May Books

Most of what I read this month was eleventy billion pages of Crime and Punishment, if you must know, but I did make it through these guys:

The Moonlight School by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Synopsis: It’s 1911 and Lucy Wilson is looking for a fresh start when she arrives in rural Kentucky to work for her strong-willed, charismatic cousin Cora Wilson Stewart, superintendent of schools. She carries her own grief and guilt, and along with it, her prejudices against the mountain people she encounters.

I was not prepared for this book — somehow I didn’t realize it was Christian fiction, a genre I don’t usually read, although it did remind me pleasantly of reading Christy as a teen, and I guess that is also inspirational fiction? At first I found passages too cloying, but I was drawn in by the fascinating culture Fisher was describing. The plot felt a bit stilted, as we don’t even get to the creation of the Moonlight School (a chance for illiterate adults to gain some education) until quite late in the book, with an extraneous thread of romance and the solving of a mystery I found both too neat and kind of…heavy-handed. That’s a lot of complaints, but I liked it. Send me more book recommendations about adult literacy and/or Appalachia!

None Other Gods by Robert Hugh Benson

Synopsis: Frank Guiseley walks away from Cambridge, his inheritance and his family when he enters the Catholic church. Instead, he takes to the roads of England, feeling out his faith and encountering all kinds of people in his rambles through the Edwardian countryside as he undergoes a sort of purification.

Why do I get high and mighty about Christian fiction and then make glaring exceptions for books like this? Because I, like you, contain multitudes, dear reader. In my very first trip to a bookstore after becoming fully vaccinated, I stumbled upon this book and another of Robert Hugh Benson’s books at the neighborhood used bookstore and got very, very excited, then plowed through this on a romantic swampside anniversary trip. (Multitudes, I tell you.) RHB was a name I’d heard bandied about, and he definitely carries echoes of many other authors I love, especially Chesterton, and some of his settings and humorous details feel very Evelyn Waugh. There are more lyrical descriptions, especially of nature, than in those others, though, which help lighten the serious trajectory of Guiseley’s life. Read more about Benson’s short but extraordinary life here — I’m looking forward to trying the other book of his I scooped up, too.

Takeaway Passage:

“Religion doesn’t seem to me a thing like Art or Music, in which you can take refuge. It either covers everything, or it isn’t religion. Religion never has seemed to me (I don’t know if I’m wrong) one thing, like other things, so that you can change about and back again. It’s either the background and foreground all in one, or it’s a kind of game. It’s either true, or it’s a pretense.”

Seven Tiny Book Reviews

In writing my year-end writeup of everything I’ve read, I realized there were a few titles I wanted to revisit with you. Have you tried any of them yourself? What did you think?

  1. A Quiet Life in the Country: Lady Hardcastle and her lady’s maid Flo have retired to the countryside after a life of high adventure at the turn of the century, but things in their new hamlet are not as quiet as they seem. This cozy mystery has deeply delightful banter but I just didn’t care about the mechanics of the storyline, and the only characters with any depth were the two main characters. I almost liked them enough to try another in the series, but I doubt I’ll bother — at least as an audiobook, where it’s particularly difficult to focus on plot details.
  2. Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope: I’ve never read anything else by her, because her name seems ridiculous and her covers are always kind of frivolous and embarrassing. BUT ARE THEY ALL THIS GOOD? For more of my thoughts, check out my year-end reading post.
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces: Ok, so I’m glad to read this one — a bad Catholic book club pick if ever there were one — but I definitely wouldn’t have made it through if the group weren’t led by a medievalist who loved it and whose taste I trust. I just hate the earthiness of medieval stuff, which I think is one of the reasons I struggle with Dante. I know I’m supposed to laugh but I’m grossed out and that makes me feel like a prude which makes me mad. So: knowing that John Kennedy Toole loved Flannery O’Connor helped me through the book, and it ending with some hope and mercy helped a bit, but I’m not sure I’d be able to recommend the book, overall.
  4. The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s: When I was in high school, I believed I was laidback (!!). Later, my boyfriend pointed out that I’m only competitive in arenas where I think I can win, and now I look back and see the marks of perfectionism all over my childhood. I still struggle today, and I often refer back to a favorite line from Anne Lamott: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.” Colleen Carroll Campbell urges us in this book to be gentle with ourselves, to accept God’s love, to trust, to deliberately and diligently root out all the places in our lives where we grasp for control and grow harsh in our striving. A must-read for any ambitious Ravenclaw Catholic.
  5. Underground Airlines: I loved Ben Winter’s Last Policeman series and was fascinated by the premise of this book. This is an America where the Civil War was settled differently, and slavery maintained in certain Deep South states, and here, Victor, an escaped slave, has made a deal with the devil to catch escaping slaves on behalf of the US government. I thought the plot grew convoluted, though, and I thought the optimism of the end and setup for a sequel were both a bit clunky. I don’t think I’ll read any subsequent books in the series.
  6. Waiting for Tom Hanks: Another kind of embarrassing one that I ended up enjoying. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the cringiness of romantic tension, and the self-aware references to favorite films like You’ve Got Mail certainly helped. The plot itself was fairly improbable (as per the genre) and a bit given to wish fulfillment and neat endings, but the characters were relatable and I really loved how — as in movies like the aforementioned YGM and Notting Hill — the community surrounding the protagonists had warmth and color.
  7. Marilla of Green Gables: I didn’t love this one. I felt like the author was imposing too much on the character, refusing to accept her for the rigid but warm person she is in the canon and instead inserting a lot of anachronistic social justice stuff like so many period dramas, which rush to make every character espouse the most progressive views, regardless of their social context.

