Books and Book Reviews: September 2006 Archives

The Devil's Advocate

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First, and possibly the best, in a line of the pre-Andrew Greeley popularizations of the Catholic Faith, The Devil's Advocate reveals the affliction that pervades may of them. Morris West, the author, studied for the priesthood and had some fairly pronounced disagreements with Catholic teaching that surface in odd spots here and there in the novel. These were neither so pervasive nor so dramatic as to make the novel unreadable, but they were pronounced and often caused be to set the book aside for a time until I could return and get to the real "meat" of the story. Most of the objectionable material occurs in the first half of the book, and most people reading quickly won't even notice it, so it shouldn't detract from the very fine second half of the novel.

The story in outline is: A priest dying of stomach cancer is given the assignment of going to a remote Italian village to investigate the qualities of a person whose cause has been proposed to the Vatican. He resists but finally agrees to do so. The majority of the novel is the exploration of who the priest's life intersects with and is transformed by the life of the Giacomo Nerone, the person whose cause was proposed.

There are any number of implausible elements in the story, including the about face the priest makes upon visiting the orange orchard of the Archbishop who asked for the Devil's Advocate to come. Setting aside the melodramatic as a convention of the time, there are other more serious problems.

What I found most disturbing was the almost leering prurience with which West examined the life of the homosexual painter whose dilemma precipitates some of the action of the second half of the novel. This became, unfortunately, the mainstay of most "popular" Catholic novels. What book by Greeley can you pick up that doesn't have a lurid cover and an almost equally lurid story inside. West needed to make the case of his painter Nicholas Black, suitable to frame Black's eventually denouement, but, in my opinion, he went way overboard in the discussion.

Also bothersome were some simple word misusages. Twice he describes the Contessa as "bridling pleasantly." Bridling is confined to negative emotion--usually anger. It simply isn't possible to bridle with pleasure, although it is possible to take pleasure in your bridling.

Finally, the constant little jabs at this, that, or the other aspect of the Chruch and its teachings that West didn't particularly care for became wearisome and worrisome. I wondered if, by the time I got to the end, the Church was going to canonize some profligate philanderer. In point of fact, as we come to know Giacomo, this recedes rapidly into a non-issue.

However the resolution of Nicholas Black's story, and several other melodramatic elements simply didn't ring true in the way of, say, Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. The story was written for best-sellerdom and probably made it. Black's "hath not a Jew eyes" speech was frankly over-written and over-wrought.

All of which made me a little disappointed (initially) that this was selected by Loyola for inclusion in their series. The quality of the writing, the story, and the picture of the Catholic faith is not up to the quality presented in other entries in the series. However, one thought that occurred to me is that the point of inclusion is that there really is a very good story in overall amongst the mandatory best-seller debris, and that this book would serve as encouragement to other young Catholic writers that the world can be engaged and taught about the faith in a way that will appeal and encourage those who would never touch a book by Graham Greene. It is strong evidence that we need not and should not confine ourselves to a ghetto of "Catholic fiction" in order to preserve the integrity of our work--that the best work and the most lasting work can and should appeal to a wider audience than those already converted and that truths of the faith can be taught and conveyed even to the most resistant if formulated in a way that goes down smoothly. My conclusions, ultimately, was that this is a very fitting contribution to the Loyola series, while not being one of the better works included in the line-up. That is, that the purpose it serves is extremely valuable--encouragement and nurturing those whose gifts run in this way cannot be overvalued.

I cannot speculate on how many might have become more friendly to or more interested in the Catholic faith as a result of this work. Nor can I guess how many Catholics found something worthy to read in this novel.

While I have some strong reservations about the overall quality, I do recommend the book as a light, swift read--not likely to repay lingering study or examination, but certainly an entertainment that does no harm and much good. While it took me a monumental effort and Julie D's enthusiastic recommendation to finally get through it, I will freely admit that it was ultimately worthwhile. The book will not linger in memory, but neither will it render any harm. I will come back time and time again to the agonized priests of Greene and Endo, in memory and in fact; but I don't think I'll be visiting Msgr. Meredith in the future. Nevertheless, a good beach book for those of us still visiting the beaches. (Me, me, me, me!!!)

