Essayist and author Alberto Manguel, in A Reader on Reading (Yale, 2010), in a chapter titled “The End of Reading,” asks: “Why, at certain moments in our life, do we choose the companionship of one book over another?” He observes that “the author of Ecclesiastes and Pete Seeger have taught us that for everything there is a season; likewise, I might add, for every season there is a book. But readers have learned that not just any book is suited to any occasion.”
Ever since I was a young boy I have enjoyed book lists, which so often have introduced me to books and authors I might not otherwise encounter. There is, of course, a definite subjectivity to a “best books” list, and yet we also find that certain books, because of any number of qualities and merits, tend to arrive on such lists. In a world increasingly filled with countless videos, streaming information, audio files, and digital communications, books still hold a special and vital place, as Manguel argues in his book. Contemplating the increasing move away from physical books and the use of “virtual libraries,” he notes that fundamental questions need to be asked: “rather than wonder, Why is reading coming to an end? (a self-fulfilling assumption), we might ask instead, What is the end of reading?”
One answer, I think, is that we read both to know and to be known. What we seek, desire, and love says something about who we are—and Who we are meant for. Of course, not every book has to be deep or brilliant or life-changing, but we surely recognize that the greatest books are deep, brilliant, and life-changing.
It has been 11 years since I posted the first “Best Books I Read in…” piece, and it continues to be one of the most popular features on the CWR site. The criteria given to the contributors is quite simple: “What were the best books you read in the past year?” The books chosen can address any topic and could be published recently or centuries ago. I hope that reading this list of good reads begins with expectation and closes with both delight and profit—not just for the moment, but for all of eternity, that is, for The Eternal End.
Carl E. Olson
Editor, CWR and Ignatius Insight
Clive James’ Latest Readings is a bibliophile’s book. The Australian poet and literary critic (and atheist) retired to his Cambridge home with a Leukemia diagnosis and his library. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” James’ observations about what to read with so little time left is fascinating. And, which favorites should be re-read? Latest Readings is a meditation on why what we read endures or fades.
I enthusiastically recommend Anthony Doerr’s remarkable All The Light We Cannot See. This Pulitzer Prize-winning story follows a six-year-old Parisian girl who is losing her sight. Her father, a master lock-maker, works for the French Museum of Natural History. He built his daughter a perfect miniature replica of their neighborhood so that Marie can learn to navigate her darkening world—darkening, too, from brooding clouds of war. When the Germans invade Paris, blind Marie and her father narrowly escape—and are pursued—with what may be the museum’s rarest treasure. Meanwhile, in Germany a quiet boy is forced into the Hitler Youth. His unique talent for communications insures that his and Marie’s paths will cross in the fortress village of St. Malo, where Marie has been entrusted to the care of her mysterious uncle. This is a story of the resilience of good in the face of blind evil. Read this novel for the sheer mastery of words and imagery.
Fighting the Ideological War, a valuable primer for anyone with an urge to persuade the misinformed. A collection of essays edited by Katherine Gorka and Patrick Sookhdeo, it includes an entry by Robert Reilly, “Public Diplomacy in an Age of Global Terrorism.”
Apologetic books: Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. The introduction alone is worth the price: “Confronting Distinguished Bigots.” I gave this book to Catholic friends for Christmas. Currently, I am reading Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.
Audio books: The Secret Cardinalby Tom Grace. An imprisoned Chinese bishop is made a cardinal in pectore. The US president lends Rome a colorful spec ops team to spirit the cardinal out of China. It’s escapism with a heart for the plight of Chinese Catholics. Also, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict XVI, and Thomas F. Madden’s New Concise History of the Crusades.
Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles. This is the first in the Rupert Kingfisher trilogy for seven-to-nine-year-olds. Young Madeleine is sent by her parents to work in her uncle’s Parisian restaurant during the summer. Monsieur Lard is the malicious proprietor of The Squealing Pig. He is jealous of Madeleine’s superior culinary talent. Lardo consigns her to scullery maid but the plucky child manages to discover the strange and wonderful shop of Madame Pamplemousse. When Madeleine returns to the Squealing Pig and serves a special pate of sea-serpent with green peppercorns to diners, who swoon with gustatory delight, Monsieur Lard takes credit. But Madame Pamplemousse has just begun to teach Madeleine that there is more to greatness than smoked pterodactyl bacon: “The ingredients I use are not especially remarkable. Exquisite, yes, and delicious, but only things. It is you yourself that gives flavour to your cooking—your character, your dreams, your smiles, your tears.”
A warning: inexplicably Kingfisher uses an age-inappropriate expression once in the story, “I’ll be damned if I’ll let her have it.” Otherwise the book is witty, charming, and a perfect book to share with an eight-year-old.
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications.
As always, taking stock of what I’ve read and what I still have to look forward to read is one of the highlights of my years. Thank you, Carl. Additionally, I am continually amazed at how technology—whether Audible or Kindle or just the old-fashioned tangible book—allows me to enjoy reading even more than before. It’s always been a joy, but now that joy has entered into aspects of my life never imagined when I was a child, checking out actual tangible volumes from the local Bookmobile.
Of all the books I read this year, nothing stimulated my mind and soul as much as Patrick Deneen’s extraordinarily thoughtful and beautifully crafted Conserving America? For years, I have believed that Deneen is one of our most important—if not THE single most important—Catholic men of letters alive. This book only affirmed my suspicions. Conserving America takes on the most important issues in American life today, always doing so with characteristic Deneen wit and intelligence.
If I want to understand the world of the humane, I read Deneen. If I want to understand the chaos of a post-ideological world at large, I read Mark Greaney. Several years ago, Greaney inherited the Tom Clancy world, and he has treated and nurtured it lovingly. True Faith and Allegiance (Tom Clancy; 2016) is the latest book in Greaney’s long list of accomplishments. Without exaggeration, I can state rather certainly that Greaney understands the post-Cold War world of fundamentalisms and terror better than anyone in the media or in academia.
I’d not read the Shannara series of fantasy books by Terry Brooks since sometime in the 1980s. Picking them up again this summer, I ended up reading six of them. My favorite, by far, was Running with the Demon, a tasteful look at a young girl—in today’s world, at the very beginning of what would become the world of Shannara thousands of years later—who serves as a guardian of park in a small northern Illinois community. The evil is terrifying, and the heroism is rather sacramental and beautiful. A book recommended for all ages. An unexpected delight.
Having always been rather taken with what little I know of Dorothy Day’s Catholic humanism and anarchism, I finally picked up and read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Whatever her failings, Day could write, and think, and do! A penetrating look at the soul of an activist saint.
An unsung patriot and constitutionalist (and serious Catholic), Paul Moreno has quietly and steadily written some of the very best books on often-neglected aspects of American history and American political thought over the past 15 years. In each, he shows how the particular neglected issue radically altered fundamental aspects of American history while few even noticed. His latest, The Bureaucrat Kings, is no exception. Painstakingly researched and written—though in a style with much verve and passion—Moreno explores the ways in which the bureaucracies of this republic have slowly but tenaciously reached into every aspect of our lives, not killing the will, but limiting it, constraining it, and encompassing it. Overall, The Bureaucrat Kings serves as a 2016 sequel to the final three chapters of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and its warnings of “Democratic Despotism.”
I’m currently working on an intellectual biography of Robert Nisbet, one of the greatest and most important public intellectuals of the 20th century, though now largely unremembered. My favorite of his books, thus far, is his The Making of Modern Society, a Tocquevillian analysis of the ills of the present world.
I can’t remember any recent years during which I’ve not read at least two or three books by Stephen King. This year, I read Cujo (a serious examination of the role of family stability), Carrie (the dangers of abuse and non-conformity), and The Dark Half (the sinful side of man).
After years of reading about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I finally read it. I loved every creepy moment of its weird psychological suffocation. Clearly, an influence on both Stephen King and Russell Kirk. Indeed, probably an influence on all ghost and horror literature that followed it. It was not just a horror novel, though, but a great American novel, a serious piece of literature, whatever the genre given to it by some profit-seeking PR firm.
As a professor, I also had the deep privilege of re-reading and teaching (yet again!) The Lord of the Rings, Democracy in America, and Reflections on the Revolution in France. None ever become tedious. Each, indeed, is as alive as it was during a first reading.
This is just the short list. I also read a lot of brilliant Kevin J. Anderson, C.S. Lewis, and Margaret Atwood. Very much looking forward to 2017.
Bradley J. Birzer is author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Christopher Dawson, and is Professor of History at Hillsdale College.
Top of my list of books I have enjoyed this year is Pope Benedict XVI’s Last Testament (Bloomsbury, 2016). An easy read: question-and-answer format, tells us lots about his earlier life, especially at Vatican II and as a young priest. Particularly interesting is the discussion about his first published essay, “The New Pagans and the Church,” examining the position of young people and the faith in 1950s West Germany. It challenged the accepted notion of the day—that all was well and there was no need to worry. “It was palpable that, although everything institutional was still there, the real world had already shifted away from the Church to a large extent.” Prophetic and important analysis. The Testament is a fascinating read for this and so much more, and there is a consistent note of joyful and solid faith which is an inspiration.
I discovered some C.S. Lewis essays that I had not read before in The Weight of Glory (Harper One, 1980). Crisp, thoughtful, enjoyable. Lewis on pacifism: still relevant, although modern wars post-1945 and the whole nuclear thing raise new issues. Lewis on giving all to God and not holding anything back: a really good read. I picked up this book while in Devon one weekend: pouring rain brought floods which marooned me for the night in a bed-and-breakfast at Newton Abbott, and it rescued me from what might have been an evening of tedium.
Written in semi-fictional style, with imagined conversations and so on, Noela Fox’s A Dream Unfolds: The Story of Nano Nagle (The Columba Press, 2016) surprised me by being a real page-turner. I had worried that it might be a sentimental piece of writing along the lines of this-was-a-wonderful-nun-of-long-ago, but instead it is a really powerful book bringing alive the truly dreadful conditions of the Irish poor at the end of the 18th century and Nano Nagle’s magnificent and transforming work. Loved it.
Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus (Image Books 2016) was lent to me by a priest friend, and I know I ought to give it back soon but I keep returning to it. Well-researched and filled with useful material, it is also immensely readable: it gives the answers to the standard modernist line about Christ being really just a half-remembered prophet whose reputation rested on later fantasies jotted down by writers. An important book, bringing together much scholarship. I’m going to get my own copy.
