Category: Book Reviews (page 2 of 2)
One of the things I want to do for the newly begun Year of
Faith is write more reviews of books by Catholic authors. Today’s selection is
a book that I’ve just read and really enjoyed, but I almost didn’t read it.
Rebecca Bratten Weiss, co-author of Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes Her Début
(double-billed with Regina Doman), was a classmate of mine in the Institute of
Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas, and when I saw on Facebook
that she had a new novel published I immediately downloaded the Kindle sample
from Amazon. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking at some of the
featured reader comments on the Amazon web site, one of which was, “Highly recommend to anyone searching for an clever
addition to the so called chick lit genre, or anyone who needs a quick brush up
on philosophy!” It wasn’t the “brush up on philosophy” remark that put me off
(actually, that was one of the features that interested me!), but the “clever
addition to chick lit” crack.
As far as I know, I’ve never read anything that could be called “chick lit,” and didn’t really want to, but I was interested to see what Rebecca (quite a clever chick herself) had come up with. But I must have been
feeling irritable the day I began to read the sample – I was already wary
because of the “clever chick lit” label and the first page or two seemed to
validate my impression that this book would be flip and superficial, so I quit
reading and deleted the sample. I was glad that Rebecca had written a fun novel
and glad that some people enjoyed reading it, but didn’t feel I needed to be
one of them. That was my mistake.
my mind, I felt guilty for jumping ship so quickly from Catholic Philosopher
Chick, so when I’m glad that I recently saw this review on the First Things blog I was quickly persuaded to download the full Kindle
edition and get reading.
and places I know first-hand. Although the story is set on the campus of the
fictional Dominican University
of Houston, it is clearly modeled,
in large part, on the University of Dallas
where Rebecca and I were graduate students together. Cate Frank, the
protagonist – a Jewish Catholic convert who has abandoned a career in fashion
journalism in New York to pursue a doctorate in philosophy in Texas – shares a
lot of biographical points with the novel’s two authors, and the faculty and
students of Dominican U certainly reminded me of particular individuals I’ve
known personally, as well as evoking “types” that will be recognizable to
anyone who has ever spent time on a university campus. Catelyn’s ill-matched
on-campus roommate, a bubble-brained bimbette with little interest in academics
or intellectuals, reminded me of the girl I got matched up with my first
semester in college (ooh, painful memories I’d thought long buried!).
men in Cate’s seminar on the Summa
Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas (the “Suminar”) also reminded me potently
of classmates from both my bouts of grad school experience – proud of
themselves for being able to sling the jargon of their academic specialty, but
really not nearly as wise or knowledgeable as they pretended to be. (As a grad
student, I shared Catelyn’s delight in popping their bubbles of pomposity and
(sometimes painful) memories it evokes, however, that really wouldn’t be reason
for me to recommend the book to others who might not share those memories.
Fortunately, this novel has a lot more going for it than just being an in-joke
for readers who can figure out which U.D. philosophy professor resembles the
fictional Dr. Paul Hastings, teacher of the Suminar. The story is built on
themes that many college and graduate school students have struggled with,
particularly intelligent, intellectually-inclined young women: trying to figure
out where your life is headed and why, wanting to make your parents see that a “useless” academic degree is worth sacrificing some of life’s pleasures to pursue, juggling the balance of academics and romance, struggling to see how Truth, Beauty, and Goodness intersect in the messiness of our real, mundane lives.
The major theme that runs through the whole story is the
question of a woman’s place in the world. As the first and only female in the “invitation
only” Aquinas seminar, from the first day Catelyn finds herself battling to win
respect from her male classmates; at the same time, she is hoping to find “Mr.
Finally! I had escaped. I had fled the frenetic rat-race of the Eastern seaboard and come, like a modern-day hermitess, to the Texan desert, in search of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful…
OKAY! I admit it! And the Perfect Guy!
At 24, I was already starting to feel like an old maid. With no dates in two years I was beginning to wonder anxiously if perhaps God had other plans for me. Yikes! Still, I continued to hope brazenly that God had that Special Someone in store. Preferably before I turned 30.
Perhaps it was pretentious of me to expect I would find the Perfect Guy while studying philosophy at the Dominican University of Houston. One does not usually associate the words “Philosophy” and “Perfect Guy.” But then again, one would not normally associate “Young Jewish Catholic Woman” and “Lover of Saint Thomas Aquinas” either. Yet here I was.
