“Everywhere have I sought rest and found it not, except sitting apart in a nook with a little book.” — Thomas a Kempis
Our first “Best Books I Read in…” compilation appeared nine years ago on Ignatius Insight and it has grown in both popularity and length each year. This year we have 40 entries (if my blurry vision can be trusted), all from CWR contributors, editors, and friends, each of whom was asked to respond to the simple question, “What were the best books you read in the past year?” The books chosen did not have to be published in 2013, nor did they have to be about a specific topic. So, pull up a chair—or find a nook—and prepare to discover a few new books. — Carl E. Olson, editor
The Catechism of Hockey by Alyssa Bormes. Okay, technically I had already read the manuscript before it was published, and even more technically, I was the one who actually published it. But the unexpected ingeniousness of using hockey as an analogy to teach the Catholic faith continues to please me no end. The book is wonderful. Forgive me.
Breakthrough by James O’Keefe. The liberals hated James O’Keefe for the corruption he uncovered. The conservatives hated the way he uncovered it. In spite of all the people hating him, this guy has beat them all. His book is unputdownable, and I came away with nothing but admiration.
The Paleo Manifesto by John Durant. In a nutshell, the thesis is that cavemen were healthier than we are. I admit, I don’t care. And there are one or two fundamental premises that are flawed in this book, but it’s an absolutely fascinating and provocative read. Another one I couldn’t put down.
The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander. I can see why Houselander appeals more to girls than to guys, but these meditations go deep, very deep. Read it in a monastery or on retreat.
Night of the Living Dead Christian by Matt Mikalatos. An Evangelical dissects (or shall we say “vivisects”) modern Protestant churches in a lively (or shall we say “deadly”) narrative that marvelously combines horror and humor. He gets everything exactly right except—well, read it.
Old Principles and the New Order by Vincent McNabb, OP. Let me lay them out for you. The first principle is that there is a God whom we must serve. The second is that the family is the basic unit of society. The third: we cannot expect more than average virtue from the average man. Those circumstances demanding more than average virtue (i.e., heroic virtue) are called Occasions of Sin. The fourth: we need to create a society that does not offer so many Occasions of Sin. Chesterton called Father McNabb the greatest man in England. Incidentally, Father McNabb called Chesterton the greatest man in England.
Speaking of Chesterton, I re-read the Illustrated London News columns from 1929 to 1936, his collected short fiction, and the first volume of his poetry, all from the Ignatius Collected Works of Chesterton. Also read from the newly collected (and prohibitively expensive) Chesterton in the Daily News. In the uncollected department I continued to dig into Chesterton’s essays from the New Witness, which include this prophetic line: “We are not divided now into those who know and those who do not know. We are divided now into those who care and those who do not care.”
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society.
Top of the list is George Weigel’s The End and the Beginning, with its wide and deep look at the life and pontificate of John Paul II. Some fascinating info about the extraordinarily—weirdly, fanatically—detailed files that informers had to compile for the secret police in the days of Communist-run Poland—scrabbling around for information on what toothpaste a man used and how often he had his hair cut. They were disappointed and baffled, of course, by Karol Wojtyla—totally lacking anything they could use for blackmailing, the man lived in simplicity and poverty and with a wide circle of friends…odd, really, to think of all that energy on the part of spies and informers, dedicated to creating miles and miles of paper files, and it all crumbled in 1989. The life of JPII continues to inspire—Weigel’s overview is thoughtful and explores territory that the mass media too often ignored: JPII’s intellectual gifts and love of study, his sense of missionary imperative, the impact he had on Africa and Asia, his deep concern for the future of Europe.
Fatima for Today by Andrew Apostoli, with its foreword by Cardinal Raymond Burke, came my way only because I got tired of being sent emails from lobbyists for the “all-the-recent-popes-have-lied-to-us” conspiracy theorists, and wanted to get some serious information. It’s important to get the full picture, and this book is a detailed read and is sane and authoritative. The conspiracy-types will, alas, go on campaigning: they are sounding a bit desperate now, as their end-is-nigh stuff keeps passing its various sell-by dates and getting more and more frantic. Meanwhile Father Apostoli and Cardinal Burke have done a good job: recommended.
Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography is a must-read and does not disappoint. Extraordinary to read the heady innocence of her letters to her sister from Oxford, all dances and dresses and nice young men. The seriousness was never far away, however—one young man was clearly put off, on a visit to the family home, at having to do a lot of churchgoing on the Sunday, including listening to sermons from Alderman Roberts, Margaret’s father, who was a self-taught Methodist preacher. Clearly Dennis Thatcher, when he came along later, was able to cope—and the rest, as they say, is history. Interesting to see—no surprises here—that Margaret applied herself while young with huge dedication to every academic task, got qualified in chemistry before turning to law, took her religious duties seriously, and had strong views about what was right for Britain and for the world. All that, plus excitements over a new dress and a slight worry about the propriety about a young man giving her an expensive gift (a handbag): should she accept it, while not really returning his evidently ardent affection? Decades later, she’d be busy with the Falklands War, Britain’s economy, and the rights and wrongs of merging the finances of the European nations. And still taking an interest in clothes—and handbags (she always carried a rather elegant one).
I loved James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church: a good read and an excellent reference book. Too heavy to carry around, but a great dip-into for your desk or armchair. The post-Vatican II material is especially good, balanced, well-informed.
Most annoying book? He Liked Tuesdays Best: An Everyday Life of the Blessed John Paul. Full of charming snippets of daily life with the great Pope, but hopeless translated (even the title, with that extra “the” which makes the whole thing read awkwardly). Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki has some good things to say and lots of fascinating material to impart, but is let down—badly—by his editor and translator. In fact the whole thing annoyed me so much I contacted the publisher and offered to put the whole thing into decent English, producing a sample chapter by way of good faith. But they evidently want to see if this first edition can sell first. They should pulp it and produce a new and corrected version. We all want to know more about this beloved pope, who in 2014 joins the ranks of canonized saints, and already has a place in our hearts and in the life and future of the Church. We’d love to know more about his everyday life: we need a book in good English about it!
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
My preface: As usual, I don’t include Ignatius Press titles on my list. There are plenty of them, either in published form or in manuscript form, that would make my list. Here are the non-Ignatius Press titles for 2013 I would list as the Best Books I Read in 2013 or at least as among the Best Books I Read in 2013, the others being in sectors of the hard drive not readily accessible. I probably should keep better track of what I read. Oh well. Perhaps after I have done this for a decade I’ll remember to write stuff down.
Rebuilt by Michael White and Tom Corcoran. The rights and wrongs of parish renewal. Another “must-read.”
The Giver by Lois Lowry. A book club pick I expected to find just ok but which I wound up thinking is an outstanding book.
Evangelical Catholicism by George Weigel. The second most important new book on Evangelization. Some folks might find it challenging—and not just intellectually so. If you are among them, you’re probably reading the book correctly.
The City of Man by Pierre Manent. An interesting work by one of the more notable political philosophers of our day.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Re-read it for book club. Gets better with each reading. A complex take on what are for some folks “the good old days” and for others not so good, at least in certain key respects. Ah, the persistent harm of the Benign Institution. Doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Also, the advantage of befriending the friendless. Hey, Boo!
Utopia by Thomas More. Companion pick to The Giver in the book club discussion on dystopia. Of course I read the book as an undergraduate and re-read it once thereafter. This makes three times. It’s a complicated mix of satire and political critique. For a variety of reasons the book is easily misread. That is one reason it should be read and discussed. Certainly a great book. For a book about “no place” it certainly has wide applicability.
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. Another book club read. Holds up well, despite the fact that the stories were written more than half a century ago. Don’t look too closely at the pictures. You might find yourself in one of them.
Dangers to the Faith by Al Kresta. The title says it all. Of course Al Kresta is no ordinary “radio host.” He is well-informed and thoughtful in his analysis of things.
Manalive by G.K. Chesterton. A re-read of an eminently re-readable book. A masterpiece.
33 Days to Morning Glory by Michael Gaitley. Marian consecration for the 21st century.
The “One Thing” is Three by Michael Gaitley. Why the Trinity matters. And why the Church is a communion and the whole world is called to be.
The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright. I read this book when it first came out some years ago. At the time, I thought, “Ok. Fine, as far as it goes.” Then in preparing for a Christology class I’m teaching, I decided to re-read it. It got a lot better. Or, more likely, I got more perceptive. In some ways it’s more helpful than Simply Jesus, which is, nevertheless, also a very good book by the Anglican bishop New Testament scholar.
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.
I’m reading constantly, but it’s almost all non-fiction and piecemeal, old historical primary sources, books, journals, newspaper articles, and such. Putting all that aside, my “nightstand” reading this past year has been:
A Study of Gregory Palamas by John Meyendorff; trans. George Lawrence (Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), originally published in London, 1964. The feast of St. Gregory Palamas should definitely be added to the Roman calendar.
Characters of the Reformation by Hilaire Belloc (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1992), 1st ed., London, Sheed & Ward, 1936. “If you like your monasteries, you can keep your monasteries.”
Just for the fun of it I also revisited:
The Poor Mouth (An Béal Bocht) by Brian O’Nolan (“Flann O’Brien,” aka “Myles na gCopaleen”), trans. Patrick C. Power (New York: Viking Press, 1974), written in 1941. Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for the English translation are particularly welcome, “for our likes will not be seen again.” While re-reading it this time, I recalled several times the Monty Python skit about testing the weapons-grade joke that is so funny that one dies from laughing after hearing it.
The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge (Boston: John W. Luce, 1911), written in 1907.
The Eejits by Matthew Fitts, a hilarious 2008 “translation” of Roald Dahl’s The Twits into Scots dialect.
And I finally and uneasily bonded with my Kindle, finding that it was a good medium for dispatching a whole series of works in a lighter genre, as if working through an entire tube of Pringles or firing a rolling broadside; and so, I sailed right through all of Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories, then all of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, and then all of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories.
John Buescher received his Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books.
The Great Bridge by David McCullough. Next time I take a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge, I’ll do so with a greater appreciation for what went into building it, not only the engineering challenges (building a foundation under water, for example) but also the corruption in New York City government at the time that almost derailed the project.
Faith of the Fatherless by Paul C. Vitz. Dr. Vitz this year updated his work on how some of the world’s best known atheists have lacked one very important thing in their lives—and what it means for rearing children today. Their fathers were either absent, negligent, abusive, or uninterested in the lives of their children.
My Peace I Give You by Dawn Eden. Herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Dawn Eden offers a path toward healing for others, which includes getting to know saints who have suffered similar abuse.
What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George. A cogent defense of the “traditional” view of marriage (the “conjugal view,” in the authors’ parlance) over the “revisionist” view, and why it matters for the future of society.
The Urgency of the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin. The president of Renewal Ministries lays out in accessible language just what we mean when we speak of “the new evangelization” and how every Catholic can (and must) participate in it.
The Bible. I didn’t read it cover-to-cover this year, as I did once. But let’s not take it for granted. We who attend Mass or Divine Liturgy weekly or more often “read” it on a regular basis. We might “zone out” when a passage comes up that we’ve heard a thousand times, but if we’re growing in the faith, we will hear new things in that passage each time, because each time it rolls around in the cycle, we’ve changed.
When Faith Goes Viral. Editor Phil Lawler presents 11 stories of evangelization initiatives that have not only been faithful to the Church but have actually been successful. I was honored to have contributed a chapter to this book.
Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel. This and the atheist philosopher’s The View from Nowhere made me feel like I’d taken a graduate-level course in philosophy.
Deathbed Conversions by Karen Edmisten. Fun read on how people like John Wayne, Kenneth Clarke, and Oscar Wilde made their way into the Church, just in time.
Al Kresta’s Dangers to the Faith, a great summary of the challenges, both external and internal, to living out a Christian life in 21st-century America. It was the jumping-off point for my interview with him on this website back in September.
Also, I’ve been rereading Dante’s La Commedia Divina, that is, Dorothy Sayers’ translation. It’s the only place where one can truthfully say, “I’m going through ‘Hell’ right now and really enjoying it.”
John Burger is a veteran Catholic journalist and editor.
Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Dr. Ralph Martin. I found Dr. Martin’s analysis of Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian” theory and his insights into the soteriology of Hans Urs von Balthazar particularly interesting.
Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham by Russell L. Friedman. It was often thought that no significant development in Trinitarian theology occurred during the late medieval period. This well-researched and eminently readable book provides a great overview of the theologians who utilized philosophical analysis in the Aristotelian tradition to further the Church’s understanding of the Trinity.
Dangers to the Faith: Recognizing Catholicism’s 21st-Century Opponents by Al Kresta. A straightforward, no nonsense cultural critique of the ills plaguing the Catholic Church and contemporary society today.
Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines. Not a Catholic book by any means, this penetrating sociological analysis describes how the pornography industry has negatively shaped and distorted human sexuality. The author also examines the devastating effects of pornography on society in general and families (especially children) in particular. Be warned: this eye-opening book pulls no punches. Not for the weak-hearted.
What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George. The redefinition of marriage is arguably the critical moral issue of our time. Traditional marriage is falling like dominoes around the world as many governments fail to make the distinction between public and private interest. Public authorities must protect and encourage what is in the best interest of the public, and the State must only guarantee freedom to pursue private interest. Hence, in issues of public interest, public law intervenes while issues of private interests must be referred to the private sphere. In just over one hundred pages, What is Marriage presents excellent secular arguments for the Church’s perspective on marriage emphasizing in a clear, decisive, and convincing manner the fact that marriage between one man and one woman, and any children produced from that union, is a public interest. Marriage, the authors argue, serves as the fundamental nucleus of society and should be recognized and protected as such.
Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering by Daniel M. Bell, Jr. Dr. Bell assesses the tenets of Latin American liberation theology in light of global capitalism, which he sees as a discipline of human desire. Using postmodern critical theory, he adeptly critiques the failure of liberation theology to adequately address what Pope Francis has called “the thirst for power and possessions [that] knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile…is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule” (Evangelii Gaudium, 56). Bell argues that the solution lies in the refusal to cease suffering that portends the liberation of desire from its “capitalist captivity.” Although I disagree with some of Dr. Bell’s’ conclusions about the future of liberation theology (he is a proponent of liberation theology, I am not), his analysis is challenging and insightful. Not an easy read but provides much food for thought.
The Eucharist: A Bible Study Guide for Catholics by Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ. This book is comprehensive in its breadth and scope, and is very accessible at all levels of interest: for the average parishioner who wants a deeper, more personal experience of God’s word, for the armchair apologist who is looking for sound biblical exegesis to explain the faith, and even those with a more scholarly or academic interest will be satisfied by the rich fare served in this book. This guide is also particularly relevant for students and young adults who are often searching for reasons why they are Catholic, and who desire to connect the teachings of the Church with their everyday lived experience.
Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker. A tremendous overview of the philosophical and political roots of modern biblical criticism.
Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding by Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, SJ and George V. Coyne, SJ (editors). A series of academic essays compiled by the scientists, philosophers, and theologians of the Vatican Observatory on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the publication of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium by James Hitchcock. Although published in 2012, I didn’t get around to looking at it until this year. There have been many histories of the Catholic Church written but Dr. Hitchcock’s is one of the best…ever.
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers is a Catholic speaker and evangelist and the founder and director of DynamicDeacon.com.
Harkening to Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, 2013 literally took me around the world. My husband, Anthony E. Clark, and I travelled by air and land from the US to China to France and back to the US again, completely circumnavigating the globe, with books in hand to ease the strain of travel. In reverse order below is a selection of tomes that passed beneath my reading glasses this past year:
I connected with my farming roots—granddad specialized in corn and soy in the Middle West, as it was called—by reading Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto, the account of a third-generation Japanese-American which reveals his joys and trials in organic peach farming.
Shocking to both friends and family alike, I had never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This was remedied curling and uncurling my toes before a fire in a cabin beneath the pines of Central Oregon.
St. Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography was more difficult than expected. I had long wished to better understand this mystic’s experiences but found myself challenged to bridge the gap in time and culture between us. Undefeated, I am resolved to attempt reading another of her writings under the pen of an alternate translator.
Malcolm Gladwell has a way with words and his The Tipping Point is, as usual, insightful and engaging. This is a man who makes the results of social science fun (I’m convinced that this must be because he has a humanities mind). While I still find Blink to be his best work, I frequently return to tales told in The Tipping Point.
It is a delight to find a sharp literary mind putting talent to work in creating simple joys. This was the case with Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc. Read at the dinner table by candlelight with my dear husband, we rhymed and giggled, and sometimes merely stared at each other with eyebrows raised in quizzical astonishment.
Reminded by recent blockbuster movies (that I did not watch), I decided to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which had been completely lost on me in high school when it was assigned; this book is likely understood best by thirty-somethings attempting to make sense of unachieved expected futures.
Suddenly finding myself a leader this year, I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding this unexpected undertaking. Former Whitworth University president, and friend, Bill Robinson wrote Incarnate Leadership, a concise book on how he infused his life as a leader with Christian principals. B-Rob—as he was affectionately called by the student body—is unpretentious in this most-helpful handbook.
Sometimes—well, nearly always for me—it’s fun to turn back the clock and wander the lamp-lit streets of yesteryear. This was achieved in reading Little Lord Fauntleroy, written in 1885 by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a delightful moralizing tale that still rings true.
Always enamored with the eccentricities of brilliant minds and prodigiously productive lives, I was enthralled reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman. A pursuit of mathematical perfection expertly told.
In One for the Books, Joe Queenan’s comical and sometimes irreverent account of a lifetime romp with books, bookstores, and booksellers is a great reminder of why the physical book matters, and perhaps matters now more than ever.
I indulged in a serial reading of books regarding persecuted Catholic missionaries in China, all of which were inspirational on several levels; the best read was perhaps …But Not Conquered by Columban Father Bernard Smyth, a volume of collected stories both humorous and heart-wrenching of Columban missionaries in 20th-century China. While currently out of print, Father Smyth’s book is a volume worth pursuing and reading.
I began the year nestled into a large black leather chair, reading under the perfectly overcast skies of the Willamette Valley while raindrops gently pattered on the roof. The book in my hands matched this environment well: The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald recounts the hardships of “pioneer days” in the Seattle area as told through amusing and earthy prose. A must-read for anyone living in the Pacific Northwest.
Amanda C.R. Clark, Ph.D. is director of the library at Whitworth University and co-author of Understanding Architecture.
The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, once said, “I don’t think of work, only gradually regaining my health through reading, re-reading, and reflecting.”
This has been a busy year, spent mostly breathing unhealthy smog in Beijing, and conducting hours of tedious research; reading was nourishing and I am certain improved my health.
By far the most spiritually penetrating book I read was the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila! I was not well disposed to her writing through the first several chapters, but how can one avoid being stirred by her later chapters, in which her visions bring her suffering, ecstasy, and spiritual insight that few have experienced?
I also read Msgr. George Mouchampe’s A Sketch of the Life of Father Victorin Delbrouck, OFM. This biography recounts the harrowing life, struggles, and summoning martyrdom of a humble Franciscan. Difficult to find, but worth a serious read.
I also finally read the entire Rule of St. Benedict—a short work that in many ways rivals the Exercises of St. Ignatius. I could not help but skim over the temporal punishment he recommends giving “bad monks,” but the thoroughly scriptural tenor of this Rule is an apt guiding principle for the Christian life.
I can now say that I have now read and digested Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. The middle chapters were a bit challenging to wade through, but the first and last sections of this masterpiece should be required reading for all who follow Christ. Ratzinger’s clarity is a welcome oasis in this era of obscurity and pedestrianism.
I finished Josef Pieper’s Guide to Thomas Aquinas. This was a surprising work! Pieper’s open-minded approach to St. Thomas was a welcome reflection on the Angelic Doctor.
Hesiod’s Theogony was a short but profound reminder of the rich origins of Western thought. I followed Hesiod with Theognis; Hesiod wins the contest of literary and philosophical wisdom, at least in my mind.
Father James Walsh’s delightful biography Father McShane of Maryknoll was among the most literary and enjoyable books I have read in the past decade. This book is crucial for those wishing to understand the New Evangelization.
I assigned Jonathan Watts’ When A Billion Chinese Jump, to my freshman class. We were all astonished by how serious China’s environmental abuse is impacting our planet. May we better respect the world God has given us.
While on vacation in Oregon, I finished Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Brilliant! Panofsky is what scholars today should aspire to be.
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage. Here is a small work by a Catholic intellectual who understood the “technological rabbit hole” we have all fallen into. We are Alice. Pray for Alice!
Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911.
I am currently working on a book concerning Islam’s war on Christianity, and while I have been obliged to read numerous volumes about the subject, the best single work is without doubt Raymond Ibrahim’s Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians (Regnery, 2013). The son of Egyptian Copts, Ibrahim is a master of the various aspects of this gruesome theme, and the picture he paints is as accurate as it is disturbing. While Christians certainly suffer outside of the Muslim world in such places as India and China, it is only Islam that is so viscerally and ideologically committed to Christian persecution, and no degree of relativism and denial should be allowed to obscure this. It’s simply too late to be ecumenical with the truth, and every senior Catholic should read this book and think and pray hard about its conclusions.
Speaking of martyrdom, I have been fascinated by St. Thomas More since I was a teenager, have visited pretty much every place in England in any way linked to the man, and revere him as an intellectual and politician who refused to compromise with powerful forces of reform and betrayal. John Guy’s A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and his Dearest Meg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was published in 2009 and it’s to my shame that I hadn’t read it until this year. I somewhat proudly assumed that I knew all there was to know, having studied 16th-century history at university and read all of the previous More biographies, but I was wrong. Guy’s approach is radically and delightfully different from his rivals and he explores his man through the prism of fatherhood, paternal love, and the extraordinary influence daughter Margaret had over this most compelling of Catholic heroes.
It’s also been a year for reading some of the modern literature and contemporary authors that I’ve neglected. I’d read some William Boyd in the past but chose Any Human Heart (Penguin, 2010) after seeing a few minutes of a television adaptation—nothing at all wrong with this, by the way, and only snobs argue that great books shouldn’t be transferred to the screen. The book mingles its fictional hero with actual characters, from the 1930s through to the end of the 20th century, but it’s less historical fiction that an exploration of emotion, loss and relationship. Some critics were outraged by the approach, but not this one. Boyd is a gifted storyteller.
Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (Knopf, 2012) was recommended to me because one of its central characters is depicted as coming from my hometown and having attended the same university as me. Pure coincidence of course, but intriguing nonetheless. I, however, did not go on to work for the intelligence services! McEwan is one of the most consistently reliable novelists of this generation, and without giving too much away I can predict a surprise, a dance of a device, in this sadly underrated book.
I came across Rachel Joyce from reading a brief review in Britain’s The Oldie magazine of her The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel (Random House, 2013), and God bless whoever the author of that review was. This is one of the most remarkable works of fiction I have read in some years, and certainly the most surprising in that I had not heard of the author before. The leap from simplicity, almost banal simplicity, to complex and multi-layered plot and character is seamless and charming. I wept at the denouement, and middle-aged Englishmen don’t say that and certainly don’t admit such a thing very often. When a novel leads a reader to readdress his own life and opinions, we know it’s a triumph.
While I had read the entire series some years ago, I decided to take another run at Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books this year and I have no regrets. My original reading of the 20 novels was over a period of some years, and the whole experience is far better if taken in one set period. Arguably the finest historical fiction ever written, this is stellar prose, finely observed character studies, and intricately researched history. The maritime language and some of the late 18th and early 19th century references do take some work, but the effort is supremely worthwhile. A life led without having read O’Brian is a life incomplete. There is also a poignant Catholic thread that runs through this grand tale of a British sea captain and his trusted surgeon/spy friend, and for once the Church comes off rather well.
It was once said that we read to know that we are not alone. I’ve always known that, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded.
Michael Coren is the host of The Arena, a nightly television show broadcast on the Canadian network Sun News, a columnist whose work appears in numerous publications across Canada, and the author of more than a dozen books.
I was pleased to be rereading C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters on the 50th anniversary of his death. Father James Schall has always advocated that one can’t simply read the Great Books alone, but needs “Little Guides” like Lewis. The advice of Uncle Screwtape brought to vivid life the truths that my undergraduates had been wrestling with in Evagrius of Pontus’ treatment of the “Eight Thoughts,” the Seven Deadly Sins’ precursors. With another class I reread Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Christopher Dawson’s The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (found, along with other Dawson essays, in Christianity and European Culture, edited by Gerald Russello). Both books strike me as perfect introductions to the whole of their authors’ mental worlds.
Other “Little Guides” I read included the 20th-century Dominicans A.D. Sertillanges and Gerald Vann. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life should be read by any Catholic who desires or pretends to a vocation as an intellectual. Vann’s The Divine Pity examines the Beatitudes in connection with the sacraments and the different modes of prayer that make up a true Catholic spirituality.
Each age produces its own little guides and apologists. Ours is no exception. Jason Stellman’s The Destiny of the Species provides the kind of broad biblical apologetic for Christianity that is too often lacking in Catholic writers. Alyssa Bormes provides a different kind of apologetic that is also needed. The Catechism of Hockey shows that even the most “unbelievable” aspects of Catholic life and teaching have their own analogues in the world of sports, where they are easily accepted by people of all ages. Not an apologetic per se, Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? provides Catholic apologists an excellent guide to what the Second Vatican Council taught about salvation inside and outside the Church, arguing that they need to preach the Gospel’s bad news as well as its good news.
On the topic of the Church’s teaching about the earthly city, Samuel Gregg’s Becoming Europe and Tea Party Catholic both advance the case that, while many people assume that the modern European social order doesn’t just produce better results, but more perfectly reflects Catholic thought and teaching on political and economic life, the case for the American experiment in ordered liberty and free markets is both strong and rooted in Catholic principles. In short, the Church and the Founding Fathers have more in common than suspected. The late Emile Perreau-Saussine’s Catholicism and Democracy argued a similar line of thought from the perspective of French Catholicism. Irish historian Stephen Kelly’s A Conservative at Heart? The Political and Social Thought of John Henry Newman shows compellingly that Blessed Newman himself came to advocate and approve of various aspects of modern liberal political orders, reflecting the Church’s adaptation to every age, discerning what is good in every age.