Scott Hahn’s Letter and Spirit (Darton Longman and Todd 2006), opened because I wanted a quote for something I was writing, was a joy rediscovered. A reminder of the essential journey in the Mass which is that of the road to Emmaus, as the Scriptures are opened up to us and then we recognize the Lord in the breaking of bread. Hahn is so readable that large and central concepts find their place in the centrality of things with a sense of logic: a good read.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
I don’t usually refer to Ignatius Press books I’ve read in the last year. The exception below is Dawson’s book.
I re-read The Dividing of Christendom by Christopher Dawson to prepare for 2017, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s launching the Protestant Reformation. Dawson certainly isn’t the last word on the subject but he is a sympathetic Catholic historian with a keen eye for the metahistorical and the cultural contribution to understanding ourselves. And he nails it when it comes to the dividing of Christendom’s role in creating the modern secular world. Also, I read The Unintended Reformation by Brad Gregory. This is must-reading for folks who want to think well about the Reformation era and its implications.
After Aquinas by Fergus Kerr and Aquinas’s Theory of Natural Law by Anthony J. Lissk helped me get caught up on some Aquinas stuff, even though the books are older contemporary treatments. I’d read much of After Aquinas before but this time I read the whole thing. And while we’re on St. Thomas, Eleonore Stump’s Aquinas Lecture for 2016, The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, was a treat. She finds St. Thomas as the one who understands best the relationship of the God of classical philosophical theism to the God in the biblical tradition. They are, when all is said and done, the same God.
A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies by Edward Oakes, SJ covers nature and grace, sin and justification, evolution and original sin, free will and predestination, experience and divinization, and Mary, Mediatrix of Graces. Light reading, in other words. Here is a work of dynamic, creative orthodoxy. Father Oakes passed away several years ago—prematurely, in my view, but God knows best.
Regarding fiction, I read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for our book club. Tim Powers’ Last Call was a safe bet when it came to gambling time in order to win a good read. You’ll find out what really happened to Bugsy Siegel. I also read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I read chapters of it before but this is the first time I conquered the whole book. Of course Bradbury is a master of capturing the mysteries of youth and the wonders of Green Town, Illinois. What a time, what a place. Go Set a Watchman was, for me, a great read. I went into it expecting a Revisionist Attack on Atticus Finch. I came away with a greater appreciation of To Kill a Mockingbird and of Harper Lee’s original vision for her story. Of course one might wonder whether without Mockingbird, Watchman would read as significantly as it does. Ok. Fine enough. Likely, no. But the two together give a fuller picture of a complex world and complex people.
The Problem of Evolution edited by John N. Deeley and Raymond J. Nogar was a challenging book—a bit dated but well worth the effort. Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion by Francisco J. Ayala was an interesting popular treatment of the subject. I don’t agree with Ayala on certain points and sometimes the analysis is superficial, but the reader who wants to get a sense of what faith-aware scientists are saying about the subject will find it worth their time. Particles of Faith by Stacy Trasancos is a thoughtful, somewhat autobiographical exploration of science and faith. The author is a chemist and a Catholic. A chemical Catholic? Explosive. In any case, the book is anything but formulaic. It’s a good place to start for those seriously interested in the conversation between science and faith. It is not, I warn you, a creationist screed, so if you’re looking for one of those, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Proofs of God by Matthew Levering represents my annual Levering read. He can write them faster than I can read them. This book looks at 21 or so arguers and their arguments for God’s existence, running from Tertullian through Karl Barth. I’ll likely write a review essay about this book, so I’ll save substantive comments for the review.
The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre is a popular work of apologetics that draws on Dr. Pitre’s strength as a New Testament scholar. It’s a great rebuttal to books that claim we can’t really know much about Jesus or if we can, what we know drastically differs from what the New Testament and the Church tell us about him.
Hard Sayings by Trent Horn is an excellent updating of a time-honored genre in apologetics writing: the book on “Bible difficulties.” Not everybody will be convinced by every explanation offered. But I think a fair reader will have to admit that Horn makes at least a reasonable case in each instance. Similarly, Jimmy Akin’s A Daily Defense is a treasure trove of apologetical insight—365 entries for a year’s worth of apologetics essays by probably the best apologist writing in English today. And that’s saying a lot, since there are more outstanding Catholic apologists today than any time in the last half century.
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.
Somehow this year the Christmas season feels particularly warm and festive—as I write this entry about the books I’ve read in 2016 I am listening to the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas album while my two cats, Mycroft and Hastings, sleep beside me. Somehow good reading makes for a good year, and perhaps because I was in the mood to expand my reading parameters I chose to open books that have been on my shelves for decades without my attention. Fortuitously I selected books that surprised me for their exceptional merit, both as informative and nourishing, and as examples of well-crafted prose. Bertrand Russell wrote that, “There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” So, here follows a bit of end-of-the-year boasting:
1. After a concentrated discussion about the spiritual life with a dear friend, he recommended reading Sr. Mary Margaret Funk’s transformative book, Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life. This book is a gem—no, it is an entire treasure chest of insight and wisdom regarding the Christian life. Sr. Funk suggests a schedule of lectio divina with sacred writings, and her book has lived at my bedside as the very sacred reading she recommends. If you haven’t read this work, order it today.
2. Since I am preparing for a summer trip to Oxford and London I decided to read Michael Davies’ book Lead Kindly Light: The Life of John Henry Newman. This wonderfully sympathetic account of Newman’s life is strengthened by Davies’ willingness to include long quotes (often several pages) from Newman’s prodigious writings. Useful were the passages taken from Newman that clarify his ideas about the “evolution of doctrine,” which exonerate Newman from uninformed attacks against his enduring orthodoxy. Few men understood as well as Newman the distinction between the Catholic Church, “the one true fold of Christ,” and other denominations that have unfortunately divided from the Barque of Peter. In uncertain times, perhaps like our own, Newman wrote: “Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see. The distant scene—one step enough for me.”
3. And speaking of the wisdom of Asia, I also read the summoning spiritual autobiography of the Chinese Catholic intellectual John H. Wu, Beyond East and West. Written during an era of cataclysmic transformation in his native China, Wu’s moving account functions as a testament to the beauty and originality of Christ’s gospel when it is authentically absorbed into another culture. As John Wu puts it, “It is not fair to Christianity to call it ‘Western.’ Christianity is universal. In fact, the West has something to learn from the East, for on the whole, the East has gone farther in its natural contemplation than the West has in its supernatural contemplation.”
4. Among the readings assigned during my summer studies at Ss. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary was St. John Chrysostom’s essays collected in On Marriage and Family Life. This should be required reading in all Catholic seminaries and marriage preparation courses. Chrysostom considers consecrated, or celibate, and married lives to be equally sanctified in light of the fact that Christ’s divine relationship with his Church is one of “husband and bride.” Marriage is, according to Chrysostom, God’s created symbol of his relationship with the Church and of the unity seen in the Holy Trinity.
5 and 6. My wife and I have a delightful habit of reading to one another almost every day, and midway through the summer we quite arbitrarily removed from our shelves a handsome Folio edition of Barbara Pym’s masterful novel, Excellent Women, simply on the basis of its attractive illustrations. We had never before read Barbara Pym’s picturesque narratives of life in old London, focusing as she does on the life of a pious Christian woman attached to high Mass at the nearby Anglican church. Few books transport one as effectively as Pym’s novels to a sophisticated and profoundly human culture as the one depicted in her version of mid-century London, with its jumble sales and elegant tea parties with vicars and downstairs neighbors, all who seek to reconcile the often-disparate realities of day-to-day living and the spiritual demands of being a good Christian. After finishing Excellent Women, we ordered and quickly read Pym’s A Glass of Blessings. We are now committed to working through her other novels, and perhaps we will see London through another lens—the imagination and vision of Barbara Pym.
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911.
A couple years ago a Marxist theorist proposed that the fact that some parents read to their children while many do not provides yet another form of inequality to be crushed. Given that the only part of my identity that fits with “1 percent” is the number of my children, I have decided I can still read to them in good conscience. And with plenty of enjoyment.
Reading with the older kids, favorites were Sr. M. Imelda Wallace’s Outlaws of Ravenhurst, about the adventures of an American boy who is taken to Scotland where he discovers his Catholic and aristocratic roots—and how hard it fares for Catholics in post-Reformation Scotland. We also re-read a number of books, including Mortimus Clay’s The Purloined Boy, first of a series about a boy taken from his home by Bogeys who are taking over a magical land (we hope the second volume will appear soon); the last three volumes of the Harry Potter series; the first two volumes of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy; and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series. It’s intriguing to see the traditional and Christian underpinnings of Clay’s, J.K. Rowling’s, and Lewis’ series next to the rather gnostic use of Welsh myths by Cooper, despite the books’ cracking good stories. (We talked a good bit about these things.)
For myself, finishing C. S. Lewis’ Collected Letters, vols. 2 and 3, was a distinct delight, as was reading straight through Humphrey Carpenter’s classic history, The Inklings. I was reminded of Lewis’ memoir A Grief Observed when reading Victor Lee Austin’s remarkably moving Losing Susan, an account of his marriage in which the last 18 years were spent taking care of his wife, who had suffered a brain tumor. And I was in Lewis’ wheelhouse reading Emma, Jane Austen’s remarkable tale (and which Austens aren’t?) of oh-so-smart youth that proves (as one movie adaptation had it) clueless in regard to others.
Given that they are Emma’s age, there is a delight to be had in reading great books with my classes at the University of St. Thomas, particularly in my “Search for Happiness in the Catholic Tradition” course. I delighted in Robert Fitzgerald’s classic verse translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and I was grateful to crib insights from Eva Brann’s delightful Homeric Moments about the heroic and yet self-destructive main character. Chesterton’s Manalive summed up for many of my students the philosophy of gratitude and wonder necessary for ordinary happiness, and Aleksandr Solzhenityn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich gave them a gut-check about the pursuit of happiness in extreme situations. Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, about a band of octogenarians still learning to face themselves, served a similar purpose. One of my students remarked that it made him think about his assumption that virtue, wisdom, and faith “just naturally” grow as one olds; rather, as Spark’s character Jean Taylor remarks, it’s really still a battlefield all through life.
Several other books that moved me this year included Mitchell Hadley’s new The Collaborator, a thriller about a Francis-like pope, and Roger Kahn’s famous story of the Dodgers of the 40s and 50s, The Boys of Summer. Finally, a book that I am currently engaged in as spiritual reading is Jean Corbon’s The Wellspring of Worship, which takes a step back in its look at liturgy to dwell on the heart of the work of God in making a new humanity—filled with the Spirit and in the image of Christ.