Bad Catholic Book Club (Good Catholics Welcome)

So, I’ve mentioned it on Instagram, but this semester I’m running a book club for college students I’d tentatively called the Bad Catholic Book Club. Thing is, it would seem college kids find this term scandalous — that it implies that they, in fact, are bad Catholics. (But we all are, right?!) So Haley suggested the title Christ-Haunted Novelist Book Club, and while some students now suspect we only read spooky stories, we’ve stuck with that less scandalous name.

But let’s talk about scandal, especially in our reading lives.Read More »

Commonplace Book, 24

packing and holiday chores with toddler help

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Cinnamon ornaments: Not for eating, though Scout has tried her darnedest. We made these one afternoon with Pippin while Scout slept off her second cold of the winter. He loves cinnamon, and is an indifferent eater, and I loved that I didn’t have to swoop in and be precise about measurements since these aren’t after all, edible. (Dog biscuits are also great in this regard for toddler/preschool baking projects.)
  • TELL ME YOUR INSTANT POT RECIPES. I just got one, and I have big plans to make four-minute rice this evening, but after that, I’m kind of at a loss. Please advise!

What I’m reading:

  • Sorting Jane Austen Characters Into Hogwarts Houses: The Definitive Guide: made my nerd heart glow and caused legit LOLs more than once. Seriously, though — Henry Crawford is definitely a Slytherin, right? (Also, we started to talk Anne characters in the comments and “basically Ron in puffed sleeves” will now be my new catchphrase.)
  • Uganda Police Arrest “Separatist” Tribal King’s PM: This was our tribe in Uganda when we lived there in 2008-9, and we saw the king a time or two at the cathedral, flanked by his blockbuster-about-Africa-scary-sunglassed guards. The tribe has a fraught history with the rest of the nation — I try to explain it as sort of the hill people of Uganda, politically alienated, disadvantaged, comparatively fundamentalist and poorly educated, but the situation is further strained by the tribe being split across the border with DRC. I definitely don’t understand everything (much!) about the situation, but it doesn’t sound good.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I started and quit this once before, but listening to the audiobook is going much better. (J’s read it before, and I refuse to have him read something I haven’t. Except pure philosophy. Also geometry of any kind.) After having just read those monk picture books for co op, it’s fun to continue steeping myself in monastic culture, albeit post apocalyptic rather than medieval:

Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flame of knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible—that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection

Sometimes, of course, it feels like we really are in an age that is rejecting reason. (Also, this passage seemed a better choice than my true favorite, “Bless me, Father. I ate a lizard”…!)

  • In This House of Brede. Not very far in, and loving it, despite Godden’s kind of hyphen-y style. More religious life! And just coincidence, since it’s something my parents got me off my Amazon wish list for my birthday. But so far it’s such a gentle, peaceful book for sleepy, firelit Advent evenings.

Happy Advent, y’all!