouz, one of the great novelists of Egypt died at the age of 94 yesterday. May he find peace and glory.

I particularly liked Miramar and Midaq Alley, but I know that he published a great many other worthwhile works and I regret I am not more acquainted with his work. I shall endeavor to be so now.

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Some Eminent Christians


Two interesting perspectives on Catholic figures from a vehemently anti-Catholic chronicler of the lives of Eminent Christians.

from Lives of Eminent Christians
John Frost, LL.D., 1854

Savonarola, the connecting link between the reformation of John Huss and Martin Luther. . . .

[regarding Sir Thomas More]

In the next parliament he, and his friend Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, were attainted of treason and misprision of treason for listening to the ravings of Elizabeth Barton, considered by the vulgar as the Holy Maid of Kent, and countenancing her treasonable practices.

Our limits will not allow us to detail many particulars of his life while in confinement, marked as it was by firmness, resignation, and cheerfulness, resulting from a conscience however much mistaken, yet void of intentional offence.

Which goes to make my point about non-fiction. Provoked by the strong language of the passage in reference to Elizabeth Barton, I went to the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917, which provided, what I thought was about as fair and reasonable a coverage as could be considering all the facts.

She protested "in the name and by the authority of God" against the king's projected divorce. To further her opposition, besides writing to the pope, she had interviews with Fisher, Wolsey, and the king himself. Owing to her reputation for sanctity, she proved one of the most formidable opponents of the royal divorce, so that in 1533 Cromwell took steps against her and, after examination by Cranmer, she was in November, with Dr. Bocking, her confessor, and others, committed to the Tower. Subsequently, all the prisoners were made to do public penance at St. Paul's and at Canterbury and to publish confessions of deception and fraud.

In January, 1534, a bill of attainder was framed against her and thirteen of her sympathizers, among whom were Fisher and More. Except the latter, whose name was withdrawn, all were condemned under this bill; seven, including Bocking, Masters, Rich, Risby, and Elizabeth herself, being sentenced to death, while Fisher and five others were condemned to imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. Elizabeth and her companions were executed at Tyburn on 20 April, 1534, when she is said to have repeated her confession.

Protestant authors allege that these confessions alone are conclusive of her imposture, but Catholic writers, though they have felt free to hold divergent opinions about the nun, have pointed out the suggestive fact that all that is known as to these confessions emanates from Cromwell or his agents; that all available documents are on his side; that the confession issued as hers is on the face of it not her own composition; that she and her companions were never brought to trial, but were condemned and executed unheard; that there is contemporary evidence that the alleged confession was even then believed to be a forgery. For these reasons, the matter cannot be considered as settled, and unfortunately, the difficulty of arriving at any satisfactory and final decision now seems insuperable.

So it is possible to approach objectivity in one's reporting, and not all is completely obliterated by bias, although even the Catholic Encyclopedia article could be read as "in favor of," though I think that a rather strong reading of the passage.

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Fiction v. Nonfiction

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A while back at one blog or another--I seem to think it was at Patrick's but it may have been at TSO's, or perhaps both, I was disconcerted to read that someone thought nonfiction reading more worthwhile than fiction to the point where they rarely, if ever read fiction. This is not meant to be critical of that attitude, but to present another side of that coin.

Of recent date, I have grown so strongly suspicious of nearly all nonfiction that reading almost any of it is a waste of time for me. When I was reading Mandelbrot's book on the misbehavior of markets, I kept wondering what evidence contradictory to his conclusions was he suppressing. As I read Pat Buchanan, I couldn't help but think that everything was informed by the bias of the observer and I was uncertain that things he cited as historical fact were indeed. I remember commenting to TSO after he had read one or another of John Cornwell's books, "Why did you waste the time, now you have to read three others just to see if anything he stated was, in fact, true."

What I've discovered over time is that nonfiction books very rarely present anything like nonfiction. That is, most postmodern nonfiction. When your view of reality is that reality is shaped by the language you use to describe it and by the oppressions, hidden or overt that define it, it would be difficult to present anything in an objective way, because there cannot be any objectivity.