David Paul Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).
Both Manuel Cruz’s new book On the Difficulty of Living Together: Memory, Politics, and History and David Rieff’s similarly short but provocative In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies remain deeply challenging books for grappling with our messy pasts.
I discovered the University of Virginia scholar Vamik Volkan this year, including his book Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. He has done pioneering work on the ideas of “chosen trauma” and “chosen glory,” which both go a long way to helping understand parts of Eastern Christian history as well as ISIS’ ritual invocations of the “Crusades” in their propaganda.
This summer I devoured Eugene Rogan’s 2015 book The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, which has rightly won a bunch of awards already—utterly fascinating.
The singular life of the late priest Richard John Neuhaus is extremely well told in Randy Boyagoda’s Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. I was lecturing at Baylor in early 2015 as the book came out, and I asked Robert Louis Wilken—who was Neuhaus’ closest life-long friend—what he thought of it, and he said it was a superb biography.
I was going to a conference in Vienna in May, and decided to read at least one biography about one of the many extraordinary men who lived in that great imperial Habsburg capital. Peter Gay’s Mozart: A Life is a lovely, almost lyrical read, quite accessible for one such as I, without much musical skill or understanding of musicology.
Is it too farouche of me to mention here a book in which I am myself a contributor? I do so not because of my own essay, but because of the many other riches in the two-volume collection edited by John Chryssavgis, Primacy in the Church: The Office of Primate and the Authority of Councils. This is a must-have set for those with interests in ecclesiology and ecumenism.
Fond as I am of the patristic practice of “despoiling the Egyptians,” I do this with sources and thinkers who are not Christian or even thought to be anti-Christian. So I have been plundering a great deal of psychoanalytic thought this year, the diversity of which is captured in Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis by George Makari, whom I also read before going to Vienna.
But far and away the best two books I read in this category this year were Fred Busch’s Creating a Psychoanalytic Mind: A Psychoanalytic Method and Theory, which, on my blog, I suggested might be a very useful book for spiritual directors and confessors assisting people to put on the mind of Christ.
Finally, the most rewarding book of the year for me is by the English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, whose Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life remains deeply compelling and contains a great deal of wisdom. Adams begins with the premise that “there is nothing more opaque about ourselves than our frustrations,” which can become “intractable because their satisfaction is too exactly imagined.” As a result “there can only be unrealistic wanting.” What is the answer to this?
Here Phillips makes what I might call his “apophatic” turn, advocating letting go of the desire, one might say, to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “Omniscience…is the enemy, the saboteur, of satisfaction” (134). We need to ask ourselves the unusual question: “In which area of our lives does not knowing, not getting it, give us more life?” (80).
Perhaps the most theologically apposite part of the book lies in Phillips advocating a return to Freud so that we might once again “wonder what relationships would be like if we dropped the idea that they had anything to do with indebtedness or obligation” rather than, as Christians might say, a pure gift of perfect love newly born to us in the Christ child.
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Can anything good come from the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence (the Torturers Guild)? Gene Wolfe’s three-volume The Book of the New Sun poses this question when the apprentice torturer Severian is banished for showing mercy to a prisoner who’s been sentenced to an excruciating death. In bizarre and startling ways, Wolfe explores the demarcation between individual and community, the expansive effect of mercy, and time as a meandering, backtracking stream rather than a straight steady-flowing canal. Not a read for those in a hurry, or those who like every loose end tied up.
Several Graham Greene novels in 2016, including his raw and troubling The Quiet American, where an atheistic journalist who caused the death of another man (Pyle) says, “I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental…Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.” The journalist is a man with a sense of honor, but without Truth, honor falls prey to desires and fears. Where does one go to confess and receive forgiveness when there is no God?
Occasionally, I read 50 pages of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, a book I first read decades ago, and I’m always shaken by the pathological lying, killing, and self-delusion. This ugly history identifies what people are capable of, and not just Germans of a certain era. On the back page of the book I wrote: This is what a world without the true God looks like.
Thomas M. Doran is the author of Toward the Gleam, Terrapin, and Iota.
While it feels like I read a lot of books this past year, most were for research. Among the many, I did find these gems:
Warriors vs. Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Joyce Benenson with Henry Markovits
A priest-friend recommended this book earlier this year and I’ve been mulling it over ever since (I now own it in hardcopy and the audio version). At its heart, the book describes men as warriors and women as worriers. Tossing aside any politically correctness pretense, Joyce Benenson speaks directly about the difference between men and women based on her extensive international research across generations.
The book is broken into two sections. The first part discusses men and how the best way to understand them—whether on a sports field or in the boardroom—is as warriors. Competition among them is open, but the attributes of each are appreciated when there is a shared goal or enemy.
Women, on the other hand, are worriers. From the earliest of ages, females show great signs of concern about life in general and have a running interior dialogue to help deal with real or perceived dangers. Instead of a hierarchy like men, women operate from a very egalitarian mindset, which produces a lot of hidden competition with other women (along with limited resources). In fact, Benenson explains, this competition is so hidden most women don’t know they do it. Benenson offers three strategies explaining the ways women can dismiss or remove the threat of other women to which any woman will be able to relate.
This is an incredible resource, especially for those interested in understanding the opposite sex. It has perhaps the unintended effect of reminding us that the vocations of men and women are different, which is why our behavior, thought patterns, and relationships are different as well.
The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School and College (Angelico Press, 2015), by David Clayton
This is one of those books that fills a deep hole in the Catholic mind about the via pulchritudinis, or the way of beauty. Many speak of the way of beauty and how the beautiful can lead us to God, but often the details are hazy. David Clayton provides concrete examples and explanations about what beauty is and its effectiveness for reorienting our minds to God. Rather than viewing beauty as a luxury or superfluous, Clayton paints it into the essentials of culture, education, evangelization, and knowledge of God.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (Candlewick, 20 Year Anniversary Edition, 2015), by Susan Wojciechowski, P.J. Lynch, illustrator
As a homeschooling mother, our curriculum includes one read-aloud book each week. While a book intended for 6- to 9-year-olds, this is a story I look forward to reading again and again for every Christmas to come. It should, however, come with a tissue-warning at the front—I found myself holding back tears through most of it. At the end, my two-year-old kept pointing to my “wet eyes.” It is truly a treasure for young and old alike.
Carrie Gress is a mother of four and the author of several books.
In no particular order, the best books I read in 2016 were:
The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups by Leonard Sax, MD. This isn’t so much a parenting book as an analysis of the environment many American children are raised in today, from the perspective of a family doctor and psychologist. Sax argues convincingly that the abdication of authority by parents has resulted in children increasingly looking to their peers and peer-dominated subcultures as sources of direction and meaning, a process that is enabled and enhanced as never before by technology and social media. Sax’s suggested remedies for this situation include prioritizing parent-child relationships and strong family cultures, as well as a renewed emphasis on a distinctly un-trendy virtue: humility.
Lady Susan by Jane Austen. I read the posthumously published novella by my favorite authoress ahead of the release of Whit Stillman’s film adaptation, Love and Friendship. I also reread several other Austen classics over the summer, and it was interesting to compare her more mature works with the earlier, rather rough-around-the-edges Lady Susan (Austen completed the work but never submitted it for publication). But the biting wit and incisive social commentary we know and love in Pride and Prejudice or Emma are there in the early novella, waiting to come into full flower in her later works.
Love and Friendship is completely charming and highly entertaining, by the way—though I think several of Stillman’s changes to major characters and one big plot twist end up diminishing Lady Susan Vernon as a character, despite a fantastic performance by Kate Beckinsale.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. This was an eye-opening read about the increasing polarization between what Murray describes as the new upper and new lower classes—a polarization that goes beyond income disparity and extends to nearly every aspect of life, from food and entertainment preferences to family structures and religious belief. What are the prospects for a country increasingly divided into subcultures that don’t share—or even really understand—the basic values and perspectives of their countrymen? The Era of Trump will almost certainly give us some answers to that question.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I read this aloud to my kids, never having been able to get into it before as an adult reader. Put Disney’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” out of your mind completely and give yourself over to Grahame’s beautiful prose and memorable characters. I highly recommend Michael Hague’s illustrated edition—even my toddler was engaged in the story thanks to Hague’s gorgeous, detailed pictures.
Some books I reread this year and enjoyed even more than the first time through were The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Silence by Shusaku Endo.
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings. This is Pieper’s reflection on art, which includes a compact version of his argument in Leisure, the Basis of Culture.
Thomas S. Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture and Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption. There’s no Catholic in America more thoughtful about film and its cultural and philosophic wellsprings than Thomas Hibbs. If you want to understand the ways in which film and television are shaped by the world of ideas, pick up these books.
James V. Schall, Docilitas. Father Schall is a legendary teacher. I am also a teacher. So I was looking forward to this book where he talks about the primary virtue needed to learn: docility. I wasn’t disappointed. This is an untimely book, meaning that Schall’s thoughts on learning and teacher are deeply countercultural right now. But that is exactly why they are so needed.
Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City. I go back to Manent’s magnum opus with some regularity. It is so rich that it requires multiple readings even to scratch the surface. This time I was reading to find out what he had to say about the significance and distinctiveness of Rome, which gets neglected too often by academic types, the standard line being that anything outstanding in Rome is properly owed to Greece. Not so! says Manent. And that distinctiveness turns out to have enormous importance for the development of the Catholic Church.
Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience. This includes the essay “Conscience and Truth,” which, to be honest, should be required reading for every Catholic in this day and age. There is no deeper treatment in living memory of conscience than you will find in that essay.
Shusaku Endo, Silence. Endo’s masterpiece stuck with me all year after I read it in the early winter. I haven’t seen the Scorsese film adaptation yet, but I am looking forward to doing so. The story of Silence is about sin and pride, missionaries and martyrdom, and the deep woundedness of the Church as she carries out her mission. It is unsettling, too, because Endo set out deliberately to plumb the depths of the mystery of Judas Iscariot.
Gene Wolfe, The Knight. The greatest sci-fi and fantasy author living today, this is the first in a so-called “duology” that also includes The Wizard. It is a high fantasy with elves, magic swords, dragons, talking animals, etc.—so, familiar territory for fantasy. What isn’t so familiar about the story is that it is really about the Augustinian order of love and what the effects on people are when they worship false gods—in some detail, for Wolfe is able to trace the effects of worshipping various sorts of gods—versus when they worship the true God. One of Wolfe’s most accessible novels.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. If you want to think a bit about how media technology influences our lives, there’s no better book than this one, which seems, if anything, even more relevant now than at its publication date.
Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. There are lots of people asking, “Why Trump?” The simplest answer is probably the argument Murray sketches out here.
Kate Beaton, Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection. Kate Beaton is the funniest, most insightful comic strip artist working right now. Her cartoons usually riff on some quirky aspect of history or classic literature. She packs more expression into her regular three panels of scribbling than most cartoonists can muster in a whole collection. Some cartoon series included in this collection are Brown Recluse Spider-Man, Sexy Tudors, Medieval Peasant Comics, and a comic retelling of the main plot points from Wuthering Heights.
Thomas P. Harmon is professor of theology and culture at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.
Finally read Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Purgatory. I had it on my bookshelf for a year but I was reminded of it in the middle of Anthony’s own version of Purgatory at Providence College this year. So glad to have discovered what so many already knew: Anthony Esolen is a Catholic treasure.
Also read some great fiction this year—I loved Donna Tartt’s engaging novel The Goldfinch and Kristen Hannah’s tender The Nightingale, both of which kept me up late at night reading and thinking about the grace that God gives to us when we least expect it, even when we think we do not “deserve” it.
Reading fiction is a not-too-guilty pleasure of mine that sometimes helps me understand what is happening in our own culture today; I try to bring it into my classroom at Franciscan University. This year I had my sociology students read P.D. James’ Children of Men—and I re-read it for at least the fifth time. In the past my students have told me that P. D. James’ dystopian novel has “changed their lives”—and I believe that to be true. If there was ever a time we needed to re-read this book, it is now, because it is a book that best helps us understand our current predicament. P.D. James tells us in her novel: “The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace…” Sadly, it sounds too familiar—but it is not a hopeless novel. Rather, God is present and sends us a message of hope. The best that one can hope for!
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, edited by Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter
The collection of essays in this book provides an excellent introduction to the work and mind of the agrarian-poet-novelist-critic Wendell Berry. Along with the depth of substance provided, the essays grapple with the most profound issues not only at the heart of Berry’s work, but also still at play in contemporary American culture and life. This is why Berry’s work is so illuminating, for he is seeking to analyze our cultural and social disintegration from an agrarian perspective that is seldom heard. While Berry himself is identified as leaning more to the political left, the editors correctly argue that much of Berry’s wisdom is rather conservative. This point is humorously given attention in the introduction of the book, when Mitchell and Schlueter recall a visit to Berry’s Kentucky farm. Before they depart from his home, Berry informs the two that “liberals publish his works, but conservatives visit him.” This book is a great read showing Berry’s unique perspective, and much-needed cultural wisdom.
Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Ted V. McCallister and Wilfred McClay
Each of the essays found here could, in themselves, be the foundation for a separate book. One of the most stimulating essays in the book is by William Schambra. Writing on the essential role of place in combating poverty, Schambra articulates why much of modern cultural and moral cosmopolitanism is incapable of adequately dealing with poverty. He has a rather humorous account of telling a real-life story about the need for recovering place to combat poverty to a group of Georgetown graduate students. These students are convinced that more “scientific” programs, government, and philanthropy will bring poverty to an end. Conceptually, they seem utterly stunned at what he tells them. They just cannot “see” his worldview. Schambra calls attention to a much-neglected insight in this regard, which is that some of the most dangerous ideologies are carried out in the name of helping the poor. This is precisely why the book should be in the hands of every undergraduate student entering the university.
Does Catholicism Still Exist?, by James V. Schall, SJ
Here is my annual ode to Schall. This is an oldie, but a goodie. One of the central themes of this book, and Schall’s work as a whole, is that Catholicism in modernity has lost its identity. Instead of being primarily concerned with the salvation of souls, the Church often appears, through its members and frequent vague pronouncements, to be more concerned with this world, especially in political terms. In fact, Schall argues that often times the Church does not sound any different from the rest of the world. Neglecting the intellectual nature of the Catholic faith (logos) leads Schall to argue that religion has become one of the greatest vehicles for totalitarian ideologies, a point also drawn upon in Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address. Although published in 1994, this book surely stands the test of time.
The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity, by Allan Carlson
Carlson articulates a clear and robust vision of American social and cultural life that is grounded in the local communities of family, home, church, and community. The opening chapter alone on Theodore Roosevelt’s philosophy of the family is illuminating and brilliant. While Carlson is rightly critical of certain principles inaugurated in modern social and political thought, he nonetheless shows that there is an American conservative tradition that viewed the health and stability of the nation as rooted in the following insight of Theodore Roosevelt: “The primary work of the average man and the average woman—and all exceptional men and women whose lives are to be really full and happy—must be the great primal work of home-making and home-keeping.” Carlson’s book is refreshing, and makes a case for an authentic conservatism and orthodoxy in religion, politics, culture, family, and home…rightly understood.
Brian Jones is currently a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
I read a couple of fairly recent books that I found very helpful:
The Triumph of Christianity, by Rodney Stark, is mostly a summary of his earlier books on various aspects of Christian history. He’s a sociologist by training, and so an unconventional historian, and it’s fascinating to see—for example—how much light a few simple quantitative measures, the power of compound interest, and the sociology of religious conversion can shed on the early growth of Christianity and the nature of the gnostic movements.
The Experience of God, by David Bentley Hart, is a response to objections to religious belief by reputedly intelligent but deeply ignorant writers that takes the form of variations on a single theme: “No, that’s not what the major religious traditions mean by ‘God.’” So it’s a somewhat odd book dealing with a very odd situation. Even so, the situation provides an occasion to say some basic things about God and his relation to the world. For me the most helpful aspect of the book was its emphasis on the absolute gratuity of existence, and thus the impossibility apart from God of making sense of anything there is. I hadn’t felt the force of that point so much before.
And then there were the novels:
Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot. George Eliot wrote very high-end novels about sensitive souls who don’t get the understanding they need from an unfeeling world. Current excesses may turn some people against the topic, but if you can put that aside, at least for a little while, you should definitely read her. A somewhat picky complaint about this one is the way she ended the book and resolved the impossible situation she had put her two main characters into. (The Wikipedia entry gives the spoiler.)
A Sentimental Journey, by Laurence Sterne. I never took to Tristram Shandy, Sterne’s most famous book, but liked this one much better. Goethe praised the author as “the most beautiful spirit that ever lived,” and that aspect of the book can get a bit tiresome, but it’s nonetheless an extremely vivid—almost stream-of-consciousness—account of a trip to the Continent. If you want to know what it was like for someone actually to be there in the mid-18th century, read this book.
The Waverley novels, by Sir Walter Scott. Current events were getting to me, so I decided I needed some escape literature, and these fit the bill. After all, what’s not to like about heroic youths making hairbreadth escapes and overcoming armed foes and impossible disadvantages to marry beautiful, virtuous titled heiresses? Apart from important matters like that, Scott’s a very talented novelist who tempers romanticism and a vivid historical imagination with humanity, realism, and good sense. I didn’t read the whole series, of course, just four of them. The last one I read, Old Mortality, was set during a time of political and religious insanity, so it cushioned my return to the present.
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
God or Nothing by Cardinal Sarah and Nicholas Diat. Cardinal Sarah’s own journey along with his insight and wisdom into the current state of the world and the Church gave my faith a much-needed shake. I was reminded the importance of self-sacrifice, humility, and fortitude. Easily the best book I’ve read this year.
The Apostasy That Wasn’t by Rod Bennett. Bennett takes today’s reader back to the fourth century with a fiction-like writing style that twists and turns. At a time when it is easy to think that being Catholic is hard, this book reminded me that there is nothing new under the sun; it has always been hard to faithful.
The God Who Hates by Wafa Sultan. As a doctor who grew up witnessing the inner workings and injustices a Muslim society dishes out for its members, Sultan gives a singular insight into how damaging Islam is to the individual and to the community. It is a depressing account with a depressing end, as the author does not find the One who makes all things new, but the book remains a sober reminder of the cruelty of Islam and the importance of evangelization.
Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War by Sebastian Gorka. In less than 200 pages, Gorka summarizes how jihadist ideology evolved through the centuries, especially in the 20th century. Even though I find the solution of Muslim Reformation optimistic, this book is a must-read for those who wish to understand how jihad progressed to become the foremost threat to the West.
Fasting by Dog Tessore. A concise book about the spiritual practice that almost disappeared from our modern lives. Tessore offers a historical account of fasting through the ages, making this reader contemplate on her life of instant gratification and how fasting is still relevant and crucial to spiritual lives.
Derya M. Little has a Ph.D. in politics from Durham University, England and an MA in history from Bilkent University, Turkey, and now lives in Pennsylvania.
In 2016 I reconnected with the kinds of virtuoso performances that inspired me to go into the communication field in the first place. Tom Wolfe’s careening ride through The Kingdom of Speech gave off sparks, and Vito Aiuto’s poetics in Self Portrait as Jerry Quarry packed unpretentious wallop. Paul Buckley’s Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover mesmerized me with its parade of the visual bravado marshalled by Penguin Paperbacks’ design czars. And Darryl Hart’s Damning Words on H.L. Mencken andThomas Kidd’s George Whitefield reminded me how compulsively readable the results can be when the right life is centered in the sights of the right biographer. Bull’s eyes both.
Three titles also reminded me how frequently vintage works quickly fade to black. Priest and linguist Giuseppe Ricciotti lay on his deathbed in a WWI field hospital, according to my frayed edition’s jacket copy, when he promised if spared to write The Life of Christ. And what a Life he wrote. Back to the jacket, it has a “dignity and a grandeur that leaves one breathless.” Hard to add anything to praise like that. Of roughly the same era, C.C. Martindale’s African Angelus is a travelogue that surveys earthier landscape while proving its author a master of not just the easy description but also the mote just. Much closer to our own time stop is Carl F.H. Henry’s post-Watergate era systematic theology God, Revelation, & Authority. A few of the parenthetical references in his five-volume opus may conjure memories of 123 Jell-O or Pontiac station wagons, but overall Henry’s plucky evangelical epistemology stands up surprisingly well.
Elsewhere, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is a heady dystopian tale of Parisian professors, Islamic instigators, sex, and dead Catholics—one casting word pictures that stuck with me long after I’d finished it. Lucy Beckett’s novel The Time Before You Die differs in tone and style, but its story of the English Reformation had similar effect.
2016 was also the year I finally got properly introduced to St. Augustine. Peter Kreeft instigated things with I Burned for Your Peace, a selective commentary on Frank Sheed’s translation of the Confessions. Search out the edition of the classic that I did—with Michael Foley’s difference-making introduction—and you’ll be properly disposed to appreciate Justo L. González’ Mestizo Augustine, a theological remix that almost made me a believer in multiculturalism again.
