18 December 2014

A New Plan

I have been meaning for some time to compose reviews of several of the books I've read recently.  In each case the project seems too big to start, because for the past year most of my reading has been focused on large questions regarding the ecclesiastical history and politics of the past two centuries.  My reading is limited.  I'm only 26, and I have always been a very deliberate reader.  In order to jumpstart the process of working through the stack of things that need to be written, I am going to import a method I often use when reviewing movies: create a syllabus of recent items, summarize them in short form, and then return later on for longer discussions.  This way I should at least be able to get something down, and this easy beginning can serve as the foundation for more thorough discussions later on.

Here is the first round of short reviews.

  • History and Future of the Roman Liturgy, by Denis Crouan — I am not entirely sure what to make of Crouan's history of the liturgy.  He is committed to apologizing for the Bugnini Missal, and insists that when done well the new liturgy is wonderful.  He occupies a strange space: part traditionalist, but part critic of tradition.  He fully embraces the rhetoric about "calcifications" and "barnacles" and "private devotions" added to the Roman Rite in the older form, and supports the purification of the rite.  After having experienced the old rite more extensively over the past year, I think I disagree with him about the usefulness of removing these devotions and prayers, which seem to me to bolster the character of the liturgy and add to its integrity as a sacrifice.  However I am not yet sufficiently versed in these matters to say more, nor do I remember adequately the finer points of Crouan's analysis to be able to critique him.
  • The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann — Mann's great novel can be divided into two halves, based on the prime interlocutors.  In the first half, the focus is mainly on an Italian humanist named Settembrini and a Russian lady named Chauchat.  I read this section of the novel my second year of college, shortly after reading Buddenbrooks.  The latter was an enjoyable and easy read, whereas Magic Mountain is very intentionally a novel of "ideas".  Unfortunately the "ideas" of the first half are mostly based on secular humanism and humanistic republicanism, neither of which have much appeal to me, so I put it down for a few years.  Upon resuming the novel, I discovered that the second half is centered on a nihilistic Jesuit who uses a kind of traditionalism to critique the rationalism of Settembrini.  The second half of the novel is extraordinarily good. Naphta, the Jesuit, and Settembrini fight with each other, and are overcome by a third man, who represents Dionysian sensuality.  The implicit resolution of the battle of ideas is dissatisfying, and the ideas themselves are sometimes coarse, but it is a well-executed dialogical novel, and at many points the exchanges between the various characters are simply brilliant. 
  • Group Portrait with Lady, by Heinrich Böll — A sprawling novel by the nobel prize winning post-War German writer.  This book uses the difficulties of a simple West German lady as the occasion for a network of stories about the experience of the average citizen during the rise of Nazism and WWII.  It has some excellent moments, and some delectable peculiarities, but by the end the novel has collapsed into self-indulgent trivialities, with the narrator eloping with a Catholic nun and the protagonist becoming a weird folk heroine.  Böll is an enlightened lapsed Catholic with ethnic sympathies for his former religion.
  • Chicago Manual of Style, Chapter II — On manuscript preparation and the editing process.
  • Livy, Book I — In his first book on the history of Rome, Livy chronicles the development of the city from its founding to the fall of the Tarquins.  The Tarquins are the most fascinating characters in this series, and Livy's discussion of the legends of early Rome tends to have an edifying flavor.
  • Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun — This novel chronicles the development of the homestead of a Norwegian man sometime around the turn of the 20th century.  It is a celebration of simplicity and hard work, which contrasts the dedication of the main character against his fickle wife, their various children, and the soft, corrupt neighbor man who attempts to live off of his wits instead of working the land.