Completed: First Quarter
“Master and Man,” a short story by Leo Tolstoy.
Interior Castle, a non-fiction book on spirituality by St. Teresa of Avila.
“A Cup of Cold Water,” a short story by Edith Wharton.
Feline Catastrophes, a collection of humorous anecdotes by Victor S. E. Moubarak.
“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” a short story by Tobias Wolff.
To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel by Harper Lee.
Prayer for Beginners, a non-fiction book of devotion by Peter Kreeft.
“Saint Dymphna,” a short story by Mary O’Connell.
Completed 2nd Quarter:
“A House of Gentlefolks,” a short story by Evelyn Waugh.
The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times, a non-fiction book by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.
White Fang, a novella by Jack London.
The Book of Psalms, (Psalms 51-100) KJV and Ignatius RSV Translations.
“Hallelujah, Family,” a short story by Ludmilla Petrushevkaya, translated by Anna Summers.
“Wingstroke,: a short story by Vladimir Nabokov.
“A House of Gentlefolks,” a short story by Evelyn Waugh.
“Miles City, Montana,” a short story by Alice Munro.
“The Cabuliwallah,” a short story by Rabindranath Tagore.
“1933,” a short story by Mavis Gallant.
“The Man Born Blind,” a short story by C. S. Lewis.
“After the Storm,” a short story by Earnest Hemingway.
Completed 3rd Quarter:
Saint Dominic, a biography by Sr. Mary Jean Dorcy, O.P.
“Clair de Lune,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant.
“The Crucifix across the Mountains,” a personal essay by D. H. Lawrence.
“The Woman In White: Emily Dickinson and Friends,” an essay by Joyce Carol Oats.
“The State of Grace,” a short story by Harold Brodkey.
The Book of Psalms, (Psalms 101-150) KJV and Ignatius RSV Translations.
Learning the Virtues That Lead You to God, a non-fiction book of Christian devotion by Romano Guardini.
Completed 4th Quarter:
First Letter to the Corinthians, an epistle from the New Testament by St. Paul the Apostle in both the KJV and Ignatius RSV translations.
Silence, a novel by Shūsaku Endō.
“Unzen,” a short story by Shūsaku Endō.
“The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” a short story by Saki (H. H. Munro).
“The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a short story by Saki (H. H. Munro).
Second Letter to the Corinthians, an epistle from the New Testament by St. Paul the Apostle in both the KJV and Ignatius RSV translations.
Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, a novel by Thomas Mann.
“The Demilitarized Zone,” a short story by Anthony Doerr.
“The Flying Stars,” a Father Brown mystery short story by G. K. Chesterton.
“The Red-Headed League,” a Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“In a Grove,” a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
“Clay,” a short story by James Joyce.
Two Gentlemen from Verona, a play by William Shakespeare.
Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, a non-fiction book on writing by Virginia Tufte.
Julius Caesar: Life of a Colossus, a biography by Adrian Goldsworthy.
Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, a book of history and collected poetry by Max Egremont.
I’m late on summarizing last year’s reads. Really late. On balance I would say this was again not a great year for reading, perhaps just short of average. But more importantly I was distracted from my plans. I don’t think I read half of what I planned to read at the beginning of the year. Two reasons I think. First the Thomas Mann novel Buddenbrooks taken up in May but not completed until the end of summer was so long that I did not plan accordingly and once I fell behind it destroyed the pace and plan I envisioned. Second belonging to Goodreads book clubs forces one to accommodate the poll winner for the reading selection, I don’t get to decide all the time. Before I summarize, if you wish to read my beginning-of-the-year plans and the quarterly updates for 2016 you can find them here:
As you break down my reads you will find twelve full length works, six books of non-fiction, five books of fiction, and one play, maintaining the one book per month goal I set out every year. The fact that there were more works of non-fiction than fiction is not typical of my reading patterns, but I think this may have been a function of being part of a Catholic Book Club on Goodreads, where the book selections tend to be Catholic devotional works or about Catholic theology. There were four such books on the list: St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Peter Kreeft’s Prayer for Beginners, Jean-Charles Nault’s The Noonday Devil, and Romano Guardini’s Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God. I have to say I thought the Kreeft book and the Guardini book were so-so. I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t think they were that insightful. Interior Castle is a great classic and well worth the read, and Nault’s book on acedia—a complicated emotional state of boredom, sloth, and inertia—is fascinating and perceptive. Nault makes the case that acedia is what drives people to lose devotion and perseverance, both in religious life and even every day activity, and Nault points out is particularly problematic in today’s hyper distracting world. It’s a rather heavy read, but interesting.
Another non-fiction work, also with a Catholic subject was the biography of St. Dominic de Guzmán by Sr. Mary Jean Dorcy. This read was not associated with the book club but was something I did to honor the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order of Preachers. And the last non-fiction book I read was my annual read on the art of writing, this year being Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Tufte’s book is a magnificent work. It goes through every possible sentence structure and their rhetorical implications. I meant to post some of the grammatical points here, but unfortunately I haven’t been so consistent in my blogging. Perhaps on occasion I still will post something from this wonderful book.
