Friday, January 23, 2009

Sequel to novel on building of cathedral depicts life two centuries later

"World Without End,"
by Ken Follett

I loved "The Pillars of the Earth," Ken Follett's epic that delivered readers back to the 12th century to meet the people who built a great fictional English cathedral. It was a great story of achievement, of overcoming obstacles -- human and stone -- and of hope's triumph.
"World Without End" picks up the story two centuries later, delivering us to that same cathedral, now in need of repairs after two hundred years of storms.

And the characters that populate the medieval cathedral town are just as interesting and compelling in the sequel as were their ancestors in the original story, which is why this was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

It's a bawdy tale, I must warn you, and a gory one. Some sexual scenes are very, very explicit, and the violence is bloody, but not "chainsaw-massacre" stupid.

Remember, it's fiction
Catholics who read "World Without End" will have to keep in mind the fictional nature of this book, because elements of the Church of Rome play the black hat roles in many cases. Bishops, priests and nuns do things in the novel that we would hope bishops, priests and nuns don't do. I don't think modern-day readers can deny that incidents described in Follett's novel never happened in reality; some of the more contemporary sins by church people would be pretty good evidence that there is at least a possibility that 14th century clergy and religious were not immune from such sin.

For the most part, though, offenses of the moral kind are not held up to be celebrated; rather, the protagonists stand for what is good and right and moral despite displaying their humanity, sins and all.

It's a huge novel -- 1,014 pages in New American Library's paperback version -- and every bit a great read. -- bz

Minnesotan's work pitches baseball and faith

"The King's Game,"
by John Nemo

In the middle of a month when temps across the Midwest have bottomed out well below zero, a baseball novel can have a warming effect.
Minnesotan John Nemo -- who covers baseball as a professional journalist -- combines his knowledge of the national pastime with his deep spirituality to come up with a page-turner that will keep any fan on the edge of his seat.

"The King's Game" is more than just a sports story. People of faith will quickly pick up on the allegory woven through the compelling tale of the life of Cody King, a great pitcher. The events of King's life -- beginning a birth - would test anyone's belief in God.

Nemo adds a love element, a friendship element, and best of all a father-son relationship element, exploring all of these while all the while taking us through the seventh and deciding game of a fictional World Series.

As a baseball junkie myself, I notice one faux pas in the action on the diamond: In the third inning, the pitching coach goes out to settle down the opposing pitcher, and later in that same inning the manager trots out to the mound, too. Any fan knows that second visit to the mound means there has to be a pitching change, but that doesn't happen in the novel. The pitcher stays in the game. Ooops.

This appears to be a self-published book, so if you're interested in getting a copy, contact the author at -- bz

Monday, January 19, 2009

Take a Sistine Chapel tour without ever leaving home

"Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,"

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

If you've ever taken a tour with a guide who wasn't connecting with his or her group, you come to appreciate really good tour guides, people who not only know their subject but engage you in the topic, bringing information, insight and even entertainment.

My wife and I had that excellent kind of guide -- Liz Lev -- with a group touring the Vatican Museums. Everything we saw became so much more meaningful thanks to a great guide who was able to help us see not just artistic value but intention and the works' place in history.

With "Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel," Andrew Graham-Dixon offers much of the same insight to his readers.

It's not quite halfway into his book that the London-based art critic begins an absolutely thorough interpretation of Michelangelo's famous paintings on the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel.

But that's because he sets up his art instructing by first giving readers a rather complete picture of the artist and his world at the beginning of the 16th century.

Inside Michelangelo's world
No piece of the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is left untouched, and I came to feel that the biographical section of this book was as helpful and important for understanding the Sistine Chapel as the interpretation of the world-renown paintings itself.

We learn of the artist's family background, his training, his benefactors -- and most importantly his faith.

Graham-Dixon's analysis is that Michelangelo felt the hand of God in his life:

"Before he was ever chosen by the Medici, or the pope, he had been chosen by God. . . . He felt that he had been given his gifts by God, and charged with serving the purposes of the divine will."

