Did you know that: William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1967, Pulitzer Prize; Sophie’s Choice, 1979, American Book Award; et al.) was able to read at age five and was publishing short stories as an adolescent? Agatha Christie’s first mystery, published in 1920, sold only 2,000 copies? And Mary Higgins Clark’s first book (a biography of George Washington) was an even greater failure (entitled Aspire to the Heavens, it reportedly was mistaken for a religious book and so was mis-shelved in bookstores)? D. H. Lawrence wrote over 5,500 letters, considered by critics to be one of his major literary achievements?
Well, now you do, thanks to About the Author (A Harvest Original/Harcourt, 320p, $17.50, paperback original) edited by Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner, whose previous books have been on computer-related subjects. This is a unique new reference book. The jacketline, in a mouthful, says it all: The Passionate Reader’s Guide to the Authors You Love, Including Things You Never Knew, Juicy Bits You’ll Want to Know, and Hundreds of Ideas for What to Read Next. There are 125 authors profiled, in alphabetical order. Some of your favorites may be here, some may not. For the most part, these are contemporary writers, but happily the book also includes a few classics. Ranging the world of fiction (in all genres) and non-fiction, they include: Isaac Asimov, Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Pat Conroy, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, C. S. Lewis, Alice McDermott, V. S. Naipaul, E. Annie Proulx, Amy Tan, Scott Turow and Evelyn Waugh. It’s a credit to the editors that, in terms of layout and components, each writer is afforded equal time (a double-page spread).
The biographical section is accompanied by educational/family history, photo I.D., etc., which of course is interesting and useful. But there is much more: a Good to Know section, Treatises and Tracts (works about the writer, reading guides, Web sites, et al.), the writer’s complete canon, If You Like [this writer, you may like the works of]..., Best Book to Read First and excerpts from books, reviews, interviews). There’s so much crammed in these pages, it is more than a resource you will keep handy and use many times over. It’s a great read, at a bargain price.
One of the criteria for inclusion in the Glossbrenners’ book is a writer’s staying power. That characteristic is indisputably shared by many of Christendom’s saints, their exemplary lives and their enduring words/writings. Voices of the Saints: A Year of Readings by Bert Ghezzi (Doubleday, xix + 729p, glossary, $29.95, hardcover) serves as an admirable reminder of that. Although both its title and subtitle suggest if not a Devotional at least a Reader (in the traditional sense), the book is neither. Ghezzi, editorial director of Servant Publications and the author of a dozen previous books, has written short lives of 365 saints, arranged alphabetically, each ending with a brief inspirational passage from or about the saint.
Like the book mentioned above, Saints devotes two pages to each entry. Readers will appreciate that in addition to entries on many of the obvious (read: well-known) candidates, there is a good representation of lesser known saints, making it stand apart from other similar works. What is perhaps its most striking feature, though, is that it can be read also as church history. The reader is advised at the end of each entry to Go to... and, later, Go back to.... Another distinctive feature is a Themes section, allowing the reader to pursue his or her interest by topice.g., Avant-Garde Saints, Care of the Sick, Celebration of Discipline, Countercultural Witness, Evangelization, Lights in the Dark Ages, Saints and Politics, Twentysomething Saints, World Historical Saints. There is also a calendar of the saints and a list of sources arranged by saint. A welcome addition to the parish, school or family library.
No doubt a future edition of Ghezzi’s book would include Angelo Roncalli, as Pope Saint John XXIII. In anticipation of his beatification in Rome last month, a number of publishers dusted off and reissued their old John books (such as Journal of a Soul, Image Books/Doubleday, 508p, $14.95, paperback). Some have issued new ones, among which are In My Own Words: Pope John XXIII (Liguori Publications, 112p, $13.95, hardcover) compiled by Anthony Chiffolo, an eclectic compendium of John’s enduring words. Entries are drawn from papal addresses, public statements, personal correspondence and more.
The latest entry in Crossroad’s Lives & Legacies series is Pope John XXIII: A Spiritual Biography (192p, $19.95, hardcover) by the German journalist and theologian Christian Feldman, whose previous books are God’s Gentle Rebels and Mother Teresa: Love Stays. Elected as a caretaker or transitional pope, John XXIII is arguably the most widely beloved pontiff in the modern age, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yes, we’ve read the life beforeperhaps a number of times. But those who want to (re)connect with the spirit of this man whose mark on the church is indelible will pick up a copy of this book. Kudos to the translator, Peter Heinegg, for a text that reads seamlessly. Following the style of other titles in the series, Pope John is written for a general readership. The legacy of the peasant’s son, un grasso, Good Pope John, is the open doors. The memory of the loving kindness of God will remain, Feldman writes. Perhaps, too, a bit of courage for the holy craziness,’ which according to one of his countless bon mots is part of the Church.... The open doors will remain openthe readiness to work together with people who have different beliefs and all men and women of good will’.... With the millennial summit of world leaders in New York City just concluded as of this writing, we especially call to mind the legacy of John XXIII’s open doors and all that that could imply for the world.
For another life of singular grace (dare I say saintliness?), I recommend you read Bamboo Swaying in the Wind: A Survivor’s Story of Faith and Imprisonment in Communist China (Loyola Press, 224p, $21.95, hardcover). Recounted by George Bernard Wong, S.J., to co-author Claudia Devaux, this is an affecting memoir of Father Wong’s more than 25 years’ persecution and incarceration in China for religious beliefs. A convert to Catholicism (Wong’s parents were Buddhists), and a priest at the time of the Communist takeover, he was eventually to be numbered among the many members of the clergy routinely arrested and suppressedwithout benefit of trial.
Like Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. (With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me), Wong was sustained by unshakable faith. Because of the book’s structureeach chapter begins with an overview of the then-current political, social and cultural climateit is a window into religious oppression, Chinese-Catholic relations and the struggle for religious freedom in China. Reflecting on his recent joyful 80th birthday celebration, Wong writes: To laugh or to smile is depicted in written Chinese by the picture of bamboo. It is said that a person rocking with laughter looks like bamboo swaying in the wind.... Such imagery immediately conjures both strength and flexibilityqualities that are essential, it would seem, to survival of spirit. This is an interesting, informative, intelligent and inspiring book.
Continuing on the theme of sanctity, Bernadette Speaks: A Life of Saint Bernadette Soubirous in Her Own Words by René Laurentin, translated by John W. Lynch, S.M., and Ronald DesRosiers, S.M., (Pauline Books & Media, 665p, $24.95, paperback original) is a book worthy of attention. Despite its considerable bulk, it is one of the most approachable saint’s lives I have read in a long time. (Could it just be that I find Bernadette so approachable and appealing, despite the mystery and secrecy that has captivated many scholars?)
The author, a renowned Mariologist who has published many books, began his research on Lourdes in 1952. The present work is the first English-language edition of his monumental study Bernadette Vous Parle, which is based on 30 volumes of research over a period of decades. Divided into four parts, following a chronological schema, and written in an easy, informal narrative formthanks largely to the fluidity of its translationthe book is peppered with direct quotations from just about anyone and everyone in Bernadette’s life, not to mention herself first and foremost. And there are close to 200 illustrations (photos, prints, excerpts from Bernadette’s notebook, etc.), many of which I had never seen before. The key to the book’s approachability, which is the author’s stated objective, is that readers become immersed in life as it was lived a century ago, especially with regard to the life of a particular French family, as well as religious life, without burden of commentary. Such is the role that the book’s final part, Bernadette’s Significance and Relevance Today, seeks to fill.
There is much emphasis on Bernadette’s transparency, her ordinariness, poverty and simplicity. And to a world and time that pays limited attention to words alone (Show me!), Bernadette, living the Gospel through action, speaks tangibly to the 21st century, as the pages of this book make luminously clear. Despite a lifetime of ill health and years of intense suffering, Bernadetteall 4 feet 6 inches of heris a towering (she would probably hate that word!) figure but somehow of our time and place. A familiar story well presented and well told is worth reading over and over. This is one of them.
Another book I recommend you add to your reading list is For Humanity: Reflections of a War Crimes Investigator by Richard J. Goldstone (Yale University Press, 176p, $18.50, paperback original). This is a brisk, candid and informative first-person account that takes the reader behind the scenes of international jurisprudence in the cause of human rightsas in abuses thereof. In 1992 the author, a South African judge, was selected to oversee the commission investigating alleged criminal conduct, especially by security forces, in the wake of apartheid, detailing their efforts to undermine progress. (Since 1994 Goldstone has been a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.)
