Friday, June 26, 2015

The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi

I have been intrigued by author Gary Schmidt and when I read that The Little World of Don Camillo was his favorite book, I determined to get my hands on it.

Don Camillo is a Catholic priest in post-WWII Italy. His nemesis is Peppone, the communist mayor who does all he can to undermine the work of the village church. The book relates the conflicts  of their two very different lives and how they try to resolve them. Don Camillo often talks to the Lord (looking up at the crucifix in the chapel) about his enemy and the prayers are hilariously funny. As Camillo tells God how he plans revenge on his enemy, the Lord talks him out of it, reminding him that he is a man of the cloth. (In the introduction, the author makes it clear that the voice of God in the book is not really God, but the voice of Camillo's own conscience so I did not find these light-hearted conversations to be offensive.)

Sometimes Camillo listens to God, but at other times he can't resist getting even with Peppone. Not only did I enjoy the humor of these escapades, but I also appreciated the complex relationship between the two men. They hate yet respect each other, and on a few occasions one of them helps the other in order to save his reputation. The final chapter is pure gold as the two of them sit in the church, working quietly in restoring figures for the Christmas manger scene. It's funny, poignant, and redemptive and I closed the book with a happy, contented sigh.

Although I loved this book, I'm not sure that everyone else will. The humor is definitely quirky and you would have to patient with the fact that the book is not plot-driven. But it's a real gem.

Footnote: the books I've read by Schmidt are The Wednesday Wars (reviewed here), and Okay for Now (reviewed here).

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Scarlet and the Black by J.P. Gallagher

A statue of Father O'Flaherty in his hometown of Killarney
A few months ago I reviewed the movie, The Scarlet and the Black, and now that I've read the book, I'm not sure which one I like better.

Both the book and film show the dangerous games played to outwit the Germans as they hunted for escaped POWs. The film was very true to the book (except when it was necessary to combine several characters into one person) and covered all the main incidents. The book, on the other hand, fleshed out the characters, added a few extra hair-raising events, and ended differently. Whereas the book highlighted hundreds of acts of kindness done by O'Flaherty at the war's end, the movie condensed them into one huge act of mercy. Frankly, I loved both endings.

The book does a better job of explaining why there were hundreds of POWs roaming around the Vatican and also explains why the Italians were so willing to look the other way when O'Flaherty and others hid them. Gallagher shows how O'Flaherty's audacity and trustfulness were balanced by the caution and discernment of the others in the rescue organization. His descriptions of the resourcefulness of butler John May from the English embassy had me chortling all the way through.

Get this title if you enjoy stories of heroism on the homefront.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good continues the gentle saga of Father Tim Kavanagh as he tries to find his niche after retiring from pastoring Lord's Chapel. His wife Cynthia suggests they rekindle their relationship by writing love letters. Her description of their marriage in one of these letters gives the book its title.

Unlike most modern authors who portray faith in fiction, Karon manages to portray Christianity without all the hokiness. Father Tim is not overly good or sweet. He's a man with doubts and weaknesses, but he humbly goes forward reaching out to those in Mitford who need help. He lives out the Abraham Verghese quote: "We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime." (p. 421) The folks in Mitford are at various stages of brokenness and healing, all in need of grace. But to keep things from getting too dismal, some of the characters are hilariously funny.

Karon is a lovely writer and although she may not have the depth and eloquence of Wendell Berry, but she does a darn good job of echoing his favorite theme: the healing power of community. More than once in the book Father Tim reflects on how they managed to have such "a big life in such a small town."

He flashed back to his days as a bachelor. So routine, so undisturbed by dissonance, one might have heard a pin drop in his life. Then a dog as big as a Buick started following him home, and then Dooley showed up, and then Puny came to work, and then Cynthia moved in next door, and then Puny started having twins, and that's how he ended up with a real life... (p. 204)

This is another lovely addition to the series.

Note: There are A LOT of people in the novel and it is helpful (but not essential) to have read the previous books. (I missed the two books previous to this one, but Karon does a good job of reminding the reader of back stories.)

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Woman in Black by E.C. Bentley

After three atrociously-written books in a row, what a joy to find a novel that opened like this:

Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely? When the scheming, idomitable brain of Sigsbee Manderson was scattered by shot from an unknown hand, that world lost nothing worth a single tear.

These lines from The Woman in Black hinted of gentle wisdom, good writing and a ripping good tale. I was immediately drawn into a story that never once made me stumble (over clumsy phrasing) or murder me with boredom (uninteresting characters). Need I even mention that it was written by a Britisher and in an era when people still knew how to string their sentences together (1913)? Oh, and it's dedicated to G.K. Chesterton, which further intrigued me.

World famous financier, Sigbee Manderson, is murdered on the grounds of his palacial home and Philip Trent is called in to investigate. He gathers an astonishing number of clues, which clearly point to the murderer, but for reasons I can't divulge, he decides not to arrest him. Later he discovers that his case isn't as "open and shut" as he thought it was. There are some wonderful twists.

Like, Lord Peter Wimsy, Trent is an amateur gentleman sleuth. He is no stuff shirt, though. His ability to joke and to quote poetry (mangling it to fit the situation) made him particularly endearing.

The book is more popularly titled, Trent's Last Case. The sequel, Trent's Own Case was written 23 years later. Sadly, they are the only two novels in the series (though there were short stories) I really enjoyed this and will be looking for the second book via library loan.

Note: By the original title, this is free for Kindle. By the newer title, it's 99 cents.