1) Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz:
I had no idea how much I would enjoy this book, and I could not have predicted that I would be so drawn into the storyline that I would stay up far too late, night after night, reading. The title is Latin for "Where are you going?", drawn from when Peter met Jesus on his way to be crucified. Quo Vadis is set in the very earliest days of Christianity, and tells of a love story between a pagan Roman military officer, Vinitius, and a young Christian girl, Ligia. Once I was a little way into the book and the plot got moving, I was swept up in the story, which culminates in depictions of famous events: the burning of Rome, and the subsequent feeding of Christians to the lions. The book is inspiring without being preachy - something that can't be said of much historical fiction involving Christianity! The characters really come alive, and I found myself sickened by Nero's cruelty, deceit, and wickedness, drawn to Ligia and other Christians like her, and eagerly awaiting each appearance of Peter or Paul (although they are not very developed characters) in the pages of the book.
I found myself thinking of Diotima's ladder as I progressed through Quo Vadis. Diotima's ladder, or "the ascent passage" from Plato's Symposium, describes how love ascends from a base love (love of a particular body) to the highest love, love of Beauty (as a Form; inseparable from Truth and Goodness). While the connection between the two books is not a precise one, the one certainly reminded me of the other. Vinitius, a pagan entrenched in the ways of Nero's corrupt court, initially lusts after Ligia. So that he might possess her, Romans remove the girl from her home by force, and she is essentially to be a concubine to Vinitius. Through the events of the book, his heart is changed, and he grows to love Ligia's soul, and through her eternal soul, to see and love the beauty of Christ.
Through Christ both Ligia and eventually Vinitius learn to live a life free of fear, a life dramatically different from the typical Roman lifestyle in every way. Vinitius's conversion and subsequent growing faith is powerfully and beautifully told.
"His faith had become so strong that eternity seemed to him something incomparably more real and true than the fleeting existence that he had lived up to that time."
The book describes in vivid detail the persecution of the Christians. Even the wicked, godless Romans who come to the arena to see the sights are sickened by the events that follow - and how much more so was I! At this point in the book, I admit that my vision of the page was occasionally blurred... it is a very sad story, indeed - saddest because it is true.
At the moment when Ligia is in the arena with wild animals, Vinitius's only words are, "I believe! I believe! Grant a miracle, O Christ!"
As to what follows, I recommend you read the book!
Peace to the martyrs.
2) Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care by Jennifer Block:
My friend Story (who is in the final stages of becoming a certified nurse midwife) lent me this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. The scientific and medical aspects of the book are made easy to understand, and the statistics on modern American birth are fascinating. The stories in the book - tales of one unnecessary intervention after another, C-sections of convenience, and agenda-oriented hospitals - certainly ring true with the experiences many of my family members and friends have had in their birth experiences. Suffice it to say that when it comes to low-risk pregnancies, I'm a home birth advocate!
One of the things that struck me as most tragically ironic as I read this book was the concept of "reproductive rights." We hear a lot about women's reproductive rights, don't we? As it turns out, the only right that is getting easier and easier for women to obtain is the right not to reproduce! When women want to reproduce, it's increasingly difficult for them to do so in the way they deem safest, healthiest, and best for mother and baby. The book even describes situations in which lawyers were appointed to unborn fetuses in order to assure the baby a "safe" hospital birth. In a time when fetuses are generally granted few if any rights when a mother wishes to terminate a pregnancy, is it only me who finds this a very sad irony? Most "women's rights" groups are interested only in women's rights to abortion, not real reproductive rights.
Whether you're male or female, young or old, expecting or not, you should read this book. In the interest of true women's rights and reproductive rights, all women should have the intellectual power to know what kind of birth experience they want, and to what kind of procedures and interventions they will or will not consent.