Book image via us.fotolia.com
“That is a good book,” wrote Amos Bronson Alcott
(1799-1888), the father of novelist Louisa May Alcott, “which is opened with
expectation, and closed with delight and profit.”
It’s also true, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, of
making many books there is no end. But, of course, I read that in a
bookThe Good Book. A world without books is hard to imagine, and among
the great joys of this life are reading, contemplating, and conversing
about good books. It has now been 10 years since I posted the first
“Best Books I Read in…” piece,
and each year since there have been more contributors and more books. This is
the third year that this popular feature has been on the CWR site (it was
originally featured on the Ignatius Insight site), and this year we have nearly
40 contributors. I am thankful for their willingness to take part in this
special end-of-the-year feature.
As always, the criteria given to 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. Read on!
Carl E. Olson, Editor
Mary Jo Anderson
Bradley J. Birzer
Anthony E. Clark, PhD
Dorothy Cummings McLean
David Paul Deavel
Adam A.J. DeVille
Thomas M. Doran
Aurora C. Griffin
Thomas S. Hibbs
Joseph Martin, PhD
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ
Christopher S. Morrissey
Michael J. Nader
Carl E. Olson
William L. Patenaude
Matthew A. Rarey
Dom Alcuin Reid
I was on a Richard III kick. In addition to re-reading
Shakespeare’s play, which is fascinating and utterly false, I read Paul Murray
Kendall’s biography of this truly tragic (and Catholic) king of England, and
the novel Daughter of Time, by
Josephine Tey, which is rightly considered one of the greatest mysteries ever
written, but full of facts!
Then I went on a Sheila Kaye-Smith kick. A contemporary of
Chesterton, and, like GKC, a convert and famous in her own day but forgotten in
ours. I read her autobiography, Three
Ways Home, and two of her novels, The
End of the House of Alard (better than Downton
Abbey and covering the same subject!) and Superstition Corner.
an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, explains why a lot
of developing nations around the world are, to put it mildly, not too happy
with America. Sobering.
For something more inspiring and edifying, I read The Spiritual Writings of Flannery O’Connor.
Unlike many of my friends, I’ve never been keen on her fiction, but this book
During a visit to Italy this summer I discovered the Don Camillo stories by Giovanni
Guareschidelightful stories about a small village in Italy following World War
II and the ongoing battle of wits and wills between the Communist mayor and the
parish priest. The priest is inspired somewhat by Chesterton’s Father Brown,
but they are not to be confused! My favorite book of the year.
Now, I also read some books that were actually published in 2015,
though one of them may not count, since I published it: The Woman Who Was Chesterton, by Nancy Carpentier Brown. The first
biography ever written about Frances Chesterton, GKC’s wife, who has remained
in his large shadow far too long.
the Jews by Ann Farmer is thorough scholarly
treatment of this thorny issue. It is longer than most biographies of GKC, and
it fully and calmly addresses the onerous criticisms against a good man, who
loved everyone, including the Jews. I am reminded that GKC once wrote: “Brave
men do not resent an accusation, they refute it.”
Another great book about GKC came out late in the year: G.K. Chesterton - A Reappraisal, by
Denis Conlon, one of the world’s great Chesterton scholars. Drawing on years of
research, he brings out wonderful new material by and about GKC. A perfect
complement to the Frances Chesterton biography.
Of course, I also read a lot of pure Chesterton because, as it
turns out, I’m still on a Chesterton kick. I read mostly from his Daily News and New Witness essays, in which I ran across this line: “Liberty is
never an easy thing. The man or the nation who seeks liberty under the
impression that it is an easy thing, has always sunk, and always deserved to
sink, back into slavery, which is the very home of ease.”
Dale Ahlquist is president of the
American Chesterton Society and publisher of Gilbert Magazine.
Mary Jo Anderson:
of my reading in 2015 was to prepare for the Ordinary Synod on the Family.
Books that I found invaluable were: Mary Eberstadt, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution;
Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense;
Eleven Cardinals Speak On Marriage and
Family: Essays From a Pastoral Viewpoint (ed. Winifred Aymans).
Godden was a gifted Catholic author whose novels pierce and heal the heart. In The Battle for the Villa Fiorita, when
a perfectly proper English mother is swept into an illicit romance by an
Italian movie director, she leaves behind (temporarily, she hopes) her three
children. The younger two brave unknown perils to follow her to the lovely
hamlet of Malcesine on Lake Garda to “bring Mummy home.” The children knew “why
few years I re-read The Trouble of It Is
or If Nothing Don’t Happen by
David Newell. Newell was editor of Field and Stream, a friend of
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and of Annie Oakley. His fictionalized true
stories are a colorful splash of life along the Withlacoochee River in Florida
before WWII. These books never fail to bring belly laughter and rueful
recognition of Fallen Man. Beg, borrow, or pay dearly for this out-of-print
treasure. On the topic of World Wars, to
mark the hundredth anniversary of WWI, I read British historian Christopher
Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to
War in 1914. It helped me get my mind around what happened? Eerily,
many of the same conditions and attitudes exist again in Europe.
Wouk is 100 years old. The author of such classics as The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War, Wouk wrote The
Language God Talks: On Science and Religion at age 95. This slim volume
spans the cosmos, in a manner of speaking. Wouk (a believing Jew) describes his
interviews with stellar scientists as “monstrously pushy” but we learn that at
least the atheist Feynman (atomic bomb, quantum mechanics) was amused. I’m not
sure this is a favorite 2015 entry yet, but I will reread it. After all,
science is neutral data. What matters is why and how we apply scienceand
science doesn’t have the answer to that question.
Noonan knows America and Americans. A collection of personally chosen columns
spanning decades, The Time of Our Lives
offers cultural insights that pack a punch despite her signature restraintdon’t
philosophers I read each year are James V. Schall, SJ and Marion Montgomery.
The former is already beloved by many CWR readers. The latter was a Southerner,
a professor, and a “witness” to a world dangerously devolving. This year I read
Virtue and the Modern Shadows of Turning.
The primary question addressed is “Can virtue be taught?” The context is virtue
within a decaying civilization, which brings to mind the recent discussions
about “the Benedict
Option.” Montgomery saw our horizonthe chaos on our
university campuses: “…in these hard times such a question is seldom raised in
the usual academic environment.”
are also examined. In the chapter “The Hungry Sheep Look Up and Are Not Fed,”
Montgomery thumps religious leaders for their rather militant pacifism. Here,
he quotes Schall, “If the summum bonum is merely preventing the world
from being blown up, we are headed for a world organized by the doctrine that
only physical survival matters.” Montgomery warns, should that be the
prevailing dogma, then “…life has meaning only at the materialistic level…an
absolute advanced by the dialectical materialist.” There is clarity to be
hadboth of these philosophers point the way. Montgomery rejects despair:
“Where two or three are together, we have been reminded, all manner of things
shall be well.”
Mary Jo Anderson is a
Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics,
religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications.
Bradley J. Birzer:
older I get, the more diverse reading technology becomes (e-books, audiobooks,
“book” books), the more words I find myself devouring. I still prefer the
actual physical, tangible, real-life book, but when it comes to travel or
snuggling with a four-year old daughter, it’s hard to beat the convenience of
the e-reader. This year was especially good in terms of readingwhat was
printed and what was re-discovered.
spent the vast amount of reading time during summer break to re-read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and large parts of the larger Tolkien (J.R.R. and
Christopher) mythology. I’ve read, written about, and taught Tolkien for years,
but the wisdom contained in Tolkien’s Legendarium hit me as never before.
Perhaps it’s my age or perhaps it’s the
age, but I believe that if every college student had to read The Silmarillion before graduating, the
world would be a better place. Two related works hit me hard as well. Christina
Scull and Wayne Hammond meticulously edited and annotated the gorgeous The Art of the Lord of the Rings. Over
at The American Conservative, I
happily labeled this my favorite book of 2015.
close onein terms of absolutely joysis Janet Brennan Croft’s Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern
British Fantastic in World War I. Nothing Brennan Croft does is
unimportant, but this collection is especially captivating and moving. It also
serves as a critical piece of literary criticism, placing Tolkien in the
context of his earth-shattering times. I had a chance to ask her about the
motive behind publishing the book. She graciously responded: “I wanted to demonstrate that much of the
great flowering of fantasy literature by British writers in the early and mid-20th
century could be interpreted as a response to the Great Warin part
transforming the authors’ personal trauma into something more bearable,
applicable, and universally relevant” with deep if not comprehensive glimpses
into “the home fronts, the infirmaries, the wounded landscapes both interior
and exterior, and the healing that can come from myth and fantasy.”
of my best new personal encounters this year was with the sci-fi masters and
book publishing entrepreneurs Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. I’ve been
reading them both for well over 20 years, but this year I thoroughly enjoyed
the first two volumes of Anderson’s mind-bogglingly vast Saga of Shadows trilogy, his Enemies
and Allies (a deeply psychological examination of Batman and Superman, set
in the Cold War of the 1950s), and several of his Dune books.
intriguing, beautifully written, and simply captivating is the first Kindle
single written by John J. Miller, The
Polygamist King, the horrifying true story of a rebellious Mormon dictator
who established a kingdom in the Great Lakes in the 1850s. The single,
tellingly, begins with regicide. By the end of this roller-coaster read, the
reader is none-too-sorry to see the would-be king’s demise.
it comes to political thought, I found James R. Otteson’s The End of Socialism the first great book in that area of study
since Hayek’s 1960 Constitution of
Liberty. The author is one of Western civilization’s finest living
thinkers. Along the same lines, the irrepressible Tom Woods’ Real Dissent is a must-read and must-own.
A devout Catholic, Woods analyzes nearly everything that matters regarding
domestic policy in this whirligig we call America. To round out this trio of
excellent and painstaking political and economic thought, one should also read
Steve Horwitz’s latest masterpiece, Hayek’s
favorite re-discovery was The English
Way: Studies in English Sanctity from St. Bede to Newman, edited by Maisie
Ward in 1933. I’ve had the book on my shelves for nearly a decade, and, for
some reason, it fell into my hands this fall. Featuring penetrating essays by
G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, and Hilaire Belloc, I read the book in a
day. It desperately needs to see print again. The English Way stimulated my brain, to be sure, but it, more
importantly, energized my soul.
book I’ve studied lovingly this yeara publication almost as beautiful as The Art of the Lord of the Ringsis Hugh
Symes’s Art of Rush. Written by
Stephen Humphries, the book looks at 40 years of art behind the albums, books,
and concerts of one of rock’s most enduring bands. Additionally, I read lots of
Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, and Chuck Dixon.
