Summer Reading, Reviewed

We often begin summer with reading recommendations, but rarely do we check back in to see what folks actually read. So with Labor Day just a few days a way, I want to share two books I enjoyed this summer. I hope you'll add your favorites below.

Dissolution by C. J. Sansom sat unread on my Kindle for some time, a fact that I found puzzling once I began the story. Why did I ever put it off? A historical mystery set in Tudor-era England, Dissolution is the first in a series featuring the hunchback lawyer and accidental detective Matthew Shardlake. As you might expect, the novel takes place during the dissolution of Catholic monasteries by Henry VIII. The king does not make an appearance here, but the novel finds a suitable villain in the king's manipulative adviser, Thomas Cromwell. Though Shardlake serves as a legal adviser to Cromwell, he comes to question his motives and integrity. Still, Shardlake remains a believer in church reform, and it is to Sansom's credit that—with the exception of Cromwell—he renders both the Protestant reformers and the Catholic resisters in shades of grey.

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Dissolution is a quick read; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel takes more time, but it is ultimately more rewarding. Here again we find Thomas Cromwell, but this time he is the hero of his own story, the son of a blacksmith, abused as a child, who rises to the highest rank in Henry's court. The novel's best sections center on the relationship between Cromwell and Thomas More, a contest made famous in the play and film A Man for All Seasons. For a Catholic raised on that classic, it is shocking to see More rendered as a prim idealogue with a taste for torturing heretics. But that is the genius of this novel. Mantel creates a rich symphony around a reviled figure in English history and, in the process, forces you to reassess your historical assumptions. It is an exhilerating performance, a book you may want to read more than once. But be forewarned: you will never see Robert Bolt's hero in the same light again.

Tim Reidy

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Bill Collier
6 years 2 months ago
"But be forewarned: you will never see Robert Bolt's hero in the same light again."

But what if we don't want to see Robert Bolt's hero in a diffferent light? :) I recall that Richard Marius's biography of More caused some to see More in a tarnished light, but I much prefer the Peter Ackroyd biography for its fairness and style.
Brendan McGrath
6 years 2 months ago
I don't know any more about St. Thomas More than the average person with an MTS in Theology, so I can't comment on his character or on the issue of torturing or persecuting heretics - however, from a course I took on the Catholic Reformation, one thing that struck me was how... well, to put it generally, how complicated and paradoxically many-sided historical figures often are, and specifically, how often the voices of reform in the Church during that time were also the people who were in favor of the Inquisition, cracking down on heretics, etc.  Some of them were anti-Jewish, though if I remeber correctly others weren't.  It's really a paradox, and ironic: it was precisely their zeal for reform, cleaning up corruption, etc. that led them to be in favor of cracking down on heresy, because heresy was seen as just as much a part of the corruption as the decadence of the Renaissance popes, etc.  I mean, Pope Pius V went through the streets of Rome barefoot, embracing lepers (I think that was him, though I could be mixing him up with another pope), caring for the poor and the sick, etc., lived an austere life, and the crack down on heresy was seen as part of that. 

There was a line from Justo Gonzalez's The Story of Christianity, in the chapter on the Catholic Reformation, that encapsulated it for me.  Speaking about reform-minded people like Queen Isabella, Gonzalez writes, and means each word sincerely, that they were simultaneously "pure, devout, and intolerant."  (I think that's the quote; I'd have to check if that's it exactly.)

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