Lent is upon us yet again. Some years ago, at Prinknash, it was the custom for Father Abbot to choose one particular book for each monk to read during Lent. An improving book of course. However I propose another scheme where someone else (me) recommends additional books which are entertaining as well as improving, for us all to while away the Lenten hours.
I have selected six of my favourite books. I remember the first time I read each of them and the great impact each had on me at the time. I reread them all on occasion and would like you to enjoy them. They are:
1 ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling.
This is a story of the Great Game; the British Raj facing the perceived Russian threat to Victorian India. It is exquisitely written with two entwined themes involving a Tibetan Lama (a retired Abbot) on a pilgrimage with his chela the Indo-Irish boy Kim. The first theme is a ripping yarn but the second is more important. It is the story of the search for the ultimate meaning of life. A personal journey of hope, inspired by faith and made possible by charity, which we all undertake to find God.
2 ‘The Story of San Michele’ by Axel Munthe.
This is a series of delightful snapshots of life events of a very successful and charming Swedish Doctor practicing in late Victorian Paris who built a beautiful house, ‘San Michele’ on Capri. He married an Englishwoman and the book is written in faultless English. It is very amusing but one main theme is dealing with the ever present realities – in his profession – of death. As he said ‘Was it not my mission to help those to die well who I could not help to live?’ In his consultant hospital work he was always supported by the devotion and professionalism of the ‘gentle all sacrificing sisters of St Vincent de Paul’.
3 ‘Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers.
This has been made into an excellent film with Jenny Agutter as the love interest. This is again set at the turn of the 20th century. It is the story of two men who engage in really well written and exciting story of espionage The two are beautifully characterised. Here there are again two intertwined themes. The first is that of the uncovering of a dastardly plot of the German Kaiser. The second is the riveting description of sailing in those dangerous coastal waters off the North Sea coast of Germany just before the First World War dodging the enemy, whose military motto: ‘Gott Mit Uns’ – God is with Us!, is still very thought provoking.
4 ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.
The film version with Gregory Peck playing the hero Atticus Finch is unforgettable but the book rewards a reread. The main theme is the brave lawyer’s defence, 60 years ago, of a wrongly accused black man in the Deep South of the USA who was eventually murdered by a white policeman. The strength of the story is in the detailed characterisation of all the participants. Nothing has changed in the USA since then and the book fleshes out the current headline stories of the continuing tradition of police killings of black people and the current Black Lives Matter movement.
5 ‘Montaillou’ by Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie.
This is the well-researched true story of a village in the French Pyrenees in the 13th century. The characters of the book are the very human Cathar villagers and local Lords of Foix faced by the Inquisition. The story is both charming and horrifying. We know the story from the detailed proceedings of the Dominican Inquisitor who took his records to Rome when he became Pope Benedict XII. Although their theology was not orthodox, the Cathars had valid points about Church venality and were good men and women whose persecution was tragic.
6 ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco.
Again this has been made into a film starring Sean Connery as the English Franciscan Brother William of Baskerville and his side-kick the Benedictine Brother Adso caught up in the troubles of the papal and imperial politics of the 14th Century. The theme is a series of murders but the main attraction of the book is the authentic detail in the description of life in a great medieval Benedictine Abbey and the problems caused for the Church by the emergence of the Mendicant Friars. The fate of this great Abbey is the significant climax of the semiotician Eco’s story.
Of course these are all well-known books and for anyone who has read them all and does not want to reread them, I can revisit my library.
Oblate of Prinknash