Bradley J. Birzer is the second Visiting
Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of
Colorado-Boulder and Professor of History at Hillsdale College.
life means lots of travel by bus, Tube and train. No wifi (yet!) on London
buses. I do embroidery (church kneelers, since you askeasy work with wool),
enjoy sudden glorious viewsTower Bridge in evening light, red-brick
Westminster Cathedral among grey office blocksand I read. A lot.
books this year:
Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher: Volume 1 Not for Turning and
Volume 2 Everything She Wants.
The second volume has fascinating material on the Falklands war, and
gripping accounts of her meeting with Gorbachev and the visit to Russia where
she was mobbed by eager crowds. This was one of the central moments in the
collapse of Communism. Reading Moore’s superb bookswell researched, elegantly
writtendoes more than just revive memories among those of us who were young in
the 1980s: it also sets the record straight for today’s young, who are being
taught rubbish by school history lessons too often dominated by the
straitjacket thinking of the political left enforced through teaching unions
and curriculum “advisers.”
Weigel’s revised and reprinted Letters to a Young Catholic. I’m
not young (see above) but bought the book on the grounds that I could give it
to a godson, and then got stuck into it myself so will have to buy a new copy
for him. It’s an excellent read: the Letters are all from different
places and explore various aspects of the Faith, offering often challenging
insights. It was a good idea to revise and update this book with new material
from the author’s continuing travels: I liked the thoughts from Ely Cathedral,
refreshingly free of standard stuff about ageless stone and so on, and it is
impossible not to be moved by descriptions of Maximillian Kolbe’s Auschwitz
cell or Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses.
Rogers is a friend: he asked me to read
his book From Burma to Rome before
it was published. It described his decision to become a Catholic in the context
of his work for persecuted Christians through the organization Christian
Solidarity Worldwide. The result is a fascinating and unusual story of a
spiritual journey set alongside other journeys to different parts of the world.
His reception into the Church finally took place in Burma, at the hands of the archbishop
therethis is very much a 21st-century story and a post-Vatican II Church and
it makes for a fresh and inspiring read that reflects the great and wonderful
possibilities emerging for the Church in the years ahead. If you have been
brought up on the conversion stories of Newman, Ronald Knox, and G.K. Chesterton,
try this new one and you will see what I mean. There’s a sense of continuity
mixed with growth and change, all rather exciting.
Saint John Paul II, edited by Wlodzimierz Redzioch, is a
terrific read: lots of powerful material, many rich insights. Best among a
great collection is the interview with Wanda Poltawska, the Ravensbruck
survivor who worked with Archbishop Karol Wojtyla to help families in the
difficult social conditions created by communism, and through his ministry
found her own healing and peace. The testimony of Archbishop Deskurparalyzed
by a stroke, visited by Pope John Paul hours after the latter was elected popeis
also a great read. And the stories from the Vatican gendarme who helped ensure
security when John Paul escaped from the Vatican to go walking and skiing in
the mountains is a delight. I think this was my chief must-read among all the
books of 2015.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United
As usual, I exclude the outstanding Ignatius Press titles I
read in manuscript form and any Ignatius Press published titles I read. (There
is one semi-exception, as you will see.)
Although I read a lot, I can’t say I retain as much as I
should, nor that I adequately profit from the time spent. Oh well. Reading for
sheer fun is sheer fun. I do that pretty well. Reading “for fun and profit”
(“profit” broadly construed) is leisure-work. As such, it is intrinsically
rewarding but it also takes some effort. In a certain respect, it is like
investing in the stock market. You can probably get by okay, if you’re
reasonably lucky in your picks and have a modicum of intelligence or, more
likely, good advice. But to make a “killing,” you have to put a lot more time and
effort into it. You have to invest.
The bigger the investment, the bigger the pay-off. Probably I should “invest”
In any event, here are the main titles I found worthwhile
Everybody by Mortimer Adler. My sixth reading. I read it on my iPad, on a
plane trip to and from St Louis. Adler was a master of lucidity. (At least the
older Adler was.) Aristotle was, well, Aristotle. The philosophy of common
sense was his thing. As mediated by Dr. Adler it is “everybody’s business.” This
book is a great starting point for young people of whatever age who are
interested in thinking well about the world, even about such mundane things as
apples and eternity (in a certain Aristotelian sense). The book provides a
great overview of man the maker, man the doer, and man the knower. I know the
experts will roll their eyes. That’s okay. A few of them should read the
booknot to learn about Aristotle, all about whom they know, but how to write
about him (and other subjects) for the rest of us.
Bigger on the
Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who edited
by Gregory Thornbury and Ned Bustard. Insightful evangelical Protestant
Christians write about Christianity and Doctor
Who. The essayists largely use Who episodes
as springboards to discuss big ideas and major issues in life, according to
evangelical Protestant Christian perspectives. Lots of fun and insights.
The Call of the Wild
by Jack London. A classic animal story? Not quite. It’s more complicated than
meets the eye. Yes, it’s about dogsespecially the main character, Buckand men
looking for gold in the Klondike region. But, although some folks treat the
book as children’s fiction or an adventure tale for teens, its themes are
complex. If you read this as a boy or a girl, re-read it as an adult. See what
you think. How ought we to react to the changes in Buck’s character? Do these
changes bear on human development? Is this social Darwinism?
The Catholicity of
Reason by D.C. Schindler. I found this a challenging read but well worth
the effort. Many Catholic philosophical and theological types these days start
from a more or less Thomist perspective regarding faith and reason. Especially
the apologetics folk I sometimes interact with. This work travels a more
Augustinian theological route.
Conjugal Union: What
Marriage Is and Why It Matters by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George. Sheer
good sense on the subject of marriage, especially as regards public policy.
Marriage is one of those basic things familiarity makes it difficult for many
of us to think clearly about. Lee and George help immensely. Some folks who
aren’t enthusiastic about the new natural law theory may not like this or that
element of their argument. But still. Even granting their reservations about
basic goods, such readers should find the book an insightful treatment of
marriage, one immensely useful in wider discussions of what was once obvious to
most people but which is now highly controversial.
The Drama of
Salvation by Jimmy Akin. A great overview of the Catholic “take” on the
subject. Highly readable.
Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity by John Gribbin with
Mary Gribbin. A work of biography, history, and physics marking the centenary
of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. (Note: Gribbin stresses that it is
the General Theory of Relativity, not
the Theory of General Relativity.
Good luck to him in his efforts to make the titular point stick.) 1915 trumps
1905, in Gribbin’s account.
Doctrine of Revelation by Matthew Levering. One of the six thousand books
Matthew Levering published in 2014. A good overview, with the subject matter
explored in terms of the themes of Church, liturgy, priesthood, gospel,
tradition, development, inspiration, and philosophy. Levering is a real
theologian who is a pleasure to read (not all real theologians are).
by Ralph McInerny. An overview of ethics representing “standard-take” Thomism
by one of the late-20th century’s great Thomist philosophers. The “old natural
law” school as opposed to the new natural law theory of Finnis, Grisez, George,
Theology by Robert Barron. He writes too well to be a theologian and (now)
a bishop. But he is both. Amazingly so. He “does” real theology. And you can
understand what he writes. In fact, he is so lucid you might be tempted to
think he isn’t really “doing” theology. Isn’t theology always supposed to be
difficult to understand? Nope. Not that this book is the lazy reader’s guide to
theology. You do need to think about
what you read here. It’s just that you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount
of time trying to figure out what the author means before you can start
thinking about whether you think it’s true. The things he writes about pose the
challenge to the reader’s thinking, not the words in which he chooses to write
about them. In some ways, this is a collection of various articles, with a
modest structure to link them. Still, there is a great theological framework
connecting many of the essays. God, theology and philosophy, liturgy and
Eucharist, and the new evangelization are the main categories into which the
author places his various essays.
The Iliad by
Homer, translated by W.H.D. Rouse. I re-read the Iliad. It was like reading an expanded edition of the original.
It’s amazing what re-reading a work after 20 years can do for your
understanding of a great book. I simply missed huge parts of the storysuch as
how well Homer depicts the multiple dimensions of Hector, including his
tenderness as husband and father, and the authenticity of Achilles’
transformation from the subhuman/ultrahuman beast-god into a real human being
who can exercise prudential restraint and compassion. Maybe gaining significant
life experience helped me to see more this time!
The Lost World of
Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate by John H. Walton.
Another evangelical Protestant discovers Divino
Afflante Spiritu. (Sorry. I don’t really
mean to be snarky.) Another in a series of recent books by evangelical
Protestant scholars emphasizing that you don’t need to be a fundamentalist to
respect the Bible. Indeed, that not being
a fundamentalist is more respectful of the Bible. Some of the particulars I
find problematic (as if my judgment
in such matters has significance) but the general thrust of the book seems
helpful. There may not be as much distance between ancient Hebraic thinking
about creation and later Christian theology as the author supposes, but there
certainly is much more distance than fundamentalists presuppose.
The Man Who Was
Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. This
is the semi-exception to my rule against including Ignatius Press books, as
this is a public-domain book available from other sources in addition to being
published by Ignatius. Probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve read this book.
Really, this has to be made into a feature film. It’s fun, philosophical, and
even mystical. Like Chesterton himself. A detective story of a very different
sort from Father Brown tales. A great Sunday afternoon read.
The Resurrection of
Jesus: A New Historiographic Approach by Michael R. Licona. Masterful work
of evangelical critical scholarship. A bit too long in the set-up dealing with
the philosophy of history (in my humble opinion) but still a major
contribution. A careful, humble, honest, intelligible treatment of the subject
matter by someone trying to be critical and self-correcting regarding his
interpretive and conceptual “horizon,” when it comes to assessing the evidence
for the resurrection of Jesus.
The Theology of
Marriage by Cormac Burke. It should be required reading for every (1)
leader of a diocesan office for marriage and family life; (2) seminarian; (3)
bishop; (4) priest; (5) deacon; and (6) participant at the Extraordinary Synod
of Bishops 2014 and the Ordinary Synod of Bishops 2015. (Not to mention those
working in the tribunal.) It’s not the last word but it’s a helpful,
Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America by Thomas
G. West. Going to high school in the 1970s: the founders weren’t as great as
you and I were led to believe. They pretty much were losers. Reading Thomas G.
