I’m drawn to novels and memoirs which are set in locations I have visited, or that flesh out stories I already enjoy. And for “summer reading,” they don’t need to be masterpieces!
Thus I’ve spent enjoyable time in June/July with these five:
1. Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller (William Morrow, 2017). This historical novel purports to tell part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder story from Ma’s perspective – the trip by covered wagon from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Kansas Indian Territory, and the family’s ill-fated settlement there. I’ve often wondered “But what about Caroline?!” in the Little House books, so it’s fun to read someone’s imaginings about her perspective.
2. In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir by Paul Quenon (Ave Maria Press, 2018). I’ve visited Thomas Merton’s monastery at Trappist, Kentucky on several occasions, including a Kentucky Holy Land Pilgrimage in 2011. So when I saw this title for sale at the convent, I was eager to read it.
Br. Quenon has spent his whole adult life at The Abbey of Gethsemani. He weaves together glimpses of Merton (“Fr. Louis” or even “Uncle Louie”) with glimpses of the monastic life. I remember some of the beautiful Kentucky countryside he describes. And among other gems, he speaks of prayer as “a breathing that purifies the air, like leaves on the tree.” As a “community breathing together,” he suggests, “we raise the effect to an exponential level.” (p. 136)
3. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (Simon and Schuster, 2011). On a trip to Israel/Palestine 11 years ago, we endured a very hot half day at the archaeological site of Masada near the Dead Sea. We approached Masada, at the top of a very steep “table mountain,” by cable car. We saw Roman tiles, storage rooms, and piles of rocks of the sort thrown down the mountainside at the Roman legions by 1st-century Jewish Sacarii (extremist Zealots) during the siege of Masada in 73-74 CE.
The historian Josephus and legend have it that when the Romans finally breached the walls of Masada they found 960 persons (the Jewish patriots and their families) already dead, apparently choosing death at each other’s hands rather than slavery or death at Roman hands. Legend also has it that two women and three children survived the massacre by hiding in a cistern.
Alice Hoffman writes the fictional story of four women who find each other at Masada, including the eventual survivors. It’s a 21st century feminist tale with more than enough violence and sex, but still a good “summer read.” Sam liked it too.
4. The Lost Chapters: Reclaiming my Life, One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz (Penguin, 2018). I’m a sucker for any author who writes about her experience inside a prison. So I naturally gravitated towards this one. A writer of literary fiction and a teacher of writing, Schwartz speaks in graphic language of her six weeks inside the Los Angeles County Jail on charges on DUI and battery during a relapse into addiction.
She chronicles her reading of 22 books which helped her reclaim her life while incarcerated. She also speaks of unexpected kindnesses from inmates named Duckie and Wyell, and of her amazement at meeting Qaneak the day before her release. A Maundy Thursday service in the jail’s chapel with footwashing completely undoes her….
5. The Way of Kindness: Readings for a Graceful Life, ed. by Michael Leach et. al. (Orbis Books, 2018). I don’t usually read anthologies, but I picked this one up at the convent along with Br. Quenon. It was a head-spinning experience to read Ann Lamont, Pope Francis, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, Joyce Ropp and others on kindness at the same time as imbibing the culture of abuse of the Los Angeles County Jail!
Questions for Reflection:
1. Which books have helped you reclaim parts of yourself?
2. How do you select books for summer reading?
Next Week: Grey County Vacation