Quick and Dirty

I’ve been reading War and Peace for most of the Spring, and finally finished it this week. It was worth it, though I had to take breaks from it periodically when things were moving too slowly, then I’d cheat on it with something quick and dirty that I could finish in a few days. It’s made for a very fun summer so far.


The quick and dirty list:


Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot, which had fun literary themes with college students trying to impress each other, a Catholic subplot– as one of the characters went to work for Mother Theresa in Calcutta– but it was ultimately disappointing, since the quasi-Catholic character finally decided Catholicism is too hard, and that he can’t live without sex (the premarital kind), and the other secular romance plot is clunky  through to the end. A note of caution: the book also made sure readers wouldn’t have to go more than a chapter without a sex scene. I give it a C-. Could have been redemptive, and then I wouldn’t have felt so bad for muddling through all the sex.


The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls recounts the loosy-goosey, borderline abusive childhood of the author with her alcoholic father and space cadette mother. The book is told in anecdotes, all of which are entertaining to read as one is left in constant awe at how close children can live to disaster with parents who are so consistently and utterly unaware of the dangers in which they are placing their children. Three kids and an infant bumping around in the back of a u-haul while the parents ride peacefully in the cab, a dad taking his barely pubescent daughter into a bar to hoodwink a gambling partner–these are the tame ones. Still, Walls walks a delicate line and manages not to present herself as a victim.


Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn: I had a friend at Oxford who said he went to school only so that he could learn interesting things to say at dinner parties. St Aubyn has mastered the art of interesting dinner party babble. The action, so far is minor, but on every single page, I’ve had to stop and appreciate at least one very exciting and unexpected turn of phrase. Example:

“Kettle had come down to dinner wearing a turquoise silk jacket and a pair of lemon-yellow linen trousers. The rest of the household, still wearing their sweat-stained shirts and Khaki trousers, left her just where she wanted to be, the lonely martyr to her own high standards.”

Really, page after page of sentences that are very well put, and it manages not to be distracting.


Whatever Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha was recommended as an example of a modern Catholic novel. Definitely offers a fair and honest representation of a modern Catholic woman, but again it fails in the end with the heroine being crushed by failure, and deciding it’s just too difficult. It’s become a modern refrain, I’m afraid, that the only outcome the modern literary mind can imagine for a “religious” person is disillusionment and abandonment of faith. Authors can dress it up as “coming to awareness,” but I think it speaks more accurately to a cultural immaturity that wants to quit everything one can’t do well and easily.

For my own purposes, I’m deciding that for a book to qualify as “catholic” or a “novel of belief,” someone, anyone in the novel, even a minor character, has to be able to sustain a sense of belief through to the end of the pages. If a character in a novel exhibits some form of belief only to toss it in the end on the basis of some false principle, I think the book is better characterized as a novel of doubt (of which there are already far too many).


So each one of these books, while pretty good in their own right, do tend to highlight the fact that War and Peace really is an event that can only happen once in a century, if that. In fact, I’m not sure War and Peace could be written today. If so, someone please direct me.

I feel like I’ve lost a worthy anchor in my life, now that it’s over.


About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    The comic book series NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF WIND, by Hayao Miyazaki. He derived it from his own animation movie, which is a masterpiece, but the comics expansion (it is by no means an adaptation) is a transcendent work of genius, the greatest comics work ever done, and satisfyingly enormous – over a thousand pages of superb art and heart-stopping story. (The Jewish American genius Jack Kirby had laid the premises for something similarly colossal and transcendent with his magnificent FOURTH WORLD quartet of series, but it was shot down after a mere two years.)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      Sounds fascinating. Will look for it. I was very impressed with Ponyo and Spirited Away.

  • Alishia

    I thought you said this was a dirty list. I was tricked. ;)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy


  • Rosita

    You may have already read them, but two of my all time favorite books – even though they are considered youth literature – are Goodnight Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian and Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley. Not heavy reading, but I really love the character development and that the characters maintain their beliefs and don’t “toss in the end on the basis of some false principle”.
    This post and your previous one has made me consider picking up War and Peace. No small thing considering I have 5 young children and work full time outside the home.

  • Colleen Duggan

    Love the Wall’s book. I’m reading Les Miserables this summer. I’ve never seen the movie, theatre production or the like. I imagine it’s a reading process similar to War and Peace. One that can be slow, but one I know I’ll be glad I persevered.

    Re: Quick and Dirty…have you ever read Mary Karr’s Lit? Fab, fab, fab.

  • MDiskin

    Kate Morton writes really good books — lots of anguish, surrender, and redemption. Very cathartic.

  • Guest

    the fact that you got the (quite significant) name of “what happened to sophie wilder” wrong suggest that you might not be the most careful reader and probably not one that others should take seriously as a critic. that said, I would suggest reading graham greene’s “the power and the glory” as an example of a Catholic novel in which the protaganist retains his faith until the end in the face of extreme pressure to do otherwise.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      Hey! Nice typos! You should become a more careful writer, I guess.