Mini-Reviews: Scandal, Death, Enchanting

Do You Want to Start a ScandalDeath on a Friday AfternoonOnly Enchanting

Tessa Dare, Do You Want to Start a Scandal

This Regency romance is the story of Charlotte Highwood, who has been nicknamed “the Desperate Debutante” because of her mother’s aggressive matchmaking efforts. Her mother’s latest target is Piers Brandon, Lord Granville; so Charlotte seeks him out at a house party to reassure him that she doesn’t wish to marry him. This strategy backfires immediately when the two are found in a compromising position — they accidentally interrupt a lovers’ tryst, but everyone else believes they are the lovers. Charlotte decides to clear her good name by unmasking the real lovers. But of course, the more time she and Piers spend together, the more they fall in love. This book was fine, although I found the comic style a little forced and overwrought. Not bad, but not particularly recommended.

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

I chose this book at the beginning of Lent as an appropriate spiritual read. As the subtitle suggests, each chapter is inspired by one of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. Each “word” provides a jumping-off point for the author, a Catholic priest, to discuss various aspects of his faith. Sadly, since I read this a while ago, I don’t remember a lot of the details! But I do remember the chapter on “I thirst” being particularly interesting because it discussed the question of universal salvation (is it possible that everyone will be saved?). I’d say the book is geared more toward intellectual than devotional purposes. Overall, the book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I definitely plan to reread it in the future.

Mary Balogh, Only Enchanting

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Balogh book, and this Regency romance is no exception. It’s part of the Survivors’ Club series, about a group of people who have been deeply wounded (physically, emotionally, or both) in the Napoleonic Wars, but it can be read as a stand-alone novel. The hero, Flavian, has returned from the war with a head injury that left gaps in his memory. When he is thrown together with Agnes, a widow living a quiet rural life, he impulsively proposes to her, and together they are able to fill in some of the blanks in Flavian’s memory — and fall in love in the process. That makes it sound like love magically cures Flavian’s mental injuries, which isn’t the case…I feel like I’m not describing the plot terribly well! But I really liked the book and will continue reading more in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Prim, Reading, Headliners

Awakening of Miss PrimI'd Rather Be ReadingHeadliners

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans. Sonia Soto)

This is a strange little novel about a young woman, Prudencia Prim, who applies for a position as a private librarian in a remote French village. A modern woman herself, she is initially shocked by the villagers’ old-fashioned beliefs and behavior. But she soon observes the happiness and prosperity of those around her, and with the help of her enigmatic employer, she comes to see the merits of their way of life. I think this book is aimed at a very particular audience, namely a certain subdivision of Catholics who are huge fans of G.K. Chesterton. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say this book is probably not for you! Even as part of the target audience, I still found it a little much.

Anne Bogel, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? So when I found her book at a library sale, I snatched it up! The essays are fun — nothing particularly new or memorable, but bibliophiles and fans of the author should enjoy them. A fun read, but not a keeper for me.

Lucy Parker, Headliners

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me; I really love her contemporary romances set in the London entertainment world. In this one, protagonists Sabrina and Nick are rival TV presenters who are forced to work together to revive their network’s struggling morning show. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, this book is a great example! I especially liked how Sabrina and Nick resolve their conflicts like adults; there are no stupid misunderstandings or secrets kept for no reason. I note that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back frequently to the events of the previous book, The Austen Playbook. Definitely recommended for romance fans, although my favorite Parker books remain her first two, Act Like It and Pretty Face.

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: 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.

Review: Interior Freedom

Interior FreedomJacques Philippe, Interior Freedom (trans. Helena Scott)

Interior Freedom leads one to discover that even in the most unfavorable outward circumstances we possess within ourselves a space of freedom that nobody can take away, because God is its source and guarantee. Without this discovery we will always be restricted in some way and will never taste true happiness. Author Jacques Philippe develops a simple but important theme: we gain possession of our interior freedom in exact proportion to our growth in faith, hope, and love. He explains that the dynamism between these three theological virtues is the heart of the spiritual life, and he underlines the key role of the virtue of hope in our inner growth. Written in a simple and inviting style, Interior Freedom seeks to liberate the heart and mind to live the true freedom to which God calls each one.” (Summary from Amazon.)

Every once in a while, a book comes along that tells you exactly what you need to hear in that moment. Interior Freedom was one of those books for me. I was feeling a lot of stress and anxiety for various reasons, and this book spoke pretty directly to my state of mind at the time. It’s written from a Christian (specifically Catholic) perspective, and I don’t think the solutions it offers would be useful for non-Christians. But it really gave me a new perspective on faith in particular: if I really believe in an almighty and all-loving God (as Christians profess to do), then I must have absolute trust in his love for me and his ability to bring good out of even the toughest situations. Definitely recommended for Christians of all denominations, especially those who are feeling weighed down by circumstances in their lives.

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: Good Omens

Good OmensNeil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

Since the beginning of the world, the forces of good and evil have been preparing for battle, and now Armageddon is imminent. The Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse roam the earth, the Antichrist is about to be born, and the end times are at hand. But angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley aren’t terribly enthusiastic about the upcoming war and ensuing destruction of Earth. In fact, they’ve both become rather fond of the planet and the foolish humans who populate it. So unbeknownst to their superiors, they strike a truce: neither one of them will attempt to influence the newborn Antichrist in their favor. Little do they know that, thanks to a mix-up at the hospital, they’ve focused their efforts on the wrong baby! Meanwhile, the Antichrist grows up as a perfectly normal human boy called Adam Young, who knows nothing about his special destiny. But as the signs of the end times become harder to ignore, Aziraphale and Crowley must race against time to prevent Adam from unwittingly using his powers to destroy the world.

This book is a delightful romp through the Book of Revelation and common cultural perceptions regarding the end of the world. It truly has something for everyone, from demons to witchfinders to psychics to aliens, and I lost count of the jokes that made me laugh out loud! I loved the fact that Famine (one of the Horsepersons) was a diet guru, and that one of Crowley’s most notable Hellish accomplishments was the M25 motorway surrounding London. The book’s plot is rather sprawling, and I wasn’t a big fan of every storyline (didn’t care too much about Anathema Device, for example, although I loved Newton Pulsifer — the name alone!). But then again, who cares about plot when there’s such brilliant silliness to enjoy? I do think this book would be best enjoyed by people who are at least somewhat familiar with the Book of Revelation, because otherwise you won’t get all the jokes! But I honestly think that anyone who enjoys British humor will find this book hugely entertaining.