Of Many Things

Summer is the perfect time to catch up on reading those books you’ve set aside for that eschatological someday. With that in mind, I offer a short list of summer reading suggestions. The four books can be characterized as follows: new and fun, sort of new and very interesting, old and wonderful, and long but fascinating.

In the new and fun category is Running From the Devil, by Steve Kissing. We receive bushels of books in our offices, but this one caught my eye mainly for its subtitle: A Memoir of a Boy Possessed. This might be the oddest and yet most enjoyable Catholic memoir you will read this year. It’s the autobiographical story of an adolescent who begins experiencing a series of seizures (which later turned out to be a form of epilepsy) that occasion strange hallucinatory episodes. The young altar boy, deeply rooted in his Catholic community, concludes that he is being visited by the devil. Embarrassed by his illness, Steve withholds his condition from his parents and, instead, with an arsenal of spiritual, mental and physical stratagems, tries to beat back the devil and prevent the seizures. (He crosses himself frequently, for example, and takes up long-distance running as a kind of physical penance.) While his book is, essentially, about a painful topic, Mr. Kissing’s unfailing sense of humor, his affection for his faith and his self-deprecating manner make it an enjoyable and even inspiring book. Overall, it’s a winning tale of a Catholic coming-of-age in the 1970’s and a touching window into the sometimes confused, sometimes superstitious and sometimes beautiful spirituality of an adolescent.

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John Allen’s Conclave is sort of new (published last year) and very interesting. Mr. Allen, the Rome correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and author of the almost sinfully informative column The Word from Rome on N.C.R.’s Web page, authored this slim volume about the process and politics of papal conclaves. It is a testimony to his engaging writing style and wide-ranging knowledge that he takes what could have been a dull look at the mechanics of papal elections and turns it into an enjoyable read. Best of all, at the end of his book he provides a rundown of the papabili, the papal candidates, and, with tongue planted in cheek, a list of the political parties in the Vatican. Conclave is that rare book that will educate and entertain you at the same time. And for you beachgoing Catholics, it’s already out in paperback.

One of my great pleasures these days is running a book club at our local Jesuit parish. It’s an endless wonder discovering which books are hits and which are, well, not hits. One of the big hits this year was Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Now, although I am something of a Willa Cather nut, I wasn’t sure if the book club would cotton to one of her most popular novels. The story centers on two French missionaries, a bishop and a priest, based on the real-life John Baptist Lamy and Joseph Machebeuf, who worked in the American Southwest in the late 1800’s. But I needn’t have worried: almost everyone loved the book. If you haven’t read it, you might try it this summer. And if you’ve already read it (maybe in high school), perhaps it’s time to revisit Cather’s extraordinary tale of religious committment. This fits into the old and wonderful category.

Finally, if you have room in your beachbag for only one book, it should be Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, published just a few weeks ago. At 555 pages, it fits into the long but fascinating spot. It is a brilliantly realized retelling of the lives of four great American Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. The four are seen, in effect, synopticallyas writers and believers on pilgrimage. You will not find four more congenial companions for the summer, nor will you find a more talented biographer to guide you through their histories and the history of their times. Mr. Elie tells a magnificent story and, particularly after the scandals of last year, reminds you of how wonderful it can be to be a part of the Catholic Church in this country.

Happy summer reading!

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