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Books for summer days

For summer reading, here’s a handful of books that have caught the fancy of eight reviewers. They open with talking and conclude with walking. Fiction and nonfiction.


Television, movies, long hours working at a computer. Increasingly, that’s life. Decreasingly, it seems, we talk.

I mused over the waning of good conversation in my life as I rode the train recently between Kansas City and St. Louis. On the 3:35 Amtrak out of Kansas City’s Union Station, people read. They work on computers. They pay bills. They sleep. Except for an occasional exchange with the conductor, ordering a snack in the club car or chatting on a mobile phone, hardly anyone talks. At least not to strangers.

On this particular ride, my musing was prompted by the little book opened across my lap: Theodore Zeldin’s Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives. The book began as a series of talks broadcast on the BBC, published in book form in Great Britain, and here by Hidden Spring/Paulist Press.

Zeldin, a fellow and former dean of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, would have us reflect on how we might enrich our lives with more conversation. Announcements occasionally interrupted my reading to warn that the train had been inexplicably delayed. Grumbling became audible -- the closest Amtrak riders normally come to engaging in general conversation.

I returned to Zeldin. In the early years of the new century, he loftily hopes to become part of a new conversation: a conversation about what kind of human beings we want to be.

“I hope the new century will be more adventurous,” he writes hopefully. “What is missing from the world is a sense of direction, because we are overwhelmed by the conflicts which surround us, as though we are marching through a jungle which never ends. I should like some of us to start conversations to dispel that darkness, using them to create equality, to give ourselves courage, to open ourselves to strangers and, most practically, to remake our working world, so that we are no longer isolated by our jargon or our professional boredom.

“We cannot reproduce the Renaissance; history cannot be made to repeat itself; but we can create something akin to it, to suit ourselves. I call this the New Conversation.”

It was a measure both of the failure and the success of Zeldin’s little book that I closed it, gratefully. Though I’d found it annoyingly preachy, it obviously struck some chord. Having determined that salvation from my journey’s growing tedium required chumming up with some strangers, I headed for the club car in search of someone to talk to.

There I hooked up with a family from Brazil who had piqued my interest earlier. I had noticed them in the station as we boarded, then later, on a trip to the club car, had been impressed by an animated conversation father and son were having, apparently about passing sights. Now I learned that the son is an exchange student at a high school in the Midwest, and his parents had come for a visit. We talked a bit about where they’d been -- skiing in Colorado -- and what they planned to do in St. Louis, a city on which I am something of an expert.

I also met a woman who works by day as a lawyer in Kansas City and by night as a reporter covering community affairs for a small newspaper. We talked about what the fields of law and journalism have in common, and what they don’t. (Law pays a lot better, for one thing.)

The conversations weren’t particularly deep or exhilarating, but they broke our isolation and entertained us through what turned out to be mounting hours of delay. Our talk may not have dispelled the darkness Zeldin referred to, but it did suffice to dispel a measure of the frustration. Though we didn’t get around to discussing what kind of human beings we want to be, we perhaps hinted at an openness that wouldn’t be such a bad start.

If I remember nothing else, then, about Zeldin’s book, I’ll try to keep his subtitle in mind: How talk can change our lives. I’ve promised myself that in those “overwhelming” days I’ll look for opportunities to give it a chance. If deep conversation isn’t always an option (unlike Zeldin, I’m not a fellow at Oxford), at least I may make some spaces for a quick chat.

The train, by the way, was four hours late. That’s the basis for a conversation I intend to initiate -- with AMTRAK.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR’s managing editor.


The evolving story in Barbara Kingsolver’s bulky, 500-plus pages, The Poisonwood Bible (Harper Collins) is constantly fresh and engrossing. Although American missionary Nathan Price and his wife Orleanna arrive in the 1950s Belgian Congo with high hopes, their mission quickly meets obstacles: culture shock, endless rain, strange food, different spiritual beliefs and village politics. Meanwhile, their four young daughters struggle with both their new surroundings and the aches of growing up, each with varying degrees of success.

This, Kingsolver’s tribute to Africa, moves with lush descriptions of the jungle and drips with equatorial heat. While essentially a story about family, loyalty and faith, Congo’s escape from colonialism creates an underlying tension that mimics the desires for freedom within the Price family itself.

As Kingsolver splits the narrative among the five Price women, each chapter presents readers with a different point of view. No two characters endure Africa and Nathan’s autocratic ministry the same way. Seductive and haunting. Like Africa, perhaps.

Sue Birnie lives in Victoria, British Columbia.


It started with a postcard at a yard sale: an image of Our Lady of Fatima. Beverly Donofrio bought it.

Before long, images of Mary began to overrun her house. Donofrio, who in her rebellious teens had rejected Catholicism and despised Mary especially for being “woman as ever-loving wimp,” did not realize then that she had summoned Mary to soften her hardened heart. “I made a shrine of my house,” Donofrio said, “and knowing a good opportunity when she sees one, the Blessed Mother came in.”

Donofrio’s book, Looking for Mary (or, the Blessed Mother and Me) (Viking Compass) is an engaging memoir of her journey back to faith, led by Mary. Donofrio recounts a pilgrimage to Medjugorje with “49 zealous Catholics.” She had already made a radio documentary on U.S. Marian apparition sites, but then she was “an outsider, dropping in for a one-shot deal.” On the Medjugorje pilgrimage, she says, “I’m a member, one of the tribe, and there’s no getting around it: The tribe’s weird. So what does that make me?”

She went to Medjugorje “because I want Mary to mother me and teach me mother things, like how to love.” We learn of the regrets that brought her there. In particular, she seeks forgiveness for her failures as a mother: She is estranged from her grown son, born when she was a teenager and damaged, she says, by her immaturity and selfishness.

She offers her story with doses of humor, about herself and her compatriots on pilgrimage. She doesn’t quite embrace orthodoxy. She begins to attend Mass regularly, and she tries to be more open to Jesus, but her main focus remains on what she sees as the feminine face of God in Mary.

Looking for Mary is both entertaining and thought-provoking, often moving me to tears with Donofrio’s confessional story of forgiveness, faith, mystery and miracles. Read it, and Mary may sneak into your heart, too.

Teresa Malcolm is NCR’s opinion editor.


Ray Flynn’s novel The Accidental Pope (St. Martin’s Press), co-written with Robin Moore of French Connection fame, is a quirky, if entertaining, addition to the papal potboiler genre.

The novel opens with a conclave after the death of John Paul II. Without betraying too much of what is already a fairly thin plot, the new pope is a breath of fresh air, but his tell-it-like-it-is style wins few friends among stuffy Vatican powerbrokers.

Flynn then has his pope fall victim to a conspiracy involving the Orthodox church and Africa that is, frankly, bizarre. By this time, however, the pope has forever left his imprint.

Flynn is a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and one would expect such a novel to be peppered with insider references -- which it is, assuming the insider hails from the United States. In the Vatican according to Flynn, only American reporters ever break any stories, and only English-speaking prelates make anything happen. The new pope takes as his secretary the rector of the North American College, and Flynn barely bothers disguising the real-life occupant of that job, Msgr. Timothy Dolan.

The other hero of the book is the populist, plainspoken U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, bedeviled by small-minded State Department bureaucrats. They are forever trying to hobble the ambassador, mostly by spreading malicious gossip about his drinking habits. This ex-post-facto settling of scores is understandable, but wears thin quickly.

Still, the plot of The Accidental Pope is just wacky enough that it keeps the reader turning pages, and every now and then one wishes the Holy See would be more open to some of Flynn’s earnest American common sense.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent.


Fast-talking dames wage battle with words. Their slower-speaking sisters, however, sometimes have to resort to other means of making themselves heard. Like murder.

Such is the premise of Valentine’s Day: Women Against Men, Stories of Revenge (Duckworth, London). The book is a collection of 19 stories by modern women writers including Agatha Christie, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates and Carol Shields.

The occasions for revenge in the stories range from simple inattention on a husband’s part to infidelity to, in a few cases, physical abuse. The acts of revenge undertaken by the women scorned include smothering, stabbing and poisoning, though not all the stories are quite so grim. One woman merely fantasizes about feeding her husband to a man-eating hippopotamus, and another’s worst crime is to serve her husband cat-food sandwiches carefully garnished with watercress. (Why is it that so many of the stories involve food? It seems that even at their most murderous, women are still confined to the kitchen.)

