It can be puzzling to read a book that moved you twenty years ago and to wonder why it did so. I had that experience diving into "Dakota," the memoir...moreIt can be puzzling to read a book that moved you twenty years ago and to wonder why it did so. I had that experience diving into "Dakota," the memoir of a New York City intellectual who moves to Lemmon, South Dakota (very small), to take over her grandmother's farm when no one else in the family wants it. Norris embraces small-town life and what she understands to be its religious analog: monasticism. A Presbyterian without much active faith on arrival in SD, she finds her faith restored by local Protestant communities, then deepened by her encounters with monasteries on the high plains, both male and female.
I thought, as I finished Dakota today, that the two best non-fiction books I've ever read about male monasticism were written by women. The other is "An Infinity of Little Hours" by Nancy Maguire, about five novices who entered a Carthusian monastery in England at the beginning of the 1960s. (A must if you haven't.)
By then I had realized just why "Dakota" moved me twenty years ago. Thirty years removed at the time from my youth in Minnesota, and still fifteen years away from becoming a Catholic, the book bridged past and future. It put me back in touch with a Midwest childhood in which I was reared by faithful, Church-going parents and grandparents—and given the sure foundation on which my Catholic faith finally would be built. And by giving me a strong taste of monastic life—with its hours, humanity, and rich humor—the book allowed me to see that my past might be linked happily with a religious future in a new mode, as a Catholic convert.
UPDATE: If you've not read much Dickens, this book is likely to be a waste of your time. If you have read Dickens, and love him as I do, this book is...moreUPDATE: If you've not read much Dickens, this book is likely to be a waste of your time. If you have read Dickens, and love him as I do, this book is a must.
Chesterton has written a critique of Dickens and his work that doubles as a short biography. After a chapter on Dickens's childhood most of the book follows his major works chronologically and shows how they reflect developments in Dickens's character and life. Chesterton's insights are extraordinary, transcending Dickens, but his references to the novels and characters (without reminding the reader which novels the characters can be found in) would make this a frustrating read for the newcomer to Dickens, or even someone who may have read a couple of the more popular novels, like "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations."
Having been annoyed (see below) with Chesterton's wordplay, I now confess to a change of heart. I realize, having barreled happily through the final 2/3s of the book, that Chesterton's (very Catholic) perspective runs so counter to much that passes for common sense that it makes all the sense in the world for him to turn cliché on its ear. Because truth—like the real value of Dickens—is usually not what most people think.
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Chesterton annoys me almost the minute I take him up. His wordplay—the way he turns common expressions upside-down mainly—is repetitive and (though he wants to surprise) predictable.
But I adore Dickens and revere Chesterton as a fellow convert and the maker of Father Brown too, so I will persist, I hope.(less)
I picked up this short booklet by a 19th-century Benedictine father from the Adoration chapel at our church. (For the non-Catholic, Adoration is the p...moreI picked up this short booklet by a 19th-century Benedictine father from the Adoration chapel at our church. (For the non-Catholic, Adoration is the practice of sitting or kneeling in silent contemplation of the consecrated communion host, or Blessed Sacrament, mounted in some kind of ornamental display, or "monstrance.") LIke many things about the Catholic Church since my conversion in 2008, Adoration is a practice (or teaching or dogma or tradition) that I did not understand at first but am getting to know as my faith experience ramifies. Adoration is among the hardest to understand, at least for me.
This booklet of only 69 pages describes the Blessed Sacrament, contemplated in Adoration, as a "touchstone of faith." Of course it is a leap of faith to believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ is "present" in that "piece of bread" there. But according to Fr. Etlin, many saints have made that leap, making a daily (in some cases hourly) practice of Adoration, and testifying to the graces that flow from it. And for me the experience of the saints has always been a convincer. Not that I am one myself, but rather by a sort of reasoning that says, "If it worked for them, how am I so smart that it can't for me?"
It is a fundamental belief of the Catholic faith that God became present to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ left us a permanent memorial of his God-ness in the Blessed Sacrament, which is not only a reminder of Himself, but Himself himself!
If — by faith or in fact — this were true, would it not be the most extraordinary thing imaginable? (less)
It's preposterous to give three stars only to a Dickens classic like this one, but I can't help myself. Having read all of Dickens, and now rereading...moreIt's preposterous to give three stars only to a Dickens classic like this one, but I can't help myself. Having read all of Dickens, and now rereading him from first (Pickwick) to, well, hopefully last (Edwin Drood), I come to his second book, where clearly he was still finding his way as a novelist. The free playfulness of Pickwick, not tied down to a rigorous plot line, has mostly vanished here, and in its place are many of Dickens's lifelong concerns, particularly about poverty and its consequences, but all trumped up in a story that could not possibly have more artifice or coincidence. Not to mention caricature and (you could argue in the case of Fagin, "The Jew") bigotry.
The coincidence is thick, the sentiment groaningly thicker. Perhaps if I had NOT listened to most of Oliver Twist as an audiobook narrated by Martin Jarvis, I would feel differently. But Jarvis, though he could do a thousand voices if needed, instead of the hundred or so required here, makes the sentimentality even more treacly than on the printed page, off which it positively drips. I had to READ the last three or four chapters because I couldn't bear to hear another sigh.
UPDATE I can't remember when I enjoyed a book as much as I have this one. A collection of stories, mostly nonfiction, that originally appeared mostly...moreUPDATE I can't remember when I enjoyed a book as much as I have this one. A collection of stories, mostly nonfiction, that originally appeared mostly in The New Yorker, these are extraordinary portraits of people living in and around NYC in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Many are fringe characters, including families of gypsies, barflies, and the incomparable Joe Gould, whose "Secret" makes up the last 100+ pages (see my first review below).
