Reading is my favorite pastime. For me, to sink gratefully into a hammock in the yard with a good book in the summertime is the height of indulgence. Keep your horses and antiques. I’m enjoying a siesta in sunny Spain, or climbing the Andes in search of a secret treasure, or defending my castle against the invading Moors.
Though by definition fiction is not true, well-written fiction is packed with truth.
A good author creates characters whose personalities, thoughts and actions reveal human nature in all its variety and its essential sameness. Well-written plots reveal truths about life we would not find nearly so memorable if we read sermons or self-help books on the same topics.
Frankly, though, I read fiction for entertainment. I come to my easy chair eager for a brief escape from the dishes, diapers and laundry. I leave it feeling refreshed, ready to enjoy and endure the various aspects of my everyday life. And happy to know that I can escape again tomorrow.
But golly, it would be nice if I could open a book and know that from start to finish, I can make my escape without any unpleasant surprises that come in the form of foul language, graphic love scenes, or denigration of Catholicism. Such can be the problem with modern works of fiction.
I know I can always go back to the classics — those books that were dreaded assignments in high school now seem wonderful. But many of the classics, though certainly worthwhile reading, are a bit difficult to plow through, especially at the end of a long day. I crave something a little more modern, and frankly, a little shorter.
In a quest for some good summer reading, I searched libraries and asked friends who share my passion for good books.
In the end, I found some treasures — not necessarily great books, but good books.
Stuff that made best-seller lists in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s. Not all libraries have room to keep their old books as the newer ones come in, but on the Internet you can find just about anything ever printed within a handful of book lovers’ resale sites.
In my quest, I even found some relatively new titles that fit my “rated PG” criteria.
Now I am ready to share the wealth. Do yourself a favor and tuck some of these entertaining reads in your beach bag this summer.
In Lilies of the Field, itinerant handyman Homer Smith meets a mother superior who is convinced that Homer has been sent by God to build a chapel for her convent — free of charge. Skeptical Homer is won over, and a small miracle begins.
Dandelion Wine tells of a boy’s magical summer adventures in a small town. Bradbury is better known for his science fiction, and although I’m no big fan of the genre, he is heavy on human interaction and light on techie talk.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a non-Catholic writer’s respectful, fictionalized account of the first Catholic bishop of Santa Fe, N.M., during the Wild West era. Shadows on the Rock tells of the early days of French Canada as seen through the eyes of a young girl.
If St. Francis of Assisi had lived in New York and Boston in the 1920s, he would have been a lot like Mr. Blue’s title character, who alternately scandalizes and inspires the friend who narrates his wild adventures.
This is the one author on this list I haven’t read, but Faith & Family’s Rebecca Teti raves about the 2001 title Peace Like a River. A widower with three children deals manfully and nobly with a family crisis in small-town Minnesota during the early ’60s.
This British author converted to Catholicism in the ’60s while writing In This House of Brede, a story of life in a cloistered Benedictine monastery. Other titles include The Kitchen Madonna and An Episode of Sparrows.
My absolute favorite author of light fiction is no longer in print, except for two children’s books: The Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians. Goudge was an Anglican with Catholic sympathies.
Her stories are intensely Christian without the least bit of preaching. They usually involve family life and marriage, and several have historical settings. Her characterizations of children are among the best in all of literature. Titles include Green Dolphin Street, The Scent of Water, The Bird in the Tree, The Rosemary Tree and Pilgrims Inn. (Note: Don’t confuse her with American author Eileen Goudge.)
If you’ve read all of Jane Austen and crave more light romance set in Regency England, Heyer is your next stop.
The typical plot has a spunky young lady in distress seeking aid from a rich, self-centered dandy, who at first resents being imposed upon, but then finds himself falling in love. Titles include The Corinthian, Faro’s Daughter, The Nonesuch, and many more. Out of print.
The nine-volume Mitford series (At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, These High Green Hills, and more) chronicles the adventures of Father Tim, a 60-something Episcopalian pastor in a small Southern town full of picturesque people and places.
Frances Parkinson Keyes
Keyes is a Catholic author whose mainly historical novels are set either in the Deep South or New England.
In most of her books, she includes scenes/discussions of married love that may seem outdated to some, but are sensitively and beautifully handled.
Titles include Also the Hills, Steamboat Gothic, Dinner at Antoine’s, Crescent Carnival and Station Wagon in Spain. All are out of print.
Everyone knows about Narnia, but Lewis wrote wonderful fiction for adults.
His Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) speculates about life on other planets where sinless, unfallen beings must contend with human invaders. The Great Divorce is a short fantasy about heaven.
A Norwegian Catholic convert who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for a medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset wrote several shorter novels with modern settings, all of which deal with marriage and moral issues such as abortion and infidelity. Works include Images in a Mirror, The Faithful Wife, The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush. Out of print.
This British expatriate who spent most of his life in New York wrote smashingly funny stories about a goofy, well-to-do bachelor named Bertie Wooster and his brilliant butler, Jeeves. Titles include Right Ho, Jeeves; Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves; and others.
And for mystery buffs:
In the Father Dowling Mysteries, a parish priest in the Chicago suburbs solves murders in his spare time. Father Roger Dowling was portrayed in a TV series some years ago.
A contemporary of Agatha Christie, Wentworth created the character of Miss Silver, a retired governess-turned-detective.
She wins the respect of Scotland Yard’s finest — and completes one knitting project on every case. Look for The Grey Mask, The Chinese Shawl, Wicked Uncle and many others.
For whodunits replete with Latin quotations and literary allusions, try Dorothy Sayers. Best are the Lord Peter Wimsey series, where an eccentric young millionaire teams up with a mystery writer. Titles include Gaudy Night, Unnatural Death and others.
Mary Higgins Clark
This modern best-selling mystery author needs no introduction. Her edge-of-the-seat novels are refreshingly free of graphic love scenes — and she says she tries to include sympathetic Catholic characters whenever she can.
Piers Paul Read
Best-selling author Piers Paul Read manages to portray both the not-so-nice side of Church politics and how the Holy Spirit manages to work in spite of them in The Death of a Pope (Ignatius).
A British intelligence agent and a beautiful young journalist are both pursuing a Spanish ex-priest, Juan Uriarte, who has been accused and exonerated of terrorist activity charges. The death of John Paul II and an upcoming conclave create the greatest security challenge ever to face the Vatican. The Death of a Pope is a well-researched thriller. Caveat: adult themes; tastefully handled, but not appropriate for teens.
Not Just for Kids
Many moms have discovered good reading in Newbery award winners in the “Older Children/Young Adult” category — at least those from decades past. Nearly all libraries carry these in the juvenile section.
The quality of writing is superb, the content will never offend, and they are just the thing when you are too tired to concentrate on more complex adult fare. A few examples:
1936 — Caddie Woodlawn
1944 — Johnny Tremain
1959 — The Witch of Blackbird Pond
1963 — A Wrinkle in Time
How to Find Out-of-Print Books
The Old-Fashioned Way — Be on the lookout for library book sales. You can’t beat the prices, and it’s a fun outing for a Saturday morning with a few girlfriends. Book-Sales-in-America.com lists events by state.
• Amazon.com is a good first stop.
• Half.com is the non-auction book and video division of eBay.
• AbeBooks.com is good for British authors.
• Alibris.com and Powells.com are good out-of-print sources.
• Google.com — and sister site Froogle.com — shouldn’t be overlooked!
This is reprinted from Faith & Family magazine.
Daria Sockey is a senior writer with Faith & Family magazine.