Biographers are routinely tempted to slide into sycophancy on the one hand or contempt for their subject on the other. In Muriel Spark: The Biography (W. W. Norton, $35, 627 pp.), Martin Stannard avoids these pitfalls. Stannard’s book, which crossed the Atlantic earlier this year, occasioned a slew of reviews, including a perceptive account by Bernard Bergonzi for Commonweal. Alas, perceptive or not, most of these pieces touched on only a handful of Spark’s books—the same handful. And the dozen novels she published after 1970 got particularly short shrift, with the exception of Loitering with Intent (1981) and A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), both of which seemed to fit neatly with a reading of Spark’s fiction as transmuted autobiography.
There’s another way to read Spark, untethered to notions of fiction as disguised memoir. In 1960, Evelyn Waugh, not a man to dispense idle compliments, wrote to her: “How do you do it? I am dazzled by The Bachelors. Most novelists find there is one kind of book they can write.... You seem to have an inexhaustible source.” The reader’s job, and delight, is to explore each book on its own terms.
A recurring term of dismissal for Spark’s later novels is “slight.” Slight? Compared to what? One of my favorites is her next-to-last book, Aiding and Abetting (2000), based on the actual case of a corrupt aristocrat, “Lucky” Lucan, who escaped after committing a brutal murder in 1974 and has never been found. The police suspected that his upper-class cronies had aided him in his flight and his fugitive existence. Spark imagines Lucan still alive and on the run—and with a double. When the two Lucans show up independently at the office of a rogue psychiatrist in Paris, both claiming to be the real Lucan, Spark’s story is set in motion.
Is the glimmer of the full moon “slight”? Are the dark Scottish Border ballads Spark loved “slight”? Like Spark, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare is a novelist who started as a poet and never relinquished that vocation. Like Spark’s work, his fiction has a strong whiff of the uncanny. And if Spark’s imagination was nourished by what she called “the steel and bite of the ballads, so remorseless and yet so lyrical,” Kadare found something similar in the epic verse of his native land.
Much of Kadare’s adult life was spent under the Communist regime of Enver Hoxa, who ruled Albania from 1945 until his death in 1985. In 1990, Kadare emigrated to France, where he continues to live. His latest novel to be translated into English, The Accident (Grove Press, $24, 176 pp.), is set in the recent past, spanning (in retrospect) a twelve-year period from the early 1990s to the first years of the new millennium. It is certainly worth reading, but if you come to it not having read anything else by Kadare, you might be inclined to wonder why many people have called him a great writer. Is this simply more tiresome hype, the literary equivalent of grade inflation?
No—or at least so I think. But never mind the charged word “great.” Kadare is wonderful, and that is good enough for me. Try his novel The File on H. (the complicated publishing history of which is summarized by translator David Bellos, whose text was a French version of the Albanian). The “H.” of the title is Homer. In the 1930s, two American scholars come to Albania with a tape recorder to capture performances by the last wandering rhapsodes, who recite epic poems passed down by memory for generations. Part satire, part farce, part dreamlike tale with moments of haunting insight, it’s a book you won’t soon forget.
In English we have our own tradition of poetry composed many centuries ago for oral performance, spared in bits and pieces from the vicissitudes of time. That is the province of The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (W. W. Norton, $35, 557 pp.), edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto—a superb anthology that should turn up under many Christmas trees this December. Old-English originals appear facing the translations. Many of the more than seventy contemporary poets who are represented here—they include many prominent figures—do not know Old English. They worked with co-editor Matto or with other experts. The results are wide-ranging, both in the variety of original poems and in the distinctive voices of the translators. The useful supplementary material includes a foreword by Seamus Heaney and comments on translation by ten of the contemporary poets. And there are links to sites where you can hear Old English poems read aloud.
