Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Unlikely Love Story


South of Broad
by Pat Conroy

I suppose it is too soon to say that something will be one of my favorites of 2010, but my money is on South of Broad. This is Pat Conroy's first new novel in about 15 years, and it is just phenomenal. It is not a love story in the conventional sense of "boy meets girl, love ensues, tragedy strikes, relationship is troubled, eventually they get back together..." South of Broad is something altogether different - richer and better. There certainly are conventional man/woman love relationships woven through the story, but more than that it is a story about the enduring power of longtime friendship, and the lengths some friends will go to to protect one another. South of Broad also movingly depicts the redemption of a disappointing relationship between a boy and his mother, the ongoing tumultuous love between the same boy/man and the Catholic faith, a woman's agonizing choice between marrying Christ or marrying the ordinary human man whom she loves, and the unconditional love of a father for his troubled son. The story is also a love letter from the author to the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Conroy elegantly describes a city of incomparable beauty and grace. It was almost enough to make me want to move there, which is really saying something since I usually can't picture myself living in the Deep South.

Conroy's writing is witty, graceful, and often hilarious. He creates characters who are so real that we grieve their loss at the end of the narrative. I have never read a Conroy novel that I didn't like, but this is one of his best. It is the most overtly spiritual of his books - he sees the Church with all of her flaws and is kind to her anyway. Without beating the reader over the head with it, he shows us how the Church continues to beckon us, to call us home even with all of our anger, imperfection, and disbelief. I wondered if Conroy had ever heard that quote from St. Augustine that "the church is a whore, but she is my mother." He seems to understand the position of those of us who get frustrated with the church and our complicity with the world's sin, but we love her/us anyway. As the protagonist, Leo, describes his own rage and rebellion after his beloved brother's suicide, he says that the family priest told him "that the church was patient and would be waiting for me when I was ready to return. It was, and he was." Amen to that.

As terrific a book as this is, it is not easy to read from an emotional perspective. There are ugly pieces here - classism, homophobia, pedophilia, and promiscuity, for example. The scenes in the AIDS flophouses of San Francisco are among the most graphic and wrenching I have ever read. Conroy's real gift is pointing out the beauty that shimmers in the midst of all the ugliness the world can dole out. The instances of grace are even more powerful against the backdrops of some of the worst human sin we can imagine. Against all odds, this is a lovely, lovely book.

Reverent Reader

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reading Review - 2009

At long last, I finally get to post my best of/worst of reading for 2009. The total is 78 books, 35 fiction and 41 non-fiction, and one a mix of both.

Here is the list, in the approximate order in which they were read (note - if you do not want to read through this whole list, skip to the later parts in the post. I do this part for my own record-keeping more than anything else):

War and Peace (F) by Leo Tolstoy
I Was Told There's Be Cake (NF - essays) by Sloane Crossley
Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (NF) by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and Donald Weaver-Zercher
The World Without Us (NF) by Alan Weisman
Letter from Point Clear (F) by Dennis McFarland
A Mercy (F) by Toni Morrison
Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (NF) by Margaret Atwood
I See You Everywhere (F) by Julia Glass
Reputation: Portraits in Power (NF - essays) by Marjorie Williams
Lark and Termite (F) by Jayne Anne Phillips
The Wordy Shipmates (NF) by Sarah Vowell
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1963-65 (NF, history) by Taylor Branch
I Survived Cancer But Never Won the Tour de France (NF) by Jim Chastain
The Double Bind (F) by Chris Bohjalian
The Magician's Nephew (F) by C.S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (F) by C.S. Lewis
The Horse and His Boy (F) by C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian (F) by C.S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (F) by C.S. Lewis
The Silver Chair (F) by C. S. Lewis
The Last Battle (F) by C. S. Lewis
Things I've Been Silent About (NF - autobiography) by Azar Nafisi
Same Kind of Different as Me (NF) by Ron Hall and Denver Moore
Christ on Trial (NF) By Rowan Williams
Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (NF) by Taras Grescoe
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (F) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Magician's Book: a Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia (NF) by Laura Miller
Serena (F) by Ron Rash
The Hour I First Believed (F) by Wally Lamb
Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Sanctity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding (NF - memoir) by Heather King
Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (NF) by Robert Kaplan
Classics for Pleasure (NF) by Michael Dirda
The Power of One (F) by Bryce Courtenay
Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (NF) by Rowan Williams
What Happened at Vatican II (NF) by John O'Malley
Handle with Care (F) by Jodi Picoult
An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith (NF - spirituality) by Barbara Brown Taylor
The Eyre Affair (F) by Jasper FForde
Loving Frank (F) by Nancy Horan
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 (NF) edited by Jerome Groopman
Roots (F) by Alex Haley
Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness (NF) by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Liberty (F) by Garrison Keillor
The Year of Fog (F) by Michelle Richmond
Acedia and Me: a Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life (NF) by Kathleen Norris
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey (NF) by Candice Millard
The Pillars of the Earth (F) by Ken Follett
Sundays in America: a Year-Long Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith (NF) by Suzanne Strempek Shea
This Child Will Be Great (NF - memoir) by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The Grail Bird: the Rediscovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (NF - science) by Tim Gallagher
Little Heathens (NF - memoir) by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Home Safe (F) by Elizabeth Berg
The Help (F) by Kathryn Stockett
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (NF - science/environment) by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Mortgaged Heart: a Collection of Writings by Carson McCullers (F and NF) by Carson McCullers
Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon (NF) by Matthew Woodley
Those Who Save Us (F) by Jenna Blum
Olive Kitteridge (F) by Elizabeth Strout
A Walk in the Woods (NF) by Bill Bryson
Pilgrimage: Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice (NF) by Edward Sellner
The Source (F) by James A. Michener
The House at Sugar Beach (NF - memoir) by Helene Cooper
The Art of Pilgrimage: the Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred (NF) by Phil Cousineau
Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (NF) by Matthew, Dennis and Sheila Linn
One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life (NF) by Bliss Broyard
The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World (NF) by Dominique Moisi
Blood Brothers (NF) by Elias Chacour
That Old Cape Magic (F) by Richard Russo
Exile (F) by Richard North Patterson
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (F) by Jamie Ford
Seven Types of Ambiguity (F) by Elliott Perlman
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (NF) by Janet Soskice
Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter But Really Do (NF) by Karen Fingerman and Melinda Blau
The Inheritance of Loss (F) by Kiran Desai
The Meaning is in the Waiting (NF) by Paula Gooden
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope in Africa (NF) by William Kamkwamba
The Toss of a Lemon (F) by Padma Viswanathan

