Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Sigrid_Undset_youngHow does one write a brief reflection on such a large work? Kristin Lavransdatter is the 1100-page, three-volume masterpiece of Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), a Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. This novel follows the life of a girl growing up in 14th century Norway. Without giving away nearly anything of the plot, I want to highlight a few of the elements that make this novel excellent.

The interior life of a woman. A friend of mine once said, “If you want to understand women, you need to read this book!” I have consequently been told by female readers of the book that this is an overstatement, and yet they also back up the authenticity of Undset’s portrayal of Kristin. I myself found that this book sheds light on the mystery of the feminine interior life, without necessarily making sense of it. The narrator is not Kristin, and yet is so close to her thoughts and feelings that the reader is able to say “Ah, I see why she’s doing that”, while at the same time seeing all the irrationality and inconsistency which torments other characters who are not so close. You see the conflicts of love and jealousy, pride and tenderness, a willingness to suffer and a longing to be loved. Memory also plays a role throughout, unifying a narrative that takes place over decades.

Person, household, nation. In addition to giving so careful a portrayal of the interior life, Undset takes great care to develop the communities in which Kristin lives. First of all, there is the context of her family—both the family she comes from and the one she establishes. And not just the family, but the household, as the reader becomes aware of the servants, the land, the crops and cattle, family meals and visitors. The household is immediate context of the actions in the book and forms the concerns that arise—and there are stark differences from household to household. The less immediate context, but just as important as the book goes on, is the nation of Norway itself. Early on, one hears references to the king or invaders, but as the book continues, the reader discovers how the good of the characters and families are tied up with the much wider good of the nation, and how dramatically in can have an impact on how things turn out.

OlafA Christian world, indeed, a Catholic world. The world of Kristin Lavransdatter is one where Christ is king. This does not mean everyone is perfect, but there is a shared awareness that Heaven is goal of every man, that every sin requires penance, that saints intercede for us, that sacraments are efficacious, and that God will come again to judge the living and the dead. The time of year is marked by liturgical seasons and the feasts of saints, and the laws of the Church are known by all—even if they are not always followed. The book does not fail to represent the failures that exist among Christians and clergy, but at the same time shows how faith and the practice of it serve to unite a society and elevate it above merely individual preoccupations.

Sin and its effects. I won’t go into detail here, but there is much in this book that is not pretty. Perhaps Undset’s greatest achievement in the book is showing that sin has consequences. It is a common maxim that “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” This novel shows the foolishness of that thought. There is a not a single action without effects and how, even after making amends, the soul and the world continue to bear the marks of those who live in them.

If you’re not quite feeling up for a work of this size, I highly recommend Gunnar’s Daughter, a much shorter work (160 pages) by the same author which is set a few centuries earlier and covers many of the same themes. Another excellent book by Sigrid Undset, albeit non-fiction, is her biography of Saint Catherine of Siena, perhaps the best ever written.

[This is #15 on my classics reading list.]


Crowdsourced List of Funny Books

two women laughingSomeone asked me at dinner the other day for a book recommendation—a funny book recommendation. It was difficult to think of any right away! Although I laugh while reading many books, I haven’t read many books that I would characterize as comedies. So I turned to Facebook with the question, “What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?” I received quite a variety in the results! I have gathered them all here for convenience. (Note: I have not read most of these.)

  • Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615).
  • Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (essay, 1729).
  • Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749).
  • Voltaire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759).
  • Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836).
  • Edgar Allen Poe, «Never Bet the Devil Your Head» (1841).
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
  • Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889).
  • Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband (play, 1895).
  • P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), generally recommended.
    • Psmith, Journalist (1915).
    • Leave it to Psmith (1923).
    • Summer Moonshine (1937).
    • World of Mr. Mulliner (1972).
  • O. Henry, «Ransom of the Red Chief» (1910).
  • Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928).johnson
  • Evelyn Waugh, Scoop (1938).
  • Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954).
  • W.E. Bowman, The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956).
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961).
  • Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961).
  • Michael Green, The Art of Course Acting (1964).
  • David Lodge, The British Museum is Falling Down (1965).
  • Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979).
  • John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).
  • Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (comic strip, 1985-1995).
  • Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens (1990).
  • Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992).
  • Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys (1995).
  • David Foster Wallace, «Shipping Out» (1996). Reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), or available here:
  • Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997).
  • David Sedaris, general recommendation. Best known for his essay collection Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000).Astounded
  • Augusten Burroughs (1965-present), general recommendation. Best known for his memoir Running with Scissors (2002).
  • Chuck Klosterman, essays. Best known for his essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (2003).
  • Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (2004).
  • Michael Perry, Off Main Street (2005), especially «Rock Slide!», a story about kidney stones.
  • Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka (2005).
  • Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006).
  • David Wong, John Dies at the End (2007).
  • Christopher Moore, Fool (2009).
  • Justin Halpern, S███ My Dad Says (2010).
  • Tina Fey, Bossypants (2011).

