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!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Books Read (or Reread)

I'm not certain, but Dear Diane might believe I read entirely too much. I would, of course, disagree. How can one read too much? I suppose she considers my reading excessive if it keeps me from tackling the "honey-do" list or causes me to forget to take out the garbage. Actually, I exaggerate because one of the pleasant things about retirement is that I have more time for both reading and garbage. Indeed, I not only have more time to read, but I can also read whatever I like. No more need to read thick, ponderous tomes on business strategy or sleep-inducing publications on naval organization, the sort of stuff that monopolized a good part of my working life. Now I can devote an evening to a novel, or a few short stories, or a good biography, or even a volume of poetry. And if I like I can stay up way past my normal bedtime. Yes, retirement has its advantages.

When we made the move to our retirement home here in Florida, I purposely got rid of more than 1,000 books. Our previous home, a large, 200-year-old rambling house on Cape Cod, had plenty of room for books. And whenever I ran out of shelf space, I simply built another bookcase. But now, after more than a dozen years in our current, much smaller home, my personal library has once again expanded to a level where it far exceeds the available bookcase space. And additional bookcases are simply out of the question. Books are now piled up on the floor of my den. Dear Diane in her usual kindness has said little about this affront to her sense of tidiness, although I detect a look of mild hostility whenever she glances through the doorway. I appreciate her silence.

Much of my library consists of books useful in my ministry as a deacon, but the majority of the books were bought simply to read. Sometime soon I must take the time to sort through them all and donate some to the parish library or to the book-sale room at our local public library. In the meantime, I will continue to read. 

In recent weeks I've read a few interesting books that I thought I'd share with this blog's small but discriminating audience.

The first three are biographies...

Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark, the Biography, by Martin Stannard, W. W. Norton, New York (2009). 

Muriel Spark (1918-2006), one of the great literary figures of the last century, was a fascinating woman who led a remarkably interesting life. Brought up in Edinburgh in a secular Jewish family, Spark converted to Catholicism in mid-life. Over the years I've read several of her novels but knew very little about her as a person. Martin Stannard has filled that gap with this exhaustive biography. Before she died Spark gave him complete access to her voluminous personal records and placed no restrictions on him as he probed deeply into her life and work. I truly enjoyed this book about a talented writer and brilliant woman.

Sanctifying the World, the Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, by Bradley J. Birzer, Christendom Press, Front Royal, VA (2007).

Christopher Dawson ( 1889-1970) is perhaps the least-known 20th-century figure who deserves to be well-known. Dawson, an English Catholic scholar, was part historian, sociologist, economist and theologian all packed tightly into one remarkable mind.

Among Dawson's contributions to our understanding of both past and present, his writings on the Middle Ages and the role of the Catholic Church in the formation and development of European civilization are, to me at least, most noteworthy. He was a major influence on such notables as T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Russell Kirk. 

Bradley Birzer's biography (2007) is especially timely since interest in Dawson has grown in recent years with many of the scholar's books once again in print. I first read Dawson over 40 years ago, and have since read and reread many of his works. After reading Birzer's biography I suspect you, too, will become a fan.

Oscar Wilde
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, by Joseph Pearce, Ignatius Press, San Francisco (2004).

Over the years I've enjoyed a number of Joseph Pearce's biographical and critical studies of such writers as Roy Campbell, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and William Shakespeare. All have both delighted and informed. Not surprisingly this biography of one of the world's most misunderstood literary figures is also pure delight. Pearce brings the real Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) into clear focus, pushing aside all the ideology and pretense that for so long have kept the man hidden from view. Like all of Pearce's books, it is well-written and well-researched. Unusual for me, I actually read the book in a single sitting, unable to put it down until I turned the last page at 2 a.m.

And now for a couple of classics...

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Devils, by Fyodor Dostoevski, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK (1992).

I first read this novel in 1971 while aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam. Because our helicopter squadron would be aboard the USS Ticonderoga for many months, I had taken a large stack of books with me, and among them was Devils.

The third of Dostoevsky's major novels, Devils was written in 1871, exactly 100 years before I opened it for the first time. The novel was a kind of awakening for the younger me in that it presented the reality of atheism and its consequences. In it we encounter the culture of disbelief in all its ugliness. We see what Dostoevsky actually meant when he told us, "If there is no God then everything is permitted." A few years ago someone borrowed my hardcover copy of Devils and never returned it; but then last month I picked up a paperback edition at the local Barnes and Noble and enjoyed the novel even more the second time around.

G. K. Chesterton
Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton, Scripture Press, New York (2015).

OK, you might not consider this book a "classic", but my definition of the term as applied to books is somewhat personal. For me a classic must be written before I was born and must still be in print. 

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote Orthodoxy in 1908, one year before my parents were born. A quick glance at Amazon's listing for the book will confirm that it is still in print in multiple editions. The book is perhaps Chesterton's greatest, in that it has probably influenced the thinking of more people than any other of his works, and that's saying a lot. Chesterton is a marvelous teacher who teaches you on the sly. He makes you laugh and then, placing the truth right in front of you, dares you to reject it. Orthodoxy is a story of experiences and conversion and understanding, a story every Christian, indeed every human being, every child of God should read.

And now...some other fiction I've enjoyed in recent weeks.

I've come to believe that many of the best writers of fiction are women. I suspect that some of the women who know me would find this surprising. But it's true. For example, I've always believed that Jane Austen deserves to be ranked among the top three English novelists. And Muriel Spark, whose biography I mentioned above, is another I'd rank among the best. Among her novels, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, and The Mandelbaum Gate are probably my favorites.

Alice Thomas Ellis
Another English woman novelist whose works I've thoroughly enjoyed is the late Anna Haycraft (1932-2005), who wrote under the pen name Alice Thomas Ellis. I've read six of her many novels and especially enjoyed The Sin Eater, Unexplained Laughter, and The 27th Kingdom

Her novels (at least those I've read) are all touched with her special brand of humor and populated with remarkable female characters. A complicated woman, she converted to Catholicism at the age of 19, considered becoming a nun, but eventually married Colin Haycraft, who owned the Duckworth publishing house. The mother of seven she understandably didn't write her first novel until she was in her forties. She also became an outspoken traditionalist Catholic who, as a columnist, wrote often about the liturgical abuses of the post-Vatican II Church.

I've also recently reread several of the short stories of Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), something I'd recommend to anyone who has never read this woman's wonderful fiction. She remains at the top of my list of great American writers.
Flannery O'Connor
Finally, I must add an oddity, a book which isn't easy to find since I don't believe it has ever been reprinted. I found it in a used book store some years ago but never got around to reading it until last month. It's a travel book of sorts, a genre I've always enjoyed, particularly those written in the  nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Harry de Windt
The book in question has the absolutely wonderful title, Through Savage Europe, and was written in 1907 by an Englishman named Harry de Windt (1856-1933). He was an Army officer, noted explorer, and travel writer who wandered throughout much of Europe and Asia writing about his experiences and the people he encountered. "Savage Europe" is his description of his eventful travels through the Balkan states and Eastern Russia during the years preceding World War One. I enjoyed the book immensely but will always prefer the travel writings of both Evelyn Waugh and V. S. Naipaul. that's what I've been reading this summer.

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