Thursday, June 10, 2010

Word on Fire: Summer Fiction for the Catholic Reader

This is my Catholic Post column for this month:

Summer and fiction just seem to go together, as vacations and summer schedules provide time for catching up on the latest. But what are some good reads for the Catholic reader?

When I say “Catholic reader,” I mean not just reading Catholic authors or works with Catholic themes, but reading whatever we do mindfully in light of our Catholic faith.

Here are some choices:

* Angel Time. Anne Rice is the Charles Dickens of 21st century novels; like Dickens, she writes lush, complicated novels designed to move people. Some years back, Rice reverted to her Catholic faith and resolved to write only for the Lord. (Before this, she was most famous for her vampire novels, like Interview with the Vampire). Since then, she’s written two well-regarded novels on the life of Christ, and a moving spiritual autobiography, Called out of Darkness.

Her latest is a “metaphysical thriller” that is really two novels; one the life of an efficient contract killer, Toby O’Dare, and his anguished relationship to his Catholic faith; the other is a time-travel mystery about the Jews of 13th century England. You may wonder, “How does that work?” but it truly does.

Angel Time isn’t for everyone. I’m not a big fan of crime or thriller novels, particularly because of the over-realistic depictions of violence. The violence here is intense, but like Dickens, her novel is masterfully moving.

* Theophilos is the newest novel by Catholic artist and writer Michael O’Brien O’Brien’s style is poignant and spiritually sensitive. It takes some work to enter into the rhythm of the novel, but it is well worth it.

O’Brien imagines that the “Theophilos” mentioned in Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles is his uncle and adoptive father. The novel consists of Theophilos’ journals and his “examinations” (interviews) with those who knew Jesus, as his Greek skepticism gives way to wonder and awe in the face of the early Christian’s firsthand accounts and their love for one another:

“What happened here is so remarkable that the minor blurring of the eyes, the small embellishments, are easily picked out. What remains is astounding. I write this, and then my mind springs awake. What have I just written! What remains is astounding only if it actually happened. Thus I am caught in a fracture between the unbelievable story and the characteristics of fact.”

The novel is beautifully written and conveys a sense of urgency about the events of Scripture.

One classic:

*In This House of Brede is Rumer Godden’s best-known and probably her finest novel,. Brede tells the story of a cloistered order of Benedictine nuns, modeled after the Stansbury Abbey in England. The novel starts, and focuses on, on Phillipa Talbot’s transformation from London career woman to cloistered nun, but really follows the ebb and flow of life in a monastery and the fascinating personalities who inhabit it.

I’m a huge kidlit (children’s literature) fan, and fortunately for younger readers there are a lot of Catholic and catholic (as in universal) selections out there.

*The Midnight Dancers. If your teens (and pre-teens) haven’t read Regina Doman’s fairy tale novels, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookseller and purchase her Fairy Tale novels. There are four so far (a fifth, Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyber Thieves is due out this month), but if you have to choose only one, pick The Midnight Dancers, a retelling of “The 12 Dancing Princesses. “ It might appear a girls book, but boys will enjoy the martial arts skills of the main character; all readers will enjoy the appeal to truth and beauty.

*The Ranger’s Apprentice series by Australian author John Flanagan is an fantastic series about a teenager who becomes apprentice to a ranger, a kind of intelligence officer for this England-like kingdom. These are action-filled novels that appeal to boys mostly (but girls also love) and effortlessly inspire natural way virtues like perseverance, honesty, and faithfulness. The first is The Ruins of Gorlan; and The Kings of Clonmel, 8th in the series, was released just last month. Read away!

For younger readers, and family read-alouds:

*The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden, is available in a newly released edition by Bethlehem Books. Sadly, most of Godden’s children’s novels are out of print, but they are suffused with a bit of sadness and a sense of wonder and magic of the everyday. The Kitchen Madonna is a story of a boy’s work to make his Ukrainian housekeeper feel less homesick.

* Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink. It wouldn’t be summer in our house without plenty of Carol Ryrie Brink, a prolific 20th century author most famous for Caddie Woodlawn. Baby Island tells the hilarious exploits of two preteen sisters shipwrecked with a group of babies. It’s like “Survivor” without the angst, and a whole lot more fun.

* For those GK Chesterton fans, Nancy Carpentier Brown’s The Father Brown Reader is an adaptation of four of Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery stories for younger readers. A sequel to it is due out later this year.

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