Look what we’ve read lately

Though our tastes run from inspirational to theological to downright political, U.S. Catholic editors are of one mind in wanting to help you bulk up your winter reading list.

Look what we've read lately

Heidi Schlumpf: Managing editor
Sequels can be risky, especially when the first book is an icon of the genre. That’s what Anne Lamott’s spiritual autobiography Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Pantheon, 1999) has become for spiritual-but-not-too-religious Christians.

Now Lamott is back with Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (Riverhead, 2005), in which she continues to find the holy in everyday life—her mother’s illness, the death of her dog, the continuing challenges of single motherhood. Woven throughout the stories and snide wisecracks are insightful gems like this one: “When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”

Some may be bothered by Lamott’s repeated references to her dislike of a certain president with the middle initial “W,” but surely war is fair game in a book of “thoughts on faith,” and her essay about an anti-war protest is one of the most poignant in the book. Regular readers of Lamott may recognize some of these essays from her column on Salon.com, and her die-hard fans will enjoy the update on her life. But new readers will also be happy to have found a spiritual companion who understands those of us who claim the seemingly oxymoronic labels of left-leaning and Christian.

Tara Dix: Assistant editor
For the world-weary, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers an alternative to despair. And as a survivor of one of the worst periods of human rights abuse in modern history who then led the people of South Africa through a process of healing and reconciliation, Tutu’s words sound with authority.

In God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (Image Books, 2005) Tutu looks at the world and says there is still hope. He is not afraid to recognize evil in our world; still, he says, God is present and good will win out, but each of us must do our part.

“When there is someone hungry, God wants to perform the miracle of feeding that person,” he writes. “But...God can do nothing until we provide God with the means.”

The book’s short-chapter format easily lends itself to use as daily reflections or as an easy read for commuters. Two appendices make practical connections between the dream and the reality. “Your part of God’s dream” includes Internet resources on how to get involved in philanthropy, volunteering, and activism. “Sharing God’s dream” is a set of discussion and reflection questions.

Santiago CortÚs-Sj÷berg: Bilingual associate editor
Don’t let the title of Our Lady of the Lost and Found (Penguin, 2001) make you think it is an irreverent book. It is, rather, an honest, witty, and informative read.

The premise might sound funny and improbable: Mary stops by the house of an unnamed writer who is asked to welcome Mary into her home for a week of rest and relaxation. What follows is a series of conversations with Mary; an account of the growing interest of this non-Catholic narrator in all things Marian; numerous accounts of Marian apparitions; and self-reflective episodes on topics as varied as time, history, knowledge, hope, and grace.

The book is peppered with funny events (Mary at an ATM machine) and insightful one-liners (“Like most people, I did not understand that not everything was about me.”). The chapters on apparitions are lively and avoid being boring or overly pious.

Although fiction, it is easy to start believing the book is an account of real events. Maybe it is, for, as the narrator says, “calling it fiction would make it easier to believe.”

Cathy O’Connell-Cahill: Senior editor
“Joy is a by-product and not something I look for....If you search for it, you will probably never be happy.” So says Father Vincent Martin, O.S.B. in The Wisdom of the Benedictine Elders (BlueBridge, 2005) by Mark W. McGinnis. It’s filled with such nuggets from some of the oldest monks and nuns in 30 Benedictine monasteries across the U.S.

Through first-person accounts taken from interviews with with these Benedictine “elders”—men and women born from 1901 to 1925—the nuns and monks reflect on how they joined the Benedictines, how following the Rule of St. Benedict grounds their lives, what they regret, what they hope for. If this sounds like pie-in-the sky stuff, rest assured that it’s not. As one nun says candidly, “Every woman regrets not having a child.”

A Benedictine friend of mine from St. Scholastica Monastery in Chicago says the adjective that best describes Benedictines is “earthy.” McGinnis’ book bears this out, presenting men and women who joke about their failed attempts to teach Latin or who drag McGinnis off to see their pride and joy: the monastery’s new lawnmower. Both their spiritual wisdom and their humanity emerge with startling clarity.

John Molyneux, C.M.F.: Editor
Doubt: A Parable (Theatre Communications Group, 2005) is a superb play by John Patrick Shanley. Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Doubt is set in the Bronx, circa 1964, at St. Nicholas Catholic Church and School. The principal, Sister Aloysius, suspects that the popular associate pastor, Father Flynn, is involved in an improper relationship with an eighth-grade boy.

Although Doubt begins with the stuff of headlines, it is less about scandal than about fascinatingly nuanced questions of moral certainty. In the preface Shanley writes, “There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is the crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.”

You may come away from this drama uncertain. You may want to be sure. Shanley challenges us to mistrust that feeling—and learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty.