I had left my fashion magazine job—given up the world of Dior dresses and Louboutin shoes—to devote myself to the writings of a thirteenth-century monk. But I liked to think of myself as a post-modern penitent, snatched from the fires of Cosmopolitan and caught up to something higher and purer.
As you can see, Catelyn is a bundle of inner conflict, but by the end of the novel – after plenty of false starts and wrong turns — she has triumphed in both her pursuits, to make her mark as a Catholic Philosopher Chick and to find the perfect guy.
Two of my favorite things in this novel were (1) the clever (mostly Latin) title names for the chapters (even if you don’t know Latin, some of them will be familiar) and (2) the scene early in the story when Catelyn analyzes the possibility that the Perfect Guy might actually be one of the students in her Suminar class, using St Thomas Aquinas’s famous dialectic method. (Very funny for anyone the least bit familiar with the Summa, but also amusing to the uninitiated.) This scene nicely illustrates Cate’s struggle to find a real-life application for the theoretical wisdom she is amassing.
I’ll admit that I found the frequent references to Catelyn’s designer clothes and shoes a bit tedious, but they did remind me of how I, too, once sweated over the details of self-presentation in any social situation. Lots of other female readers, not yet as dowdy and middle-aged as I, will be more entertained by the protagonist’s fashion consciousness. My only other mild beef with the story is the character of Nat the nihilist, who is more of a “type” than an individual. I can understand how his type needed to be represented in the cast of characters, but he seemed little more than a prop. I was secretly hoping that, by the end of the story, he would have begun to see the light, or at least in some way have been changed by his time at Dominican U. Still, neither of these complaints would dissuade me from reading (or re-reading) this smart and funny novel.
I don’t know if the Catholic Philosopher Chick will be making a return, but I’m sure many readers hope she does. A prequel detailing how she came to be a Jewish Catholic convert interested in Aquinas would also be an interesting tale.
By the way, although this is Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s first novel, her co-author, Regina Doman, already has quite a few titles to her name. Many readers will be familiar with her best-selling children’s picture book, Angel in the Waters. (Click here to read Angel in the Waters online.) She has also published a string of novels for teens, based on well-known fairy tales, updated. Find out more about them all on the Chesterton Press web site.
Looking back over some of my earlier posts, I realized that there is a new series I can add to my reviews of murder mystery series set in the ancient Roman world. These are British novelist Ruth Downie’s stories of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a Roman army physician serving in Britain around the time Hadrian became Emperor. I first learned of this series when I snagged a copy of the third book in the series, Persona Non Grata, through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program, in which publishers provide free copies for a few lucky readers, who promise to publish an online review of the book after they’ve read it. (Quite a good gig, by the way. I’ve gotten several good books this way.) I’ve since read the first two in the series (as Kindle ebooks), and have grown to like bumbling Ruso who, despite being a terrible investigator, nonetheless always gets his man. (You can read my LibraryThing review of Persona Non Grata here.) The fourth in the series has just appeared in print this month (Caveat Emptor in the U.S. and Ruso and the River of Darkness in the U.K.)
Before I give my analysis of the series, I’d like to mention something that author Downie acknowledges on her website, namely the fact that the novels go by completely different titles (also, have different cover art and even list the author’s name differently) in their U.S. and U.K., as you can see in the two cover images of the first volume displayed here. All of the U.S. editions have as their titles familiar Latin words or phrases (Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor), while the British versions are all titled Ruso and … (the Disappearing Dancing Girls, the Demented Doctor, the Root of All Evils, the River of Darkness). I attribute this to the fact that the ambivalence contermporary Brits have toward the Latin language. Familiarity with Latin is actually gaining popularity and prestige in the United States these days (think of the “classical education” movement that is gaining ground in homeschooling and private education), while in self-consciously egalitarian Britain Latin is apparently an unpleasant reminder of the bad-old-days class distinction, when the privileged members of the upper (and parts of the middle) class learned Latin as a routine part of their schooling, while the working class remained semi-literate. Presumably, whatever stratum of contemporary British society buys lightweight murder mysteries would be put off by Latin titles. At any rate, I prefer the Latin titles to the rather hokey and contrived Ruso and … versions.
For the sake of easy comparison with the other Roman murder mysteries I’ve discussed, I’ll stick to the same format for the Ruso novels:
- Period: Early second century, set in the outer reaches of Roman imperial sway (for the most part, Britain), around the time that Hadrian became Roman Emperor (117 A.D.). At this time, Rome was already a well-established presence in Britain, but was still struggling to subdue the natives; in fact, this struggle is an integral feature of the novels, which play on the cultural differences between the Roman and British ways of understanding life and living it. Persona Non Grata, the second in the series, is the only installment so far to take place outside of Britain: in that story, Ruso goes home to southern Gaul to sort out some family problems. It seems highly unlikely that Roma urbs will feature as the setting of any of these novels.
- Detective/Protagonist: Ostensibly, this is Gaius Petreius Ruso (although he couldn’t succeed without the British Tilla, who starts as his slave and later becomes his wife). Ruso is the eldest son of a provincial Roman family, who for some unexplained reason preferred life as an army surgeon to inheriting his father’s villa and farm (Ruso lets his brother take on the headaches of family obligations, as we learn in the third volume). Ruso is a competent physician, but almost completely lacking in personal ambition, which is probably a good thing, as he (like many modern surgeons) is completely lacking in “people skills” or political savvy; not that he is rude or brusque, but he seems to have an emotional IQ of zero. I doubt I’ve ever known of anyone, in literature or in life, who was so inept at understanding what makes people tick or what motivates human behavior. This, of course, makes him quite an unlikely sleuth, and it must be said that Ruso seems to solve crimes in spite of himself. He succeeds only with the assistance of Tilla, who lacks any interest in investigation but seems to put Ruso onto the right scent without knowing or caring that that is what she is doing.
- What I like: I like the setting, the juxtaposition of the Roman and Celtic cultures, which provide a wonderful contrast. The reader gets a good sense of why the Romans were never entirely successful at Romanizing the British. Also, I suppose British readers (and Anglophile Americans) will enjoy reading stories set in ancient towns whose Roman roots may go almost unremembered today. The tone of these novels is lightly humorous, but Ruso is by no means the kind of scamp that Lindsey Davis’s Falco is. In fact, much of the humor springs from the irony of Ruso’s bumbling investigation, with every character other than Ruso seeming to know more than he about the mystery at hand.
- What I don’t like: Although I like the novels overall, I must admit that their protagonist drives me nuts. Ruso’s almost complete ignorance of ordinary psychology and his obtuse inability to ask what seem obvious questions at times seem to defy belief. (Ruso is the kind of person who today would inspire engineer or Aggie jokes.) Fortunately, his feminine sidekick, the earthy Tilla, offsets his left-brained, linear-thinking way of going about things.
Like the Didius Falco series, this series aims more at telling amusing stories than presenting gripping, suspenseful mysteries. The would-be sleuth’s bumpy relationship with his female partner often looms larger than the question of identifying a murderer. Nonetheless, the solution of the mystery running through the story usually manages to tie these two strands together in a satisfying way. Despite my frustration at Ruso’s obtuseness, I’ll keep reading the Medicus series.
The third series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome with which I am most familiar are those of Lindsey Davis, the investigations of fictional detective Marcus Didius Falco, who lives and snoops during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (father of succeeding Emperors Titus and Domitian, who all together constitute the Flavian Dynasty). Unlike the Roberts and Saylor novels, this series gives insight into the popular culture of the early Imperial Rome, rather than the historical events that contributed to the collapse of the Republic. Falco’s escapades are also considerably more lighthearted and deliberately comedic than those of the other two fictional detectives, which may be why they are so popular.
- Period: The first in the series, The Silver Pigs, takes place in A.D. 70, at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Vespasian (also the year of the razing of Jerusalem), but the central events transpire in Roman Britain. The most recent (20th) addition to the series, Nemesis (only recently released in hard cover) takes place in A. D. 77., toward the end of Vespasian’s reign. The intervening novels take the protagonist to the far corners of the Roman Empire, which in this period was at its greatest expanse.
- Detective/Protagonist: Marcus Didius Falco, a plebeian with a checkered family background, is a freelance “informer” who works on commission for the emperor, reporting to the emperor’s Chief Spy. Falco is also a free-wheeling scamp who is not afraid to be politically-incorrect: for instance, early in the series, he sets up housekeeping with Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who becomes the mother of his first child. The colorful commoners in Falco’s family and the more conventional and proper aristocrats in Helena’s provide a good overview of the social spectrum of Roman citizenry of the period, and serve to suggest that the early Empire’s pretense of preserving the social and civic mores that had given strength and resiliency to the Roman republic was just that — pretense. Davis seems to suggest that the real vitality of Rome, at this point, lies in the huge plebeian swathe of the population, whose interests, unlike those of the stiff, old Senatorial class, are varied, earthy, and definitely not stuffy. Think of Falco as the Roman equivalent of a modern East-Ender and Helena as the equivalent of the younger generation of the British aristocracy, who want to break out of the quaint anachronism of the social class into which they’ve been born.