Of a number of poems that demanded rereading and then reading yet again, the better to savor, the one that most dazzled me was A. E. Stallings’s version of “The Riming Poem” (titles for these poems are artifacts of scholarship and translation). Here is how it begins:
The Lord lavished life on me I had it all:
Blessings were rife for me, honor in hall,
Clad in the gladsome cloth of the looms
Dyed with the handsome hues of the blooms,
Men then looked up to me, friendship reigned
Filling the cup for me, wine never waned.
“The Riming Poem,” like many others in the volume, bears out an observation in the editors’ introduction: “Christianity is the sea Anglo-Saxon poetry swims in.” The Word Exchange invites us to a great feast.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
One of the greatest rewards of an academic profession is the privilege of earning a living by reading. But this great gift, like all gifts, makes certain claims on you. In my case, one of the drawbacks is the fact that there is an overabundance of books to read, a seemingly endless stream that grows wider and deeper and flows more furiously with every passing day. Finding time to read books outside of one’s field can be a challenge. Finding books to recommend to others that are not highly technical—and therefore potentially useless to the nonspecialist—is an even greater challenge. So, given that my perspective is skewed, I offer here five suggestions for reading that I hope are not as quirky as they might look at first glance. These five texts all share two essential characteristics: they deal with some of the most important questions in life in a very accessible way, and they have the potential for changing the way we see ourselves and the world around us.
Written in the fourteenth century by an unknown English hermit, The Cloud of Unknowing (edited by William Johnston, Image, $9.95, 208 pp.) is perhaps the most exquisite treatise ever written on the human psyche, prayer, and our need for transcendence. Although it was written as a devotional manual for contemplatives, this jewel of a book has much to offer to our own highly distracted electronic age, principally because its chief insight is timeless, and way ahead of the misanthropic existentialists of the past century. Our existence is our own greatest grief, The Cloud acknowledges, but that grief opens a direct door to the divine.
Armando Valladares’s Against All Hope (Encounter Books, $16.95, 423 pp.) is a chilling reminder that the world is still full of gulags, and that such places can exist undetected, or, even worse, be perceived as necessary for the achievement of social justice. Written by a nonviolent dissenter who spent over twenty years in Fidel Castro’s Cuban prisons, this first-person account offers irrefutable proof that a military dictatorship that boasts of leveling all inequalities and of providing “free” education and health care for its citizens is still a dictatorship, no matter how exalted or well-received its altruistic goals may seem. The level of cruelty detailed here may be hard for some readers to take, but like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or George Orwell’s 1984, this is a book we ignore at our own peril.
Though declared dead and gone many times since the seventeenth century—and often in our day by those who consider themselves forward-thinking—the devil is very much alive in An Exorcist Tells His Story (Ignatius Press, $14.95, 205 pp.) by Gabriele Amorth, Rome’s top exorcist. Not only has the Catholic Church refused to acknowledge the devil’s many obituaries; it still offers its faithful a time-tested ritual for waging war against him. Fr. Amorth’s account of his struggles against the Evil One offers all readers an insider’s view of an aspect of Catholicism that many of the faithful would rather ignore or deny outright, and by doing so he makes us all ponder some of the deepest questions we can ask ourselves about our beliefs and our darkest fears.
In The Voices of Morebath (Yale University Press, $16, 260 pp.), master historian Eamon Duffy reconstructs life and piety in a sixteenth-century English village, from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Elizabeth I. Few other books accomplish such a vivid reconstruction of the past, and Duffy manages it using the most prosaic documents: churchwarden accounts kept by the pastor of Morebath, a remote hamlet in Dorset. Microhistory at its very best, this book reads like a novel and details what it meant to be Catholic before the Council of Trent, and also what it meant to have that way of life dismantled by government fiat.
For families with children I recommend the mother of all tales, The Odyssey by Homer, in the prose translation of E. V. Rieu and D. C. H. Rieu (Penguin Classics, $13, 416 pp.). This ancient saga takes its readers on a journey through time, back to a world where there was no such thing as magical realism, but only real magic—a time when myths linked the human soul to the entire cosmos. This book can also take its readers on an inward journey, even into the realm of the subconscious, where our identities are defined. Reading this book out loud to children can be a life-altering experience for all involved.
Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. His most recent books are Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy (Free Press) and A Very Brief History of Eternity (Princeton University Press).
So an age of austerity is upon us. If it is true, then for once American Catholics, usually late to the scene, were there first. The signs of the downturn are familiar to us: budget cuts, crumbling infrastructure, deferred maintenance, closings, diminished expectations—and doubts as to whether the show is worth keeping open.
How to write out of a tradition whose claims are daily rendered incredible by the people pledged to uphold them? I groped my way toward an answer by reading some recent books about England after World War II—its leaders dead, its capital blitzed, its literature and art superannuated, its empire defined downward as colonialism.
Ever since Brideshead Revisited English writers have sought to dramatize the gap between the country’s poetic past and its prosaic present. As the glory days recede the books are as strong as ever. In Postwar (Penguin, $20, 960 pp.), the late Tony Judt portrayed the period immediate after World War II as more chaotic and creative than Cold War narratives would allow. With The Age of Wonder (Vintage, $17.95, 576 pp.), Richard Holmes showed that English scientific breakthroughs of the early nineteenth century were as Romantic as English poetry.
Those books set me up for strong books by less well-known writers, who suggest that what might be called post-triumphalist writing has its own integrity. These writers are not revisionists. No, they achieve their effects by giving their attention to the life left unexamined by the writers chasing the big story of decline and fall.
David Kynaston takes the documentary approach. Austerity Britain (Bloomsbury, $45, 704 pp.) is the first book in a multivolume history of postwar Britain. It is thick with particular details and with voices, many drawn from the letters and diaries of workers, shopkeepers, and housewives. “18 February. Yesterday Selfridge’s was packed as though there was a bargain sale there. ‘Nothing else to do, nowhere else to go,’ we heard a man say, obviously one of the 3½ millions stood off through the fuel crisis. Today we saw men carrying their wives’ shopping baskets.” It is also thick with references to experts’ attempts to fix things through symposia, white papers, and master plans—which worked, until they didn’t. “Penguin Specials, originally launched in 1937,” Kynaston reports of the cheap, common-man paperback line, “probably hit their peak in February 1942 with the publication of Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and the Social Order, which sought to marry faith with socialism and rapidly sold 140,000 copies. But by 1945 sales of the Specials had slumped to such an extent that the series was temporarily abandoned.”
Iain Sinclair mashes up everyday England and mythic Albion, so that the gap between them becomes a place of mystery and enchantment. As publisher of the Albion Village Press in the seventies, he set up a base camp in the English heritage movement. In his own novels, he plugged into the electric life of London (Landor’s Tower works out the notion that there is a spirit-web connecting the London churches Wren designed). In nonfiction, he described walking the “London orbital” of the M1 highway. “Many years of wandering London, constructing energy charts of the points at which songlines, spirals, vortices, drovers’ ways, pilgrim paths, lost rivers, intersect with the sacred geometry of leys, churches, markets, conical mounds,” as he writes, brought him back home. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (Penguin UK, £20, 480 pp.) is his treatment of the East London area where he has lived since 1968. It is where Trotsky resided, where immigrants and new bohemians jostle elbows in the open-air markets, where the Olympic stadia will be built. Sinclair’s “psychogeography” of Hackney is an ungainly work, with no clear structure or strong characters other than Sinclair himself. But it is a book with the freedom and vitality of city life. A sketch of London, it is also Sinclair’s sketch of Londoners like himself—the artist, collector, biped repository of local lore, who risks it all and puts it all in, for if he doesn’t, who will?