Fiction, on the other hand, shows me the human condition, and because the author lays his cards on the table on way or the other, I can determine whether what is shown is truly reflective of human experience or is shaped by the bias of the author to lead me to an agenda. If the latter, and if the agenda is one that I do not like, I am likely to throw the book across the room. But when it is an agenda I concur with, such as Flannery O'Connor, I get so much better a snapshot of reality than in any nonfiction I've read in the last ten years.

In addition, I tend to read nonfiction that I know I agree with the standpoint of the author. Problem there is that I continually push my own bias to the point of obliquity.

Fiction presents a picture of life that can be measured by our experience of life. As a result, some of the pictorial representations of life arrive at a time when we are not ready to pursue or truly understand them. I don't think most of Henry James is even remotely accessible to most people under 40. There are always extraordinary exceptions, but even among them, I notice the focus is not so much on what James has to say, but on the way he goes about saying it. We hear much praise of his psychological novelistic technique, and so forth, but little about whether what he says in The Golden Bowl is true, in part, I believe because many of the commenters simply haven't the experience in years to know whether or not James is relating the truth or a truth about human relationships.

Fiction, therefore, might be at once more informative and less informative about the human condition--more informative because you are presented less with facts than with the reality of the created world--something you can't fact check. Less informative because the world is created and you aren't learning anything substantive about the empirical reality of this world.

And that's where fiction soars--it is very rarely about empirical reality in the point of objective fact, it is more about nuance and subtlety and understanding human interactions and relationships. Fiction presents a world and asks you to look and experience and judge and find satisfying or wanting. Nonfiction seems to present a "here are the facts" scenario, when in fact it presents a "here are the facts I want you to know in order to understand my point." How many books are there on the religious views of the Founding Fathers? And how many opinions? And these all purport to be nonfiction and to be telling us the truth about the Founding Fathers. And yet, if you read every one of them are you a nanometer closer to knowing what the founding fathers thought? Or are you, more likely, more entrenched in your own conceptions or those conceptions amenable to your viewpoint.

Philosophical books are somewhat better in this regard. The problem with most of them is that they take certain things for granted as starting points, and if you question one of those things, then the underlying construct becomes shaky. For example, if you should question St. Thomas Aquinas's assertion that the intellect is a positive good, nearly the entire system of thought falls apart. What if you think the intellect is merely neutral? What if you regard the intellect as a potential good or a potential evil depending upon how it is formed? What then? Other philosophical systems have similar sorts of problems. However, you can at least enter the system and sometimes ferret out what the underlying assumptions are and holding in abeyance judgment on their validity, you can assess the merits of an argument.

Well enough. It is my contention that I have learned far more about life and the things that really matter from fiction, or from non-fiction disguised as fiction than I ever did from reading non-fiction. C.S. Lewis's vision of heaven and hell in The Great Divorce has done more to make me think seriously of the last things that any dozen books of straight theology on the last things.

All this said, we are different people, differently constructed. It is through coming to an appreciation of these differences and attempting to view the world from the other side that we grow (in part). I will still consume nonfiction in minuscule and carefully regulated quantities, but I can at least try to do so now, appreciating the sage advice of many in St. Blog's who appreciate it more than I do.

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A graphic "novel" by animator Guy Delisle recounting some of his experiences while visiting Pyongyang as head of an "off-shore" animating group. While I wasn't particularly fond of the cartoon style, the observations are interesting and often chilling. For example, at one point in the novel, Guy notices that he has not seen a single handicapped person. He asks his official guide and interpreter about this and is told that "North Korea is a homogeneous society and as such gives birth only to strong, healthy North Koreans--apparently without irony--or at least any that he would have been able to detect.

For aficionados of "the world is flat," we get a glimpse into what the flat world means outside of this country. At one point Delisle reports about a woman who was ecstatic to be returning to the relative freedom of Beijing. During his stay, Guy was never allowed anywhere unescorted, he was allowed to eat in a total of three restaurants. He observed that on payday, along with the meager pay checks the employees received a ration of rice that was stockpiled and redistributed by the studio.