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds: Executive editor
I’ve never cared much for politicians’ books, but Sen. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is not your typical politician’s biography. Since Three Rivers Press reissued this 1995 memoir to capitalize on Obama’s meteoric rise to national fame, it has stayed on best-seller lists for more than a year.

Whether he’s recounting stories from his childhood, probing behind his own motivations and rationalizations or those of others, or drawing lessons from his life, Obama is an astute observer, a down-to-earth and often wry and self-deprecating narrator, and an inspiring guide. The son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, his life journey has given him an unusual pedigree for a politician. It also leads him today to promote an alternative vision of politics that is grounded in the common good, a preferential option for the poor, and the virtue of solidarity.

That, of course, is a vision that resonates with Catholic social teaching and with the faith-inspired activism of black churches. One of the most moving portions of the book is his discovery of the importance of faith and of the “audacity of hope” at the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church in Chicago. That phrase from one of Wright’s sermons resurfaces in Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention (reprinted in the book): “The audacity of hope! In the end that is God’s greatest gift to us.”

Francesca Hurst: Editorial assistant
I have always enjoyed a good love story, and Their Eyes Were Watching God (HarperPerennial, 1990) by Zora Neale Hurston may be one of the best—although tragic—I’ve ever read.

Their Eyes tells the story of Janie Crawford and the inner strength that preserved her through a first marriage at 16 to a man old enough to be her father and a second to the founder of Eatonville, a bustling town built and inhabited only by blacks. Shortly after her second husband’s death, a man named Tea Cake comes to town, and with him a relationship filled with excitement. Their love ends, after many twists and turns, with Tea Cake’s death at Janie’s hands, leaving her with only the memories of her love for him.

The history of this novel, published in 1937, is intriguing in itself. After suffering harsh criticism from mostly African American male writers of the time, it was nearly forgotten, resurfacing 30 years later to enthusiastic acceptance by scholarly African American women. Thanks to the attention brought to Hurston by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, the book has taken its rightful place in the African American literary world.

Maureen Abood: Literary editor
“There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean the most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.” This sentiment is at the heart of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel, Gilead (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005). The book is one long letter written by John Ames, a 76-year-old minister, to his 7-year-old son. Ames senses his approaching death and determines to leave his child with some idea of how his father and the generations before experienced life.

The pace of this novel asks us to slow down and pay attention, just like the pace of life in the early part of the 20th century in Gilead, Iowa, where the Ames family lives next door to the church in which John Ames preaches. It’s worth the effort to enter into a cadence so unlike what we are accustomed to. The rewards are abundant as we discover those things that mean the most to John Ames, along with the profound moments in which the characters come to understand themselves, one another, and the God who is so present in their lives in this rural setting.

Heather Grennan Gary: Associate editor
Does your faith in humanity need a boost? Looking for a shot of girl power? Either way, you’ll get your fix in Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (Crossroad, 2005) by Robert Ellsberg.

Ellsberg, author of All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (Crossroad, 1997), says his latest book was inspired by a group of Maryknoll sisters and others who took issue with the unequal gender balance in All Saints—only about a quarter were female. In Blessed Among All Women Ellsberg repeats a few worthy bios from All Saints but rounds them out with more than 80 new subjects.

Ellsberg goes outside the official roster of Roman Catholic saints. Artists, poets, and social reformers share pages with missionaries, founders of religious orders, and theologians. Surprises like repentant killer Karla Faye Tucker and slain Columbine High School student Cassie Bernall are also in the mix.

The short, two-to-three-page essays are perfect for a quick hit of spiritual reading, although they’re not set up as daily meditations. Instead, Ellsberg arranges the stories according to the Beatitudes. In doing so, he introduces real women who struggled with their own flaws and foibles but nonetheless lived lives of action, conviction, and holiness.

Bryan Cones: Associate editor
Anyone looking for a comprehensive and insightful read on church history need look no further than John T. Noonan Jr.’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change (Notre Dame, 2005).

In short, to-the-point chapters Noonan, an accomplished historian and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, leads the reader by the nose through his argument that the church’s moral teaching can and does change—and probably will again. The heart of his case is his unflinching account of the church’s relationship with slavery. Meticulously presenting the evidence, Noonan demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt the church’s move from acceptance of human slavery to eventual condemnation.

Noonan goes on to briefly treat the church’s reversals on charging interest on loans and religious freedom. He finally highlights the question of divorce, suggesting that it may be one of the developing edges of church teaching.

Though Noonan could be criticized for his choice of issues (why not more current topics like human sexuality or the role of women?), his safer course allows him to clearly demonstrate his point: Church teaching changes. Period. Noonan’s case is so watertight and his stature as a jurist and historian so great that it’s practically impossible to undermine his argument. Even more, Noonan has no ax to grind; his only agenda is to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.

This article appeared in the November 2005 (Volume 70, Number 11; pages 41) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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