Friday, December 2, 2011

The Best Books I Ever Read

If you have ever wished that you had been a better son or daughter . . .

If you have ever wished that you could be a better father or mother . . .

If there are sins weighing on your conscience that you have never confessed—as the old-timers might say, if you are unshriven . . .

If you need God’s mercy, even if you don’t admit it . . . 

If you like a good yarn . . .

If you appreciate language sensitive to the poetry of life . . .

If you—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, pantheist, deist, whateverist—are open to religious experience or even the expression of religious experience . . .

Then I have a book for you—books, plural, in fact.

Until today, I have always said that my favorite authors were male, beginning in childhood with Franklin W. Dixon and Arthur Conan Doyle, and moving through happy adult times with Charles Dickens, Robertson Davies, Norman Maclean, and David Foster Wallace.

I have never been the same way about music, where some of my favorite artists—from Sinead O’Connor and Nanci Griffith to Iris Dement, Mary Gauthier, and Patty Griffin—are female.

Books are different. Until now.

Until now, I would have told you that only a male literary voice could speak to me. Even, or especially comic voices: I can’t think of a female writer who consistently makes me laugh out loud the way Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor or even Dave Barry does.  

Well, gentlemen, it’s time to stand aside, it’s time you rose to your feet for a lady. Gentlemen, admit that you’re all second bananas at this fruit stand compared with the lady at the top of this post, Sigrid Undset.

I have just finished the fourth book in The Master of Hestviken tetralogy, The Son Avenger, and all I can say is, it will reward you to the very last word, literally. The series of four books measures 200 pages less than the one-volume A Father’s Tale by Michael O’Brien that is now getting notice in Catholic circles. The Master of Hestviken is worlds better.

I dare you to name a better Catholic novelist—no, not even Waugh or Percy, both guys, by the way—who have done better with a man’s story than Undset did with The Master of Hestviken nearly 90 years ago.

More to follow. Maybe much more. But it’s a busy day, so meanwhile—

Order the first book now on Amazon. That’s an order, soldier.


  1. You lost me after Sinead O'Connor. Sorry.

  2. I knew that if I threw the name Sinead O'Connor out there, someone would choke on it. That's OK. I still love her music, and I still love the Pope.

  3. I've already said this on an earlier post, but have to reiterate it here---it is so nice to find another (Catholic) fan of Sigrid Undset! I'm on book 2 of the "Master" series and can't get enough. Thanks for this husband and I really enjoy your blog.


  4. I had not heard of this series, but I love Singrid Undset. I read Kristen Lavresndatter in the past year and am now working of Catherine of Siena. Two questions:
    1) Do you know if the translation is as masterful as that of Kristin Lavrensdatter?
    2) Undset was a 3rd Order Dominican, but I cannot find any info. about how she came to know the Dominicans. Do you know?

  5. Thanks for all the comments. Answer's to h's questions:
    1. If there is anything less than perfect about "Master," it is the 1920s-era translation. Tiina Nunnally's translation for "Kristin," by contrast, is a recent prize-winner. I thought this would diminish my enjoyment of "Master." It did not. The clunkiness of the language is mostly in the dialog.
    2. I have just ordered the only English-language biography of SU, a 2006 Xlibris (self-published) edition, titled "The Art of Compassion." I hope to know more after reading this. Perhaps the book has a good bibliography. Like you, I really want to follow Undset, and I am now reading "Catherine," with "The Unknown Sigrid Undset" (2001) on the top of my read-now pile.

  6. Has anyone ever read Undset's "Saga of Saints?"

  7. Our Family—I have not and I see it listed only as a rare 1935 English language edition, but I am interested. Have you read it?

  8. No, I came across it in Butler's Lives of the Saints, which references it in the entry for Saint Sunniva (one of the saints that Kristin Lavransdatter prays to frequently in the series). Anyway, just curious...there are some copies available in the UK and I was thinking about purchasing one. I loved Undset's biography of St. Catherine and am a huge fan of her work.

    Thanks for a great blog and God bless.


  9. Late to this exciting discussion, but have more than two cents to add!

    Saga of Saints is well worth searching for! The story of St. Sunniva is unbelievably haunting. To think that on "her" island there was a bishopric, for one thing. Undset tells of more recent saints of Norway up through the early 20th century, ending with Fr. Karl Schilling. He was a Catholic convert before Catholicism was legalized again in Norway (late-ish 1800s) and became a Barnabite priest, serving in Italy and Belgium, where he was greatly loved.

    A quote from Saga of Saints, to whet your appetite:

    p. 290 (referring to events of 1637 by which time Catholicism had been outlawed in Norway for around one hundred years and would not be legalized until late in the 19th century.)

    "That priests had secretly visited the country and administered the Sacraments seems very probable, since in a small town like Larvik Rhugius found a congregation of twelve."

    And, Webster, I just commented on an earlier post of yours, about the 3rd book in Master of Hestviken, asking if you'd read the last book...which you tell about in your post of Dec. 2.

    Re the translation of Master of Hestviken -- I contacted Tiina Nunnally to ask if she was working on it. No. (but that was a number of years ago - maybe she is now?) It had to do with money, as in, being paid to do it was, not surprisingly, necessary to Nunnally, an award-winning translator, and writer.

    I have read almost everything by Sigrid Undset, but am not a fan of her first (pre-coversion) works, like the ones in "the Unknown Sigrid Undset", which are as uniformly dark & depressing as anything Nordic could be. I also thought I would like Catherine of Siena, but did not. I thought I would NEVER finish that book, and to be honest, can't remember if I did. Of her contemporary fiction, I highly recommend Ida Elisabeth. Ignatius has recently reissued it.


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