Books and Book Reviews: September 2007 Archives

Prayer is Sustenance

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Last week, the book of Mother Teresa's private writings was published--Come, Be My Light. I suppose I should first comment on a subject that disturbs many--the publication of writings that Mother Teresa had expressly requested be destroyed. Thank goodness the Church knows a legacy when they see it, and recognizes sanctity in human form when we are graced with it. I think about the fragments of letter from St. John of the Cross, the pitiful number of them, and of the destruction of what probably amounted to a great many of them by St. Teresa of Avila as a way of detachment. What a tremendous loss for the entire world that destruction was. We have a lessened sense of the beauty of spirit and the warmth of St. John of the Cross. We're left with an image of austerity and sparseness.

Fortunately, that has not been allowed to happen with one of the great Saints of our time. A saint so great that she throws Christopher Hitchens into paroxysms of anger every time he casts a thought in her direction. (Talk about a man resisting conviction--a man who needs his atheism, his crutch every bit as much as he think those with religion do--a man who battles God daily in his attempt to remain squarely in unbelief--a man personally challenged by Mother Teresa.)

While there is much new in the book, much insight into things we had only small glimpses and hints of, there is also very much that is well-known and which reflects who she was publicly and consistently.

from Come Be My Light
Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Every Sunday I visti the poor in Calcutta's slums. I cannot help them, because I do not have anything, but I go to give them joy. Last time about twenty little ones were eagerly expecting their "Ma." When they saw me, they ran to meet me, even skipping on one foot. I entered. In that "para"--that is how a group of house is called here--twelve families were living. every family has only one room, two meters long and a meter and a half wide. The door is so narrow that i hardly could enter, and the ceiling is so low that I could not stand upright. . . . Now I do not wonder that my poor little ones love their school so much, and that so many of them suffer from tuberculosis. The poor mother. . . did not utter even a word of complaint about her poverty. It was very painful for me, but at the same time I was very happy when I saw that they are happy because I visit them. Finally, the mother said to me: "Oh, Ma, come again! Your smile brought sun into this house."

Consider the details of this little note--a room with a door so narrow and a ceiling so low that Mother Teresa--not exactly a giantess--could not fit through or stand upright. Those are straitened circumstances. And the thickness of poverty, so powerful you could feel it standing at a distance.

Now consider that Mother Teresa, pained by the poverty she can do nothing about, goes nevertheless because of the joy she can spread by her mere presence. That is a powerful witness to her obedience and to her love. I wonder how many among us would be willing to endure what is unthinkable to us for the sake of bringing joy to others--the word of God? I know for a fact that I am not there yet. Poverty frightens me. The impoverished frighten me in ways I can't begin to understand or articulate. There is no cause for fear, and yet, there you have it. I am not a saint, much less a Saint. Undoubtedly, that will come in time.

Much of the book focuses on the sharp contrast between Mother Teresa's inner darkness and her outward apostolate of spreading joy and the word of God among the poorest of the poor. It is filled with extravagances of love, and as such, it is a guidebook to love--to how to show profound and real love despite the fact that inside there is nothing but constant yearning, constant desire, constant longing for the infinite that seems to have vacated the space. Well, to give an instance:

Please pray for me, that it may please God to lift this darkness from my doul for only a few days. For sometimes the agony of desolation is so great and at the same time the longing for the Absent One so deep, that the only prayer which I can still say is --Scared Heart of Jesus I trust in Thee--I will satiate Thy thirst for souls.

If you have not already bought this book, you may want to consider it. At very least get it from the library and read it carefully. As with the works of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, I have a feeling that I will be returning to this book again and again, to learn from the example of Blessed Mother Teresa-- a Saint I have been privileged to see, even if only from a distance.

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Exit Ghost


In this, supposedly the last of the Zuckerman books, the legendary priapism of Mr. Roth, noted in comments on the previous post regarding the book, is once again fully in display, once again to no particular effect and for not particular purpose that I can discern unless it is to unite thanatos and eros in the Freudian clich´ that was ancient when Freud was a baby. Zuckerman, impotent and incontinent from a radical prostatectomy spends the entire book trying to recapture the vigor of youth in the face of decaying faculties.

Problem is, it isn't even remotely touching. It isn't funny, it isn't ironic, mordant, incisive, acute, or even particularly observant. It is, unfortunately, pedestrian--a rehash of Roth from previous years including all of the very worst aspects of his obsessions.

