Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Book Review of a Book of Book Reviews

My literary friend Edward Short sent me a review copy of Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews, published by Gracewing in the UK:

In Adventures in the Book Pages, Edward Short shares his insights into history, literature, music, art, religion, and biography from a refreshingly Catholic standpoint. Here are essays and reviews on Renaissance portraiture, Catholic poetry, the Great War, Europe entre deux guerres, and the Blue Plaques of London. There are also pieces on Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, W. M. Thackeray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Penelope Fitzgerald, as well as Henry V, Henry VIII, John Ruskin, A. W. N. Pugin, Henry Mayhew, Edward VII, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Winston Churchill, Kenneth Clark, Alec Guinness, John Osborne, Charles Arnold-Baker and the Queen Mother. And, last, but not least, an extended essay on Cardinal Newman and the idea of sanctity.

Edward Short maintains a good pace of book reviews even as he works on the last volume of his trilogy on Blessed John Henry Newman: Newman and His Critics (which he has told me includes both critics and commentators, pro and con). Many of his reviews are of books about Newman and his contemporaries (which happens to be the title of the first book of the trilogy) and I have read some of the books he reviews in this volume because of our shared interest.

He is an insightful and knowledgeable reviewer. His judgments are backed by authority. He grants the author's intent and accepts the author's achievement but he also judges the author's failures. As an example, I offer the wonderfully titled review of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee: "Penelope's Odyssey". Short provides an excellent precis of the book and its subject, highlighting Lee's successes, but also describing her biography's failure to understand the role of religious faith in Fitzgerald's life and works.

That is a hallmark of Short's reviews: the role of religious, specifically Catholic Christian, faith in the books he reviews: not only because the books are often about some aspect of religion in society, but because Short looks for it, even by its absence, as in the example above. These are not "just" book reviews because Short provides as much historical and biographical background as the reader needs to be able to assess whether or not she should read the book.

As I noted, I have read some of the books Short reviews in these pages. I was a little surprised at how positive ("The Great Temple") he was about R.A. Scotti's Basilica: The Splendor and The Scandal: Building St. Peter's (two colons!) because I thought the author had overemphasized the scandal in the first subtitle. On the other hand, he helped me understand Father Ian Ker's study on Newman and the Second Vatican Council more completely and will lead me to another reading of that important study.

Note that there are a few essays in the book also, including a great survey of Catholic poetry in the English Tradition, and an excellent discussion of "Newman and the Idea of Sanctity".

The index and the table of contents provide a modicum of help to the reader seeking certain books and/or subjects. The index could have referenced the specific reviews in which, for example, "Newman, Blessed John Henry" is a subject. The table of contents could have included the title and author of the book reviewed. Or, as the author himself suggested to me, the book could have been organized thematically. Nevertheless, it is a great collection of reviews of many scholarly, influential books on subjects ranging from historiography, biography, the nineteenth century, Catholicism, World War I and World War II--both a resource and a joy to read for the love of reading. Even more: for the love of reading about the love of reading, judging, and explaining books and ideas; appreciating the people who write them and read them.

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