Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Another new blog -- Sci Fi!

At the top of this page, underneath the title banner you'll find a new tab called "My new sci-fi blog, Sancta Futura." Click it and you will be whisked to the new blog, which will chronicle my venture into the world of writing science fiction (from a Christian point of view) during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

They say if you want to build readership these days, you have find a marketing niche and, believe me, there is no smaller niche than Christian science fiction. I think the time has come! What do you think?

Flannery O'Connor and the Overwhelming Power of Grace

I had a friend who used to say, "Sometimes God gives you a sign, sometimes BILLBOARDS!" Flannery O'Connor is famous for saying that her characters were so colorful (critics like to call them "grotesque") because you have to draw large pictures for the blind and shout at the deaf: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." I'll admit that, fascinated as I was with her work when I first began to read it, I was often puzzled as to what was going on. I remember waking up in the dark hours of the night, years after first reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find," with a sudden understanding of what the Misfit meant when he said, "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

For anyone similarly puzzled, my advice is to read "Revelation," which probably makes clearer than any of her other stories just what Flannery is up to. If I'd read that one before I read "A Good Man is Hard to Find," maybe my sleep wouldn't have been disturbed at 3 a.m. years later. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps I had to learn something about the nature of Grace before I could get over being blind and deaf to what O'Connor was going on about. The great thing about her stories is that they fascinate even those who haven't a clue about God or His grace or how it operates in the soul. Such readers will remember her strange characters and puzzle over their behavior, perhaps until one night God bonks them on the head and shouts, "Wake up, dummy!"

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Snippets: Flannery O'Connor and Catholic Social Teaching.

Wow, Sunday again already? I've been busy this week getting my new blog, the Catholic Reading Project, up and running. (Well, that and trying to find an assisted living place for my father.) So my contributions to this blog have been rather meager: a post on a reading method that will help you make sense of all different kinds of written works, and one on some books by and about Flannery O'Connor that I recommend. I've got plenty of posts in the development stage, though, and will publish them as soon as I get time. Meanwhile, if you are at all interested in Catholic Social Teaching (and, by golly, you should be!), take a look at the new blog and consider joining us!

And, oh yeah, by request, I've added a little more info to my online profile, in case you're interested. If you'd like to know what some other Catholic bloggers have been doing this week, don't forget to take a look at Sunday Snippets -- A Catholic Carnival.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

UPDATED: My Friend, Mary Flannery

Mary Flannery O'Connor first communion
Mary Flannery O'Connor
First Holy Communion
Is it weird to be friends with someone who died years before you ever heard of them? Not if you believe in the Communion of the Saints, I guess. At any rate, since I first read any of her work, way back in my college days, I've thought of Flannery O'Connor as a friend I never got a chance to meet. Since then, I've come to know her better and I'm just sure that in Heaven we will be best buddies. I can imagine us laughing at each other's jokes (dry wit, our specialty) and completing each others' sentences -- you know, when we aren't discussing theology or doing imitations of our country cousins.

I don't suppose it really is too weird to look forward to great conversations after death, especially with those we never got a chance to meet in this life. Our local public radio station at Christmastime -- or the politically-correct "holiday season" -- likes to ask local luminaries who they would invite to their "dream dinner party." The rules of the game are that you can pick anyone, living or dead, to invite, and you are supposed to think about which combination of guests would create the most interesting conversations. (Inevitably, when I listen to these show I think "yuck, why invite that guy? I could come up with a much better guest list.")

Socrates, you know, when he had been sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians, as punishment for making the local bigwigs and know-it-alls look like a bunch of chumps and thereby setting a bad example for young people, wagged his finger at the jury and said, "I know you guys think you've done something really mean to me by condemning me to death, but I don't see it that way. No one knows exactly what death is like but it is either the Big Sleep that never ends (and who doesn't love a nice, long dreamless sleep?) or it's a chance to have endless conversations with all the wise and interesting people who have died before you." That was Socrates' idea of heaven -- one long, interesting conversation among wise people.

Flannery O'Connor student cartoon
Flannery O'Connor cartoon
"Oh, well, I can always be
a Ph.D."

Although I hope to meet my friend, Mary Flannery, in Heaven and share some good times (the best!), I've had fun getting to know her through her writing and her friends' accounts of her. Here are some books I can recommend.

Her Works

Collected Works (The Library of America), selected and edited by Flannery's good friend and literary executrix, Sally Fitzgerald. 

This is the book to get if you want to get up to speed on Flannery O'Connor quickly. It includes all her short stories, both her novels, and a goodly selection of her essays and personal correspondence. If you are unfamiliar with her work, start with the short stories -- I recommend "Revelation" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" as quintessential O'Connor stories, but don't stop there. This is one of those books that I'd want to have if I were stranded on a desert isle.
 
Flannery O'Connor
Flannery in college (?)

The Habit of Being , letters edited and with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald. 

If you know anything about Flannery O'Connor, you probably know that she suffered from lupus, a disease which eventually killed her at age thirty-nine; it also forced her to give up her independent life and move back to Georgia to live with her mother, with whom she shared a tense, if devoted, relationship. Since she couldn't get out much, she became a prolific correspondent, with friends, strangers, and admirers alike. These letters give a wonderful sense of her personality, which was witty, generous, and self-deprecating.
 

Biographies of Flannery O'Connor

Between these two books, you'll have almost everything Flannery O'Connor ever wrote that has appeared in print, with the exception of some book reviews she used to write for her diocesan newspaper. But you'll want to know more, which means you'll want to read biographies of her. Be warned, most biographies reveal more about the biographer than the biographee. Here are some that I have read and not absolutely hated.

Flannery O'Connor looking glamourous
My favorite "Glamoury" O'Connor

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor , by Brad Gooch. 

Gooch obviously is a great admirer of my friend Flannery, but he doesn't quite get her -- which was probably also true of the men who actually knew her. Gooch is very interested in such men (there were only a couple, and O'Connor's relationships with them never really developed into romances), so his discussion of the two or three young men who were close to Flannery adds something that you won't get from her own letters (at least not the ones that Sally Fitzgerald saw fit to publish). Gooch has a tendency to see O'Connor's stories as fictional elaborations of incidents in her real life, which at times seemed to me a bit of a stretch. Flannery would have HATED the suggestion that she wrote her own life into the stories. Read my full review here on Library Thing.
 
She hated posing for photos.
This is actually four biographies rolled into one: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. I'll let Elie explain why he combines all these:
"Taken together, their stories are told as episodes in a recent chapter of American religious history, in which four Catholics of rare sophistication overcame the narowness of the Church and the suspicions of the culture to achieve a distinctly American Catholic outlook. [In other words, the AmChurch perspective.]
 "All of that is true and worth knowing. This book, though, will take a slightly different approach, setting out to tell their four stories as one, albeit one with four points of origin and points of view. It is, or is meant to be, the narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge; it is a story of readers and writers -- of four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise."
Does that make sense to you? It didn't make much sense to me and, when I bought this book, I just read the Flannery bits (and a few of the Walker Percy bits) and skipped Merton and Day altogether, because they weren't what I was interested in. This method worked pretty well to produce a stand-alone bio of Flannery. These four different lives didn't actually intersect in any significant way -- i.e., although they were aware of one another and perhaps interested in each other in an academic way, they were not consciously working out any shared agenda, other than being well-known Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century. I may go back and read the Percy, Merton, and Day bits one of these days to see what Elie thought he could make of them, all put together.

Flannery O'Connor self-portrait w/pheasant
It's been a couple of years since I read The Life You Save etc., but I recall that Elie had a tendency to rank his biographees on various hot-button social and political issues, a practice that I find tedious and tendentious. "Where did Flannery O'Connor stand in matters of race?" he asks. "The black characters in O'Connor's fiction are invariably admirable ... [y]et at the same time there is the word 'nigger' running through the correspondence." You can tell that Elie did not grow up in the South, or he would know that what is now referred to as "the N word" was used universally in the South before the Civil Rights movement in the '60s, and was not necessarily  derogatory. It was culturally neutral, if rather uncouth. (When I was a child in the South, about the time Flannery O'Connor was dying of lupus, I was taught that "colored" was the polite term.) Anyway, why can't Elie just describe Flannery, rather than judging her? Let her life speak for itself.
 

The Abbess of Andalusia - Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey , by Lorraine V. Murray.

I'll admit I haven't actually read much of this yet. I bought it a couple of years ago, toward the end of a long, intense bout of Flanneryism, and got distracted before I got too far into it (no fault of Murray's book). After reading the Gooch and Elie bios, I wanted to read something that gave due, and sympathetic, attention to Flannery's deep Catholic faith -- this book is certainly that. Murray apparently tries to show that Flannery, although a very "human" person with her share of sharp edges, nonetheless was deeply spiritual, and was sanctified through her suffering. Murray does not make a plaster saint of her, but she does acknowledge that Flannery was became saintly.
If she is declared a saint, then let her be a saint sitting next to Regina [her mother] in the pew at Sacred Heart church, blanching at the St. Patrick's Day decorations. Let her be a saint gazing with equal parts piety and irony at the pilgrims of Lourdes, dreading the moment of bathing in the grotto. Let her be a saint who laughs so loud that books fall from her hands. Let her be a saint from whose pen stampede the wild-eyed Hazel Motes, the lumbering Hulga, the dazed Mrs. Turpin. Let her be a saint in the same way that Thérèse was -- in her own "human and terrible greatness."
I'm looking forward to hanging out with Saint Flannery in the Big Conversation of Eternity.
----------

UPDATE

----------
The Terrible Speed of Mercy, by Jonathan Rogers
Since writing this post, I have downloaded a Kindle sample of a new "spiritual biography" of Flannery, called The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor , by Jonathan Rogers. The sample includes the Introduction, and a page or two of the first chapter. Judging from the introduction, I'd say this looks promising -- i.e., I think Rogers "gets" Flannery. I'm not sure exactly how he's going to approach her life, though, because he acknowledges:
No amount of poking around in the external events and facts of her life is going to get at the heart of her. There’s no accounting for Flannery O’Connor in those terms. Thankfully we have her letters, which provide windows into an inner life where whole worlds orbited and collided.

The outward constraints that O’Connor accepted and ultimately cultivated made room for an interior world as spacious and various as the heavens themselves. Her natural curiosity was harnessed and directed by an astonishing intellectual and spiritual rigor. She read voraciously, from the ancients to contemporary Catholic theologians to periodicals to novels. She once referred to herself as a “hillbilly Thomist.” She was joking, but the phrase turns out to be helpful. The raw material of her fiction was the lowest common denominator of American culture, but the sensibility that shaped the hillbilly raw material into art shared more in common with Thomas Aquinas and the other great minds of the Catholic tradition than with any practitioner of American letters, high or low.
 I expect I'll wind up buying this one. When I've read it, as well as Lorraine Murray's The Abbess of Andalusia, I'll write a review of them. Watch this space!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Learn to read intelligently, even when you are out of your depth

Child reading Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book
My experience teaching college taught me that most college students are poorly equipped to read on their own (most of them don't read at all, unless you hold a gun to their heads, as I've pointed out before), by which I mean that they don't know how to make sense of what scholars call "primary texts" (works as they are actually written, rather than works as they are digested and described by others -- such as textbooks). To help my students learn to read primary texts from any of a number of fields (e.g., I regularly taught philosophical and theological works in my Humanities classes), I developed a 4-step method for understanding, analyzing, and evaluating works of all sorts. From time to time, a student would tell me, in a tone of amazement, that this method had helped them read books and articles for their other classes. (They were amazed the method worked, I was amazed that they'd actually tried it and noticed that it worked.)

Now over on the Catholic Reading Project web site, I'm going to be reading and discussing (hopefully in the company of others -- how about you?) a series of magisterial documents of the Catholic Church, and it just so happens that I am no expert on the subject, and I imagine that most of those who drop in on the project or even follow along regularly are going to be no more expert than I. For this reason, I've posted my 4-step method over there, in hopes that it will encourage people who might otherwise be intimidated by the idea of reading documents that were not written for general lay readers. If you enjoy reading serious works, but wonder if you're really getting out of them what you should, you should click the link above and take a look at the method. Then let me know what you think!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sunday Snippets: Year of Faith

The new Year of Faith was definitely my theme this past week, with a couple of posts about my new online Catholic Reading Project, and a feature on the catechism study package from Logos Bible Software. I'm so busy lately that I have trouble reading as much as I would like, so I'm going to start posting book reviews based on Kindle samples -- most of my book selections these days start out with reading the downloadable Kindle sample of the book. I've found you can tell a lot from the sample -- probably more than from flipping through a physical book in a book store -- and since I'm doing lots of "sampling," I may as well let others get the benefit of my experience.

If you'd like to know what other Catholic bloggers are up to these days, don't forget to take a look at the Sunday Snippets round-up

Saturday, October 20, 2012

UPDATE on Year of Faith Reading Project

I have launched a new site for the Year of Faith Reading Project I mentioned in a recent post. Now if you click the tab at the top of this page, you will automatically be redirected to the new site (you will leave this blog and go there). I don't have any way to make the redirection open in a new window, but you can try right-clicking the link and selecting "open in new tab/window."

Please consider joining this "virtual reading group" by subscribing to (or "following") the new blog. The more people who join the better. See you there!


Friday, October 19, 2012

Logos Software offers great resource for studying the Catechism in the Year of Faith (and beyond!)

The Year of Faith that officially began last week calls Catholics to reacquaint themselves with (or perhaps enter more deeply into) the Faith they profess, in order to live it more effectively and to present a more compelling witness to the love of Christ for the world. Reflecting on this, I realized that there will probably be lots of people using the Catechism to systematically review the Catholic faith. Sure, lots of Catholics own a copy of the Catechism and perhaps even pull it out from time to time as a reference to clarify the Church’s teaching on one point or another, but probably few have tried to read it cover-to-cover. Many parishes around the country have, in the last few years, used the Why Catholic? Program to re-catechize the adult faithful, a program which is based on the Catechism and follows its organization (i.e., fleshing out the tenets of the Nicene Creed). My experience with Why Catholic, however, was not very encouraging – there was too little of the Catechism and too much of the usual touchy-feely rubbish that has contributed to the current “crisis of faith” throughout the Church: “This week reflect on how the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is meaningful in your everyday life, then list three reasons why you feel more sparkly-special just knowing that God is Three in One.” Blech.

Back when the “new” Catechism was actually new, Ignatius Press brought out The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: A Compendium of Texts Referred to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church Including an Addendum -- a collection of the texts of all the passages from various Scriptures and patristic works referred to in the footnotes of the Catechism. I loved this, because most readers of the Catechism, like myself, are not going to have at hand the huge library of Catholic reference works you would need to understand all the footnotes, so most people would just skip over the notes as not being that important. However, the whole reason the footnotes are included in the Catechism is to show that the Church is “not just making this stuff up” when it comes to official doctrine, but rather the Catechism is simply a new enunciation of truths that Christians have held all along for, now, two thousand years. The notes show the sources of particular statements and explanations in the Catechism, and root the Catechism in Christian tradition all the way back to the first written expression of the Faith in the Bible and early Church Fathers. (By the way, this Companion to the Catechism is now available for Kindle.)

Unfortunately, even though I have the Companion, I have seldom used it. For one thing, it is physically unwieldy, even bulkier than the Catechism itself and, then again, I find it somewhat disorienting to read passages (even lengthy passages) lifted out of the context of the documents from which they were taken. (I am a big proponent of reading things in context, to avoid misunderstanding.) In those days, the terms “hypertext” or “hyperlink” were still unknown to all but the geekiest of computer nerds, but if I had known what hyperlinks were, I would have known that that’s what I was wishing the Companion provided – a link to the specific passage a note referred to, in the place where it actually occurs in the original source.

Well, now, just in time for the Year of Faith, the Logos Bible Software company has produced an inexpensive version of exactly what people like me have been wanting (perhaps without knowing it) since the new Catechism first came out back in 1994. You may be familiar with Logos as the company that, for nearly twenty years now, has offered Bible study software that allows Scripture scholars, students, and enthusiasts to study the Bible with hyperlinks to different translations and commentaries. They’ve expanded their offerings enormously over the years, with lots of add-on libraries, and have perfected a system for connecting related texts and allowing readers to switch between them with ease. I’ve known about Logos for about fifteen years and admired their product but, frankly, it’s always been too expensive for me (the entry-level base package costs around $250) – it’s been one of those things on my “if I ever have money to spare” list. So I was delighted when, a couple of months back during the Catholic New Media conference, I saw a demo of a new, inexpensive ($49.95) stand-alone package designed just for Catholics – in fact, the Logos rep I spoke to said that this package was created specifically in response to the Holy Father’s call for Catholic entrepreneurs to find ways to use the new media and new technologies in the service of the Church, and brought into production in time for the Year of Faith.

All these works are included in Logos' Catechism software package.

Here are all the works included in this package:

Watch the video here to get an idea how this software works. I like the fact that you can add your own notes. This software is available for Windows, Mac, and smart devices such as iPhone or Android tablets (although how you’d use it on a tiny iPhone screen beats me). If you buy this Catechism package and fall in love with the Logos system, you can later purchase one of the regular Logos base packages and use this Catechism bundle with the larger system. (I believe this is not true of other Logos bundles, which are essentially just plug-ins or add-ons to the base packages and won’t work without the base.)

As an aside -- I was drooling looking over the software specs just now and thinking, “Hey! Logos software does for the Bible and the Catechism what the Perseus Project does for classical literature – but the Perseus Project does it online, for free.” I’ve been in love with the Perseus Project for years, ever since, as a graduate student, I took a course in Latin Historians as an independent study. The Perseus Project has huge libraries of classical-era Greek and Latin works, as well as English translations of most of them, and allows you easily to flip back and forth between the original text and English translation, or to click on a particular word to check its meaning and morphology. In other words, the Perseus Project has much of the same kind of functionality as the Logos Bible system. And, as I find out by perusing the Logos Software channel on YouTube, the Logos folk also recognized the similarity, so they now offer a free Perseus collection add-on, which allows users of the Bible software to include the classics collection in word searches. Here’s a video that shows how this works:


Okay, enough of the scholar-geekery. My point is that Logos Software has made available to ordinary Catholics a fantastic tool for studying the Catechism, in the context of the Catholic teaching tradition, for a very reasonable price. For fifty bucks, you get a wonderful library of Catholic reference works AND a superb software system for discovering the connections amongst these works. If you haven’t yet settled on a personal plan for improving your grasp of Catholic teaching in this Year of Faith, here is a great place to start.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

New Reading Project for the Year of Faith

Pope Benedict XVI
In his apostolic letter, Porta Fidei, announcing the new Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI said:
It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, but it is often openly denied. Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people.
The Holy Father goes on to say that the Year of Faith is intended to help Catholics overcome this "profound crisis of faith," because
What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, and capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life, life without end.
Accordingly, from now until next October, 2013, Catholics around the world will be taking up the Pope's invitation to reacquaint themselves with the Faith they profess, perhaps by studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church or, for those already well-instructed in the faith, by deepening their appreciation for their Catholic faith through spiritual reading, prayer, and other means.

The Year of Faith coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council and is intended, in part, to remind us of the great call of that Council for the Church -- all the Church, including the laity -- to find new and compelling ways to present the Gospel of Christ to the modern world, which is desperately in need of the grace and salvation that Christ offers. Sadly, the past fifty years have witnessed a great falling away from the Faith by many Catholics, and those who remain actively involved in the life of the Church are often poorly educated in the Faith they profess; hence, the call for this Year of Faith.

We've already seen many signs that the re-evangelizing of the Faithful has already begun, and we can certainly see many signs that, each day, our world seems more desperately to be in need of the Truth and Life that are in Christ. Sometimes it seems as if the world today is spinning in a moral vacuum, and certainly in many places the Christian faith is being suppressed or at least margninalized. This is especially sad, as Christianity offers real solutions to the many problems of our modern, increasingly secularized world.

pope Leo XIII
Pope Leo XIII, author
of Rerum Novarum
In the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII prophetically foresaw that the solutions the world proposed to the rising problems of the modern age were not solutions at all but new problems in themselves, and, for the first time, a pope wrote an encyclical addressed to the world at large rather than to the Faithful alone. This encyclical was Rerum Novarum, a document which proposed Christian principles as the remedy to problems caused by both industrialism and the rise of socialism. It became the founding document of Catholic social doctrine. Ever since Leo promulgated Rerum Novarum in 1892, succeeding popes have continued to address the ways in which social and economic developments both challenge Christians and cry out for the saving remedy that can be obtained only from Christ, the Great Physician, and his Church.

I thought it would be a good idea, in this new Year of Faith, for Catholics to acquaint (or reacquaint) themselves with the documents that provide the sources of Catholic social doctrine, to see what a succession of popes, and the Second Vatican Council, have had to say about the ways in which the Catholic faith speaks to the problems of the modern world. Toward this end, I am initiating a special reading project for the Year of Faith, a "virtual reading group" that will read and discuss online many of the documents that the Church has provided over the past hundred years or so to help Christians better understand what we have to offer the troubled modern world.

I invite everyone interested to learn more -- by clicking on the tab at the top of this page labeled "Year of Faith Reading Project" -- and to join me in reading and discussing these documents. I hope to get the project underway within a week or so. Let me know if you are interested, or if you have questions or suggestions.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival

Sunday Snippets
Those of you who like reading Catholic blogs of whatever sort should take a look at Sunday Snippets -- A Catholic Carnival, on the blog This, That, and the Other Thing, by another Catholic book blogger, RAnn. There you'll find a round-up of the week's posts from a variety of Catholic bloggers. I've already found a new one I like, TV for Catholics.

This past week I posted On Film Adaptations of Beloved Works of Literature and announced that you can now subscribe to this blog on Kindle, but then I collapsed under a terrific head cold. Unfortunately, when I can't breathe, I can't think either, so that was all the writing I did for the week. I'm glad to be breathing pretty freely today and back in the saddle!

Review: Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes Her Début

Catholic Philosopher Chick

One of the things I want to do for the newly begun Year of Faith is write more reviews of books by Catholic authors. Today’s selection is a book that I’ve just read and really enjoyed, but I almost didn’t read it. Rebecca Bratten Weiss, co-author of Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes Her Début (double-billed with Regina Doman), was a classmate of mine in the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas, and when I saw on Facebook that she had a new novel published I immediately downloaded the Kindle sample from Amazon. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking at some of the featured reader comments on the Amazon web site, one of which was, “Highly recommend to anyone searching for an clever addition to the so called chick lit genre, or anyone who needs a quick brush up on philosophy!” It wasn’t the “brush up on philosophy” remark that put me off (actually, that was one of the features that interested me!), but the “clever addition to chick lit” crack. 

As far as I know, I’ve never read anything that could be called “chick lit,” and didn’t really want to, but I was interested to see what Rebecca (quite a clever chick herself) had come up with. But I must have been feeling irritable the day I began to read the sample – I was already wary because of the “clever chick lit” label and the first page or two seemed to validate my impression that this book would be flip and superficial, so I quit reading and deleted the sample. I was glad that Rebecca had written a fun novel and glad that some people enjoyed reading it, but didn’t feel I needed to be one of them. That was my mistake.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt guilty for jumping ship so quickly from Catholic Philosopher Chick, so when I’m glad that I recently saw this review on the First Things blog I was quickly persuaded to download the full Kindle edition and get reading.

Part of the fun for me in the novel was recognizing people and places I know first-hand. Although the story is set on the campus of the fictional Dominican University of Houston, it is clearly modeled, in large part, on the University of Dallas where Rebecca and I were graduate students together. Cate Frank, the protagonist – a Jewish Catholic convert who has abandoned a career in fashion journalism in New York to pursue a doctorate in philosophy in Texas – shares a lot of biographical points with the novel’s two authors, and the faculty and students of Dominican U certainly reminded me of particular individuals I’ve known personally, as well as evoking “types” that will be recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time on a university campus. Catelyn’s ill-matched on-campus roommate, a bubble-brained bimbette with little interest in academics or intellectuals, reminded me of the girl I got matched up with my first semester in college (ooh, painful memories I’d thought long buried!).

The young men in Cate’s seminar on the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas (the “Suminar”) also reminded me potently of classmates from both my bouts of grad school experience – proud of themselves for being able to sling the jargon of their academic specialty, but really not nearly as wise or knowledgeable as they pretended to be. (As a grad student, I shared Catelyn’s delight in popping their bubbles of pomposity and pretension.)
If this novel had simply allowed me to laugh at the (sometimes painful) memories it evokes, however, that really wouldn’t be reason for me to recommend the book to others who might not share those memories.

Fortunately, this novel has a lot more going for it than just being an in-joke for readers who can figure out which U.D. philosophy professor resembles the fictional Dr. Paul Hastings, teacher of the Suminar. The story is built on themes that many college and graduate school students have struggled with, particularly intelligent, intellectually-inclined young women: trying to figure out where your life is headed and why, wanting to make your parents see that a “useless” academic degree is worth sacrificing some of life’s pleasures to pursue, juggling the balance of academics and romance, struggling to see how Truth, Beauty, and Goodness intersect in the messiness of our real, mundane lives.

