Some Dappled Things editors and contributors have been busy writing about their favorite books of 2019. They’ve asked me to get the round-up started with this post. Look for more posts on this topic in the next few days.
Marvelous Alice Thomas Ellis
This is the year that I discovered the marvelous Anna Haycraft, whose pen name was Alice Thomas Ellis. It says a lot about Haycraft’s style that the writer of her New York Times obituary hazarded that she chose her nom de plume because of its hissing sibilants.
And, as another journalist noted, her writing plowed an “exquisite furrow of black comedy shading into satire.” In many ways, but not all, I see her as a kindred spirit: A bohemian yet deeply devout writer with a dark past before her conversion, a lover of domestic life and adorer of her children (she bore seven during her marriage to publisher Colin Haycraft) and of cooking and entertaining. She was quoted as saying that the work she did as an editor at her husband’s publishing house and later as a writer was merely part of being a good wife, which she regarded as her vocation, and if her husband did something else for a living, she would be helping him with that.
She began to write only after Joshua, one of her sons, a teenager, died of his injuries after a roof of a building in a railroad yard collapsed, while he was up on the roof trainspotting. He was not shooting up drugs in the slang sense of the word that became well known after the movie, Trainspotting. The much-lamented Joshua had simply been practicing the hobby of watching trains (sort of like bird-watching) that had been popular in the UK since the 1940s.
Ellis’s books were widely read because of their excellence and intrinsic interest; even though she was so unabashedly Catholic the headline of her LA Times obituary in 2005 referred to her as “Prolific Author with Staunch Catholic Views.”
My favorite photo of her that I’ve come across shows her in her kitchen, dressed in her signature black, drawing on a cigarette, with shelves on the sage green wall stacked with pots and pans and dishes, and counters cluttered with cooking paraphernalia behind her. A good-sized plaster statue of the Sacred Heart with His hands extended in blessing stands in the corner.
As a not-as-prolific or well-known author but one who also has staunch Catholic views, once I learned of her and fell in love with her witty and witchy artistry, I started reading everything of hers I could get my hands on. I don’t buy books as a rule, since I think books—like every other good—should not be accumulated but should be shared. When I do get a physical book, a review copy, for an example of one way a physical book may come into my possession, I like to pass it on for others to read when I’m done. After I read everything by Ellis at the Internet Archive, I went through a lot of trouble to get interlibrary loans of any other books of hers that were available. She seems to have been mostly forgotten, but she well deserves to continue to be read and enjoyed.
I like her fiction, especially her first novel, The Sin Eater, better than the books based on her Home Life columns and better than her non-fiction books, though I am in sympathy with two of her books that painted vivid pictures of some of the deformations of liturgy and practice that she witnessed in the Church and abhorred after the Second Vatican Council: Serpent on the Rock: A Personal View of Christianity, and God Has Not Changed.
In those two books, and in her fiction, Ellis skewered some aberrant post-Conciliar attitudes towards doctrine and liturgy that galled me too. But unlike me, she stopped going to Mass for a long time after it changed. She said of one of her characters, Rose, “There was nothing to do on Sundays since the Pope went mad.” No, she didn’t mean Pope Francis. This was 1977, and Paul VI was pope.
The Loved One
Speaking of black comedy shading into satire, I re-read Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One again this year. It’s one of the few books I’ve read and enjoyed multiple times.
The Loved One is a great satire on British expatriates, the American film industry, our extravagant burial practices for humans and animals, and the absurd romantic fantasies about death that people engage in when they lose track of the realities of the Four Last Things (Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell). I was led back to read The Loved One this time by coming across a good essay on P.G. Wodehouse, which was written by the otherwise-loathed-by-me Christopher Hitchens.
In Hitchens’ essay I learned that Wodehouse had a stint writing for the films in Hollywood in 1933 or thereabouts, before he wrote the Jeeves and Wooster books, and that Wodehouse started the Cricket Club there. Hitchens wrote it was to that Hollywood Cricket Club started by Wodehouse that Waugh was indebted for the extremely funny first chapter of The Loved One.
The story of what brought Waugh to Hollywood in 1947 is a funny one too. He pretended to negotiate with MGM about a film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited to get a free trip for himself and his second wife, Laura, while being paid $2000 a week (in 1930s dollars!) during the negotiations. The studio refused to see the novel as anything other than a romance, and he was not going to let them film it since they dismissed the religious elements. Its actual title is: Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. MGM was not interested in the Sacred.
While Waugh was in Hollywood, he was given tours of Forest Lawn Cemetery by the founders, got ahold of a book about embalming, and relished the prospect of writing a novella about it all. A Waugh biographer wrote, “As Waugh felt that the eschatological or apocalyptic implications he had intended in Brideshead Revisited had escaped many American readers, he was determined to highlight eschatological aspects of American society in The Loved One.” Eschatological, to save you the trouble of looking it up, as I had to do, means having to do with the ultimate destiny of humanity.