For those troubled by the iniquity of these characters’ acts of retribution, editor Alice Thomas Ellis, who provides the work’s introduction, agrees that “we should hearken more attentively to the injunction of the Lord, ‘Vengeance is mine.’ Still,” she continues. “reading about it can be, to our fallen human nature, not only salutary but sometimes deplorably satisfying.”

Theresa Sanders is an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University.


The late Jesuit philosopher/historian Michel de Certeau spoke of the “mystical” as “a reaction against the appropriation of truth by the clerics,” favoring “the illuminations of the illiterate, the experience of women, the wisdom of fools, the silence of the child.”

Ruth Harris, in Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (Penguin USA), has lovingly retold the story of Lourdes as a mystical eruption in which women and children played pivotal roles as usurping visionaries.

The new “clerics” of positivistic science in the late 19th century placed women’s bodies on the front lines of an anti-clerical struggle. Did trances and visions come from unseen metaphysical causes? Or were they merely -- as the “hysteria diagnosis” implied -- surface manifestations of neurological impulses?

Harris situates Lourdes within this larger historical context of a culture war between religion, science and medicine. A sophisticated story told in accessible and engaging prose (and with numerous illustrations), Lourdes will open the eyes of both believers and skeptics to the complex dimensions of what was at stake in late 19th-century religious struggles. Although set within political battles waged at high institutional levels and the emergent scientific establishment, Harris keeps her story focused on “one fixed point: the essential image of a young, poverty-stricken and sickly girl kneeling in ecstasy in a muddy grotto.” An unlikely yet formidable icon of resistance, Bernadette’s irreducible wonder stood over and against the arriviste clerics’ appropriation of truth.

Jesuit Fr. Stephen Schloesser is an assistant professor of modern European history at Boston College and of church history at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.


For the Hmong people of Laos, “the spirit catches you and you fall down” describes what Westerners call epilepsy. Anne Fadiman, in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (Noonday) creatively and comprehensively unfolds the story of a Hmong family’s nightmare. They are attempting to care for their daughter who lives with this special condition, while well-meaning physicians and other health care professionals struggle valiantly to provide the best care possible for this little girl. Multiple examples of insurmountable obstacles to communication lace the book and leave the reader to wonder if tragedy could have been avoided.

An important contribution to our shrinking world, this book honors the Hmong people and people of non-dominant cultures everywhere by sensitively depicting the failure of good will to overcome some of the barriers erected by dominant cultural systems and assumptions. Author Anne Fadiman not only tells a good story, but she also provides a historical and contemporary picture of life for the Hmong both in Laos and in Merced, Calif.

Complete with a brief reader’s guide at the end, this book would be helpful for those who sincerely desire to explore the problems and possibilities of living and working within a culturally diverse setting. Health care workers especially would be well served by reading this book.

The Rev. Moni McIntyre teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.


Despite having a gun thrust into my spine at dusk by an adolescent wanting my wallet, nearly tripping off a curb into an oncoming speeding truck, and enduring the indignity of being splashed by cars plowing proudly through muddy puddles, I adore walking.

If you, too, are the sort of person who would rather amble, ramble or gambol than drive, ride or fly, your book has arrived. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (Viking) is a book about walking with an elegant, leisurely pace all its own. What, she wonders, does walking mean as a cultural activity? Why do we pace, meander, stroll, or march in order to ponder, to talk (to ourselves or others), to protest, to pray, to enjoy nature, or simply to get out of the house?

Solnit rediscovers Rousseau and Wordsworth at the origins of meaningful modern walking. And she finds not one meaning, but many, in tracing what putting one foot in front of the other has meant for philosophizing and pilgrimage, civil rights and sexual liberation, faith and feminism.

Readers with an eye toward the sacramental character of daily life will find this book especially tantalizing. Solnit’s phenomenology of walking occasionally seems like an anonymous religious language. Due to its patient, learned style, I would like to describe further how this is the most refreshing book I’ve read in several years. But instead, I’m going outside to think with my feet.

Tom Beaudoin is the author of Virtual Faith: the Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass).

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001 [corrected 07/27/2001]