This summer, two books got me because they took me outside myself: Danusha Goska’s “God Through Binoculars” and Sam Davidson’s “Love’s Many Names.” Both authors write truth from the heart, and both books are refreshing and heart-inspiring reads.
Unfortunately, my life has too often been filled with books that do no such thing. I am sent two or three books a week to read and review. Because I have a blog, authors and publishers seem to think that I have nothing else to do but read their books and write wonderful reviews. It is assumed that the blogger must be a full-time book promotion and publicity machine—and all completely free of charge!
Unfortunately, with the advent of print on demand, the price of producing books has fallen. The number of books has therefore shot upward; at the same time the number of serious readers has plummeted. Alas, most of the books therefore are disposable and forgettable.
What is that tart comment? “Everyone has a book inside them, and for most people that is where it should stay…”
Consequently, I have developed a cunning plan to deal with the steady stream of books that wash up on my desk. If the cover is interesting, I open the book. If the table of contents is interesting, I start to read the book. If the second paragraph still holds my interest, I read on. I stop reading the book when I am no longer interested. I’m afraid I rarely get past the first chapter. I do not blame the author. Some of the books are worthy and well-written but simply not for me. Then there is my own increasingly short attention span and even shorter patience.
Therefore, if a book does get me… if I finish the darn thing it finally gets a review. This summer, two books got me because they took me outside myself. I should explain that my world is what you might expect. It is the rather conventional and conservative world of a Catholic priest and writer. My conversations, my books, my viewing, and my life, like most people’s, usually circle within my little world. But God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery caught my attention. First it was the author’s name. Is Danusha Goska male or female? What is this foreign-sounding name? I am guessing Russian, Romanian, Ukranian, or something thereabouts. I view the cover. Monastery is good and hitchhiker is good. In the summer of 1987 I hitchhiked to Jerusalem from England staying in monasteries all along the route, so I was curious.
Dr. Goska, it turns out, is a feisty Polish American woman and a devout Catholic. Down on her luck, she decided to hitchhike from New Jersey to a monastery in Virginia to seek God’s guidance. Her book is the account of that journey. Part travel book, spiritual journal, birdwatcher’s guide, conversion story, and delightfully eccentric grumble, God Through Binoculars took me outside myself on a curiously unpredictable adventure.
The author tells how she was brought up in an impoverished, devout but dysfunctional Catholic family and how she overcame all odds to pursue a career in academia. With detours to discuss the sex life of hyenas, the birds of North America, and the disappointments of her experience of the Catholic Church, this is one hilarious, passionate, weird, and wonderful tale.
Dr. Goska is a person with no guile. She doesn’t pull any punches and has no time for the artificial, the phony, and the fake. She is a nonconformist and rages against the expected compromises of academia, the hypocrisy of churchmen, and the betrayal of friends.
One of the highlights for me was her dissection of Thomas Merton. Far from paying homage to the famous monk, she pokes at Merton’s romanticized monasticism, observing his hypocrisy and the phony liberal Catholicism that his fake mysticism spawned. I’ve felt that way about Merton for some time, so it was refreshing to find a kindred spirit—someone willing to pop the Merton balloon.
Dr. Goska is also refreshingly frank about sex. She discusses some of her love affairs with an explicitness that may make some readers blush. She is equally blunt about her love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. She clearly loves God and loves her faith, but is impatient with clerical nincompoops, monastic frauds, incompetent establishment goons, and all the pompous rigamarole.
God Through Binoculars is a smart, funny, refreshing, and quirky read. It’s the best irreverently reverent religious book I’ve read this year.
Speaking of monasteries, Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight in England is one of my favorite places on earth. We were received into the Catholic Church there, and I was there to research a book for a week last summer. While there, an old friend, Dom Luke Bell handed me a book to read and review. Love’s Many Names is a collection of poetry by Sam Davidson.
Mr. Davidson studied theology and philosophy at Edinburgh University and film studies at Exeter. He worked with Kurdish refugees and war veterans in transit camps in Europe and traveled widely in Europe. His poems reflect his travels and faith, and like Dr. Goska, he took me out of myself because his approach to the faith is so vivid, personal, passionate, and unconventional. Like Dr. Goska, he writes not only from the heart, but from the guts and from the groin.
These are not religious poems per se, but they are deeply mystical. Like all good poets and authentic mystics, Mr. Davidson wrings meaning out of his life. He sees with sacramental eyes and perceives the passion within his experience. Here a poem describes with painful objectivity the passion and despair of the homeless. There a poem subtly melds his love for a woman with the passion of Christ. Here he rages with the refugee, there he touches the hem of nature’s beauty with a masculine tenderness.
Mr. Davidson’s verse is sometimes free but often formal, with the subtle formality of the underappreciated Movement poets—that group of English post-war poets who retained classical forms while integrating natural speech rhythms and idioms. When he is writing formally Mr. Davidson echoes the style of Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie, and Elizabeth Jennings.
Like Jennings, Mr. Davidson’s poems hover around the subject of Catholic faith without ever being on the nose, saccharine, or sentimental. The Christian faith is never obvious here. Instead it runs like life blood through the images, cadences, and schemes of the poetry. Like Dr. Goska, Mr. Davidson writes simply and without guile. Both authors do not seem to care whether they please anyone. They are being honest and they write truth from the heart.
Did I say these books took me out of myself? They did, but only to open me more deeply to remember a man I used to be. I rediscovered that young man who hitchhiked to Jerusalem over thirty years ago, flirting with the call of the monastery. I got back in touch with the unconventional young man who fled America on a crazy notion of being a poet, like George Herbert in an English country vicarage.
Both books are refreshing and heart-inspiring reads, and for once I was glad for the unsolicited books that end up on my desk. Consequently I have decided to grumble a little less and view each new book as a possible fresh adventure and perhaps another pilgrimage outside myself.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Reading the Newspaper” (1912) by H.A. Brendekilde (1857-1942), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.