Books and Book Reviews: November 2006 Archives

Black Robe

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Julie at Happy Catholic has posted a list of works recommended by one writer as "essential Catholic reading" (my words). Black Robe is on that list. And I just happened to have been reading it at the time. (It was one of those discount book purchases I couldn't resist.)

I very much enjoyed Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which was a brilliantly conceived and well-written story of an aging spinster seeking the meaning of her life.

Black Robe is a completely different story, but it follows in a long line of Catholic novels about priests and their feelings of unworthiness in the face of what they must do: The Power and the Glory, Silence, Diary of a Country Priest, and so on. Black Robe details the journey of a Jesuit Missionary from the home base in Quebec to his mission outpost--it is a very small slice in the life of the priest, but it is filled with event.

Moore's strength in this books is sense of place. It is extraordinary how seemingly effortlessly he gives one an overwhelming sense of place. However, the weakness of the book is in the characters. They are stock and they are ciphers. He attempts to recreate the gutter-speech of the Native American populace and it comes off like a forced convention of stereotypical Australians. The central battle of Father Laforgue against sin and toward meaning is so sparsely and unconvincingly sketched against the backdrop of this amazing setting that I am compelled to wonder why he bothered at all.

Apparently the author of the book Julie read indicated that the book was rife with torture and other unpleasantness, and while there is a fairly graphic scene of torture and death, it remains fairly unmoving. (There are also other unpleasant scenes, but nothing the rises to the level of most of the forensics novels of current popularity.) The reader is at such a distance from events (perhaps mercifully) that it is rather like glimpsing certain things through the fog. There is no emotional context, only physical brutality.

And that marks most of the book. When Father Laforgue begins to meditate upon his sins and unworthiness, we have so little intimate knowledge of him that it comes off as pasted on. We've experienced his physical suffering, his temptation and fall, his hardships, but we've been given almost no real knowledge of his interior life. What was the extraordinary strength and insight of Judith Hearne is all but missing here.

I wondered for a fews moments why this book was on the list and realized that it was very probably the result of the fact that the list was composed by a Jesuit and hence there may have been an affinity for the North American martyrs. Or perhaps the reading did not extend so far as to take in some of Moore's better works.

Whatever the reason, Black Robe does not belong on a list of essential Catholic novels--it is definitely second string. Well written, interesting, a ficitonalization of Francis Parkman's The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, which, in turn, is a distillation and expansion of certain parts of The Jesuit Relations. It is fine, fast reading--if one can tolerate the simplistic vulgarity of much of the dialogue--however it is neither a Catholic classic nor the finest work of Moore on Catholic themes. If you want to read a really fine work about the interior life, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is your book. (On a side issue, I really wish I could find a copy of the film. I don't think Netflix has it listed, and it is one for which Maggie Smith received a great deal of critical acclaim.)

So, on this book, recommended with some reservations.

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On the Road with the Archangel

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I like Frederick Buechner, a lot. I've liked his work since Godric and Brendan, when I went out in search of some of his nonfiction.

One of the collateral results of seeing a couple of films this weekend is that we happened by a bookstore that was truly going out of business. It dealt only with remaindered books to start, and now these were 40% off. There's nothing I can resist less than the lure of deeply discounted books, and so we brought home a bunch. Blood Meridian, Black Robe, The Preservationist (a novel about Noah and his Ark), a book of essay by the poet Geoffrey Hill, the most recent book of Joyce Carol Oates literary essays. (Does Oates have temporal lobe epilepsy? Every time I turn around she seems to have two dozen other books out.) But I have digressed.

Buechner's book is a small gem. It is the story of Tobit and the great scorekeeper in the sky and the Archangel Raphael whose main job is to present the prayers offered here on earth in the great throneroom of the sky, and who often shakes with mirth over the misconceptions and misconstructions of the people who do the praying.

The story is faithful to the biblical account of Tobit and gives it weight, substance, and bearing without falling into faux biblical language or off-hand explaining away. And as such it works superbly as a bit of exegesis and an inspiring message about God's love and compassion for all of us. Buechner is a minister in one of the protestant faiths (Presbyterian, I think) and he has an amazing ability to bring out the message that is often hidden in the very terse prose of most of the Bible--God loves us. God is not the great score-keeper. God is not busy trying to smash us like the flies that Tobit squashes with his shoe. He does not delight in our sorrows, nor is he distant a merely allowing things to play out in the course that has been formed. In short, God is love, and his love-letter to us--every word of it, hard as that is to imagine--is the Bible. Every story, no matter how fraught with trial and turmoil is endlessly about His reaching out to us.

And so Buechner makes very clear in this very entertaining small book. If you happen to see it on the remainder shelves or find it at your library, pick it up and spend an hour or two. You'll be glad you did. Highly Recommended.

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This is the first book by Mark Haddon and it is a very quick read. The story of Christopher Boone, an autistic young man with an extraordinary ability and affinity for "maths," follows the young man as he attempts to investigate the killing of a neighbor's dog. The book is his narrative of that investigation and its fall out.

Not being autistic myself, nor having much personal experience with autistic persons, I cannot speak to the authenticity of the narrative. However, it seemed quite authentic. Told in the first person, I got a sense of what the world of the autistic person must be like.

The story also traces the trials and tribulations of the family that must care for the autistic person. At times it is heartbreaking and aggravating. You can understand the mother who is pushed to the snapping point because she can't even go to the store to pick up groceries or clothing. You get a glimpse of the pressures that might cause a marriage to dissolve.

In a sense the novel is an instruction in empathy, a help to understanding, a guide to comprehending and trying to embrace difference--even very difficult difference.

Well told, fast read--not literature for the ages, but a remarkable glimpse into an extraordinary parallel world. Highly recommended for adults.

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Benedict's Melancholy

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I was talking to a friend and sharing with her excerpts of the book and she commented that it sounded in every case as though he grasped it from the wrong side, that he talked more about what was missing than what was needed or present. And here's an example that I think demonstrates this proclivity.

from Let God's Light Shine Forth
Pope Benedict XVI, ed. Robert Moynihan

Why we say "before Christ" and "after Christ"

The secular regimes, which do not want to speak about Christ and, on the other hand, do not want to ignore altogether the western calculation of time, substitute the words "before the birth of Christ" and "after the birth of Christ" with formulas like "before and after the common era," or similar phrases. But does this not rather deepen the question: what happened at that moment that made it the change of an era? What was there in that moment that meant a new historical age was beginning, so that time for us begins anew from that date? Why do we no longer measure time from the foundation of Rome, from the Olympiads, from the years of a sovereign or even from the creation of the world? Does this beginning of 2,000 years ago still have any importance for us? Does it have a foundation dimension? What does it say to us? Or has this beginning become for us something empty of meaning, a mere technical convention which we conserve for purely pragmatic reasons? But what then orients our joy? Is it like a vessel that in fact has no course and is now simply pursuing its voyage in the hope that somewhere there may exist an end?

This starts as a superb rebuttal to the BCE folks but it rapidly deteriorates into a peroration about our slide into the sea of meaninglessness. Rather than ask the question Does this beginning of 2,000 years ago still have any importance for us? , it would seem that another approach would arrive at the same end--the approach I associate with JPtG. His tack on the same subject would be, "This beginning of 2,000 years ago still has importance for us today. We cannot escape its shadow, we cannot hide from its glory. As desperately as the historians of death seek to homogenize it into oblivion, they are left with the change of an era without an explanation--a constant hearkening back to the entrance into History of God Himself."

To my mind, Benedicts thought runs downhill into melancholy, a tremulous descent into questioning and into giving some credence to those who would hide from the momentous event. Whereas I think JPtG would tend to call them out of the shadows and ask them to look at what they have been avoiding--were he even to choose to address such a topic.

Again, purely personal, but a track of why I have difficulty approach the thought of Benedict. My problem, not his--but at least it is a problem shared by others as well in encountering Benedict's teaching.

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Let God's Light Shine Forth

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This book is a compendium of short insights from the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, the "author," Robert Moynihan, is humbly listed only as an "editor." The book is published this month in paperback.

For those, like me, who are not enamored of the present Pope's writings, this is a perfect introduction. After a short biographical introduction in which Moynihan spells out the three main thrusts of Cardinal Ratzinger's/Pope Benedict's approach to the crisis in the Catholic Church, the editor produces a compendium of short writings centered around the topics of "His [Benedict's} Faith", "Today's World," and "The Christian Pilgrim." In addition there are three short pieces from the beginning of Pope Benedict's pontificate.

The organization is superb. For me the selection was enlightening, although probably not in the way it was intended to be and seemed to cull from a great many lesser known sources, and the information provided was illuminating. Pope Benedict XVI, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, is a very interior man who has some difficulty sharing the wealth of revelations that came from his insights. Throughout the book I saw more the intellectual than the pastor. Given that the hardcover book was produced at the very beginning of Pope Benedict's pontificate, this can hardly be surprising. However, it gives a lot of credence to those who feared the pontificate because of the singular lack of pastoral charism evinced to that point by Pope Benedict XVI, which should not be read as a criticism of the Pope, merely a personal reaction. And this observation helped me understand my disconnect with him--we are far too similar. In this brief selection of writings, I get the impression of an extremely intelligent, extremely thoughtful, perhaps very holy bull in a china shop. Now, when I said we are similar, I don't mean to claim for myself either intelligence, thoughtfulness, or holiness, but rather that we are both very interior men whose exterior behavior is occasionally, and probably mostly unwittingly akin to that of a bull in a china shop. The recent brouhaha over remarks made during one of BXVI's speeches is a splendid case in point of saying precisely what is on our minds but having it interpreted outside of the context of our minds and the general message. These qualities don't make for the heart of a great pastor. That said, we cannot deny that the Holy Spirit gave us this great leader for this time and for His purposes. And with time, I will probably find myself drawn to understand and love him far better.

The passages in this book point out the crystal clarity of thought. What I was astonished by was the lack of surprises and interesting insights I encountered as I read. Pope Benedict XVI has had a mission to catechize from the basics, and much of what I read here, I read with a sort of acknowledgment of the truth and an implicit question, "And then?" or "What follows from this?" For example:

from Let God's Light Shine Forth
Pope Benedict XVI, ed. Robert Moynihan

A Central Truth
It must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once and for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.

So, surprise, we must believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not die but shall have everlasting life--only stated somewhat more ponderously.

This said, I must admit that the excerpts from the Today's World and particularly The Christian Pilgrim sections of the book provide more of what I was looking for. Not that what is articulated above is trivial, it is not, but it's rather like never moving beyond Euclid's postulates. In this case a lifetime of love can be had from meditating upon the truth articulated in the quotation from John, but I find Pope Benedict's articulation of it rather like a very high fiber muffin--nutritious but a bit tough, tasteless, and chewy.

On the other hand:

Proof of the authenticity of my love

In my prayer at communion, I must, on the one hand look totally toward Christ, allowing myself to be transformed by him, even to burn in his enveloping fire. But I must also always keep clearly in mind how he unites me organically with every other communicant--the one next to me, who I may not like very much; but also with those who are far away, in Asia, Africa, America, or in any other place.

Becoming one with them, I must learn to open myself toward them and to involve myself in their situations.

I'm sure the longer works would answer the question raised. But the truth of the matter is that I had enough of reading Benedict in these short passages. I'm neither enlightened nor excited, and frankly, contrary to the previous Pope, I find Benedict's message too gloomy and dire to spark me onwards in faith. Were I to take any part of what I've read too seriously, I'd have to consider going off into the desert and giving up hope for humanity--even though he constantly says not to, his writings are a compendium of reasons to do so.

These are all subjective impressions--gleanings from short works before the Pontificate, and highly colored by my own impressions. For those not deeply aware of Benedict, his career and his writing, this book provides a superb overview and series of insights into the main lines of this great man's thought. For those better acquainted, this book serves as a sort of "Sermon in a Sentence" compendium of short thoughts--a gathering of insights from the many published works and from many speeches, sermons, and lectures given during his career.

For people desiring a better acquaintance with our present pontiff, this book may serve as an excellent resource. I know that it helped me better understand my reticence and lack of rapport. Recognizing my fault in looking at the Holy Father, I can now take steps to remedy it. Going back to a quotation used earlier,

Becoming one with [him], I must learn to open myself toward [him] and to involve myself in [his] situations.

Any lack is not on the part of Benedict, but rather on the part of my own etiolated, scrawny, hardscrabble soul. I demand that he meet my needs, when instead I should be looking to see how he already does and has as leader of the Church and teacher of the truth.

The book is highly recommended for all people who wish to know some of Benedict's thought better without diving into the major works. It is also an excellent book of reflections and insights for people who know and love Benedict and his works quite well.

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Also On Deck


I don't know if I'll finish all three, but right now I've scraped the surface of a magnificent biography of William Randolph Hearst, The Chief by David Nasaw. Also by Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie, and finally by Ron Chernow The House of Morgan. All three were recommended in a New York Times book review and all three seem to be eloquently and evocatively written and superbly researched. I don't know if I'll actually make it through all three, but I shall try.

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Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

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Probably several, a review of Let God's Light Shine Forth supertitled The Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI. And it should come as no surprise to you that while I am an obedient son of the Church and will take my direction from the authoratative teachings that this servant of God produces and he has the duty of my loyalty to him as head of the Church, unlike the previous Pope, he does not have my affection. He doesn't need it, and he is none the less for it because I pray for him and for his intentions with every bit of the fervor that I did for Pope John Paul the Great. However, this compendium is instrumental in helping me understand the disconnect between us and I'll say more about that in my review.

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The Geographer's Library


This book by Jon Fasman is an example of what one can produce when The DaVinci Code goes right. And it's a shame that it shall be so (relatively) poorly rewarded.

The story centers around. . . well, you know, it's kind of hard to say what it centers around as there are three narrative threads complexly interwoven that help us delve into the heart of a mystery. An obscure and somewhat odd professor dies in untoward circumstances in a Northeastern College town. The man who is to write his obituary for the local paper begins to investigate his death and uncovers a number of anomalies. In the meantime we're told the stories of the the history of the transactions regarding 15 objects stolen from the library of the Court Geography of Roger II of Sicily (I think). And then we're given intimate details about the objects--all of which help build the background of this wonderful tale.

At once a mystery, a history, and a collection of odd tidbits of information from around the world, one of the things that was brought to light for me is how important now-obscure countries in the world once were. Azerbaijian and others are shown in quite a different light. And you'll learn more about Estonia than you might have thought possible.

Nicely written, brilliantly conceived, a great and satisfying thriller that I recommend to all for an enjoyable, if somewhat heady, beach book. Reminiscent of The Club Dumas and other such fun, but slightly weightier books. Read, enjoy!

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Middlemarch Revisted III


And here I must vindicate a claim to philosophical reflectiveness, by remarking that Mr. Brooke on this occasion little thought of the Radical speech which, at a later period, he was led to make on the incomes of the bishops. What elegant historian would neglect a striking opportunity for pointing out that his heroes did not foresee the history of the world, or even their own actions?--For example, that Henry of Navarre, when a Protestant baby, little thought of being a Catholic monarch; or that Alfred the Great, when he measured his laborious nights with burning candles, had no idea of future gentlemen measuring their idle days with watches. Here is a mine of truth, which, however vigorously it may be worked, is likely to outlast our coal.

[And, a bit later on another subject]

"What? meaning to stand?" said Mr. Cadwallader, going on with the
arrangement of the reels which he had just been turning. "I hardly think he
means it. But where's the harm, if he likes it? Any one who objects to
Whiggery should be glad when the Whigs don't put up the strongest
fellow. They won't overturn the Constitution with our friend Brooke's head
for a battering ram."

[And, finally, here's one for the annals of put-down exchanges--almost no character is left unscathed.]

"In the first place," said the Rector, looking rather grave, "it would
be nonsensical to expect that I could convince Brooke, and make him act
accordingly. Brooke is a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into
any mould, but he won't keep shape." . . .

"Humphrey! I have no patience with you. You know you would rather
dine under the hedge than with Casaubon alone. You have nothing to say to
each other."

"What has that to do with Miss Brooke's marrying him? She does not do
it for my amusement."

"He has got no good red blood in his body," said Sir James.

"No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all
semicolons and parentheses," said Mrs. Cadwallader.

"Why does he not bring out his book, instead of marrying," said Sir
James, with a disgust which he held warranted by the sound feeling of an
English layman.

"Oh, he dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brains. They
say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of `Hop o' my Thumb,'
and he has been making abstracts ever since. Ugh! And that is the man
Humphrey goes on saying that a woman may be happy with."

The story may be ultimately sad, but how can one not see the sparkle in such asides?

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Middlemarch Revisted II


Those disinclined to peruse fiction, or for those for whom long books hold horrors untold, you would do well to go to Daily Lit and sign up for a book or two. I'm reading and rereading books that I would otherwise not find the time for, and surprisingly, at a page or so at a time, enjoying them more fully than I did when I blitzed them for whatever purpose was driving my reading in the past. Today's installment of the saga presents the reaction of Dorothea's other suitor to the new that she is to marry Casaubon.

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

"Good God! It is horrible! He is no better than a mummy!" (The point
of view has to be allowed for, as that of a blooming and disappointed

"She says, he is a great soul.--A great bladder for dried peas to
rattle in!" said Mrs. Cadwallader.

"What business has an old bachelor like that to marry?" said Sir James.
"He has one foot in the grave."

"He means to draw it out again, I suppose."

I love the rather acerbic understatement of the final sentence of this exchange.

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Middlemarch Revisited


It's difficult to say whether George Eliot meant for such passages as the one that follows to be as amusing as they presently are, but I can see her, quill in hand, pressing her lips together as she writes to supress an unseemly and unwomanly giggle.

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

[Dorothea has justed announced to her engagement to Mr. Casaubon to her sister Celia. Celia reflects:]

She never could have thought that she should feel as she did. There was something funereal in the whole affair, and Mr. Casaubon seemed to be the officiating clergyman, about whom it would be indecent to make remarks.

