Review: Play It Again

Play It Again- An Amateur against the ImpossibleAlan Rusbridger, Play It Again: An Amateur against the Impossible

The author of this memoir is, at the time of writing, a 57-year-old amateur pianist with a dream: to competently play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. This is an extremely difficult and demanding piece, and Rusbridger is understandably nervous about whether he’ll be able to achieve his goal. His project is further complicated by the fact that his day job is editor of the Guardian, a major British news outlet. And of course, the time frame he’s chosen for learning the Ballade happens to coincide with high-profile news events such as the Wikileaks story and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Nevertheless, Rusbridger manages to carve out at least 20 minutes to practice most days, and he also asks for advice wherever he can get it, including from books, music teachers, and even concert pianists. Rusbridger documents his quest to learn the Ballade in diary format, sharing his strategies, doubts, successes, and failures along the way.

I picked up this book because the premise sounded like something I might actually want to do: I’m an amateur pianist who took lessons from second grade up through college, and I still play occasionally for community theater musicals. I also own the score of the Ballade, though I’ve never attempted to read more than the first couple of pages. I think some familiarity with the Ballade is necessary to get anything out of this book; luckily, there are a ton of performances on YouTube, and Rusbridger includes his annotated score in the appendix. But he does spend a fair amount of time discussing the minutiae of the piece, referring to specific measure numbers, fingerings, and rhythms. So if you’re completely nonmusical, I wouldn’t recommend this book. I largely enjoyed following Rusbridger along his journey, although I couldn’t help noticing his privilege in being able to consult world-famous pianists about his project. The book also gets a bit same-y after a while, which made the last stretch somewhat tedious. Nevertheless, I’d definitely recommend this book to any musician, professional or amateur!

Review: Discerning Religious Life

Discerning Religious LifeSr. Clare Matthiass, CFR, Discerning Religious Life

This short book, written by a religious sister, is a guide for Catholic women that describes the process of discerning a religious vocation (that is, a call to become a religious sister or nun). It describes various “steps” of this process in detail, from a woman’s first inkling that she might be called to religious life, to the attitudes and habits she should possess before beginning to discern seriously, to what will happen when she starts researching specific convents and communities. The book is peppered with anecdotes from the author and many other religious sisters who share their experiences of being called and of living out their vocations. The book doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into the theological and historical background of religious life, assuming that the reader will already be familiar with the basics. But it does provide very practical advice and reassurance to women who are questioning whether the religious life might be for them.

Obviously this book is going to be useful only for a very small audience: unmarried Catholic women who are still trying to discover God’s plan for their lives. I fall into this category, and while I’ve never particularly felt called to religious life, I found a lot to think about in this book. My favorite aspect of the book is that it spends a lot of time discussing the sacrifices of religious life — particularly the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — and the various obstacles and doubts that many women confront as they consider this vocation. It frankly acknowledges that the religious life is difficult and that the sacrifices it requires are significant. At the same time, the personal stories from the author and the other religious sisters clearly demonstrate the joy they find in their calling. I also really appreciated the book’s discussion of prayer and will definitely be applying some of those lessons to my own prayer life. Overall, I got a lot out of this book and would definitely recommend it to any woman in a similar stage of life.

Review: Ex Libris

Ex LibrisAnne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

This collection of essays by Anne Fadiman deals with a topic that is dear to every reader’s heart: books and reading. In “Marrying Libraries,” she describes how she didn’t truly feel married to her husband until they merged their book collections. In “My Odd Shelf,” she shares her idiosyncratic passion for polar exploration narratives. In “The His’er Problem,” she discusses the English language’s deficiency in not having a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. In “The Catalogical Imperative,” she cheekily admits her love of mail-order catalogues. And in “Never Do That to a Book,” she divides readers into “courtly” book lovers and “carnal” book lovers, proudly declaring herself to be one of the latter. Throughout these essays, Fadiman keeps a fairly light, playful tone, but she also deals with weightier topics such as her father’s deteriorating health. Still, the focus remains on books and how the love of reading can shape a person’s life.

I don’t seem to be very good at reading essays; I tend to read them all in one gulp, like a novel, even though I think I ought to dip in and out, reading only a couple at a time. As with any short story or essay collection, some installments are better and more memorable than others. The one I enjoyed most is probably “Marrying Libraries,” which not only touched on serious issues like whose copy of a book should be kept and whose discarded, but also showed a sweet little glimpse into Fadiman’s relationship with her husband. I found “Never Do That to a Book” to be the most controversial, as Fadiman seems to poke fun at people who take care of their books as physical objects. She and her family, it seems, don’t mind dog-earing, tearing out pages, breaking spines, and so forth. I’m not saying those things are wrong, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to keep one’s books looking nice! Overall, I sometimes enjoyed Fadiman’s breezy tone and sometimes found her a bit pretentious. But the essays are certainly fun reads for book lovers!