And oh how sublimely Aimée Thanatogenos, the main female character, misses the real point of human destiny and just about anything else. Named after evangelist Aimée Semple McPherson, her first name is French for “loved one” while her last name is Greek for “born of death.” Her end is both a little sad and very funny. Come to think of it, I once chanced across online an essay a student wrote about Aimée’s vaporous musings before her death, and to my amused surprise, the essayist took them seriously! That was sad and very funny too.
The image is the same book cover that was on the copy I read first when I was 15 years old in 1960. I was in a long-term care hospital recovering from spine surgery, and this is one of the two or three books my sophomore English teacher sent me in a literary care package every week during the ten months I was there. Miss Marjorie E. Frye was a creative writer manquée and was encouraging me to be a writer, and the plan, I think it was a good one, was for me to learn how by reading many books by many great writers.
I re-read Christmas Carol this month and marveled again at Dickens’ power of description, his ability to breathe life into and deftly name a most-original set of characters, and to tell great stories about them.
From Fire by Water and Calm in Chaos: Catholic Wisdom for Anxious Times
I read, admired, and reviewed Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire by Water. See “C. S. Lewis was Wrong about the Liturgy; Observations from Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire By Water” here, or a shorter version titled “Saved by the Mass: Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire by Water” at New Liturgical Movement here.
Conservative journalist and media figure Iran-born Sohrab Ahmari wrote this memoir of his conversion, like St. Augustine’s Confessions, to show the influences and events of his life and the changes in his convictions that brought him — from the fire of misery and the captivity of sin, through the water of Baptism — and into the Catholic Church.
I also read, admired, and reviewed Fr. George Rutler’s Calm in Chaos: Catholic Wisdom for Anxious Times here. As I said in that review, when you read through those essays— which touch on many of the confusions and evils we hear about, not only in the Church but also in the world, awash with frustrating pronouncements, rank hypocrisies, and moral imbecilities — in spite of all that disturbing news, you may realize you are reading with enjoyment, pure enjoyment, because Father Rutler writes so well, and because he brings in so many interesting facts and personalities from his mental storehouse of past and current acts in the human comedy to bolster his points.
Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification
This final book I want to mention from my reading this year is titled, Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification. It was published in 2016, but it’s a book that will endure—because it’s an excellent reference that pulls together in one place the relevant Scripture passages and the views of great saints and Catholic theologians about the promised deification of those who receive Christ.
The book was edited by Fr. David Meconi, S.J., Professor of Theology at St. Louis University—who I know from working with him in his role as editor of “Homiletic and Pastoral Review”—and by Carl E. Olson, M.T.S., author, and editor of “Catholic World Report.” I asked Fr. Meconi for a review copy because I often ponder what this phrase from Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John means (which is read at the end of traditional Latin Masses): “[T]o as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name.” Has that ever made you wonder, as it makes me wonder, what is it like for a Christian to become a son of God?
And it makes me think of this too. The Blessed Virgin Mary, one of whose titles is Theotokos, God-bearer, was the first to receive Christ, in her case literally, in her womb. She became the holy Ark of the New Covenant, and the perfect handmaid of the Lord. To prepare for her motherhood of the Son of God, by a special dispensation she was the only child of Adam and Eve to be redeemed by Christ’s future sacrifice, so she was immaculately conceived. Christ spent thirty years with her before He began His public ministry, and for these and many reasons her union with God is therefore unique.
The Church teaches she alone of all Christ’s believers was sinless from the first moment of her conception, and her body was assumed to be in heaven with Christ. So it stands to reason, she must be the first to be deified, which means she is already like God as far as it is possible for any creature to share in the divinity of the Creator. From what the Church holds true about her many appearances, she is being used as God’s messenger. Those who have seen her say she is so glorious that they are tempted to worship her, but she always makes it clear that what they see of glory in her is all from her Son. There is a lot to ponder here.
It seems obvious to me that we can look to Mary to see what being deified will be like for us all, but I am waiting to interview busy Fr. Meconi to see what he thinks. Someday soon, I pray, I’m going to get around to finishing that review.
Postscript: Alice Thomas Ellis on Reading
My late husband read slowly and intently, works of scholarship from beginning to end, going so far as to lament the availability of the Public Library which, he held, encouraged the autodidact, the untrained enthusiast to wallow wildly in matters beyond his grasp, emerging with an undigested mass of factual error and proceeding, in his turn, to write books promulgating some daft theory about whatever had taken his fancy. I read quickly, flitting and sipping, skipping the boring bits and seizing on the oddities and inconsistencies which are often ignored by the scholar since they interfere with the measured and coherent approach to the matter in hand.
“Most of my books date from the 19th and early-20th centuries, and it is these that hold the greatest fascination because it is just possible to creep back along the frail bridge that separates us, identifying links and relationships with the present. At the far limits it is possible to peer into the 18th century, but further than that is a gulf and the people beyond move in a mist or, at best, an artificial light.”— Anna Haycraft. From Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring.