Read any good books lately?

U.S. Catholic editors work with words for a living, but they also spend a lot of their free time curled up with good books. Here’s a peek at some published picks from the people who put out this magazine.

CathyCathy O’Connell-Cahill, Senior editor
Reading mysteries is a wonderful (not to mention cheap) way to take a world tour. Having enjoyed past trips with Tony Hillerman and Robert B. Parker, this summer I went to Venice courtesy of Donna Leon, in the company of Guido Brunetti, her Venetian police commissario: competent, compassionate, a loving husband, and father of a teenaged boy and girl. Tragic cases take their toll on him.

“How much longer can you do this, Guido?” asks his wife as he investigates the death of a military cadet the same age as their son, in Uniform Justice (Atlantic Monthly Press). When crossing the Grand Canal one day Brunetti finds himself wondering, “How had he got to the point where he could look on such beauty and not be shaken?” Venice itself is a welcome co-star in these stories.

In Hugo Hamilton’s poignant The Speckled People (Fourth Estate), subtitled “a memoir of a half-Irish childhood,” the author, born in 1953 to an Irish father and German mother, comes home one day to report, to their mother’s horror, that the local Irish boys have christened him “Eichmann” and his brother “Hitler.” A gripping, honest, funny look at how a real family bears up under its own history.

Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here (Anchor), pens the latest in the Crown Journeys series: Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago (Crown). Kotlowitz tells the stories of a handful of ordinary Chicagoans, each of them a hero in his or her own particular quirky fashion. Dave Boyle agitates for justice in rowdy Cicero, despite having his garage firebombed. Albanian immigrant and café owner Ramazan Celikoski grouches but extends credit to the Hispanic day laborers in Albany Park (less than a mile from where I live). It’s good to find a book that perfectly catches the spirit of my favorite city.

heidiHeidi Schlumpf, Managing editor
It was my mother who first fostered my love of reading, so it’s fitting that the best book I read this past summer was one she passed on to me. I wasn’t so optimistic when she first plugged it because a friend was mentioned in it. And the title, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Harcourt) sounded more like a doctoral dissertation than a great beach read. But the cover photo of two farmers and an Orthodox Jew was intriguing, so I gave it a chance.

The story about a group of Hasidic Jews who open a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville (pop. 1,465), an ailing Iowa farm town, and how both the townspeople and the outsiders try to come to terms with one another, is more fascinating than it sounds. Former reporter and journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom tells the tale as if it’s a novel, and he works in his own religious struggles without making them obtrusive. I read this book right after I moved into a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and was having to come to terms with being an outsider myself. Bloom helped me and gave me even more to think about.

As editor of the Spirituality Café department, I’m constantly on the lookout for books with bits of spiritual wisdom to excerpt for that page. One that has become filled with lots of underlining and stars in the margins is Joan Chittister’s new memoir, Called to Question (Rowman & Littlefield).

Although the prolific Chittister has written many inspirational words over the years, this book may be her most personal, as it includes excerpts from her own journal. As usual, she is not afraid to tackle the tough subjects, including women’s issues. In the end, this spiritual memoir is not only the story of how Chittister discovered that she was “called to question,” but a prompting for all of us to discover that vocation within ourselves as well.

meinradMeinrad Scherer-Emunds, Editorial director
What was the worst-ever disaster involving the sinking of a passenger ship? Most people assume the answer must be the Titanic. Until Günter Grass’ most recent novel Crabwalk (Harvest), even in Germany very few people had ever heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise ship overloaded with German refugees that was torpedoed by a Russian submarine toward the end of World War II. When the Gustloff sank on Jan. 30, 1945, an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 people—about five to six times as many people as on the Titanic—died in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea. Most of them were women and children, uprooted and displaced by the war and fleeing the advance of the Russian Army.

Grass, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is one of my favorite novelists. In Crabwalk he pursues a sometimes dizzying array of stories, historical events and personalities, family relationships, German current events, and philosophical and moral arguments around the honest reckoning with history, human dignity, and evil. But in the end he weaves these many disparate narrative threads into a compelling and gripping story. Considerably shorter than some of his epic works like The Tin Drum, The Flounder, or The Rat, Crabwalk would be a great introduction for anyone interested in getting to know this highly influential and frequently controversial German writer.

A new annual book series is starting out with a bang. Brian Doyle, one of today’s finest Catholic essayists and no stranger to U.S. Catholic readers, is the brains and the editor behind the just-published first installment of The Best Catholic Writing (Loyola Press). For the 2004 inaugural edition Doyle has collected exquisite writing and takes the reader on a far-flung journey through a wonderfully broad spectrum of the Catholic experience—from lovemaking to grief to Catholic schools, from walking to Alzheimer’s to grace, from Catholic rituals to poetry and Latin, from friendship to AIDS ministry to 9/11, and from Jesus to Dorothy Day and Harry Potter. It will come as no surprise that in this particular anthology—gleaned from periodicals and books published in 2002—the clergy sex abuse crisis features prominently with three entries.

Although it’s off to a great start, I would suggest two improvements for future editions: To shorten the lapse between the first publication date and the reprinting in this series and to expand the scope of diversity by paying more attention to the Hispanic, African American, and Asian American Catholic experience.

Tara Dix, Assistant editor
Over the past few years, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, CNN, and National Public Radio has established himself as the foremost in-the-know reporter at the Vatican. Countless other media outlets go to him for the inside scoop and analysis of activities within the walls of the Roman Catholic Church’s world headquarters.

All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (Doubleday) is a primer on understanding the workings of an institution often characterized as mysterious and secretive. Allen gives the lowdown on who wields influence, how decisions get made, and who’s climbing the ecclesiastical ladder to the top of St. Peter’s. There are some great stories that illustrate the quirky personality (and personalities) as well as the majesty of Rome.

If it seems to you that the ocean between America and Rome is getting wider by the day, this will be an interesting read—both to understand how we differ and how we remain universal.

The Sunday Independent of London described Round Ireland with a Fridge (Ebury Press) best when it said the book is “far too hilarious to read alone in a public place.” Luckily I don’t embarrass easily because I read this on the train to work and laughed out loud plenty, attracting lots of curious stares from my fellow commuters.

The plot of this true story centers on—you guessed it—a refrigerator. Tony Hawks, a London comedian, takes a bet from a friend that he cannot hitchhike the circumference of Ireland within 30 days carrying a small refrigerator. As he makes his way from town to town, he becomes something of a folk hero when a national radio program starts following his travels, and by the time he reaches Dublin they’ve arranged a parade to welcome him. As one observer remarks on his quest, “It’s a totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.”

Father John Molyneux, C.M.F., Editor
A fellow Irish American in my religious community recently handed me Alice McDermott’s novel Charming Billy (Dell) and said, “Read this—you will know these people.” When I finished it, I recommended it to my siblings and said, “It’s about our family!” Mostly set in Queens, New York, not far from where I grew up, Charming Billy took me back to the Lefferts Boulevard el station and Gertz department store on Jamaica Avenue—places I hadn’t thought about for a while.

But you don’t have to be Irish American or from Queens to thoroughly enjoy this novel. Winner of a National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller back in 1998, Charming Billy is the bittersweet tale of a captivating alcoholic. Those who gather to eulogize him trade tales of his famous humor, immense charm, and unfathomable sorrow. As the mourners form Billy’s tragic story, it becomes a gentle homage to all the lives in their community fractured by grief, shattered by secrets, and sustained by the simple dream of love. Ultimately Charming Billy is about family, with McDermott challenging us to recognize the goodness and decency of our family members without sentimentalizing them.

With the renewed interest in all things spiritual, Barbara E. Bowe believes that the Bible is an untapped resource. Winner of the 2003 Catholic Press Association Book Awards in both scripture and spirituality, Bowe has beautifully and masterfully wed what many consider two distinct disciplines in Biblical Foundations of Spirituality (Rowman & Littlefield).

The book begins by exploring the nature and meaning of that all-too-difficult word spirituality and then offers some ways in which we might understand what is meant by biblical spirituality. Successive chapters offer reflections on selected passages of the biblical tradition beginning with Genesis and concluding with Revelation. Although a textbook, U.S. Catholic readers will find this book accessible and a pleasure to read. The “Questions for Reflection” at the end of each chapter will nourish your spiritual and prayer lives.

I have had the pleasure of studying with Barbara Bowe; now it’s your turn.

Kevin ClarkeKevin Clarke, Senior editor
The Blood Bankers: Tales from the Global Underground Economy (Four Walls Eight Windows) is a nonfiction thriller of sorts, a whodunit that exposes the real story behind the Third World debt crisis. Despite 60 years of anti-poverty campaigns, unending development programs, and flamboyant dam, highway, and power-plant building, the developing world remains mired in debt, and more than two thirds of the world’s people still get by on just a few dollars a day—or die trying.