He recounts the struggles of a fledgling democracy, his often tenuous relationship with the United Nations, the politics of oppression, the birth of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and his experiences as chief prosecutor of the Yugoslavia tribunal in The Hague. Prior to World War II, the subjects of international law were not individuals but nations. Individual human beings had no standing. But the Holocaust changed that.... [T]he London Agreement of 8 August 1945...established the military tribunal at Nuremberg and recognized a new offense: the crime against humanity.’ Goldstone outlines what he considers the lessons to be learned from the war crimes tribunals, and argues for an international criminal court. He writes: It is unacceptable for a political body such as the Security Council to have the power of deciding where humanitarian law will or will not be enforced.... Renegade regimes must not be allowed to ignore the orders of an international court. Goldstone’s book will give readers a clearer handle on the intricacies of world human rights violations and the process of adjudicating them, condensing into digestible pieces the morass of media reportage that often clouds the facts.
Two distinguished new entries in the burgeoning category of literary memoir deserve mention here. They are Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe (Oxford University Press, 125p, $18.95, hardcover) and A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life by Lucia Graves (Counterpoint/Perseus, 288p, $25, hardcover). The citation awarding Achebe the 1996 Campion Award (selected by America’s Catholic Book Club editorial board) opens as follows: If a classic is a book that never finishes saying what it has to say, then Chinua Achebe’s fiction, which continues to speak eloquently to the entire world, deserves to be called classic. His novels chronicle life in his native Nigeria, particularly the struggles of the Igbo people, numbering 10 million, whom the author calls a nation. In this book, Achebe, who is the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., reflects on childhood experiences and the impact of Europe, especially through writers like Joyce Cary, on African culture. Achebe’s passion is not muted when it comes to beliefs and prejudices and the stereotypical depictions of Africans in works such as Cary’s Mister Johnson and the moral as well as intellectual obligations of all storytellers. Though a slim book (it consists of three parts, which originated as a series of lectures at Harvard University), Home and Exile provides substantial food for thought and reflection.
Up until now I was unacquainted with the work of Lucia Graves, the daughter of the poet Robert Graves. But after reading A Woman Unknown, I have added her to my must read list. This memoir is a work of art; it is a fully satisfying read; it is an intercultural exchange of the best and worst kinds. Raised in a mountain village on the island of Majorca in postwar Spain, Graves reminisces with stunning clarity of detail about the people and places and politics of the Franco era. She recounts a strict convent-school education (I was in perpetual anxiety about my salvation). After she has lived for many years in England, a return visit to Spain to be with her hospitalized mother prompts the author’s recollections and observations. As the book’s subtitle indicates, we hear many voices in this memoir, voices of forbearance and strength, voices of rebellion and search, defining voices of commingling cultures, the power of family and the powerful hold of the past. But Ms. Graves’s voice is the most commanding.
A book that does a different sort of looking back is The Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century: Renewing and Reimaging the City of God (A Michael Glazier Book/The Liturgical Press, 240p, $24, paperback original) edited by John Deedy, a noted Catholic journalist and award-winning author (The Catholic Fact Book). Sixteen prominent religious writers consider highlights, watershed moments, failings and successes in the church’s life over the past 100 years, including its marks on the pages of the larger history book. [T]he twentieth century saw changes on matters of large substance as well, Deedy observes in his foreword, changes so great as to put the Church on a different footing entirely with governments and all other religions.
Much of this occurred as the Church shifted ground in its understanding of the relationship of Church and state, of religious freedom, and of the question of salvation outside the Catholic faith. The papacy, priestly ministry, religious life, the American Catholic family, women and the church, Catholic youth, Catholic education, biblical scholarship, ecumenism, social justice, money and the faith, church and state, communications and the arts, spirituality and discipleshipwhere are we, how did we get here and what have we learned?are the areas under thoughtful, expert scrutiny in this solid study. Contributors include Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., Sally Cunneen, David J. O’Brien, Barbara Kraemer, O.S.F., and Bishop Robert F. Morneau (see the accompanying excerpt). Although intended primarily as an overview of the past centuryfocused for the most part, by the way, on the American experiencethere is occasional forward thinking in the book. For example, in her essay, Sisters and Brothers: An Evolved and Evolving Religious Life, the Franciscan sister Barbara Kraemer identifies at least four questions or areas that need to be addressed...for all in the Church who want to see this way of life continue. One of her suggestions calls for a new model of leadership and management that utilizes the principles of subsidiarity and inclusion, but without sacrificing the authority of elected leadership. (FYI: The Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century is a selection of the Catholic Book Club).
For a broader overview, more popular in tone and suited for a young adult audience, you might consider Catholics in America by James T. Fisher (Oxford University Press, 175p, $22, hardcover/paper over board), part of the publisher’s 17-volume series, Religion in American Life. (Other volumes examine the character and dynamics of Judaism, Mormonism, Protestantism, African-American religion and Native-American religion).
