Saturday, July 6, 2013

Reading in the dog days of summer

It's a beautiful hot sunny summer's day. I've had my run, worked in the yard, and as soon as I complete this post, I'm going to pick up my book, ensconce myself under the shade of the gazebo and read.  

Renaissance poetry
As part of my summer's reading, I have set myself the goal of completing Dante's "La Commedia" (as the scholars call it).  It is not a work that I feel competent to appreciate on my own, so I have been watching lectures on it. (I found a wonderful, and free, course on Academic Earth; in addition, I have the "Great Courses" DVD lectures. There are several websites where readers can access the poem and commentary.) 

Fortunately, not every text requires the guidance of a scholar. Nor would I want my summer reading to require such extensive effort; that would lessen the pleasure of  reading for the sheer enjoyment of it on a blistering summer’s day.

Classic fiction
My book club always reads at least one classic work of fiction each year. This year we tackled “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, a novel that I first encountered in university. This thought provoking and funny book has entire websites devoted to it. While some readers may want to delve deeply into its political, economic, social and cultural contexts, the novel can be read for its highly original and macabre story - the devil’s visit to Moscow. 

Historical fiction
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, providing the book is well researched. I always turn to the back of the book to check the bibliography and the author’s acknowledgement before I select a piece of historical fiction. I have no problem with artistic license; I just want to know where and why an author has altered the facts. 

Kimberly Cutter’s “The Maid”, a novel about Joan of Arc, is a realistic portrayal of Joan’s life from the time she first hears voices until she is condemned to death.  Initially I was lukewarm about this novel, but after listening to Mary Himes interview Cutter on “Tapestry” I had a better appreciation for the book. Or maybe I was just impressed with Cutter’s dedication to her subject. Prior to putting pen to paper, Cutter retraced, on horseback, Joan’s historic journey to meet Le Dauphin.

Contemporary fiction
In the contemporary fiction category, I was taken with “All the Names”, by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Once I overcame the long paragraphs that lacked the conventional punctuation that guides readers of English, I found the story totally engrossing.  The main character, Senhor José, works at the equivalent of the Vital Statistics Office. He becomes obsessed with an unknown woman. His quest to find her, which is really a quest for intimacy, becomes increasingly surreal. 

I am a fan of well-written biographies; for me, this means that the author does more than merely provide a chronological retelling of events. I like something that integrates facts, events and analysis. Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman” fits my criteria for a well-constructed biography. Adding to my enjoyment, this biography reads like a novel, and in Massie’s skillful hands Catherine comes to life. 

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention something in the theology/spirituality category. Ronald Rolheiser OMI has written a wonderful series of meditations on the Eucharist. The book is not a dogmatic treatise on the sacrament. It discusses Eucharist as a mystery central to the life of faith and it considers the many ways in which Christians understand Eucharist. As always, Rolheiser writes in plain language and illustrates his insights with story. “Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist” is a must read for those who seek to deepen their understanding of Eucharist. 

Now, it's onto Canto X for me.  

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