Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Breaking out of the Summer Reading Slump?

Well, I finally finished a book!

I'll get to that in a later blog post. First, a few notes about the books I've started and haven't finished. Several of them were ones that people expressed some interest in when I suggested them, so I might as well give a brief report. I'm thinking the reason I've been plodding along with several books is perhaps that all of them are non-fiction and are so much easier to put down one when I get to a bit that's slow.

I've been enjoying Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset; but I'm not moving through it very quickly. You can laugh if you want to, but I was several chapters in before I realized it was a biography and not a novel. I know I'm not a careful reader, but it was still pretty funny. I found myself thinking: "This book really reads like a biography." And then I actually looked at the cover and discovered it is a biography.

It's not surprising that Undset is a good biographer since she is such a great novelist. She does know how to pace a story. And I love the way she approaches medieval history from a modern viewpoint. She explains those aspects of the medieval world that she anticipates will be strange for a modern audience so as to make sense of Catherine's life as a product of the world, but she doesn't let the historical details get in the way of showing who Catherine was as some historians seem to do. As a believer, Undset takes Catherine's faith seriously. When dealing with the miraculous she walks a nice path between being willing to credit eyewitnesses and accept the possibility of the miraculous, while also satisfying a more modern taste for critical examination of the credibility of witnesses. Here's a passage that exemplifies her approach:

But in our time and the language of our time the expressions we use for religious emotions and religious experience have become worn out and meaningless; words which in Catherine's language are as shining as new-minted gold, become, when repeated by us, worn-out coins, which have almost gone out of circulation. Catherine speaks of VIRTU, and for her the word retains its full weight; it means a vital and powerful pursuit of high ideals. "Virtue" in English has no connection in the popular mind with capability, capacity for goodness; we think rather of virtue as something slightly sour, weak, and boring. Catherine's eternal cri du coeur, GESU DOLCE-- GESU AMORE, is filled with very different associations from those which occur to us when we read "Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love." A sweet-Jesus, a lady-Jesus; Jesus-Love-- a substitute or sublimation of sexual love. In Catherine's language, and when she lived, sweetness was also a name for strength, for all that is good and at the same time gentle and merciful. That goodness must also at times be hard and aggressive, no one knew better than Catherine. For her and her contemporaries, even for the hosts of people who in practice tried to forget or deny it, it was acknowledged that AMORE, love, is fundamentally an expression for the connection between God and the soul of man. Analogously one can speak of AMORE, love, between people-- between children and their parents, between man and wife, between lovers, between brothers and sisters, between spiritual relations; and it can be a power of good or evil, according ot whether earthly love is in harmony or disharmony with the will of Him who is AUCTOR VITAE-- the origin of life. It is perhaps even more difficult for present day people in Protestant lands to understand her attitude towards the two Popes whom she can in the same letter call Christ-on-earth, the immortal Peter whom Christ has built His Church upon, and advise, command and admonish them for their human weaknesses; or she can turn to the Pope like an unhappy little girl to her father, calling him Babbo--"Daddy", in Italian baby talk. For her it was no contradiction, beyond the fact that all human relationships are full of contradictions, that Christ had set a vicar over His faithful as long as they live on earth, and that He demands we should show His vicar honour and obedience, even though the vicar may be unworthy to fulfil his mission. No one can know whether the Holy Father has been a holy man until his death-- and as it has been put in the hands of men to appoint a man a the Vicar of Christ, it is only to be expected that the voters will all too often vote from impure, mean, or cunning motives, for a man who will become an evil to the Church of God on earth. God will nevertheless watch over His Church, raise and restore again what mankind may ruin or soil; it is necessary, for mystical reasons, which the saints have partly seen and understood, that the offence should occur. But woe to that person through whom the offence comes. . . .
I think I got bogged down and lost steam when the focus of the book shifted from Catherine's interior life to her political activity. Her early years are all lived quietly at home in Siena but then she receives her marching orders and starts writing letters to Popes and various political figures. All of that requires quite a bit of explanation so as to follow the intricacies of medieval European politics and I think I just find that less interesting than the interior stuff that is directly about Catherine.

I've been having similar problems with the book about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Man of the Beatitudes. It's a good book by Frassati's sister, Luciana, but much of the focus is on his social and political life and the interior life isn't as clear. The first book I read about him was the second book she wrote, My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days. I think by the time she wrote that book, Luciana had grown in understanding of who her brother really was. It is a much deeper, more thoughtful book, but it has a very limited focus, recounting only the details of the final week of Frassati's life. I'd love to read a book that examines his entire life with the insight Luciana turns on his final days. Anyway, my interest started to wane in a section where Luciana recounts Pier Giorgio's political activities. Notice a trend? I have a very short attention span for politics and political history. All the political parties and minute details of shifting power kind of make my eyes glaze over. Especially when I'm trying to snag brief reading snacks while hiding in the bathroom as the children squabble outside the door.

I'm out of time for tonight. The toddler has an ear infection, the baby is teething, and my husband is in Spain. So I'd better call it a night. I'll write about the book I actually finished next time.


Otepoti said...

In Spain? With World Youth Day? How exciting.

I've been reading a lot, but mainly bread and butter Catholic reading: I've read the New Zealnd Catholic Enquiry Centre's "What Catholics Believe" - what, no sacred monkeys? (That's a Brideshead Revisited joke, not an offensive slur, BTW.)

I am also making my way through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is a wonderful book. I feared it would be full of the thickest Thomism, but instead it is sweet and precise and produced under the auspices of Papa Ratzi. And if I didn't already love him as a father, the Catechism would make me a fangirl.

Inspired by Thomas Merton (whose father Owen was a New Zealander, just had to get that in) I got hold of a copy of "Story of a Soul" but I'm a bit bogged down in it. On the one hand - Therese is lovely, and I ought to consider her as a confirmation saint on the principle that since she's the mostest oppositest person to me, she'd be really good for me. On the other hand, I'm just stuck with this particular book.

What do you all think of it?

Emily J. said...

O - I have never been able to finish "Story of a Soul," either. I hear there is a new translation out, but St. Therese's message is perhaps best exemplified in how she lived her life, and not in how she wrote about it. "Seven Story Mountain," on the other hand, is obviously written by a storyteller.

Melanie - Thanks for the quotes from St. Catherine. A few years ago, with my Catholic book club in Virginia I read another biography of St. Catherine and just loved it, but I can't remember the name. Something with "Fire" in the title.

Melanie B said...

Otepoti, yes he went to Spain for World Youth Day. He went for work, documenting the Boston pilgrimage. You can see the website he made here: World youth Day 2011 Boston to Madrid. It was pretty exciting because they were posting photos online to Flickr as they took them and putting up blog posts daily for friends and family back home to follow the pilgrimage. But so good to have him home again.

I loved the Brideshead joke. And I agree about the Catechism. Every time I pick it up I think I really should sit down and read the whole thing cover to cover some day. It is a lovely thing and well worth the time.

I think you're definitely not alone in getting stuck with Story of a Soul. I suspect that's one of the most common reactions, in fact. Therese is a great saint but not a great writer by any stretch. In fact, from what my dad tells me even the Carmelites were a bit dumbfounded when she was named a Doctor of the Church. I think it can be hard to get past the surface to the hidden depths that are worth getting to.

I read Story of a Soul several years ago and think I need to read it again. It i one of those books that has stuck with me and I think about fairly often. But probably I won't get back to it anytime soon. Some day, though. Because I think I will get more out of it now than I did then.

BettyDuffy said...

I also had difficulty with Story of a Soul.