The litany of sad, surreal, and frightening things goes on and on, and these were only the things Delisle was allowed to see. Naturally he never got closer than rumor to the "reeducation camps of Northern North Korea." The constant, watching image of the two Kims reminded Delisle of the Big Brother of 1984. Only, in some ways, 1984 was a benign vision of the world compared with this. North Korea seems to have fully implemented it and upgraded it--constant streams of propaganda from the state-run station, posters, images, icons, statutes, monuments, memorials, and palaces dedicated to the two Kims, who are never really seen as separate people but as one continuous leader. Most frightening of all, all of this is a city that has power only for the hotels that host foreigners and for the lighting of their shrines of the two Kims.

North Korea has been reduced to abject poverty by the oppressive regime that has been in control over the past 50 or so years. At one point in the novel, speculating at about reunification of Korea, Delisle points out that the South Koreans might not be in any rush to welcome back a huge unemployed workforce that has approximately 1/60th of the income of South Korea--he points out the huge cost that West Germany took upon reunification with the East.

I don't know if I really recommend this book, but I did find it interesting and wondered about the accuracy of many of the things recorded in it. Of course, in a country so closed to the outside and so sequestered from all inquiring eyes, it may not be possible ever to know very much about what really goes on there.

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Children as Waste

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One extremely distressing moment in Crunchy Cons came in the course of an interview with a food provider. And to put this in proper perspective, I'm certain that the person interviewed did not mean what he said to sound as it does, but let me quote the line:

"The children of those illegals come in and clog the school systems."

Like so much sewage the children clog the system. There's something very, very wrong when you can think of any person as "clogging" the system, but particularly a child who has absolutely no choice in the matter. A child goes where his or her parents go--if that means to another country to be educated, so be it, but that child, although they cause an additional burden on the system, cannot be regarded as a mere thing that "clogs the system."

This kind of thinking distresses me and causes me to rethink the Crunchy Con phenomenon. I thought the emphasis would be on people and community, loving people, and accepting people. Even if one is strongly opposed to all immigration, to regard children in this way is very distressing.

Perhaps I need to rethink affinities, because what is important first and foremost is the dignity of the person as the image of God and my relationship with persons not with things. "Whatsoever you do unto one of these, the least of my brethren, that you do unto me." When we regard children as "clogs in the system" something is wrong with the worldview.

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You knew there had to be one! And it isn't too far into the book that one finds it.

Mr. Dreher sets out to tell us that a Crunchy Con is an anti-materialist, not involved with bigger and better and the acquisition of more and different things. Then, in the first two chapters of his book he talks about food and homes. Admittedly it isn't about acquisition so much as it is about how to "do it properly," but the end result is an almost obsessive concern about how you get your food and what kind of house you live in.

It would be ridiculous to say that these are of no importance--they do affect how we live and how we feel. However, they are not the end-all, be-all, nor do they necessarily dictate how we relate to one another. If one buys one's food at a supermarket, one could still hold the values that place people and relationships above things. And yet, there is a sense in which it does not seem that Mr. Dreher thinks this possible.

One final point, in the discussion of homes, it is evident that Mr. Dreher thinks that if you don't live in a gentrified inner city or in a rural setting you simply aren't living anywhere that is livable. There is a constant denigration of the way that most people must live. Calling suburban house "McMansions," etc.

Because the book is a first stab at the articulation of a principle, this is probably the fallout of attempting to define a concept. What would be more helpful is to say how one could modify the mode of life one is in without pulling up stakes and moving to the inner city. I think in food Mr. Dreher makes some useful suggestions about how we might alter the way we live--but he fails utterly at making accommodation for present circumstances in the section he calls "Homes." And more to the original point, it seems to be overly concerned with material objects. Our homes are important--but I have discovered during the extended absence of this summer that home is not a place or a building, it is the gathering of the people you love deeply. My home is wherever Linda and Samuel are.

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During the great Aesthetics controversy of 2006, there were many (some proponents) of the side that opposed changing artwork that suggested the better course might be to support those artworks, however feeble they might start as being, that better express our worldview. In providing economic incentive to publishers and film-producers we could achieve at least part of our end through these reasonable means.

So, I'm here to mention and strongly suggest that anyone interested in the Arts might want to take a look at James F. David's mainstream SF novel Judgment Day. I'm not sure that it is a very strong novel, but what it IS is a novel that is published by a mainstream publisher (Forge, a division of Tom Doherty), on speculation, as it were. I think Forge decided to try to cash in on the Left Behind phenomenon.

I haven't finished the book, but I can say that what I've read so far has been far better written that any single volume of Left Behind. The Christianity that informs the work is of the same kind tending toward literalist interpretation, though not overtly so--and the author doesn't appear to be as antagonistic to Catholic Christianity as the authors of the Left Behind series. AND the story is not an extended retelling of the visions of the Book of Revelation. In fact, while there is some talk here and there about Apocalypse, there isn't the overall brooding on the subject that the other series has.

What Judgment Day gives us is a world in which a determined group of Christians has been granted, by means of a vision, the ability to achieve space-flight without rockets. It isn't as bad as it sounds. The visions occur and a dedicated team works for 20 or more years to realize the essence of the vision. That's what inspiration is about.

Of course the entire world is up in arms about fundamentalists possessing space flight and not sharing the secret with all. And there is an antagonist who is a literal human-sacrificing Satan worshipper who schemes and plots to bring the entire thing down. Of course this person achieves a certain prominence in the political world and is able to pull various strings that bring events to a boil.

As I said, I haven't finished the work, but I did want to recommend it to those who are looking for SF or other fiction that isn't afraid to take faith seriously. I'll keep you apprised as I complete the book--but so far, it's reasonably good SF. In fact, some of the only readable SF I've set eyes on for a while. But then, I've been out of touch for some time.

While you're at it, and if you're interested, scroll down the left column and you'll find a group of sites headed with SF. These are Christian SF sites that I discovered via Speculative Catholic and Claw of the Conciliator. If you're interested in SF, you might be interested in some of what these people have to say. Except for MIrathon, who appears to be a Catholic SF writer residing in Miami, you will be straying outside the strict bounds of the Catholic World. But so far as I've been able to determine at this point, none of these sites is virulently anti-Catholic--most tending to a moderate, if very strong and very heartening Evangelical or other mainline protestant faith. If you discover otherwise, please drop me a line.

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Breakfast at Tiffany's

Capote, that is.

Perhaps it is memories of Music for Chameleons, lingering traces of story and prose, moments that come back every now and then that convince me that Capote was a writer of enormous potential and great power. Unfortunately, for the most part, that power and potential were wasted in work that rarely surpasses the level of gossip in an apartment stairwell.

Take Breakfast at Tiffany's, one of the works he is most well-known for, in large part due to the movie based upon the book. I've never been able to sit through the movie despite the enormous talents of Ms. Hepburn, and I find that the reason lay not in the film itself, but in the source. Perhaps there are layers and layers of meaning and character and idea all imbedded in this tale of Ms. Holly Golightly who is, for lack of a better term, a prostitute. Although Capote is not so crude as to call her that in the course of the work, and his job is to get us to sympathize and collaborate with Holly in her goings-on, for this reader he failed utterly. And he didn't fail simply because the matter is immoral--so are the basics of the plots of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. The difference is the prurience and the gossip that seem to pervade Breakfast at Tiffany's. As you read the story you are told about Holly by many different characters, each whispering in the hallway, wondering what has happened to her.

In Cold Blood the real masterwork that made his name, is much of the same tone. A "non-fiction novel," which, as one commenter has pointed out was more a marketing ploy than an innovation--(witness John Hersey's Hiroshima and Walter Lord's A Night to Remember as examples in Capote's recent past that did much the same thing. In Cold Blood takes on the same persona of endlessly unwinding tales out of school and rumor and gossip. Of course, that is how a murder story would evolve in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, so in some sense the tone is justified. But the work still suffers from the pervasiveness.

Reading Summer Crossing a recently discovered "unfinished" novel from very early in Capote's career, I realized what flaw linked them all together. Or perhaps what flaw made many of them charming and interesting. In his writing, Capote could never leave Capote at home. He's always there, always commenting, always churning, always getting things moving, always starting the conversation, always seeking information, always sharing half-truths--or perhaps more correctly Truman's version of the truth. This flaw enters all of the works. You cannot read Capote without hearing him talk in that strange mixture of hoarseness and lisp. And while that could be all very find, Capote himself is such a conflicted person that you can't trust his narrative or his voice.


The movie, to my great disappointment, was about the writing of In Cold Blood. I'm told that Philip Seymour Hoffman delivered a superb performance. And on one level that seems true. He seemed very much like Capote. But the movie failed for me and it failed precisely at Capote himself, and perhaps its failure is inevitable given its subject. Capote, even at this point is an empty shell of a human being, casting about endlessly for support, love, and meaning. This new book is to make is meaning and his mark, and he sets about its creation with a firm purpose and resolve that would have done the founding fathers proud.

But the endless need weighs on one as the film progresses until, finally, one is bogged down under the weight of it and turns the film off. There are too many great things in the world of books and cinema, and its no sin to say, "I've given this the time to engage me and it has failed to do so." I gave Capote an hour of my life and it was far too much.

It's a shame, because Capote is charming in his own way. He has to be because he isn't seeking so much fame and glory through his writing, although that too is part of his ambition; he is seeking acceptance as a broken and not particularly likable man who was too firmly made in the image of the women who brought him up. Flamboyantly gay, he came of age at a time when being gay might make you a character, but still earned social opprobrium and disdain. To some extent the same is true today, and will always be true, because there is some streak in those who are not gay that resists the charms and allures and recognizes the transgression of natural law and, unwarrantedly, uses that as a bludgeon, sometimes literally. While one must not endorse the gay "lifestyle" or "way of being," the person who is gay is a person first and must have the respect, love, and acceptance that any person needs to survive. Truman attempted to get this through ingratiating himself to others with his gossipy ways, and with his attempts at being the modern-day Oscar Wilde. This attempt ultimately undermined him and deprived him of nearly all associations until is long, slow, suicide culminated in his early death at the age of the age of 59.

He was iconic and he was provocative, and he was in his time important. Whether that will continue to be true after the generation that knew him personally is gone, remains to be seen. The difficulty is that he did write marvelously well. The prose he composed was such that one is almost compelled through the unreadable by sheer force of his voice and storytelling. Almost, but not quite--as it was in his real life, so it remains in much of his extant writing. And that really is a shame.

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Isn't It Romantic?


Ron Hansen labeled this book An Entertainment perhaps an with an eye to sidestepping the criticism I am about to levy--the book is a wildly improbable blend of story-telling and musical comedy wrapped up into a highly entertaining, fluffy bon-bon of a read.

The difficulties the book presents are numerous, if one were to take the work seriously at all. The coincidences are too numerous to list. The prat-falls, gags, and jokes, are very evidently an hommage to Preston Sturges who is actually mentioned in the course of the book. That our French Heroine, who at times has difficulty understanding English, would know it well enough to sing Isn't It Romantic and that a Nebraska cowboy would do the same is, shall we say, odd?

But those are the kinds of things one says about a work meant to be taken seriously. Hansen disarms and forewarns us--so I retract my criticism of the other day. A person acquainted with his work coming to this novel might well be completely disoriented by the experience.

As a light romance and a smart comedy, the book works very well. Recommended for light entertainment and for Hansen completists.

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Two Amusing Moments

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from Isn't it Romantic
Ron Hansen

Sighing, Madame agreed, in the grudging way of one who thought some people would garden in basements if you let them. . . .

She shook her head and said she would like to tour America on an overland route from the East Coast to the West.

Madame Dubray held her face carefully fixed as she asked, "How?"

Natalie felt unfairly tested. "Railway?"

Madame smirked, "Railway," she said, "In America."

"Or perhaps I could rent an automobile."

Madame scoffed, "Aren't you the audacious one? Motoring through all forty states."

"There are fifty."

"Well, not worth seeing," said Madame.

Mr. Hansen has taken the somewhat pretentious track of Graham Greene before him deliberately labeling this confection An Entertainment, as though one would be incapable of figuring it out for oneself. Moreover, what is he trying to protect, this author of Hitler's Niece (atrocious in almost every way) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford entertaining but idiosyncratic in its "nouning the verb." (He socked his feet. . ."