The major theme that runs through the whole story is the question of a woman’s place in the world. As the first and only female in the “invitation only” Aquinas seminar, from the first day Catelyn finds herself battling to win respect from her male classmates; at the same time, she is hoping to find “Mr. Right.”
Finally! I had escaped. I had fled the frenetic rat-race of the Eastern seaboard and come, like a modern-day hermitess, to the Texan desert, in search of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful…
OKAY! I admit it! And the Perfect Guy!
At 24, I was already starting to feel like an old maid. With no dates in two years I was beginning to wonder anxiously if perhaps God had other plans for me. Yikes! Still, I continued to hope brazenly that God had that Special Someone in store. Preferably before I turned 30.
Perhaps it was pretentious of me to expect I would find the Perfect Guy while studying philosophy at the Dominican University of Houston. One does not usually associate the words “Philosophy” and “Perfect Guy.” But then again, one would not normally associate “Young Jewish Catholic Woman” and “Lover of Saint Thomas Aquinas” either. Yet here I was.
I had left my fashion magazine job—given up the world of Dior dresses and Louboutin shoes—to devote myself to the writings of a thirteenth-century monk. But I liked to think of myself as a post-modern penitent, snatched from the fires of Cosmopolitan and caught up to something higher and purer.
As you can see, Catelyn is a bundle of inner conflict, but by the end of the novel – after plenty of false starts and wrong turns -- she has triumphed in both her pursuits, to make her mark as a Catholic Philosopher Chick and to find the perfect guy.

Two of my favorite things in this novel were (1) the clever (mostly Latin) title names for the chapters (even if you don’t know Latin, some of them will be familiar) and (2) the scene early in the story when Catelyn analyzes the possibility that the Perfect Guy might actually be one of the students in her Suminar class, using St Thomas Aquinas’s famous dialectic method. (Very funny for anyone the least bit familiar with the Summa, but also amusing to the uninitiated.) This scene nicely illustrates Cate’s struggle to find a real-life application for the theoretical wisdom she is amassing.

I’ll admit that I found the frequent references to Catelyn’s designer clothes and shoes a bit tedious, but they did remind me of how I, too, once sweated over the details of self-presentation in any social situation. Lots of other female readers, not yet as dowdy and middle-aged as I, will be more entertained by the protagonist’s fashion consciousness. My only other mild beef with the story is the character of Nat the nihilist, who is more of a “type” than an individual. I can understand how his type needed to be represented in the cast of characters, but he seemed little more than a prop. I was secretly hoping that, by the end of the story, he would have begun to see the light, or at least in some way have been changed by his time at Dominican U. Still, neither of these complaints would dissuade me from reading (or re-reading) this smart and funny novel.

I don't know if the Catholic Philosopher Chick will be making a return, but I'm sure many readers hope she does. A prequel detailing how she came to be a Jewish Catholic convert interested in Aquinas would also be an interesting tale.

By the way, although this is Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s first novel, her co-author, Regina Doman, already has quite a few titles to her name. Many readers will be familiar with her best-selling children’s picture book, Angel in the Waters. (Click here to read Angel in the Waters online.) She has also published a string of novels for teens, based on well-known fairy tales, updated. Find out more about them all on the Chesterton Press web site.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

New! Subscribe to this blog via Kindle

If you hate reading things on computer screens (or dinky little smart phone displays), you might like to know that you can now subscribe to this blog, A Catholic Reader, via Kindle. If you have a Kindle, you can either click the hyperlink in the previous sentence to sign up on the Amazon web site, or select the "Shop the Kindle Store" menu option on your Kindle and then type in "a catholic reader" in the search bar. There is a small fee of 99 cents per month to have the blog delivered to your Kindle reader, but you can try it for 14 days at no charge. You'll get automatic updates each time a new article is posted. I have tried it, and find it much easier to read. The images download as well as the text, if you care about that sort of thing.

One nice thing about subscribing to blogs via Kindle is that if you press the center of your five-way button (on Kindles that have one), you get an article list with the title of each post (and image, if there is one), making it easy to navigate from one article to the next. Give it a try, and let me know how you like it!

Monday, October 8, 2012

On Film Adaptations of Beloved Works of Literature


Bilbo and Dwarves, The Hobbit
Still of Bilbo and dwarves, from P. Jackson's
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels of Middle Earth are waiting anxiously for the premiere of Peter Jackson's new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which will cover the first part of Tolkien's famous novel about Bilbo Baggins's taking off from his comfortable life in Hobbiton to travel with a band of dwarves bent on retrieving a bunch of treasure from a dragon. I use the term “anxiously” advisedly, as many Tolkien purists were not entirely happy with Jackson’s massive three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s even-more-massive novel, Lord of the Rings, and are worried that he'll similarly distort this story of a beloved Hobbit, as well. As a Tolkien admirer myself, I must admit that, while I have greatly enjoyed Jackson’s films about the One Ring and the humble hobbit tasked with destroying it (the extended editions, not the truncated versions that aired in cinemas), I was somewhat put out that the films distorted or obscured many of the themes found in the novel.  (I insist on thinking of Lord of the Rings as Tolkien conceived it, a single story; only the tale’s great length caused it to be published serially in three separate volumes. Probably it should not even be called a novel, but a romance or a saga.)

Arwen Evenstar in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings
Arwen Evenstar
in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films
However, as a student of the Western literary tradition, I have long since learned that great stories get handed down by being retold in succeeding generations; each new telling brings out something different, making an old story new again. The whole history of the Western literary tradition – at least, up to the invention of the modern novel – bears witness to this fact.

