Detail from “The Bookworm” by Carl Spitzweg (1808-85)
“It is our duty to live among books; especially to live by one
book, and a very old one.” Blessed John Henry Newman
Ten years ago, I posted a “Best/Worst of 2004” piece on Ignatius Insight, containing a listing of books and music that
I either really liked or didn’t care for at all. That then led, the following
year, to the first “Best Books I Read in…”
piece. Each year there have been more
contributors, and a couple of years ago the popular feature was moved over the CWR site. As always, the
criteria used by contributors is very simple: “What were the best books I 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 does not feel at all like fulfilling a duty, but is a delight for mind
and soul alike. Carl E. Olson, editor
Bradley J. Birzer
Anthony E. Clark
David Paul Deavel
Dr. Adam A.J. DeVille
Thomas M. Doran
Joseph F. Martin
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ
Christopher S. Morrissey
Carl E. Olson
William L. Patenaude
James V. Schall, SJ
Flows into the Tiber by John Beaumont. This is “A Guide
to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church,” a fascinating book for
browsing, studying, and learning new arguments for defending the Faith. The
entries include familiar names and lots of surprises. Did you know that boxer
Floyd Patterson was a convert?
Life on the
Mississippi by Mark Twain. The great American writer
never mentions that the Mississippi flows into the Tiber, but he does paint a
glorious portrait of the steamboat days with a combination of wit and pathos.
And the side stories, just like the river’s tributaries, provide plenty of
The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in
America by Russell Shaw. A vivid example of
Chesterton’s insight that whenever the Church has been wedded to the world, it
has been widowed by the world.
My Peace I Give You by Dawn Eden. The subtitle is “Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.” There is a hardly a more timely and
needed book right now. Even though it does not deal directly with the sexual
abuse scandals in the Church, every bishop needs to read this book. And so does
every Catholic. And everyone else.
of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson. A beautiful and
profound meditation on gaining the relationship with Christ that he really
intends for us. “I no longer call you servants. I call you friends.” But it
still means learning that our goal, our focus, our fulfillment, is for us to
serve Christ, not for Christ to serve us. Then follows the friendship like no
I also re-read a little G.K. Chesterton, including his
little-known first novel Basil Howe,
the last two volumes of his collected poetry, St. Francis of Assisi, and The
Everlasting Man, which, like all his books, gets better every time I read
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society,
creator and host of the EWTN series “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common
Sense,” and publisher of Gilbert Magazine.
I’ve been an avid and voracious reader since checking
out that orange-hardback biography of Lewis and Clark from the Wiley Elementary
School Library in the fall of 1974. Even after 40 years of reading, though, I
can still surprise myself. Between Kindle, Audible, and actual, real, tangible
honest-to-goodness books, I’m quite shocked at how much I “read” during the 2014
calendar year. I reread C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy as well as much of Willa
Cather, as I do every year. I also branched out into a number of authors new to
The best book I read, by far, was Theodor Haecker’s
little and almost completely forgotten masterpiece, Virgil: Father of the West,
originally published in 1934 in Christopher Dawson’s seminal Christian Humanist
series, Essays In Order (Sheed and Ward). In it, Haecker, who
would die in opposition to the Nazis in 1945, offered Virgil as the greatest
and last of the pagans, sitting metahistorically on the eve of the Incarnation,
anticipating much of what would come, but blending the classical and Christian
worlds almost seamlessly.
Along the same lines is Robert Freedman’s latest
book, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (2014). In
it, Freedman expertly analyzes the words and lyrics of Canadian rock drummer,
inveterate traveler, and man of letters Neil Peart. Unlike Virgil, last of the
pagans, Peart might very well be the last great, post-Christian Western man,
clinging to traditional Western virtues if not traditional Western faith.
I loved The Hobbit Party (Ignatius
Press, 2014) by Jay Wesley Richard and Jonathan Witt. It’s rare to see new
interpretations of Tolkien emerge over the last several years, as the full body
of primary materials available to scholars is rather limited. Leave it to
Richard and Witt to breathe new life into Middle Earth, especially
understanding the author’s complicated view of the world and of creation. If
you love Tolkien, avoid the movies and embrace this excellent book.
Having delved into a book-length project on science
fiction as arguably (or, at least, I’m trying) the most insightful of literary
genres of the 20th century, I read or re-read a huge number of books.
Admittedly, I found Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End a
creepy and misanthropic story, while I rediscovered Vernon Vinge’s A
Fire Upon the Deep as a masterwork of insight into human
motivations and metahistorical movements. And, I re-read much of one of my
favorite authors, Kevin J. Anderson.
The best science fiction I read, however, came from
Dan Simmons, especially his purgatorial sagas, Hyperion and Fall
of Hyperion. Simmons has a little too much affection for the more
mystical Jesuits of the 1960s for my tastes, but he handles the notions of
grace and sacrifice as well as any current living writer can. Much of his saga
rivals even Dante in terms of the moral imagination.
This past fall, I taught a course on dystopian
literature, assigning the classics of the field: Brave New World, 1984, Canticle
for Leibowitz, and The
Handmaid’s Tale. I never fail to find Canticle a repeated
must-read. It is, for all intents and purposes, Augustinian sci-fi. The
Handmaid’s Tale, however, surprised me the most. I’d not read it since it
first came out in the late 1980s, and, while I’d enjoyed it, I had somewhat
dismissively categorized it as a feminist screed. Reading it now, however, I
saw very little feminism in it. For my part, I now consider it the closest
successor possible to 1984. It is, in every way, a work of a literary
giant. Insightful and disturbing, it is promotes all that is humane.
Part of my agreement in teaching the dystopian class
was to read and teach The Hunger Games. After about five
false starts, I finally embraced the novel and devoured it and its sequel. It’s
no work of genius, but it is a very solid story about the nature of abuse and
post-traumatic stress, set in a dystopian and very dysfunctional future. The
heroine is no real heroine, but she manages to do the right thing most of the
time. The story is also full of Catholic symbolism. The final book of the
trilogy, Mockingjay, is so confusing and dreadfulin style as well
as moralsthat it pretty much destroyed the previous two books.
Bradley J. Birzer is author of biographies of J.R.R.
Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Christopher Dawson. The second
Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of
Colorado-Boulder, he has just completed a biography of Russell Kirk (available
in the autumn of 2015).
After Auschwitz: A Story of Heartbreak
and Survival by Eva
Schloss. Did you know that Otto Frank, father of Ann, spent time in Britain
after World War II, with the family of his step-daughter? This book by Eva
Schloss, whose mother married Otto Frank after both had lost their former
spouses and other family members in the Holocaust, tells a touching and at
times gripping story. Eva was friendly with Ann Frankthe two families lived
near each other in Amsterdamand, like her, went into hiding. Eva and her
mother were discovered, as were her father and brother, who were betrayed by
Nazi-supporters masquerading as helpers of Jews. Eva’s beloved Pappy and
brother Heinz perished in the campsEva’s description of her own survival and
her post-war marriage and life is fascinating and includes much new information on the publication of Ann’s
diary and the impact it made, as well as touching family anecdotes. This is a
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy
Benedict XVI. Absolutely fascinating: you think you know all about Christmas
and the shepherds and the kingsbut there’s so much more to learn and think
about. Loved it.
Let’s Preserve It by Beryl West. Reprint of a
classic book on how to preserve fruit and make jams and jellies. Full of
wisdom, thrift, and common sense. Don’t waste the orange peel when you’ve made
a fruit saladrecipe for excellent marmalade here. And much more. It’s a
thousand times better than all those lush illustrated cookery books filled with
greedy-pictures of lavish meals. I’ve made blackberry, blackcurrant, and apple
jelly this year from her recipes.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
My picks and opinions
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. A fascinating read, despite some
over-the-top crudity. Gods galore. Really. Well, sort of. Small “g” gods. The Man Who Was Wednesday might have
been a better title for this book, by the way. Meanwhile, I don’t buy the whole
Pistic Energy Sustains Divinities Concept. Do you? But perhaps it is the stuff
on which demons dine. This novel is the Ancients vs. the Moderns adapted to the
War of the Gods motif set in the good old US of A. And of course Gaiman can
write really good.
A Dialectic of Morals: Towards the Foundations of
by Mortimer Adler. Adler, before he found his popular style of writing. The
content is profounda serious Aristotelian engagement of utilitarianism and
forms of 20th-century relativism. Alas, the style is a bit of a challenge.
Worth it, though.
Liberalism and the Limits of Justice by Michael Sandel. A
major rebuttal to John Rawls (and others) representing a modified
The Catholic Church and Conversion by G.K. Chesterton.
The Catholic Church. Conversion. And Chesterton. The four “c”s. What more needs
saying? I read this book every-so-many years. Last year was an every-so-manyth.