Using those God-given skills then, "Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be," Graham-Dixon claims. "He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of Christian faith, centre stage."

A superior user's guide
The heart of the book, written in observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the work by Michelangelo in 1508, is Graham-Dixon's interpretation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling itself. While not ignoring style, he focuses on what Michelangelo meant by what he painted, how the pictures' meanings unfold, the subtle ways through which the artist gave expressive life to this amazing group of interlinked compositions.

As a user's guide to the Sistine Chapel, this book is superb.

Graham-Dixon walks us through each section and each panel of each section, pointing out not only beauty and the technical skill but why each figure is painted the way it is.

What we learn is that Michelangelo was a student of Holy Scripture -- especially the Hebrew Books -- and that he aimed to paint "his own vision of what he believed to be the eternal truths of Christianity," the author states.

Readers will come to understand the geography of the chapel ceiling, how the famous depiction of creation -- with God's pointed finger reading out to touch the finger of Adam -- fits into the rest of the biblical history, with the great cast of characters including Eve, Noah, David and Goliath, Judith, Jeremiah, Jonah and on and on.

Graham-Dixon gives his excellent interpretive skills to helping readers grasp in much the same way Michelangelo's "The Last Judgement," painted 15 years after the ceiling. Taking up the entire wall behind the chapel's altar, it is a monumental fresco as rich with meaning as the ceiling above.

Sadly, details of this beautiful work are depicted only in black and white photos, which hardly do justice to this colorful masterpiece.

Bigger would be better
And, if there is any fault at all in "Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel," it is the small size of the pages -- six inches by nine inches. There are 32 full-color pages that bring the Sistine's ceiling right into our hands, but I couldn't help but think how much more delight to the eye would have been deivered in a larger format. Perhaps Skyhorse Publishing will be able to work that out in a later edition.

As it is, though, I compared the printing in this latest book with the same Sistine Chapel panels printed in a larger, coffeetable-sized book given to me as a gift several years ago.

The color work -- the brightness and the clarity -- in "Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel" is far superior.

If you plan to visit the Vatican, take this along to read on the plane ride. It's a fact-filled yet easy read with the beautiful prose that is the hallmark of a fine writer.-- bz

Friday, January 16, 2009

Monk's poetry invites us to view biblical stories and characters from non-traditional perspectives

"God Drops and Loses Things,"

by Kilian McDonnell

Bible stories we've read before, biblical characters we've met before, but never this way. That's what fills the pages of Benedictine Father Kilian McDonnell's third book of poetry (St. John's University Press).

Perhaps you -- like myself -- feel you are out of your area of expertise in reading, no less reviewing, poetry. But take a chance, challenge yourself and try to see with the eyes of this monk from St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.

I stuck a Post-It note on at least a dozen of the nearly 50 works because they said something to me.

For one thing, Killian gives a voice to the women of Holy Scripture -- Miriam, for example, and Mary Magdalene -- whose thoughts the Bible authors mainly ignored.

My favorite might be "Widow Rachel: Matchmaker," as much a short essay as a poem, but cleverly imagined thoughts from the mind of a woman trying to find a wife for the carpenter, who doesn't seem to be interested:

"Mary needs grandchildren. The man is thirty and still at home with his mother, so of course the women whisper as they gather at the market stalls."

It's a treasure.

See how quickly you find the "prodigal daughter" entry.

Moving from the Hebrew Testament to the New Testament, Father Kilian re-writes parables with a new, imagined tone that somehow makes the stories of Jesus mean more to today's hearer.

I loved "The Catholic Thing," an accusation in poetic form that correctly charges us Christians with being so unchristian at times.

Toward the end Kilian favors us with a few pieces that come from his person -- family and Benedictine family -- that are filled with rich images, take us to the places he chooses to share with all of us. We're so blessed that he does. -- bz