To know what’s worth keeping, we need to know what we have. The philosopher James Otteson’s Adam Smith, a brilliant and brief introduction to a much-maligned but little understood figure, helps readers understand why Russell Kirk labeled him one of the three “pillars of order” in the West. I also read two recent (not new) books on the late William F. Buckley, Jr. Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne, Jr.’s Strictly Right: William F. Buckley, Jr. and the Conservative Movement and Rick Brookhiser’s Right Time, Right Place are useful and entertaining looks at a devout Catholic and dynamic writer with strong political views. What’s fascinating is that the conversion of figures like Frank Meyer and Willmoore Kendall are as much a part of the story as Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
In fiction, I tackled the forgotten comic genius Peter De Vries, whose clowning often masked a serious wrestling with God in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, The Tunnel of Love, and particularly The Blood of the Lamb. Bruce Marshall’s The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith gives a priestly protagonist whose wrestling with God is no less poignant than De Vries’ characters, but more successful in the atmosphere of Catholicism. I also re-read the first book of Sigrid Undset’s The Master of Hestviken. It’s just as good this time (and I hope to read the rest this spring).
Finally, The English Poems of George Herbert (ed. C.A. Patrides) provided spiritual sustenance. Mother Teresa carried around his poem “Love (III)” on a scrap of paper. It begins, “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,/ Guiltie of dust and sin.” It concludes, “‘You must sit down,’ said Love, “and taste my meat.’/ So I did sit and eat.”
David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).
You might say that this year I went over to the dark side, reading-wise. I read because I love to read, but also to learn the craft of writing: storytelling, style, pace, and technique, from the best.
This year included Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, and The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor.
I always have a pure enjoyment book on my bedside table, but none of these stimulating, demanding stories qualify.
Waugh’s Vile Bodies is a dark farce about pre-WWI British society, at once a humorous and troubling chronicle of people who are adrift, who seem to know it, but whose inertia makes them incapable of changing their trajectories.
Greene’s The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a colonial civil servant whose compassion and sense of propriety drive him to a terrible choice. What struck me about this story is the way Greene depicts how rational this choice seems to Scobie, and how events “cooperate” in driving him toward this decision.
Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is an exploration of human freedom within the cauldron of societies, movements (chiefly, the Bolsheviks), and human passions, a dense story packed with characters, subplots, philosophical reflections and disputations, and even original poetry.
Percy’s The Moviegoer reminded me of Vile Bodies in its depiction of self-absorption and inertia, rather than momentous decisions or events, directing lives; not an inexorably dark story, as Percy is a deft humorist who connects real films and actors with his main character’s perspectives.
O’Connor manages to make The Violent Bear It Away humorous, in spots anyway, in spite of a relentlessly dark theme and protagonist. Violent contrasts extreme ideologies: militant atheism and fanatical, self-defined religion, and depicts the clash of these ideologies in the persons of the two main characters. Not for the timid…
What do these stories have in common, besides masterful writing? Keen insights into fragile human nature, connecting choices and consequences, and contrasting human freedom with bondage to a variety of psychological and moral ailments. I’ve had to train myself to be patient when reading books like these, as they don’t hook you in the first five pages, or even by the 50th page, in the case of some.
As for non-fiction: a re-reading of Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien, a brilliant exploration of philosophy and first things, and Russell Kirk’s biography of Edmund Burke, a man who transcended liberal-conservative-libertarian categorization, and a person who has much to say to us today.
Thomas M. Doran resides in Michigan, where he is an author, adjunct professor at Lawrence Technological University, and a member of the College of Fellows of the Engineering Society of Detroit.
Phantastes by George MacDonald (1857). C.S. Lewis credited George MacDonald with baptizing his imagination, and he said that he never wrote a book that did not draw on MacDonald in some way. Phantastes, one of MacDonald’s fairy tales for grown-ups, is a delightful and intriguing story about a young man’s journey into Fairy Land for purposes that are not altogether clear. The reader might be frustrated at the surprising number of questions that MacDonald leaves unanswered, but by the same token, some would say that this circumstance only contributes to the enchantment of the tale.
A Popular History of the Catholic Church by Philip Hughes (1947). This brief one-volume history certainly leaves the reader wishing for more. In particular, one wishes that the author, the highly regarded Church historian Philip Hughes, had completed the anticipated fourth volume of his more expansive A History of the Church (3 vols., 1914-1948). Had Hughes written that fourth volume, it would have covered the period since the Protestant Reformation. However, this slim volume gives the reader the benefit of at least a brief treatment of the modern period by Hughes. The author’s main theme throughout the work is the struggle of the papacy to free itself from the Catholic princes’ excessive interference in the life of the Church. Despite the brevity of the Popular History, it amply manifests Hughes’ vibrant prose, clear vision, and forceful judgments.
Morte d’Urban by J.F. Powers (1956). This is a poignant, funny, penetrating, and gently cynical story about a high-powered religious priest whose order exiles him to the Minnesota prairie. The author, J.F. Powers, unfortunately has been neglected in recent years, but he had a remarkable gift for writing about priests and deserves a revival.
The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of the President by Candice Millard (2011). If, like me, you have been accustomed to thinking of the US presidents in the last quarter of the 19th century as a bunch of mediocre guys with beards, then Candice Millard’s biography of James Garfield will be a welcome corrective. Garfield was a remarkable man—skilled in mathematics, classical languages, and oratory—and also a daring and effective Civil War general. He rose from poverty to the nation’s highest office, without any presidential ambition whatsoever. Garfield is little remembered because he was assassinated so early in his tenure, but Millard shines a light on his achievements, and even more importantly, illumines his heroic character.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray (2012). Political scientist Charles Murray believes that the country is “coming apart,” not along racial or ethnic lines, but along class lines. Class distinction is not new, of course, but the degree of class separation that has occurred over the last half century, Murray argues, is unlike anything that the country ever has experienced. Moreover, unless this trend is reversed, it will result in the disappearance of any common kinship between the new elite class and the new working class, and will bring an end to “the American project.” In particular, Murray documents the decline in marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religious practice over the last half century. (Although Murray focuses on white America, he is by no means unconcerned with non-white communities. However, he believes that the usual comparison of statistics on whites with those on African-Americans and Latinos tends to obscure the deterioration within the baseline itself. That is, the much commented upon decline in African-American working-class family life and community life is, in fact, characteristic of the new working class as a whole, both white and non-white.) What may be of special interest to readers of Catholic World Report is Murray’s documentation of religious practice, and his surprising conclusion that secularization has been more pronounced among the new working class than among the new elites. Murray’s book is both fascinating and profoundly disturbing.
R. Michael Dunnigan is a civil attorney, writer, and canon lawyer.
This year I enjoyed the great pleasure of reading the works of an excellent novelist I’d never heard of before. He is Riccardo Bacchelli (1891-1985), very well known in his long career in Italy, profoundly Catholic, and a “modern” writer in a way that Eliot would have approved. That is, he is steeped in Scripture, in 2,000 years of Roman and Christian intellectual and artistic history, and in the heritage of Italian literature, but he makes them his own, speaking to modern man, disjointed and existentially troubled as he is. His great work is The Mill on the Po, a long novel that owes much to Tolstoy and to Alessandro Manzoni, about the history of a rugged family of millers on the Po River, fighting for their livelihood between the Papal States and the Austrian Empire—with sons and daughters sometimes pious, sometimes profligate, sometimes cold and cunning, sometimes passionate and violent. It is a masterpiece of characterization and meditation upon historical movements, like I Promessi Sposi and Kristin Lavransdatter and Doctor Zhivago.
But I enjoyed two other novels of his just as much: The Three Slaves of Julius Caesar and The Glance of Jesus. I read these in Italian, so I don’t know whether they are available in English, but they ought to be. The first book tells, with many flashbacks, about the conversations and the deeds of three of Julius Caesar’s slaves, determining what to do after their master has been assassinated. One of the slaves is a German warrior who grew up with Caesar and fought alongside him in battle; one is a shy and slender youth, an intellectual and religious mystic, a devotee of the “unknown God”; one is a stolid Celt who seems to care about nothing in the world but to do whatever his duty to his pagan god requires him to do, including to give up his life. We see that they are three men who do not know that they waiting for a revelation that is soon to come.
The other novel, The Glance of Jesus, is told from the point of view of the man of the Gesarenes who was possessed by demons, whom Jesus cured. He spends the rest of his life both loving and hating the look that Jesus gave him when He told him not to follow Him, but to go and tell his family what had been done to him. It is a page-turner, far better than the more popular biblical fare (The Robe, Ben-Hur), and at least as fine as Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis?, though shorter and more powerfully concentrated.
Along with Bacchelli, I’ve “discovered” the novels of Franz Werfel, the Jewish novelist who was an almost-Catholic (The Song of Bernadette), and of the once popular Taylor Caldwell (Pillar of Iron, on Cicero).
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College.
Family and Civilization by Carle Zimmerman. If you are interested in the history of marriage and the family, and its impact on civilization from pre-Christianity forward, you simply must read this book. Considered Zimmerman’s magnum opus, Family and Civilization analyzes three types of families seen throughout history: the trustee, the domestic (seen at the height of any civilization), and the atomistic (the type of family we are seeing now.) Zimmerman was quite prescient in his views on what the family, and by extension, civilization, would look like in the 20th century and beyond. If you are like me, and think things have been going to Hell in a hand basket since the 12th century, Zimmerman’s research and analysis will do much to confirm your suspicions.
How the West Really Lost God by Mary Eberstadt. While many scholars and researchers have argued that the family weakens due to a lack or decline of religious observance, Eberstadt, an engaging writer and social critic, takes the contrarian view that people lose their belief in God because they reject marriage and children. She ends her book, which took five years to write, on an optimistic note, affirming that devoutly religious people—those most likely to have large families—are on the right side of history.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher. As Dreher tells the story of his sister, Ruthie—a beloved schoolteacher, wife, and mother who died of cancer in her early 40s—he also recounts his own life and the complicated relationships he had with Ruthie, the rest of his family, and in particular, his small hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana. He eventually moves away—first for his education and then for a career as a writer in metropolitan areas. When Ruthie gets sick, Dreher is amazed at how the town rallies around her and her family. Following her death, he and his family make the decision to move back to his hometown, which he saw differently following Ruthie’s illness and death. An excellent pick for a book club, this work tackles an array of issues, including sibling rivalry, the importance of community, and the pain of regret. Beautifully written, the stories and struggles of the people of Dreher’s St. Francisville will stay with you long after you finish the book.
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons.
I am not sure if Erasmus was vaunting a virtue or confessing a sin when he wrote, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” I hope it was a virtue, so that he might help me when I show up at the Pearly Gates naked, famished, and clutching my Kindle Fire, begging Saint Peter to let me in if for no other reason than to give me time to finish the 500 books I downloaded this year. But I fear I may have to hand over this amazing(ly addictive) device. When I do, I’ll recommend that Peter (and perhaps Erasmus) swipe through these five jewels:
Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. Most of us don’t get enough art in our lives, and if we try to get more, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. We want more culture, more prestige, or just a more refined form of stimulation. But what about psychological healing? We could shell out the big bucks for a shrink or we could visit a local museum. De Botton and Armstrong don’t just argue that art is as good as a shrink, they guide us through some sample counseling sessions. Art helps us to remember the past, to hope in the future, to grieve over our losses, to rebalance our priorities, to understand ourselves, to grow beyond our comfort zones, and to appreciate what’s in front of us. No time is wasted by standing in front of a Vermeer and letting yourself be.
The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr. When it comes to American foreign policy in the Muslim world, Nasr combines a depth of knowledge with a breadth of practical experience. He laments that the current administration has steered away from complex issues in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but also makes concrete suggestions for the future. The book is backed by serious research and peppered with personal anecdotes as Nasr recounts the sad tale of political infighting and face-saving that has resulted in shoddy diplomatic choices. Perhaps most prescient is his analysis of how China is taking advantage of the diplomatic vacuum in the Middle East by building infrastructures that will make it virtually impossible for the United States and its allies to impose sanctions. Nasr is one of the few who look at trouble spots in the Middle East through the lens of geopolitics rather than merely regional factionalism.
Italian Ways by Tim Parks. Mr. Parks has written yet another book that filled my eyes with tears of mirth as I soaked in his seriousness. Italy’s efforts to make its rail system faster and more efficient demonstrate that a “national character manifests itself most clearly when the things you thought couldn’t change finally do.” Parks explores Italian culture and politics by taking virtually every possible train route up, down, and across the peninsula. He compares his experiences in three time periods—2005, 2007-2012, and 2012—revealing Italy’s evolution (and devolution) through its rails. This is a must-read for any foreigner who has lived under the tricolore for more than a year.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. This, Barry’s first novel, won him the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and rightly so. Anyone who has read his short stories should not be surprised. But be forewarned. The violence and language makes A Clockwork Orange look tame. Yet Barry is bursting with an imagination that exceeds what Burgess put on display a half-century ago. Barry takes us to a fictitious west Ireland town in 2053 devoid of computers, Internet, and selfies. Bohane is ravaged by family strife fueled by the same love, jealousy, and vengeance that plagued the houses of Capulet and Montague. Take my warning, but keep in mind that Barry’s extraordinary talent for characterization and language will make him one of the best fiction authors of the early 21st century.
Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney. One of the housing projects in Barry’s novel is named after Seamus Heaney, though not one of its residents seems to remember who he was. I pray Barry is not playing the prophet here. If you haven’t read Heaney, who died in Dublin this past August, don’t wait until 2053. I recommend you start with the title poem of this 1991 collection. You’ll soon discover why Heaney will forever be numbered among the likes of Yeats, Joyce, and Eliot. Requiescat in pace.