The really terrible part of this is that there is some lovely writing, some moving and beautiful writing. At moments even powerful writing--as when he relates the tale of the Jews who escaped from Oslo to Sweden. But there are plot encumbrances that occupy far more space than they are actually worth in effect and an unfortunate obsession with a writer with a great and mysterious sin in his past. Finally, there is an absolutely incoherent paean to George Plimpton occupying far too much of the last section of the book.

My opinion--give this one a skip and go read the only book Mr. Roth wrote that seems to be relatively free of his obsessions--The Plot Against America, you may not care for the politics--but in that book Roth has many points to make about anti-semitism (as he does in this one) and its present vigor in our society. He raises awareness about important problems without the other spirits he seems so fond of.

NOT recommeded in any way for any one.

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Philip Roth is one of those great American writers with whom I've always had a good deal of difficulty. And his most recent book is just a continuation of that difficulty. The question is more whether the difficulty is mine or if it is simply Mr. Roth's constitution.

However, I do want to raise a major point contra the current publishing mindset. The problem is exemplified in this passage:

from Exit Ghost
Philip Roth

I know it was on June 30 because that's the day that the female snapping turtles in my part of New England make their annual trek out from their watery habitat to find an open sandy spot to dig a next for their eggs. These are strong, slow-moving creatures, large turtles with sawtooth armored shells a foot or more in diameter and long, heavily scaled tails. The appear in abundance at the south end of Athena, troops of them crossing the two-lane macadam road that leads into town. Drivers will patiently wait for minutes on end so as not to hit them as they emerge from the deep woods whose marshes and ponds they inhabit, and it is the annual custom of many local residents like me not merely to stop but to pull over and step out onto the shoulder of the road to watch the parade of these rarely seen amphibians, lumbering forward inch by inch on the powerful foreshortened, scaly legs that end in prehistoric-looking reptilian claws.

There is amidst the lyrical and fascinating prose a blunder of enormous proportions, amplified by the fact that a modifier in the same sentence hints at the real relationships of turtles within the animal kingdom. Why is it that some editor allowed this to pass? For anyone even remotely acquainted with taxonomy, the mistake is jarring and annoying. Mr. Roth may have been trying to be poetic, or trying to enlarge the use of the word "amphibian" to encompass a larger sense of the "lifestyle" rather than the taxonomic level; however, as it isn't germane to the point of either the passage or the novel, the wise editor should have simply brought Mr. Roth up short and pointed out how very disorienting and alienating such an attempt is, particularly isolated in a single passage as it is. I suspect that it was merely a slip of the pen, and one that a useful editor ought to have made an effort to see fixed.

Another facet of Mr. Roth's writing that often disengages me is his insistence that the worth of a man is judged primarily, if not solely, by the correct and frequent functioning of those anatomical parts that define his maleness. This has been a theme from the earliest works, and it pervades much of Mr. Roth's writing. It is entirely possible that I have not completely understood what point Mr. Roth has been trying to make with it, if so, that is my failing. However, the obsessiveness of that theme in this novel has not made for enjoyable reading for me.

However, even in and among the ruminations on body parts that no longer work the way they once did, we occasionally find something lovely, such as this:

I simply asked him to tell me about her; what I'd gotten was a speech appropriate to the dedication of some grand edifice. There was nothing strange about such a staunchly tender performance--men who fall madly in love can make Xanadu of Buffalo it that's where their beloved was raised--and yet the ardor for Jamie and Jamie's Texas girlhood was so undisguised that it was as though he were telling me about somebody he had dreamed up in jail. Or about the Jamie I had dreamed up in jail. It was as it should be in a masterpiece of male devotion: his veneration for his wife was his strongest tie to life.

This is gorgeous, even if spoken ironically, and with a post-modern cynicism most unappealing (however, I find it difficult to read the passage in that light). And from it you can read the obsession of the present work. Mr. Zuckerman is in lust with Jamie. And lust is the closest that any character in a normal Roth novel seems capable of coming to love--the only defined thing about Nathan Zuckerman is his desire that comes without any strong emotional underpinning. And so, we have the Philip Roth novel. Now, perhaps Mr. Roth's point is to satirize these attitudes. But there is a sameness and a plodding dullness surrounding that sameness that suggest that the attitude is truly the authors and not a conceit or a feint. Again, that may be a cursory misreading--if so, I'm not the only one who is inclined to such misreadings.

Finally, the political discussions in the book are a nauseating concoction of intolerant leftist political ideation. In this book they are so extreme and so blatant, that for the first time I have wondered if Roth might not be poking fun at the intolerance of the oh so tolerant portion of our society. (Interestingly, I agree with some of the political assessment in the book, I just find them too narrowly focused. Everything said about Mr. Bush and his regime could be applied, one long tarbrush to most of the regimes post Roosevelt I. And in the diatribe painting all of this, we pass lovingly over the administrations of the nearly saintly Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I, like Zuckerman in the book, but for reasons quite different, am nearly completely uninterested in politics as a whole. I think I saw a great deal too much in the time I spent with my mother on Capitol Hill. Just a clue for you all--there are no Mr. Smith's in that gaggle--at least there weren't--I shouldn't exclude the possibility that some have showed up in the interim--but my impression is that things have rather gone downhill since my heyday.

So, while Mr. Roth's prose is elegant at times and interesting, his obsessions rapidly become tedious, and of the remaining "great figures" of recent American writing, he is one whose work is most colored by the person he is. It seems endlessly and repetitively autobiographical, and obsessed with what it means to be a man. Possibly obsessed because his characters really have no idea whatsoever. Nevertheless, there are things that are lovely, thoughts that are worthwhile, strands that are worth pursuing and occasionally prose that is sparkling, bright, and exemplary of very fine writing.

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Rainbows End


Vernor Vinge's teenage bildungsroman is this year's Hugo winner for best science fiction novel of the year. I have to admit that I haven't kept up with science fiction the way I used to do; however, I did find this an enjoyable read.

Vinge builds a very believable near-future world in which computers dominate the landscape. There are "wearables" which respond to gestures and overlay mundane reality with "all the colors of the wind." Vinge makes these devices very likely, very believable, very complex, and best of all very comprehensible. Unlike Gibson and his ilk, who rely upon sheer confusion for much of their effect, Vinge is committed to making his world real.

In this world cures have been found for most common ailments, including many types of dementia. Our hero has been returned from near-death to the appearance of a seventeen year-old boy. And with his return to health, also his return to an absolute tyrrany of emotional abuse. His son puts a stopper in it and Robert Gu, our hero, gradually adjusts and joins an international Cabal designed to preserve the integrity of libraries. However, this plot is simply a cover for another deeper plot that may or may not involve artificial intelligences, international conspirators, and a plot to subjugate the world's people by a clever juxtaposition of (literally) viral memes.

Characterization is fine, although we never get a sense of Gu as both old and young. His perspective is always one of being older. There is no resolution to one of the central emotional points in the book, and several hints and asides are left completely unresolved.

Overall, an interesting fun read for those who like their science fiction Cyber.

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America Alone

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Given that I don't care for political books, I find myself always wandering down strange by-ways when it comes to reading them. America Alone by Mark Steyn is one of those--a book-length diatribe? rant? discussion? neocon apologia? I don't know what to call it; however, I do know that I enjoyed it for the most part and it raised in me an awareness of certain points that I either chose to ignore or was deliberately keeping at arm's length because the implications of them were too frightening to deal with on an everyday basis.

Steyn's primary thesis in the book is that Islam, far from being a religion of peace and love, is in fact a religion wrapped up in a legal philosophy encased in a political system. It is, indeed, a transnational identity that eschews the boundaries of state and government and sets its priorities quite differently from the rest of us. Frankly, that is something I have admired in Islam. Above all else is service to Allah, period. This is more important than state, region, nationality, or any other variable you can think of. It is, in fact, the incarnation of "Seek ye first of the kingdom of God and His righteousness."

The problem with modern Islam is that it has been more or less willingly hijacked by extremist sects that we fund, and of recent date, fund more richly through our reliance and purchase of Saudi oil. (Let's not consider the other politically undesirable despots and monomaniacs we support through this reliance--I'm thinking of Hugo Chavez, amongst others.) Wahhabism, an extremist and some might say anti-Islamic islam was born, fostered, and continues to be nurtured and exported from Saudi Arabia in the form of huge endowments and grants to mosques and madrasses the world over.