Here are some personal favorites of mine:

Top 5 Fiction:

War and Peace (seriously, it's a great book)
Lark and Termite
The Help
Olive Kitteridge
That Old Cape Magic

Honorable Mention:

The Pillars of the Earth
Those Who Save Us
The Toss of a Lemon
Loving Frank

Top 5 non-fiction:

An Altar in the World
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1963-65
Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope in Africa

Honorable Mention:

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008
What Happened at Vatican II

Most Hopeful: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Most Inspiring: Blood Brothers, Same Kind of Different as Me
Funniest: A Walk in the Woods
Biggest Disappointment: Sundays in America
Most Frightening: The World Without Us
Surprise Hit: The Whole Narnia series
Most theologically or spiritually broadening: Where God Happens
Authors I want to read more of: Kathryn Stockett, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ron Rash
Book that has had the most influence on my daily life: An Altar in the World
Biggest Dud: The Year of Fog
Most Educational Fiction: The Source

Please respond by sending me your favorite (and/or least favorite) reads of 2009 - I am always interested in what my friends are reading. I've already read one terrific book in 2010 - Pat Conroy's South of Broad. I will post on it in a few days.

Happy 2010, reading friends!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Playing Catch Up

Yowza! I think this is the longest blog break I have taken since Ex Libris Fides was launched in 2007. It was not really intentional, I just got behind on my postings during my Israel trip, and could never seem to catch up before the end of the year. Lately, I've been procrastinating because I want to do my "year-end/new year" post with the best and worst of 2009, but did not feel like I could do that without writing posts about the remaining 2009 books. So, I just kept putting it off. I want to move on in to 2010, though, so have decided to wrap up 2009 with one post containing six micro-posts of the final 2009 books. Then, in the next couple of days, I'll get my New Year's post done and we'll be off to the races.

Here are the final 2009 books:

Seven Types of Ambiguity: (by Elliott Perlman) a compelling novel that shares the thoughts and intentions leading up to a crime, as well as its aftermath, from the perspectives of seven different people involved. Well-written, moves quickly, and reminds us that we never really know the whole story until we hear all sides.

>The Sisters of Sinai: (by Janet Soskice) a history/biography of Agnes and Margaret Smith, two Victorian-era women who devoted their adult lives to the study of ancient languages and to exploring the world looking for old biblical manuscripts. A great read about the joy of discovery and the passion for the study of scripture. Note: I recently submitted a more lengthy review of this book to The Presbyterian Outlook. It will probably appear in an upcoming issue.

Consequential Strangers: (by Karen Fingerman and Melinda Blau) an exploration of the effect of our more casual, peripheral relationships on our quality of life. People like our mail carriers, our baristas, and friends of friends can actually go a long way toward enriching our lives and helping us feel more at home in the world. It is a sociological study, but confirmed a lot of my own instincts about how we are all connected and have the potential to positively (or negatively) affect each other.

>The Inheritance of Loss: (by Kiran Desai) cryptic and forgettable. A novel about the legacy of colonialism in India. Desai poignantly describes the toll that being pulled between British and native traditions took on personal relationships in the decades immediately following independence. A worthwhile aim, but Desai writes with a detachment that makes it difficult to get into the story. I find novels about India fascinating, but liked The Toss of a Lemon much better (see below).

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: by William Kamkwamba) This is a wonderful story. One of the most hopeful and inspiring books I have read in a long time. The story is the narrative of how William, forced to drop out of school because his family could not pay the fees, figured out how to build a windmill to provide electricity for his family. William and his family are from Malawi, and his efforts brought progress and possibility to a people who were recovering from famine. Don't miss this one!

The Toss of a Lemon: (by Padma Viswanathan) another novel about India, and how one family copes with the social changes leading up to independence from British rule. It's a great story, but also very informative about the caste system and how closely tied that system is to the Hindu religion. Great characters, and the information is woven in in such a way that one never feels bogged down in didactic details. Viswanathan gives us a peek into the Indian culture in the early 20th century by letting us into the lives of a traditional Brahmin family. Very, very good book.

Tune in soon for the best and worst of 2009!

Reverent Reader