Msgr. Daniel B. Gallagher is a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan.
I am a compulsive reader. I read more than 100 books this past year. These are the five best:
1. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. For years several intelligent friends had recommended this classic 1901 novel, but I assumed that it would be as slow and cerebral as some of the later novels. I finally resolved to read it last New Year’s Day. Within five pages I was hooked. It is not only a masterpiece of European Realism—perhaps the last true masterpiece in that lineage—it is also a compelling and moving story of a great family in decline across four generations. Novels don’t get better than this one.
2. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. I reread this award-winning sci-fi novel from 1960 as I researched an essay on Catholic writers. (I had first read it in high school.) I was delighted and impressed by this deeply Catholic visionary and ultimately apocalyptic novel, the only one Miller ever finished. There are many Catholic works of sci-fi. There is none more powerful than Miller’s.
3. What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Despite my first two selections, I actually do read a lot of new fiction, but most of it isn’t all that good. Beha’s novel, however, is the real thing—a deeply observed, beautifully written, and eventually harrowing story of a young woman’s conversion to Catholicism. A first novel this fine promises much for Beha’s future.
4. The Vernacular Republic: Selected Poems by Les Murray. Australian Murray is now probably the preeminent living Catholic poet in English. Prolific, mercurial, and sometime odd, his huge body of work can be intimidating. This fall I decided to dig in and read or reread most of it. Night after night, Murray’s poems kept me riveted with their profligate verbal force and capacious imagination.
5. Dante’s Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James. This new version of Dante’s epic allegory is also by an Australian, this one a fallen Catholic. James is not only a poet but also one of the few truly great literary critics now active. His version of Dante is designed to be read without the plethora of scholarly footnotes that customarily accompany the poetic text. I began the book with skepticism, but James allows one to read the poem with a narrative ease unmatched by any other version. I would not recommend this translation as one’s first choice. That honor still goes to John Ciardi’s translation in verse (or Charles Singleton’s prose translation). But as a second version to reread the poem, James offers certain virtues no other translation provides.
Dana Gioia is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.
My Antonia by Willa Cather. I was on a bit of a Willa Cather kick at the beginning of the year (partly as a palate-cleanser following the Graham Greene kick I was on at the end of last year); this one was my favorite.
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. A perennial favorite, reread more times than I can count—but always going to be among the best books I read any year I read it.
American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America by Russell Shaw. A balanced short history of the Church in the United States that dispels myths held dear by those on the left and the right about American Catholicism’s past (neither “the bad old days” nor a gleaming golden age) while pointing out today’s causes for continued concern as well as hope for the future. Shaw is a regular CWR contributor, and you can read his interview with CWR about his book here.
Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life by Elizabeth Scalia. Basically everybody in the Catholic blogosphere has been raving about this book since its release last spring (Russell Shaw reviewed it on the CWR Blog, here). The praise is justified; this book is just as thought-provoking and unsettling (in a good way!) as everyone says.
Sisters in Crisis by Ann Carey. Another fascinating read on a critical aspect of American Catholicism, this book examines women’s religious communities and how they’ve gone from being the backbone of American Catholic institutions to the controversial subjects of sensational headlines and Vatican inquiry. I interviewed Carey about the book for CWR over the summer; you can read that interview here.
Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan. This was a fun summer read; fans of Gaffigan’s stand-up comedy will find the same hilariously subversive humor here, in his book on fatherhood and family life. My better half reviewed the book for CWR in August.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This was a book club read, and I have to admit I don’t know if I would have reread it on my own (I read it, and didn’t love it, in college). But I really loved the book this time around, and am thinking I might read it yet again this coming year.
A Stay Against Confusion by Ron Hansen. A collection of essays by one of today’s great Catholic writers, this book includes lively discussions of the life of faith, the craft of fiction-writing, the sacraments and the sacramental, and much more. A particular favorite is Hansen’s biographical sketch of St. Ignatius Loyola.
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. Several friends have been nagging me to read Berry’s novels for years, and I am glad I have finally started. I did read this one on my Kindle, however; I can’t imagine Mr. Berry would approve.
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor. I received this book as a Christmas gift and it is a last-minute addition to my 2013 list. Believe the hype—this little book is simply beautiful.
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Achilles and Hector: The Homeric Hero by Seth Benardete. Benardete’s astonishing attention to textual detail issues in a fascinating, sensitive, brilliant work of exegesis that moves beyond exegesis into a genuinely philosophic reflection on the Iliad. Reading this book will almost certainly enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of the Iliad.
On the God of the Christians (And On One or Two Others) by Remi Brague. You can read my full CWR review soon, so I’ll just say that Brague manages in this rather slim volume to demolish the facile relativism of religious pluralism that sees no difference between the three “monotheisms”—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—and to show the immense importance of an understanding of God for man’s place in the world, even against the backdrop of an intellectual climate that tries to shoehorn religion into the merely private sphere of individual sentiment.
Deification and Grace by Daniel A. Keating. Keating weaves together contemporary, medieval, and patristic texts, employing his keen eye for the theology of the Eastern Churches in clarifying and expressing the Church’s tradition of reflection on grace and its effects. Excellent text for upper-level undergraduate students or graduate students interested in a good introduction to the topic of grace in the Catholic tradition.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. I’ve begun reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my five-year-old. Any of the first four books could fit here, but Dawn Treader gets my nod because of the sheer number of delightful vignettes Lewis strings together. The beginning of the book alone is worth the cost of purchase, where Lewis cheerfully shreds the fashionable theories of education, both in the home and at school, that were common in mid-century England, but that still have plenty of resonance now. It’s the Abolition of Man in a nutshell, completed later with his reflection on the dangerous temptation of magic and technology on the island of the Dufflepuds. Of course, the transformation of the execrable Eustace of Dawn Treader into the rather gallant young man of The Silver Chair is both satisfying and instructive.
Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. Smart, philosophically and theologically astute science fiction novel that does science fiction the way it’s supposed to be done: pose a speculative, what if question and draw out the implications. In this case, Flynn asks, what if a UFO had crashed in a medieval German village? Demonstrating a high degree of knowledge about medieval society and its intellectual climate, Flynn ably explores a perennially hot topic among theology nerds: what would the status of aliens be in the economy of salvation? It’s a slower moving book than most other entries in the genre, but that’s because of the fascinating, thorny intellectual problems Flynn takes up. Bonus for same theology nerds: William of Ockham makes a cameo appearance.
Thomas P. Harmon is assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
This was an easy task for me this year, although my favorite book for 2013 is a book I read first in 2012—a book of poems by Dana Gioia called Pity the Beautiful. Poetry like Gioia’s keeps calling you back, and I have re-read some of the poems so many times in 2013 that I would have to say it is indeed my favorite book of the year; so much so that I have purchased several more copies for Christmas gifts for my sisters, my grown children, and a few special friends. As I write this, I am looking at a stack of Gioia’s book of poetry with the angel on the front cover, ready to be wrapped for Christmas morning.
Gioia, whose name means “joy,” is a poet who truly understands the experiences that can delight us. His poem “Shopping” speaks to some guilty pleasures that I too have sought at the mall. But Gioia understands sorrow also. His “Finding a Box of Family Letters” spoke directly to my heavy heart as I first read it shortly after the death of my father. And his “Special Treatments Ward” is a heart-wrenching story of a hospital “where the children come to die…where they wear their bandages like uniforms and pull their IV rigs along the halls.” Gioia knows sorrow, having lost a child many years ago.
A Catholic who is quiet about his faith, Gioia knows that there is something else beyond this world. He also knows that many of us have forgotten that. But anyone who reads his “Angel With the Broken Wing” cannot help but be reminded of the faith that can sustain us. The poem is narrated by a statue of an angel that has been “broken” and shut away “in this quiet room” where the “staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.” The angel statue remembers a faith-filled past when “I heard the women whispering at my feet—Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead. Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall, And I became the hunger that they fed.” Gioia understands how faith has declined into secularism, yet his broken angel still has “so many things I must tell God!” Yet Gioia’s angel sits anxiously waiting to be rediscovered: “nailed to a perch, a crippled saint against a painted sky.”
For me, discovering Gioia’s newest book of poetry is a bit like rediscovering the gift of faith—the reminder that we should never take it for granted because it can be so easily lost.
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
I started using public transportation again this year to commute, so I spend at least two hours a day on train and light rail. It’s given me a new opportunity to read, and I’ve tried to alternate between non-fiction and fiction. Six of my favorites this year, in no particular order:
Happy Are You Poor by the late, great Father Thomas Dubay is always a wonderful, painful read. He reminds us that Gospel poverty is something we are all called to with no exceptions. He shatters myths, makes you shift uncomfortably as he prods you to examine your conscience, and shows how truly transformative an effect we could have on our culture if we took this command of our faith more seriously. I’ve read this one before and I will undoubtedly read it again.
Society and Sanity by Frank Sheed supplies what’s sorely missing in a lot of debates about political issues; namely, a Catholic understanding of what society is, and what man is, and how the two fit together. In this book, readers of all ideological stripes will find challenges to their way of thinking.
A Turning Point for Europe? by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) is another book packed full of sharp observations about the origins of modern political and social thought. Ratzinger’s analytical mind takes up and examines cultural trends, pointing out how Catholics (and Christians in general) can teach the world where to look for fulfilling answers. He’s also very realistic about the failures of some ways in which Christians try to communicate with a secular culture, and challenges us to find ways to articulate faith in a manner that is compelling to our current age.
Turning from non-fiction to fiction:
Love in the Ruins is Walker Percy’s wince-inducing satire on American culture and Catholicism, using a post-apocalyptic setting to good effect as he skewers sacred cows left and right. By the end, those cows are roasting on the barbeque as transcendence peeks through the smoke.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a collection of science-fiction short stories, many of which have religious or philosophical underpinnings that recall writers such as Philip K. Dick. One story takes us to the construction of the Tower of Babel, another explores Hell, and one gloriously weird tale takes Aristotelian ideas about the natural world, fuses them with Jewish lore, and produces a thoroughly inventive meditation on eugenics and human worth.
Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean had me riveted when I read the manuscript in preparation for designing the cover. Several months later, once I had the actual book in hand, I re-read it and became so engrossed again that I missed my train stop. The less said about the plot, the greater the surprise when you read it. (Note: the author has also been blogging at www.IPNovels.com—you should come check it out!)
John Herreid works in the marketing department at Ignatius Press, and contributes to the blog at Ignatius Press Novels.
I Believe in God by Paul Claudel. Excerpts edited from his many works, on every article of the Creed. Luminous stuff. All the mysteries unfurl in their glory.
Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius. This account (4th century) of the fiery trials and theological struggles of the Early Church should be read once every five years.
The Last Things by Romano Guardini. Required reading, especially on Purgatory. Glorious stuff.
Collected Letters by C.S. Lewis. Almost the best of Lewis. All of his powers glimmer through these letters, including his delighted love of small animals. 3,000+ pages.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester. A titanic three-volume treatment of this titanic man.
Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. This (almost) syllable-by-syllable meditative scrutiny of Matthew’s Gospel is, without question, the richest scholarly/devotional thing of its kind that I have ever encountered. It is, starkly put, a drop-everything work.
A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich. Pure, sheer delight. Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Merovingians, Valois, Tudors, Habsburgs, and everyone else will spring back to life—all in one small volume written, in effect, for children. Read it.
Thomas Howard is a poet, bestselling author of many books, professor, and critic.
Marc Guerra’s Christians as Political Animals. Guerra has penned an outstanding book that should be required reading for anyone particularly interested in the theologico-political problem, and for Catholic university students in general. Along with a foundational analysis of the theologico-political problem as it was revivified by Leo Strauss, Guerra also provides in-depth accounts of the political philosophy of two 20th-century giants of the Catholic intellectual tradition, Ernest Fortin, AA and James V. Schall, SJ. Among other things, there are three great achievements in Guerra’s book that should be mentioned: first, relying upon Augustine (and Aquinas as well), Guerra highlights that modern and post-modern reflection upon political matters must restore the primacy of what he calls the “transpolitical character” of the Christian faith. Christianity does not offer a specific social or political program that it determines to be most fully in accord with the tenets of the faith. The mission and essence of the Church is to save souls by bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth; this is why she exists in the first place. The second point of praise for Guerra’s work is that, following Aquinas (with the help of Aristotle), he highlights that while the transpolitical character of the faith is primary, this need not entail an indifference towards civil society. Furthermore, that man is made for communion with God should not be a justification for giving limited, or grossly inadequate, accounts of man’s properly political life, and the content of the common good. This is explained in chapter 5, “The Two Poles of Christian Citizenship.” Guerra also provides good insights on Augustine and Aquinas, showing where they are in agreement, but nevertheless still holding that the two doctors vastly disagree in certain areas. Finally, Guerra rightly affirms that the Church must be a “friendly critic” of democracy, thereby acknowledging its positive elements, but also calling attention to the dangers of the philosophical liberalism that undergirds it. Democracy can be in accord with Catholicism, but the danger is seeing democracy and Catholicism as if they both presupposed the other. This would harm both democracy and the transpolitical character of the faith.
St. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship. This unfinished work of Aquinas is perhaps one of his most unknown works, but a gem nonetheless. A letter written to the Christian king of Cyprus, Hugh II of Lusignan, it is a practical guide for how a king ought to rule. What stands out in this short treatise are two fundamental points: that the common good of the polis is nothing other than communal virtue, and that this virtue is a means to the further end of supernatural happiness. Since man gathers in society for the sake of virtue, then the common good will be nothing other than the imperfect happiness of its members. And yet, as Peter Augustine Lawler says, this need not make us forget “that strange truth about our souls.” Aquinas is ever the realist; while providing a substantial account of the common good, he emphasizes that it is not the ultimate end, for seeing God face-to-face transcends the political community. No thinker can hold together this harmonious balance quite like St. Thomas.
Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer by Father Thomas Dubay. Saints are made, not born, at least in most cases. Father Dubay is always refreshing to read, for he reminds us of the essential recipe for sanctity, something so often neglected and unheard from the pulpits: daily fidelity to intimate, and deep, personal prayer. Plenty of people are nice; what our culture needs is saints. This is a great book to begin upon, and endure, the road less traveled.
Confessions, St. Augustine There is nothing quite like reading the Confessions. At first, when we examine some of the particular incidents of Augustine’s life that he reflects upon as an aged bishop, they don’t immediately strike us as that profound—not being able to carry out his own actions when he was a baby, crying profusely because his parents wouldn’t give him what he wanted, loving studies because of the possibility of fame, and stealing pears with his friends. Perhaps it seems strange that Augustine would spend so much time reflecting upon these apparently mundane events. However, when one sees them, and the entirety of his life, in terms of Augustine’s action theory, one can see his story as centered around those kinds of actions that make one fit for proper orientation toward the City of God. Then, the massive light bulb turns on.
Brian Jones is currently an MA philosophy student at the University of St. Thomas in Houston; he received an MA in theology from Franciscan University.
Here’s a selection from this past year’s reading:
The Vulgate. For me, at least, there’s something encouraging about reading the Bible in the version so many great figures used, and a language some of the characters actually spoke. You need some Latin, but what’s there is mostly pretty straightforward, and the Douay translation is a helpful trot.
I also read a few books that seemed relevant to the problem of restoring a Christian culture:
The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life by Christopher Dawson. Cult is the basis of culture, and we need a lot more of it if we’re going to get out of the hole our civilization is digging for itself. In reading the book I was struck once again by the comparative optimism of serious Christians writing before the 1960s. There really was a turn for the worse then.
The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era by Thomas E. Woods. His first book, based on his Ph.D. thesis, and a straightforward account of a time when Catholic intellectuals in America had a strong sense of the Faith as something ultimate and real, and the Church as a divine and public institution.
The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature, 1870-1914 by Richard Griffiths. How Catholics went from outsiders to leaders in French letters. A situation can turn around very quickly when accepted views are going nowhere and something better is on offer.
I also read some travels from days when traveling was really traveling:
Discovery of Muscovy by Richard Hakluyt. For the Elizabethans, going to Russia was like going to the moon.
Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States by Michael Chevalier. Not as brilliant or insightful as Tocqueville, but a very interesting account of everyday political and economic life in Andrew Jackson’s America.
The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday, Being Some Random Reminiscences of a British Diplomat by Lord Frederic Hamilton. Diplomatic life in the late 19th century, before the bureaucrats took over. It’s not about pomp so much as life in an aristocratic society that was rather like a small town with elaborate manners and many idiosyncrasies.
A Ride to India Across Persia and Baluchistan by Harry de Windt. It was wild country in 1890. This book led me to read a slightly later book dealing with the inner life of that part of the world, Claud Field’s Mystics and Saints of Islam. It’s a collection of profiles, mostly based on a famous 12th-century Persian work by Attar of Nishapur.
I should also mention Summer, by Edith Wharton, a deeply humane novel about flawed but largely admirable people in provincial New England.
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Marshall McLuhan’s academic comet ride once lent his name celebrity cachet on college campuses, but he wrote with more prescience than he knew. Even as his fame evaporates, his uncannily spot-on predictions and maxims about technology’s warp-speed escalation more and more are taken for granted. Less known is the fact that McLuhan himself was ardent Catholic convert. Quirky Gen X author Douglas Coupland portrays the man as a latter-day prophet without honor in Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! Informing and entertaining, this little monograph is the best matching of biographer and beast I can recall, a virtual “Vulcan mind-meld” of two cultural mavericks.
In Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson provides reflexive counterpoint to McLuhan. He probably wouldn’t convince the Canadian professor, but he might make some of those Santas who just bought Xbox 360s feel a bit better. From a more theological perspective, Arthur Hunt’s The Vanishing Word is an overlooked coda for Christian logophiles.
Rome’s introduction of a revised ritual roused my own liturgical interests, so N.T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms made for timely reading. But, even as a fan of some of Wright’s earlier stuff, I wasn’t ready for the semi-poetic quality of his prose achievement here. Older (much) but also affecting are William S. Plumer’s Studies on the Book of Psalms (incidentally, also fun to mention simply as the physically largest commentary on a single book of the Bible I have ever seen—so oversized that even describing it as a “thick doorstop of a book” doesn’t quite fit), and C.C. Martindale’s Towards Loving the Psalms. A last-century British Jesuit and compatriot of Maisie Ward’s, Martindale also wrote four consecutive books on the Mass for laymen. Of these, The Words of the Missal is best, with the bonus of an appendix that’s a sort of miniature “Latin for Dummies.”
Frustration with my Anchor Bible Dictionary’s insistent obfuscation sent me back to some clear-headed evangelical sources on Scripture. In The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer—taking cues from Hans von Balthasar, no less—shreds linguistic deconstructionism and proves Hans Frei and George Lindbeck to be sporting the Emperor’s New Clothes. Elsewhere, J.I. Packer’s “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God reminded me how essentially “fundamentalist” Catholic teaching on the Bible arguably is; and Thy Word is Still Truth, an anthology materializing out of Philadelphia’s quite reformed Westminster Theological Seminary, reminded me how very sane it is as well.
My graphic designer’s hat probably explains why I may be the only conservatively-inclined person I know with kind words for Martin Erspamer’s faux-iconic engravings in The Liturgical Press’ typographically savvy if contemporarily-bent Ritual Roman Missal. Another writer who weighs in with convincingly friendly comments on the larger topic of Modern Art: The Men, the Movements, the Meaning is Thomas Craven.
I remain a fanboy of Lemony Snicket, who made me happy by cranking out a second installment of All The Wrong Questions. Questions aplenty are also part of the mix in the volatile-if-mournful post-conciliar Molotav cocktail poured by Anne Roche Muggeridge in The Gates of Hell—though I’m not at all sure her answers make me too happy. Much the same can be said of Alice von Hildebrand’s necessary The Dark Night of the Body. There’s more wisdom on sex in what she doesn’t say than most of what is said—and incessantly so—nowadays. The presence of more inflammatorily counter-cultural wisdom—and this on the uncomfortable gay question—also distinguishes Rosaria Butterfield’s Secrets of an Unlikely Convert.
Last loose ends…David Main’s terrific novel on the WWF champ of the O.T., The Book of Samson, is compulsively readable. Victor Davis Hansen’s The End of Sparta is another worthwhile candidate for those non-existent Men’s Reading Groups. In Coincidentally, Father George Rutler’s amusing mind whirs along so fast you’ll likely find yourself reeling at the thought of keeping up—so you’re better off just enjoying it with the assist of some heavily-spiked New Year’s punch. Three very different books, each hinging on the question of race, provide positive perspectives on a hot button issue: Robert Norrell’s Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington; Caroline Hemesath’s story of Augustine Tolton, From Slave to Priest; and John Piper’s autobiographical Bloodlines. And lastly, race, faith, and masculinity comprise three panels that make for a not-to-be-missed Mandarin conversion triptych in John C. Wu’s Beyond East and West.
Joseph Martin, Ph.D. teaches communication, rhetoric, and graphic design at Hampton University in Virginia.
Madame by Antoni Libera (translated by A. Kolakowska) is the best book I read this year. It is a Polish, 1960s-era Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, describing a teenager’s artistic and intellectual rebellions against the stale and gloomy oppression of Communism. His dabbling in music and theater gives way to a crush on his glamorous French teacher so intense that it brings to mind the courtly love tradition. “Madame” and, by extension, Western high culture transform and redirect the young Pole’s life. Kolakowska’s translation perfectly transposes the elegant Polish of the original into an English that captures both the liveliness and the intelligence of the narrator. I so love this book that I bought the Polish original and sent a second English copy to my French-teaching sister for Christmas.
The Summerhouse Trilogy by Alice Thomas Ellis contains three novels, each telling the story of an impending 1950s English wedding from a different perspective: the bride’s, the groom’s elderly mother’s, and the bride’s mother’s half-Egyptian schoolmate’s. The narrators are all Roman Catholics, and Catholic spirituality imbues each narrative in increasingly surprising ways. Alice Thomas Ellis is one of the best English Roman Catholic novelists of the post-Vatican II era. After reading the first book in the trilogy, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, I began to gobble Ellis’ books like candy.
Enigma by Robert Harris is a thriller about a Cambridge University student who is recruited early in the Second World War to help break the Enigma code used by German U-boats. When he begins to look for his missing ex-girlfriend, the hero stumbles on one of the Allies’ most shameful cover-ups. Harris knows how to paint a scene, sketch believable characters, do his historical research, and set a plot in motion. The book and film were controversial in some quarters for downplaying the crucial role of Polish mathematicians in cracking the Enigma code, and the promiscuity of the hero’s girlfriend makes the book unsuitable for the very young. Nevertheless, I was touched by the depiction of a young man who refuses to separate sexual desire from love.
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska (translated by M. Krynski and R. MacGuire) is perhaps an unusual choice, but 2013 was the year I read a lot of Polish literature. The greatest Polish poets of the period between the Second World War and the fall of Communism were Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. Szymborska was the one most in cahoots with the Communist regime, hence her popularity with Western left-wing intellectuals. (Herbert, a staunch Catholic rebel, has been overlooked by our pinko commie tastemakers.) But there is no denying that Szymborska wrote moving poems that retain much of their beauty in English translations. They are solemn and humorous by turns. I am particularly fond of her “The Joy of Writing,” “Family Album,” and “Laughter.” This edition is bilingual, Polish on one side of the page and English on the other, and thus is helpful for learning Polish, should you ever attempt such a rewarding, if crazy, thing.
An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chesler is a remarkable memoir of an American Jewish feminist who married a rich Afghan student in 1961 and went with him to Afghanistan. She soon discovered that married life for rich Afghan women was akin to house arrest. It was the defining moment of Chesler’s life and made her one of the few American feminists to confront the collusion of family members (including the women) in culture-linked domestic abuse. Despite her sufferings, Chesler has maintained ties with her Afghan ex-husband and his family and studied Afghan history and culture. Her sympathy with and forgiveness of her abusive, demented mother-in-law and her charitable approach to her frankly appalling ex are extraordinary and edifying. Chesler is to be admired also for having the guts to argue that Islamic Afghan culture is incompatible with Western notions of freedom and flourishing, particularly for, but not limited to, women, children and the poor.
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. She is the author of the novel Ceremony of Innocence, published by Ignatius Press.
Books for the mind:
The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain (From Vienna 1900 to the Present) by Eric R. Kandel (Random House, 2012)—to answer why the brain responds to the beautiful.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox (Harper Collins, 2013)—to learn how some pretty kooky scholars came to read the Aegean Bronze Age by deciphering Linear B.
In the Self’s Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine by Jean-Luc Marion (Stanford University Press, 2013)—exploring the layers of the self as expressed by the great Doctor of the human heart.
Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 by John Meyendorff (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1989)—for the symbiosis between emperor and ecclesia early on.
Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton (Oxford, 2011)—a primer on the philosophy of beauty.
Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering by Eleonore Stump (Oxford, 2012)—a “must read” that I go back to each year it has been out, answering how God can save in the most disconsolate of stories.
Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (Harper Collins, 2003)—a history of the human need to manifest concretely the glorious.
Christology from Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar by Mark McIntosh (Notre Dame, 2000)—an insight to the Christian life as the continuation of Christ’s life as understood by a great 20th century Churchman.
Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes that Changed the World by James Lacey and Williamson Murray (Bantam, 2013)—a decidedly sobering read on the history of warfare.
Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life by Frank Burch Brown (Oxford, 2000)—a good reminder never to confuse the Christian with the dandy.
Books for the heart:
Collected Poems (1962-2012) by Louise Glück—by a woman who converted great suffering into rich verse.
The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy—why is it we all have a tinge for the taste of death?
The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation by Jon Sweeney (Image Books, 2012)—who could not return to Celestine V after Benedict XVI?
Nobody’s Perfect by Anthony Lane (Alfred Knopf, 2002)—a side-splitting cultural critique.
Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures by Paul Lukacs (Norton, 2012); Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, ed., Barry C. Smith (Oxford, 2007); The History of Michigan Wines by Lori Hathaway & Simon Kegerreis (History Press, 2010)—coming from a vintner’s family in Michigan, these books warmed me (along with a good Barolo!).
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James (Norton, 2013)—what his translation of Dante lacked, these short insights make up for.
Books for the soul:
The Living Body of Christ by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008)—a wonderful read by one who has known the Church’s disunity.
Uniformity With God’s Will by St. Alphonsus de Ligouri (Tan Reprint, 2013)—a short pamphlet that encourages us to unite ourselves with God first and only then act.
Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe (Scepter Press, 2002)—claiming our own filiality before the Father means being free from the law and from all decay.
Swear to God: The Promise and Power of the Sacraments by Scott Hahn (Doubleday, 2004)—from our own time’s leading Christian apologist, a deceivingly insightful examination of the sacraments’ past and power.
The Mystical Evolution (vol. 1) by Father John Arintero, OP (Tan reprint  1978)—for anyone interested in Christian deification and our new life in Christ.
David Vincent Meconi, SJ is a professor in the Department of Theological Studies at St. Louis University; he is also the editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
The year was replete with magnificent publications. I have listed below, alphabetically by author, my favorites, all of which were published in 2013. I am very grateful for the blessing of being a university professor with the leisure time to read all of them so that I may discuss their ideas with students, both in and out of the classroom, and thereby share in the joy of knowing truth and beauty.
Healing for Freedom: A Christian Perspective on Personhood and Psychotherapy by Benedict M. Ashley, OP (Catholic University of America Press). Wonderfully shows how the great Catholic tradition of Aristotelian Thomism provides a solid philosophical foundation for psychotherapy.
Meditations, Books 1–6 by Marcus Aurelius, translated with an introduction and commentary by Christopher Gill (Oxford University Press). You saw the movie Gladiator? Now read the famous emperor’s personal notebook, which chronicles his amazing spiritual exercises. There are inexpensive paperback translations, but this expensive hardback edition comes with the latest, state-of-the-art scholarly commentary. Contemporary research on Stoicism at its finest.
The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity by Stratford Caldecott (Angelico Press). The most mind-expanding book on philosophy and theology that I read this year. This is a dazzling work of incredible brilliance. The chapter on Islam alone is worth the price of admission. Not to be missed.
Love and Friendship: Maritain and the Tradition, edited by Montague Brown (Catholic University of America Press). Exceptionally fine essays on love and friendship from today’s friendliest Thomists.
A Reason Open to God: On Universities, Education, and Culture by Benedict XVI (Catholic University of America Press). An indispensable collection of speeches, letters, and addresses by the Pope Emeritus on faith and reason incarnated in the intellectual life.
Enchiridion symbolorum definitionem et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum: Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals: Latin – English, 43rd Edition, by Heinrich Denzinger and Peter Hünermann, edited by Peter Hünermann (Ignatius Press). The most beautiful version of this reference work ever published.
A God Torn to Pieces: The Nietzsche Case by Giuseppe Fornari (Michigan State University Press). A stunning reflection on the relationship between Nietzsche and Christianity, provoked by the Catholic thinker René Girard’s brilliant interpretation of what the former reveals about the latter.
Anorexia and Mimetic Desire by René Girard (Michigan State University Press). What do eating disorders have to do with fundamental human desire? Catholic thinker René Girard offers us challenging food for thought.
Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (Crossroad Publishing Company). What do politics have to do with the interpretation of Scripture? Since Marsilius of Padua, everything. An ambitious intellectual history from Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker about matters known to specialists that should be more widely known, because they have impacted us all. The eye-opening chapters on Marsilius and Machiavelli are arguably the ones not to be missed, but you will want to read them all.
Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique by Grant Havers (Northern Illinois University Press). The definitive treatment of the highly influential but not-so conservative thinker Leo Strauss has finally been published. A rigorous work of scholarship that is also exceptionally well written.
Prospects for Conservatives: A Compass for Rediscovering the Permanent Things by Russell Kirk, introduction by Bradley J. Birzer (Imaginative Conservative Books). A thrilling discussion of eternal truths, which is exactly the sort of discussion we need to have in order to nourish hope for the future. Published by the founders of that excellent website devoted to virtue and wisdom, The Imaginative Conservative.
Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews by C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press). Collects together 40 book reviews that had not yet been reprinted, along with four major essays unavailable for decades, as well as a fifth essay, “Image and Imagination,” published here for the first time.
Mind, Matter, and Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind by James D. Madden (Catholic University of America Press). An engaging presentation of how traditional Thomistic thought offers the best philosophical options available in today’s specialized “philosophy of mind” debates.
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). A deeply spiritual journal, recently discovered among the papers of this Catholic literary genius, never before published.
Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963 by J.F. Powers (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). Tremendous insight into the life and mind of one of the greatest Catholic writers ever to put pen to page.
Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading by James V. Schall, SJ (Catholic University of America Press). How are philosophy, theology, and political philosophy related? Is there a “Roman Catholic political philosophy”? The wisdom of a lifetime shines thorough in these essays that show us how to think on the permanent things.
The Aesthetics of Architecture by Roger Scruton (Princeton University Press). Reprint edition of the 1979 classic, now with a brilliant new introduction for 2013. One of the noblest stands against the barbarism of our times ever published, from one of today’s very best writers on philosophy and aesthetics. The new introduction alone is worth the price of admission.
Ancient Wisdom and Modern Misconceptions: A Critique of Contemporary Scientism by Wolfgang Smith (Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis). A revised edition of the original 2004 publication. A highly unusual yet always stimulating critique of the ideology of modern scientism addressing multiple contentious issues.
The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (HarperCollins). After The Hobbit is done, this is the movie that needs to be made next. But why wait until then to read it? Published just this year.
Distinctions of Being: Philosophical Approaches to Reality, edited by Nikolaj Zunic (Catholic University of America Press). Thought-provoking essays on metaphysics that pursue wisdom from the standpoint of Thomistic realism.
Dr. Christopher S. Morrissey is a professor of philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College, the Catholic liberal arts college at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.
The Price to Pay: A Muslim Risks All to Follow Christ by Joseph Fadelle. A fast and engrossing read, this is a first-person account of an astonishing conversion and the toll it takes on an ex-Muslim and his family, compelled to this day to live under pseudonyms. Particularly useful are the specifics with respect to the Koran and to everyday customs.
Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Afria by Ilana Mercer. From the book: “Since democracy was ushered into South Africa, largely thanks to the actions, stance, and charisma of Nelson Mandela, an estimated 300,000 innocents have been murdered. That makes more murders in one week under African rule than there were under the abhorred Afrikaner government over the course of roughly four decades. South Africa today is the toast of the West, yet Christian civilization is dying out, replaced by tribalism with its feuds, fetishes, and factions, while an entire class of people is being dispossessed, because of the pallor of their skin.”
The Church Under Attack by Diane Moczar. Not a book with a thesis, but a lively and condensed history that manages to pin down the many thought systems that have been assaulting the Catholic faith ever since Luther: from the Enlightenment to Marxism and from Darwinism to Modernism. Of note here, as in the press worldwide, is the peculiar fact that Italian events are largely overlooked, or mentioned cursorily at best, even though one might be justified in arguing that a closer look at the goings on in the peninsula should be intriguing to anyone researching the history of the Catholic Church.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum. An investigation of what went on in the Eastern-bloc countries after the Western powers abandoned them to the ferocious utopia of the USSR. The sudden and unexpectedly peaceful end of the Cold War left most of us with the impression of a completed phase of history about which we had already heard enough. In actual fact, we in the West know very little of the different processes by which the nations and lives of millions of people succumbed to totalitarianism. (In her next book, hopefully, Applebaum will also give us a much-needed look into the goings-on in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall was torn down.)
America’s Thirty Years’ War: Who is Winning? by Balint Vaszonyi, 1998. The author, who fled to America from Hungary after the failed uprising of 1956, compares two rival concepts of government—Anglo-American principles, based on the rule of law, and French-German Statism, born of Bismark’s Germany—to show how today even the US is imperceptibly slipping into totalitarianism.
Alessandra Nucci is an Italian author and journalist.
The four Constitutions of the Second Vatican Council, although not books in and of themselves, were front and center in my reading this year, as I led classes and gave talks about each of them. Lumen Gentium continues to be my favorite of the four texts, containing a wealth of material that is, I think, essential reading for all Catholics and anyone serious about understanding the Catholic faith.
I re-read Truth and Tolerance by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, probably my favorite of his many pre-papal writings. It is required reading for those wishing to more deeply understand the thought and pontificate of Benedict XVI. It demonstrates, contrary to popular misconception, just how much time Ratzinger/Benedict has spent considering and engaging with a vast array of philosophies, religions, and belief systems.
Father Alexander Schmemann’s classic, For the Life of the World, was published 50 years ago, and has lost none of its unsettling power. I’m not sure why I hadn’t read it before, but having now done so, I cannot recommend it enough. It will very likely challenge and deepen how you think about worship, the sacraments, salvation, and secularism.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dana and Ted Gioia this past summer and fall (read the interview here), and spent some time reading and re-reading several of their books in the process. Any and all of Dana’s poetry is exceptional, and his most recent collection, Pity the Beautiful, is a perfect place to start, at turns poignant, surprising, beautiful, hilarious, and challenging. And don’t miss his recent First Things essay, “The Catholic Writer Today.” Ted’s first book, The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, was published nearly a quarter century ago, but is as good an introduction to jazz as anything written since. I also read big chunks of his acclaimed books, The History of Jazz and The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, both of which situate jazz within the larger culture with such adroit and elegant insight.
My lone fiction pick is Dorothy Cummings McLean’s novel, Ceremony of Innocence. Written with a knowing nod to Graham Greene, it is set in modern Europe and has elements of a thriller and a character study. But is much more, being very much what Walker Percy would call “diagnostic,” without ever being a bit didactic or dull.
I’ve been leading a Bible study through what are said to be the least-read books of Scripture: I and II Chronicles. It has proven to be a fruitful and even surprising study, helped in great measure by Scott Hahn’s exceptional commentary, The Kingdom of God as Liturgical Empire. You might not think that nine chapters of genealogies (1 Chron. 1-9) could prove interesting, but with Hahn as a guide, they offer plenty of historical and theological substance.
This past year, I discovered the poetry of Richard Wilbur. Each page of his Collected Poems: 1943-2004 demonstrates his remarkable, even magical, way with words, rhythm, and rhyme. A special treat has been his Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences, which I read to my two sons, who immediately demanded a second reading upon finishing the first.
I was very impressed with Ryan N.S. Topping’s book, Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life, which reflects, with erudition and rigor, on the many problems of today in light of the Catholic Faith. Topping writes on theology, literature, liturgy, art, culture, and politics with wit and wisdom. One of my favorite books of the past year.
“Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” So wrote C.S. Lewis in his 1937 review of Tolkien’s book. That review is one of more than 40 reviews, along with several essays, collected for the first time in the delightful volume C.S. Lewis: Image and Imagination. Lewis may not have been a prophet, but he was a dazzling writer and thinker.
Finally, in the course of writing a chapter for a book on theosis that I have co-edited with Father David V. Meconi, SJ, I revisited Matthew Vellanickal’s astounding study, The Divine Sonship of Christians in the Johannine Writings, a dissertation published in 1977. Vellanickal also wrote a more accessible (and shorter) book, Divine Sonship of Man in the Bible. Alas, both books are out of print, hard to find, and expensive. Still, if the topic is of interest, they are worth finding.
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.
Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music by Dana Jennings. The autobiographical story of a big city editor with small town, New Hampshire roots, and how country music circa 1950-1970 not only provided the soundtrack for that time and place but the context as well. Country songs were like a Greek chorus in the lives of pretty much everyone in this memorable tome. The book is also a thought provoking, quasi-deconstructionist take on late 20th century US history.
Another Shot: How I Relived My Life in Less Than a Year by Joe Kita. Have you ever wanted a do-over in life? At age 40, journalist Joe Kita found himself answering “Yes.” He attempted to get back his first car. He asked that girl out. He tried out for his high school basketball team (yes, high school)…and made it.
The Tomb of St. Peter: The New Discoveries in the Sacred Grottoes of the Vatican by Margherita Guarducci, PhD. This book was on my shelves for years, but I never read it until I started giving talks on St. Peter.
The Bones of St. Peter: The First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle’s Body by John Evangelist Walsh. Also read to “bone” up on my knowledge of all things St. Peter.
Catholic Korea: Yesterday and Today by John Chung Jae-sun and Father Joseph Kim Chang-mun. This huge tome is a comprehensive—and I do mean comprehensive—history of the Church in Korea.
In Enemy Hands: A Prisoner in North Korea by Larry Zellers. Zellers was a Methodist missionary caught by the Korean People’s Army in the early days of the Korean Conflict. His book details his experience on the so-called “Tiger Death March.”
March Till They Die by Father Philip Crosbie, SSC. Larry Zellers’ best friend among his fellow prisoners was Father Philip Crosbie. His is a different perspective on Zellers’ story; if you decide to read both works, you won’t be disappointed.
Ambassador in Chains: The Story of Patrick Joseph Byrne, Bishop, Missioner by Raymond A. Lane, MM. Any good hagiography will make its reader susceptible to hero worship. That was this work’s effect on me.
The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, and Korean War Hero by Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying. Previously, there has not been a single, near-comprehensive source for Father Kapaun’s story. Now there is.
Enemies Without Guns: The Catholic Church in China by James T. Myers. Myers does a fine job with this history of the Church in the People’s Republic of China.
Stars in the Sky by Father Patrick J. Scanlan. Whenever anyone writes an account of the brutality and desecration at Yang Kia Ping, once the largest monastery in the world, this book is their main source.
The Pagoda and the Cross: The Life of Bishop Ford of Maryknoll by John F. Donovan, MM. A great hagiography and a fine introduction to Ford, a man of many firsts.
