The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Summer Reading

Back when I was a student -- and that's way back -- each spring I would prepare a list of books I intended to read during the summer months. Naturally, in those youthful days the summer held other attractions besides reading, so I usually considered it a success when I completed maybe half the books on my list. Oddly enough, once my schooling was behind me I continued to make my summer reading list, even though free time was just as scarce in the summer as it was in any other season. That's one thing about work: it has a way of homogenizing the seasons so that summer can sometimes come and go almost unnoticed. Maybe that was why I continued to make my list, as a way of acknowledging that summer had arrived and forcing myself to make good use of what leisure time I managed to squeeze out of the warm months. Of course, now that I'm retired and living in Florida, the seasons are even less distinct...but I still make my list.

Usually, and this year is no exception, I begin my list-making in the fall and continue adding books to it throughout the year. Once I pick up a copy of a reading-list book I set it aside, placing it on a separate bookshelf. Sometimes I cheat and read a book ahead of time, and so must remove it from the list. I suppose I kept my cheating to a minimum this year, because my summer reading list seems much more ambitious than those of recent years, almost half-again as long. Perhaps it's because I've included more fiction than usual. Something I noticed on previous lists is that I've usually read most of the included authors before, with only a few being new to me. I do tend to feed my prejudices when it comes to reading. I find an author I enjoy, and then want to read everything he's written. This year is really no different, although the list contains a few new authors and Ive tried to ensure no author has more than two books on the list. Perhaps this will force me to broaden my reading a bit. Finally, I've included several books I've read before, but with one exception I read them years ago and decided it was time to reread them. Maybe my older and, I hope, wiser self will develop a new and different appreciation of these works.

And so, here is this year's list:

Among the Believers: An Islamic JourneyV. S. Naipaul, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981 -- out of print). Naipaul, an ethnic Indian originally from Trinidad, is a Nobel Prize-winning author who has written extensively on the aftermath of the colonialism of the British Empire. I have read many of his novels and several of his non-fiction works and enjoyed them all, but just never got around to reading this detailed description of his journey through four Islamic nations: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Naipaul is a keen observer of people and culture, and since his journey took place over 30 years ago, I look forward to reading his observations and comparing them to today's reality. (Although out of print, used copies are available online at very reasonable prices. Click on the title link above.)

Kristin Lavransdatter: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920). Sigrid Undset was a remarkable woman, a Norwegian author who won a Nobel Prize for this three-volume novel, Kristin Lavransdatter, a book that chronicled life in medieval Scandinavia.

Brought up in an atheistic household, Undset converted to Catholicism in her early forties and became a lay Dominican. When the Nazis occupied Norway in 1940 she was forced to flee to neutral Sweden and ultimately to the United States. Because her books were banned in Germany and she had openly criticized Hitler, she would no doubt have been imprisoned or executed. While in the US during the war she worked tirelessly on behalf of her native Norway and for Europe's Jews. She returned to Norway after the war and died in 1949. Over the years I've read a number of her other books and enjoyed them all. I first read this particular novel over 40 years ago and believe it's time to read it again.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Politically Incorrect Guides)Anthony Esolen, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (2008). Dr. Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, is a true man of letters and one of those remarkable people whose works have a civilizing effect on those who read them. He is also a translator of Dante's Divine Comedy which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, especially since his translation is so wonderfully readable. I got to know Dr. Esolen slightly during the few years I was employed at Providence College, and thoroughly enjoyed our occasional conversations. I expect this book to be equally rewarding.

Although it's not on my list, because I read it just last year, I highly recommend another of Dr. Esolen's books, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Read it and you will come to a whole new appreciation of Christian literature.

Trent's Last CaseE. C. Bentley, Trent's Last Case (1913). Edmund Clerihew Bentley was an English novelist, journalist, and humorist, as well as the inventor of the Clerihew, the light, humorous verse-form named after him. Two volumes, filled with Bentley's Clerihews, sit on my bookshelves and never fail to bring me a little joy when I open them. They are strange little verses, for example;

St. Francis of Assisi
Was all nasty and greasy;
But in spite of that
He wore a halo round his hat.

Bentley was also a schoolmate (St. Paul's School, London) and lifelong friend of my favorite Englishman, G. K. Chesterton. Indeed, Chesterton, who was also a clever artist, illustrated Bentley's volumes of Clerihews.

This novel, Bentley's detective story written before the First World War, is often praised as the first modern detective mystery. Two of Bentley's more well-known contemporaries, Dorothy Sayers, who penned the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and Chesterton, who wrote the Father Brown mysteries, both thought very highly of the book Some years ago a friend, knowing I enjoy a good mystery, gave me a copy, along with a copy of its sequel, Trent's Own Case, but I never got around to reading either. I think it's time I do so.

Many DimensionsCharles Williams, Many Dimensions (1931). Charles Williams, novelist, poet and literary critic, was also a close friend of C. S. Lewis and a member of the famous Oxford literary group, the Inklings. Between 1930 and his untimely death in 1945, Williams wrote a series of seven novels that can best be described as -- in the words of T. S. Eliot -- "supernatural thrillers".Over the years I have purchased and read six of the seven Williams novels and while I certainly have my favorites -- All Hallows Eve, for example -- I enjoyed every last one of them. But for some reason I never got around to buying a copy of Many Dimensions, the second of Williams' novels. And then last month, when we were visiting family on Cape Cod, I found a hardcover copy in one of my favorite bookstores, Parnassus Books in Yarmouthport, MA. I can hardly wait to begin reading it.

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The ResurrectionPope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume 2 (2011). I purchased this second volume of Pope Benedict's major work on Jesus Christ several months ago and began reading it immediately. I read it much too quickly, however, and have placed it on my summer reading list in the hope of reading it again, more slowly this time, with my Bible at my side as I do so. The first volume covers virtually all of Jesus' public ministry, from His Baptism by John in the Jordan to His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. I had previously read many books by Pope Benedict, but this book made me realize how blessed we are to have a pope who is such a learned and deeply spiritual scriptural scholar. If you have not yet read the first volume, by all means do so. This second volume focuses on Holy Week, from Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem to His Resurrection. I enjoyed it the first time, and look forward to learning even more the second time around.

The Life of Samuel Johnson (Everyman's Library)James Boswell. The Life of Samuel Johnson (First published, 1791). Like the plays of Shakespeare, or the novels of Jane Austen, Boswell's Johnson is one of those books that every English-speaking human being should read at least once in his life. As for myself, I did so back in 1962 when I was a freshman at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. It wasn't assigned reading for any course; I had simply read some excerpts during my senior year in high school and became fascinated by this man, Samuel Johnson. And when I came across a used copy of the unabridged edition, I parted with a few of my scarce dollars and bought it. I probably spent far too much study time reading Boswell when I should have been pouring over the uninspired readings assigned by my professors. But in hindsight I think I can honestly say that perhaps 80% of the courses I took during my seven years of college and graduate school have been absolutely useless to me. Certainly, they were nowhere near as useful as this one book. If you haven't read it, you should. Pick up a copy and read a bit every day. As you know if you've read it, it is a substantial book, and my current edition runs well over 1,200 pages.

The World of Saint PaulJoseph M. Callewaert, The World of St. Paul (2011). This book was given to me recently by a friend and, after glancing through it and reading a few pages here and there, I decided to add it to my list.

I was completely unfamiliar with the author, but it seems he is quite the authority on St. Paul's life. Callewaert has based his interpretation of Paul's life on both Scripture and the apostolic tradition held by the Church over the ages.

A book like this might well perform a needed service by placing St. Paul in a real historical, cultural and religious context, helping us better understand both his writings and his missionary work. It should be a nice introduction to the Apostle to the Gentiles. I will see if it is.

The Far Side of the World (Vol. Book 10) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)Patrick O'Brien, The Far Side of the World (1984). This was, I believe, the 10th of Patrick O'Brien's swashbuckling novels of the Royal Navy during the time of Nelson and Napoleon. After one has read a few of these wonderfully written stories, O'Brien's main characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, become close friends of the reader. O'Brien died in 2000 at the age of 85.

The series consists of some 20 novels, but I have never actually read even one of them; and yet I know most of the stories and their characters well. You see, years ago, as I commuted 90 miles (one way) between my home on Cape Cod and Providence, RI, I would listen to O'Brien's books on tape. (Dear Diane worked in a public library and would regularly provide me with audio books.) I believe I listened to probably 15 of the novels in this series, and The Far Side of the World is one of the few I missed. When I spotted a copy on the "bargain table" in a bookstore not long ago, I grabbed it for all of $2.

Fairy Tale (Common Reader's Alice Thomas Ellis)Alice Thomas Ellis, Fairy Tale (1996) and Pillars of Gold (2000). Ellis (real name, Anna Haycraft) was an English novelist who died in 2005. Of Welsh and Finnish stock, she was raised in an actively atheistic home but converted to Catholicism when she was 19. She even spent some time in a convent, but had to leave due to health problems. She later married and she and her publisher husband had seven children. Despite her large family, she apparently found time to write, publishing her first novel in 1977. In addition to her novels, she also wrote several best-selling cookbooks and for years wrote a column in a Catholic newspaper.

I have already read a few of her novels, wonderful stories which are always touched slightly by the supernatural. I particularly enjoyed Unexplained Laughter and The 27th Kingdom. And then, late last year, while browsing in a used book store in St. Augustine, Florida, I found these two and bought them. I look forward to reading them.

Fall of the House of HapsburgEdward Crankshaw, The Fall of the House of Habsburg (1963 -- out of print). This is another book that caught my eye in a used book store some months ago. When I was a Midshipman at the Naval Academy back in the early sixties, I didn't get home too often. But during one of those brief visits with my parents, I remember sitting in their family room and asking my mother what she was reading with such obvious interest. She held up the book and said, "It's a marvelous book. You should read it. It's all about the last years of the Habsburgs", and then returned to her reading. Isn't memory a very strange thing? I can remember and picture this brief, seemingly inconsequential incident as if it happened only moments ago, and yet I can recall for certain nothing else that occurred during that long weekend visit. It would seem there's a reason I can remember this incident so clearly after 45 years; and so, when I spotted this book in that bookstore, I simply had to buy it...for all of $8.00. Although out of print you can find inexpensive copies of this book online -- click on the title link above. I hope to discover what my dear mother found so fascinating.

Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in ConversationMilton Walsh, Second Friends: C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation (2008). As a fan of both C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox, I couldn't resist buying this book. These two Christian apologists, one Protestant and the other Catholic, were neighbors in Oxford and yet knew each other only slightly. The author, however, looks deeply into their writings and beliefs shows how each man's work supports that of the other. It promises to be a good read.

Well...that's it! That's my complete summer reading list, unless another book or two or three come along and catch my fancy.
God's peace...

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