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The Transformations of John Donne

by katherine rundell
farrar, straus and giroux,
352 pages, $30

There’s a poem by John Donne that makes a presence of an absence; his absent love becomes as real to the speaker and more fully his than if she were present. This could illustrate what Katherine Rundell wants us to see in the work of John Donne, seventeenth-century metaphysical poet and preacher, in this useful book that she presents both as a biography and “an act of evangelism.” Donne’s peculiar mode of writing, often strained and twisted, is a “galvanic” force, she patiently shows readers, stretching meanings and associations, uniting opposites, and expanding the experience of being human.

His fondness for the super- prefix, “super-miraculous,” “super-exaltation,” pushes against limits. The “super-infinite,” for example, is an expression he forged in a eulogy reckoning with death from life. The trans- prefix sparked him as well, Rundell says, and even when he doesn’t specifically use the prefix, he employs it metaphorically, as in a poem transforming a bed of intimacy into exploration of the New World and back again. For that matter, the crux of his biography itself lies in his transmutation of the vexed, raggedy, sordid, and sorrowful elements of his life into ecstatic poetry and the sermons he gave as Dean of St. Paul’s that drew crowds from all around.

“I am a little world made cunningly / Of elements and an angelic sprite,” he writes in a famous poem. But in an equally famous prose devotional: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” The task is keeping that universal wholeness in sight even as one lives as oneself.

This book is a worthy effort but presents something of a paradox. Rundell wants us to see and feel the transcendence of Donne’s work, but the painstaking unfolding of his life, and sometimes of his own questionable actions and attitudes, is a bit of a slog, often glum, discouraging, disappointing, and even dark. Thus the need for a “super-infinite.”

—Carol Iannone

Agatha Christie:
An Elusive Woman

by lucy worsley
pegasus crime, 432 pages, $19.95

Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 7 in Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman. (Worsley’s chapters tend to brevity; we’ve just reached page thirty-six.)

Many people think of Agatha Christie as the elderly ‘Duchess of Death’, intimidating in her cat’s-eye spectacles, and fail to realize what a total man-magnet she was in her youth.

If this gives delight, you will almost certainly relish the book; if it irritates, you probably wouldn’t enjoy reading Worsley at length. Me? I’m in the middle. I don’t think that many people find Christie “intimidating,” whether they are great fans (as I am) or have at most a casual acquaintance with her work. But I enjoy Worsley’s deliberate cheekiness here, one sign among many that, like some other contemporary literary biographers, most of them women (Paula Byrne, for example), she is rebelling against the unwritten rules of the genre. I don’t mind frequent arguments (in my head) with an author who keeps me quickly turning the pages and occasionally saying “Yes!” out loud.

I do have one serious gripe, likely to be shared by many readers of this magazine who are also deeply familiar with Christie’s books (and with the splendid TV adaptations featuring David Suchet as Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple). From birth, Christie was a member of the Church of England, of the “High Church” variety at that, yet this crucial dimension of her experience (clearly apparent in her two most famous characters) is simply missing from Worsley’s account.

To be fair, Worsley has a lot of company in this respect. And any residual frustration the reader feels can be easily dispelled by rereading a Christie novel or two (or three, or four).

—John Wilson

Thinking as Though God Exists:
Newman on Evangelizing the “Nones”

by ryan n. s. topping
angelico, 186 pages, $26

For those scared by modern society, for those afraid to practice their faith in public, for those who dread what a secular school might do to their children, for those without hope in the future of Western society, Ryan Topping offers a practical plan for action. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is often criticized for being overly defensive, pointing out ways that contemporary secular society is hostile to Christianity and then recommending survival tactics, while seeming to forget about the New Evangelization that St. John Paul II began. Ryan Topping fills this need.

Thinking as Though God Exists outlines a pragmatic program through which the Church can accomplish the New Evangelization in a post-Christian culture. Topping argues that St. John Henry Newman is especially helpful for such a project, since his life was dedicated to the defeat of liberalism, the philosophical forerunner to contemporary secularism. Newman’s insights can be applied to American culture with remarkable ease and effectiveness. The main way to accomplish the New Evangelization is by following Newman’s example and teaching to live an integrated Catholic life and build an integrated Catholic culture, one where all aspects of life are shaped by a rational faith.

To build this culture, the first thing we must reform is ourselves and the Church through orthodox catechesis and education (Topping points to St. Thomas Aquinas as essential here), vibrant and beautiful liturgy, and a recovery of classical arts and the Western Great Books tradition. This integrated Catholic culture will de-normalize atheism, Topping convincingly argues, and draw people by its beauty, goodness, and truth, in that order. This book is helpful for anyone who wants not just to survive in the secular culture, but to shape and re-evangelize the post-Christian world.

—Matthew McKenna

Pushing Roe v. Wade Over the Brink:
The Battle for America’s Heart, the Human Right to Life, and a Future Full of Hope

by clarke d. forsythe and alexandra desanctis
americans united for life, 324 pages, $19.95

Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. Americans United for Life contributed much to the DNA of the Dobbs decision, and Clarke Forsythe, an AUL attorney since 1985, teams up with National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis in Pushing Roe v. Wade Over the Brink to chronicle AUL’s pro-life efforts in encyclopedic but enlightening fashion. Refreshingly, the names of those who waged the unsuccessful campaigns and necessary rearguard actions will not be abandoned to the winds of time.

Those turning to this book for detailed behind-the-scenes drama will be disappointed, but pages of chronological summaries remind the reader that real life rarely follows the story arc of a novel. Ground has to be gained and defended through the grind of determined competence—acts like drafting briefs, statutes, and reports.

One can feel years of frustration venting when the Dobbs dissent is pilloried at length, but overall the book maintains a crisp matter-of-fact style. Most politicians get only pithy treatments, such as “We don’t get to vote for great leaders all the time.”

The half-century scope may produce surprises for those numbed by today’s seemingly intractable red–blue dynamics. AUL was founded pre-Roe in 1971 to transcend partisan and sectarian lines with a strategy of persuasion and prudential action inspired by the NAACP. Rhode Island was the first state to take Roe head on. Illinois long enjoyed a veto-proof pro-life majority. Liberal Democrats and a Village Voice columnist were defenders of the preborn.

This treatment of the long march to Dobbs reminds us that the cause for life is bigger than any one person. Nevertheless, professional excellence and strongly networked institutions, combined with much perseverance, played an important role in bringing down Roe. Those will still be needed as Dobbs marks not a final destination but a new starting line.

—John Murdock

Et tu, Brute?:
The Best Latin Lines Ever

by harry mount and john davie
bloomsbury, 272 pages, $20

One of the most formative moments in my college years came from reading the Iliad in my first-semester freshman English class. The class sat very green and very afraid before a question freshly posed by the professor about a scene we were discussing: “Why do you think Hera did what she did there?” We gaped unintelligibly back. “Well, why would you do that?” he boomed.

We postmoderns forget that the ancients were normal people, just like us—give or take a few social mores. Correcting this misconception is the admirable intent of Harry Mount and John Davie’s Et Tu, Brute? The book is divided into nineteen chapters, each chapter containing a central theme and a few quotes couched in historical exposition, each tidily presented in both Latin and English.

The quotes span a wide variety of authors and topics, from anonymous graffiti artists to the poet Horace, from Hadrian’s Wall to brothels, flower etymologies, gladiators, Roman religion, handy expressions still in use today, and Roman numerals. Pliny’s chapter-long description of the destruction of Pompeii is as gripping and heart-wrenching as if it had been written yesterday (“Everything had changed in our still trembling eyes and it was all covered with deep ash, like snow”), and Cicero’s advice on “how to grow old gracefully” was very insightful (“Only idiots attribute to old age their own failings and their own faults”). As delightful as these hidden gems are, the overall scattershot approach leaves the book without direction, and the reader is often led on into random associations and dizzying whims.

Central to Mount and Davie’s project is convincing readers that Latin is more than merely stiff scholasticism—an endeavor worthy of adulation. Yet, in pursuit of this, the authors indulge in showing that Romans could be, mirabile dictu, “wonderfully crude.” (Did you need convincing?) The two chapters devoted to “True Romance” (disappointingly not at all chivalric) and “Sex in Rome” (that is, prostitution) are supplemented by occasional crudity in other chapters. Juxtaposed with this are a few pages spent in praise of the Latin Mass in the second half of the book. Am I to ask pardon for finding these interests inconsistent?

In short, caveat emptor. Unless you wish to spend twenty dollars finding out what lewd Romans scrawled on brothel walls, I would advise you look elsewhere for the “Best Latin Lines Ever.”

—Claire Giuntini

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