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.

Review: Silence

SilenceShusaku Endo, Silence (trans. William Johnston)

This novel is set in 17th-century Japan, at a time when Christianity has been outlawed, and Christians are imprisoned and tortured so that they will renounce their faith. Nevertheless, various missionary groups from Europe, both Catholic and Protestant, continue to arrive in Japan in hopes of spreading the Christian religion there. One such missionary is Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who believes that God is calling him to minister to His church in Japan. Rodrigues also hopes to find his former teacher and mentor, Father Ferreira, who is rumored to have renounced Christianity and adopted a traditional Japanese lifestyle. When Rodrigues arrives in Japan, his enthusiasm for his mission slowly declines as he sees Christian peasants being tortured and executed for their faith. For the first time, he experiences serious doubts in the face of God’s silence: if He exists, why does He allow his faithful disciples to suffer? As Rodrigues struggles with this question, he must eventually decide whether his faith is truly worth defending at any cost.

This book is laser-focused on a single issue: God’s silence in the face of suffering, and the implications of that for a person of faith. If this is an issue that interests you at all, I would definitely recommend this book! The writing style is sparse and direct, enhancing the nature of the stark choice that confronts Sebastian Rodrigues. The character’s struggle really rang true for me, and there are certainly no easy answers in this book. For me the most compelling character was Kichijiro, the Japanese guide who shelters Father Rodrigues and his companions but later betrays them. He is a weak, pathetic, utterly despicable character, yet Rodrigues comments that “Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt….” In sum, this book isn’t a particularly fun or quick read, but I think it’s an important one for anyone interested in questions of faith or in the clash between Western religion and Eastern culture.

Review: Life of Johnson

Life of JohnsonJames Boswell, Life of Johnson

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were unlikely friends: Boswell was a young Scottish nobleman with a penchant for drinking and whoring, while Johnson was poorer, much more devout (in theory, at least), and a good 30 years older. Yet throughout the course of this monumental work, Boswell describes his reverence for Johnson’s intelligence, morality, and literary talents — a reverence so extreme that Boswell took notes on almost every conversation he ever had with the older man. As a result, this biography is stuffed full of Boswell’s personal anecdotes, letters both to and from Johnson, and first-person accounts of other contemporaries who knew him. Near the end of the book, Boswell states: “The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him.” And indeed, anyone who reads this book will come away with an extremely vivid picture of a remarkable man.

This book is so huge and deals with so many things that I don’t quite know what to say about it. At first I was very intimidated, both by its length and by Boswell’s flowery 18th-century prose. But even though it’s not a quick read, this book contains a wealth of fascinating details about Johnson and the age in which he lived. I was struck by how literary the 18th century was, in the sense that seemingly anyone with a claim to intelligence was churning out books and pamphlets. In that way, Johnson’s time is very similar to our own, where everybody can (and does) publish blogs, tweets, and other forms of instantaneous literature. I was also fascinated by Johnson’s unique character; though intelligent, he was often pompous, narrow-minded, and abrasive. I frequently found myself underlining various Johnsonian sayings that were wise, or funny, or both — but I would have hated to be forced to converse with him! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period or who enjoys very thorough biographies!

Review: Holy Days

Holy Days: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts,…Pope Benedict XVI, Holy Days: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church

This little book comprises excerpts of sermons that Pope Benedict XVI has given on various Catholic holy days throughout the past few years. Most passages are short, a few paragraphs at most, but they all have something thoughtful and interesting to say about some aspect of Catholic theology. My only complaint is how short the book is (less than 100 pages); I would have liked to read the excerpted sermons in full and delve into each holy day a little more deeply. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and plan to use it as a devotional text, reading the relevant sermons throughout the year. I’d recommend this one to Catholics, as long as they don’t mind a fairly cursory look at the holy days mentioned.

I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Review: Manalive

Manalive by G. K. ChestertonG.K. Chesterton, Manalive

This novel takes place in a dull, dreary London boardinghouse whose inhabitants are terribly bored and listless — that is, until Innocent Smith bursts into their lives. Smith has extremely odd manners that startle the boardinghouse dwellers at first, but soon his gaiety and zest for life become contagious, even inspiring courage and romance in the hearts of the other characters. However, just as they’re all starting to enjoy themselves, Smith is cornered by two mental health doctors who claim that he is criminally insane. They accuse him of committing murder, burglary, polygamy, and a host of other crimes. The boardinghouse residents are shocked, but one of them suggests an informal “trial” to determine whether Smith is a force of good or evil.

I think the trick to liking this book is to approach it as a fable rather than as a novel in the traditional sense. There’s not much character development, nor is there a real plot to speak of; instead, the book satirizes modern psychology (“modern” being 1912, when the book was published) and explores a host of philosophical issues ranging from the profound to the (apparently) trivial. Being a diehard Chesterton fan, I enjoyed this book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone reading Chesterton for the first time. Start with Orthodoxy instead, which is a wonderful introduction to his style and his philosophy.