Unfortunately, in Hollywood, even not-so-great and lousy stories get re-told ad nauseum these days, presumably because screenwriters aren’t aware of the truly great, time-tested tales, having been “educated” in universities where the classics of literature have been abandoned and where no one actually reads anymore. (Here endeth the rant, before it is even begun. Another day, perhaps.)

At any rate, whenever I find myself watching a film version of some greatly loved literary work, I have learned to stuff the student of literature back into a dark corner of my mind so that the film enthusiast can enjoy herself. I tell myself that Peter Jackson the filmmaker, creating cinematic versions of Tolkien’s tales, are rather like Mallory or Tennyson reworking the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I would not reject Mallory’s version of Lancelot as an illegitimate appropriation of Chrétien’s original, so perhaps I should not begrudge Jackson’s giving Arwen Evenstar the role of an Amazonian action star or accuse Jackson of failing to appreciate the true thematic depths of Tolkien’s stories. I can convince myself that “different” is not necessarily “inferior.”

The End of the Affair 1955 film
1955 film, a good adaptation of
Graham Greene's novel.
Of course, sometimes “different” really is “inferior.” I remember being truly enraged at the way the 1999 film version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair had completely missed the unmissable theme at the heart of the novel (without which it became meaningless). I probably should have simply skipped this “filmization” starring Ralph Fiennes, because it made me unwilling to watch film versions of beloved books for several years thereafter. I must add that the 1955 film version of this novel, which came out just a few years after The End of the Affair was published, managed to convey the book’s central theme adequately, while still providing enough romantic tension to satisfy those who cared nothing about meaningful themes and bought tickets only to see Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr in a clinch. (What? You haven’t read The End of the Affair? Don’t worry, it’s never too late. Find a cheap second-hand copy and start reading! Then get back to me if you still don’t understand what it’s all about. As a hint, I’ll just say that it is not simply about a love affair that ended too soon.) 

I was shocked recently when one of my friends, whose literary taste and perspicacity has always seemed reliable, said she had quite enjoyed the 1999 film version of The End of the Affair. She was surprised that I had truly hated it. (Our conversation, alas, was cut short before I couldn't explain while I thought the film was such an awful distortion of the novel.) This has led me to wonder: Is there any criterion for judging a film based on a novel, qua adaptation, to be “good”? 

still from Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois
Still from Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois
My first thought is that we might adapt the criterion for judging books “good” that C. S. Lewis set out in his An Experiment in Criticism. I would say that a good adaptation would have to constitute an intelligent, perceptive reading of its literary original. That is, in order to be deemed a “good” adaptation, the film would succeed in bringing out or developing some important theme that can be found in the literary original in such a way as to enrich – or at least ratify – an intelligent reading of the original, even if it has to alter or truncate the novel’s plot or characters to be cinematically effective. A truly “great” film adaptation would go even further, illuminating the story in such a way that a re-reading of the literary original would be enriched for having seen the film, perhaps bringing out nuances that had escaped the reader’s notice upon the first reading. I suggest that, according to this criterion, Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, a film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval/The Story of the Grail, is a great adaptation, although it does not even touch upon the Gawain strand of the narrative, which occupies about one third of the romance’s total length. My reading of Chretien’s romance, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, was probably changed forever, and for the better, once I had seen Rohmer’s film.

On the other hand, if the film fails to bring out literary themes faithfully, no matter how closely it follows the original plot points or characters, it is a “bad” adaptation. Notice that this is quite different from saying that it is a bad film qua film. It’s possible, for instance, that the 1999 film, The End of the Affair, is of passable quality as a movie qua movie (I recuse myself from trying to judge it on these grounds) while being a truly execrable film adaptation qua adaptation (which is still my assessment, although I’m planning to re-watch both the 1955 and 1999 films, to see if my opinion still holds).

At any rate, it is a truly intrepid (or, sometimes, ignorant) filmmaker who dares to make a screen version of a beloved literary work. Fortunately, Peter Jackson is a great storyteller for the big screen, so I’m willing to bet that his Hobbit films will be more than worth the ticket price, even if it does turn out that he has deviated from Tolkien’s story in some significant way. The fact that he is splitting the novel, to create two films, suggests that he did not want to leave out a single interesting detail. (I turn a deaf ear to the cynics who suggest that he simply wants to milk the Tolkien cash cow for all it is worth.) I certainly am looking to seeing the new film.

By the way, if you are one of those people who like seeing film adaptations of literary works (or discovering that a film you’ve enjoyed is based on a book you’ve never read), you should take a look at Movies for Booklovers, a section of a larger web site called The Greatest Literature ofAll Time which lists and reviews film versions of great literary works. Meanwhile, anyone who both loves Tolkien’s The Hobbit and is looking forward to the Peter Jackson film might think twice before re-reading the novel before seeing the movie. Try to enjoy the movie for what it is before comparing it to the book that Tolkien wrote. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that it succeeds both as a movie and as a film adaptation of a beloved literary work.

What do you think about film adaptations of your favorite stories? Love 'em, hate 'em? Click "comment" and chime in.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Found it on Kindle Blogs: Reading Clive Cussler

This is a new feature I'm adding: reviews of blogs that you can subscribe to via Kindle. I've been subscribing to the daily Kindle feed of the National Catholic Register for almost as long as I've had my Kindle (includes Register columnists's blogs and news stories that are available for free on their website), but hadn't really started sampling other blogs via Kindle until recently. Since I can try each one for free for 14 days, I thought I would sample some and, if I like them, cancel my Kindle subscription and just read the blogs online for free.