Ever wonder why all that borrowing and investment—by some estimates as much as $3 trillion—has produced so little in poverty relief? Author James S. Henry reports the cash was simply stolen outright by Third World elites in complicity with U.S. and European banks and politically connected corporations. The rich get richer and the poor poorer, and U.S. taxpayers pick up the tab. Henry can tell you how it happens. One thing he can’t explain is why we put up with it.

Chris Hedges has been taunting the grim reaper in war zones around the world since he first experienced life under fire in Central America’s 1980s proxy wars. Over his long career as a war correspondent, he has marveled at the awful glamour of war and combat. In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Anchor)—part memoir, part philosophical meditation—he explores the myths, misconceptions, and heartbreak of war in an effort that remains startlingly honest, insightful, and compassionate throughout.

Hedges has learned how war and war-mongering warp the human spirit and the social psyche as they steal away, often pointlessly, so many human lives. It’s too bad this small, quietly powerful book didn’t end up by more bedsides in Washington over the past year.

Maureen AboodMaureen Abood, Literary editor
In my reading lately, I seem to be drawn to the wisdom that only the converted can impart. Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (Knopf) by the poet Franz Wright led me to a provocative interview with this recent Catholic convert (see page 26). His poems stare boldly in the face of the darker impulses that can prey on the human heart. But Wright never leaves us to despair: Poem after poem, we can’t help but see, amid the troubles that besiege life, the presence of the God who loves and redeems us. The poems are emblems, in the distilled language of hope.

Hope underpins the gripping story of deceit, longing, and loss of four generations of a Catholic family in Maile Meloy’s first novel, Liars and Saints (Scribner). Conversions and confessions take place in unexpected ways and in unlikely characters, making them authentic and engaging. The threads of deceit that run through each generation of the Santerre family pull us with ease and curiosity through the fabric of the novel. Meloy takes up the question of what it means to be honest with ourselves and the people we love and how our decisions in this regard affect the course of our lives.

Both of these books did what I think all fine literature should do: entertain, yes, but also act as a catalyst for reflection and a deeper understanding of self and others.

Heather GrennanHeather Grennan Gary, Associate editor
Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) manages somehow to touch on the Puritans and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and everything in between. His is a sweeping—if sometimes dense—historical study of Americans’ understanding of and relationship to Jesus. When has Jesus been portrayed as feminine, masculine, black, or Asian? How about as a yogi, a hippie, or a psychologist? Laughing or sorrowful? Prothero enlightens us with fascinating instances of all. Especially interesting is the attention to artistic and pop culture renderings of Jesus. Prothero’s impressive research and the tidbits that surface make it a worthwhile read.

My dad’s family is from Nebraska, so I’m a fan of Willa Cather. But Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics) is one that had slipped by me until recently. Set in the desert and arroyos of New Mexico rather than the prairies and blizzards of the Midwest, the story of Bishop Jean Latour and his sidekick, Father Joseph Vaillant, two French missionaries who arrive in Santa Fe in the 1850s, is full of adventure, insightful reflections, and strong, peculiar characters who play off the priests.

Cather’s style is clear, strong, and amazingly contemporary for a novel first published nearly 80 years ago. She tells both poignant and comical stories with a remarkable respect and understanding of her characters. Pick this one up if you’ve missed it.

Tom WrightTom Wright, Art director
The High Plains are the backdrop for Plainsong and Eventide (Knopf), two novels by Kent Haruf. I grew up not too far away, in Nebraska, so I found familiarity with the people and places in their stories. Plainsong and Eventide take place in a small Colorado town where Haruf intertwines the lives of very diverse characters, from a pair of old bachelor brothers on a cattle ranch to a pregnant teenager turned out of her home by her mother.

The stories have all the heroes and villains that a big-city mystery might have, but instead they are people you will know and recognize from your own life. Haruf invents a place where pointless cruelty is offset by the warmth and compassion of the community, and where lives that seem to be hopeless become stronger through the kindness of both friends and strangers.

My wife and I got very caught up in the lives and relationships of Haruf’s characters and, as with all good books, were very sad when Plainsong ended. About a year later we were very excited to find a sequel in Eventide. We only hope there will be a third.

This article appeared in the November 2004 (Volume 69; Number 11: pages 31-35) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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