Review: To Know Christ Jesus

To Know Christ JesusFrank Sheed, To Know Christ Jesus

“This modern spiritual classic by Frank Sheed, the renowned author, publisher and lecturer, is brought back into print for the benefit of new generations of readers to develop a deeper, more profound knowledge of Jesus Christ. Sheed’s concern with the Gospels is to come to know Christ as he actually lived among us, interacted with all the various people he encountered from his infancy to his passion and death–the God-man who was like us in all things except sin. Sheed has tried especially to see Our Lord in his effect upon others–seeing how they saw him, trying to see why they saw him so. There is much about Mary and Joseph in their task of bringing up a baby who was literally adorable; about John the Baptist; about Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen; about Nicodemus; about people we meet only for a moment, like the man born blind and the owners of the drowned swine; and why the Pharisees, not only the worst of them but some of the best, would not accept Christ. Faith, doctrine, prayer, worship–all the content and consequences of Christian belief–rest on the person of Christ Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

This book does pretty much what it says on the tin: it examines Jesus’s life and teachings as recorded in the four gospels. I really appreciated this deep dive into Scripture, and it definitely gave me a lot to think about. Sheed discusses the historical context of Jesus’s life, including the Roman occupation of Palestine, background on the Pharisees and Sadducees, and contemporary expectations of who the Messiah would be. He also interprets Jesus’s words about the “kingdom of God” in a very interesting and (to me) unique way. This book is definitely written from a Catholic perspective, which may annoy other Christian readers, but I think the focus on the Biblical text would be appreciated by Christians of all denominations. Overall, I would recommend this book to Christian readers and think it might make good supplemental material for a Bible study.

Review: Unapologetic

UnapologeticFrancis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

“Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a wonderfully pugnacious defense of Christianity. Refuting critics such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the “new atheist” crowd, Spufford, a former atheist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, argues that Christianity is recognizable, drawing on the deep and deeply ordinary vocabulary of human feeling, satisfying those who believe in it by offering a ruthlessly realistic account of the grown-up dignity of Christian experience.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

A coworker recommended this book for my Lenten spiritual reading project, and I honestly had no idea what to expect, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. As the summary blurb indicates, Spufford is in some sense responding to popular atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; so the book’s tone is conversational, informal, and peppered with swear words. Spufford isn’t concerned with making logical arguments in favor of Christianity. Rather, he describes how it fulfills people’s emotional needs in a way that (in his opinion) modern secular culture doesn’t. I liked the premise and found the book a quick, enjoyable read. It doesn’t go into very much depth about Christian theology, but that might make it more accessible to a secular audience.

Review: God or Nothing

God or NothingRobert Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith (trans. Michael J. Miller)

“In this fascinating autobiographical interview, one of the most prominent and outspoken Catholic Cardinals gives witness to his Christian faith and comments on many current controversial issues. The mission of the Church, the joy of the gospel, the heresy of activism , and the definition of marriage are among the topics he discusses with wisdom and eloquence.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I read this as part of my Lenten spiritual reading project, but I must say, it isn’t quite what I expected. I thought it would focus on theology and Christian living, but it reads much more like a memoir or autobiography. I did find the story of Cardinal Sarah’s life fascinating; he was born in a small village in Guinea, was educated by French missionary priests, and eventually joined the priesthood himself. I was especially interested in his time as a bishop, during which he often came into conflict with the Communist regime of Sékou Touré. Ultimately, I think this is a good read for people who are interested in the history of postcolonial Africa and/or the institutional history of the Catholic Church. But it’s not great for devotional reading or for learning more about Catholic doctrine.

Review: Reflections on the Psalms

Reflections on the PsalmsC.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

“In this wise and enlightening book, C. S. Lewis—the great British writer, scholar, lay theologian, broadcaster, Christian apologist, and bestselling author of Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many other beloved classics—examines the Psalms. As Lewis divines the meaning behind these timeless poetic verses, he makes clear their significance in our daily lives, and reminds us of their power to illuminate moments of grace.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As the title indicates, this book is a collection of C.S. Lewis’s reflections on the psalms. His thoughts aren’t presented in a systematic way; he doesn’t go through every psalm in order, for example. Instead, he discusses some themes that struck him personally in his reading and prayer. The end result is somewhat disjointed — I think this is one of Lewis’s lesser-known works for a reason — but I still found plenty of food for thought. His ideas about some of the psalms’ more surprising elements, such as the cursing of one’s enemies, make a lot of sense. He also discusses how 20th-century Christian interpretations might differ from (or, from his perspective, enhance) the psalmists’ original intention. Overall, I’m glad I read this, especially since Psalms is one of my favorite books in the Bible, but I’d recommend that newcomers to Lewis start elsewhere.

Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Review: The Napoleon of Crime

Napoleon of CrimeBen Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief

Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.

I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

Review: You Need a Budget

You Need a BudgetJesse Mecham, You Need a Budget: The Proven System for Breaking the Paycheck-to-Paycheck Cycle, Getting Out of Debt, and Living the Life You Want

In this book, Jesse Mecham, the creator of YouNeedABudget.com, gives an overview of his budgeting system and — perhaps more importantly — his philosophy of budgeting. His four main budgeting principles are (1) give every dollar a job, (2) embrace your true expenses, (3) roll with the punches, and (4) age your money. Using anecdotes from his own life and from users of the YNAB software, Mecham explains these principles in depth and describes how they can help people get out of debt, stop living paycheck to paycheck, and save money for the priorities that matter most to them.

This book felt very accessible to me (a person who is relatively ignorant of all things finance); it’s a quick read, not at all technical, and it offers a very big-picture look at why budgeting is important. I was struck by this quote from the beginning of the book: “[M]oney is not the point, not the end goal. In truth, when we’re stressed about our finances, it’s because we’re not sure our money decisions are aligned with the life we want to be living.” Mecham’s point, which really resonated with me, is that budgeting is about putting your money toward the goals and priorities that really matter to you. I definitely got a lot out of this book and found it very useful in preparing my own budget going forward. I’d recommend this to people who feel like they should be doing more with their money but don’t know quite where to start.