Sunday, October 2, 2011

Reading Roundup

I think I last wrote about books in April?! Oh, my. When I was in college, one of my professors talked about his goal of reading a book a week. I have probably averaged something close to that over my life - but that includes a lot of junk reading. Rather than talk about all of the books I've read over the last few months, I'll mention the ones that I really want to recommend.

First up is Pat Conroy's South of Broad. I would say this about the guy: you either love his books or you hate them, but either way you're passionate about them. Conroy writes about violence - physical, emotional, verbal - and he writes about it from the perspective of someone who has survived a lot of it. I remember reading The Prince of Tides and thinking that I would never have to write about my father because Conroy already had. Let me clarify that: my father was not as violent or as deeply contorted as the father in that novel, but so much of the basic bent of the father was familiar to me, and the ways in which the various characters in the novel responded to the father showed me different ways of moving forward in my life. Each time I read a Conroy novel, I encounter a different way of coping and understand more about how adults keep from giving in to the darkness within.

South of Broad is very much about adults trying to live integrated lives despite difficult beginnings and tough times. I read the novel in a long caffeine-fueled weekend, and then kept going back to various sections and re-reading for the sheer pleasure of it all. The scene depicting the conclusion of the high school championship game contains one of the most beautifully written paragraphs I have ever read in my life. When my book club got together, I insisted on reading that paragraph out loud just to hear the melodious language. Sigh!!

My parish started a book club this summer, and the first book up was Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son, a meditation on Rembrandt's painting and the biblical parable. This is a little short book that looks as though it would be a quick read. There is so much deep thought on each page that it took me a week to get through its 140 pages. I kept stopping, walking around, and thinking through what I had read. If your spiritual life needs a bump-up, this would not be a bad place to start.

The next book on the parish's book club list is Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. I read this book the first time in my mid-20s, and it was one of the things that pushed me into really looking into religious life. At our discussion the other evening about the first half of the book (we're reading the second half for the end of October), the discussion leader told us that this book, published in the late 1940s, propelled thousands of young Catholics into seminaries, convents, and monasteries. It is the story of a young man born to a pair of artists, who both died young. He grew up on Long Island, in the south of France, and in England. He was mentored by various relatives and family friends. One is struck by how very ordinary he is, despite the extraordinary circumstances of his life. I am looking forward to reading the rest of this book.

In between these various books, I read Karen Armstrong's A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A good friend has been urging me for several years to read this book, and, oh, my gosh! What a great book this is! This is not a casual read, even though I ended up putting myself on a 40-page-a-day schedule for 10 days. I decided to treat it as assigned reading for a class. This may have been a mistake, but I'm a pretty monogamous reader - one book at a time - so I dangled a Ruth Rendell mystery novel on a stick at the back of the Armstrong book and kept working toward my reward.

Armstrong's 400-page book is well written, densely packed with information, explanations, and cross-references, and has a powerful narrative structure that sweeps the reader along. She shows us what is going on in the Fertile Crescent, pulling in concurrent events in the Indian subcontinent as appropriate, moving the centers of the various dramas to the north and west as the story goes along. The book is structured along a pretty rigid historical timeline - that is, she treats the issues of the seventh century CE in each of the major traditions within a chapter or two of each other, with none of the three main story lines getting too far ahead.

As far as I can tell, she is scrupulously fair to the traditions and the issues raised. I've done a fair amount of reading and study elsewhere around the issues related to the church councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon; her descriptions of those issues, setting of the historical framework, and demonstrations of the consequences of the various actions rang true with what I have learned elsewhere. This helped me trust the rest of her narrative. The book has been out for nearly 20 years, but it feels fresh and relevant in setting the various traditions within their cultural and historical contexts.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about the book with one of the priests at my parish and I told him, "There's no way I could have handled this book in my 30s. I needed to get the perspective of my 40s in order to see the broader picture." This is the man to whom I went a year ago in the summer and said, "I'm not sure how much longer I can remain a Catholic." His response was that I should continue to move in the directions that give me life and perhaps give myself some space in which to not know the answers. As I read this book I realized that every question I've had about various doctrines and every odd idea I've ever had has been asked or spoken aloud by other people. Armstrong dissects the various arguments within the traditions, shows the positions held by folks on each side, and shows how the issues played out over time. When I reached the end of the book, I understood that my own tradition is based on a whole series of consensus positions around which people have coalesced. I have long appreciated the fact that in Catholicism there are few black-white / right-wrong positions. There's an endless series of "you may be right" statements. Armstrong's book very much reflects this understanding.

If you are looking for a quick and easy read espousing a particular view of the three great monotheistic traditions, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a deeply researched, carefully nuanced, well analyzed description of the major movements, thinkers, and doctrines within the traditions, get this book and read it thoroughly.

And, now, the cutie picture of the posting - Hubby Dearest wearing his new scarf - he selected the length, approved the yarn and the pattern, and cheered on the making.

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