I also want to add Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and «Revelation» by Flannery O’Connor. Happy reading!

Overview of 2017 Reading

George_Eliot_by_Samuel_LaurenceBack in April, I started my Classics Challenge—a plan to read 50 classic works over the course of 5 years—but that was not the start of my reading for the year. Here is a quick overview of the books I finished in 2017.

The author that stands out this year is George Eliot. Having discovered Middlemarch in 2016 and loving it, I continued to read George Eliot throughout 2017:

Apart from The Lifted Veil, I could recommend any of these excellent novels. Middlemarch remains my favorite Eliot novel, but Daniel Deronda and Romola are not far behind. In addition to those books by George Eliot, I read 11 other novels in 2017. Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Some of these were excellent:

Some of them were quite good:

Some were good, but not as enjoyable as I had hoped:The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić

And there were a couple that I did not care for at all:

Toward the end of 2016, a classmate started a Shakespeare reading group which gave me occasion to read Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III, as well as the Sonnets. This group continued into 2017 where we read Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1-2, and Henry V. Apart from these plays and poems of Shakespeare, I also read the classic Metamorphoses of Ovid and the modern Rosmersholm of Henrik Ibsen.

mass photo maxThe most momentous event of the year for me was certainly ordination to the priesthood on June 24th, and with this came further reading about the saints and the liturgy. I read the Letters of St. Cyprian, the Lausaic History (about the desert fathers), biographies of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Dominic, Bl. John Henry Newman (both by himself and by another), and a handful of saints canonized in 1881. In the last month of the summer, having said Mass every day for a couple months, I wanted to read more about its history and how the prayers came to be as they are, and found the excellent Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid and Voice of the Church at Prayer by Uwe Michael Lang. Continuing my canon law studies, I have read all sorts of articles and books (in whole and in part) that I won’t list here. All the reading in canon law spurred my interest in other legal works, and so I read Cicero’s Republic and Laws, a huge chunk of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and the Qur’an.

This last month, I have almost exclusively read about the history of canon law, especially in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic tradition. With Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather in my carry-on, I expect to read more literature as 2018 begins!

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

moscowI just finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The novel becomes dramatic within the first few pages, though it takes 100 or so more before it arrives at the central drama of the book.

He includes so many details of the moral life and illustrates them well: habits, virtues and vices; passions, joy, sorrow, anger; jealousy, bitterness, regret; emotions quick and enduring, reasonable and ungrounded; friendships and family relations; men and women, children and parents; the effects of work and of play; faith and doubt, divine and human faith, superstition, ritual; the importance of place, home; thought, intellectual ambition, intellectual despair; contradiction among persons, contradiction within oneself, contradiction with society; death and birth; money, luxury, necessity; the tension between physical beauty and moral goodness.

But when I finished the book, I was disappointed by how it ended. It seems it could have ended the same way much sooner, and it wouldn’t have made a great difference. (I would contrast this with Middlemarch by George Eliot, where I don’t think the novel could have ended anywhere else than where it actually ended.) I could say more about his approach to religion, which I found quite true to reality at the beginning, but a bit superficial and moralizing by the end. Beyond anything, Tolstoy excels at showing the effects of sin, both internally and externally, and in the effect it has on others. Perhaps I did not like the later parts of the book because he does this too well.

[This book is #9 on my Classics List.]

Theology in Ovid’s Metamorphoses


The Metamorphoses of Ovid is a collection of Greco-Roman mythological stories, from Creation to Caesar, weaved into a continuous narrative of epic dactylic hexameter verses. (My sister once accused Virgil of being an author of fan-fiction, having based his writing on the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. If that is so, then Ovid is doubly a fan-fiction author, even recounting the events of the Aeneid.)  Continue reading

A Personal Canon

IMG_0422As I begin to explore different literary blogs, I have found that many of them have recently put together a “personal canon” of sorts. (Some examples: here, here, and here.) For many years, I looked to this list as something of a “canon” for myself, but I’ve found myself going back to a shorter list of books over and over. Below is a rough list of the books that come to mind as some of the most important to me. I attempted to divide them by genre at first, but I couldn’t make a clean divide between theology and philosophy, or even between theology and biography, and Rebecca West’s masterpiece does not sit easily in any genre. So I simply divided into “older” and “newer”, with a few added to the end. Continue reading

Rosmersholm and new ideas poorly conceived


Henrik Ibsen

My third classic is Rosmersholm, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in Danish. I only discovered this play after discovering that Rebecca West was only the pen name of the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of my favorite works of literature, and that she took this pen name from a character in Rosmersholm. She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but she changed her name to Rebecca West while she was about 20 so that she could write articles in Freewoman, a feminist magazine, without raising suspicions in her mother who did not want her reading it. Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, her first published novel, contains themes similar to Rosmersholm: unhappiness in marriage, the impossibility of leaving it, and the suspicion of a feigned mental condition.

Continue reading