I’ve been on a bit of a fiction bender this month. I didn’t get to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, but I did read three novels and a memoirish collection of essays and some spiritual reading and it’s my list, so there. 😉
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This is my new favorite contemporary novel. It’s so, so good. I returned my library copy and immediately purchased a copy to make my husband read it. I’ve also been harassing my BFF to read it, stat. I need discussion partners here, people.
It’s so well written and has so many layers that I don’t even know where to begin. I won’t do a plot summary, because there’s 9 million of those out there. This is a good one. Instead, let’s talk about some of the brilliance of the book.
Tartt is Catholic, and the book is rich with Scriptural and Catholic imagery. In a beautiful use of language, she describes the 17th century masterpiece, The Goldfinch, as the “slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone.”
Throughout, there is a quiet Noah’s Ark theme that I really want to spend more time thinking about because it is so subtle. When Theo, the protagonist, is in New York, it is always raining. Hobie’s house- Theo’s safe haven- is described using ship imagery, and his antique Noah’s Ark set makes several appearances. Conversely, when Theo is in Vegas, it is a desert both in the literal sense and in a spiritual sense. Vegas is where he becomes a functional alcoholic and drug addict.
But, she isn’t heavy handed about it. Her novel isn’t a vehicle to deliver religious doctrines. There is nothing, seriously nothing worse than poorly written fiction that beats the reader over the head with some religious truth, forcing the characters and plot to demonstrate theological doctrines in a painfully unnatural way. It’s like the book version of cheesy Christian movies with bad writing, bad acting, and bad sets. Just, ugh.
There’s so much to think about with this book. I’m planning to reread it in a few months once it’s had a chance to settle and then I will revisit it.
The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
I wanted to love this one after hearing rave reviews, but it fell a bit flat for me. In fairness, The Goldfinch is a hard act to follow and this doesn’t even begin to approach the sophistication, plot, or writing of The Goldfinch. But it just sort of felt like chick-lit with a Thomist-Distributist-BenOp agenda.
It was too heavy-handed for me. Instead of letting the story make the point, Fenollera really belabors the point(s). It’s not the points themselves that are objectionable. She touches on many of the same themes that Lewis and Chesterton wrote on, but without the light touch and biting wit.
That said, it does have some very funny dialogue:
“‘I used to think I possessed a sensibility from another century. I was convinced I’d been born at the wrong time and that was why vulgarity, ugliness, lack of delicacy, all bothered me so much. I thought I was longing for a beauty that no longer existed, from an era that one fine day bade us farewell and disappeared.’
‘Now I’m working for someone who effectively lives immersed in another century, and it’s made me realize that that was not what my problem was.’”
“‘Don’t worry, Prudencia. No man can convert himself or another by the power of will alone. We’re second causes, remember? Hard as we might try, the initiative isn’t ours.’
‘I’m not a Thomist,’ she said abruptly, annoyed at feeling that she’d exposed her fears.
Astonished, he looked at her much as a father would at a daughter who’d just boasted of not being able to read.
‘That, Miss Prim, is your big problem.’”
I know I said I was annoyed by the heavy-handedness but come on, that’s pretty funny.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Kent is a beautiful writer, and a talented storyteller. Burial Rites is based on real-life events and is meticulously researched, but is a fictionalized account.
Set in Iceland, this novel reminded me of Kristin Lavransdatter in many ways. Kristin takes place in Norway, but there are so many cultural similarities. There is of course the shared architecture of homes with one central room that serves as the dining, living, and sleeping area for everyone- master, servants, and children. There’s also the deeply ingrained cultural tendency to revert to the old pagan understanding of the world (spells, evil eyes, etc.) despite living in a society that had become Christian.
I was struck by the ability of people to survive in such a harsh landscape, the constant struggle for life to prevail and it’s tenuous foothold.
Agnes Magnusdottir is the protagonist, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes is a real person, so Kent did not choose her name, but she does a skillful job of drawing out themes of the sacrificial lamb to shed light on the person of Agnes.
Mercy- or a lack thereof- is another predominant theme.
‘And that is how you came to be an urchin,’ Toti said.
She…looked up at him through the darkness. ‘That is how I came to be a pauper. Left to the mercy of others, whether they had any or no.’
Her entire life, mercy has been in short supply for Agnes and little changes towards the end of her life. The events that lead to her conviction for murder take place at a remote farm, so far north it is practically the end of the world. Agnes is driven (and also, lured) to that far flung outpost by a lack of mercy, love, and compassion. The barbarism of mercilessness in general and the death penalty in particular stand out in Burial Rites, but Kent makes the point subtly through the story, without lecturing the reader.
The Virtues by Pope Benedict XVI
Okay, so when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, many of his shorter and unrelated works (like essays, homilies, etc.) were compiled into books, presumably because they sold well after his elevation. And yes, the writings themselves are brilliant, lucid, and packed with insight. However. It’s kind of like someone stuck a bunch of unrelated treasures in a bag and said, “BEHOLD.” The treasures are still treasures, but it’s such a mess that they’re difficult to appreciate.
That’s what happened here. Lots of excerpts from Spe Salvi and other writings that I’ve read in their entirety. And they are truly treasures, but the format is too disjointed for me. I think this would work well as a paragraph-a-day type reading. But I’m a choleric so you know, I don’t do a paragraph a day.
Stumble: Virtue, Vice and the Space Between by Heather King
I’ve read a lot of Heather King’s books and I am always drawn to her brutal honesty, self-deprecation, and wry humor. As I was reading this one, I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. Now that I’m done, though, I find myself thinking of various stories from this book throughout my day. The anecdotes are so well written, they stick in the mind because you just know the people she describes. I see my own weaknesses in her descriptions of her own. King is a gifted storyteller- she knows how to tell you the story of what happened last Tuesday and make it engaging and captivating- and you all know I’m all. about. the story.
Addiction and Virtue by Kent Dunnington
I already wrote a whole post about this book, so I’m not planning on rehashing that here. TL;DR version: I found Dunnington’s assessment of addiction as a prophetic critique of modern society’s isolationist, consumerist tendencies to be a useful framework and I enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of this book.
Up next, for March:
The Light Between Oceans
Jesus of Nazareth, Part I
Ronald Reagan (I will probably forgo this one to tackle After Virtue. We’ll see.)