Books and Book Reviews: January 2007 Archives

A Couple of Thoughts from Mahfouz


Two thoughts close in text space, but distant in relationship:

from Miramar
Naguib Mahfouz

"Cut out the communist propaganda, you hypocrite! The Americans should have taken control of the whole world when they had the secret of the atom bomb all to themselves. Their pussyfooting was a terrible mistake. "


"What about you? Sometimes I think you must find it hard to believe in anything."

"How can I deny God," he asked angrily, "when I am deep in His hell?"

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A Source for the Title


And a resource for thinking more about the book Cold Heaven.

William Butler Yeats

SUDDENLY I saw the cold and rook-delighting Heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

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Charlotte Hays points out that one of the great themes of Brian Moore's "catholic" books is loss of faith. This is true from the very earliest The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, for Black Robe, and to some extent Cold Heaven, although the latter book has a much richer texture of the struggle with/against faith and the meaning of free will.

In that context, I offer the following observation from the book:

Monsignor looked into the stubborn face, into those almost colorless eyes. Faith is a form of stupidity. No wonder they call it blind faith.

The wisdom of the world will always call it foolish, while wallowing in the mire of real foolishness. The wisdom of the wise is foolishness to the rich and to those whose sole meaning is derived from self. And finally, a fool for Christ is a wise man indeed.

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A Quotation and a Comment

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Stop, reverse that. I'll start with the comment.

For me, the way to explore another culture is from the inside. No matter how many books I read by renowned scholars on Japan, I first came to know and love Japan through Basho, later through Lady Murasaki, and most recently through Kawabata, Oe, Endo, Mishima, Tanagawa, and Soseki. No matter how much outsiders tell me the "facts" of a society, it is what happens inside--in the arts--writing and film in particular, that really allow me to begin to enter and understand the culture.

Even so, I often hesitate. I know that when I read a Japanese novel I often don't "get it." There are symbols, meanings, things that are commonplace within the culture that I have no access to. And so, I'm often afraid to pick up the literature of other lands for fear that I will find myself completely at sea, unmoored, unanchored, unaware.

So it was with some hesitation that I first picked up Naguib Mahfouz. I must admit that I am not certain that I "get it" most of the time. However, I found this passage delightful:

from Miramar
Naguib Mahfouz

A jet-age traveler. What would you know, you fat moronic puppet? Writing is for men who can think and feel, not mindless sensation seekers out of nightclubs and bars. But these are bad times. We are condemned to work with upstarts, clowns who no doubt got their training in a circus and then turned to journalism as the appropriate place to display their tricks.

Refreshing to note that the press is ever with us.

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Insight from Brian Moore


For a lapsed Catholic, Brian Moore has a good deal to tell those of us who remain staunchly within the confines of the Church:

from Cold Heaven
Brian Moore

"I don't believe in God. I am your opposite," Marie said. "Happiness, for me, is knowing that I am in charge of my own life, that I can do as I choose. Don't you see that you're a victim, as I am a victim? What sort of love is it that's withdrawn from someone as good as you, sending you into despair? What sort of love could I possibly feel for a force which has done these things to me and to my husband?"

The room was still. The question hung in the air. Then Mother St. Jude said, "I know nothing of God's intentions. But I can tell you what St. John of the Cross has written. 'I am not made or unmade by the things which happen to me but by my reaction to them. That is all God cares about.' Do you understand, Marie?"

"No," Marie said. "No, I don't."

The old nun took Marie's hand in hers. "If Reverend Mother orders me to do something, I do it, not because I want to, or because I think it is right. I do it because she represents Christ in our community. It is Christ who commands me. St. John tells us that to do things because you want to do them or because you think they are right are simply human considerations. He tells us that obedience influenced by human considerations is almost worthless in the eyes of God. I obey--always--because God commands me." She smiled. "So I am not a victim, Marie. . . ."

In the matter of Church teaching is this our first thought? I have received a word from the Vicar of Christ on Earth--his word requires special consideration for me because it is God speaking through him. Now, it is always possible that in prudential matters a fallible human has misjudged and so might be wrong. However, I find it more likely that one who is truly seeking to follow God is more likely to be attuned to His Will even in prudential matters. That is, one who spends much time with God seems a more trustworthy guide than one who spends very little time.

However, I often see critiques of encyclicals and teachings that seem more designed to deconstruct them and make them a matter of personal preference rather than a matter for obedience. I will admit (again) that I rant and rave, but I take a certain amount of comfort from the parable in which Jesus asks which son has done the Father's will--the one who says yes and stays at home in comfort and leisure, or the one who says no, but goes out to work the fields as his Father requested. I may rant and rave, but by God's will, I am eventually able to say yes and enter those fields once again.

Accepting another's will is not easy, particularly when we've become overly used to "things as they are." But like that mysterious blue guitar of Wallace Stevens, "Things as they are are changed" when the vicar of Christ or those who wield legitimate authority over us in the spiritual realm promulgate a teaching. It is our duty and responsibility to understand a teaching from the magisterium and to the extent possible incorporate that understanding into our own way of living out the Christian vocation. And, there is a certain comfort in knowing that God has laid a special responsibility on the shoulders of those who watch over us:

Ezekiel 33:2-6, KJV

Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman:

If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people;

Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.