- What I Like: First, these stories are just plain laugh-out-loud funny. You just can’t not like that scamp, Falco, and you can’t help but sympathize with the women (well-bred girlfriend Helena Justina and his common but practical mother) who try to rein him in and keep him on the straight and narrow. To my mind, Davis does a better job than Saylor of showing the contrasting values and habits of the common and the aristocratic classes. Another attractive feature of these novels is the wide range of locales covered, with at least as much time spent in the provinces as in Rome itself.
- What I Don’t Like: As with Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder stories, my chief quibble is the projection of modern social mores and political attitudes onto citizens of ancient Rome. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a woman like Helena Justina would choose (or be allowed) to take up the role of common-law wife to a low-life like Falco (if he were a member of the Roman nouveau riche, this might be a bit more plausible). Davis admits on her official website that she wanted to create characters and situations that suited her own feminist sensibilities. However, I am more inclined to make allowances for the charming and irrepressible Falco than I am for the dully self-righteous Gordianus. I frankly admit my personal bias in this matter, but would defend it by pointing out that, in the case of Saylor, modern sensibilities may distort our understanding of important historical events, whereas in Davis’s novels they simply provide for a lively cast of characters, none of whom is closely involved with events of historical moment.
- John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR mysteries: Best overall, because it ably balances historic and cultural accuracy with entertainment. Although not as much of a scamp as Davis’s Falco, Decius Caecilius Metellus manages to give us an insider’s view of the ruling class without being stuffily pious about it; he has plenty of youthful adventures, including a long and spirited rivalry with Clodius Pulcher and an on-going friendship with ex-galley slave Milo, who becomes a gang leader in the Roman underworld and chief (eventually deadly) rival of Clodius.
- Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mysteries: Gives an interesting contrasting view of many of the same events covered in the SPQR novels. While I believe Gordianus’s viewpoint reflects that of some modern historical revisionists more than it does one typical of any Roman of Gordianus’s day, these novels are well-crafted mysteries that can provide many hours of satisfying entertainment. They also, if read in tandem with Robert’s SPQR stories, can provide a glimpse of the spectrum of modern evaluations of important milestones in Roman history.
- Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mysteries: Probably the most lighthearted of the three, the Falco novels give a glimpse of ancient popular culture that pleasingly complements the more seriously historical focus of the other two series. These novels, set a couple of generations later than the other series, show how the concerns of the Empire differed from those of the waning Republic.
- Period: This series covers roughly the same span as that of the SPQR series, with the first novel, Roman Blood, finding the detective protagonist assisting Cicero on one of his early career-enhancing legal successes, defending Sextus Roscius against a charge that he murdered his own father; the latest novel, The Triumph of Caesar, takes place during Julius Caesar’s dictatorship and the events leading up to Caesar’s assasination.
- Detective/Protagonist: Unlike Roberts’ Decius Metellus, Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder is definitely not a representative of the political elite; a plebeian by birth, he takes on investigations that political bigwigs find necessary but beneath their dignity. This lead character seems to have little in with the common virtues, viewpoints, or values typical of Romans of that time, and thus strikes me as un-Roman and rather anachronistic: for example, he has a tendency to make slaves not only members of his household, but also of his family — he marries his half-Jewish/half-Egyptian concubine, adopts two boys he had previously purchased as slaves, and manumits a handsome household slave who has impregnated his daughter so that the two can be married. Annoyingly, Gordianus the Finder is presented as the kind of anti-establishment egalitarian multi-culturalist that politically-correct modern Americans are supposed to admire but, fortunately, he is also a cracking good investigator with a knack for getting involved in fascinating political subterfuge while somehow managing to remain morally detached from it.
- What I Like: Gordianus, despite his attitude of moral detachment, manages to get himself and his family of apolitical commoners entangled in some of the most fascinating and complicated high-flown historical intrigues of the late Roman republic. And even Gordianus doesn’t get to keep his position on the moral high ground — in the eighth of the series, Rubicon, it is revealed that even Gordianus is not above a dastardly deed or two to preserve his own interests.