Anybody know how to send messages to psychic paper? I’d think the whole of this
text to a certain time traveler in a blue box. Chesterton was better than
Rassilon. See below.
Happiness and Benevolence by Robert Spaemann.
Okay. Tell me I’m boring. I still say this was a good read. Aristotle and
Jesus. Spaemann may be Pope Emeritus Benedict’s favorite philosopher. I can see
Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction by Edward Feser. An
excellent book but probably mis-subtitled as an “introduction.” More than an
introduction, though not a specialized treatise. A great refutation of
scientism, among other things. Our leading Thomistic philosopher writing in
English today. Feser set to stun the unsuspecting non-Thomist by showing why
old Aquinas should not be forgot. Let’s get metaphysical.
A Not-So-Elementary Metaphysics by Peter A Redpath.
Definitely not an introduction. Dr. Redpath is something of a
philosophical Major T.J. “King” Kong when it comes to unleashing the power of
the metaphysical atom. Yee-hah. Da bomb, as they say.
Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia. Dana Gioia is a
genuine contemporary literary treasure. Don’t tell me you can’t read
poetry. Get this book and you’ll sing a different tune as you march to your own
drummer or, rather, as you hum FOUR SONGS FROM TONY CARUSO’S FINAL BROADCAST.
Or rather still, as we “creep in slow procession on our pilgrimages” in worship
of THE FREEWAYS CONSIDERED AS EARTH GODS, among other things. As a Daily
Acolyte of the High Priest of the Divine Traffic, I can relate. Perhaps you can
The Giver by Lois Lowry. A disturbian dystopia. So
urban-planning-ish. I would probably enjoy sitting in on a high-school seminar
discussion of this book. It inspires hope to think of public school youth
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. A book club pick. Lots of
fun. My Fair Lady without the songs.
And I simply reject the Shavian claim that Eliza marries Freddie. Apparently, G.B.
doesn’t know his own characters. Not that life with Higgins would be heaven.
Far from it. But Freddie is a bridge too far. And you don’t have to be Sherlock
Holmes to figure that one out.
A Corner of the Veil by Laurence Cosse. What if you
had an irrefutable, undeniable, ungainsayable proof of God’s existence? And
what effect would your proof have on the world? A French comedic novel
explains. Re-read for the Famous Napa Book Club. What a conversation generator
it turned out to be. Some suspension of theological disbelief is in order. No,
I don’t have a copy of the proof.
Innocence by Dean Koontz. A kind of “what if Superman married
Lois Lane” storyline. By that I mean you have to do some counter-factual
supposing. (As if a “Superman marries Lois Lane” story requires extraordinary
supposing above the ordinary supposing of the Last Son of Krypton storyline.)
If you suspend a bit of theological disbelief in reading Innocence, you may find this story insightful as well as exciting.
Why does peering into the main character’s eyes make people want to kill him?
Dr. Miranda Jones, call your office. There’s more than what ye think ye know on earth, and
more ye need to know, Mr. Keats, but you do have a point.
Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss. I
finally read this, instead of having only read about it or heard about it. The
general thesis is sound, as far as it goes. Its truth is even, in a sense,
evident. But it seems to me that the arguments for particular cases of
philosophers’ contradictions as signs of exoterism/esoterism sometimes fail.
Granted the general value of the book’s thesis, brilliance is no guarantee that
what seem to be incoherences must be code not contradiction. Unless of course
they are. In which case it follows axiomatically. Right? But then, do I really
think this? Do you even know what the heck I’m talking about? Is this exoteric
messaging giving me plausible deniability regarding my esoteric meaning and all
the while exciting the young to embrace the very thing I am ostensibly
refuting? Of course! You’ll never know for sure, though, will you? By the way,
as a non-Straussian, I have to say that I side more often with the Straussians
than the anti-Straussians, albeit not so much in defense of the exoteric/esoteric
writing thesis. But maybe that is really all a Straussian misdirection. Perhaps
I am only a really clever Straussian pretending to be a non-Straussian. In any
case, I really don’t understand the wild assault on Strauss or all the
conspiracy theories associated therewith. If you get the CRM Discriminator, you
can decrypt the message: POE, neo-cons, and interventionist nation-builders,
notwithstanding. Not a pacifism, to be sure, but no blank check for war. No
purity of essence, either. Strauss the Jew, not Dr. Strangelove. Strauss
espoused the pursuit of genuine political philosophy, something hard to come by
(as Plato and Aristotle knew), and not a thing causally adopted or easily
imposed on unphilosophical peoples who, we’ve been told, are at heart anonymous
democrats. Strauss is no con, neo or paleo. That would be mere politics, an
endeavor, according to Strauss, in certain tension with political philosophy.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright.
Massive. Re-reading Paul with N.T. Wright. How right is he? Anyway, I’m
exhausted. 1,700 pages worth. I’ll leave it to Pauline scholars to assess. I
just found it fascinating, even if at times the author seemed close to telling
a just-so Grand Narrative.
Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith: Religion and Doctor Who, edited by Andrew Crome and James McGrath. Who knew? The Doctor needs to get
right with God. Maybe Tom Wright can help him because the ex-monk Tom Baker
couldn’t. The Last Great Humanist is not even human, yet he is not exactly your
garden-variety secular humanist, either. Here is someone who really perceives
the dignity of the human person. Every one of them. And fights for them. Maybe
you don’t have to privilege Jerusalem over Athens to treat people as people but
surely Jerusalem doesn’t deserve to be trampled under-foot long after the time
of the gentiles has long been fulfilled. Maybe if the Doctor and his show-runners
would consult a White Guardian, they might see in Christianity a familiar
feature. When a man has entered the Church, wrote Chesterton, he discovers that
the Church is much larger inside than it is outside. Perhaps a more humble Time
Lord might just come to acknowledge the Lord of Time and Eternity. Or at least
not jeer. “The universe is,” after all, “big. It’s vast and complicated, and
ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we
call them miracles.” Except, they are not so rare as to lose the Humean wager,
nor do they “just happen,” however outside our agenda they may be. Drop in
sometime, Doctor, and I’ll explain what really transpired that first Easter.
Resurrection trumps Regeneration. And we can discuss what happened “before” the
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.
John B. Buescher:
A couple of new books:
Everyday Saints and Other Stories, by Archimandrite Tikhon
Shevkunov (Pokrov Publications, 2012, and available also on Kindle). Imagine
Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain
crossed with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road,
but all overflowing with real grace and charity. I can’t recommend this book
too highly. I wish all Catholics would read it. Every Orthodox Christian I know
Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the
Secularization of Scripture, 1300-1700, by Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (Herder & Herder, 2013).
Hahn and Wiker historicize the historicizers. If you know someone tackling
post-Reformation philosophy or theology at the college level, lock them in a
room with bread and water and this book and don’t let them out until they’ve
finished it. It will be well worth the significant investment you’ll make in
the list price.
A couple of old books:
Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers, by Ralph Moody (Bison Books,
1991). First published in 1950. An autobiography of hardscrabble ranching in
Colorado in the first years of the 20th century. A gripping story, well told. The
first volume of a trilogy. Much food for thought here, in the difference
between what our current culture thinks eight-year-olds are capable of, and
what they were able to accomplish in less infantile times. A wonderful book for
Down the River; or, Practical Lessons Under the Code Duello, by An Amateur [George W.
Hooper] (New York: E. J. Hale & Son, 1874). A wildly amusing, picaresque
tale (which is available on Google Books) of one Col. Hercules D. Lofty,
narrated, supposedly, by someone interested in learning the punctilios of
dueling and who serves as a Boswell to Lofty’s Johnson. Reading between the
earnest and naïve lines, we discover just how much of a rascal the old
gentleman really isimpossibly sensitive and ready at any moment to take
offense at any slight, real or imagined (amplified by his prodigious
consumption of liquor), and yet so full of obscure knowledge of the code of
duello, that he is forever able to maneuver himself out of actually facing his opponents.
A bonus is Hooper’s inclusion at the end of the volume of the text of John
Lynde Wilson’s actual “American Code” for dueling. Wilson’s preface, in which
he defends his publication of a dueling code, is not at all ridiculous, and is
well worth pondering, as a window into a world that was recognized as fallen, and
in which integrity and personal honor were not just handed over to the state to
And one more:
Empress of Swindle: The Life of Ann Odelia Diss Debar (Typhon Press, 2014) by John
Benedict Buescher. Since I wrote this, I also read it, many times over, as it
went to press, so I’m using that excuse to sneak it under the radar here. Diss
Debar was an American adventuress who lived from 1850 to 1912. Her outlandish
exploits, thoroughly covered by the newspapers of three continents, endeared
her to reporters, who dubbed her “the world’s worst woman.” She specialized in
spiritualist flimflam, but was also a particular thorn in the side of the
Catholic ecclesial hierarchy of New York and Chicago, because she often excited
her anti-Catholic “marks” with fabulistic tales in which she portrayed herself
as an innocent daughter of the Church, wronged by clerical malice.