When the Sorghum Was High by John Joseph Considine, MM. The biography of Father Gerard Donovan, MM. He not only resembled actor Mickey Rooney in looks and stature, he also had the same “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” attitude of Rooney’s early characters.
Three Days to Eternity: Being the Story of Father Sandy Cairns, Maryknoll Missioner and Modern Apostle by Richard Reid and Edward J Moffett. Cairns was a Maryknoll priest murdered by the Japanese shortly after Pearl Harbor. Reid and Moffett convey Father Cairns’ heroic personality and actions well.
Pedro Martinez, SJ, Martyr of Florida, 1566: Jesuit Protomartyr of the New World by Rev. Michael Kenny, SJ. A very short book(let) on the life of a complicated man.
The Life and Times of John Carroll by Peter Guilday, PhD. Msgr. Carroll, the first US bishop, was an interesting fellow, and Guilday shows us why. He also shows how difficult American Catholics had it during Carroll’s time.
A History of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States by Most Rev. Thomas O’Gorman. O’Gorman gives a thorough-as-can-be description of how the Church in the US developed. Invaluable for knowing more about Catholicism on these shores.
Religious Liberty in Transition: A Study of the Removal of Constitutional Limitations on Religious Liberty As Part of the Social Progress in the Transition Period by Father Joseph Francis Thorning, SJ, PhD. A book as exciting as its title implies. Nonetheless, great for research.
The Shadow of the Pope by Michael Williams. A good book on North American anti-Catholicism, with a particular focus on US history.
Jesuit Saints and Martyrs by Joseph N. Tylenda, SJ. A great book for knowing more about people such as St. Isaac Jogues.
Lily of the Mohawks: The Story of St. Kateri by Emily Cavins. Cavins is a really good writer and does a fantastic job of bringing St. Kateri’s milieu to life. Buy it.
Serpent Wind: Inspired by the True Story of a Small Texas War by George Davis. I read this novel as part of my research on what was possibly the most nightmarish massacre of colonists by natives anywhere in the New World.
Brian O’Neel is writer, editor, and speaker who lives with his wife and six children in central Wisconsin.
Having spent most of my life in education, the calendar year is not a category which comes naturally to me. Still, I’ll do my best. Among the best books I read in 2013:
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Actually, I re-read this and I am very glad I did. It is even more remarkable than I remembered (especially in the Nunnally translation). The novel stayed with me for weeks after I finished it and I was loath to pick up something else lest I spoil the reverie. The characters are vivid and I came to love many of them (so much so that I had to remind myself not to pray for them). The themes were just as powerful: sin as trampling other people, willfulness versus duty, repentance and backsliding, marrying for love or stability, death and resurrection, the trajectory of a life…all of this is done masterfully. I can think of no novel where the interplay of grace and free will is done better—in the end, Kristin’s freedom, even her freely turning away from God, perfectly coincides with God’s predestined plan for her. Stunning.
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and translated by Geoffrey Brock. I had seen the cartoon when I was a child, but had no encounter with Pinocchio since. Vigen Guroian’s excellent Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Imagination made me want to revisit it. The story is delightful and profound. I am pretty convinced that it is really a story about deification, about learning to love your father so as to come to share in his nature.
On Wealth and Poverty by St. Basil the Great. This is a lovely collection of sermons in the wonderful Popular Patristic Series of St. Vladimir Press. I read these sermons with an upper-level patristics class last semester and we were all moved and challenged. They are particularly timely with Pope Francis in the news. The sermons themselves are stirring exhortations to simplicity and love and after reading them I felt convicted to get to know my neighbors better. I was also very moved by Basil’s insistence that we don’t really own anything, but we only have it on loan from God and should be ready to give it away as soon as someone needs it more. Not a political program, but a theological vision. Very striking.
Instructing Beginners in Faith by St. Augustine. This is Augustine at his pastoral best. Responding to the desperate plea of a discouraged deacon friend, Augustine writes a sensitive and moving reply on the struggles of a teacher. I was almost giddy reading this; it was as though Augustine had sat in on some of my worst days teaching and saw into my heart.
Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy by Scott Hahn. This is a readable and compelling case for the liturgy as the proper context for interpreting Scripture. Reading this opened up the meaning of the proclaimed word to me in a new way. Some of Hahn’s best work.
Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor. This is a collection of essays and lectures by O’Connor mostly on the craft and meaning of writing. O’Connor does not disappoint. This should also be required reading for every aspiring author.
Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. This, too, should be required reading for every aspiring author. Wodehouse’s style is so perfect you can taste it. And it is delicious. I always come away refreshed after reading the Jeeves and Wooster stories (and there are many).
The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis. For a few years now, I have been trying to read lesser-known but talented Catholic fiction writers. (Reading the lively exchange between Dana Gioia and Gregory Wolfe in First Things confirms that I am doing the right thing.) Ellis’ novel does not disappoint—full of British wit and moments of real beauty, this is an odd but enjoyable saint’s life.
Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis. At 224 pages, I count this as a book. All I will say is that reading Pope Francis is way better than reading about Pope Francis.
Jared Ortiz is assistant professor of religion at Hope College.
I began 2013 with the same book that accompanied my last weeks of 2012: St. Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle (Image Books, Doubleday). Naturally, reading it was humbling. It reminded me how much work I have ahead just to enter the outer chambers of holiness.
Helping me with this work were the words and biographical stories of St. Teresa’s spiritual daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The Love That Keeps Us Sane: Living the Little Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Paulist Press) by Marc Foley, OCD has a wonderful way of letting St. Thérèse speak while providing context and commentary that bridges her world with ours. It’s a good little book to keep within arm’s reach, especially on one’s night stand, where I keep mine.
In early Lent—while reeling from the news that Benedict XVI was retiring—I rediscovered a book that I liked quite a lot when I first read it. The Emerging Laity: Vocation, Mission, and Spirituality (Paulist Press) by Dr. Aurelie A. Hagstrom, an associate professor of theology at Providence College, nicely framed for me the arrival and lessons of Pope Francis. The book also reminded me of my time with St. Teresa of Ávila (its chapter on “The Laity’s Call to Holiness” was particularly helpful). And as a bureaucrat for the state who teaches and writes for the Church, I found much of Dr. Hagstrom’s insights about the role of the laity to be spot on and extraordinarily helpful—especially in this age of New Evangelization.
Some time ago a priest friend gave me a copy of St. Justin Martyr’s The First and Second Apologies (Paulist Press). I had read some of Justin in my graduate studies but found him profoundly relevant when I read him again this year—relevant and comforting. It’s good to know that the Church has faced before the sorts of struggles we face today.
Helping me as a teacher and apologist was Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (Ignatius Press). If I had to devise a list of required books for all Catholics, this would be in the top five.
I returned frequently to Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment (Anselm Academic). Edited by Dr. Tobias Winright, an associate professor of theological studies at St. Louis University, the compilation includes some 20 chapters written by scholarly clerics and laity and includes Pope Benedict’s 2010 Message for World Day of Peace, “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.” Green Discipleship is a fine addition to the classroom or the home. Either way, it makes helpful contributions to the Catholic understanding of ecological issues.
Lastly, 2013 was illuminated by what is one of my favorite series of spiritual reflections and theological lessons. Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Throughout the Year (Ignatius Press) is a 1984 collection of works (homilies, talks, etc.) by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The book was reissued after his election to the Chair of St. Peter. The design of the new, fits-in-one-hand hardcover—with its exquisite Christian art and iconography—perfectly matches the simplicity and beautiful depths of the author’s words. I don’t know why this book is not better known. It’s perfect for group studies, catechesis, apologetics, and personal sanctification. I’d put it in the top three on my list of books that all Catholics should read.
William Patenaude has been a regulator and trainer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for 25 years. He has also been writing on Catholic issues (especially the Catholic perspective of ecology) at his blog and for the Rhode Island Catholic since 2004.
Two relatively new works of fiction that I have enjoyed immensely are The Book of Jotham by Arthur Powers and Treason by Dena Hunt. The first of these is a marvelous novella set during the time of Christ, in which the ministry of Jesus is seen and narrated through the eyes of a mentally handicapped man, who is adopted by Christ as one of his disciples. It is called “The Book of Jotham” because it’s a sort of Gospel according to the eponymous character. The ways in which St. Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot relate with their disabled brother are particularly powerful. The Book of Jotham is a work that never preaches but which will evoke a powerful pro-life response from the reader. The second, Treason, is a historical novel set in Elizabethan England, which serves as a de facto warning of the dangers of secular fundamentalism and its intolerance towards religious orthodoxy. It is reminiscent of R.H. Benson’s novel Come Rack! Come Rope!, published a century earlier, a novel that I would also recommend.
The work of classic fiction that has enthused me most this year is Kristin Lavransdatter by the Nobel Prize winner and Catholic convert Sigrid Undset. I cannot praise this masterful novel highly enough. It reminds me somewhat of the novels of Jane Austen but is set in medieval Catholic Norway.
Moving from books to DVDs, I’ve been impressed, in different ways, by three relatively new movies: For Greater Glory, October Baby, and War of the Vendée. The first and third of these document the murderous consequences of secular fundamentalism in 20th century Mexico and 18th century France, respectively. October Baby is a wonderful and moving film that delivers a pro-life message with subtlety and finesse.
I am currently reading through The Chronicles of Narnia series with my five-year-old daughter and cannot recommend too highly these timeless classics. I’m not sure what else needs to be said about Lewis’ works of wonder, except to say that no child should be deprived of them.
My wife has been working her way through all the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder with our five-year-old. Their shared enthusiasm for each of the works is enough to convince me that these stories of American life in healthier times are also worthy of a hearty recommendation.
Having moved imaginatively with the wonder-filled eyes of a child from Narnia to the American frontier, I’d like to move down-under to modern-day Australia and the many delightful DVDs of the Wiggles. As one who has an unmitigated aversion to almost everything produced today for so-called “modern kids,” I have no hesitation in recommending the Wiggles. Their numerous DVDs produced over the past 20 years or more are mercifully free of any politically correct agenda and contain nothing but healthy musical entertainment. Furthermore, the Wiggles have no problem in bringing the Christian God into the picture, especially in their Christmas DVDs.
My final recommendations are two CDs inspired by the incomparable Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The first is Back to Beauty’s Giver: Richard Austin Reads the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the second is The Alchemist by Sean O’Leary, a double CD of musical adaptations of Hopkins’ poems. The poetry of Hopkins is best experienced when it is read aloud and, as surprising as it may seem, is elevated still further in O’Leary’s impassioned musical adaptations.
Joseph Pearce is writer-in-residence and professor of humanities at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and the author of many acclaimed biographies of Catholic literary figures.
It is strange that men should see sublime inspiration in the ruins of an old church and see none in the ruins of a man.—G.K. Chesterton
I thought I was having a down day—day more in the plastic sense of the Creation account in Genesis, it sometimes seems, when God’s graces go unperceived through all-too-human dimwittedness—until I started reading about Ned Langford, the hero of Who Walk Alone. The Chesterton quote is on the title page of my copy of the National Book Award winner of 1940, bought for a quarter at a thrift shop in Cambridge, Maryland. The front of the tattered dust jacket proclaims it “A true epic of great courage and a beautiful life.” The back sports accolades from the New York Times Book Review and Ivy League elites like Mark Van Doren to heartland sources like the Kansas City Star. For once, the cover did not did oversell the contents.
Who Walk Alone is about a man who served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, returned home to take over a thriving family business in Missouri, and nine years later, on the cusp of marriage, discovered signs of the leprosy he unknowingly contracted fighting in that Splendid War: spots on his body that were immune to pain. The diagnosis became apparent after much consultation, leprosy not being much of a killer in Missouri. So after leaving his home on false pretenses and spending a year seeking treatment in New York City to no avail—and living in near total isolation in Greenwich Village digs, having no human contact aside from his doctor; oh, and also changing his name and faking his death to spare his family the pain and worry—he returned to the Philippines to enter an American-run leper colony offering the best-known treatments at the time.
In this leper colony he would spend most of the rest of his life—but not all: read the book—rediscovering his humanity in community with thousands of mostly Filipino patients. He early on befriends the Franciscan chaplain, and later the American minister; brings up a leper boy seized from his family who becomes like a son; and builds a fishing fleet and power plant that benefit the colony.
For a quarter, I got an incalculable return on investment. For a bad day need not—no, must not, if we are to be truly human—preclude a good life. Not if one enters into the suffering of others; befriends those who live purposefully, seeking the good, the beautiful, and the true; and tends one’s own garden, making it bloom wherever one finds oneself on God’s green earth, no matter how barren the plot may seem.
My copy of Who Walk Alone is the seventh edition, printed in December 1941, which made me wonder the fate of the colony during the looming Japanese occupation. It was a dark and dire time, which segues into another book worth reading: a new book dealing with an old war that continues to rage through the demonic ideologies that did not die in 1945, but viciously dog our own day. The Nazis may have had forced policies of eugenics and euthanasia, for example. Today Belgian children can decide for themselves whether their lives are worth living. If that be progress…
Father George Rutler’s Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 is a panopticon of the world at war in that crucial year. It is based on a crumbling pile of news clippings left him by a historian friend—including wire reports from Vatican sources and other Catholic news agencies—that otherwise might have turned to dust, both literally and figuratively. But Father Rutler brilliantly pieces them together, and in so doing, shows that the war between good and evil is never won, but must be fought by every generation. Each generation has its call to greatness.