Joe Boyd reconstructs English identity along stylish modern lines. In White Bicycles (Serpent’s Tail, $18, 304 pp.), Boyd, an American-born record producer, tells how he became the agent of English cultural “heritage” at the same moment he was exploiting wide-eyed 1960s collective optimism. “When I arrived in London in the spring of ’64,” he recalls, “...my image of British folk music was pretty limited: Ewan MacColl singing a sea shanty with his finger in his ear.” In the next ten years, through records he produced, the music was changed profoundly, as Fairport Convention, John Martyn, and Nick Drake emerged as folk counterparts to the Beatles and Pink Floyd. They weren’t antiquarians or English chauvinists. They were young people who grasped the paradox that the path to originality can run through the bramble of heritage. Fairport found a new style through a long, loud take on “A Sailor’s Life.” “The implications of their version of this old ballad have reverberated far and wide,” Boyd explains. “A member of Los Lobos told a friend of mine that they had been just another rock band from East L.A. until ‘A Sailor’s Life’ challenged them to find in their own Mexican traditions something as rich as Fairport had found in their English ones.” Boyd is a major figure in Rob Young’s Electric Eden (Faber & Faber, 500 pp.), which dramatizes the search for “Britain’s visionary music” within the broader revival of interest in the “pagan Britain” of Stonehenge and Glastonbury, morris dances and field-blend socialism. It is a thrilling story, and one I knew almost nothing about, although—and because—it took place at a time when England was the center of the music world.
All these writers make their heritage fresh by positing an English past in which Christianity was just one cult among many. That is what Mary Stewart did in 1970 in The Crystal Cave (EOS, $14.95, 512 pp.). I was thirteen when I read the novel in a paperback with a cover that made Merlin look like Jim Morrison and that pledged to “shed a fascinating new light on the turbulence and mystery of fifth-century Britain.” I didn’t know a thing about fifth-century Britain. Maybe this helps to explain the power the novel had over me.
I reread The Crystal Cave this summer. The setup now seemed brittle and mechanical, the narration stagey. But what rang true—rings true—is Merlin’s voice of wistful retrospect, which made me feel the loss of his world even as I was encountering it for the first time.
The novel made me feel, that is, the way I feel about Catholicism just now: that now more than ever the power of it is measured by the prospect of the loss of it. Brideshead Revisited reminds us that ages of austerity call forth imaginative riches: Waugh, “in a period of soya beans and Basic English,” wrote a novel “infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language”—and infused with a sense of just what was being lost, namely a world in which “the supernatural is the real.” What is taken from us in life is offered to us again through art. This paradox, a credo for the religious artist, is also a survival strategy in an age of austerity. For if the artists don’t get it right, who will?
Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.
The history of Catholic spirituality in America is an intriguing subject, especially this time of year, and James P. McCartin presents it with admirable clarity and rich detail in his Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics (Harvard University Press, $25.95, 240 pp.). Starting with the experience of the immigrant church of the late nineteenth century, he traces the evolution of Catholic spirituality through the twentieth century to the present day.
Prayers of the Faithful explores how, in response to the changing circumstances of Catholics in American society, the parish-centered devotions cherished during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were gradually replaced by more home-based and individual ways of praying. McCartin covers the rise of a spirituality of political activism linked to causes such as the right to life, solidarity with the poor in Latin America, and justice for immigrant farm workers. His survey includes the charismatic renewal, the phenomenon of healing prayer, the development of sources of spiritual nurture outside the institutional church, and much more.
Everyone knows something about Catholic prayer habits, but McCartin’s book helps us put whatever we know into a broader context. Besides, the book is full of great stories, like that of “Hollywood priest” Fr. Patrick Peyton, CSC, and his star-studded Family Rosary Crusade. I found the book evenhanded and objective in the best sense, making accessible a wide variety of expressions of the spiritual life of Catholics.
Crossing the Atlantic and looking back in history almost five hundred years, we enter the world of Catholic Spain, soldiering, and piracy, which Arturo Pérez-Reverte makes vividly present in his latest novel, Pirates of the Levant (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Putnam Adult, $25.95, 384 pp.). This is the sixth installment in the Captain Alatriste series (the first appeared in 1996). The novel chronicles the life of Spanish soldiers in 1627. This is the era of the Three Musketeers, but Pirates of the Levant is no swashbuckling romance. Pérez-Reverte, a war correspondent before he became a novelist, brings a cold realism to the task of depicting seventeenth-century Spain “at daggers drawn with the whole world.”