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the
University of Virginia. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in
the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience and
The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land.
Anthony E. Clark:
2014 was a busy year of travel, both here in the U.S. and abroad to live in Krakow and Rome for research. So, I spent many long hours in buses, cars, and planes, book in hand, scribbling reactions in the margins. I love St. Augustine’s comment that, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,” because he mentions reading and travel in a singe assertion.
Among the best books I’ve read this year, perhaps even in the past several years, was the short gem by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP, Francis of Assisi: The Life. I have read many saccharin hagiographies and tedious academic works on St. Francis, and Thompson’s work is the most accessible, entertaining, scholarly, and even terrifying biographies of this holy, but wholly real, saint of the Church. Reader beware, this is not a book about the “St. Francis” depicted in garden statues across the globe, but a thoughtful and honest study.
The second biography I read was Alister McGrath’s heavier tome, C. S. Lewis: A Life. McGrath, like Thompson, is more interested in providing an accurate depiction of what our sources reveal than reconstituting the same hackneyed portraits of Lewis that begin with his conversion to Christianity and his life as an apologist and wordsmith of some of history’s best fictional narratives. McGrath makes Lewis’ life more compelling precisely because he underscores the truly miraculous conversion of a man quite distant for Christian morality and faith, to one committed to the Christian life.
As a Byzantine Rite Catholic, naturally I am drawn to the history and theology of Liturgy. I finally read Alexander Schmemann’s classic, For the Life of the World, which proved even better than I expected. Every Western Rite priest and lay faithful should read Fr. Schmemann’s brilliant, and occasionally biting, criticisms of liturgical and intellectual trends in the Western Church. Finally, all Christians would benefit from Schmemann’s essay, “Worship in a Secular Age.” He does not merely recommend a romantic return to an “imagined past,” but more accurately, a return to the truth, which the secular age has jettisoned.
A bit less refined and insightful as Schmemann’s book, but nonetheless useful for better understanding the origins of the Byzantine Liturgy, is Fr. Robert Taft, SJ’s, The Byzantine Rite: A Short History. Unlike other books on liturgy that confine themselves to describing the meaning and practice of Christian liturgy, Taft confronts the origins of liturgical customs, such as the Eastern fondness for grand processions, rooted in the history of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia.
Everyone who believes that in Holy Communion is the Body, Blood, and divinity of Jesus Christ, should read Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s masterful treatise, Dominus Est - It is the Lord, on the importance of reverent reception of the Eucharist at Holy Mass or Divine Liturgy. I recently observed Vatican officials chasing tourists leaving the Communion line after taking the Sacred Host away in their hands, apparently as a souvenir. Based on the testimonies of the Early Fathers and the wise discretion of the Church, Schneider makes a compelling case for a return to reception of Communion on the tongue, which is how we “in the East” still Communicate.
Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins is a literary tour de force gritty, sometimes irreverent, seemingly incoherent, but a precise and prescient diagnosis of the spiritual illnesses precipitated by secular modernity. Percy opens his whimsical romp through an invented future (actually, our present) with the assertion that either we Christians are wrong in our view that the world is corrupt and decaying, and are crazy, or we are correct, and the world is collapsing under the weight of the Fall. One encounters every possible emotion reading through Percy’s droll prose, but in the end hope triumphs over despair, even for the sinful and flawed, who are represented in even the best characters in Percy’s curious drama.
Sir Kenneth Clark, the English art historian who converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before his death, stands as one of my intellectual role models. After watching his television series, Civilization, countless times, I picked up the second part of Clark’s autobiography, The Other Half: A Self Portrait, to learn something of the personal life of one of the greatest and most under-appreciated intellectuals of the twentieth century. Written before his conversion to Catholicism, Clark’s self-portrait can be a self-indulgent at times, but his list of accomplishments and acquaintances is monumental, and one is edified by the sheer amount of educational rigor and persistence that fashioned Clark into the celebrity he became as his books and shows grew in popularity.
Reading books by friends can be dangerous there is always that “What did you think of my book?” moment, and careful word choices are then required. Fortunately all my friends who write books are excellent writers, so when I finished Fr. Jeremy Clarke, SJ’s, recent work, The Virgin Mary and Catholic Identities in Chinese History, I was impressed. After discussing his new book with him over beer in Beijing, I was eager to return home and read it. This is one of the best studies of the inculturation of Marian artistic expressions available; by tracing the history of Mary’s depictions on Chinese funerary stele, statuary, and paintings, Clarke illustrates how devotion to Our Lady can look very unfamiliar in different cultures, but her love and compassion for her children is unchanged, regardless of how she is envisioned.
As a professor of late-imperial Chinese history, I have kept it a secret for many years that I have not read one of the most famous books from that era, Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life; at last I read it. Shen Fu’s intimate memoir is a remedy for anyone who thinks that, as Rudyard Kipling once said, “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” Shen’s abiding love for his wife, appreciation for the finer things in life, and his anxieties over supporting his struggling family demonstrate that human concerns are similar no matter where one lives.
And finally, I read, and everyone should read, Plato’s accounts of The Last Days of Socrates. There are many lessons to learn from Plato’s Socrates, but two seem appropriate to 2014. First, public ignorance benefits only the state; and second, “Wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state.”
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and has written books and articles on the Church in China. His most recent book is Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi (University of Washington Press, 2015).
David Paul Deavel:
In fiction I continued to return
to writers who have nourished me before. After reading a half-dozen of her
other novels, I finally read Muriel Spark’s tale of a seductive fascist
schoolteacher, The Prime of Miss
Jean Brodie. Whereas Spark was so brilliant at depicting tyrants,
Penelope Fitzgerald excelled at depicting those on the edges; I read Innocence and The Beginning of Spring to
complete my reading of her novelsand I hope to read Hermione Lee’s new
biography of Fitzgerald soon. Alice Thomas Ellis similarly tackled liminal
figures, and I tackled The
Twenty-Seventh Kingdom, her novel of ethnic Russians and African
nuns in England. Having read his two novels, I was interested in finishing J.F.
Powers’ Complete Stories.
Powers’ short-story mastery helped offset the distaste for the man I got from
reading Suitable Accommodations,
the fascinating but disturbing collection of letters concerning his family life
and career edited by his daughter Katherine. On the
fascinating-but-at-times-disturbing note, I enjoyed re-reading Chesterton’s
Kafka-esque (with a happy ending) Man
Who Was Thursday with a class I taught on Chesterton. For
simple joy and relief from tyrants, liminal figures, and Kafka-esqueness, I
turned to “the old Master,” Blessed Newman’s distant relative P. G. Wodehouse,
for How Right You Are, Jeeves and
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.
Currently it’s adventure time with H. Rider Haggard’s classic King Solomon’s Mines.
With the kids, I enjoyed James
Thurber’s fairy tale The Thirteen
Clocks and Michael Lotti’s debut historical fiction/fantasy St. George and the Dragon. We are
now finishing G.P. Taylor’s The
Political writing also demands
imagination. I was both entertained and depressed by Mark Steyn’s After America. The depressing
aspects of American financial policy pre- and post-crash are detailed in Jay W.
Less depressing were Charles Krauthammer’s collected essays in Things that Matter. Though
personally somewhat religiously skeptical, Krauthammer still illuminates the
world of politics and policy. The most inspiring thing I read of a political
nature this year, however, was Dan Mahoney’s excellent apologia for a man of
enduring relevance in The Other
literature I taught courses on Chesterton and Newman, thus re-attacking big
classics like The Everlasting Man, The Essay on Development, The Grammar of Assent, and The Apologia Pro Vita Sua. On the newer side (and excellent
if you still have gifts to buy) are: Magnificat’s
excellent Splendors of the Creed,
with beautiful art, meditations by Joseph Lienhard, SJ, and poetry selected by
Anthony Esolen; Jake Frost’s masculine, popish meditations on faith and family
in Catholic Dad;
and my colleague John F. Boyle’s Master Thomas and the Fullness of Life, an expanded version
of a lecture that functions well as an introduction to the Dumb Ox. As
spiritual reading I’m again reading Knox’s translation of The Imitation. As Knox rightly
noted, anybody who claims a fondness for the book is “either a dabbler or a
saint.” I’m not fond of it, but I find it does me good. It’s the ideal
supernatural companion to another volume that unmasks human pretensions and
sinfulness, the Maxims of
the 16th-century Duc de la Rochefoucauld,
I rarely read self-improvement or
health books, but a friend introduced me to Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat, a popular
presentation of the scientific case for the low-carbohydrate diet. From my
subsequent experience and that of friends, it works in reality as well as in
theory. However, it’s still liturgically the Christmas season, so you will have
to excuse me now as I tend to a carb-loaded piece of mandatory liturgical joy
known as beer.
David Paul Deavel is associate
editor of Logos: A
Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and adjunct professor of Catholic
Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Dr. Adam A.J. DeVille:
2014 is of course the centenary
year of the outbreak of the Great War. As a consequence, we have seen a flood
of books emerge on the war, which has long deeply fascinated me, not least
because it unleashed such massive suffering on Eastern Christians (inter alia),
including not only the Armenian Genocide of 1915, but also the much lesser-known
slaughter that year of Aegean and Pontic Greeks as well as Assyrian Christians.
Of the new books on the war, The Great and Holy War: How World War I
Became a Religious Crusade (Harper Collins, 2014) by Philip Jenkins is a
singular and fascinating look at how theological language was invoked by all
the warring powersCatholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Muslimto buttress their
hopes of victory. He also details the rise of apocalyptic rhetoric indulged in
by everyone of every tradition. And he makes one thing interesting for
Catholics especially: the Fatima apparitions of 1917 were entirely unoriginal.
That is to say, everybody was
claiming visions during the warof the Theotokos, of Christ, of angels, of
saints, of dead soldiers. Christians and Muslims of all traditions, and even
many self-described atheists or agnostics, claimed to have had visions during
We’ve also seen several new books
on the sunset of the Ottoman Empire. The most rewarding one I have read so far
is Nicholas Doumanis, Before the Nation:
Muslim-Christian Coexistence and Its Destruction in Late Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford
I just finished teaching a course
on icons and iconoclasm. The latter area has seen a surge of new books
recently, including James Noyes, The
Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence, and the Culture of Image-Breaking
in Christianity and Islam (I.B.
Tauris, 2013). By surveying Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic cultures, Noyes
shows that outbreaks of iconoclasm (understood most widely as the destruction
of any kind of art) are always a prelude to a new politicsas seen, e.g., in
Calvin’s Geneva in the 16th century, Orthodox Russia in the 20th under the
Bolsheviks, or Taliban Afghanistan in the 21st.
I’m preparing a major lecture for
next year on eschatology and funeral rites. So I’m half-way through Candi
Cann’s Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the
Dead in the Twenty-First Century (University
of Kentucky Press, 2014). It’s a fascinating study of what happens when death
and dying are “disappeared” from American culture as seen, e.g., in the
increasing disappearance of bodies (thanks to cremation) and actual funerals. She
documents in fascinating detail new forms of grievingInternet memorials,
decals on car windows, “ghost bikes,” crosses along highways, and tattoos on
the living, which reproduce pictures of dead friends or family, sometimes even
using cremains in the tattoo ink so that people carry around on their bodies
parts of the bodies of their loved ones.
In contrast to American culture
and death, Juliet du Boulay’s Cosmos,
Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village (Denise Harvey Publishers,
2009) remains a staggering book of haunting beauty. The worlds-within-worlds
she describes, based on original anthropological research in Greece in the
1970s, is utterly fascinating and poignanta glimpse into an era and a
worldview that now seem lost forever.
Finally, in response to my wife
hectoring me several summers ago that “you need more hobbies,” I got into
canning in a big way, and this year found Kevin West’s Saving the Season: A Cook's Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and
Preserving (Knopf, 2013) lavishly
illustrated and inspiring.
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. He blogs about many more books at http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com.
Thomas M. Doran:
This year, I embarked on a long journey
with Dante, reading Anthony Esolen’s beautiful translation of The Divine Comedy. The modern mind is
challenged to wrap itself around a style of writing so patient and deliberate,
not to mention the many references to historical and mythological figures, but
I was richly rewarded for persevering. I took my time researching translations
and highly recommend Dr. Esolen’s translation: lucid and unforced, with
extraordinary notes on the text. My wife and I visited Italy, France, and Spain
this spring, and I found myself reading “Purgatory” in the shadow of the grand
statue of Dante at the Piazza di Santa Croce in Florence.
Another impressive book was John
William’s Stoner, not well known and
the antithesis of the modern novel in that there are no sensational characters,
events, or surprises, though the story possesses beauty and elegance. The main
character, a professor of English literature, is a type of pagan stoic: noble,
principled (in the pre-Christian sense), fatalistic, and the story itself is a
kind of classical tragedy, with both protagonist and story lacking transcendent
hope. To most of his colleagues and students, Professor Stoner is an
unexceptional teacher and man, but inside he is fighting herculean battles to
remain faithful to his commitments, obligations, and beliefs. There is a poignant
depiction of death in Stoner that’s
one of the best I’ve ever read. A story that makes you reflect on what a
successful life entails.
Thirsting for Prayer by Jacques Philippe may be the most helpful book on prayer I’ve
ever read. Like Father Philippe’s Interior
Freedom, which I’ve read and consulted numerous times, Thirsting for Prayer speaks to mind, heart, and spirit: all three,
with a combination of eloquence and practicality.
Thomas M. Doran is a professional engineer, an adjunct professor
of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and the author of
Jean Danielou’s Philon d'Alexandrie (1958) is one of the great Jesuit’s masterpieces. It takes us inside the world of the first-century Jewish Diaspora and the manner in which Greek thought influenced some of the leading Jewish minds of the time. The links made by Daniélou between Philo’s attention to the Greek understanding of the idea of Logos and the parallels with the Gospel of John are especially revealing.
Winner of the 2006 Nobel for economics, Edmund S. Phelps is one of those rare economists who understand the saliency of value-commitments and the manner in which they shape economic and political life: for better and for worse. His Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change (2013) illustrates that a major reason for Europe’s contemporary economic woesand more than a few of America’scome down to particular value-choices by elites and the broader citizenry. This is the type of book that should be read by those interested in, for instance, moving Catholic social teaching beyond the increasingly redundant conceptual framework bequeathed by nineteenth century industrial capitalism, and in ways that make CST applicable to an increasingly integrated global economy in which we better understand how value-priorities and the institutional settings in which they are embodied make often-decisive contributions to diminishing poverty.
The fourth volume of the definitive biography of Cardinal Henri de Lubac SJ, Henri de Lubac: Tome 4, Concile et après-Concile(1960-1991)(2013),authored by the late Georges Chantraine SJ and completed by co-author Marie-Gabrielle Lemaire, does a superb job in navigating us through the life of another great twentieth-century Jesuit and the Church during and after Vatican II. Chantraine and Lemaire highlight the depth of de Lubac’s faith, but also his humility, in the midst of trends that deeply disturbed de Lubac, but never to the point of despair.
There are always books that all of us reread at different points because of its impact upon us at some point of our live. In my case, it is John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980). Though immensely controversial, no-one can doubt that this text revived the study of natural law throughout much of the West from the moribund state, within both the Church and the secular academy, into which it had fallen after Vatican II. If possible, I would recommend that people read the revised 2011 edition because it contains a postscript in which Finnis clarifies and sharpens a number of important points that continue to be a focus for debate 34 years after the book was first published.
Throughout 2014, I made my way through Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française (2004). Born into a Jewish family in Kiev in 1903, Némirovsky’s family fled the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and eventually settled in Paris. She and her husband were deported to Auschwitz and died there in 1942. Suite française consists of unfinished novel manuscripts that explore ordinary life in France after the catastrophe of defeat in 1940. Discovered by her older daughter more than 50 years later, Suite française captures with an immediate freshness the ambiguities, compromises, and sheer strangeness of urban and rural French life in the first year of German occupation.
Lastly, I’d like to mention Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2005). Chernow illustrates just how much Hamilton remains the father of much of America’s present constitutional and economic framework. Even more impressive, however, are the command of source-material and the depth of psychological insight that Chernow brings to his study of this very brilliant, very complicated, and very tortured man.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He is the author of ten books, including Becoming Europe (2013), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (2010), and The Modern Papacy (2009).
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I started this book about this time last year.
I think I was expecting it to be more sci-fi-ish, or maybe kind of Orwellian.
It wasn’t really eitherbut it was moving and sad and powerful. Considering the
emotional wreck I was after finishing the book, I haven’t had the nerve to
watch the 2010 film adaptation.
The Way of the Cross and A Rocking-Horse
Catholic by Caryll Houselander. Beautiful, meditative reading from this 20th-century
mystic and poet. I read these during Holy Weekhighly recommended!
The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers. In the spring I gave birth to a baby
boy. I have two daughters as well, and while I certainly do not have raising
girls “figured out,” I was filled with trepidation at the thought of a son. The
way I dealt with this trepidation was to assign myself homeworkseveral books
on raising boys, educating boys, challenges faced by boys, and so forth. This
was the best of the bunch. While Sommers’ exploration of the ways in which our
society is systematically stacking the deck against our sons didn’t exactly
lessen my anxiety, it did give me insights into the differences between boys
and girls and how those differences can be respected, especially in schools,
for the benefit of both sexes.
Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler. This is the book I told everyone to read
this year. It is Fulwiler’s story of her transformation from an anti-Catholic
atheist to a popular Catholic blogger and homeschooling mother of six. It is
the story of her intellectual journey to Catholicism and her rigorous,
methodical examination of the relationship between faith and reason, but also
the more personal account of her embrace of the Catholic faith when the rubber
hit the road in her day-to-day life. I interviewed Jennifer about the book here.
A Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher. A hilarious
and refreshing take on a subject often handled either with forced cheerfulness
and positivity or with over-the-top solemnity and dourness. A healthy
corrective for both extremes, and a funny one to boot.
Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth. I must have
been nuts to read this while pregnant! I did have the good sense to steer clear
of the TV series until after giving birth. Like the show, the book is at times
humorous, heartbreaking, and inspiring. Not for the faint of heartand, as much
as I loved it, I would recommend anxious pregnant ladies save this one until
Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien. Our kids get a couple
Christmas books at the beginning of Advent every year; this one was as much for
their parents as it was for them. Every year Tolkien lovingly wrote and
lavishly illustrated a letter from Father Christmas for his young children;
this book compiles and reproduces all of the letters and their illustrations,
right down to the gorgeous and intricate postage stamps Tolkien designed for
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
The Leaves are Falling by Lucy Beckett is the sequel to her masterful novel A Postcard from the Volcano. Read my
review of both books here.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury might just be the best evocation of childhood
that I have ever read. I wrote a review of it here.
The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton (in a new edition illustrated by Ben Hatke) is
balm for the soulor at least it was for me, after a year that saw plenty of
contentious quarrelling among Catholics. Read my review here.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is an alternate history of
an England where magic is practiced with the same prestige as science. Written
in a sort of Austen-esque pastiche mode, it’s a lot of fun if not very deep.
I read a number of the Odd Thomas novels by Dean Koontz. They
are also fun but not deep. Not everything needs to be a masterpiece!
The Rising by Robert Ovies was one of the most fun reads of this year. A
supernatural thriller with a good Catholic subplot, it surprised me with how
gripping it was!
Also worth reading, Ignatius
Press novels from this past season: Tobit’s
Dog, The Accidental Marriage,
and Iota. I read all of them and
enjoyed all of them. You should too!
Something Other than God by Jennifer Fulwiler. Since I designed the cover for this book I
got to read it in manuscript form. It was riveting…and also gave me a serious
case of anxiety as I spent hours and hours trying to figure out a cover that
did the book justice.
Not as the World Gives by Stratford Caldecott is a marvelous collection of essays
primarily on the topic of Catholic Social Teaching, but with many little
discursions into varied topics.
Home Economics by Wendell Berry. The essays in this book are bent upon returning
focus to the home and the local stage.
Human Goods, Economic Evils by Edward Hadas is an admirable and sensible attempt to reorient
our economic focus on humans, using Catholic teaching as a springboard.
The Catholic Guide to Depression by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Father John Cihak
is an essential book for any Catholic who thinks they or someone close to them
might be depressed. Read an interview with the authors here.
Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy’s splendidly contrarian and stubbornly out-of-step
collection of thoughts on the human condition in the modern world. It was
great, and I have a feeling it will be one of those books I reread many times.
The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher. After a
zillion NFP booklets that promise a sunny, perpetually fulfilling experience
with natural family planning, it’s a relief to read a book that takes a more
Books for children:
The third of the Zita books, The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke, arrived this spring and was promptly devoured by my kids. These books have been
worn ragged in our household by repeated readings.
Due to the wonderful animated
adaptation, we discovered the Ernest and
Celestine books by Gabrielle Vincent this year. All of them illustrated
with beautiful watercolors, they have become a favorite in our house.
Tell Me about the Catholic Faith is one of the books Ignatius co-publishes
with Magnificat. As a homeschooling family, this book has become an essential
part of our religion and history classes.
My oldest son’s favorite book of
the year was Carol Ryrie Brink’s Andy
Buckram’s Tin Men. The story of a farm boy who builds a series of robots
that magically come to life during a lightning storm, the book sparked an
interest in robots and building things.
John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius
Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design
for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs.
Roman Catholic Political Philosophy by Father James V. Schall, SJ. Father
Schall employs his usual wit and wisdom in demonstrating the necessity of being
practitioners of what he calls “Roman Catholic political philosophy.” The term
does not mean that the Church has a specific, one-size-fits-all philosophy or
political philosophy. Nor does it mean that we could also have a “Catholic
physics” or “Catholic mathematics.” Rather, the term is simply used in a
dialectical fashion for the purpose of helping us to recover the foundational
principles for all sound reflections upon human affairs, namely, reason and
revelation. The influence of modern thought has often prevented Catholic
thinkers from being able to adequately address the proper relationship between
revelation, metaphysics, and political philosophy, which has ultimately led to
grossly insufficient accounts of what it means to live in a modern liberal
democracy. This is precisely the reason why we should be reading Schall, for he
is willing to tell us exactly where we are, and how it is that the highest
things relate to the most practical. And it must not be forgotten that the
greatest need of modern times is that of restoring the primacy of the
contemplative order, and never neglecting to remember, unlike Linus in Peanuts, where the Church is. And this,
for Father Schall, must be a fundamental principle for any good reflections
upon political things.
Be Healed: A Guide to Encountering the Powerful Love of Jesus in
Your Life by Bob Schuchts.
The overarching premise of the book is that all human beings are deeply
wounded, spiritually and emotionally, and this is precisely the reason that God
became man. Ultimately, Christ wants to heal us. The beauty of the book,
however, rests in the fact that Schuchts goes through the healing process with
the reader, giving intimate details of his own interior wounds that stemmed
from the brokenness of his family as a result of his parents’ divorce. One of
the fascinating elements of this book comes from the personal stories Schuchts
shares of people he has prayed with that have experienced tremendous, and
miraculous, healing from their wounds. One woman had suffered from depression
for almost 45 years. She had been hospitalized for about a year, receiving the
best psychological treatment one could imagine, and eventually had electric
shock therapy to destroy some of her brain cells. Nothing worked. After briefly
speaking with Schuchts on the phone, and getting to the root of her interior
wounds, she was immediately healed of her depression. On top of this, she was
also cured of her lifelong battle with fibromyalgia, which was a somatic effect
of the depression that simply wore out the body. This is only one of the
incredible stories in Schuchts’ book. This is a must-read for all, and a
powerful reminder that we are all wounded and in need of the medicine that only
the Divine Physician can, and wants, to give.
Buckeye Rebirth: Urban Meyer, an Inspired Team, and a
New Era at Ohio State by Bill
Rabinowitz. I must confess: I am an avid Ohio State fan. My father played for
legendary coach Woody Hayes in the early 1970s, and has many humorous stories
of Woody’s powerful personality. This book is an enjoyable read about the
restoration of the tradition of great football at Ohio State. Meyer’s story is
rather rare in the world of sports. He took the Ohio State job only after firmly
recommitting himself to his primary vocation: his wife and children. He lost
sight of what was most important, and suffered mentally and physically in his
final tenure at the University of Florida. Since he has put “first things
first,” he has inspired the Buckeyes and the Columbus community. And more than
simply winning, he is once again enjoying the game the way it was meant to be
Brian Jones is currently a PhD candidate in philosophy at the
University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.
Joseph F. Martin:
Count me a Nicolas Cage fan ever
since witnessing him rant about being “put in Airport Jail!” in
Honeymoon in Vegas. But 24 years on, finding him reduced to playing the bland airline pilot
in a cinematic reboot of the Rapture-happy Left
Behind left me with viewer remorse. And so I found myself critically
revisiting some of my other, older cherished predilections. Among those was the
Premillenial Dispensationalist doom n’ gloom disposition I’d imbibed as a
YoungLifer singing “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” So I was surprised to discover
that while the Catholic understanding of the End Times corrects Fundamentalist
eccentricities, it also affirms some of their essential emphases. For proof
check out Heralds of the Second Coming: Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, and the Popes of the Marian Era from Blessed
Pius IX to Benedict XVI, where Stephen Walford inventories millennial madness as considered from
the purview of Rome. It’s as fascinating asand more inspiring thanany Malachi
Martin potboiler, even if also has to shoulder an unfortunate whopper of a
subtitle. Elsewhere on the Book of Revelation, Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder encouraged me, C.C.
Martindale’s St. John and the Apocalypse
informed me, and Michael Wilcox’s I Saw Heaven Opened reminded me why
Evangelicals have a reputation for being unbeatable Bible expositors.
Gresham Machen’s Letters from the Front and George
Rutler’s Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 were
two sets of wartime reminiscences by two literary heroes that both lived up to
great expectations. Two essays on Cardinal John Henry
Newman, from two different anthologies, were as galvanizing as any sermons I
heard all year long. Taken together, “Newman and Modern Personality” (in
Rutler’s Beyond Modernity) and
“On Newman” (in John Senior’s posthumous The Remnants) offer an Rx for people exhausted by contemporary
clerical hijinks. Another shot in the arm comes from Alice von Hildebrand’s Memoirs of a Happy Failure, in which
everything that makes her so liked and respected is on easy display. And a
final fixone that for me gave better results than a bottle of 5-Hour Energy®was
supplied by Linda McCoullough Moore’s expert channeling of Flannery O’Connor in
Books & Culture, where she
explains why Marilynne Robinson is our new Pearl S. Buck in her essay, “On
Lila: A Dissenting View.”
Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite
Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense did in fact
make a whole lot of sense to me. Page after page hit pay dirt, and his realism
seemed like the exact opposite of the pie-in-the-sky believers are routinely
accused of serving up. I felt like I was listening to my own personal
evangelist upon reading lines like, “You’re lying in the bath and you
noticed that you’re 39 and the way you’re living bears scarcely any resemblance
to what you think you’ve always wanted; yet you got here by choice, by a long
series of choices for things which, at any one moment, temporarily outbid the
things you say you wanted most.”
Spufford’s writing chops also blew me away in Red Plenty, a novelization of
Sputnik-era Soviet economic plotting. Sure the subject matter sounds like
sawdust, but Nick Hornby rightly describes it as “a
hammer-and-sickle version of Altman’s Nashville,”
with party committees replacing the music industry machinations. It’s hard to describe,
but harder not to like.
to be culturally aware, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Aemricanah and
found its observations on race in America in equal parts on-point and
off-putting. I also could not resist the buzz around Karl
Ove Knausgaard’s Proustian and prolix-to-the-point-of-parody My Struggle. I’m still not sure what to
make of its endless narrative, any more than I am of what to make of a Taylor
Swift CD nod to the 80s entitled 1989.
Or quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada’s later rescinded Oscar nomination for “Alone Yet Not Alone.” Or a
former American Idol’s ability to score like Phil Stacey does when he retrieves
a minor Rich Mullins masterpiece called “Hard to Get.” But that hardly means I
didn’t enjoy them all.
Joseph F. Martin, PhD is a professor of communication
and rhetoric at Hampton University in Virginia.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ:
Phiˑlolˑoˑgy: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities by James Turner. My fascination
with words found a true treat here. Turner’s argument is that the
compartmentalization of the intellectual life into modern disciplines
(occurring around 1800) not only enervated robust intellectual wonder but
slowly made the humanities seemingly obsolete in a utilitarian-approached
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love by Elizabeth A. Johnson; Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and
Creation in Early Christian Theology and Piety by Paul M. Blowers; The Patristic Understanding of Creation:
An Anthology of Writings from the Church Fathers on Creation and Design, ed.,
William A. Dembski et al. Preparing for a week-long conference at St. Thomas
University this past summer on the Christian care of creation, I focused on
these three new works. Sr. Johnson’s book on Darwin (entitled from a line in
the Book of Job) really is an illuminative exploration of the life and the
legacy of Charles Darwin; Blowers shows how the Church’s care of creation is
not something reducible to 20th century eco-movements but is traceable all the
way back to the first centuries of Christianity; and Dembski’s foundational
anthology provides most of the primary texts where the Church Fathers discuss
our dominion as faithful stewards over God’s good creation.
The New York Times’ Book of Wine: More Than 30 Years of Vintage
Howard Goldberg. Having grown up on Michigan’s oldest and largest vineyard, St.
Julian Wine Company, I have always appreciated the tradition of winemaking.
This collection gathers some of the best essays by oenophiles and sommeliers of
the past generation.
Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up by Mary Beard. No one on earth
is better equipped to write on the history of humor than this Cambridge classicist.
Dr. Beard is not only a trained academic, she is blessed with wit and a
sophisticated appreciation for all that makes human life fascinating and enjoyablemusic,
food, and that yearning for more that can be heard in every chuckle.
Summer in the Seed by Aelred Squire. When the British writer Stratford Caldecott died
this past summer, I pulled off my shelf one of the books he told me helped his
Catholic conversion more than any other, ultimately a poetic examination of
Christian divinization through a very Thomistic lens.
Partaking Knowledge: Essays After Augustine by James Wetzel. While at
Villanova this past year, I stumbled upon the writings of one of their
philosophers, James Wetzel. This collection of 14 essays on Augustine is simply
brilliant and contains illuminating insights on the “restless heart” which
Augustine knew all too well.
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. On a quick plane ride one day I grabbed this
small autobiography and was again amazed at Helen Keller’s profundity. While
her Christianity may pale, her love of life and of the beauty of this world is
contagious, especially when the word breaks open her prison of silence.
Father David Vincent Meconi, S.J. teaches in the
Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University; he is also the
editor of Homiletic and
Christopher S. Morrissey:
the World Gives: The Way of Creative Justice by Stratford Caldecott (Second Spring,
Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction by Edward Feser (Editiones Scholasticae, 2014).
The One by Whom Scandal Comes by René Girard, translated by
Malcolm B. DeBevoise (Michigan State University Press, 2014).
When These Things Begin: Conversations
with Michel Treguer by René
Girard, translated by Trevor Cribben Merrill (Michigan State University Press,
Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm (Knopf, 2014).
from Underground: A Novel by Roger Scruton (Beaufort Books, 2014).
Be a Conservative by Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury,
The Foundations of Natural Morality: On
the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law by S. Adam Seagrave (University
of Chicago Press, 2014).
Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne (W.W. Norton, 2014).
My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth,
and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich by Dietrich von Hildebrand, translated
and edited by John Henry Crosby with John F. Crosby (Image, 2014).
Christopher S. Morrissey is a professor of philosophy at Redeemer
Pacific College, the Catholic liberal arts college at Trinity Western
University in Langley, British Columbia, where he also teaches Latin.
Carl E. Olson:
Frank Sheed’s Theology
and Sanity, a personal favorite, was originally published in 1946
(republished by Ignatius Press), and it demonstrated a rare clarity of thought
and expression coupled with obvious intellectual depth. In 1966, Sheed’s God
and the Human Condition was published, and it reveals the same clarity and
depth, but with a palpable warmth and personal touch. Republished in 2012 by
Ignatius Press as Knowing God,
it is a riveting, challenging, and edifying read; the early chapters on
“mystery” and “spirit” are worth the price alone. For more about Sheed, see my
extended interview (Part
One and Part
Two) with Sheed expert, Dr. Joseph Martin.
Another recent Ignatius Press
book exhibiting great clarity of thought, as well as some serious backbone, is Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual
Behavior Is Changing Everything, by
Robert R. Reilly, who is a scholar, gentleman, and man of culture. But, of
course, he was called every vile name in the rainbow-colored book by those who
claim, without any shame or irony, to be “tolerant.” Reilly’s book is deeply
philosophical, but also thoroughly researched; it is, ultimately, a warning of
what is and what is likely to come. For more, see
my May 2014 interview with Reilly.
Perhaps the most
thought-provoking book I read this year was How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans,
2014), by Dr. James K.A. Smith. Smith describes his guided tour of Taylor’s
massive (900 pages!) tome, A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007), as “a
commentary on a book that provides a commentary on postmodern culture.” In more
pop culture terms, it is a book about The
Matrix. At its best, it fuses the laconic sensibilities of Walker Percy
with the precise analysis of Benedict XVIno small feat. While I didn’t read A Secular Age from cover
to cover, I did read large swaths, and while I don’t agree with all of Taylor’s
arguments, I think his project is an invaluable one, as I don’t think most
Christians have even begun to seriously grabble with the massive rabbit hole of
secularism. For more, see my
August 2014 interview with Dr. Smith.
On a far lighter note, I read
Richard Wilbur’s delightful book of light poetry, Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences (Sandpiper,
2000) to my two sons, and they made me read it to them again. And again! Poetry
really is one of the very best ways to teach and learn language and good
Sometime in 2015, Ignatius Press
will be publishing a book on theosis and deification that I co-edited with Father
David Meconi, SJ. One of the contributors, Dr. Adam G. Cooper, recently wrote a
fascinating study, Naturally Human,
Supernaturally God: Deification in Pre-Conciliar Catholicism
(Fortress Press, 2014), that examines, in sympathetic and erudite fashion, the
soteriological thought of Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Karl Rahner, and Henri de
Lubac. Dense in places, yes, but very informative. For more, see my
October 2014 interview with Dr. Cooper.
The most quirky and curious book
I read this year was The
Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and
Organizing (Ten Speed Press, 2014) by Marie Kondo. It is, in short,
a strange mix of clear-headed, helpful advice and New Age-y, Oprah-ish clichés.
And, yet, quite enjoyable, especially since Kondo is so obviously eager to help
those, like myself, who have a hard time letting go of, well, any book and
Finally, Rethinking Andrew Wyeth (University
of California Press, 2014), edited by David Cateforis, is the best book on
Wyeth I’ve readand I’ve read most of them. Wyeth has long been spurned by the
artistic elites, and this volume is a big step in setting the record straight.
Wyeth, in my estimation, is the greatest American artist of the 20th century.
He is also, without doubt, the most misunderstood. A must-read for anyone with
a love for great art. If only I could have interviewed the late, great Wyeth
about this book!
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius
I’ll be honest: I don’t read a lot. I watch movies. Oftentimes, I’ll be
reading a book, even a good one, and halfway through think, “I could’ve
finished three movies by now.” Still, being a Catholic academic, I probably
read more than the average American. Rather than embarrass myself by admitting
how few books I’ve read this year, I’ll share with you the two best ones I’ve
Going Clear: Scientology,
Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. This is the story
of Scientology. Like a great detective novel, Wright’s book slowly unravels the
mind of L. Ron Hubbard and the pseudo-religious system he created, employing
extensive documentation and more than 200 interviews, of believers and
non-believers alike, to shred its claims to bits. In the days before Second Life and World of Warcraft, Hubbard imagined an elaborate fantasy world and
used cult tactics to convince others to be living characters in his constructed
Universe. Yet behind this façade lies an important truth. In a world that shuns
religiosity and values only total freedom, people will believe almost anything
if it can give them meaning.
Food: A Love Story by Jim
Gaffigan. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually finished this book. I still have
a couple dozen pages to go, but it’s hard to read without taking the occasional
fries break at McDonald’s. Jim Gaffigan is probably the funniest Catholic on
the planet. Food is a comedic
encyclopedia of eating, detailing thousands of witty observations on every
flavor and genre. A few of my favorites:
“A taco that won’t force you to break your diet just
can’t be that good.”
“Vegetables are the entourage of steak.”
“I don’t understand fruitcake. Fruit, good. Cake, great.
Fruitcake, nasty crap.”
“Bacon is the fairydust of the food world. Don’t like this
salad? Bibbity-Bobbity-BACON! Now it’s an entrée.”
Like eating pigs in a blanket, once you start reading Food, you just won’t be able to stop.
Nick Olszyk is chair of the
Department of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, California.
William L. Patenaude:
In putting together a colloquium
on sustainability for Providence College’s Development of Western Civilization
program, two of the books that my colleague Dr. Michael Kraten suggested have
become my 2014 favorite reads.
H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth. I’d never heard of
this book, but now I tell everyone to read it. It’s a wonderful farce about Edwardian
scientists discovering and unleashing one of nature’s big secrets. This makes a
local vicar, some farmers, a few politicians, and most of the world not at all
pleased with what happens next. I don’t know if he meant it, but The Food of the Gods is really about human
sin. The book can’t be fully unpacked here, so you’d best read it. And if you
do, be prepared to look over your shoulder whenever you hear news about the
next big, marketable scientific discovery.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I read this in
high school but reading it these (many!) years later brought profound appreciation
for both Steinbeck’s talent and the story’s relevance to our time. Today’s tales
about migrant workers, societal and individual care for the homeless, and the
dangers of industrial farming practices (the kinds that have folks today worried
about food waste, water supplies, and top-soil viability) are the same issues
that confront the Joad family and the reader of Steinbeck’s masterpiece.
The colloquium will also use Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein. While its prose may be a bit much for today’s
reader, the story continues to captivate. Frankenstein’s monster desires what we
all do: to love and be loved. To be in relationships. So does Victor
Frankenstein, for that matter. But the scientist cuts himself off from those he
loves (and all humanity) when he puts the pride of discoveryof mastering
natureover the intimacy of the everyday. It’s a surprisingly cautionary
A wonderful essay in the spring 2014 edition
of Communio speaks to these three
works. “‘If Philosophy Begins in Wonder’: Aquinas, Creation, and
Wonder,” by Dr. Randall B.
Smith at the University of
St. Thomas in Houston, critiques the way we in the West toy with nature. The essay is not available online but I posted about it with links to what Smith
rightly brings to our attention.
So that we don’t make the mistakes written about by
Steinbeck, Wells, Shelley, and Smith, I’ll finish with two books released this
year that offer some of the best guidance on the Catholic relationship with
First is a compilation of eco-statements by Benedict XVI, The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology,
(CUA Press). This is a must for anyone who is either excited by, troubled over,
or eager to learn more about the Church’s engagement of environmental issues.
(See my review in Catholic
World Report for more.)
And lastly there is Dr. David Cloutier’s Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and
Catholic Faith (Liturgical
Press). Cloutier, a professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University, offers a
helpful look at the Catholic approach to the ecological
issues of our day and, as it turns out, of the past few hundred years.
Patenaude writes at CatholicEcology.net. He is an engineer with Rhode Island’s Department of
Environmental Management and is a special lecturer in theology at Providence
Matthew A. Rarey:
Two noteworthy tomes bookended my 2014.
The latter, being read with burning intensity into the
New Year, is Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of
Stonewall Jackson, the new bestseller by journalist S.C. Gwynne. A
chronicle as sweeping as the War Between the States, but with a scholarly
attention to detail that draws intimate portraits of men and battles, it
rightfully ensconces Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson among
the canon of American heroes for a new generation.
A devout Christian who could be as tender as a woman
in his personal affections but a hellish scourge for his adversaries, Jackson’s
life was marked by a Calvinist devotion to duty. And his faith infused his
life. Into my quote file is going an excerpt from a letter he wrote early in
the war to his beloved sister Laura. It was the last letter he would write to
her: Laura, perversely committed to her own sense of dutyshe was a committed
Unionistsevered relations with the brother who took up arms in defense of
Virginia, his homeland.
“You speak of your temptations,” wrote the
God withdraws His sensible
presence from us to try our faith. When a cloud comes between you and the sun,
do you fear that the sun will never appear again? I am well satisfied that you
are a child of God, and that you will be saved in heaven, there forever to
dwell with the ransomed of the Lord. So you must not doubt. … Jesus says: “My
yoke is easy and My burden light,” and this is true, if we but seek by prayer
to be taught our duty. If temptations are presented, you must not think that
you are committing sin in consequence of having a sinful thought. Even the
Saviour was presented with the thought of worshipping Satan. … Don’t doubt his
eternal love for you.
A similar devotion to duty, founded in faith,
illuminated the life of another, albeit purely spiritual warrior: Father Walter
J. Ciszek, SJ.
An American from Pennsylvania, he discerned a vocation
within a vocation: to be a missionary to communist Russia. Slipping into the
Soviet Union as a member of a Polish work brigade, he practiced his priesthood
with prudent discretion, but was found out by the commissars and spent nearly
20 years imprisoned within that prison nationnearly five of them in solitary
confinement, most of the remainder in hard labor, which he performed
conscientiously to give glory to God, much to the bewilderment of other
His account of his time imprisoned in He
Leadeth MeI read the 1995 Ignatius Press paperback editionis a spiritual
odyssey that can give hope and clarity to anyone finding this vale of tears an
especially trying slog.
His prison sentence did not put his priesthood into
solitary confinement, however. Even in the Gulag he secretly heard confessions,
celebrated Mass, and catechized prisoners. After all, his mission to Russia was
an apostolate, essential to fulfilling his own vocation. In going to Russia, he
all I had known and done before,
in order to adapt myself to an entirely new, strange, difficult, and strenuous
life of hardship in which to carry on an apostolate. Such sacrifice is the
first test of any vocation, any calling to follow God’s will. “In the head of
the book it is written of me,” the prophets had said of Christ, “I come to do
That was to be the keynote of his life and of his
vocation, as it is the keynote of every Christian vocation, and it was only in
the light of that faithfulness of the Father’s will through sacrifice and pain
that one should hear Christ’s words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I
commend my spirit.”
I finished reading He Leadeth Me on a
cold winter’s night last March, lying in bed in the loft of the family cabin in
the bluff country of southwest Wisconsin and wishing that the book, unlike its
author’s harsh sentence, had been extended. I told the local parish priest how
much I appreciated it, and was warmly surprised that Father Peter Auer had met
with the late Father Walter J. Ciszek’s sister when he was a seminarian in
Connecticut. Father Auer, Austrian-born and, thus, something of a missionary
himself, has also found strength and encouragement from Father Ciszek’s story.
The same palpable faithprojected with passion and intelligence, personalized
with his native Gemütlichkeit and good cheeris evident in
Father Auer’s own homilies. Some of them have been recorded and uploaded to
YouTube. I encourage you to look them up in this New Year. They’re timeless.
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.
V. Schall, SJ:
The book that I enjoyed most this
year was Anne Burleigh’s privately published biography of her father: Ralph Husted: The Time of His Life: A
Daughter’s Recollections. It
is simply an account what it is to be a good man.
Though I am only part way through
Edward Feser’s Scholastic
Metaphysics, that and Peter Redpath’s A Not-So-Common Metaphysics, prove again the abiding centrality
of metaphysics and the cultural loss when it is forgotten or corrupted.
Along with these two books, Mario d’Souza’s
collection Being in the World: A Quotable
Maritain Reader serves to compensate for the loss of
Benedict XVI’s frequent philosophical and theological insights.
I found the new paperback edition
of John Mueller’s Redeeming
Economics to complete in an orderly way what is lacking in
economic theory, something Jennifer Roback Morse’s Love and Economics began
J. Budziszewski’s Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on
Law, Daniel Mahoney’s The
Other Solzhenitsyn, Ernest Martinez’s The Gospel Accounts of the Death of Jesus,
and Michael Warner’s The
Rise and Fall of Intelligence: An International Security History fill
out a very rich year of what is not light but still fascinating reading.
Finally, in a used book store in
Mountain View, the home of Google, I found Enter
Jeeves: 15 Early Stories by P. G. Wodehouse. A story entitled “Absent
Treatment” ends this wayI shall end these comments by citing it: “There
occurred to me the simple epitaph which, when I am no more, I intend to have
inscribed on my tombstone. It was this: ‘He was a man who acted from the best
intentions. There is one born every minute.’” This is mindful of what E.F.
Schumacher wrote in that memorable book, A
Guide for the Perplexed, that we “judge ourselves by our intentions but
others by their actions.”
V. Schall, SJ taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many
years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless
essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics.
The two best books I read in 2014
were Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot and The Stories of J.F. Powers. A word about each.
Felix Holt is not one of George Eliot’s great novelsno Middlemarch, certainlybut
Eliot was a writer of genius, and Felix
Holt is her work and therefore well worth reading. The central character is
an idealistic young man, an autodidact, who believes that education rather than
revolution is the key to uplifting the lower classes.
published in 1866 and, typical of Victorian novels, features several loosely
linked subplots, often more or less incredible, involving contested
inheritances and dark secrets. There is also considerable discussion of issues
vexing a British society then in transition. But it isn’t the story or the
sociology that counts here, so much as the brilliantly depicted characters and
the acute psychological analysis. That Mary Ann Evans, she surely could write!
J.F. Powers’ reputation is
probably larger than his readership, but his fiction provides what is likely to
remain the definitive picture of American Catholicism in the two decades before
Vatican Council II. The collected stories are, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, but
several have what is likely to prove enduring value.
Of particular interest are the
sometimes snarky narratives of clerical life depicting quite ordinary men
plodding and stumbling along pathways marked out by a calling well beyond their
human capacities. To my taste, two in particular stand out“Lions, Harts, and
Leaping Does” (about two radically
different approaches to the spiritual liferule-keeping vs. the profound
simplicity of trust in God) and “Prince of Darkness” (about a priest far gone in acedia).
Russell Shaw is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide: Secrecy,
Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church and American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and
Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.
As everybody connected with
magazines knowsor, at least, should knowthe chief criterion for measuring the
value of a newly issued book is: would you pay good money to buy it rather than
simply keeping your free review copy of it? Two such books which well and truly
passed the would-you-buy-it reviewing test were both on early music: Calvin
Stapert’s Haydn biography, Playing Before
the Lord (for a fuller discussion of Professor Stapert’s admirable work,
July 18, 2014), and Capturing Music,
a fascinating and often witty chronicle by Harvard’s Thomas Forrest Kelly,
dealing with the improbable development of how written records for the most
evanescent of all arts came to exist in the first place. Of all musical
periods, the early Middle Ages must have attracted more incoherent and
fact-free prose, more sanctimonious conjectures masquerading as facts, than any
othereven the average Pierre Boulez hagiography seems almost logical by
comparisonbut it is Professor Kelly’s feat to have made this topic riveting
even to the least medieval-minded among us.
An honorable mention should go to
a third musicological treatise from 2014, more specialized than the above two: A Heinrich Schütz Reader: Letters and
Documents in Translation, by Toronto’s Gregory S. Johnson. Nothing like
this has appeared before in English or, apparently, even in German. While the
result is not exactly holiday readingit presupposes a greater knowledge of 17th-century
Teutonic culture than most of us will haveI can only repeat here what I said
about the volume in the August number of Sydney’s Limelight magazine: “Schütz seems never, alas, to have made the
transition between textbook-writers’ boilerplate (‘greatest German composer
before Bach’) and the wider concert-going public’s enthusiasm … But those who
have already caught the Schütz bug will find Professor Johnston’s superbly
produced compilation indispensable, however high-priced.”
Anyone who cares about Dwight
Macdonald (so seldom remembered nowadays compared to such greatly inferior
cultural pessimists as Adorno and Habermas, but so much clearer and more
epigrammatic a thinker than they could ever be) will need the recent monograph
by a Polish academic, Tadeusz Lewandowski. Called Dwight Macdonald on
Culture: The Happy Warrior of the Mind, Reconsidered, it is the very type
of intelligent, unspectacular study which tends to get overlooked amid more
sensationalist efforts (Hitler’s Willing
Freakonomic No-Logo Executioners On Fire) hogging the newspapers’
nonfiction coverage. It deserves to
last, and its brevity should mislead no one. Every sentence of Professor
Lewandowski’s earns its keep.
This Christmas I have set myself
to re-examine the 1951 masterpiece by a friend of Macdonald’s: Hannah Arendt,
who of course had her early articles published in Macdonald’s Politics well before The New Yorker took her seriously. These
days it is fashionable to take pot-shots at The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Baby-leftists, already affronted by Arendt’s ability to make the obvious
distinctions between Mussolini and Hitler, can never forgive her for diagnosing
the malignity of Leninism and in particular Stalinism well before they did. Neocons
(girly-cons?) can likewise never forgive Arendt for calling out pre-1914
“scramble for Africa” imperialistsso dreadfully prophetic of post-Cold-War
“exporting democracy” laptop-bombardiersor for implying that Hohenzollern
Germany had any artistic merits at all. Let babies and girlies alike snigger:
the most obvious single thing about The
Origins of Totalitarianism is not how much of it has been invalidated by
later research, but, to the contrary, how little of it has been. Incredibly
enough, only a decade before it appeared, Arendt remained a novice in using the
R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of
César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by the poet Christian Wiman is a
series of fragmented reflections on what it means to search
desperatelysometimes agonizinglyfor faith. In Wiman’s case, many of these
passages were penned during a serious illness that he expected would kill him.
Soul-stirring and haunting.
Jody Bottum’s masterful new book,
An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant
Ethic and the Spirit of America, is a must-read for anyone hoping to make
sense of the decline of Protestantism in America and the rise of
intellectualized Catholics who attempted to offer an alternative moral
vocabulary for the country. You can find my full review of it here.
Sharp analysis and enviously good prose.
Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community,
Living My Faith by Eve
Tushnet is a wonderfully accessible account of what it means to faithfully
adhere to the Church’s teachings on sexuality, while finding one’s true
vocation and learning to live a full, complete life. Tushnet has done the
Church a great service by writing this book and should be commended for her
honesty. And, for such serious subject matter, it’s a wickedly funny read.
Charlie Camosy’s For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics,
Consistent Action gives thoughtful consideration to the much-neglected
question of what we owe to animals. Mary Eberstadt’s important 2009 essay in First Things, “Pro-Life,
Pro-Animal,” convinced me that Christians would do well to give animal welfare
more attention as a pragmatic approach to seeking new converts to the pro-life
cause. Charlie’s book persuaded me to finally take this serious enough to
change my eating habits. It might not convince everyonebut it should give you
food for thought.
Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging by Gilbert Meilaender explores
the tension between the desire to affirm the good of life and (understandably) wanting
to extend it as long as possible, while also considering possible limitations
to these efforts. And in the process, it provides some beautiful reflections on
what it means to simply live well. A worthwhile read for all ages.
Christopher White is the director of research
and education for the Center for Bioethics and Culture.