Just right, we can figure out on our own what we would like to take seriously and what we would not care to. I've never understood the autoclassification of works into those of major and minor importance. It didn't work with Greene, who is arguably a better writer, and it doesn't work here. But the book looks to be entertaining.

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The Book of the Dead


A light read in the tradition of Preston and Cloud, The Book of the Dead is the third, and perhaps best of the "Brothers Pendergast" trilogy. Now, this trilogy in no way compares with one more familiar to Catholic readers written by some British Catholic Writer; however, it is summertime beach-reading and acceptable for that purpose.

That said, it brings up my main beef with these writers and their editors. The writing is lazy and slipshod. Take this minor example:

from The Book of the Dead
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Dr. Nora Kelly stood in her laboratory gazing at a large specimen table covered with fragments of ancient Anasazi pottery. The potsherds were of an unusual type that glowed almost golden in the bright lights, a sheen caused by countless mica particles in the original clay. She had collected the sherds during a summertime expedition to the Four Corners area of the Southwest, and now she had arranged them on a huge contour map of the Four Corners, each sherd in the precise geographical location where it had been found.

As exposition, there are so many things wrong with this, it's hard to start to identify the flaws. For example, Nora Kelly is, in fact, looking not at the table, but at the potsherds on the table. Another point--if the potsherds are Anasazi that cannot be anything other than ancient--there are no modern Anasazi to make potsherds. Finally, no matter how large the map, the sherds are going to be too big to mark a precise location by themselves. Moreover, even if you had a map at a 1:10 ungainly scale, you're hardly using the tools as you ought if you're placing priceless fragment on the paper itself to mark the locations--better to use the catalogue numbers and write them on the map with precise lines to indicate position found.

The book abounds in such sloppiness, most of it one grits ones teeth and passes over in interest of the story being served--a fascinating confection of betrayal, secrets, and revenge in multiple layers.

Diogenes and Aloysius Pendergast are brothers. Over the last two books Diogenes has been promising to commit the perfect crime to ultimately defeat his brother. Think Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft with Mycroft morphed into Moriarty. (In fact, the denouement is quite reminiscent of the scene at Reichenbach falls--only translate the falls to another location and the contestants to. . . oh well, that would be telling wouldn't it.

So Diogenes arranges for the curse on an Egyptian tomb opening in a New York museum to come to life.

Preston and Child are all about entertainment. There's absolutely nothing to be gained from reading these books in the way of knowledge, information, or insight into the human spirit. But they are full of eccentric characters, chase scenes, jailbreaks, madness, mayhem, revenge, and the most bizarre and eccentric devices you can begin to imagine. I tolerate the prose for the sheer romp that is the story. And I have no qualms in recommending this for all who love fiction and need a brain break from the serious prose one usually peruses. But you may want to read Cabinet of Curiousities, Brimstone, and Dance of Death to give you a little background before you launch in. You needn't, of course, but it helps to flesh out what is happening in this book.

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Catholic Small Presses


I received a book the other day in the mail--the newest from Zaccheus Press--Hammer and Fire by Father Raphael Simon, O.C.S.O. And it prompted me to make a plea to all to support these fine small Catholic presses. If we want quality literature and quality Catholic writing, we owe it to ourselves to support presses like Zaccheus and our own Requiem Press run by blogger Jim Curley of Bethune Catholic.

I will confess I do not do this enough, but then you can ask my wife, I don't buy any book at full price any more (an economy necessary with a single income). The few that I buy are from such places. In this case I am deeply indebted to Mr. O'Leary of Zaccheus Press, who very kindly sent me a copy of the newest release without so much as a request on my part. And it is another very fine publication as far as I can tell with a brief survey of the book. I'll be sure to keep you informed as I continue to read. Mr. O'Leary's Press produces other books that are available through the address above and are also distributed by Ignatius Press, or have been so far. Every one of them comes with an unqualified recommendation. They are beautifully produced and substantial volumes, both in construction and in instruction: Christ, Life of the Soul by Don Columba Marmion, Our Lady and the Church, by Fr. Hugo Rahner, and A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Abbot Vonier. All have been well worth while and well worth reading. If it is within our means, we owe it to ourselves and others to support such worthwhile endeavors as those of Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Curley.

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About this Archive

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

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