Steyn makes the analogy that while the wahhabi's of the world are a very small part of Islam, the present Muslim approach to them is akin to that of the German people who had nothing to say in his rise to power. Of course, like most of the book this is a generalization, one can find Islamic groups that protest the hijacking of their faith in such an extremist manner; however, they seem to be small and relatively little known. If you search on Google you can find anti-terrorist Islamic groups. Reading some of these sites one gets the impression of a wan sort of main-line protestantism of Islam. That is we encounter clearly "We support the separation of religion and state." But one needs to examine this sort of statement in the light of Steyn's thesis about the nature of Islam to understand how radically it differs from "People for the American Way" and other such anti-Christianizing groups. A statement of this sort from a Muslim site repudiates the political, transnational goals that seem to be part and parcel of wahhabi Islam.

I'm no expert and not qualified to give anything other than an opinion on this book, which I found by turns amusing, frightening, and aggravating. Aggravating because Steyn conflates all sorts of disparate interests into one "progressive" package--pandering to Muslims is done by people with "granola mobiles" or tendencies toward feminism, homosexualism, or other common appurtenances of the "liberal" agenda. So while raising awareness of legitimate concerns regarding apparent Muslim trends, he spends a good deal of time taking potshots at people holding liberal ideas and values.

Nevertheless, the central statements of his thesis are interesting and compelling, thought hardly news. Europe is slowly being extinguished under a tide of high Muslim birthrates and immigration and a literal death spiral in the birth rates of developed nations. Now, in one sense, this is an example of one's chickens returning home to roost; however, given the wahhabi attitude toward the cultural accretions of groups other than Muslims, one must wonder seriously about a Louvre in the control of even a "moderate" Islamic state. What happens to the Parthenon, the Roman Ruins, and even Chartres under the benevolent enlightenment of the wahhabi regime.

Of course, these thoughts are secondary entirely to the societal and human toll of this cultural transformation. One does begin to wonder. However, Steyn's book, roundly trounced by one of the Princes of Arabia is certainly worth taking a look at. You might be surprised, chagrined, annoyed, offended, or experience all of these at once. But hopefully, you might come away with additional information and additional matters to explore to become more cognizant of the implications of some of our societal and personal choices. The whole book, although not intended to, does reinforce the concept that no sin is entirely or even mostly personal. Every personal choice affects the society around one. And this was one of the notion behind the renaming of the sacrament "reconciliation." The harm of our sins goes far beyond ourselves, disrupting and tearing the fabric of society to such an extent that i becomes unrecognizable, indeed, eventually it dies of this soul-sickness. But then, "The wages of sin is death." Personal and societal.

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Interesting Reading

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The thing about diatribe is that one can be smoothly carried along in its rampant and all-encompassing embrace. It is unsettling, leaving one to wonder how much is truth and how much is rant. But it occasionally breaks forth in a moment of pristine brilliance.

from America Alone
Mark Steyn

Most mainline Protestant churches are, to one degree or another, post-Christian. If they no longer seem disposed to converting the unbelieving to Christ, they can at least convert them to the boggiest of soft-left political clichés, on the grounds that if Jesus were alive today he'd most like be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally friendly car with an "Arms Are for Hugging" sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams.

The sheer volume of the rant carries it along. The tone is clear and in one sweeping blow condemns the morally insensate and the morally neutral. Environmentally friendly cars are not a sign of dissolution. In a saner society they would be a sign of rehabilitation. It is when the cars replace any core of belief, any strength of conviction, any moral center that they become problematic. And yet, diatribe doesn't allow these distinction to be made. Nevertheless, as a rant goes, this one is both amusing and, unfortunately, close to the truth for a good many mainline Protestant Churches today--and that is a shame because it is the loss of a great and powerful tradition and voice. It is a diminishment, a weakening, a loss of the gospel truth--the only thing we have that is worth holding and sharing.

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In Memoriam


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
--George Santayana

As opposed as I am to the war in Iraq, as much as I may question its authenticity as a meaningful action against terrorism, as much as I may find myself pondering the question of its "justness," I also find within it a profound statement of the conviction that we are simply not going to roll over and take whatever treatment the world has decided we have merited.

Unlike the Spanish election, America has not capitulated. We can debate whether or not we have taken the correct steps to confront those who would gladly deprive all of the freedoms many in the past have died to preserve; but then, we have the freedom to engage in that exchange of ideas.