Clive Cussler
Clive Cussler, maritime
adventurer, prolific author
The first one I'll mention just called out to me because, as I've said before, I enjoy Clive Cussler's novels, even though they are formulaic (in fact, Cussler apparently just outlines the books, then has various "co-authors" write the actual novels). Anyway, the idea that someone wanted to annotate Cussler's books just caught my fancy. The blog is called, simply, Reading Clive Cussler, and its author (who calls herself The Thunder Child) is a woman after my own heart. Since each Cussler novel involves some legendary figure, article, or place from the distant past, and many contemporary readers are so poorly versed in history, art, and legend, the Thunder Child is probably performing a useful service in providing annotations on references to things arcane and unusual. I suspect, though, that she simply likes having an excuse to do a little quick research on such things and parsing out which references are based in fact and which are pure fiction.

Here's a sampling of the things she clears up for Cussler's readers:
  • From Spartan Gold: Balaclava train station 
  • From Pacific Vortex: the Merchant Marine 
  • From The Chase: Mesozoic Sea 
  • From Trojan Odyssey: Caltech (California Institute of Technology)
  • From Spartan Gold: Napoleon's Reserve Army
Thunder Child has been adding to this blog with some frequency for about a year, and has only touched on three or four of Cussler's many dozens of novels. At this rate, she'll be writing for the rest of her life, if she just keeps working through his bibliography. If she stays with  it, I hope she'll add an index so that readers can easily pull up all references from a particular title. On the other hand, her blogger profile lists dozens of blogs that she writes, with such varied titles as Interlock: The Jigsaw Puzzle Blog, Collecting Amelia Earhart, The Bible Reader, and The Bug Blog, so I suspect that Cussler does not have her full attention.

Anyway, Reading Clive Cussler is fun to dip into. I'm just a little jealous that someone else got the idea before I did.

Friday, October 5, 2012

More Free Catholic Books, from CatholiCity.com

These days, with the proliferation of ebooks, many of us are figuratively wading through heaps of free books. Twenty years ago, however, when the Mary Foundation and Saint Jude Media began giving away books, people thought they were crazy. Of course, Saint Jude Media was giving away actual, physical books, so there was considerable cost involved: typsetting, printing, binding, shipping and handling. Nonetheless, their books (also CDs) were available for free, although they did ask for a donation. I was heartened to see recently that they are still at it, on their CatholiCity web site.

CatholiCity.com is an apostolate dedicated to feeding the minds and edifying the souls of ordinary Catholics. On the website, there is a wealth of resources that serve this end: a number of talks on the Sacraments and the rosary, which can be ordered on CD, downloaded as podcasts, or listened to online; links to the latest Catholic news and commentary, prayers, devotions, the Baltimore Catechism, the new Catechism in "simplified" form, and lots more. If you are Catholic, or just interested in what the Catholic Church teaches and believes, you should take a look at this web site, and take advantage of the free information available there.

I haven't yet mentioned my favorite things from Saint Jude Media, three free Catholic novels (paperbacks, not ebooks) by Bud Macfarlane Jr.:
  • Pierced by a Sword, recommended by Michael O'Brien, author of Father Elijah, who says: 
Get ready for a journey of epic proportions--rather, cosmic proportions. This book is a little treasure, a marvel. This is an adventure, a comedy, a tragedy, a turbulent odyssey and a peaceful stroll. Most of all, this is a love story like no other I have ever read. A new kind of love story.
  • Conceived without Sin, recommended by Thomas W. Case, author of Moonie Buddhist Catholic, who says:
One strange and wonderful thing about Bud Macfarlane's storytelling is that his people are so loved by the author that they grab you and hold you. This novel is plainly a story of love and marriage and friendship and conversion. Supernatural forces weave in and out, as they must do in real stories of the faith.
  • House of Gold, recommended by John D. O'Brien, editor of Conceived Without Sin and Father Elijah, who says:
You won't read a more timeless novel than House of Gold -- even if you are reading it one hundred years after it was first published. It offers suffering. I know that sounds strange, but you will love the suffering inside its pages. It's honest, authentic, gut-wrenching. It's real. I believe this is Bud Macfarlane's best work. It offers the Cross. Can you take it?
 I read all of these years ago (late 1990s) when they first came out, and enjoyed them all. They have "sold" well (someone is paying for them, because Bud Macfarlane couldn't have afforded to get more than 700,000 copies into print on his own), and reader reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads are very positive. I'm glad to see that they are available in Kindle editions for just $2.00. I wish I'd known that a couple of weeks ago (it is not mentioned on the CatholicCity.com website), because I recently acquired new copies of the paperbacks. I love having my books in the Amazon cloud, and these are big, fat novels (more than 550 pages each) that take up a lot of space. Still, I know I won't have any trouble finding friends to pass them on to; I might even recommend them to my book club for our 2013 line-up.

I won't say too much about these novels now, because it's been years since I read them and I don't remember them well, except to say that I enjoyed them. However, I will review them here as I read them. Meanwhile, if you have read them and want to offer your thoughts, please click the comment link below!