Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summer Reading: Vogue Magazine

Technically, it's the September issue, but it had Kate Moss on the cover--apparently she got married recently--and I don't know why it seemed worth it to throw the mag in the cart at the check out counter just to see Kate Moss's wedding pictures. But it did seem worth it for some reason.

It wasn't, of course. Her dress was uninspiring. Her beau looks like kind of a hot dog. The flower girls were nymph-like and delightful, and her Cotswold Church idyllic. But why can't I believe in love for Kate Moss?

These are deep thoughts, I know. If I could be any guest at the wedding I'd be Daphne Guinness, just FYI.

I used to read good books. Here's the link for Suite Francais, though I think you did it better, Em.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More Summer Reading Rehash

Although I like the idea of reading the same book together, I completely agree with taking a break during August and September. After tonight, I won’t have internet access for about a week anyway. But later, if anyone wants to read a book together, post the request, and I’ll join in if I own the book, once our books arrive.  And I like the idea of meeting here to read recommendations of what books you are reading.

Despite having a busy summer, I found time while on the road to do some reading, albeit very light reading, mostly self-help books.  Self-help books seem to be easy to digest when a lot is going on, especially when the opportunity to recreate yourself is available. Only I can’t say that I have integrated anything that I have read into my life. So maybe these books aren’t very helpful, but here’s a synopsis, nonetheless, for the sake of conversation.

The first book I read on the road was The Handbook for Catholic Moms by Lisa Hendey. A friend gave this to me as a going away present.  Lisa Hendey is a fellow ND grad, although I was a few years behind her.  Lots of familiar names from the blogosphere appear among the pages.  The book gives advice to moms according to four sections: Mind, body, heart, and soul. A new mom would probably find a lot of encouragement in this book, so I passed it on to my sister-in-law who just had her second baby. I did note down a few good quotes, like this one about finding time for silence, from St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross:

“God is there in these moments of rest and can give us in a single instant exactly what we need. Then the rest of the day can take its course, under the same effort and strain perhaps, but in peace. And when night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with Him. Then you will be able to rest in Him – really rest – and start the next day as a new life.”

Sounds good. I just need to work on that leaving it all with God part.

Also while on the road, I plodded through John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. The title was the best part.  I wish I hadn’t wasted my time. I can’t figure out the popularity of Updike. Not one character in this book about a family of failures was likable.  I couldn’t decide if the ending is a mockery of sorts or the final redemption of the family. The story begins with a minister quitting his church in the early 20th century because he has lost his faith. His family loses its social status, and he dies penniless. Meanwhile his three children battle soullessness of one kind or another. The third child is a pathetic underachiever who finally stands up for himself in marrying a lame girl and becoming a postman. They have a daughter who becomes a heartless movie star. Her son is a drifter who finally joins a religious cult, a la the Branch Davidians. As the cult is raided by the feds, the group begins to commit suicide, but the son finally wakes up and helps some women and children escape before he dies himself. So the family finally has a hero of sorts, perhaps confirming the original character’s replacement of faith in religion with faith in humanity, although these people are always disappointing each other. Bleak.

Once I arrived at my mom’s I picked up some books lying around her house. One was His Needs, Her Needs by Dr. Willard Harley, which was the 80’s version of Fireproof or The Five Love Languages. Since we have a number of friends with marital problems, and facing a lot of upheavals ourselves, I read this book with interest, although I felt a little like I was reading the tabloids because each chapter starts with the account of how an affair started.  But even though Dr. Harley isn’t Catholic, he is fully committed to rescuing even the most damaged of marriages, and he has real experience and insight, even if he lacks a poetic gift with language. He repeatedly hammers home the idea of making deposits in your spouses’ love bank.  In other words, you have to commit to small acts of love and affirmation, even if it means taking up a hobby you don’t really like, in order to keep a marriage strong. Pedestrian metaphor, but easy to remember and full of truth. It’s easy for me to be a taker; I’m always telling myself I’ve earned a break, but I don’t always remember to be a giver.