In this latest entry, Fisher, who holds the Danforth Chair in Humanities at Saint Louis University, where he is also a professor of history and theological studies, lays emphasis on people and personalities who shaped and sustained the Catholic presence in this country from the New World missionaries to John Carroll, first American Roman Catholic bishop, to the frontier sisters, to the immigrant population, to Flannery O’Connor and on to the present time. The book’s designthere are all types of illustrations: photos, etchings, diagrams and the like, of unequal qualitygives it something of the look and feel of a texbook. Oddly enough, however, these sometimes enhance and animate the text. One political cartoon from 1928, depicting the bigotry displayed against Al Smith during his presidential campaign, could easily be reconfigured for today’s purposes! Interspersed through the book are a few artifacts, so to speak, that I liked very much. Examples: an excerpt on the Eucharist from Isaac Hecker’s 1855 book entitled Questions of the Soul; a humorous essay by Finley Peter Dunne, a renowned 19th-century newspaper columnist, entitled Mr. Dooley on Lent; and the inaugural issue of The Catholic Worker. At the end of the book is a two-page chronology, suggestions for further reading (grouped by particular topics) and an index.
Finally, some suggestions for your holiday buying lists. First, O Holy Night! Masterworks of Christmas Poetry, edited by Johann M. Moser (Sophia Institute Press, 160p, $20, hardcover). This is actually a reissue, with new full-color jacket, of a book that has been out of print for the past couple of years. Moser, a professor of English at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, N.H., has assembled this anthology of over 70 works and arranged them within four parts: The Prince of Peace, A Woman Clothed With the Sun, O Great Mystery!, Bright Star of Jacob. Scripture passages open and close each section. Don’t be misled by the title, however. What we have here is a blend of verse forms, including hymns and antiphons. From the familiar to the lesser known, the classic to the contemporary, the words in this treasury constitute a Christmas canon of fine quality, representing a range of traditions and language origins (Moser did much of the translation himself). Among the selections are works by John Donne, Dante Alighieri, Ben Jonson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southwell, S.J., Lope de Vega, St. Augustine, Charles Péguy, Boris Pasternak and T. S. Eliot. There are three indispensable appendices at the book’s enda chronological listing of works in this collection, titles of additional poems for further reading, additional reading (collections)as well as an index of names, titles and first lines. My only quibble is that there are no illustrations, which would have added to the book’s giftiness. But it’s a wonderful collection nonetheless, that will be appreciated by many kinds of readers in both general and academic circles.
For children, grandchildren or other youngsters on your listand for the child in all of usI happily and confidently recommend Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey written and illustrated by Robert Byrd (Dutton Books, 40p, $15.99, hardcover). A complaining, discouraged donkey who questions why his kind have carried heavy loads on our small backs encounters the patron saint of animals, who through a series of creation stories and revelations, as it were, opens the donkey’s eyes to simple yet profound truths. The climax, of course, is the Nativity story, with the donkey who summoned all his strength to carry Mary to Bethlehem, then stayed nearby to help warm the newborn Jesus with his breath. This is a story about learning acceptance, about recognizing the goodness in all life and, ultimately, a story of healing. Mr. Byrd is an acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator, whose work reflects a profound appreciation of birds and animals and, like his inspiration Francis, respect for nature and all living things. His lush, full-color drawings are absolutely engrossing in their detail. Warning: the book is too large to be a stocking stuffer, so plan ahead!
Finally, Prayers Written at Vailima by Robert Louis Stevenson (Calamus Books, $18.95, hardcover, not paged) is an elegant new edition of the classic book first published 50 years ago. (In fact, it is the 2000 winner of the Rounce & Coffin Award for excellence in book design.) From the moment you open upon the book’s silk endpapers, take the ribbon marker in your fingers and see the finely wrought black-ink illustrations by the award-winning artist Catherine Kanner, you will likely be headed for a quiet corner. It’s a slim book (14 occasional prayers, an introduction by Mrs. Stevenson, 21 drawings) and for many of us a newly discovered treasureif you’ll allow the literary allusionof a popular 19th-century author, and it would make a most unusual and welcome gift. In the tradition of every Samoan household, the day naturally ended in family worship and the singing of hymns. With my husband, writes Mrs. R.L.S., prayer, the direct appeal, was a necessity. When he was happy, he felt impelled to offer thanks for that undeserved joy; when in sorrow, or pain, to call for strength to bear what must be borne. So true is the blurb offered by Stevenson scholar Barry Menikoff: Stevenson’s Prayers are like the line drawings of Matisse or Picasso...a lifetime of thought in an economy of line.