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A Poet and a Novelist


I'm glad that All the King's Men has had another screen attempt (although I must admit I'm dubious about the casting) because from a reading in 9th or perhaps 10th grade, the book has remained with me in quotations and images. For example, I remember clearly Jack Burden's dictum that "Life is motion toward knowledge." I also remember the image of the great desk in the empty room and its small pond of green carpeting with the tagline "Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde."

However, the mavens of literature, the High-Priests of the politically correct and the important would have you know that All the King's Men is NOT an important work. It is a half-novel, and mostly-not-there novel, a novel of unfulfilled promised. This despite the fact that one group of journalists felt it important enough to pattern their own title after it.

Let us leave aside the squawking caw of the crows of the literary world--let them preside over the death and funeral of the novel, and let us take ourselves for just a moment into the world of All the King's Men. I will share the very beginning of the novel, another image seared into my literary imagination and into my way of thinking about the world. From the very beginning of the novel.

from All the King's Men
Robert Penn Warren

Mason City.

To get there you follow Highway 59, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires and if you don't quit staring at that line and don't take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you'll hypnotize yourself and you'll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you'll try to jerk her back on but you can't because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you'll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won't make it, of course. The a n***** chopping cotton a mile away, he'll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he'll say, "Lawd God, hit's a-nudder one done done hit!"

(Please forgive me over delicacy with language, a glance at the photograph in the upper left will tell you instantly why I might be a bit squeamish about some word usage. I don't object to it in literature, but I have a real problem thinking through how I'm going to talk to Sam about it.)

This is the language of a poet steeped in the motion of a novel without slowing it down. This is where the best of both worlds comes together in a way that amplifies both. The poetry of this passage makes it indelible. I've never tried to remember it, but I remember the image of the car on the white concrete highway with the black median line and it associates with very early days in Pensacola driving to the beach. He captures both the motion of the vehicle and the hypnotic effect of the line coming out of infinity-gorgeous language to certain purpose. The scene is set and the ending is forecast in the very beginning. You're in a speeding car and you're going to hook over that curb-like shoulder by the time you're done. And you don't know it yet.

One more little observation from later in the novel--not one I recall, but one of many that struck my eye as I thumbed through the novel:

He wasn't the real thing, but he sure was a good imitation of it, which is frequently better than the real thing, for the real thing can relax but the imitation can't afford to and has to spend all the time being just one cut more real that the real thing, with money no object. He took us to a night club where they rolled our a sheet of honest-to-God ice on the floor and a bevy of "Nordic Nymphs" in silver gee-strings and silver brassières came skating out on real skates to whirl and fandango and cavort and sway to the music under the housebroke aurora borealis with the skates flashing and the white knees flashing and the white arms serpentining in the blue light, and the little twin, hard-soft columns of muscle and flesh up the backbones of the bare backs swaying and working in a beautiful reciprocal motion, and what was business under the silver brassières vibrating to music, and the long unbound unsnooded silver innocent Swedish hair trialing and floating and whipping in the air.

It took the boy from Mason City, who had never seen any ice except the skim-ice on the horse trough. "Jesus," the boy from Mason City said, in unabashed admiration. And then, "Jesus." And he kept swallowing hard, as though he had a sizable chunk of dry corn pone stuck in his throat.

It was over and Josh Conklin said politely, "How did you like that, Governor?"

"They sure can skate," the Governor said.

And so you can almost see Huey Long, Lyndon, or William Jefferson with their cronies at some place where neither politicians nor their cronies really ought ever to be and yet always seem to find themselves. And there is a certain touching naivete in the Governor's response (please pardon the violation of the third Commandment).

Poetry and power, the twin rails of this magnificent book, and the third rail--pride, ambition, gluttony, the panoply of the Capital Sins that end in the way of all such. One doesn't touch the third rail with impunity.

An intimate glimpse of the political world which has only gotten darker since the time of its writing. Powerful, prolonged and ultimately true about many things--the book is worth your time in a way the film probably will not be. We await the news.

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Reading List


Yesterday went to the bookstore and picked up a few things:

The last two months of the "hard case" series (mixed new and old Noir, this time featuring a novel by Pete Hammill and one by Madison Smartt Bell), an odd little Harry Potter distilled book by Martin Booth called The Alchemist's Son, which seems somewhat better written than the Harry Potter series, but centered around similar alchemical themes.

But most interesting of all, I hope, was a new book by a new author, Donna Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. All of the blurbs and every review I could get hold of makes me think this has much promise and I don't usually buy hardbacks, but let's hope that this one was worth the money.