Other noteworthy stuff: futurista Douglas Coupland’s reliably kinetic Bit Rot, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, where a surfer squelches the standard beach-dude stereotypes. Boundary-busting in other ways is Coffee with Jesus, in which David Wilkie’s four-frame comics effortlessly communicate the same content Pope Francis’ homilies try to, minus the burden of language barriers. Good Book awards also go to Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog, Julie Lyon’s Holy Roller, Ahmir Thompson’s Mo’ Meta Blues, and Arnold Lunn’s Unkilled For So Long.
Among online speakeasies I visited were Amy Welborn’s “Charlotte Was Both,” Michael Brendan Dougherty’s corner booth over at The Week, and the scorched-earth territory at Maureen Mullarkey’s “Studio Matters.” Jumping platforms, musicians who moved me included the barefoot Joy Ike (“Walk”), a messianic Bob Dylan (Shot of Love), and the yet-omnipresent Taylor Swift (Little Big Town’s “Better Man”). And I’ll risk nullifying all credibility by here also confessing to the embarrassment of indulging my inner rapper and streaming the antics of the absurdly on fleek posse on FOX-TV’s Empire.
So I guess it goes without saying that when I re-read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and Steve Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, I was simultaneously both convicted and entirely confused. Which means I’ll probably start tweeting about it all come 2017.
Joseph Martin, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Communication at Montreat College near Asheville, North Carolina.
Alongside Bertrand Russell, British philosopher Anthony Flew was arguably the most influential atheist intellectual in the English-speaking world in the 20th century. Flew’s premise was that we should assume God’s non-existence unless proof of His existence emerges. At the end of his life, Flew found evidence—the unthinkable improbability of life arising spontaneously—pointing toward a divine First Cause. Of course, this spectacular change of mind caused Richard Dawkins et consortes to level ad hominem attacks at Flew, then in his 80s, claiming that he was suffering from dementia or that he sought consolation amidst fear of death (the latter accusation was off the mark, as Flew never accepted belief in the afterlife). Although I generally find Anglo-American philosophy, of which Anthony Flew was a luminary, to be dry, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind—his description of his intellectual journey—was impossible to put down.
In 2016, I finally got around to reading Graham Greene’s classic The Power and the Glory. Having read about Greene’s flirtations with Marxism and progressivism, I was pleasantly surprised to find his most famous novel to be inspiringly Catholic. This account of a nameless fallen “whiskey priest”—who doesn’t take his vow of celibacy very seriously and who willingly embraces martyrdom, painfully aware of his unworthiness—amidst the anti-clerical persecutions of Nero-like proportions in 1920s Mexico does a fine job of showing how even sinners can be instruments of God, and that it is never too late for remorse.
The British diplomat and writer Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon, considered the Battle of Warsaw (1920) to be the 18th most decisive battle in history, although it is surprisingly little-known outside Eastern Europe. Shortly after Poland had regained her independence, the Bolsheviks wanted to conquer the country, which they would use as a springboard for invading Germany, the homeland of Karl Marx, where they would inspire a proletarian revolution that would bring communist tyranny to all of Western Europe. Few believed in a Polish victory, yet that was exactly what had happened in Warsaw in August 1920. Polish-British historian Adam Zamoyski wrote an informative, concise account of the battle’s geopolitical significance, Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe. Another fine work on this battle is Jarosław Szarek’s 1920. Prawdziwy Cud nad Wisłą (1920: The Real Miracle on the Vistula; unfortunately, it is unavailable in English) detailing how, when all seemed lost, the Polish people vigorously prayed asking Our Lady of Czestochowa for victory, holding processions and Masses across the country. Coincidentally, the tide began to turn on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, and the Bolsheviks began to retreat a couple days later.
Perhaps the most entertaining book I read this year was Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s classic travel memoir Seven Years in Tibet, a most exciting adventure story. Escaping from the British POW camp where he was detained after Britain had declared war on Germany, Harrer and his comrades hiked more than 1,000 miles across the Himalayas, bearing hunger, exhaustion, and extreme cold (their thermometers consistently read -20 degrees Celsius, the lowest temperature marked on the thermometers). When they finally escaped British India for Tibet, they were initially unwelcome, although Harrer became a tutor of the young Dalai Lama. Harrer shows a fascinating ethnographic portrait of the highly religious, superstitious Tibetan society on the eve of Chinese invasion, one completely impervious to Western culture, where construction workers were inefficient because they take care to not harm earthworms with their shovels and where the concept of swimming for sport was unknown.
Filip Mazurczak is the assistant editor of the European Conservative, and his work has appeared in numerous publications.
My New Year’s resolution for 2016 was to read—and finish—52 books I had never read before. At present I am 10 books short of this goal. Of my 42, a few stand out.
The first is Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus, 1834), Poland’s national epic, by Adam Mickiewicz, translated into English prose (1917) by George Rapall Noyes. Robbed of the poetry, I nevertheless enjoyed the rollicking plot, which features mistaken identities, flirtations, hunting rivalries, family feuds, mushroom-picking, a mysterious priest, and skirmishes with the Russians. For context, I read the biographical Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic by Roman Koropeckyj (2009). This riveting, true-life tale of 19th-century celebrity culture is required reading for anyone interested in Polish history or literature.
Like so many Polish heroes of the 19th century, Mickiewicz settled in France, the subject of Michel Houllebecq’s novel Soumission (Submission, 2015, translated by Lorin Stein). Soumission imagines a Muslim takeover of France in 2022. The protagonist, a professor at the Sorbonne, is pensioned off when all non-Islamic lecturers are dismissed. His girlfriend has already joined the exodus of French Jews to Israel. François’ attempt to find meaning in a Catholic monastery is foiled by the no-smoking sign in his room. Houllebecq is scathing about the left-wing French intelligentsia while surprisingly sympathetic to traditional Catholicism and insightful regarding the nature of vice. Unfortunately, François’ principal vice makes the book unsuitable reading for the young.
Another stand-out novel was Julian Barnes’ amazing The Noise of Time (2016). This is a fictional biography of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) that powerfully describes the uncertainty and fear that blighted the lives of Russian artists who caught the attention of Comrade Stalin. Of the four books mentioned here, this is the one I most enthusiastically endorse.
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad.
2016 brought a great new gift, the opening of a new Catholic Studies Center here at St. Louis University, in honor of the great Edmund Campion, who stands as a witness to intellectual rigor and counter-cultural courage. This welcomed work meant I couldn’t read too much this year, but some of the more memorable works these past months are:
The Woman Who Was Poor by Leon Bloy (1897). Bloy was one of the great Catholic visionaries of the modern world, and this novel still stands as one of the great “rags to riches” stories, in the best possible way. Written more than 100 years ago, this story of Clotilda ends with Bloy’s oft-quoted adage, “There is only one misery…not to be saints.”
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014). This was prominently displayed at the Daughters of St. Paul Bookstore, and their recommendations never disappoint—a beautiful story about the convergence of lives of a blind French girl and a young German boy during World War II.
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2016). Mary is a Cambridge classicist whose moxie and light-hearted irreverence has reignited many people’s interest in the ancient world of Rome and Athens; this latest work is a tour de force history of the Roman Empire.
I Canti dell’Isola by Ada Negri (2016). Unfortunately these Italian poems on simple beauty, human and divine love, and the pains of living with a tender heart, have not yet been translated, but as one sits looking at the Mediterranean world through Negri’s eyes, you wonder if they should be.
Lord, Who Are You?: The Names of Christ by Jorge Cardinal Medina Esteves (2004) is a very easy sketching of all the names in Scripture used for the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Christ—our newborn Jesus!
Paradoxes of Catholicism by Robert Hugh Benson (1913) is one of those books which has been too long on my shelf untouched—saints and sinners, peace and war, feast and fasting, and many other supposed contraries can find a home only in a Church that is a visible extension of her fully human and fully divine Founder, a God-made-man.
Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield (1957) was recommended to me by a graduate student who was recently floored by the “first and last” Inkling, yet not as widely known as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Barfield is convinced that human consciousness develops as we learn to see what various idols dupe and oppress us and where the true God is leading us.
With God in America: The Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit by (my good friend) John DeJak (2016), who has for many years now drawn inspiration from Walter Ciszek, SJ, and has finally edited many of Father Ciszek’s post-exile and imprisonment writings.
A Christmas Oratorio by W.H. Auden is one of those epic poems one should read every Advent, never failing to bring something more to light as the True Light finally becomes visible.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ is assistant professor of theology at St. Louis University and editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Let’s start my list of best books read in 2016 with titles on current religious issues:
Benedict XVI with Peter Sewald, Last Testament. These final reflections by our pope emeritus illustrate why we miss him.
Robert Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing. Dynamic testimony to the Faith from a wise African prelate.
Father David Meconi and Carl E. Olson, Called to be Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification. A fine collection of scholarly essays on an exciting but little-known doctrine.
Russell Shaw, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America. An elegy by an astute observer.
William Kilpatrick, Christianity, Islam, and Atheism. Clear, unsentimental analysis of two fronts in today’s clash of cultures.
Sally Read, Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story. A poet’s remarkable path to God related in limpid prose.
I’ve been reading up on the European Reformations to prepare for next year’s 500th anniversary:
Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor. An even-handed appraisal of Mary and Cardinal Pole’s tragic rearguard policies.
Eamon Duffy, Saints, Sacrilege, & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations. Essays by the leading Catholic historian of this era.
Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Argues that the seeds of change planted then bear unwholesome fruit today.
Amy Leonard, Nails in the Wall: Catholic Nuns in Reformation Germany. How some religious women bravely clung to their vocations.
Andrew Pettigree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion. Describes multi-media vectors of Protestant evangelization.
And finally, my favorite films of 2016 in alphabetical order:
Hell or High Water
Love and Friendship
Queen of Katwe
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and the author of hundreds of articles and several books.
These 10 favorites were all books published in 2016:
Gil Bailie, God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love
Ron Dart, C.S. Lewis & Bede Griffiths: Chief Companions
Dawn Eden, Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories
Michael Hardin (ed.), Reading the Bible with René Girard
Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel
Ulrich Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement
Fran O’Rourke, Aristotelian Interpretations
Father Richard Rohr, OFM, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation
Whit Stillman, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated
Kevin Vost, The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin at the Seminary of Christ the King in Mission, British Columbia and lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University.