Matthew A. Rarey is a writer and education consultant.
For those of us who can’t read Russian, Cambridge University Press’ A History of Russian Philosophy (1830-1930): Faith, Reason and the Defense of Human Dignity, edited by G.M. Hamburg and Randall A. Poole, provides a good overview of a century of Russian thought beginning with the Slavophile-Westernizer controversies of the first half of the 19th century and ending with the decade of Joseph Stalin’s “harvest of sorrow.”
Moving from Russian to Hungarian philosophy in Politics, Values, and National Socialism: Aurel Kolnai, published by Transaction Publishers, Graham McAleer edited a collection of 19 essays from Kolnai which were translated by Francis Dunlop. Topics include: the humanitarian versus the religious attitude, Heidegger and National Socialism, and Max Scheler’s critique and assessment of Freud’s theory of libido.
Late in 2013 Oxford University Press issued Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt’s Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ. Bauerschmidt takes the novel approach of reading Aquinas through the hermeneutical lens of his Dominican spirituality or, as he expresses the idea, “reading Thomas in light of distinctively Dominican ends.” Bauerschmidt’s Aquinas is not a strict observance Aristotelian.
In a similar spirit, Paul Tyson’s Faith’s Knowledge: Explorations into the Theory and Application of Theological Epistemology by Pickwick Publications offers a reflection on the inadequacies of secular reason with reference to Plato, Kierkegaard, and the Gospel of St. John. Tyson argues that there are intimate ties between faith and reason in both Plato and John.
Moving from secular reason to secularist politics, Father Schall put me onto Benjamin Wiker’s Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion. Wiker persuasively makes the case for the thesis that when people stop believing in God they revert to a neo-pagan worship of the state.
Every Catholic Christmas hamper should include whatever is the latest book from James V. Schall, SJ and Aidan Nichols, OP. This year from Father Schall we have Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism, published by Ignatius Press. From Father Nichols we have Figuring out the Church: Her Marks and Her Masters, also from Ignatius.
For the musically inclined, I recommend Richard H. Bell’s Wagner’s Parsifal: An Appreciation in the Light of His Theological Journey (Wipf & Stock, 2013).
For the metaphysically inclined, I recommend Gift and the Unity of Being by Antonio López, with a foreword by John Milbank (also Wipf & Stock, 2013).
For those who find consolation in the theology of our beloved Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, I recommend The Word Made Love: The Dialogical Theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI by Father Christopher S. Collins, SJ.
Tracey Rowland is dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia.
Two books that I have read and enjoyed are, #1: Assisted: An Autobiography, which is the account of the Utah Jazz’s John Stockton. It is a very fine insight into the nature of professional sports and basketball, from an outstanding player. Stockton had gone to Gonzaga University, managed to win a place with Utah, and the rest is history. This is a very family-oriented book and shows the really good side of professional sports.
Also, #2: I found Marie Arana’s Simon Bolivar to be especially interesting in the light of the Latin American pope. Bolivar was one of the great political figures. His personal life was chaotic, but his determination to rid the continent of Spanish rule as well as build a free confederation of states were noble. He failed in the latter and ended up tragically. His heritage, however, still prevails in Latin America—the republics, often ruled from top down, unable to unite, finding their own way.
Though I am not going to spend my Christmas reading my own books, I might mention that my three recently published books—Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism, Ignatius, Remembering Belloc, St. Augustine’s Press, and Political Philosophy & Revelation: A Catholic Reading, the Catholic University of America Press, are, according to Schall, well worth Christmas reading. The essay of Belloc on Christmas is not to be missed.
I also found the book of the Argentine interviews with Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words, to be both entertaining and instructive. It serves to place the new pope in his own world and reveals many sides of his personality. It is well worth a read.
Father James V. Schall, SJ taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years before his recent retirement. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics.
During the year past I was particularly taken by three books, each quite different from the others: The Cruise of the Nona by Hilaire Belloc, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Steven Runciman, and Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines. None of them is new, and Belloc’s book appeared way back in 1925.
On one level, The Cruise of the Nona is an account of a leisurely voyage around the western and southern coasts of England. Landlubbers will find the nautical terminology obscure, but Belloc repeatedly breaks off from seamanship to talk about—well, whatever pops into his head. Usually he talks good sense, occasionally he doesn’t (as in his effusive praise for Mussolini—this was the early ‘20s, after all), but always in vigorous—dare I say manly?—prose.
The Nona is a pleasing reminder of a time when readers liked rambling, chatty, well-written books about everything under the sun. Belloc might be a blogger today, and a very good one at that.
After several early chapters containing highly compressed background information and many unfamiliar names, Steven Runciman’s Fall of Constantinople becomes an engrossing tale about one of the turning points of history. At its heart lies an uncomfortable question: Did Constantinople have to fall?
In fact, it seems, it did not. The city could have been saved if the Christian powers of the West had bestirred themselves to save it. But self-absorbed tunnel vision combined with indifference to the fate of the Orthodox Christians of the East combined to prevent that. Perhaps there is a lesson today as the West confronts a new threat from a resurgent, militant Islam.
James R. Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason is several things—history, biography, musicology. Especially, though, it’s a new and by no means flattering take on the underside of the Enlightenment.
Formally speaking, the book is a counterpoint composition—Bach’s towering genius set against the prosaic coarseness of an eminently successful despot, Frederick the Great, with Voltaire supplying a leitmotif as aspiring court sycophant. Informative, amusing, and now and then horrifying, this is cultural history told with great skill.
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books.
6. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat. According to Ross Douthat, a gifted New York Times columnist, Americans are not becoming less and less religious. We’re simply becoming less orthodox. Tracing our downward religious spiral from last century’s golden age, led by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham, to today’s fashionable blend of prosperity gospel (Joel Osteen), self-help cults (Oprah), and the spiritual-but-not-religious boon (Elizabeth Gilbert), Douthat shows how we’ve arrived at a watered-down faith that “strokes our egos, indulges our follies, and encourages our worst impulses.” If you want to understand the trends that have shaped our religious landscape, this is your book.
5. What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George. After co-authoring the most downloaded academic paper in the history of the Internet, these three intellects expanded their arguments into a book-length treatise with the same title. The result, in my view, is the clearest and most cogent philosophical defense of marriage today (evidenced by its reference in recent Supreme Court decisions). Anyone seeking to understand why the state should promote man-woman marriage as the ideal, and why we can’t seriously debate the “same-sex marriage” issue until we answer a more basic question—what is marriage?—should read this book.
4. Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century by George Weigel. Perhaps no phrase appears more in Catholic circles today than “the New Evangelization,” but what does it mean and how should it shape the Church? That’s what George Weigel answers in this missionary manifesto. Weigel’s guide lays out a plan for applying the Church’s evangelical identity to the priesthood, the episcopacy, the liturgy, the laity, Catholic intellectual life, and even the papacy. He calls for a more vibrant, reformed Church, devoted to holiness and mission, whose central focus is proclaiming Jesus Christ to the world. It’s an exciting and insightful glimpse at the Church of the New Evangelization.
3. Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity by Trent Horn. With the increasing popularity of the New Atheists, and the growth of their many disciples, we’ve seen a whole slew of books designed to counter this trend. However, many of these books have glaring issues that make them difficult to recommend (either to theists or atheists). Most are either too simplistic, too academic, too focused, too broad, or too caustic. Yet Trent Horn’s book strikes the right balance of breadth and depth, clarity and sophistication, charity and truth. His main project is to show there are no good reasons to embrace atheism while there are many reasons to accept theism. He defends these contentions with fair and accessible prose, copious endnotes, thick appendices, and helpful Socratic dialogues, which all make this my go-to recommendation for anyone wondering whether God is real.
2. C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath. To put it simply, I’ve read several C.S. Lewis biographies and Alister McGrath’s is the best. What makes McGrath so effective is how similar he is to Lewis: both were born in Northern Ireland, both followed atheism throughout their adolescence, both attended Oxford, both became prestigious dons, and both converted to Christianity. This parallel trajectory allows McGrath to get inside Lewis’ mind like few others can. Even more, to ensure he understood his subject, McGrath read Lewis’ entire corpus chronologically before starting his biography. As expected, McGrath’s book covers the major events and figures in Lewis’ life, but he approaches them primarily through Lewis’ books, which presents a fresh and illuminating gateway. Notably, McGrath also defends a new date for Lewis’ conversion to theism, setting it a year later than Lewis records in his own autobiography. This significant discovery, coupled with McGrath’s smooth and perceptive prose, should put this book at the top of every Lewis-lover’s list.
1. Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) by Pope Francis. First of all, yes, this is a book. At over 50,000 words, it’s one of the longest papal documents on record. And second, what a remarkable book it is. In his first solo work, the Holy Father applies his characteristic themes of joy, evangelization, and mercy toward building a culture of encounter and a poor Church for the poor. Touching on almost every aspect of Church life, the wide-ranging treatise addresses complacent Christians, dispirited missionaries, poor preaching, and oppressive social injustice, shimmering on every page with memorable one-liners and powerful summonses. Pope Francis recently called Evangelii Nuntiandi the “greatest pastoral document ever written.” In my view, his own joyful, vivid call to evangelization deserves that title.
Brandon Vogt is a Catholic blogger, writer, and speaker, and is content director at Word on Fire, the Catholic ministry founded by Father Robert Barron.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret to a Good Life by Rod Dreher easily tops this year’s list as the best book I read in 2013. Dreher beautifully chronicles his sister’s struggle with lung cancer and her eventual death—but it’s so much more than just a cancer memoir. It’s a powerful reflection on the importance of family, community, and location. My full CWR review of it can be found here.
Mary Eberstadt’s How the West Really Lost God is a close second on the list. Eberstadt’s astute analysis turns traditional secularization theory on its head and argues that the decline of the family led to secularization (rather than the reverse). Not only is it a provocative read, but it’s also elegantly written in a way that only the great Mary Eberstadt can deliver. This will be considered an important work for a very long time.
Evangelical Catholicism by George Weigel offers a bold and attractive vision for Catholicism in the 21st century. At a time when the Church is receiving a new wave of public attention, this book is a must-read for all Catholics who want to contribute to the serious work of evangelization (and that should include all of us!).
I realize I’m a few decades late to the game, but I finally got around to reading Dorothy Day’s soul-stirring autobiography, The Long Loneliness. The book is chock full of reflections on her efforts in starting the Catholic Worker Movement and living life in community. Given the fact that her cause for canonization is being rekindled, there’s no better time to discover—or rediscover—the life of one of the 20th century’s most important Catholics.
Most of my reading these days is non-fiction, but back in the fall I decided to impose a new rule for myself: only to read works of fiction while on the subway. As such, I was finally able to read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer and the National Book Award and is the fictional autobiography of a dying Congregationalist minister who wants to pass along his most important memories and life lessons to his seven-year-old son. Robinson’s language is rich and haunts the reader long after the novel’s end.
Freedom tells the story of the Berglund family over the course of several decades and explores themes of infidelity, capitalism, environmentalism, and, of course, the nature of human freedom. It’s not a perfect novel to be sure, but it’s a thoughtful read and well-crafted—earning Franzen high rank among living fiction writers of our time.
And, for the sake of accountability, I’ll note I’ve just started Charles Taylor’s opus, A Secular Age. I’m already sure it will rank high on my 2014 list—and if it doesn’t, I expect to be publicly shamed for not finishing it!
Christopher White is the Director of Education and Programs at the Center for Bioethics and Culture.
Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore (Knopf, 2013). This is the first volume of the authorized two-volume biography of the late Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, by a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, etc. It is the best political biography I have read since Robert Blake’s Disraeli appeared in the late 1960s. The book is remarkable for the sweeping pace it maintains, despite a heavily detailed text that nevertheless fails to swamp the immense narrative drive.
Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic by Pierre Manent (Harvard, 2013). The French political philosopher argues in his latest book that the civilization of the West is distinguishable from all other civilizations, past and present, by the fact of its having had, since the Greeks, a political project that has made its story a history rather than a mere chronology. This project, he adds, is presently flagging, as words and actions in politics become separated from one another and Western political life runs down.
L’Anneau du pêcheur by Jean Raspail (Livre de Poche, 1995). The Ring of the Fisherman, originally published two decades ago, strangely anticipates Dan Brown’s Vatican novels. Indeed, it is the sort of book Brown might have written had he knowledge, wisdom, literary taste and sophistication, imagination, and talent. The French novelist (author of The Camp of the Saints, Seven Cavaliers, etc.) posits the intriguing possibility that, at the end of the Western Schism that ended with the Council of Constance in 1417, the illegitimate of the two rival “popes” was recognized and the legitimate one, Benedict XIII, “deposed.” In Raspail’s novel, the successors of “le vrai Pape,” elected by their few scattered cardinals in conclave and living socially marginalized lives in the historical shadows, continue to assert their “papal” authority for the next 600 years. The Vatican, alert for centuries to the existence of its rumored rivals, determines in the early 1990s to track down the current (and last) of the Avignon Benedicts, and settle the business once and for all. Raspail’s skillfully indeterminate presentation, most evident in the novel’s brilliant but inconclusive conclusion, leaves the reader to judge for himself the claims of the second Avignon “papacies.” Raspail, a self-described man of the right, is more forthright in his implied view of the modern Roman one. No doubt L’Anneau du pêcheur is available an excellent English translation.
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is Senior Editor for Books at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.