In addition work continues on Charles Martin's really very nice The Dead Don't Dance (not at all what you might think it is by the title), and Karen Valentine's nice The Haunted Rectory. I'll report as I finish.

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Saints Behaving Badly

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The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints
by Thomas J. Craughwell

You may already have seen reviews of this book at Happy Catholic and Disputations and with such redoubtable reviewers, there is precious little I can add to the mix except my own brand of enthusiasm. I have to admit that this kind of book isn't particularly appealing to me normally, but after reading Tom's review, I thought it might be worthwhile. Fortunately, I was offered a review copy of the book and leapt at the chance to read it before it was generally available.

Of recent date, I have been in a sort of spiritual and personal doldrums, casting about this way and that to find something worthwhile to read, some way to access the prayer life I seemed to know at one time. This book was a real spirit-lifter and spiritual life-saver for me in ways that most lives of saints are not. In fact, I find most lives of saints depressingly Calvinistic, with one pious anecdote after another telling me about God's precious chosen few who from conception are preserved from any serious error. Saints who emerge from the womb preaching to all and sundry and after fourteen days die in the odor of Sanctity. (I forget the name of this particular prodigy, but will endeavor to provide when I have a chance to research.) I read of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese of Lisieux and reach the conclusion that sanctity is for the precious few.

And then along comes this breath of fresh air. Craughwell's intent is not to "downgrade" the saints, but to present less than perfect models after whom we might pattern ourselves. You have a wide variety of miscreants to choose from--everything from leches and lushes to mass-murderers and satanists. Each of the saints described in the book suffers from one or more virulent forms of (mostly) mortal sin. And every one of them was found to be a Holy Person.

The reader is invited to choose from Saints who represent any number of besetting sins. Being personally inclined to comfort and an excess of interest in the opposite sex, I immediately took to St. Augustine and St. Mary of Egypt. Not being particularly wrathful or vengeful, I was still heartened to read of St. Olga the mass-murderer and her grandson St. Vladimir, fratricide, rapist and practitioner of human sacrifice.

Craughwell describes the lives of these saints before they entered into God's friendship. He leaves for the interested reader the discovery of the life of sanctity that followed God's grace becoming apparent in their lives. And I like this as well.

What the book provides for me, and I think for many, is a very level-headed hard-eyed gaze at the parts of Saints' lives that we don't often pay much attention to. But the best part of all is that the book does this without detraction, without gossip, without making those previous lives seem like desirable states. It is very understated, matter-of-fact, and realistic without being detailed to the point of nausea. More, the book provides insights that give me hope when I feel overwhelmed by my own sinfulness and when the lives of the perfect are merely constant condemnations of my own state. Who can really hope to approach, much less imitate the Blessed Mother of God in the wretched state of sinfulness most of us occupy. Why would one think any Saint would intercede for, much less pay attention to those of us in the gutters of the way of the King? This book supplies hope--they would pray for us because many were like us. The Saints are not a frozen panoply of the perfect parading from one miracle to the next, but rather deeply flawed human beings who, in their surrender to Jesus Christ achieved God's own perfection.

Finally, the very best thing about this book is that it is well-written, lively, and fun. The lives featured average a few pages--perhaps five minutes reading for a slow reader--something for a coffee-break at work or a moment or two at home.

This was certainly one of the more enjoyable books I've read this year, and I think it will be a bedside companion--a compendium of hope and joy for those moments when I brood too much about my own sorry state. The book serves as a reminder that no matter what our state in life, God is there to lift us out of it if we only give him the chance.

Highest recommendation.

Saints Behaving Badly becomes available 19 September 2006. In keeping with my credo about supporting the Christian arts, I highly recommend that all who can afford to do so get this book and read it. Those who cannot should urge their libraries to carry it--it has enough mainstream appeal that it should move off the "Recent and Recommended" shelves steadily (after all, it does seem like it might be a bit lurid, doesn't it?). (Presently Amazon has a sufficient discount to make it only slightly more expensive that a mass market paperback!)

