Fiction for “Slow” Summer Days {my July column, The Catholic Post}

Following is my book review column which appears in this week’s edition of The Catholic Post.

Summertime…and the living is easy.

If you read that statement and laughed as you said, “that is not true at ALL,” I’m with you. Even though summer schedules are supposed to be “relaxed”, summer can often seem more hectic, not less, for both kids out of school and the grown-ups who transport them.

At the same time, there is a vibe during summer—whether during a time of actual vacation, or perhaps waiting for that baseball game to begin—that makes it seem a little more possible to sneak in some pleasure reading.

Can I suggest some Catholic authors?

Jay Hooks, S.J., one of the contributors to “The Jesuit Post” blog, recently wrote an intriguing article about the lack of contemporary Catholic fiction writers.

There was a lively discussion after the post, with commenters naming recently published authors “Catholic” ranging from Michael O’Brien to Toni Morrison to Dean Koontz.

It’s such an interesting topic. What does make a “Catholic” writer? Born Catholic? Practicing Catholic? Informed by Catholic themes? And do only seriously literary authors like Flannery O’Connor count?

Count me firmly in the “Catholic fiction is alive and well” category.

Because what people enjoy, especially in fiction, is so varied, I hesitate to recommend fiction, and I’m no longer shocked when others don’t love my favorites. But I still have an opinion (and a column), so I’m going to share some with you.

Consider my suggestions as a starting-point, and an invitation to find your own favorite summer reads for entertainment and uplift. I’ll recommend four authors of what I’d call “Catholic classics” (written in the last century) of varying genres, and I’ll also take a look at three brand-new Catholic novels.

*Sigrid Unset. Kristin Lavransdatter is the classic trilogy—historically, spiritually and emotionally rich—about a headstrong and complicated young woman, the mistakes she makes, and the life she lives, in 14th century Norway. If I were to make an exception, I would say it should be read by “everyone”! but you’ll know if it’s for you if you give it a try. There is a lovely newer translation of Kristin Lavransdatter
that is well worth the investment.

*A.J. Cronin, The Keys of the Kingdom. Yes, it was made into a justly acclaimed 1944 movie with Gregory Peck as the holy Fr. Francis Chisholm, but the book is far superior to it and well worth reading before watching the movie. Cronin writes beautifully and sensitively about relations of Catholics with other faiths, whether in interfaith couples or priests and pastor friendships, and The Keys of the Kingdom is his finest novel.

*Rumer Godden, In This House of Brede. I love Rumer Godden most for her lovely, melancholy tinged children’s novels. I’ve read most of her grown-up novels, too, but In This House of Brede is easily her best for its portrait of life in a Benedictine abbey and the rich lives and communal life of the nuns who live there. (The movie version is not worth watching, in my opinion, in case you were wondering). (Cronin’s
and Godden’s
books are both available in the Loyola Press “classics” series.)

*Louis de Wohl,  The Quiet Light: A Novel about St. Thomas Aquinas.  de Wohl wrote in the 1940s and 1950s a series of historical novels about saints. There’s a good reason they are still in-print and popular today. His books are great stories that effortlessly mix fictional and real characters. Each of these novels comprise just plain good stories that feel “real” and capture the spirit of the time and the saint in an enjoyable, edifying read.

For those looking for some of the newer fiction (all these are published, incidentally, by Catholic publisher Ignatius Press):

*The Leaves are Falling by Lucy Beckett. This historical fiction novel set in World War II Eastern Europe and England, tells the harrowing and ultimately healing story of Josef Halperin, who escaped World War II after unspeakable wartime experiences and how he makes his way in postwar England. It reminds me of a Kate Morton novel—carefully researched historical fiction peopled by characters with a rich inner life. Slow-paced, but rich.

*The Rising by Robert Ovies. I am conflicted about this contemporary tale of a boy who can bring people back from the dead, but I know others may enjoy it, so I’m including it here. One the one hand, it is fast-paced; I had no trouble racing through it and wanting to find out what happens next. But supernatural fiction is not my favorite, and this book was overly graphic and strained credulity in certain elements. At the same time, reading this kind of book often involves suspending disbelief. A good “beach read” for fans of this genre.

*Do No Harm by Fiorella de Maria. Though I’ve been involved in pro-life work for decades, I wasn’t sure I’d be interested in a novel based on these themes. I was so very wrong. Do No Harm is a fantastic, sharply written thriller about a London doctor being prosecuted for saving a patient’s life after a suicide attempt. The writing is top-notch, the characters are believable, sympathetic and wholly realistic in their foibles and their heroism. The many plot twists are both emotional and unexpected. Highly recommended.

What are your reads this summer? Any Catholic authors who are your favorites?