And later, another bon-bon:

[referring to Casaubon's pronouncement of love]

No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook. Would it not be rash to conclude that there was no passion behind those sonnets to Delia which strike us as the thin music of a mandolin?

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Reading List

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Presently I am reading:

Through on-line delivery:

Middlemarch George Eliot--and you are seeing some of my dialogue with this great book.

Northanger Abbey Jane Austen--The Novel that languished for a while but then came out to roundly trounce the excesses of the Gothic novelists, Ann Radcliffe, among them. But even so, one should not miss out on the pleasures of The Mysteries of Udolfo or The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole).

"The Willows"--in a collection of Ghost Stories--considered the very finest of Algernon Blackwood's many stories.

In real paper:

The Geographer's Library Jon Fasman--The kind of book I was looking for when I read The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons, and Steve Berry's The Amber Room. I hope the rest of the novel lives up to the first five or six chapters--a mysterious death, odd objects from antiquity that have a way of going missing and suddenly being found to be stolen, and a reporter. Literate, intricate, and fun. Perhaps the most fun I've had with a book since The Club Dumas. I'll let you know if it lives up to its beginning.

Will in the World Stephen Greenblatt--Another close examination of the life of William Shakespeare, one of the most prominent to introduce the idea that Shakespeare may have come from a family of recusant Catholics. Fascinating in its details and a prelude to another book I have at home, A year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.

Hammer and Fire Fr. Raphael Simon, a Jew turned Cistercian Monk, and at the time of the writing of this book, a practicing psychiatrist. We're reading it as a part of a slow study--probably a full year within my book group. I invited everyone to breeze through and get the general drift and we're going to talk about it a couple of chapters at a time. We're only dedicating part of the book group time to it, hence the slowness. But the book invites slow reading and reflection on what is being said. Too often we chew this books up like they were candy and they make no appreciable change in the way we do things. But a book like this is written to invite change in the way we live and the way we approach spiritual matters. (All books on prayer are written to invite change, no simply to provide those of us with the wherewithal to buy and read them with a moment's diversion. I have to remind myself of that every so often.)

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Where Do You Get Those Facts?

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Reading Greenblatt's Will in the World and I stumbled across this:

In 1557 a pregnant woman out for a walk with her husband was struck in the neck by a stray arrow and killed.

The context was a passage about the suburban recreations of Shakespeare's time, not war. So, what did Greenblatt have to read in order to document such an occurrence. Think about it, we have a very small incident (in terms of worldly events) at a far remove in time, for which we have limited recording devices. I don't think there was anything like a daily people, I sure as heck know there wasn't a People Magazine. So, this must have come from a reading of some sort of summary of cases before the court, or something.

Anyway, it's utterly fascinating what small gems can be garnered from research and reading in primary sources. The difficulty for most of us is that we can never see most of these sources. That's one thing I hope the internet successfully resolves with time. It would be wonderful to have access to all of these kinds of things on-line, to be able to read with impunity the trial record of St. Joan of Arc, or the magistrates summary for the Court in Suffolk, or whatever it is that strikes one's fancy. Buried within those chronicles will be thousands of little stories such as this one. This is a sad story, a terrible story, but one that is too soon forgotten otherwise.

The pleasures of reading in books whose agenda's, as much as they are recognizable, do not chafe.

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Lily's Ghosts


Laura Ruby's book for teen girls is an interesting panoply of the coming-of-age story, the divorced parents story, and a supernatural mystery. All of the elements are distinct and they never become muddled in the flow of the book.

Lily and her mother move from Montclair, NJ to Cape May after her mother's latest boyfriend throws them out. Lily's mother's uncle owns the house and offers it to them as a place to stay in this time of turmoil. Lily and her mother move in and the ghost descend--one of them, Lola, mistakes Lily for her rival Steffie and pulls all sorts of ghostly pranks from putting jam in Lily's shoes to dying Lily's hair pink. Other ghosts intervene in her life as well.

While the ghost story and the girl-mother relationship story are okay, I am disturbed by some elements of this book--elements that I think might mislead many young women who don't have firm guidance. For example in the course of this book Lily, who is about 13 embarks on a "love affair" (If matters of the heart carry such weight at that time) with her boyfriend Vaz. They carry on throughout the book, and Lily's mother becomes quite concerned and determined to slow everything down. This provokes Lily's strongest rebellious moment and the mother relents. I don't know how this would be read by young women likely to encounter the book, but it presents for me some grave misgivings about recommending it.

The book is well-written and fun to read and probably harmless for most adults. But if you have a daughter to whom you are likely to hand it, you would be wise to read it first and judge the content against your child's maturity.

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About this Archive

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

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