Pérez-Reverte’s characters are well drawn. The narrator is a seventeen-year-old soldier’s apprentice, Íñigo Balboa, who comes of age in the novel. Diego Alatriste, the primary figure in the series, is an ambiguous character who embodies both the reflexes of a hardened killer and the wisdom that comes from years of following his own honor code. Perhaps the most interesting character is the mogataz, Aixa Ben Gurriat, who joins forces with Alatriste. Neither Muslim nor Christian, he comes from a mountain tribe whose name means “no country”—and he believes in fate. His is the unexpected character whose moral compass points true north.
Like all Pérez-Reverte’s novels, Pirates of the Levant shows the fruit of meticulous research, and makes for fascinating reading. We learn about the miserable state of galley slaves, the ethnic stew of the Barbary Coast, and the dangers of lighting the wick of your harquebus too soon. We are peppered with nautical terms and picturesque curses. We also hear verses from Cervantes and Gongora, and eavesdrop on news of court politics and the Inquisition. We even observe the remarkable command to attack in “two credos”—the time it takes to mutter the creed twice. It may take you a bit longer to finish this novel, but it’s time well spent.
The Saint John’s Bible, commissioned by the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, is a one-of-a-kind handwritten and hand-illustrated manuscript. It is the first such Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery since the advent of the printing press. Twelve years in the making—using traditional writing implements and pigments—it is supposed to be completed next year.
It is therefore fitting that the Liturgical Press has offered a sampling of this major project through The Saint John’s Bible Engagement Calendar 2011 (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $14.99). This handsome twelve-by-six-inch desk calendar includes full-page reproductions from the Saint John’s Bible on the left side of each spread, with the week’s calendar on the right. It showcases leaves from eighteen books of the Bible. Each reproduction repays close attention, both for the calligraphy and the illustrations. The decorative elements range from splashes of brilliant color to intricately drawn architectural designs. There are dignified human figures and whimsical nature drawings. The year begins with Genesis 1:1, of course, and ends with the command in Acts 1:8 to send forth the good news “to the ends of the earth.” Thus, the calendar unfolds as a meditation upon the great story of God’s love from beginning to end. It makes a beautiful gift, even if it’s a bit large to fit in a Christmas stocking.
Rita Ferrone is the author of Rediscovering Vatican II: The Liturgy (Paulist Press).
At the top of my poetry list this Christmas is Jonathan Galassi’s monumental translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s poems, Canti, in a beautifully presented bilingual and annotated edition (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35, 498 pp.). Born in Ricarti, Italy, in 1798, Leopardi died in 1837, at the age of thirty-nine. During a life of often acute physical suffering, he managed to establish himself as an eminent classicist, philosopher, essayist, and philologist. He is considered one of the major writers of Italian prose. He is also Italy’s first and greatest modern poet.
The Canti is a collection of forty-one poems, which Leopardi wrote over the course of his short lifetime. The poems’ forms and subjects continuously transform and expand; the book may be read as a series of individual poems, with the poet, in each poem, speaking in a distinct voice and as a distinct character. Leo-pardi is the first European poet to probe both his public and his inner selves, the progenitor of what is, today, the modern (and postmodern) lyric. His poems are radically experimental in their combinations of various philosophical, political, historical, and mythological languages. The Canti’s examinations of self are ultimately melancholy. A deep, abiding, yet sensual pessimism, bottomed on the most pressing issues of human existence, informs the work.
Galassi’s translations bring the complex qualities of Leopardi’s poetry fully to life. Widely acclaimed for his translations of Eugenio Montale’s poetry and himself a poet of formidable talents, Galassi captures the depth, subtlety, and brilliance of Leopardi’s poetic genius as no one has done before in English. Canti is a genuine gift, an essential book for readers of the great books of world literature.
Another book of translations is on my list this year: Adonis: Selected Poems, the first major career-spanning collection of poems by the contemporary Syrian poet, translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa (Yale University Press, $30, 432 pp.). Days before the Swedish Academy announced that Mario Vargas Llosa was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Adonis was mentioned in the global media as the odds-on favorite. The English-speaking literary world finally became aware of what much of the rest of the world has known for decades.
Adonis (pronounced ah-doh-NEES) was born Ali Ahmed Said Esber in Syria in 1930. He has lived for the past thirty years in Paris, where he is regarded as a major literary figure. He is not only the most important living poet writing in the Arabic language; he is also a world poet of the stature of Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda, or Paul Celan. His chosen name is indicative of his truly astonishing life as a poet. Why a pen name from a mythological character from classical Greek—the wounded boy, Adonis, who was turned into a flower? Twenty years old, unable to get his poems published in a newspaper under his own name, Adonis sent poems under this new name and the newspaper accepted them. The poet was asked to come to the paper’s offices, and, much to the editors’ surprise, the person who appeared was a shy young man from a peasant background.
In the sixty years since, Adonis has taken poetry in the Arabic language from where American poetry was in the 1850s, before Walt Whitman, through the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan, avant-garde forms of twentieth- and twenty-first-century modernism and postmodernism. Adonis’s work puts into question the nature of poetry written in Arabic and the religious and political issues of present-day Arab culture. His themes are universal: good and evil, history and time, the self and “the other,” spiritual transformation, and, above all, love. Mattawa, professor of English at the University of Michigan and an award-winning poet and translator, proves himself more than equal to the task of transforming the intricacies of Adonis’s Arabic into poems of remarkable intellectual and emotional power.
This year we also have, from one of our most insightful readers of poetry, Christopher Ricks, a masterpiece of criticism, True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell under the Sign of Eliot and Pound (Yale University Press, $28, 272 pp.). Ricks, born in England in 1933, is Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University and formerly Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His writings include works about both Milton and Dylan (Bob Dylan, that is). True Friendship collects Ricks’s Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities, which he presented at Bard College in 2007. The book is divided into three parts on three poets, Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell. Ricks tells us in a prefatory note that he has known and long admired all three of these poets (his friendship with Hill goes back decades). Ricks’s objective in this book is to discuss the work of Hill, Hecht, and Lowell “under the sign” of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, a central figure in Ricks’s work. In an essay on Dante, Eugenio Montale wrote: “Always, at all times, poets have spoken to poets, entering into real or imaginary correspondence with them.” In True Friendship, Ricks, although not a poet, does just that, taking us with him through his critical correspondence with his five chosen poets, whose true friendship becomes the poetic correspondences that Ricks reveals between and among them. I won’t spoil the book’s ending. Let me just say that it has something to do with Dante, who was, of course, Leopardi’s great poet predecessor, and who is, I might add, the subject of one of my favorite poems in Adonis’s Selected Poems, “Concerto for the Road to Dante’s Church.”
Lawrence Joseph’s most recent books of poems are Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). His The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose will be published by the University of Michigan Press in 2011. He is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law.
The sense of disjointedness seems particularly stark this year. The celebration of the Christmas season, the feast of the church’s maternal face, should invite us to a sense of possibility and hope, but women are also discouraged, exasperated by the continual sense that their voices will always be secondary in the church. Yet women continue to struggle to bring the gospel to fruition.
Often this struggle is worked out in conversation, as exemplified by a new reader edited by Susan Abraham and Elena Procario-Foley, Frontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology: Shoulder to Shoulder (Fortress, $29, 272 pp.). Focusing on the scholarly interplay among feminist theologians, the collection’s essays discuss the understanding of the human person, the significance of Jesus Christ, and the possibility of a renewed vision of the church. In a collegial and readable manner, the authors offer individual essays but also engage one another in three lively roundtable discussions.