He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul.

But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.

If the watchman sees evil and does not identify it and people fall because of it, they fall because of iniquity, but the fault lies with the watchman. However, if he does see and reports it and we choose to ignore what he has reported, then we fail of ourselves, and he is considered innocent.

The shepherds of souls have enormous responsibilities before God. And I have no doubt that this responsibility is always made manifest. Therefore, it is not in their best interest to issue ill-conceived, inappropriate, or miscalculated teachings in the matter of faith and morals. The teachings may be insufficient at times--perhaps unclear. But knowing the terrible responsibility of the shepherding of souls, and knowing that they will account for all those they have lost, I see that the teaching of the Church is to be trusted as a faithful guide. While I may not always understand why the truth is as it is, I know that I can trust it because my obedience is to those in legitimate authority. They speak with God's voice.

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Help Requested


Currently up on my reading-group booklist is Gilead, which a rush of people in St. Blogs went through some time back.

The story is so low key and so slow-paced that I am having trouble in my fourth attempt to get through it. Can someone give me some reason (other than obligation to the group) to keep moving through it. I don't sense anything extraordinary here--and I could be wrong about that; however, lacking that sense, I have no real impulse to push through.

So, if you've read it and would be so kind, drop me a note or post a comment that might give me cause to get through it.

I'd much rather be reading the next book up--Cold Heaven by Brian Moore. (See, Black Robe didn't put me off--Brian Moore has some interesting things to say.

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The Books I Like Best in 2006


Playing off a subject introduced in this post at Video Meliora, I present the books I most enjoyed reading in 2006 (which is not a list of the best books of 2006, because I didn't read many of the books published in that year--that will come after there's been time for the wheat and the chaff to be separated.)

Cormac McCarthy--The Road (a real 2006 book)
Diane Setterfield--The Thirteenth Tale ( a real 2006 book)
Michael Dirda--Open Book
Khaled Hosseini--The Kite Runner
Madaleine St. John--The Essence of the Thing
Muriel Spark--A Far Cry From Kensington
Naomi Novik--His Majesty's Dragon
Thomas Howard--Dove Descending (a study of Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Stephen King--The Colorado Kid

In all, some very Catholic books--(Spark, St. John, Howard, and, in a very loose sense Dirda [after all, who else would include Doestoevsky and Georgette Heyer on the list of all-time great writers?)--some very sobering books (McCarthy and Hossseini) and some real fun (Novik, King, and Setterfield).

Two books would have been contenders had I actually finished them--and will probably be at the top of next year's list--

Hammer and Fire Fr. Raphael Simon O.C.S.O.

Union with God Blessed Columba Marmion

Also on the list, but far more controversial: Anne Rice Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.

Further, I must add that those books which TSO lists and I have also read I concur with heartily. (Helena and In the Heart of the Sea.) I'm encouraged to see Mayflower on the list as well. Once always has trepidation over possible historical revisionism.

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Things Seen, Things Read

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Okay, first beware:

The dreadful tedium of yet another animated mess--Happily N'ever After. This pallid attempt to capitalize on the genuinely clever Hoodwinked starts from the wrong premise and from there makes ever choice in precisely the incorrect manner to assure maximum adult tedium. The kids may get something from it--but not enough to endure except perhaps on DVD as the iPod gently lulls the mind.

Now to the excellent: Apocalypto. When I first heard that Mel Gibson intended to make another film in which dead languages feature largely, I thought, "Oh goody. More pretension."

Don't judge a film by its pretensions. By turns amusing and truly ghastly; high-school locker room and abbatoir, the film has heart and meaning for anyone trapped in the grinding soul-breaking toil of much of the American Corporate system. The message, in a sense boils down to a simple Simpson's episode. Those who watch it will know what I mean when I say "Do it for her."

A love story, a survival story, an historical epic--the true brutality and horror of life among the peoples of ancient North America is exposed for what it likely was. No PC approach to living in harmony with nature, although that is also shown for what it is.

I haven't said much, but I was moved and enjoyed the film despite the gory and ghastly images that can linger behind. Intense, but intensely meaningful and really beautiful.

And now, for reading. I finished one last book during vacation, a book by an author I had long ago abandoned and thought never to pick up again. The author: Dean Koontz. The book Odd Thomas. I believe I first saw a positive word about it at Julie D.'s Happy Catholic and as our tastes have large areas of overlap and her enthusiasm was evident, I thought it good to try the series. Well, I must confess myself surprised and satisfied. This is not the usual stamped-from-the-same-fabric plot that Dean Koontz churned out in so many early books that he finally alienated me as part of his audience. Odd Thomas has many clever ploys and dodges that wind up in a most satisfying, if somewhat unexpected conclusion.

Odd Thomas, you see, sees dead people. He sees the ghosts of those who pass on--including Elvis who has as many unique features as a ghost as he had as a living person. These ghosts, and other, more unpleasant entities, cue him on on happenings or about-to-be-happenings in the spirit world that affect the world of the living.

A remarkable and entertaining diversion that contains hints of something more. As I continue to read the series I am hoping to see that something more develop. But as it stands, Odd Thomas is recommended reading.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from January 2007.

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