I spend many hours a week huddled up in a blanket at the side of our local ice rink whilst my children train and there are no more vital tools against cold or boredom than a flask of coffee and a good book. My best books of the year, in no particular order, are:
General Escobar’s War. Jose Luis Olaizola’s novel set during the Spanish Civil War is a must-read for anyone with a keen interest in 20th century European history. Olaizola somehow manages to evoke the heartbreaking details of that conflict without judging either side. What we see is a man of honor, a devout Catholic, and a seasoned soldier, struggling with his own inner conflicts and his country, his city, and his own family are torn apart.
Hide and Seek: The Irish Priest in the Vatican who Defied the Nazi Command.I love the classic film The Scarlet and the Black, and Stephen Walker’s book is not simply a retelling of the story behind that film. He looks closely at the lives of Father Hugh O’Flaherty and his nemesis, the hated SS Herbert Kappler, analyzing the unlikely friendship that developed between the two men after the war and Kappler’s conversion to Catholicism while in prison for war crimes. Kappler’s role in the bloodiest atrocity by the Nazis on Italian soil—the Ardeatine Caves massacre—is ignored in the film but given the attention it deserves in this book. Though not without its faults, the book is a fitting testament to the courageous men and women who resisted the Nazis in Rome and adds new insights into a well-worn story.
Someday. Corrina Turner’s YA novel is not the sort of book that would normally be at the top of my reading list, but her harrowing reworking of the real life kidnapping of Nigerian girls from their boarding school makes for a thought-provoking if painful read. In Turner’s book, the Nigerian girls are British girls taken from a quiet, rural boarding school, forcing the reader to consider how it might feel to lose a daughter or a sister to such a terrible fate. Proceeds from the book are all going to Aid to the Church in Need.
The Father Brown stories.Chesterton’s famous sleuth needs no comment from me other than that these are stories that can be read and reread without losing their ability to entertain. I can’t remember when I first read the stories, but Father Brown is a permanent resident of my Kindle, waiting patiently for me to visit when I am particularly frozen, fed up and my thermos flask is empty.
Fiorella Nash is a researcher and writer for the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
Much of my reading in late 2015 and early 2016 revolved around research for my book Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 2016), which meant revisiting a number of books already read and diving into several new ones. Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Eerdmans, 1993) by Stephen T. Davis proved to be quite invaluable, filled with a wealth of philosophical insights and theological observations. Davis’ new book Rational Faith: A Philosopher’s Defense of Christianity (IVP, 2016) is a more popular book of apologetics that rests on solid philosophical foundations. Martin Hengel’s Between Jesus and Paul (Fortress Press, 1983) is full of dense but illuminating observations about the first few decades of Christianity, and Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), which Hengel wrote with Anna Maria Schwemer, delves into a topic not often discussed: what was the Apostle Paul doing between his conversion and the start of his missionary journeys? Both books show in various ways how untenable it is to claim that Paul “created” Christianity, something argued in a brisk but hefty manner in N.T. Wright’s valuable What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1997).
Wright’s The Resurrection and the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003) remains an essential text when it comes to the topic of the Resurrection, and Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP, 2010) is its equal in sober scholarship and thoroughgoing (700+ pages) detail. In a similar way, Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper (Eerdmans, 2015) is a work of robust and engaging New Testament scholarship, shedding light on several questions relating to the Last Supper accounts. And Pitre’s popular work of apologetics, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016), brings learned, orthodox Scripture scholarship to a wider audience. Finally, regarding Christology, Gil Bailie’s new book God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love (Angelico, 2016) is, as I wrote in a blurb, “a Girardian tour de force plumbing the depths of the current postmodern malaise and presenting a rich Christology and a robust anthropology.” Not easy sledding, but rewarding.
Speaking of scholars who know how to reach a popular audience, one of my favorite reads of 2016 was Fulton Sheen’s 1931 Old Errors and New Labels (Alba, 2007), which is brilliant and often timeless—save for a chapter on the glories of Catholic higher education, which is a rude reminder of how much things changed in The Sixties and how fragile institutions can be. Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton, 2016) by Rodney Stark is one of the best work of Catholic apologetics from the past year, but was written by a Protestant. And a former atheist, John Lawrence Hill, has written one of the most penetrating explanations of why we are where we are today in After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Values (Ignatius, 2016). Hill’s focus on nominalism, a topic that has long interested me, inspired me to re-read many sections of Michael Gillespie’s formidable study The Theological Origins of Modernity (University of Chicago, 2008), which is an essential work on the nominalist revolution. And while nominalism never makes an appearance in Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton, 2016), there is a definite philosophical undercurrent to this deftly written account of one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented eras in American history.
Many works of political polemics are shallow and pretentious, but Brion McClanahan’s 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America: And Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery, 2016) is well-researched and quite educational, even though I didn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions. And every American with any interest in politics should read The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (Encounter, 2016), by Ryszard Legutko, a Polish professor, philosopher, and politician, whose observations on political systems, ideology, and religion are consistently compelling. Equally chilling and provocative is The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (Picador, 2015), which demonstrates that eschatology and theology are key to understanding radical Islam’s goals and methods.
I re-read Saint John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, on moral theology, and marveled at how the great Polish pontiff not only addressed essential moral issues of a quarter century ago but also those causing so many problems in the Church today. I found poet Sally Read’s conversion account, titled Night’s Bright Light (Ignatius Press, 2016), to be equally challenging and edifying, perhaps the most beautiful book I read all year. Also challenging, but in a different vein, is The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood, 2015), by James Matthew Wilson, which I continue to work through, astounded at every page by Wilson’s erudition. Speaking of poetry, Dana Gioia’s new collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected (Graywolf, 2016), is a must-have for anyone who loves poetry. And, finally, Dana’s brother Ted has penned a wonderful book, perhaps the best of its kind, for those who are trying to understand and appreciate jazz: How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books, 2016).
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.
The annual number of books I’ve read took a hit in 2016 because I spent half the year writing one. Of the titles that I did pick up, I’m happy to pass along three, plus a journal volume.
I’m reading the first two books at the moment. They’re both by Anthony Esolen, the brilliant professor of English at Providence College, where I received my master’s degree in theology.
The first is Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (Saint Benedict Press, 2014) and the other is Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching: A Defense of the Church’s True Teachings on Marriage, Family, and the State (Sophia Institute Press, 2014).
Both are must-reads in this age of “whatever makes you happy at the moment” heterodoxy.
Going back a few years is The Spirit of the Liturgy by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Ignatius Press, 2000). The book traces liturgical development and upheavals, and offers ways forward, with the masterful strokes of an author who is priest, academic, and lover of all things good, beautiful, and true. The Spirit of the Liturgy remains helpful today, and is indeed a breath of fresh air.
Lastly I come to where I often end up in this compilation, with an edition of the Catholic journal Communio. Its Winter 2015 volume, which examines Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical Laudato Si’—and the Catholic perspective of ecology in general—has two helpful gems. The first is Mary Taylor’s “Ecology on One’s Knees: Reading Laudato Si’.” The second is Patrick Fleming’s “Economics, Ecology, and Our Common Home: The Limits of a Preference-based Approach to Human Behavior.” This title may seem daunting, but Fleming is a professor of economics who spends time working on his wife’s family farm. These personal elements come together nicely in his essay, which has much to offer in light of the troubles and choices following us into the New Year.
William L. Patenaude is a columnist for the Rhode Island Catholic and writes at CatholicEcology.net.
For the last few years my reading has been almost entirely professional, focusing on legal codes and magisterial documents, academic articles, chapters of textbooks, and so on. In 2016, however, I took some steps toward recovering the wider sort of reading that one needs to keep balanced these days.
To be sure, professional texts still figured in this year’s reading catalogue, including Father Thomas Baima’s good essays in What is a Parish (Hillenbrand Books, 2011) and Deacon James Keating’s The Heart of the Diaconate (Paulist, 2015), which I found equally usable by those discerning diaconate and by those preparing men for that sacred order. Best of all, if a bit belatedly, I read the famous “Five Cardinals’ Book,” that is, Remaining in the Truth of Christ (Ignatius Press, 2014), de quo numquam satis.
But for personal development, I read: Heenan’s 1950 translation of Jesuit Father Ferdinand Prat’s outstanding two-volume study of Jesus Christ, a text perfectly suited to Gospel-literate, non-theologians who appreciate a few footnotes to Latin and Greek sources; Albert Camus’ L’Étranger (1942), which, though as numbingly depressing as I recalled it being in high school, afforded some terrific French vocabulary practice; two works by the great American Jesuit missionary priest Walter Ciszek, namely, With God in Russia (1964), which was actually a re-read for me prompted by my reading of Ciszek’s With God in America (2016) in order to review it for Catholic World Report; and, finally, Falconer’s translation of Cicero’s De Senectute, because at age 59 ½, a man starts thinking about being old.
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Mark Kurlansky’s successful formula is to take a seemingly mundane yet immensely significant item, trace its history, and demonstrate its impact on the world. He first covered Cod, then Salt, and now Paper. The latest is certainly worth the read, though I consider the second to be the best of the trio. Kurlansky belabors his point about the backwardness of Western civilization regarding the development of various technologies—here, paper—but his perspective is a useful corrective for those inclined to the other extreme.
Another author who will be familiar to aficionados of popular history is Stephen Ambrose, whose best-known work is probably Band of Brothers. Ambrose’s reputation has been somewhat damaged by allegations of plagiarism and inaccuracy, but he remains a marvelous historical storyteller. Only this year did I have the opportunity to pick up his 1996 Undaunted Courage, a biography of the famous American explorer, Meriwether Lewis.
Most Americans encounter Lewis and Clark at some point in their education, but I’ll bet few have heard of Pedro Font. The Franciscan missionary was a character as striking as Meriwether Lewis and his expedition was equally epic. In an impressive scholarly achievement, Alan K. Brown edited Font’s journal of his 1775-1776 trek through what is today northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. With Anza to California, some 400 large pages of small print, is not for the casual reader, but it is a treasure trove for the serious history buff. Franciscans, Jesuits, and other missionaries are indispensable sources of information on Native American tribes at the time of European contact, and Font’s journal demonstrates why. It’s a finely detailed account of a world that no longer exists—history raw and undiluted.
Another daunting but important tome is The Midas Paradox by Scott Sumner. Believe it or not, eight decades of analysis by economists and historians hasn’t yielded much consensus concerning the character and causes of the most catastrophic economic event in American history, the Great Depression. Was it laissez-faire markets, greed, or governmental error? In part because of its obvious and ongoing relevance to current political debates, the controversy will probably never end. Sumner makes a strong case for the role of gold supply and demand in the world market. Agree or not, you’ll come away persuaded that pinpointing the causes of and solutions to economic problems is a lot more complicated than pundits, politicians, and some advocates of Catholic social teaching make it out to be.