Of particular value is Rosemary Carbine’s treatment of the public face of the church after Gaudium et spes, arguing in particular for a sacramental understanding of women’s work. Susan Abraham makes creative use of Roger Haight’s theology of the symbol and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s notion of the ekklesia of women to propose a re-imagined catholicity based on justice. Overall, the effect is one of welcome coherence, as the writers share many presuppositions and dialogue partners. This discussion would be stronger, however, if it pushed outward a bit more; conversation among friends can too easily devolve from healthy consensus to merely a new decorum. We need a few raw edges.
These are found in an important book by Tina Beattie, New Catholic Feminism: Theology, Gender Theory, and Dialogue (Routledge, $43.95, 224 pp.). An extended discussion and critique of the gendered theological vision of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Beattie’s 2006 work evaluates the ways von Balthasar’s retrieval of masculine and feminine symbols for divine action (and interaction) have influenced Catholic theology. Beattie charges that, in von Balthasar’s hands, the use of gendered metaphor, especially the nuptial metaphor that uses “bridegroom and bride” language to describe the relationship of Christ and the church, becomes too easily reified, no longer metaphor. Beattie fights for the sacramental depth of sexual difference, utilizing the insights of psychoanalytic feminism as a critical tool and the work of liturgists and ritual theorists for constructive insights. One way to do this, she suggests, would be through “a recognition of the maternal priesthood alongside the masculine theology of the priesthood.” Her goal is a theology that moves past its focus on death or suffering or sacrifice, and toward a sense of life-giving fecundity that is also part of the tradition. Beattie doesn’t fully answer the questions she raises, but neither does she flinch from them.
The Called to Holiness series from Saint Anthony Messenger Press invites women to see themselves as theologians, with editor Elizabeth Dreyer’s own volume, Making Sense of God (Saint Anthony Messenger, $11.95, 105 pp.), setting the tone. Exploring the “many faces of God,” this short book (each in the series is around a hundred pages) presents the building blocks for a women’s spirituality informed by the Christian tradition. Emphasizing theology as lived experience, Dreyer tucks her own command of scholarly literature into the background, the better to highlight her insistence that theology and spirituality are a single pursuit, and a compellingly human one. Her discussion of the asceticism of everyday life is typical, in that it seems striking at first—someone actually understands my life!—and then becomes a quiet tug—so how shall I live?
Women’s literature at its best is attentive to the particularity of experience, a particularity that can and should inform more theological work. This attentiveness can be gentle, as we find in Elizabeth Enright’s lyrical novels for children and young adults. Her four-book series, originally published in 1941, opens with The Saturdays (Square Fish, $7.99, 192 pp.), featuring the New York City of the mid-twentieth century as the playground for the four Melendy children, ages six to fifteen. Only distantly supervised by a busy father and kindly housekeeper, the siblings pool their allowances every week so that, in rotation, each one might have a grand Saturday adventure: a trip to the opera, to an art gallery, to a beauty parlor or—if you’re a very determined six-year-old—to the circus, after which you get lost and must be delivered home by a police officer on a horse. What could be better?
Nostalgia of a different sort is found in Maxine Kumin’s Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (W. W. Norton, $29.95, 235 pp.), in which the range and rage of an intelligent and articulate woman who will not look away from the world is on full display. I recalled my own days of minivan driving, with NPR in one ear and middle-school gossip in the other, as I read her account of life as a parent during the turbulence of the 1960s: “I went where I was called to go. / I clapped, I comforted. / I kept my eyes on Huntley and Brinkley.”
Even then, however, the news alone was not adequate to the life of a woman’s mind. In a poem appropriate to the season of Advent, Kumin leaves her (and our) fascination with the news for more reflective territory. Ambling with her horse through the woods, she comes upon a clearing, and catches sight of an escaping doe. In this moment, a moment of utter stillness laced with vivid movement, in the rustle of beings all around her, she finds a word, “a word I am searching for.”
Its sound is o-shaped and unencumbered,
the see-through color of river,
airy as the topmost evergreen fingers
and soft as pine duff underfoot
where the doe lies down out of sight;
take me in, tell me the word.
Nancy Dallavalle is chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut.