#Open Book, March 2017

Alicia von Stamwitz has collected Pope Francis’s reflections on on the Blessed Mother in Mother Mary (Franciscan Media, to be released 3/31/2017), in a format ideal for daily prayer prompts and inspiration. Excerpts from the Pope’s homilies, public addresses, and daily Angelus proclamations are divided into six Marian-themed chapters. Even some of the Pope’s tweets are included (surely you’re following @Pontifex).

The collection could be particularly useful in special liturgical seasons, as an aid to periodic prayer throughout the day. This could appear to be a collection for busy people; each quotation takes only a few moments to read. That’s deceptive, though, because under von Stamwitz’s curation, the Pope’s brief reflections draw the reader away from busy-ness. His words inspire contemplation of Mary and her perfect faith in God, inviting the reader to join Our Lady in confident prayer and praise.

Something completely different is onboard my Kindle at the moment: The Ambulance Drivers by James McGrath Morris (Perseus Books Group, Da Capo Press, to be released 3/28/2017), a nonfiction account of the relationships and common experiences of American writers John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. The title refers to their service in World War I, which deeply affected each man. I’m not far into the book but it has already grabbed me. Morris is crafting an appealing blend of biography, literature and history.

Review copies provided by NetGalley.com.

Open Book, January 2017

The first week of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

Not long ago, I was in Boston for a program on Catholic education. Among the speakers was Paul Elie of Georgetown University, of whom I hadn’t heard until that day. As authors are wont to do, he brought a pile of his books for sale and signing, and I’m glad I took the time to visit his table. I picked up a gem, in the form of his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

The Life You Save is a work of spiritual biography, weaving together the lives and vocations of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. All were Catholic writers, although “writer” was not necessarily the principal earthly vocation. No two of them became and remained Catholic via the same path. As Elie writes in the Prologue,

It is in their lives and their work together that their influence is found, and that this telling of their story is meant to explore. Today, as when they were alive, they are representative figures, whose struggles with belief and unbelief are vivid and recognizable. At the same time, as they venture forth together, their story suggests a series of different ways of pilgrimage, with the episodes highlighting patterns that the yearning for religious experience can take, in their time and in ours.

I’m taking my time with The Life You Save. I find myself re-reading passages two or three times, and then reflecting for awhile before reading on.

I was surprised to see that the book was published in 2003. How did I not come across it until now?


During the recent holiday break I treated myself to a much more casual read-it-in-two-sittings novel: Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham. Pure fun.

Graham was one of the Gilmore Girls, a series my daughter and I know line-by-line (including last November’s Netflix sequel). Her name caught my eye in a recent book review of her new memoir. The reviewer mentioned Graham’s earlier novel. Novel? What novel? I went straight for the library shelves and found Someday, Someday, Maybe.

It’s the story of an actress-in-training, or rather in-hoping, trying to break into the business in New York City. She sets herself a six-month deadline to Make It, after which she’s resigned to returning to her home town. The journey as mapped by Graham is hilarious and touching and hopeful.

Open Book, December 2016

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately. 

The recent feast of St. Edmund Campion prompted me to pick up Evelyn Waugh’s Campion biography for the first time in many years. I raved about the book in a post a few days ago. 

I’m wrapping up Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt trilogy with Colonel RooseveltI’ve enjoyed the entire biography. Given Roosevelt’s broad interests, a book about him must cover history and geography as well as politics. Morris wove all the threads together beautifully.

Purchased for my Kindle but unopened as yet: Eric Metaxas’s  Women. I’ve read only a few pieces from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, and I look forward to reading more. I’ve just purchased an e-book version of an old favorite, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and I’ll be glad to immerse myself in that story once again soon.

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Open Book, November 2016

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately. 

Best reading of the past month for me: A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Centurya collection of eulogies written by William F. Buckley, edited by James Rosen. They’d be worth reading for the pure good writing alone. Their substance is the greater treat. Buckley died several years ago without collecting these little gems from his extensive journalistic work, but I doubt he’d find fault with Rosen’s selection. Buckley eulogized loved ones, political figures, and celebrities with a sharp eye and often with a great deal of heart. Whether or not the reader shares Buckley’s political philosophy, this book is a sure delight.

I continue with Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt trilogy. Colonel Roosevelt covers TR’s eventful post-presidential years.

I nibble at other works, finding nonfiction more to my taste than fiction right now. I am involved in politics, so this is a stressful season. Reminders of the long view, both historical and spiritual, are balm to my spirit.

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Open Book, October 2016

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately. 

Theodore Rex was as good as its early chapters promised. I’m impatiently waiting for a copy of Colonel Roosevelt, volume three of this Theodore Roosevelt biography written by Edmund Morris.

I’m fortunate to live only a few minutes away from the offices of Sophia Institute Press, with its extensive catalog of Catholic books. One of their titles recently caught my eye: Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal – a particularly timely topic. I’ll be reading it through most of this month, resolutely ignoring as many political-campaign phone calls as possible. (Are voters in every state assaulted with so many calls? New Hampshire only has four electoral votes. Lord have mercy on the bigger swing states.) The book is a selection of writings by Jacques Maritain, edited by James P. Kelly III, exploring the theme of how Christianity and responsible citizenship go together. This is a welcome subject to me, in the age of personally-opposed-but.

Stark Decency deserves greater fame. New Hampshire readers like me can find it in any local bookstore or library shelf, while the rest of you must trust to online sources. Allen V. Koop’s book about a World War II prison camp in New Hampshire reveals a bit of American history little-known outside my Granite State. In 1944, German POWs were sent to the small upstate town of Stark to cut pulpwood for a local paper mill that faced wartime production demands.In an unlikely place and an unlikely situation, friendships developed between some prisoners and guards, and later between prisoners and townspeople. Koop sets out the story in just over 120 pages, ending with an account of a 1986 reunion at which five former POWs returned to Stark for a celebration of friendship and peace. “Camp Stark did more for people and peace than for pulpwood,” he notes. I love the book’s calm and undramatic style, which suits the story.

While motoring in the north country on New Hampshire highway 110, I once came across the state’s historical marker describing the camp. I’m glad the marker is there, and I’m glad Allen V. Koop wrote the story of what’s behind it.

stark-pow-camp

Marker in Stark, New Hampshire. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

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Banned Books Week: thanks, but I’ll pass

It’s “Banned Books Week.” The American Library Association rolls out this observance every year to “highlight…the value of free and open access to information” and “draw… national attention to the harms of censorship.” As an American who prizes the First Amendment and who writes and reads what she pleases, I suppose I should be all in with the ALA on this. Something here doesn’t pass the sniff test, though.

I’m not all in, for the simple reason that the ALA conflates the banning of books with the challenging of books. 

A government or school agency that prohibits the publication or ownership of a book, and is willing to back up the prohibition with threats of fines or loss of liberty, is in the banning business. Rights of publishers, owners, and readers are denied outright in such a situation.

On the other hand, my right to read isn’t undermined if someone objects to an item on my public library’s shelf. The rights of the kids in my neighborhood aren’t affected if someone challenges the inclusion of one book or another in the local public school’s curriculum. The challengers in those cases aren’t banning a book any more than the people who chose the book for the curriculum or library in the first place were banning alternatives. 

Such challenges might annoy me or amuse me or trigger an eye-roll. What they don’t do is amount to a ban. And that is apparently where I part ways with the estimable folk at the ALA with whom I share deep respect for literacy and the freedom to read.

Something else I respect is the power to question authority, including authorities who select media for libraries and schools. Why this book? Why not that one? What are you teaching? To whom are you offering or denying a platform? 

A community might be discomfited when a book is challenged. Better the challenge, though, than unquestioning acceptance of what the professionals decide ought to be on our school and library shelves.

Yes, people of all ages have a right to read. They also have a right to know that questioning authority does not amount to censorship.

Open Book, September 2016

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

I’ve been re-reading two old favorites from my fiction shelves. It’s pure coincidence that my first #OpenBook entry happens to include two books mentioned by other bloggers last month: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

The first time I encountered A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was about 40 years ago in a Reader’s Digest condensed version for kids (“Best-Loved Books”). “Condensed” makes it sound about as appealing as canned soup, but Smith’s Francie Nolan came to life for me and sent me hurrying to the library for the full novel in its unedited glory. A book about a child, yet not a children’s story, it has drawn me into Francie’s Brooklyn of 1912 over and over again.

Each time I re-read this book, I’m struck anew at how such a rich, moving story is conveyed in thoroughly unsentimental prose. Fair warning: at whatever age you pick up the book, the characters and what their creator calls their thin invisible steel will not let you walk away easily.

And then there’s Brede, Rumer Godden’s story about a Benedictine monastery and the delayed religious vocation of a forty-something woman. Reading it now, I see texture and depth that I missed when I first picked up the book as a teenager. And for heaven’s sake, if you come across the TV movie made from the book ages ago, turn it off and pick up the book.

Where my recent fiction reading has brought me back to familiar ground, I’m discovering a lot of nonfiction that’s new to me. After reading Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt a few months ago, I’m now well into Theodore RexThe second book can stand on its own, but it’s best appreciated after reading the first volume. Next stop will be volume 3, covering Roosevelt’s post-Presidential years.

I’ve read plenty by C.S. Lewis and a little by G.K. Chesterton, but this is the first time I’ve opened Mere Christianity and The Everlasting Man. I’m feeding my inner poli sci grad with Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. With the possible exception of Mere Christianity (much of which is based on a series of radio broadcasts), none of these lends itself to reading-by-nibbles. Giving these books the time they deserve means cutting back on screen time, except of course with my trusty Kindle – and the fact that I find that a bit wearing startles me.

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