Speaking of complicated problems, how about race in America? With full disclosure of personal and professional conflicts of interest, I strongly recommend a brilliant and timely book released this year, Ismael Hernandez’s Not Tragically Colored. If you’ve ever wondered—or argued—about the solution to this country’s seemingly insoluble racial tensions, please pick up Ismael’s book. Inspired as it is by a sound Catholic view of the human person, it’s ultimately about more than race and has much to say to people of any color.
With Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, John F. Powers appears on most lists of great American Catholic fiction writers of the twentieth century. I came across a copy of his 1963 collection Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories and reveled in its frank depictions of quotidian clerical struggles. Powers describes the inner life of Catholicism as a realist not a romantic, but his realism is driven by love for the Church rather than hatred—and that makes all the difference.
Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, a research associate at the Veritas Center for Ethics and Public Life, and an author.
My favorite title I read this year was ‘In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, a collection of four homilies by Joseph Ratzinger. Given in 1981 while he was archbishop of Munich and Freising, this catechetical series was aimed toward adults as a response to a number of common misapprehensions about the doctrine of creation. For example, rather than being caught in a false dichotomy between reading Genesis either in a strict literalistic way that requires a six-day creation or in a purely mythological mode that endlessly dissects the imagery while emptying the account of its content, Ratzinger instead proposes an alternative reading that is representative of his approach to theology—at once profoundly patristic, solidly scholastic, and wholly Christocentric, written with great depth while still being accessible to the layman. He writes pithily, “Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.” For those who are unfamiliar with Ratzinger’s writing and know him only as the “Panzer-Kardinal” caricature many media outlets put forth, this is an excellent volume with which to become acquainted with one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century.
Nicholas Senz is Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, California.
Concerning the books I’ve read, 2016 was a very different year for me. Many (if not most) of the new books I read were read with the express intention of writing reviews, or essays, or interviewing the authors. As a result, many of the books I read have pieces with my name attached to them right here at Catholic World Report and other places. Nevertheless, I want to bring attention to several of them here, as well as a number of others.
Unfolding Sacred Scripture: How Catholics Read the Bible, by Michael Cameron. The author was a professor of mine at the University of Portland, in Oregon, and is an astoundingly gifted biblical scholar, historical theologian, and a writer of eminently readable prose. This brief introduction to a Catholic reading of Sacred Scripture is a wonderful jumping-off point for anyone who wishes to unfold the mysteries of that library we call the Bible.
The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. I try to re-read this every couple of years, at least, and this year I had reason to do so once again. The way that Lewis unravels the dastardly deeds of that infernal miscreant is endlessly edifying, and always helps me to engage in the battle.
The Last Testament: In His Own Words, by Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald. I can’t begin to describe the influence that the writings of Joseph Ratzinger have had on me (certainly not in a brief blurb such as this), but suffice it to say that this beautiful and compelling book may well be the final gem in the crown of his work that we’ve all been waiting for.
Peter: Keys to Following Jesus, by Dr. Tim Gray. The “prince of the apostles” is a figure often misunderstood. Dr. Tim Gray’s book about Simon bar Jonah, and the way in which his whole life and ministry guides us in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, is a fantastic piece of historical analysis, scriptural elucidation, and, frankly, ecclesiology.
Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? Questions and Answers about the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, by Carl E. Olson. The editor of these pages has had a busy year, and one of its chief successes was the publication of this marvelous manual that handily, articulately, and expertly explains why it is perfectly reasonable (and intellectually honest) to believe in the true death and real resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Called to be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, edited by Father David Meconi, SJ, and Carl E. Olson. Another book from the hands of Mr. Olson and the eminent Father David Meconi (of Homiletic and Pastoral Review), this collection of essays by authors the world over sheds light on an oft-overlooked, yet very important and ancient, aspect of Christian theology: deification. Each author is able to distill the specific topic of each essay into a very readable analysis, which makes this book approachable by just about anyone.
The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. Again, books that I try to re-read at least once every few years, the Chronicles of Narnia remain some of the greatest works of epic fiction ever composed (although, the allegory is so thick in parts, that it is almost questionable whether to call it “fiction”). This year I read these two to my daughter, in what I hope to make a permanent tradition.
There are many others, but space constraints force me into brevity!
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.
For many years I’ve turned to the reading or rereading of the novels of Evelyn Waugh when looking to give myself a treat. This year I reread not just one novel by Waugh but three—the World War II trilogy collectively titled Sword of Honor. (The individual volumes, which were first published between 1952 and 1961, are Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle.)
As usual, Waugh didn’t disappoint.
The narrative, running the gamut from hilarious to horrifying, is in the end a tale of massive disenchantment. Waugh’s protagonist, Guy Crouchback, 30-something reclusive scion of a Recusant Catholic family (with a “Blessed,” no less, adorning the family tree), plunges into military service with the zeal of a crusader. With the Hitler-Stalin alliance, he believes, “the enemy at last was plain in view…the Modern Age in arms” and decent men must take up arms against it.
By the end of the conflict, Crouchback knows better. The war as he experiences it is a muddled nightmare of incompetence, self-seeking, and the systematic betrayal of ideals, and postwar Britain does not look to be much better. Doleful as all this may sound, it’s not. The story is told by a master stylist who is here at the top of his form. With good reason, many consider it Waugh’s finest work.
My other favorite of the year is very different—Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s astonishing A Canticle for Leibowitz. Set in the post-holocaust future, the story—actually, three separate novellas—is an extraordinary feat of the imagination exploring the implications of the deeply rooted human propensity for self-destruction to their logical, terrifying conclusion. Consistently brilliant in its envisaging of future societies as well as richly written, the book’s intensely orthodox Catholic viewpoint is of particular interest to Catholic readers.
A Canticle for Leibowitz was first published in 1959, and although I’d often seen it mentioned over the years, I only got around to reading it in 2016 when a friend forced my hand by giving me a copy. That’s what friends are for, I think.
Russell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books.
To remember those who fought in the Great War against a Prussian deification of the State that would have smashed up everything they held dear, I continued reading various books about the war, including Richard Holmes’ magisterial Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-18 (HarperCollins), Alan Wilkinson’s The Church of England and the First World War (Lutterworth Press), and Duff Cooper’s Haig (Faber & Faber), his two-volume biography of General Sir Douglas Haig, which, although outdated in some respects, is still full of his accustomed wit and verve.
The best new book I read on the war was Hugh Sebag Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach (Harvard), which abounds in fascinating eyewitness accounts of that pivotal battle. If some still imagine that the war was futile or unnecessary, they should consider what Douglas Horton, an Australian lance corporal, had to say of his experiences in one of the battle’s worst sectors. “Pozières,” he insisted, “remains sacred to the memory of the Australian lads who gave their all for liberty…They lie there enshrouded by the soil they saved and…live in our memory…as men whose praises shall go resounding down the ages while yet men love and revere liberty.”
The Prussian threat to liberty was nicely defined by the philosopher R.G. Collingwood, who wrote in 1919—in one of the pieces collected in his Essays in Political Philosophy (Oxford) edited by Richard Boucher—that, “The fault of the Prussian philosophy is its conception of the state as mere power. Power unchecked by anything like international law or international morality: its conception of the state as responsible to nothing higher than itself, as having no duties, no obligations, no responsibilities to anyone except itself. In framing this conception, it was attempting to conceive the state in the likeness of God: it succeeded in creating a state that was rather an incarnation of the devil.”
Throughout the battle of the Somme, a statue of Our Lady hung atop the ruined Basilica of Albert at an angle of 40 degrees; she hung at that perilous angle with the Christ Child outstretched in her arms for three years, despite constant shelling; an unforgettable sign, for many, of the empathy the Mother of God always has for the suffering wrought by the devil’s incarnation. The poet and memoirist Edmund Blunden captured something of the statue’s power when he wrote in his poem “Festubert, 1916” of “The saints in broken shrines…bright as blood.” The new critical edition of Blunden’s classic 1928 war memoir, Undertones of War (Oxford), luminously edited by John Greening, is another WWI title worth recommending.
Throughout the past year, I read two good biographies of improbable converts. James Stourton’s Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilization (Knopf) recounts how Clark, although uncomfortably conscious of having led a “frivolous and irregular life,” was fascinated by Early Christianity, devouring all he could by and about the Fathers. His profound study of art opened not only his eyes but his heart and mind to the appeal of the Church. Indeed, in one lecture, he even went so far as to observe that “for a work of art to enter the Louvre was like entering the Catholic Church. It would find itself in some pretty queer company but at least it would be sure that it had a soul.” Like Cardinal Newman, Clark came to see the Church of England as a pinchbeck affair; “I cannot get it out of my head,” he confessed at one point, “that the C of E is not concerned with God but with good fellowship, cricket, flowers, etc.” When he gave a lecture “full,” as he said, “of references to the Passion, the liturgy, and so forth,” he was disconcerted to find that it made his English auditors “wince.” The trouble, as he saw it, was that “my notions of religion are derived from the medieval saints…and I don’t realize how things have changed.” Still, to the surprise of many of his friends and colleagues, he poped on his deathbed, which led the art historian Michael Levey to recognize that it was “a sharp reminder of [Clark’s] elusive, complex personality, leaving as it were one last, unexpected facet to be revealed only posthumously.”
Robert Baldick’s The Life of J.K. Huysmans (Dedalus) admirably demystifies the French art critic and novelist (who is still misunderstood in many Catholic circles) by showing how it was good old repentance that turned him away from the decadent naturalism of his youth and threw him on the merciful intercessions of Our Lady. “My life drags on,” he wrote a friend when he was months away from death, “with influenza added to the rest. I’m not sleeping or eating, but just manufacturing abscesses to the accompaniment of never-ending toothache. Anyone who hadn’t the faith…would have blown his brains out long ago. Well, I am not unhappy. The day I said fiat, God gave me incredible strength of will and wonderful peace of mind. I do not wish to be cured, but to continue to be purified so that Our Lady may take me above. My dream would be for God to take me with Him like the good thief at Easter, but, alas, I am unworthy of that. Je vous embrasse.”
Speaking of our French friends, I also read Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb (Penguin), which is a perfect example of how the best history is not always written by the people who call themselves historians. Encompassing as it does Chateaubriand’s first-hand experiences of the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the July Revolution, the book brilliantly shows how the Romantic writer acquired that “volupté melancholique des horizons” so characteristic of the French of that insatiable generation.