For better or worse, September 11, 2001 marked a watershed--a determined advance by a small group of highly active and motivated insurgents into the heartland. For a brief time we awoke and we responded as was just and proper--we sought out the root of the problem and attempted to destroy it.

We have not been successful, not for lack of trying but because there is no root. Rather there is a mycelium--a network--small and invisible--that at any time can give rise to yet another fungal bloom. A dandelion is relatively easy to confront, mushrooms much less so.

September 11 does not justify any and all actions, but whenever we pause to question what we are doing and whether it is right, the memory of it should add weight to the reflection. September 11 was a declaration on the part of a very small part of the world that they have no intention of tolerating or respecting anything outside of the range of their political and religious philosophy.

We make a serious error when we attribute this strain of thought to an entire group. And we make a serious error if we think this strain of thought justifies the deprivation of any group of people any part of the rights guaranteed by our law; that way also lay defeat.

Rather, we need to be aware, enlightened, and seriously determined to move forward in the defense of the freedoms we have had handed to us on a silver platter. We are a privileged people living in a hard time.

from The Crisis, December 23, 1776
Thomas Paine

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Atheist, he may have been, but what he said then stands now; and today gives us pause to remember it.

We do an injustice to those innocent people who died that day if we ever forget the truths that made this country great. They were not soldiers, they were not martyrs, they were our friends, our families, our colleagues, our co-religionists--people we loved and whom we remember today--people whose lives give great weight to any battle we wage to prevent further such outrages. These innocent people we must not forget, for in so doing, we put the lives of a great many others at risk.

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The Monk Upstairs


The second novel in the series by Tim Farrington has most of the same shortcomings and virtues of the first. First tick off the transgressions--marriage, divorce, and remarriage without benefit of divorce, a certain haziness with regard to Rebecca and religion, use of contraception--not by the nominally Catholic Rebecca, but by Mike, the former Monk himself.

But the story is lovely if incomplete and oddly shredded around the edges. There are many events with no resolution, many mentions of things that seem to have no focus or purpose. For example, Phoebe, who has the ability to see only some people clearly sees Mike the Monk and Rory the Stoned Surfer very clearly, but almost no one else. What is the meaning of the equivalence in her vision? Why is the kitchen torn up in the first chapter, mentioned throughout the book, but never brought to repair? Why does Mike get so hung up on cremation, but continue to recite psalms in some version that is either the Douay Rheims or a poor imitation?

While I enjoyed both books, I have many reservations about both of them. Some of the focus on prayer is sharp and interesting--revealing. But most of the story is a froth of chaos, The author's purpose is not to present Catholic teaching, and yet in a book about a former monk, one would hope for a little more clarity on precisely what the Church teaches--there is none. The Author freely mixes archaic versions of scripture with contraception--lighting votive candles with marriage without benefit of annulment.

As much as I enjoyed some aspects of these stories, I can't recommend them. They are however an inspiration in that true prayer can inform a book and become even the matter of a book without the book becoming dull and pedantic. And perhaps that was Mr. Farrington's purpose--to lure people into a life of prayer; however, the lure is itself tainted--tainted to the point where the goal itself probably cannot be achieved.

But then, I shouldn't allow opinions on the matter of doctrinal correctness to interfere with my vision of the author. Shouldn't, but for good or ill, I'm afraid I do, and so my lack of endorsement here.

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From the Follow-Up


Despite my lukewarm review of The Monk Downstairs, I have continued with The Monk Upstairs. The passage below comes from a letter written by our monk, now a step-father, about teaching his step-daughter's communion class. (Let's not talk about divorce and remarriage in the Church--I'll get to that in my review.) Despite the errors, there is much good to be derived from reading.

from The Monk Upstairs
Tim Farrington

It is a dauntingly difficult and delicate balance, and there is no way around the fact that for a child of that age, all this amounts to a sort of bait and switch anyway. With this first communion they are beginning a lifetime diet of a love so deep that, God willing, they will be strong enough to just keep walking into it when they realize that the torn and broken body, streaming with blood, nailed to that splintered wood on all those fearful icons, really is their own as well, that Love really does go through that death, and the Word through that suffering flesh, in order to be made real in this terrible world.

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

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