I also sped through Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy Your Child’s Imagination. I think he could have come up with a more imaginative title, don’t you? Anyway, this is one of those books that I agree with everything he says in theory: let your child run around outside, let him tinker with machines and motors, let him read good books and limit his connection to media, and instead expose him to fairy tales, poetry, heroes, real love, silence. But to commit to these habits requires a constant battle against contemporary culture, and in our transitory existence lately, we’ve relied a lot on electronic media to prevent tears and destruction. So I felt a little distressed about my parenting failures after reading it, although again I copied down a few quotes, for example:

“In the deepest heart of man, the motive for art and the motive for worship are bound together. That is not accidental. In both art and worship, the heart seeks out something beyond itself – a beauty or a power that is not its own. That seeking involves a great deal of what can best be called ‘play’ … The play of the artist’s hand is one with the praise of the artist’s heart.  .. . In other words, man’s imagination, when it is not corrupt, yearns for the holy – to behold its beauty from a distance, to be possessed by it. All the greatest art of the past, pagan and Christian, testifies to this desire. It is what inspires the poet Pindar and his Pythian Odes, for whom human glory is but a reflection of the divine. How can you celebrate a lad’s victory at the games if you do not contemplate the beauty and vigor of the immortal gods, from whom such blessings flow? . . . For the great threat of the imagination, roused to life like Lazarus from the grave by the faintly heard voice of God, is that it makes a man a man, not a consumer, nor a clodpoll to be counted off in some mass survey. The praise of God is inscribed upon the of man, says Saint Augustine, ‘man who bears about within himself his mortality, who bears about within himself testimony to his sin and testimony that you resist the proud.’

Lastly, I just finished Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. I don’t think Esolen and Lamott would necessarily get along if they met at a party, although they both would appreciate the power of the imagination. Lamott’s writing is poetic and evocative, but this is one of those books about a descent into the hell of alcoholism and drug abuse followed by a resurrection, which is heartrending, but also exhausting. I marked off a number of great quotes and observations, but I can't unqualifiably love this book because, after writing about forgiveness, love and acceptance, Lamott lets drop edgy political commentary that is divisive.

So none of these books would I say “Run and get this book for your library!”  Probably the best book that I read this month was Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, which my sister loaned to me. She posted something about it, but I don’t have time to find her link (add if you like, Betty). It’s a beautiful, but unfinished, story about Paris in WWII, just as the Germans are setting up their occupation there. Nemirovsky was writing about the situation as it was ongoing, but her story reads nothing like autobiography. You crave more after you finish, but you don't want to read it quickly because her writing is lovely. The characters are surprisingly free of antipathy between vanquished and conqueror. In fact, several of the vignettes describe love affairs between the Germans and French. Love grows everywhere, and life persists in the most depressing situations. It’s a beautiful book that you don’t want to end. I'd like to read more of her work. Anybody read anything else by her?

Probably too much info for one post, but I don't have time to edit. I probably won't be reading anything for the next few weeks, as we get settled into our new house and figure out our schooling situation, so I'll be ready to read some recommendations.

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.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fear of Sixteen

I want to note my thanks to you all, for teaching me the words of the daily intention. It did change my life! Because when I first got to "in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father" I had a mean-minded flick of "why should I pray for the Pope's intentions? Can't he pray for his own?" Erk. I'm ashamed to write that, but it really was my first reaction.

Unless you're a prospective convert from an anti-hierarchical, non-episcopalian Protestant schism, you probably could never understand the combined fear, loathing and awe in which the Holy Father is held in such circles.

I well remember watching the televised coverage from St Peter's Square as Benedict XVI's election was announced, and the grudging respect granted this event by the roomful of reformed people I was with. We all knew, I think, that somehow, he stood in some relation to us, that we owed him - something - but we weren't sure what. Also, those Latin numerals inspired the fearsome realization that he has a full fifteen predecessors, and that's just the Benedicts.

So the daily intention worked a small miracle to me. No sooner had the grumble, "why should I?" passed, then it was followed by "Because he's my Father. We're family. And he probably, no, almost certainly, prays for me, as the rawest, oldest, most stiff-necked member of an RCIA group."

So the daily intention laid on my shoulders the beginnings of obedience, that yoke and burden which are, respectively, easy and light.

Thanks, guys.

[wipes grateful tear]


[I promoted this from comment to post, because it's time I had the courage of my convictions.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A New Direction

We seem to not be reading anything.

For everything, a season. I'm wondering what you guys think about making this a place where we can post notes on what we're currently reading rather than choosing a book and reading together.