Postage for Pakistan and other parts of the planet

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Brief (!) reviews of books read in 2012

Caesar and Christ by Will Durant. Durant was one of the last century's greatest historians. His treatment of ancient Rome and the dawn of Christianity is not only highly entertaining and informative, it shines a bright light on our current situation. The often amazingly close parallels between what caused the implosion of ancient Rome and things we see happening in our own times are frightening. I would read something in this book, be blown away by it, and post it on Facebook. I did this for several weeks. Pretty soon, I had people writing back, "You're making me want to get this book!" "Do!" I wrote back. It's worth getting. Check on eBay or Amazon or a good used bookstore.

Catherine Tekakwitha by Daniel Sargent. Published in 1937, this book ought to be back in print now that Kateri is a saint. While never engaging in moral equivalency, Sargent went to great lengths to really understand Native American culture and that of the French with whom they interacted. He gives a poignant account of why evangelization proved so difficult and often provoked the sorts of violent reactions that led to the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions. All of this provides the context for St. Kateri's story.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui. The author served as Mao's personal physician from the early 1950s through the chairman's death in 1976. His account of those years leaves the reader with a keen understanding of how tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution occurred. It reveals Mao in all his banality, weakness, and megalomaniacal glory. Interestingly, Li does not make himself a hero. Rather, he shows his own partial complicity in Mao's sins, born of fear for his life, as well as appreciation for the comforts he was afforded and the suffering he knew he could avoid by staying close to Mao. A fascinating read.

The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs, by Gerolamo Fazzini. The title says it all about this sad, compelling, and highly readable book.

Blessings in Disguise, by Alec Guinness. The great actor's biography sent me to my Netflix account to order as many films by him as I could find. He comes off as a decent, likable guy, one whom I'd have liked to have had a beer with. His recounting his conversion to Catholicism is worth the price of admission alone. In parts, it's a little slow and occasionally tedious, but by and large, the book pays off.

Ashenden (or the British Agent), by W. Somerset Maugham. My only familiarity with Maugham before this was The Razor's Edge, and that only because I saw the film version with Bill Murray in the lead role as a high school freshman, and I remember liking it. This novel made me want to read more of Maugham work. Loosely based on his own service as a British spy during World War I, the pace is brisk, and it only gets dull when the author attempts to depict that this is sometimes how the life of an agent is. Reportedly, this book was required reading for British spy trainees for many years.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters. If you like dry, dark, British humor and think mixing that with Jane Austen would be a hoot, then this is your book. I finished it very quickly and often found myself laughing, either at the droll wit of the writer(s) or the incredibly inventive ways the sea monsters of the title find to devour their prey (us humans). My 13-year-old son found it scary (which I didn't see at all). His slightly older brother, however, agreed with my assessment.

Dedication and Leadership, by Douglas Hyde. In 1948, Hyde left his position as editor of London's communist newspaper to enter the Catholic Church. In this book, while he makes clear that Marxism's goals and aims are antithetical to human dignity and the rights of the individual, that's not the focus. Instead, he makes a fairly convincing case for the excellence of communist training methods and how the Church would benefit from them. This is a great book for any pastor, catechist, evangelist, bishop, or anyone in a leadership position who wants to motivate and instill more dedication in those they lead.

Journal of a Soul,by Bl. John XXIII. This book actually took me roughly four years to finish reading. It's a big book! That's all right, though, because I was in no hurry for it to end. It was so loaded with such a treasure trove of gems that I didn't want to simply get through it. The book is comprised of the notes and reflections Pope John made during retreats from his time as a seminarian until his death. It also has the intensely beautiful prayers he composed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady, St. Joseph, and more. The most refreshing thing I found about this truly satisfying work was how closely his own spiritual struggles mirrored my own. That gave me great comfort, because he was a man of obvious holiness. And while he struggled with this or that thing, he kept working to overcome his shortcomings so he could become a saint. Furthermore, he did it all for a truly edifying love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Reading it, therefore gave me hope that if he could overcome his faults, there's a chance for me, as well. If you're a traditionalist who doesn't like Pope John because he called Vatican II or some other reason, don't let that stop you. Remember: He was a holy man, and he will help you become holy, too. You won't regret reading this book. No one will.

Decision Points, by George W. Bush. I thought I'd be more impressed by the book than I was. It's not that it's a bad book or not well written. I guess I was expecting more Peggy Noonan, and this is more pedestrian than that, just like the former President's way of speaking is, I guess (and, no, I'm not making judgments on the intelligence of a man who graduated from Yale and has an MBA from Harvard and won two national elections; far from it). Indeed, his ghost writer got his plain spoken "voice" just perfect. In any case, his memoir does make for interesting reading, and I found myself either better understanding certain things or reconsidering others. It has some humor, and I also liked that he never hesitates to admit fault when he believes such an admittance is warranted. When he doesn't, he explains why. I liked him before. That assessment was confirmed by this book. If you hate him or at least disagreed with most of his decisions, I don't know what impact it will have on you, but I think you will find this worth reading.

The Day Christ Was Born, by Jim Bishop. Bishop was the editor of Catholic Digest back in the 1950s, and I picked this book up at the church rummage sale because I thought it would be as good as hisThe Day Christ Died, which is just magnificent. This book fell short of that mark. It's decent, it's readable, but it's not like his previous work. Still, it did its job, I suppose, in that it provoked some good Advent meditation.

The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich von Hayek. Like the aforementioned Caesar and Christ, this book shines a highly illuminating (and thus often depressing) light on our own times. We have the recipe of what not to do right here, and we did it anyway.

Undaunted Courage,by Stephen Ambrose. This is pure Ambrose. Yes, it's occasionally tedious, and I found myself thinking, “OK, got it. Let's keep moving,” but that's Ambrose. He likes detail, sometimes mind-numbingly so. The payoff is that he often gives you such vivid stories and anecdotes and puts you right there in the action. Not as good as D-Day, but then, what is?

Rewrites: A Memoir,by Neil Simon. I picked up this because it was part of a Reader's Digest anthology that was lying on a table for the taking, along with the aforementioned book by Ambrose, an interesting work on how the minivan saved Chrysler, and a compelling, occasionally gut wrenching, always poignant memoir of an Eastern European woman who lived through World War II (the word "Amber" is in the title, but I can't remember what it is; very interesting book though). Simon largely leaves his politics out and focuses on how various plays that are still in the public lexicon got made and became great hits (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, and others). Simon is a funny man, and that fully comes across in his autobiography. He also is so good at accurately depicting the difficulties writers encounter in putting pen to paper and turning out something that isn't total garbage. The aspect I appreciated most about his story, however, were not these things. Rather, it was the story of his awesome and touching love affair with his wife, Joan, (Spoiler Alert!) whose dying from cancer poignantly closes the book. The way he wrote the final pages, I felt like I was in the quiet limousine with him, his mother-in-law, and two daughters on their way home from the cemetery. He's a master and a great American talent.

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