The four full length fiction works were all outstanding and all four classics. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from mid-20th century American South dealt with issues of racism through the eyes of a young girl. Jack London’s White Fang is an early 20th century American novel from the point of view of a wolf-dog as he goes from wild to domesticate. Shūsaku Endō’s Silence is a 20th century Japanese historical novel set in the 16th century of Catholic persecution. And Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is an early 20th century German epic set in the 19th century of a family’s decline. I immensely enjoyed all four novels. The fifth fiction work, Feline Catastrophes, is Victor Moubarak’s humorous collection of anecdotes—somewhere between short stories and jokes—centered on the house cat and the trouble he causes. Victor you may realize is a frequent reader of this blog. As with his many other publications, Feline Catastrophes, was a fun read.
The one play I read was one of Shakespeare’s early comedies, Two Gentlemen from Verona. While the plotting seemed a little awkward and the character’s conversions too convenient, the play was still enjoyable and worthwhile, least of all for Shakespeare’ language. It was a play obviously where he was learning his craft, but his poetry had already developed into the Bard that he would be. This play checks off another of the ones I’ve read from the Shakespeare opus. That makes 28 plays read of Shakespeare’ 37 officially credited plays. I’m getting there.
I also made headway on my track through the Bible. From the Old Testament I read Psalms 50 through 150 both in the KJV an Ignatius RSV translations, and from the New Testament I read First and Second of Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, also in both translations. That puts me about half way on the Old Testament and significantly through the New.
I completed 22 short stories but if you add the two essays I’ve listed, which are about short story length, I read 24 short works this year. That’s spot on the two per month I set as a goal. I guess that’s not too bad. Both essays were well worth reading, but Lawrence’s “The Crucifix Across the Mountains” is exceptional, a classic. Not only was D. H. Lawrence a great novelist, great short story writer, and great poet, but he was a fine essayist as well. “The Crucifix Across the Mountains” starts out as a travel essay where the author traverses across the Alps from Germany to Italy. But near Innsbruck the author comes across a series of crucifixes, and as he goes from mountain to mountain he encounters more crucifixes. The essay is a contemplation of art, Christ, and death.
This year I’ll rate the short stories as either exceptional, good, ordinary, or duds. Of the duds there were two: “The Man Born Blind” by C. S. Lewis and “The State of Grace” by Harold Brodkey. Lewis’s story was a posthumously published work and I suspect it was never refined, if it ever meant to be published. It felt more like a sketch than a complete story. Brodkey’s story was boring and depressing and was supposed to have all sorts of Freudian significance, which in today’s age is meaningless. Six stories I considered ordinary: “Saint Dymphna” by Mary O’Connell, “Clare de Lune” by Guy de Maupassant, “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham” by Saki, “The Flying Stars” by G. K. Chesterton, “The Demilitarized Zone” by Anthony Doerr, and “Clay” by James Joyce. The one surprise to some in those six I think would be Joyce’s “Clay.” It’s about a spinster who going on a visit to the family of a man who she nursed when he was a child, forgets the cake she bought for the occasion on the train ride because she became flustered when a drunken man flirted with her. It was well written but the lack of sympathy the author displays for the woman made it feel harsh and pitiless, and the theme wasn’t exactly profound. I’m probably not with the majority, but I don’t find James Joyce that great a short story writer.
Nine stories I’d rate in the good category: Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” Ludmilla Petrushevkaya’s “Hallelujah, Family,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Wingstroke,” Evelyn Waugh’s “A House of Gentlefolks,” Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana,” Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Cabuliwallah,” Mavis Gallant’s “1933,” Shūsaku Endō’s “Unzen,” Saki’s “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” I could probably distinguish a couple of those in a very good category (Gallant’s and Petrushevkaya’s ) since I had a hard time deciding if they were exceptional. What’s notable about this group is just how international the group of writers are.
Four stories I’d rate in the exceptional category: Leo Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” Edith Wharton’s “A Cup of Cold Water,” Earnest Hemingway’s “After the Storm,” and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove.” “Master and Man” is a story of rich landlord and a peasant caught in a blizzard; “A Cup of Cold Water” is about a poor, young man in love with a rich lady but uses his last pocket money to save another lady. “After the Storm” is about a scavenger who finds a sunken vessel after a hurricane and tries to steal the valuables. “In a Grove” is a series of testimonies to the police about a murder, each account varying and telling us something about the witness. When you add up the accounts you get to the heart of the murder.
As I do every year, I give a prize to the best short story read in that year. First the honorable mention and runner up is…drum roll please… Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove.” Akutagawa is early 20th century Japanese writer known as the "Father of the Japanese short story.” I had never read any of his stories, but was totally impressed with “In a Grove.” The sequencing of accounts, varying and conflicting with each other, creates a complex situation where truth is distorted through perception. Finally, the winner is…more drum roll…Tolstoy’s “Master and Man.” This was an incredible story about a selfish landlord who faced with death of the peasant under him freezing to death saves him by using his body warmth. While doing he has a mystical experience of meeting Christ, but while keeping the peasant warm he is exposed and dies. The landlord maybe master over the peasant, but the Lord is master over him. You can find both those stories on line if you want to read them.