I might almost accuse Mitchell of being Catholic, though he writes as though he were not a religious person at all. It is simply that, like Francis and many other saints, he was able to see beauty in the poorest of the poor. He calls his light comic writing "graveyard humor," and there are many cemeteries here--but cemeteries as the final shared resting place of families, cemeteries as repositories of story.
There is wonderful stuff about the fishing industry in and around the city, especially Fulton's Fish Market on the Lower East Side. Whether most of the people and places he wrote about 70 years ago are even extant is hardly important. This is social history combined with remarkable verbal portraiture, plus graveyard humor.
Skimming is inevitable in a 700-page collection like this, and I confess to some. But I couldn't believe how much of it held my attention and even affection. A bio of Mitchell, Kunkel's "Man in Profile," is due out in spring 2015, and it already is on my to-read list.
I am placing this book on my (short) list of FAVORITES although I have still read only one-third of its 700 pages. It is a book with which I have an unaccountable affinity, and you may too. Mitchell was a profile writer for the New Yorker in the 30 years leading up to the writing of "Joe Gould's Secret" (1964), which proved to be his last published work.
JGS can be found and read as a slender freestanding 100+-page volume. In this much bigger tome, it is the final entry, after 600 pages of collected New Yorker profiles. JGS alone is worth the price of any single book.
Joe Gould was a "bohemian" in Greenwich Village whom Mitchell met around 1940 and followed until his death about seventeen years later. Joe Gould's "secret" is one that Mitchell himself kept until his own silence descended in the mid-1960s, for reasons as mysterious as Joe Gould's story. Mitchell clearly felt an affinity with Gould, as I do with Mitchell. Why, is something Mitchell may never have explained, and something I can't yet explain.
So I will continue reading the shorter profiles and trying to understand Mitchell and maybe myself too. I hope this review intrigues you as Mitchell does me . . .(less)
Update: This strikes me now as the most important book I have read this year.
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What is it about Dorothy Day that always grabs me? It's not really...moreUpdate: This strikes me now as the most important book I have read this year.
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What is it about Dorothy Day that always grabs me? It's not really that she espoused the causes of my generation (nuclear disarmament, civil rights, an end to the war in Vietnam). In fact, her Commie leanings annoy me often, now that I'm an "old-fashioned Catholic."
And yet. She is so honest and convincing, and her works of mercy were unarguable. This book recounts the history of the Catholic Worker movement, really from her encounter with the enigmatic itinerant preacher Peter Maurin. I expect to blow through it in a few days.(less)
I would have given this book four stars except that it took me three months to finish. Meaning it never grabbed my attention hard and long enough to b...moreI would have given this book four stars except that it took me three months to finish. Meaning it never grabbed my attention hard and long enough to barrel through.
The stories are uneven. Half (roughly) concern churches and rectories and the pastors, curates, bishops, housekeepers, and janitors who work and live in them. These are wonderful, though terribly nostalgic too. They were written in pre-Vatican II days mostly, when multiple priests lived in rectories, which had housekeepers, making a parish a social universe even after al the parishioners have gone home for the night. At least in the forsaken corner of Eastern Mass which I now inhabit, with the current priest shortage and parish closings, rectories now are mostly bachelor pads. Too bad.
The priests here are human and seldom godly, but their divine calling is understood, tacit, always just behind the scenes. This makes their foibles and failings all the more poignant. (less)
Drawn to St. André Bessette, I came upon this book about three "little saints." So glad I did.
Everyone knows St. Pio of Pietrelcina, or "Padre Pio" (1...moreDrawn to St. André Bessette, I came upon this book about three "little saints." So glad I did.
Everyone knows St. Pio of Pietrelcina, or "Padre Pio" (1887–1968), famous for his confessions and his stigmata. Many know "the miracle man of Montreal," St. André (1845–1937), whose personal devotion led to construction of the Oratory of St. Joseph. I had never heard of the Venerable Solanus Casey (1870–1957), an American Capuchin priest. Not a saint, not yet, Casey found a vocation in humility like Pio and André, and like them miracles followed him around.
André and Solanus served their communities as porters or doorkeepers. While Padro Pio did not serve as a literal doorkeeper, Schorn says "he shares with Brother André and Father Solanus the vocation of guiding people through the doorways of holiness."
Moving back and forth artfully among these three holy lives, this book may be a valuable doorway for Catholics and other spiritual seekers. (less)
I was drawn to this novelized life of St. Augustine by Julie's review, and I'm glad I was. Augustine was one of many saints I've wanted to know more a...moreI was drawn to this novelized life of St. Augustine by Julie's review, and I'm glad I was. Augustine was one of many saints I've wanted to know more about -- the author of the Confessions, lived in Africa, a Doctor of the Church, fought heresies, right? -- but didn't until now.
DeWohl's book, simple, somewhat clunky, and old-fashioned as it may be, weaves the main elements of Augustine's life into a single, readable narrative with only a few long discursive parts to slow it down. In the slow category especially is the long bit of history about Carthage, Rome, and the Vandals used to introduce Augustine's death. As though, just before the end of an adventure novel, the author stopped the narrative for thirty pages to teach World History.
But this aside, the book left me with a much clearer picture of Augustine and a desire to read his Confessions, which have long stared at me from a lonely place at the end of my bookshelf.(less)