The best piece of “full dress” history I read was Paul Bew’s brilliant Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (Oxford). In my now-distant youth, Ireland’s greatest historian was F.S.L. Lyons, the elegant author of Charles Stewart Parnell (Oxford) and Ireland after the Famine (Weidenfeld and Nicolson): now Bew is king of those Kilkenny cats. On a lighter note, the funniest travelogue I read was Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journal (New York Review of Books), which deserves an honored place amongst all of the other good books inspired by that phantasmagorical land.
What else? After the death of William Trevor in late November, I spent some memorable evenings re-reading his stories. What a superb writer he is! As we all know, the Anglo-Irish produced marvelous story-tellers, from Somerville and Ross and Lord Dunsany to Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane. Yet Trevor is the best. Anyone intent on understanding the collapse of the Church in Ireland should read his story, “Men of Ireland,” which can be found in his last collection of stories, Cheating at Canasta (2007). No one, not even James Joyce, captures the Irish bent for treachery better than Trevor.
Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and Newman and His Family, both published by Bloomsbury.
During 2010, shaken almost to the point of paranoia by my discovery that Orwell managed to read more books when dying from tuberculosis than I had succeeded in doing amid perfectly sound physical health, I resolved to keep a list of each book which I had read, as soon as I had read it. (I likewise noted re-readings; thus, a particular title on my list might bear the annotation “December 2011, May 2014.”) This method I have adopted ever since, and I can recommend it to every literate individual. Among its virtues is the assistance that it provides in compiling a round-up like this one.
For my 2016 Best Of, as for my 2015 Best Of, I vowed to exclude (a) all books that I had reviewed anywhere, or had otherwise written about; (b) all books (usually philosophical treatises) that I started but never managed to finish. That still left a substantial selection, which I further winnowed to produce the following. Instead of giving the volumes in chronological order, I have decided to list them in what might be called emotional order, from the most agreeably diverting to the most overwhelming.
A Mingled Chime, by Sir Thomas Beecham. Originally released in 1943, this is that rare thing: a musical memoir as witty and readable as Berlioz’s. And, like Berlioz’s, it cannot be altogether relied on concerning hard fact. We now know from Beecham’s definitive biographer John Lucas that as a master of “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative,” Beecham yielded nothing to Pooh-Bah. Still, his prose is so splendid, his basic honesty (if not always detailed accuracy) so clear, and his evocations of mostly pre-1918 London so vivid, that those music-lovers who have not encountered A Mingled Chime are needlessly short-changing themselves.
English Saga, 1840-1940, by Sir Arthur Bryant. Another bestseller from wartime Britain, this time by a historian whom numerous infantile leftists and neocons (really a distinction without a difference) have vilified. Not only was Bryant, like Beecham, almost incapable of writing an inelegant sentence, but Bryant’s awareness of the fundamental alliance between Marxism—including cultural Marxism—and Wall Street capitalism has acquired an extra resonance in our time.
Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. Shameful though it is to have reached one’s 50s before reading Chambers’ magnum opus in full (rather than merely in excerpts), I am glad that I waited, because as a younger man I would never have comprehended Chambers’ spiritual depths. Perhaps only when one has become a complete failure oneself, and been reduced to penury, can the “still small voice” of Witness’ author be properly appreciated. There has arisen among numerous decrepit baby-boomers a myth—as reprehensible as it is bizarre—that conservatism, properly understood, is a matter of South Park vomit-jokes, of gargling “Je Suis Charlie” 24/7, and of bellowing with neo-Vyshynskyite rage against “elites.” Read—or re-read—Witness to console yourself for the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, by Leon J. Podles. Dating from 1999 (in other words, well before the same author’s still more vivid, powerfully-written, and stomach-turning exposé Sacrilege), this analysis loses little if anything nowadays of its initial ability to shock. It has its flaws; but everything which has befallen the Church since 2002 in terms of sexual scandal, feminazi spite, imbecile doctrinal confusion, invertebrate episcopal cowardice, and (above all) the elevation of Organized Sodom into an eighth sacrament was predicted in The Church Impotent last century.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne.
I’m not sure why, but in 2016 I read a lot of books by the best-selling business author Patrick Lencioni. His most well-known book is probably Death By Meeting. This year he published a book for priests, The Better Pastor. It was sent to every Catholic priest in the English speaking world. True, it is Business Leadership 101 and common sense, but it is gets to the heart of where parishes are today. In particular, where I live in Pittsburgh we are in the beginnings of a massive reorganization. We don’t have enough priests and a lot of parishes are in the red. Everyone is asking, “What do we do?” The Better Pastor and the corresponding website and organization amazingparish.org provide practical steps for what can be done to turn things around, and especially how lay people can be involved. The other must-read by Lencioni is The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable about Restoring Sanity to the Most Important Organization in Your Life.The title says it all. Also, by using fiction, Lencioni is able to capture the subtleties of life that make changes difficult to implement. He is not talking down to you from on high.
If you are really into rock and roll, you’re familiar with The Replacements. Bob Mehr’s biography of the band, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, is a well-written account of the contradictions and drama of rock music in the 1980s and early 90s. What do you rebel against when almost everything has already been rebelled against? You sabotage yourself and break the hearts of those who love you. If you write great songs, it is even charming. Can you be critical darlings, on a major label, still live with your parents, and not have a driver’s license well into your 20s? Paul Westerberg and Chris Mars were from large Catholic families and went to Catholic schools. You can see how the remnants of a Catholic culture (their parents were willing to support their rock and roll fantasy) and education provided them a framework, but that the chaos of the 1970s also left them adrift and ultimately unsatisfied.
Mark Sullivan is a guitarist and songwriter living in Pittsburgh.
Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography is just that. It is also a surprise.
The actor’s depiction of his life on the poverty-haunted London streets of his youth is deeply moving, not least in the portrait it paints of his mother and the sacrifices she made in raising him. Her frequent incarcerations in insane asylums are painfully and tenderly described. Poignantly, just when Chaplin started to become a name on the stage, she sank ever deeper into mental illness; sadly, she was never able to enjoy the later phenomenal success of her son.
Chaplin’s tale is an engrossing one and excellently told—he was, after all, a master storyteller. Try as his critics might, so far at least, they have yet to discover any ghostwriter.
It was a pleasure reading Hilaire Belloc’s Hills and the Sea. This is a wonderful collection of his early essays written for various periodicals and newspapers. His writing here is as good as anything found in his later works, and yet, surprisingly, it comes at the very outset of his career. Undoubtedly, Belloc was one of the best stylists of the 20th century.
Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is deservedly famous. What struck me in this book among much else was that its subject was a man of faith, deep faith. The friendship between Boswell and Johnson is humorously and touchingly described. Boswell’s recollections of his friend sent me to the wise writings of Johnson himself—another joy.
This year there were three memoirs of note. Joseph Pearce’s Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love is as much social history as personal and, therefore, is insightful in these times of extremism. Twenty years after the events it recalls, it is sobering to read Immaculée Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, a deeply moving account of her survival and spiritual awakening amidst the horrors of genocide. This book stays in the mind long after the last page has been turned. And, then, there is the newly released Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story by Sally Read—a remarkable contemporary addition to what might be called the conversion story genre.
George Weigel has a gift for turning vast amounts of information into a concisely readable form. His Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, published in 2013, seems more relevant and more perceptive than ever in relation to where we are and where we may be heading in the future.
This year, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences is 50 years old. Yet, today, it is as gripping and as immediate a read as it was upon its publication. Capote’s weaving together of the stories of the murdered, the murderers, and those who pursued them—to say nothing of the impact of evil upon a small community—is still masterful.
K.V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker with a degree in theology from the Maryvale Institute.
I love history, and most of my best reads of the year reflect that, but not in the way you’d expect. What interests me, really, is how human beings change and remain the same, and so I search fiction of the past for clues.
With that in mind, I’ll present my favorite reads of 2016: varied, obscure, probably quite middlebrow for the most part. But that’s me and my life, so pardon me as I search for common threads and companions in the past and present.
The Sun-Cure, published in 1929 and written by poet (“The Highwayman”), critic, and eventual Catholic convert Alfred Noyes, has an irresistible premise. Basil Strode is a young, infallible-in-his-own-eyes Anglican curate who finds himself caught in the countryside, to put it bluntly, without any clothes on. He was clothed when he embarked upon his walk, but through a series of…circumstances, his clothes are lost to him and he must find his way back home with the least amount of humiliation he can manage.
It’s short, very funny, and generally quite knowing and wise. The satire centers on the dynamics of parish life as well as the intellectual fashions of the day.
The specifics of those fashions are less important than the greater point: most of the time, self-proclaimed radical cultural stances are expressions of fashion and a herd mentality, and as one character says at the end,
Half of our differences at the present day are just differences of patter—the patter of one convention clashes with the patter of another—and we miss everything that’s worth having. I long to get away, sometimes, from my own generation. I don’t care whether it’s into the past, or into the future, so long as it’s away from the patter into simple realities again. I hate being a slave to my own age.
And there you go, the answer to my quest: nothing really changes, at all, does it?
Other best books?
The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley was a thick, absorbing social history of England between the wars told through the story of a struggling theatrical troupe. Three major unconnected characters experience various adventures, misfortunes, and accidents that bring them all to the same place, which happens to be the place that the members of the Dinky Doos are sadly gathered, having been abandoned and financially wiped out by their former manager.
And so, within a short time, men and women bravely respond to their inner promptings: to be of use, to do something different, to meet a need, to have a lark—and The Good Companions are born from the shambles of the Dinky Doos. I loved this book, and lived quite contentedly in its world for a week or so.
Muriel Spark’s A Girl of Slender Means is the opposite: sharp, dense, and pointed. I read this story of mostly young women in a rooming house between VE and VJ Days twice in succession and know that if you pick it up, familiarizing yourself with Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” as a thematic and even structural paradigm, will help. It’s a book about conversion, but in very surprising ways.
The contemporary novel I enjoyed the most was Amp’d by Ken Pisani. It’s the story of a guy—Aaron—who has lost his arm in a car accident and returned to his father’s house to recuperate and figure out what to do with his life. It was funny—often hilarious, and just page after page of succinct, on-point observations.
I think the best way to communicate what the book is about is to tell you that it begins and ends with lists. At the beginning: “Things you can’t do with one arm” and at the end: “Things I never did with two arms.” The second list is far more intriguing, and there’s your point, right there.
Amy Welborn is a writer currently living in Birmingham, Alabama.