Review: Belief or Nonbelief?

Belief or Nonbelief?Umberto Eco and Cardinal Martini, Belief or Nonbelief?: A Confrontation (trans. Minna Proctor)

This slim volume is a collection of letters written in the 1990s between Umberto Eco, renowned author, scholar, and atheist, and Carlo Maria Martini, a cardinal of the Catholic Church. The letters, which were originally published in an Italian newspaper, present these men’s opposing points of view on a number of philosophical and theological topics, including: secular and religious perspectives on the end of the world, the politically fraught issue of when human life begins, the Catholic Church’s refusal to admit women to the priesthood, and the ultimate source of human ethics. Though Eco and Martini often disagree, their letters maintain a consistent tone of civility and open-mindedness that is all too rare in public discourse nowadays.

I enjoyed this book, and I think it’s somewhat unique in that both believers and nonbelievers could get something out of it. As I mentioned, both Eco and Martini approach the conversation with sincerity and goodwill, never mocking or belittling each other’s positions, but actually having a genuine dialogue and hoping to learn from one another. I wish our public figures in general would take the hint! I will say, though, that I don’t think these letters would actually change anyone’s mind; an atheist wouldn’t suddenly convert to Christianity, nor would a religious person lose his/her faith because of this book. Because the letters were originally written for newspaper publication, they couldn’t be long or in-depth enough to explore the topics thoroughly. Basically, I came away from this book wanting more, but I’d still recommend it if the subject matter appeals to you.

Review: In Tearing Haste

In Tearing HasteCharlotte Mosley, ed., In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Deborah Devonshire began life as the youngest of the (in)famous Mitford sisters, but she unexpectedly became the duchess of Devonshire when her husband, Andrew Cavendish, inherited the duchy from his brother. Patrick Leigh Fermor was a travel writer who became a war hero by kidnapping the commanding German officer on the Nazi-occupied island of Crete. (The movie “Ill Met by Moonlight” is a fictionalized account of his experience.) The two first met when Deborah was still a young debutante, but they eventually formed a deep friendship, as well as a correspondence that would last for more than half a century. Although “darling Paddy” and “darling Debo” lived through many political upheavals and personal tragedies, their letters to each other always remained upbeat, humorous, and cheerful.

I usually find nonfiction very slow going, but this book was a pleasure to read. Both “Debo” and “Paddy” wrote in a lively conversational style that’s very easy to read, and I felt truly immersed in their day-to-day lives. Patrick often wrote about the various exotic places he visited, including the little town in Greece where he and his wife eventually settled. Deborah largely stayed on the Devonshire estates in England and Ireland, where she waxed poetic about sheep breeding and various fox-hunting excursions. The book also provides some fascinating insights into the psychology of the British upper classes: for example, Deborah mentions, with the utmost casualness, dining with President Kennedy several times. Though there’s not much in-depth discussion of the historical events through which they lived, anyone who is interested in reading a firsthand account of the 20th century should pick up this book! I’d also recommend it for fans of the Mitfords or early 20th-century British literature in general.

Review: The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh

Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, TheCharlotte Mosley, ed., The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh

“I want to write a sad story of a man who gave up drink and hated all his chums. It is me.” — Evelyn Waugh, 12 November 1944.

Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh were two of the most popular and respected authors of the early and mid-20th century; they were also lifelong friends who kept up a correspondence lasting more than two decades. This book is a collection of their letters to each other, which are full of jokes, literary allusions, and most of all gossip. They each had a very pointed, satirical sense of humor that was frequently directed at members of their own social set — and quite often at each other. In many ways they couldn’t be more different: Waugh was very conservative, old-fashioned, and staunchly Roman Catholic, while Mitford was a spiritually indifferent socialist living as an expatriate in Paris. But their correspondence reveals that they understood one another and shared a deep, affectionate friendship. Through their discussions of current events, important people, and of course books (both their own and other people’s), Mitford and Waugh’s letters provide a unique window into their age.

It’s taken me a long time to write this review, because how can one “review” a collection of letters that weren’t (necessarily) meant to be public? All I can say is that I enjoyed reading them. I’ve read a few books by each of these authors — Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust — but otherwise I didn’t know much about either of them. I do think some level of familiarity with their work is helpful, but you definitely don’t have to be an expert in order to enjoy these letters. They’re often hilarious (how I shrieked, as Nancy would say) and also have some interesting discussions about literature. I want to read more of their books now! Of course, their chatter about mutual friends and acquaintances was hard to follow, although the editor did a fairly good job of identifying people in footnotes; but I still enjoyed this collection overall. If you’re interested in early- and mid-20th-century literature, this might be a good book to seek out.

Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene HanffHelene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road

This slim collection of letters chronicles the friendship between Helene Hanff, an American writer, and the employees of an antiquarian bookstore located at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. Hanff initially wrote to the bookstore after seeing their newspaper ad because she wanted a book she couldn’t get locally. Her often humorous demands for books initiated a lively correspondence between herself and the bookstore employees, a correspondence that soon led to deep and long-lasting friendships.

I loved this book, as I think any bibliophile would. The letters between Hanff and her various correspondents reveal a deep love of books, both their content and the quality of their binding. It was wonderful to read the booksellers’ descriptions of the various volumes they were planning to send Hanff — things along the lines of, “it’s a good clean copy bound in red leather.” Most of the letters are also uproariously funny; Hanff seems like a tremendously entertaining person to be around. My only complaint is that the book is extremely short, less than 100 pages. I wish more of the letters had been included! Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, especially literary types looking for a good laugh.