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The Christian Ghetto

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In our recent discussion of aesthetics, Zippy referred to the ghettoization of Christian children concomitant with carefully reviewing and monitoring their intake of popular culture. I'm not sure I am articulating his point, but the way I interpreted it, at least in part, is that "Christian" anything is at last partially a ghetto, something apart from the mainstream, and hence not truly "popular culture." My reaction to that was that it was the responsibility of Christians to patronize, critique, and nurture Christian voices that could join the mainstream and alter it.

At one point in time all of the Christian fiction in the market place had a single name--Frank Peretti. I remember reading This Present Darkness and thinking how appalling the state of Christian Fiction that this was the best they could trumpet forth. Peretti's style and handling of material has become much more dexterous, however, it still isn't "mainstream" fiction. One is left to wonder where are the O'Conoors, the Greenes, the Waughs, and the Percys of modern fiction? Are we stuck with the supposedly religious Updike--whose theology seems to be lost in a wash of bodily fluids in ever book?

I have been delighted to discover that Christian Fiction is becoming more prominent, even to the point of clawing its way out of the ghetto. This started with Augusta Trobaugh, whose Resting in the Bosom of the Lamb and Praise Jerusalem! came out under the imprint of a religious book publisher, but whose subsequent work was picked up by mainstream publishing. The remarkable thing about Trobaugh is the way in which religious identity and religion permeate and inform the books without ever being an overt in-your-faith fall on your knees every second paragraph faith. Belief is understood to be part of the world she makes in her fiction and it need not be teased out and present á la LaHaye and Jenkins.

Speaking of that duo, they are probably responsible for religious publishers being willing to take a chance on fiction. Despite being rather poorly written and sometimes utterly indigestible, LaHaye and Jenkins seized the popular imagination with their Left Behind series and created the first breakthrough blockbuster series. This broke the dam that unleashed the flood of Christian Fiction that can currently be found even in such stores as Borders and Barnes and Noble.

Recently I discovered the quiet and beautiful fiction of Charles Martin whose The Dead Don't Dance and Maggie are two books describing a terrible calamity during the birth of a child and recovery from it. The prose is masterful, restrained, and very quiet and hopeful.

Yesterday, while perusing the "Christian Fiction" shelves, I happen on Karen Valentine's The Haunted Rectory. The previous Valentines I have read have been set in a small New England town and did for the Catholic Church what Jan Karon did for the Episcopalian Church in her Mitford series. The Haunted Rectory is another in the series and features the St Francis Xavier Hookers (of rugs, that is) along with the eponymous Rectory.

Also of recent date, I've stumbled upon the blogs of a number of Christian writers, struggling away to produce SF in a Christian vein. Mainstream SF already lays claim to Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, Stephen Lawhead (whose Byzantium should be read by all and sundry) and other great Christian writers. But there are more, if not quite legions, ready and willing to join these powerhouses in producing entertainment appropriate for a Christian audience (and for all audiences), and one hope to eventually produce the next Narnia or Lord of the Rings.

We owe it to ourselves to be aware of such writers and to support such writers--to seek them out and nurture them and to reward them with our hard-earned money with the hope that they may be promoted out of the backstore racks of "Christian Ficiton" and onto the mainstream racks where their fiction can influence the hearts and minds of readers who are perhaps totally ignorant of Christian reality. We have a certain duty to support the Christian presses that are taking a big chance by publishing authors who are relatively unknown and who have a "reduced fan base" to start with because they will be, at least initially, relegated to the back of the store. (Interestingly, I stumbled upon what appeared to be a very nicely written series of Dragon books--I'll try to supply author and title when I get home, I don't have them with me--on the Three-for-the-price-of-two table right at the front of the store. Only the first book was there--when I went to find the rest, they were solidly immured with the Christian titles at the back of the store.) We owe it to authors who self-identify as Christian authors to let them know that they can rely upon a solid readership--produce readable fiction and you will have an audience, even if we have to go out of our way to find you. Rather than break out of the Christian Ghetto, we should work to expand the ghetto to encompass as much of the publishing world as our buying dollars can make possible.

In short, I'd far prefer the subtext and hidden message of a Charles Martin or a Karen Valentine to that of a Dan Brown or, more insidiously, a Philip Pullman.

(If you want to visit some of these up-and-coming writers--just look left and scroll down my blogroll until you come to the entries labeled SF-something. Each of these in turn will take you to others--a wonderful network of lively, intelligent, fun, and interesting people.)

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About this Archive

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

Books and Book Reviews: August 2006 is the previous archive.

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