- What I Don’t Like: The thing that always grates on me when I read these novels (and sometimes others with historical settings) is the anachronistic projection of modern attitudes onto characters intended to be sympathetic to modern readers, attitudes which would not have been typical of Romans of the period. For instance, even plebeians like Gordianus could be as class-conscious and snobbish as any patrician; most were contemptuous and suspicious of former slaves, who sometimes became quite rich and influential. Saylor seems to be bent on historical revisionism of a rather tendentious kind — Gordianus always seems to find sympathy for figures whom history has shown to be socially destructive, self-aggrandizing archvillains. For instance, his beloved elder adopted son, Meto, becomes an ardent follower of Catilina and later becomes the right-hand man of Julius Caesar, but Gordianus finds no fault with either choice, other than to rue the fact that his boy has embraced military life. In fact, while sharing a hot bath with Catilina, Gordianus himself is almost seduced (sexually and philosophically) by Catilina, a spoiled aristocrat who plotted to attack the city of Rome from within and without, using an army of escaped slaves to attack the city while within Rome’s walls young aristocrats won over to Catilina’s self-serving cause were to murder their own fathers in their beds and set fire to the city. Leading Romans who survived Catilina’s conspiracy (including the historian Sallust) regarded him as something like a cross between Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden, but Saylor manages to portray him as a kind of 1960s American radical, a charismatic and sexually magnetic figure who may have been a sociopath, but who should be admired for trying to shake up the Privileged White Man’s Establishment. On the other hand, Saylor projects a much lower opinion of Cicero, who survived an attempt by Catilina to assasinate him as a political rival and who afterward, while consul, discovered and foiled Catilina’s plot against the Republic; Cicero is presented as a self-serving coward and an obnoxious blowhard who had the dumb luck to stumble upon Catilina’s plot, and then used it to inflate his own political ego for decades afterward. These novels would be better off without Saylor’s/Gordianus’s perverse moralizing.
SPQR series, John Maddox Roberts
The first is the SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts, which I began reading about 15 years ago, a couple of years before I first began studying the Latin language and the culture of the late Roman Republic and early Empire. SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”), an official motto of the Roman Republic which can still be seen on manhole covers in Rome to this day. This remains my favorite series of the three, perhaps because it first introduced me to the daily life and the cultural ideals of the Roman Republic (at that time, like most people, I didn’t even know the difference between the Republic and the Empire). When I began reading, there were three novels in print; now, the novels now total a baker’s dozen, and several related short stories have been published as well.
- Period: The last generation of the Roman Republic (70-46 B.C.). The series opens in the year of the consulates of Crassus and Pompey, the same year that Cicero achieved one of his first major legal victories (prosecuting the corrupt provincial governor Verres), and the year that the poet Virgil was born. The most recent novel occurs in the months leading up to the assasination of Julius Caesar on the Senate floor. Thus, the series covers what is probably the most interesting and dramatic period of Roman history, when the civic virtues that had allowed Rome to become great are crumbling under the weight of greed and personal ambition, to collapse ultimately into the long period of civil war that led to the ascension of Octavian (a.k.a. Caesar Augustus) and the birth of what we now call the Roman Empire.
- Detective/Protagonist: Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, son of a obscure branch of an old Roman family of senatorial class. Decius is a bright young man with an insatiable curiosity that often gets him involved in bringing to light secrets that a more politically-astute (or ambitious) young man would avoid. In the first novel, Decius is just taking his first step on the cursus honorum, or career ladder of public service that respectable men of his social class were expected to follow. As the series goes along, Decius’s career advances as the political situation in Rome declines; at some point he marries a (fictional) niece of Julius Caesar.
- What I Like: There’s almost nothing I don’t like about this series. Here, briefly, are a few specifics: Authenticity — Decius is a political and cultural “insider,” therefore he understands, sympathetically but not uncritically, Roman republican virtues and figures; Portrayal of key historical figures is realistic without being “post-modernly” cynical of their motives; Diversity of locale: some of the novels take place in other parts of the Roman world, not just the urbs itself; all of the major historical events of the period are dealt with; also, the author provides a glossary of terms relating to Roman life that are likely to be unfamiliar to readers; indirectly, the reader learns a lot about this fascinating period of history; finally, the tone of the novels includes appropriate humor without being irritatingly “jokey.”
- What I Don’t Like: Not much! I’m just sorry I’ve only read about 6 of the 13 novels so far.