West: the founders weren’t as bad as you and I were led to believe. They said
and did great things, despite having their flaws and other limitations. When
all is said and done, West’s side of things seems right, contrary to what many
of our high school and college teachers let on. Criticisms of the founders are
due but not in the ways many of us were taught, and there is much to commend.
Sorry if my opinion in this regard is taken as impinging on somebody’s “safe
The Violent Bear it
Away by Flannery O’Connor. How can you not like a book with a protagonist
named Tarwater? In many ways this is the story of my life. In most ways,
though, it ain’t. Likewise with you, probably. Deo gratias. Unless you’ve been called to be a prophet or a school
teacher, in which case this is a cautionary tale or perhaps a vocational
discernment challenge. Otherwise, it’s just a terrific (in many senses) story.
Mark Brumley is
president of Ignatius Press.
Anthony E. Clark, PhD:
As much as
I disagree with Will Durant’s disdain for Christianity, I must admit my
admiration of his affinity for reading good books. In his usual flare for
elegant prose, Durant once wrote of his aspiration to adore the books in his
library, “and string their names like beads on a rosary,” reading his beloved
volumes in “voluptuous chairs inviting communion and reverie, shaded lamps
illuminating sanctuaries here and there.” This year was a busy one, occupied
with too much travel and a demanding academic schedule, and it was the rare
hours of reading in “voluptuous chairs” that constituted some of the most
nourishing moments of 2015.
On a whim I
pulled my copy of Martin Mosebach’s The
Heresy of Formlessness off my shelves and placed it beside my bed for
“nighttime reading.” It made sleeping difficult, for its richness of thought
and insight into the meaning and purpose of the Roman Catholic liturgy kept me
awake to digest the next page. Few books would I recommend so adamantly as this
one, and few books would I insist that seminarians read with alacrity as
Mosebach’s masterpiece of correct liturgical thinking.
In the same
vein of liturgical enrichment, I read Hugh Wybrew’s The Orthodox Liturgy and mused on how an Anglican clergyman could
write so well of the Divine Liturgy without entering fully into the Apostolic
Catholic or Orthodox churches. As a Byzantine Rite Catholic I was impressed by
Wybrew’s ability to present such an informed and cohesive explication of the
liturgy of the Eastern Church, and hope that Roman Catholics commit to reading
this work, so that, if nothing else, they can better understand the Eastern
“lung” of the Catholic faith, as St. John Paul II referred to the Eastern
In a fit of
pessimism regarding the state of our political landscape, I read Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World. I have
little to say about this book other than that it would be an appropriate
Wikipedia entry for “The Twentieth Century.”
and especially the university administrators who oversee professors, should
read Mark William Roche’s trenchant work Why
Choose the Liberal Arts? Why choose the liberal arts? Because, as Roche
puts it, only the liberal arts can help students “find a higher calling that
allows them to gain meaning” in a world that has become more attentive to the
“benefits” of a lucrative salary than the far more profound and priceless gifts
of intellectual and spiritual wisdom.
bit onerous to work though at times, but well worth the exertion is the
brilliant collection of lectures by Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas entitled Lectures on Christian Dogmatics.
Despite his occasional reproach against Catholicismgripes that I think are
overstated or uninformedZizioulas’ ideas are unusually astute, especially his
remarks about what it means to have been created “in God’s image,” and how this
relates to our obligation to provide due care for our burdened planet.
best scholarly books I have read in recent years is Ernest P. Young’s monograph
Ecclesiastical Colony, which
outlines the missionary ethos of French Catholics in 19th- and 20th-century
China. While popes and comparatively enlightened clergy advocated the formation
of an indigenous clergy in China, the predominance of French missionaries
preferred the model of la mission
civilisatrice, or a belief that to better convert the Chinese to the
Catholic faith, the Chinese must also be converted to the “civilizing
influence” of French culture. This is an exceptional work of scholarship.
spending two weeks in Pittsburgh last summer I met Father Ivan Kaszczak, a
Catholic priest of the Ukrainian Byzantine Rite, and I read his marvelous book,
Metropolitan Andrei Shepytsky. It
would be misleading to suggest that the Eastern Church has never encountered
condescension and dismissiveness by its Roman Catholic brothers and sisters,
despite the persistent support and love of the Roman pontiffs. This book
highlights the blessings and blunders that have marked the complex relationship
between the Catholic Churches of the East and West.
several years of gathering dust on my shelves, I began again to read through my
favorite Chinese novel, Dream of the Red
Chamber, which equals five thick volumes in English translation. Each time
I read these pages anew, I quite plainly vacillate between uncontrollable
laughter, sighs of grief, and moments of intellectual amusement. The
uninitiated Western reader might never know how life changing this classic work
from China’s past can be.
finally acquired and read the short memoirs of the Chinese Benedictine abbot at
St. Andre’s Abbey in Bruges, Belgium, Dom Lou Tseng-Tsiang (Lu Zhengxiang),
OSB. The English translation of Lou’s memoires is Ways of Confucius and Christ, and for anyone wishing to apprehend
the intellectual and spiritual culture of Catholic Christianity in China, this
should be the first book read and ponder.
when the first snow falls outside our window, my wife and I read again to each
other C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
These books, perhaps more than all the others I read, lift my soul and restore
my sense of hope, especially as the world around me seems more populated by
dufflepuds. Well, perhaps we are all dufflepuds…increasingly in need of the
grace and redemption offered for all persons by Christ, the Lion.
Anthony E. Clark, PhD is an associate professor
of Chinese history at Whitworth University.
There were three books that I found particularly memorable
this year. The first, which I read on my then-functional electronic reader, was
Jeremiah Curtain’s 1895 English translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: A Narrative in the Time of Nero.
(I have Quo Vadis in the original
Polish, and reading that is part of my next Five Year Plan.) I expected a weary
trudge through 19th-century diction; instead the rapid pace of Quo Vadis blew my socks off. And, come
to think of it, who couldn’t love an adventure story involving a handsome Roman
officer, a beautiful proto-Polish Christian princess, a narcissistic emperor,
and a whole lot of martyrs including Saints Peter and Paul? Although the
principal plot concerns Roman Marcus’ unholy pursuit of proto-Polish Lygia,
there are fascinating sub-plots, one involving the unforgettable Petronius, a
leading member of Nero’s court, and alsoI suspectthe epitome of pagan
classicism to his author. What I enjoyed most of all about Quo Vadis is the male romantic lead is neither the smartest nor the
bravest man in the book. There’s glory enough for all. Meanwhile, the Poles
would like you to know that the whole thing is a metaphor for Poland suffering
under the yoke of Austria, Russia, and Germany.
The second book, also a novel, was The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden (Macmillan, 1958), the author
of Black Narcissus and the
superlative In This House of Brede.
Godden was not received into the Catholic Church until 1968, but she was
interested in Catholicism, sin, and redemption many years before that. In The Greengage Summer, she places five
children at the mercy of a French hotel when their mother becomes deathly ill en route. The narrator, a 13-year-old
girl named Cecil, finds herself responsible for her siblings when her eldest
sister Hester also falls ill. The children are reluctantly caught up in such
adult mysteries as the relationship between the hotel proprietor, Mademoiselle
Zizi, and her mysterious English guest Eliot. The story takes a complicated
turn when beautiful Hester finally emerges from the sickroom, inspiring awe in
Eliot and a tornado of envy in Mademoiselle Zizi. Throughout the story
innocence is confronted by corruption, and it is never clear which will win the
The third book was the English translation of Cardinal
Sarah’s God or Nothing (Ignatius Press, 2015) which I reviewed
I haven’t much to add except that the book has had a profound influence over my
spiritual life; I found the advice about prayer particularly helpful. However,
I will repeat that I am grateful to the cardinal for his tribute to the
European priests who laid down their lives to bring Christ to his village.
After years of being told Christian missionaries were imperialist stooges, I
felt like a dead white male who has been allowed into heaven. And, as if an
added bonus, Cardinal Sarah gives the fear-based paganism of his ancestors a
good kicking, too.
Dorothy Cummings McLean
is a Canadian writer living abroad.
David Paul Deavel:
Even in an El Niño winter, Minnesota makes me look forward
to baseball season. In February I read Allen Barra’s Mickey and Willie. Like many great performers, Mantle and (to a
lesser extent) Mays were atrocious persons who needed God but were instead
treated as gods. I’m more familiar on a day-to-day basis with the foibles and
atrocities of the professorial class, however, so it was nice to laugh at one
of the great comic university novels, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim.
It’s a joy, on the other hand, to read about the lives of
excellent performersor at least writerswho were excellent people, if flawed
in many ways. I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading C.S. Lewis this
year, including That Hideous Strength (third in his space trilogytime to
re-read the first two!) and his prescient essays in The Weight of Glory and The Abolition of Man. Reading Alister
McGrath’s recent biography, C.S. Lewis:
A Life, Lewis’ own pre-conversion diary from 1922-1927, All My Road Before Me, and the first
volume of his Collected Letters made me appreciate the man’s
intellectual and spiritual honestyand his personal attractiveness. I’m reading
the second volume of letters and hope to read the third.
I also continued my study of Penelope Fitzgerald, reading:
her sole short story collection, The
Means of Escape; her collected essays, A
House of Air; and her collected letters, So I Have Always Thought of You. A master of the unspoken word and
sly allusion, I find her more powerful than ever. Hermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald, deepened further
the mystery of a writer who had sympathy for the “exterminatees,” life’s losers
who don’t give up. Re-reading The
Summerhouse Trilogy by Catholic
novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, I saw Fitzgerald’s sympathy with a bewitching
weaving of the Catholic faith’s beauty and oddities in her polyphonic account
of a bad engagement.
Blessed Newman I already knew as a good man and a genius,
but Frederic Aquino’s An Integrative
Habit of Mind gave new insights into Newman’s philosophy of knowledge and
education. John F. Crosby’s The
Personalism of John Henry Newman opens
up Newman’s personalist approach to faith and reason using insights from, among
others, John Paul II and Hildebrand.
Nancy Brown’s The
Woman Who Was Chesterton is the
first biography of Frances Chesterton, a hidden saint who didn’t just take care
of her practically helpless husband, but revealed her own charity and wisdom in
letters, poems, and plays. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus, on the other
hand, sought out and thrived in the spotlight. Randy Boyagoda’s Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public
Square is a brisk, often perceptive account of a remarkable man.
Stepping back from individuals to systems, Harold James and
James Stoner’s edited collection The
Thriving Society provides a big-picture look at what’s necessary to rebuild
American institutions and culture. My colleagues Jeanne Buckeye, Kenneth
Goodpaster, T. Dean Maines, and Michael Naughton provided a close-up look at
how understanding subsidiarity can enhance business in their jointly-authored Respect in Action: Applying Subsidiarity in
Acting for the future involves looking to the past. Patrick
Leigh Fermor was neither a saint nor a Catholic, but his A Time to Keep Silence looks more perceptively into the heart of
monasticism than many Catholic books do. A
Time of Gifts, the first volume of his memoir of walking from the Hook of
Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s similarly paints vividly the strengths
and weaknesses of European Christendom as it was disappearing. I hope to read
the final two volumes in 2016.
David Paul Deavel is
associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and teaches Catholic Studies at the
University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Adam A.J. DeVille:
In the 1990s, when I thought of training as a
psychoanalyst, I read a book from a singular British psychoanalyst, Nina
Coltart, entitled Slouching Towards
Bethlehem. Only this year have I had a chance to read some of her other
delightful and insightful works, including The
Baby and the Bathwater. Along the way, I re-read Robert Coles’ intellectual
biography of another unique female analyst who practiced largely in Britain, Anna Freud: the Dream of Psychoanalysis.
I also recently finished Jeffrey Prager’s 1998 book Presenting the Past: Psychoanalysis and the
Sociology of Misremembering. I have been revisiting psychoanalytic thought
this year on the question of the uses and abuses of “memory” in the context not
just of Catholic-Orthodox relations, but also Christian-Muslim relations.
Anyone needing to see the relevance of this just has to listen to ISIS, which
regularly and fatuously refers to Western countries as “the Crusaders.”
I’m about half-way through a new collection of scholarly
articles: Geoffrey Dunn, ed., The Bishop
of Rome in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2015). It’s a solid collection with a
great deal of food for thought not only on the changing forms of papal
authority, but also on difficult historiographical questions.
I spent considerable time on my blog discussing the
fascinating and recently translated Memoirs
of Louis Bouyer. They confirm in detail that the commission charged with
implementing liturgical reforms after Vatican II was engaged in a giant swindle
that robbed the Latin Church of so much of her patrimony with consequences, as
Cardinal Ratzinger famously said in his 1997 book Milestones, that “could only be tragic.”
I have been reading many works by and about him for over a
decade now, but still not exhausted the ever-expanding category of
Churchillania. This year I read Churchill:
the Struggle for Survival 1945-60, the fascinating diaries of Lord Moran,
his personal physician.
I’m just about finished with Richard Toye’s The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of
Churchill’s World War II Speeches, which shows the complex political
calculations and consequences of his major speeches.
Cita Stelzer’s Dining
with Churchill: Policy Making at the Dinner Table is a relatively light but
informative read. The gourmand Churchill has always struck me in some ways as a
natural Catholic if one takes Chesterton’s definition of Catholicism as a thick
steak, frosted stout, and good cigar!
Evelyn Waugh, who died on Easter Sunday 1966, is often
acclaimed, then and since, as the greatest Catholic novelist of the 20th
century. I am thinking of giving a lecture on his lasting legacy to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of his death next year. I re-read his works with fresh
enjoyment, and this year decided to re-read two of the four major biographies
of him: Selena Hastings, Evelyn Waugh: A
Biography (1995); and, two decades before her, Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1975). Both
are good, though limited in different ways. Far and away the truly outstanding study of him remains Douglas Lane Patey’s The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical
Margaret MacMillan’s recent The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, is, as one expects with
MacMillan (whose 2003 book, Paris 1919, is a true marvel and delight),
magnificent and magisterial in equal measure.
Finally, Julian Baggini, The Virtues of the Table is a relaxed, accessible book in the
burgeoning category of “food ethics,” many of whose authors are the tiresome
busybodies and hectoring nannies you’d expectbut not Baggini, who recognizes
the complexity of some of these issues and their emotional freight, and
graciously leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about whether one
should eat only locally sourced meats, only organic vegetables, etc.
Adam A.J. DeVille
is associate professor and Chairman of
the Department of Theology-Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis.
Thomas M. Doran:
Heaven’s My Destination by
Thornton Wilder is a story about a Depression-era traveling salesman who
strives to live his life based on strong religious principles, and to
evangelize a jaundiced and skeptical world. Hilarious without being satirical
or cynical, Wilder plays it straight, posing serious questions about what a
good life entails. I have a hard time imagining how a book like this could be
Both Red Harvest and The Glass Key, lesser-known novels by Dashiell Hammett, mix
atavistic behavior with opaque codes of honor, and they feature Hammett’s
wicked sense of humor. The Glass Key
exemplifies Hammett’s spare style of writing, where readers have to discern
what characters are thinking by what they say and do, not by the author telling
us what they’re thinking or feeling. These stories read like modern Greek
tragedies. Harsh at times, yes, but thought provoking: isn’t any code of honor
futile, even pathetic, if we live in an exclusively materialistic universe, and
with nothing having any permanent meaning?
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B.
White: effortless writing and storytelling, or so it seems. Assemble a list of
books that can be read, plumbed (albeit on different levels), and enjoyed
(really enjoyed) by children and adults alikea very short list. I read the
story to my grandsons over a dozen sittingshow special was that?
everyone has heard of mystery writers
Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P. D. James, but hardly anyone has
heard of the American women crime
writers who were contemporaries of Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I’m reading an
anthology and some of these noir novels are every bit as good as Hammett and
Chandler, including Laura by Vera
Caspary, The Horizontal Man, by
Helen Eustis, and The Blank Wall, by
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. More than “mere crime novels,” these stories do a
deep dive into the minds and hearts of the characters and the cultural
atmosphere of these times.
Thomas M. Doran is a professional engineer, an
adjunct professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University,
and a novelist.
As a graduate student in scholastic theology, I spend most of my time
reading Thomas Aquinas. While reading the Summa
Theologica for extended periods of time is an experience I’d recommend to
anyone, the privilege has left me little time and mental space to stray far off
the beaten path in terms of other reading. Therefore, I hope you will forgive
my recommending titles that may already be familiar, but reading these five
books enhanced my life over the past year.
The first is the memoirs of Benedict XVI, called Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977. I found Benedict’s descriptions of
his childhood and early priesthood charming, and remarkably simple. Perhaps the
key to understanding his life and papacy are contained in the last pages of the
book, in which he describes wanting to return to his life of quiet scholarship,
but serving in the Church leadership as God called him to. Though in some ways
I miss his papacy, he is blessed to return to the academic search for truth he
loved before the end of his life.
It was also a year of re-reading The
Lord of the Rings, and a couple books to learn more about it. The first is
the Silmarillion, the incomplete
account of Tolkien’s mythology compiled by his son, Christopher. While one can
see the results of the existence of God throughout LOTR, it is fascinating to learn directly about God, the
“Illuvatar,” as well as the “Valar,” the angels. As a classicist, I appreciated
diving into Tolkien’s mythical world and seeing my favorite epic trilogy in a
new way. Similarly, I read Peter Kreeft’s Philosophy
of Tolkien to reflect more on how Tolkien’s worldview shaped LOTR. Using quotes from Tolkien and
Lewis, Kreeft answers questions ranging from metaphysics to philosophy of
language in a thoughtful, but approachable way.
The book that has most directly influenced the practice of my faith in
the past year is Josef Pieper’s classic: Leisure:
The Basis of Culture. Pieper articulates the importance of maintaining
sacred temporal space for prayer that serves like physical space for liturgical
worship in a church. When I began thinking of my Sundays this way, and daily
Mass like a small Sunday, I drew much more refreshment from my leisure time.
Finally, living in Oxford, I could not resist re-reading Brideshead Revisited. That book offers
me something new every time, and in this reading I kept a close eye on
Sebastian Flyte’s statements about Catholicism. For example, when Charles
remarks that Catholics seem just like everyone else, he responds “That’s
exactly what they are not…they try to hide it as much as they can, but it comes
out all the time.” The reader is left to question how someone who could
beautifully articulate these insights about the faith could fall prey to such a
tragic decline. In the end, perhaps Sebastian is a holy man, if a very broken
one. His character allows us to reflect on the strangeness of God’s mercybelief
does not guard against all problems in this world, but Jesus assures us, “Take
heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Griffin attended Harvard College, where she served as president of the Catholic
Student Association, and is now pursuing a graduate degree in theology at
The top book that I read in 2015 was Silence by Shusaku Endo. This was a book I couldn’t stop talking
about with anyone who stood still long enough to listen. I read it during Lent,
which I highly recommend. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film adaptation will
be released in 2016; in interviews Scorsese has been clear about his admiration
for the novel, but I am nervous about how the filmmaker will handle the book’s
themes of sin, pride, and sacrifice. We’ll see!
A close second for top book of the year for me was Cardinal
Robert Sarah’s God or Nothing. The
Guinean cardinal speaks about the Church, her teachings, and her liturgy with
both clarity and pastoral insight; the early part of the book details his remarkable
life as an impoverished young boy who learned about Christ from French
missionaries, through his studying for the priesthood in France and in Rome,
and his being named the youngest bishop in the world at the age of 34, only to
be threatened with assassination by his country’s Communist dictator. By turns
thrilling and inspiring.
This year I read the Little
House on the Prairie series to my two daughters. I could tell my
seven-year-old was enjoying and following the fictionalized account of Laura
Ingalls’ pioneer-girl life, but I was unsure how much my three-year-old was
getting out of the books. The sixth book in the series, The Long Winter, is about the Ingalls family’s struggle to survive
a particularly grueling winter in a tiny frontier town. At the end, when the
snow finally begins to melt and the whistle of the train bearing food and
supplies for the near-starving pioneers sounds across the prairie, my younger
daughter jumped out bed cheering, “The train is here!” Even if she wasn’t able
to follow every detail of the plot, she’d definitely become emotionally
invested in the story and in the plight of the characters. A literary
high-point of my year!
Other memorable reads for me this year included Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Edith Stein by Walfrid Herbstrith, The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery
O’Connor, and The Fellowship: The
Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski.
Catherine Harmon is
managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Perhaps because of the precarious
state of the world right now, I have found myself drawn to themes of “good and
evil” in my reading choices this year. And, as I look at my current reading
shelf, I see more fiction titlesespecially horror and supernatural themesthan
I usually allow myself to enjoy. I just re-read some my favorite terrifying
tales in Russell Kirk’s Ancestral
Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales. It is not a political bookeven
though Russell Kirk was a brilliant political essayist. Rather, Kirk’s stories
are inspiring tales of redemption, retribution, and justice. The tales are
informed by faithbut never “preachy.” He surprises you and certainly scares
you, but he provides a warning of what happens when morality and justice are
ignored. Bad people suffer consequencesand good prevails.
Likewise, I read several Dean
Koontz books this year, including two of his most recent releases, Innocence and The City. Both books are magicalnot really “horror” storiesyet
they are “real” stories because they give readers hope that “everything will be
okay in the long run.” A Catholic writer, Koontz, like Kirk, writes like a
faithful Catholic who understands the real battle between good and evil. Koontz
knowsas all Catholics knowthat evil exists in this world, yet unlike some writers
of terror and suspense, Koontz offers us the promise of redemption in this
world or the next. Koontz has a new novel, Ashley
Bell, that is to be released later this month and I have already
Beyond the burgeoning fiction
shelf in my house, I was inspired this year by Chiara Corbella Petrillo’s
heartbreakingly beautiful Witness to Joy.
A “saint in our time,” Chiara’s joyful story of accepting God’s plan for her
helped to remind me of how important each individual life is to God and to all
of us. But, more importantly, her story demonstrates how much in love with God
one can beeven when enduring such profound suffering.
I just finished reading John Henry Crosby’s translation of Dietrich von
Hildebrand’s inspiring memoir, My Battle
Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich.
In his book notes, Crosby writes that he was drawn to von Hildebrand as the man
of culture and the “moral hero.” He said that “Hildebrand was a great and
compelling defender of the beautiful. And since beauty has always been for me
the path to grasping the truth and the good, it was not difficult to give my
heart to one who so deeply understood and celebrated the beautiful.” Crosby’s translation
helps us discover Hildebrand’s heroic “witness to truth” against Nazi power by
showing us how he courageously defied the popular culture by going to battle
against Hitler. Hildebrand sacrificed his reputation as an act of love for the
truthhis faith in God, and his love for his native
Germany and his fellow Germans, for his family, and his friends. Hildebrand was
sustained by his Catholic faithit gave him hope and tremendous peace even in
the shadow cast by the evil of Nazism. I am still recovering from this
inspiring bookbut find myself already revisiting it again for continued
inspiration to fight the battles we too are facing this year.
Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for
Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
read in 2015 included a few new books, a bunch of old books, and a number of
children’s books (with my kids). Here are some standouts in no particular
Bad Religion by Ross Douthat and An Anxious Age by Joseph Bottum. Both
books are pretty much about the same topic: religion and America. I found
Bottum’s book a more interesting read, as Douthat seems more driven to cap his
arguments off in a pundit-style manner which is often unsatisfying.
Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis. I found a lot to
meditate upon and learn from in Pope Francis’s second encyclical, which is
primarily a synthesis of the thought of Popes Benedict and John Paul II on
ecology and the human person. But Francis adds his own comments to the mixthe
current Pope’s take on creation and the care of it reminded me a lot of
agrarian-influenced writers and thinkers such as Wendell Berry and G.K.
Elucidations by Hans Urs von Balthasar. One of the
problems with reading Balthasar is that his writing is so dense with intensely
evocative and provocative ideas. This collection of essays provides a good
introduction, and with the shifting topics it never overwhelms.
Ida Elisabeth by Sigrid Undset. As with her other
novels, Undset is unsparing in her depiction of the consequences of personality
flaws and poor decisions. I wrote up a short review of the book here.
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. One of Pratchett’s
Disc World fantasy novels, Night Watch
features a rather convoluted plot involving time travel, social unrest, and
dialogue that would make Chesterton chortle. “Don't put your trust in
revolutions. They always come around again. That's why they’re called
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip
K. Dick. As worries about a technocratic society grow, the feverish depictions
of future dreamed up by Philip K. Dick speaks more and more to us. This book,
the basis for the film Blade Runner,
asks some disturbing questions about artificial intelligence, empathy, and what
makes us human.
We’ll Never Tell Them by
Fiorella De Maria. I was surprised at how much I kept thinking back over this
book after I finished it, and ended up writing a short review here.
Little Robot by Ben Hatke. The latest graphic novel
by Ben Hatke features some of the loveliest drawing he’s ever done, and it’s a
great story as well. My kids loved it and were thrilled to meet Ben when he had
a reading and book-signing at a local comic shop.
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.
Thomas S. Hibbs:
David O’Connor, Plato’s Bedroom:
Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love (St Augustine’s Press)
A master teacher at the University of Notre Dame, David O’Connor, who
delivered the Drumwright Family Lecture at Baylor this year, has been teaching
a popular course on love for years. In his new book, O’Connor weaves
reflections on philosophy, literature, and film into a series of readable and
practical discussions of love, discussions in which readers will discover
eloquent articulations of their deepest passions and aversions, attractions and
fears. About the topic of the book, he writes,
Is what you want a kind of intimacy with another person, an intimacy
that creates within us a fearfulness, a fearfulness because we’re being taken
somewhere we don’t control, and whose end we do not see, an end for better, for
worse, till death? The question of how we can open our heart enough…to live
that path becomes a central question for us. It’s not just a philosophical
O’Connor dissects the brittle, reductionist, and unimaginative discourse
of love in the contemporary world. The deterioration of our language petrifies
our experience of love, as our longings are deepened and enhanced by rich
articulation. Drawing upon varies resources, from Plato and Shakespeare to Genesis, O’Connor strives to recover
a language of love as a sublime and transforming experience.
Azar Nafisi, The Republic of
Imagination: America in Three Books (Viking Books)
In her best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir of her time in Iran as an
underground teacher of a group of young Iranian women with a curriculum
consisting of forbidden Western literary texts, Azar Nafisi, who gave the
Beall-Russell Lecture at Baylor in 2006, makes a compelling case for the power
of these texts to keep human longing alive and thus to subvert the aspirations
of a totalitarian regime. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination,
Nafisi, now a professor in America, wonders at the indifference of Americans to
their own literary heritage, an indifference that she fears will endanger the
democratic ideal. In totalitarian countries, liberal education is a “basic need,” as it
enables readers to reclaim an identity always under assault. What about ordinary Americans? Do they even
“know what they are missing”? Is it possible to “rekindle the hunger”? If we
ignore this literature, we deprive ourselves of the stories that help us to
understand and articulate what it means to be human. Nafisi’s books are a great
place to start.
Rene Girard, I See Satan
Fall Like Lightning, translated, with a foreword, by James G. Williams
In the past few days after hearing of the death of Rene Girard on
November 4, I have been re-reading his work, which with the escalation of
violence both at home and abroad seems as pertinent as ever. With work spanning
anthropology, psychology, literature, and theology, Girard had two big ideas.
His first insight was that human desire is largely imitative; it is based, not
so much on our private, individual wishes but on wanting what others
wanteverything from consumer goods such as cars and iPhones to our desire for
honor, respect, and recognition.
Girard’s second idea, the role of the scapegoat in human society, arises
out of mimetic desire. Imitative desire leads to competition and envy and can
easily escalate into violence. Society becomes unified and avoids debilitating
conflict by identifying a scapegoat, a sacrificial object. A perusal of Twitter
feeds or comments sections on blogs, which quickly devolve into political or
racial scapegoating, indicates that our allegedly enlightened society has not
fully left this behind.
What is most interesting about Girard is that he detected in
Christianity, especially in the trial and crucifixion of Christ, an
acknowledgment that the victim is often innocent and that sacrificial love is
the only alternative to the violence that mimetic desire fosters.
Thomas S. Hibbs is
dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at
the Limits of Political Philosophy: From Brilliant Errors to Things of Uncommon
Importance by James V. Schall
This is my annual “book by Schall that is a must-read.” If someone
were to ask me what book he should read to get at the heart of Schall’s wisdom,
I would have them read this. It is one of the keys to unlocking Schall’s
understanding of the history and truth of political philosophy, as well as how
it relates, and is open, to revelation. Unique to Schall’s perspective, and
something too infrequently mentioned or understood, is what he calls the “incompleteness
of both political philosophy and revelation.” Each needs the wisdom of the
other. If revelation is left aside, then politics become the fundamental
arbiter of what it means to be human. On the other hand, revelation without the
wisdom of politics and philosophy leads to a reductionist view of the faith
whose sole focus become “poverty reduction” and inner worldly goals that
neglect the transcendent character of the Catholic faith. Reading Schall is
akin to being liberally educated.
Many be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the
New Evangelization by Ralph Martin
Martin has done a tremendous doctrinal and spiritual service to
the Church by elucidating what the Church actually teaches about the grace and
possibility of salvation. At the heart of his book is an exposition of Lumen Gentium 16 and reaffirming the
Church’s teaching that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Key
also to Martin’s work is dispelling the all-too-common belief that there is a
radical separation between doctrine and pastoral practice, and he calls for a
deeper explication of the former so as to enlighten and guide the latter.
in Philosophy at Notre Dame by Kenneth M. Sayre
It would not be a stretch to say that one of my greatest heroes is
the philosopher-novelist Ralph McInerny, who taught in the Notre Dame
philosophy department from 1955-2009. It is for this reason that I wanted to
read Sayre’s book. McInerny used to always tell the story that there were two
reasons he was hired at Notre Dame: he was Catholic and he was a Thomist. Since
Notre Dame has become a “research university,” hoping to emulate its secular
peers, it would be likely that McInerny’s two reasons for being hired in the
50s would be the precise reasons he would not be hired today. Sayre does a good
job providing a detailed history of the department and its inner workings,
along with each chapter focusing on a specific personality that was in the
department during the particular time period he treats. While I enjoyed many
parts of the work, Sayre fundamentally misses the essential meaning of what it
is to be a truly Catholic university. Furthermore, he does not grasp why
philosophy is fundamental to theology, not just in terms of helping to
understand the faith (what John Paul II called the “intellectus fidei”), but also as being capable of showing the “rationality
of faith.” This is why the Church has consistently upheld St. Thomas Aquinas as
the model for doing both philosophy and theology. McInerny saw this
relationship of faith and reason as the heart of a true university. To Sayre’s
credit, he rightly points out that Notre Dame’s problem (among others) is that
it is still too caught up with “research,” “pluralism,” and that ever-successful
destroyer of loving and searching for the truth, namely, “professional
Brian Jones is a PhD student in
philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Here are a few high spots from this year’s reading:
Marshall G.S. Hodgson’s The
Venture of Islam (three volumes) is a classic history of Islamic (or rather
“Islamicate”) civilization, written from a grand world-historical perspective.
The author has a deep grasp of the events, peoples, languages, and literatures
of the whole period, together with a historical and philosophical framework
that enables him to make sense of them as a whole and in connection with other
civilizations. It’s an extraordinary achievement, although at times he seems
more an advocate than I would like of the Islamicate world over and against
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, November
1916. This is the second of his four-part series of novels on events
leading up to the Russian Revolution. He has a really excellent political mind,
and stays quite close to historical events and personages. He also has the
broad human sympathy needed to portray persuasively a huge variety of people
and situations: men and women, work, war, leisure, peasants, intellectuals,
conspirators, love affairs, marital issues, and workers’ demonstrations.
Michelle Marder Kamhi, Who Says
That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts. What’s gone wrong in the
high-end art world? According to Kamhi, it’s repeatedly taken marginal cases as
central and ended by destroying art as a specific activity worth attending to.
She’s done her homework, her book’s clearly, vigorously, and persuasively
argued, and she includes fascinating aspects of the history of 20th century art
that don’t get played up in the official accounts.
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent
scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Lauren Enk Mann:
C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces
Often neglected in C.S. Lewis’ canon, Till We Have Faces is an unusual and
deeply introspective novel which deserves careful reading. Lewis explores many
compelling ideas in this retelling of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche;
identity, self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, pride, and the many intellectual and
spiritual barriers we put between ourselves and God are here on unforgiving
As in The
Screwtape Letters, Lewis utilizes his spiritual insight here to great
advantage. With its penetrative discussion of the complex human psyche, Till We Have Faces would make for valuable
Lenten reading, giving readers new perspectives on the life of the soul. The
barriers between mankind and God are of our own making: we cannot see God until
we have facesuntil we know ourselves well enough to become who we are meant to
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of novels set in medieval Norway,
is not for the faint of heart. Far from a merely romantic or idyllic depiction
of medieval life, the setting is both grimly and beautifully realistic. The
characters are deeply human and complexand deeply flawed. Undset weaves their
stories together with remarkable vision of the human soul, rich historical
detail, and thrilling storytelling power.
Following all of Kristin’s
life, her many and sundry sins, her constant battles with pride and
selfishness, often with tragic consequences, can give a reader something like literary battle fatigue. The
reader follows Kristin for years of peace and war, sin and grace, joy and agony.
The reason for this lengthiness, however, is that the story opens at the time
Kristin reaches the age of reason and is capable of choosing right or wrong,
good or evil. The story follows all of those subsequent choicesand ends with
her death. The book is thus, in the truest sense of the word, a story of a
This calls to mind a very different story of a soulthat of St. Therese
of Lisieux, whose compelling autobiography of her short 23 years on this earth
is entitled The Story of a Soul. Yet
Kristin is the total opposite of the Little Flower. Therese chose God above all
and so opened her heart to a love that transcended her short life of suffering.
Kristin chooses her own will and seeks happiness in anything but God throughout her tragedy-riddled life; at times she
realizes only His grace will give her peace but still seeks to withhold some
precious portion of her heart from His sometimes-piercing, always healing love.
G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World
As is almost always the case with Chesterton’s
works, re-reading this classic this year reaped rich insights underappreciated
the first time around. Chesterton’s critique of the central problems with
modern society is not merely revealing, but truly revolutionary. He challenges
as harmful and heedless some of the re-structuring of human institutions and
ways of living which were relatively new and unorthodox in his day: but these
same errors have become standards of life now.
At the heart of GKC’s understanding of
how society and human life ought to be structured is a zealous reverence for
the human person, his rights and needs and dignity. And GKC uncompromisingly
skewers the modern misunderstandings that undermine man’s freedom and chance at
a fulfilled life. From education to the work-place to the home, he explores
just where the modern era has gone wrong. In fact, there is hardly a topic
Chesterton does not touch upon in this bookart, economics, feminism,
imperialism, employment, politics, parenthood, domestic life, and poverty. By
exposing modern errors, he points clearly to the ideals of human flourishing
which, if respected and upheld, would certainly leave the world better off than
it is now.
Lauren Enk Mann blogs
about the New Evangelization and pop culture at The Pantheon.
Joseph Martin, PhD:
upon Linda Ronstadt’s autobiography, I half-remembered her 80s Elvis Costello
covers and half-expected a rash of nonsensical Dixie Chicks-ish political
peeping as I eased myself into a bookstore chair for a blast from the past. Simple
Dreams happily validated my better memories. It’s a gracious and
self-deprecating memoir recalling musically less self-conscious times, and one
that leaves the impression of the singer as a song’s best friend. Her story
prompted revisits to Round Midnight and Winter Light, projects where her performances confirm
such impressions. On the latter Ronstadt gives life to Ira Gershwin’s lyric, “With
love to lead the way I’ve found more clouds of gray / Than any Russian play
could guarantee,” and that maybe provided subliminal prodding for me to
pick up The Gospel in Dostoevsky, Plough Books’ easy entreé into the
imposing imagination of Russia’s epileptic colossus.
Humani Generis might be the real encyclical Catholic educators most wish you’d forget
(never heard of it? See! They’re much better teachers than you think), but the
pesky topic of the historicity of Genesis is not about to go away. To those
inclined to associate such concerns with fundamentalism, I recommend cracking
Hans Madueme and Michael Reeve’s crackerjack Adam, The Fall, & Original
Sin, as well as Frank Sheed’s older but up-to-the minute Genesis
Regained. But truth be told, the book that most stayed with me was David
Maine’s Fallen, a novelization of Genesis that’s a trenchantly
fast-reading testimony to the fact that even the world’s very first family was
In the ’00s
lots of religious literati come off
like Kardashian-style Christian exhibitionists, but back in the day Elisabeth
Elliot’s life and books were the real deal. Her exacting prose and jarring
conservatism may strike millennials as a little uptight, but they could do a
lot worse than learning to appreciate the already vanishing legacy of books
like These Strange Ashes.
Good stuff in
the Applied Theology Department…Fulton Sheen’s Preface to Religion (repackaged by Ignatius Press with the less brilliant title Remade
for Happinessbut who am I to judge?), Patrick Downey’s Desperately Wicked (now there’s a title), and Hans von
Balthasar’s Short Primer for Troubled Laymen, of which I am one. David Robertson’s Magnificent
Obsession is a breezy introduction
to things like, well…you know, God and Jesus, that wants to wear its imperative
lightly and mostly succeeds. Quoting the likes of Pope Benedict XVI, Bob Dylan,
and John Calvin all between the same covers, the cumulative flavor of
Robertson’s friendly freeflow suggests a mix of C.S. Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, and
Maya Angelouand I mean that in a good way.
Another book that succeeded remarkably in reasserting the buoyancy of
belief was Peter Kreeft’s The God Who Loves You. I loved
it. As I did Zack Erswine’s Spurgeon’s Sorrows. I first
balked at an endorser’s description of this brief reflection on the pulpiteer’s
battles with depression as “poetry for the soul,” but guess whatit
is. J.I. Packer might be regarded as one of C.H. Spurgeon’s worthier
rhetorical heirs, given his seemingly effortless stylistic elegance and his
penchant for the Puritans. Both traits are on display in Rediscovering Holiness,
the newest edition of which fascinated me with its added chapter on “Mother
Teresa: Holiness in the Dark.” Watch a British 5-point Calvinist establish
convincing common ground with a soul-sick Slavic nun, and understand anew what
talk of real “spiritual unity” is all about. And realize that despite
relentless online bickering, somewhere goodwill still remains. An even stronger
reminder comes from David Watson’s 30-year-old but still fresh Fear
No Evil: One Man’s Battle with Terminal Illness. “Our people die
well,” said John Wesley. “The times are never so bad that a good man cannot
live in them,” wrote Thomas More. Preach it, brothers.
Joseph F. Martin,
PhD, is a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Hampton University in
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ:
back on a year’s reading list, three genres inevitably come into focus for me:
books for the head, books for the heart, and books for the soul.
for my head” invariably include research of the Christian world in late
antiquity and especially of the life and times of St. Augustine of Hippo
(354-430). On the top of this year’s list is:
Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle:
Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity, 350-550 AD (Princeton
University Press) is an exceptional examination of how early Christians used
wealth to supply for the Church and her needs. Brown is a trustworthy historian
with an unmatched awareness of the cultural and social trends of Christianity’s
The Theology of Augustine’s Confessions (Cambridge University
Press) is a new look at an old work. Rigby is worth reading because he
incorporates helpful modern theological and psychological trends into reading
the perennial themes Augustine raises in his timeless works.
Rémi Brague (b. 1947) is finally being read in the
States (in partial thanks to Father James Schall, SJ). He is a classicist-turned-theologian
whose insights seek to recover the brilliance of Christianity. This year I read
Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western
Civilization, wherein Brague argues that it is neither Athens nor Jerusalem
that has shaped the best of human culture, but Rome. This “Roman mediation” of
course shines brilliantly in the Church’s complementarity of faith and reason,
human eros and divine agape.
out under “books for the heart” are two new poets introduced to me this year:
Barbara Crooker (Selected Poems) and
Charles Wright (Bye-and-Bye). The
poems here are uneven but every now and then some verses here can elevate the
heart and shine a new light on the mind.
The Soul’s Journey: Exploring the Three
Passages of the Spiritual Life with Dante as a Guide belongs on the shelf
of those who read Dante as a faithful friend in the interior life.
Schönborn’s retreat he had once preached to
St. John Paul II, Loving the Church
Nault, OSB, The Noonday Devil: The
Unnamed Evil of Our Times could not be more precisely named!
Luis M. Martinez, The Sanctifier, is
a highly recommended classic on the nature and the effects of the Holy Spirit.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ is assistant
professor of theology at St. Louis University and editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Robert Boenig, C.S.
Lewis and the Middle Ages (2012) examines how Lewis’ immersion in medieval
literature influenced his own approach to writing criticism and fiction. Follow
this up with Lewis’s synthesis of medieval cosmology, The Discarded Image (1964).
Celts: Art and
Identity, ed. Julia Farley and Fraser Hunter (2015), is the splendidly
illustrated catalog of an exhibition organized by the British Museum and the
National Museums of Scotland that incorporates the latest archaeological
Doris Kearns Goodwin, The
Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and The Golden Age of
Journalism (2013) traces the lives and friendship of two very different presidents
against the struggles of the Progressive era. Goodwin’s finely detailed
portraits demolish stereotypes of frenetic Theodore and fat Taft.
G. Ronald Murphy, SJ, Tree
of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North (2013) explores the
enculturation of Christianity in Scandinavia through the image of the World Ash
Tree. For more of Father Murphy’s erudite insights, see his Gemstone of Salvation (2010) on
Parzival’s Holy Grail or his Saxon Savior
(1995) on the Gospel through Germanic eyes.
Regine Pernoud, The
Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence for Her Vindication (2007) gathers a
cloud of witnesses from the transcript of the trial that righted a monstrous
Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin, Joan of Arc: Her Story, rev. and trans.
Jeremy Duquesnay Adams (1998), presents Joan of Arc straight from documentary
Abigail Santamaria, Joy:
Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis (2015) uses newly
available materials to give a clearerand not always flatteringpicture of Joy
Davidman. This biography dovetails with Alister McGrath’s C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013).
Philip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield,
and Charles Williams (2015) emphasizes the careers of the principal
Inklings, giving Barfield and Williams their due. It nicely complements The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac
Glyer (2008) on the Inklings as a community.
Guardians of the
Inside Out (2015)
A Matter of Life and
Midnight in Paris
The Passion of Joan
of Arc (1928)
Places in the Heart
The Song of the Sea
Sandra Miesel is a
medievalist and author.
A baker’s dozen, all published in
Kirk: American Conservative
Moral Matters: A Philosophy of
Edward Feser, Neo-Scholastic Essays
Giberson, Saving the
Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire,
and Make Sense of the World
Pieper, What Does
‘Academic’ Mean? Two Essays on the Chances of the University
Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics: Written in the Hope of Ending the
Centuries-Old Separation between Philosophy and Science and Science and Wisdom.
Volume One: Re-Establishing an Initial Union among Philosophy, Science, and
Wisdom by Recovering our Understanding of Philosophy, Science: How Philosophy,
Science, Is, and Always Has Been, Chiefly a Study of the Problem of the One and
Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics
Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left
Spitzer, SJ, The Soul’s
Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason
Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society
Topping, Renewing the
Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education
Walton, The Lost
World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 23 and the Human Origins Debate
Christopher S. Morrissey is a Fellow of the
Adler-Aquinas Institute who lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western
University in Langley, British Columbia.
Michael J. Nader:
Two of the best books I read in
2015 were published this year.
The first book is Briefly Considered from the Mainstream,
Notes and Observations on the Sources of Western Culture (St. Augustine’s
Press) by Jude P. Dougherty. The
author is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University
of America, and the editor of the Review
of Metaphysics. He uses the term “Mainstream” to represent the classical
and Christian sources of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, as well as their
commentators through the ages. The book applies this time-tested perspective on
a wide array of topics, including philosophy, social and political thought,
science, and religion. What shines
through these sundry essays and reviews is that a Catholic scholar is one who
honestly and rigorously engages philosophy and science with the confidence that
these disciplines can enhance (not contradict) the Catholic faith.
The book has three parts: Part
I, the largest part of the book, presents eleven essays on current social and
political uses, including the salient intellectual currents that run against
the Mainstream. These include the trends of secularism and positivism, and the
resulting denial of the roots of ordered liberty, including religious faith,
reason, the natural law, the rule of law, the sanctity of the family, private
property, and of human nature itself.
Within this moral and cultural vacuum has crept an increasingly
contentious society based on power politics and legal rights derived solely
from state power instead of human dignity.
Part II presents twelve book
reviews on significant works in the history and philosophy of science that the
author has published over the last decade in the Review of Metaphysics.
The scholarship reviewed
demonstrates that scientific progress did not require the abandonment of the
Mainstream. Instead, the Mainstream’s understanding of an intelligible and
ordered cosmos was an essential social contribution to the origins of modern
Part III presents a respectful
and informative survey of significant sources of Islamic scholarship, including
the historical, cultural, and doctrinal development of Islam. These reviews
provide the reader with an excellent introduction to a number of studies of a
religion with a global reach that presents a modern political challenge to the
West. Dean Dougherty’s prescient overview addresses the diverse views of
scholars about important issues in today’s headlines, including whether there
is Quranic support for violent jihad, and whether Islamic fundamentalism
supports terrorism or murder.
now for something completely different: Bounty
of the Bay (Old Mount Vernon Publishing House) by Michael T. Dougherty. This is an entertaining book of
historical fiction that takes the reader into the lives, characters, and charm
of the Chesapeake Bay region. Each of its ten short stories provides a unique,
illustrative account of local life in a sea-faring community, engaged in boat
building, authentic cooking, and both ordinary and extraordinary historical
events. Read about General Billy Mitchell's piloting of his small plane across
the Bay, as well as his interactions with the locals in 1921; a German U-Boat
that circled the Bay during World War II; and the legendary downfall of the
Pirate Blackbeard in the Eighteenth Century.
reader gets an insider’s view of heroic efforts to rescue a Spanish ship from a
storm, the survival tactics of crew members of a crippled U-boat, and the hard
work and detail required to build small fishing boats from humble tools during
that period. The book is also suffused with humorous accounts of the people and
culture of that place and time.
Michael J. Nader teaches Catholic social doctrine for
pastoral leaders with the Archdiocese of San Francisco and with the Diocese of
“Some books,” wrote Francis Bacon, “are to be
tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Alas,
I taste far more books than I swallow or digest, a testament to my
propensity to bite off more than I can chew and the busyness of being
an editor, writer, husband, father, and occasional
That said, I tasted and chewed on a number of
exceptional books this past year. Many of them were
works featuring complex doctrine, which is currently frowned on in
some cornersbut not in mine! (As in the past, I will refrain from promoting or
praising Ignatius Press bookswith two exceptions.)
God and Eros: The Ethos of the
Nuptial Mystery (Cascade
Books, 2015), edited by Colin Patterson and Conor Sweeney, is a bracing
and learned collection of thirteen essays by members of the faculty of the John
Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, including Tracey
Rowland, Father Peter Elliott, and Marc Cardinal Ouellet. Each chapter focuses
on some aspect of marriage, family, and sexuality through the lens of John Paul
II’s thought; the compilation is especially strong in its analysis of
Bishop Robert Barron published three books this year; I managed to get to two
of them. Exploring
Catholic Theology: Essays on God, Liturgy, and Evangelization (Baker
Academic, 2015) is the more academic of the twobut written with the
accessible and articulate ease that characterizes all of Bishop Barron’s work. Seeds of the Word:
Finding God in the Culture (Word on Fire, 2015) is a
collection of movie and book reviews which demonstrates Bishop Barron’s ability
to sympathetically and critically engage with “the good, bad, beautiful, and
ugly found throughout American culture,” as I put in my April 2015 review of
the book. That same review also highlighted another fine collection, Essays on
Modernity: And the Permanent Things from Tradition (2015)
by James Patrick, a theologian, teacher, and “sometimes apologist.”
Whereas Barron employs a more evangelistic approach in approaching the dominant
culture, Dr. Patrick’s modus
operandi is deeply diagnostic, even resorting to emergency
surgery when necessary. Both approaches are needed, and these books are
examples worth emulating. (Bishop Barron’s third book of 2015, for those
wondering, is his commentary on 2 Samuel, published by Brazos Press.)
Continuing with works of theology, The Glory of God’s
Grace: Deification According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Sapientia
Press, 2015) by Daria Spezzano is an impressive and detailed study of an
important topic that is enjoying a happy resurgence of late in Catholic circles
(it has long been a focus of Orthodox theologians). It is of particular
interest to me becauseshameless self-promotion alert!I have co-edited a book
on the same topic titled Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human
out this coming spring from Ignatius Press. Spezzano arguesconvincingly
and with crystalline rigorthat Aquinas “thinks of human salvation as
deification.” And so do the Fathers, other Doctors, mystics, saints,
Councils, popes, and many more besides. In fact, it is quite prominent, for
instance, in Lumen Gentium (1964), which states at the
start that God’s “plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life”
(par 2). I re-read that Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council in
preparing to teach a course on ecclesiology for the Archdiocese of Portland; I
also re-read John Paul II’s final encyclical, Ecclesia de
Eucharistia (2003), which is full of theological and
One of the more challenging books of the year
Up to Real Doctrinal Difference (Angelico Press, 2015) by
Robert Magliola. Dr. Magliola, who has studied Buddhism for decades, is to be
commended for being sympathetic without being syncretistic in showing how
Catholics can better understand Buddhism without glossing over serious
differences in belief. Magliola’s use of Derrida will likely perplex some
readers, but the second half of his book is especially
informative and helpful. I found Dr. Paul Kengor’s book Takedown: From
Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage (WND Books, 2015) to also be
challengingbut for a different reason. There were times, in reading in his
pull-no-punches history of leftism vs. marriage that I was almost sick,
especially in reading about the hedonistic lifestyles of Sixties’
revolutionaries. But Kengor is not sensationalistic; rather, the material is
often startling and repulsive. Required reading for those trying to
connect the dots between Karl Marx and Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, alerted me to Sounding the
Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, 2012), a
collection by the Anglican poet Malcolm Guite. The sonnets are marked by
theological depth and poetical mastery, as evidenced by “O Sapientia,”
which contains echoes of Donne and Eliot. Another Anglican, Os
Guiness, wrote a thoughtful work on rhetoric and evangelization, Fool’s Talk:
Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (InterVarsity
Press, 2015), which offers many solid suggestions for those trying to
articulate the Gospel in a post-modern, post-Christian culture.
My friend Bradley J. Birzer has been working
Kirk: American Conservative (University Press of Kentucky,
2015) for several years, and the result is impressive. Not only is it is a
biography (with recourse to hundreds of unpublished letters and papers), it is
a map to 20th-century American (and western European) political thought and a
work of blunt but sophisticated cultural criticism. Those who think Rush
Limbaugh and FOX News embody “conservatism” need to read this book and be
On the lighter end of the spectrum, Richard
Encyclopedia (Penguin Books, 2005) and Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The
Hidden History (Oxford, 2015) offer opinionated, detailed,
and idiosyncratic takes on music. Both men know their subject matters through
and through, and both are a joy to readeven when I disagreed with
them on certain points. Two works of fiction stand out, both of them historical
mysteries: Lamentation (Mulholland
Books, 2015) by C.J. Sansom and The
Silver Pigs (1989)
by Lindsey Davis. Lamentation is
the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel, set in London during the final days of Henry
the VIII, who is presented as a fascinating but loathsome creature, and The Silver Pigs (the first of
some 20 Marcus Didius Falco mysteries) is set in Rome and Britain in
the early 70s AD. The authors, both British, create vivid characters, tell a
very good story, and have clearly done their research.
Finally, my book of the year is, yes, an
Ignatius Press title: God or Nothing (Ignatius
Press, 2015) by Cardinal Robert Sarah. The African Ratzinger, as I call him, is
direct and blunt but never scolding; he addresses theological questions with an
often remarkable combination of clarity and subtlety; he exhibits a depth of
insight matched by an obvious holiness; and he is not distracted by fads and secular
pressures, but is focused firmly on the Gospel and the reality of God. Highly
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic
Over the past few months, my wife and I have enjoyed reading Alexander
Smith’s series The No. 1 Ladies
Detective Agency. Set in modern-day Botswana, it tells to story of Mma
Ramotswe and her efforts as the first female detective in her country.
Alternatively brilliant, funny, poignant, and thrilling, it is a must-read.
Nick Olszyk is Chair of the Department
of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, California.
Two of my
choices for “best books read in 2015” are related to J.R.R. Tolkien (not
surprising, given my own academic interests!). First, a must-have for anyone
seriously interested in Tolkien’s life and work is John Garth’s Tolkien at Exeter College. Garth, who
wrote the ground-breaking study Tolkien
and the Great War, has extended his research to Tolkien’s time as an
undergraduate, with new discoveries and insights (and photographs). This new,
short book is an excellent complement to the longer study, and deepens our
understanding of the origins of Tolkien’s lifelong work on the Silmarillion.
Tolkien book that I appreciated was Raymond Edwards’ Tolkien. Edwards does a particularly good job of presenting the
academic side of Tolkien’s life, both at Leeds and at Oxford, and showing the
extent of Tolkien’s professional responsibilities and the way that he was
generous with his time to colleagues and students. Tolkien’s work as a
professor was not merely a day job, but a deeply important part of his life,
something which Tolkien scholars have recognized, but which is often missed in
more popular treatments of Tolkien’s life and work.
the wider circle of the Inklings, another favorite from 2015 was the volume C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and
Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, edited by Roger White, Judith
Wolfe, and Brendan Wolfe. You can read my
full review for CWR here; let me sum up by saying that it’s an excellent
choice for all readers who enjoy the work of the Inklings. The book has a rich
and interesting combination of memoirs and essays, including pieces by Rowan
Williams, Malcolm Guite, and Walter Hooper, and an informative (and indeed
inspiring) short history of the Oxford Lewis Society by Michael Ward.
delightful discovery this year was The
Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home, by David Clayton
and Leila Marie Lawler. This book offers a helpful, practical approach to
making one’s home a place well suited for prayer, with suggestions that are
suitable for single people as well as families. I found the sections on setting
up a “prayer table” or “prayer corner” and choosing icons and religious art to
be particularly valuable, and indeed have put their ideas into practice
not least, I thoroughly enjoyed Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome. An account of his pilgrimage on foot from France
to Rome, the book is by turns funny, moving, light-hearted, eloquent, and
profound. It’s really in a class and style of its own, so rather than saying
more, I will simply commend it to you, Reader!
Holly Ordway is Professor of English and
director of the MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University.
William L. Patenaude:
The book I
valued the most this year was not about the Catholic perspective of ecology, a
topic I usually read and write about. But because quite a few eco-books do make
this list, we’ll cover those first and save the most important for last.
preparation for covering the buildup and release of Laudato Si’, I came across a few excellent texts about what Catholicism
offers today’s ecological discussions. The first is Just Sustainability: Technology, Ecology, and Resource Extraction
(Orbis, 2015), edited by Christiana Z. Peppard and Andrea Vicini. It holds just
under 30 essays on topics ranging from education to economics to energy and is
authored by Catholic eco-powerhouses such as Celia Deane-Drummond, Erin Lothes,
and the up-and-coming Daniel DiLeo. It’s a text that’s at home both in the
living room and classroomand I’d encourage it being in both.
In July I
rediscovered a similar collection of essaysone that keeps offering pleasant
surprises. Environmental Justice and
Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the
Catholic Church in the United States (Lexington Books, 2013), edited by
Jame Schaefer and Tobias Winright, is one of those sleeper books that might get
little attention but offers much to keep the faithful rooted in sound Catholic
also note two older books that, while not necessarily Catholic, certainly have
Catholic sensibilities. Rachel Carson’s Silent
Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961)
made it to a colloquium I co-taught at Providence College this spring. Their
authors intended to use modern science to demonstrate how modern sciencewhen
used poorlyare harming people and places. In the end, both books cheer the
need for community and for caring about one’s neighborindeed, loving them,
often sacrificially soas the antidote to the poisons introduced into our blood
streams and ecosystems as well as the social designs that damage communities.
They both illustrate reason finding answers in faith, whether or not it had
intended to look there.
leave out this small, humorous book: Fearing
the Stigmata (Loyola Press, 2012) by Matt Weber. The book is good for a
much-needed laugh and an insight or two about faith in the modern world.
Webera Harvard graduate and devout Catholicpulls from his childhood and his
youth (he was 28 when he wrote the book) to find modern parables about seeking
holiness in an increasingly secular world.
me to my most important book in 2015: Robert Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith
(Ignatius Press, 2015). Reading it provided a similar experience as Peter
Seewald interviews with the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. As I read Cardinal
Sarah’s plain, precise communication of orthodoxy, and his analysis of world
events, I couldn’t help but cheer.
wondered if, like Ratzinger’s, I was reading the words of a future pope.
William L. Patenaude, MA, KHS is a columnist for
the Rhode Island Catholic and writes at CatholicEcology.net.
Matthew A. Rarey:
Several stand-outs from 2015, all of which contributed to a
grander appreciation of God’s gifts and this good life:
Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends by my friend Mary Claire Kendall, which I’ll soon be reviewing
for CWR. It shines with
celestial star power and affirms my appreciation of the Duke and Coop and makes
me love Patricia Neal all the moreone of the most beautiful actresses of all
time, and a truly beautiful soul who went through a lot of pain before coming
to our Lord.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, the unfinished
and posthumously published work of a man I dearly would have loved to have
known, especially since we share the same birthday and follow the same
wanderlust. Aside from Tolkien and Eugenio Corti and, yes, Chuck Colson (see
below), no writer has literally left me breathless, albeitthank Godmomentarily.
He was a legend in his own right, a dashing doer of deedsa commando who
captured a German general off the island of Creteas well as a masterful teller
of tales, tall and short, all rooted in truth. After being kicked out of his
English public school in 1933 for being an unruly lad, the 17-year-old “Paddy”
up and left old Blighty and took a walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland
almost to the gates of Constantinople. He still hadn’t finished his journey by
the time the War broke out, having stayed with a host of interconnected
aristocratic families when he wasn’t tramping the countryside among the
peasantry. Decades later, based on an outstanding memory and the journals he
kept, over the span of three decades he wrote a trilogy recounting his
experiences. It’s the Lord of the Rings
of all travelogues, though categorizing it merely as such grossly generalizes a
work of multivarious wonder. But it left me with has an abiding sense of sadness,
for the world the young Paddy loved so deeply was on the brink of permanent,
infernal change. And yet the old order lives on where the Faith burns bright in
the hearts among those in that Old World, ever new.
I began reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Paddy. Fifty
pages into it, I lent it to a friend in Wisconsin, and look forward to picking
it up again when we meet for lunch in Spring Green shortly after the New Year.
Another man I really wish I could have known, though we have
living friends in common, is Chuck Colson. It sounds cheesy and so
self-helpish, but The Good Life: Seeking Purpose, Meaning, and
Truth in Your Life, written with Harold Fickett, helped save me from
desperation when I discovered an unbroken copy on my grandmother’s book shelf last
July. Colson came to Christ after he was imprisoned for his role in the
Watergate scandal, causing his former world and worldview to collapse. He said
going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to him. Rejecting
lucrative offers in business after his release, he pursued the vocation he
discovered in prisonbringing inmates the same hope and truth he discovered in
Christand went on to found the international ministry, Prison Fellowship.
Though Colson never crossed the Tiber, he really should
havean Aquinas-quoting Prottie, I like to think he would have if given a
longer lease on life. If he isn’t with our Lord now, I fear my own fate. The
Good Life is a powerful witness to the good, the beautiful, and the
true, and I owe Fickett dinner for his role in bringing it to light.
Anything written by a man named Basil Maturin should be worth
reading, especially if said man is a priest who went down with the Lusitania,
last seen comforting desperate passengers who died in a legitimate act of war.
(The Britain-bound boat was loaded with munitions, and the Germans gave advance
notice in the New York Times that it would be sunk on sight.) Sophia
Press republished a book he wrote early in the last century, before the world
about him went mad. It can save a soul from madness and uplift and empower even
the most lightsome Christian. Christian Self-Mastery: How to Govern Your
Thoughts, Discipline Your Will, and Achieve Balance in Your Spiritual LifeI
keep a copy in my brief case, and it’s one of those books you’ll want to give
to friends. Definitely worth ten bucks a copy.
Lastly, as prep for a trip to Spain to visit friends
occupying Gaucin, a mountain village overlooking Gibraltar, I recommend Pepita
Aris’ The Spanish Kitchen. It’s a tasty introduction to the
cookery of the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, sans the Portuguese. If I
could have tapas for breakfast, I would, and just might.
Matthew A. Rarey
writes from Chicago.
Dom Alcuin Reid:
I am sure
that I am by no means alone in saying that the
book of 2015 is Robert Cardinal Sarah’s
God or Nothing (Ignatius Press). Reviewers have tended to highlight the cardinal’s
clear and faithful exposition on the Church’s teaching on marriage and the
family in the light of modern challenges and issuesparticularly gender
ideologyand there is no doubt that he underlines fundamental principles and
makes crucial distinctions in these areas which are essential. The clear and
uncompromising teaching of this successor to the apostles on such hotly debated
questions that is to be found here itself makes the book essential reading. So
too (if I may be permitted to say so) does his profound realization and
exposition of the centrality of the Sacred Liturgy in the life and mission of
what touched me most deeply were the first two chapters, describing the early
life and emerging vocation of the young Robert Sarah in Guinea. For those of us
born in more developed countries, with perhaps a more comfortable upbringing
and education, and who are used to seeing cardinals from similar backgrounds,
these autobiographical pages may well serve as a very timely “wake-up-call.”
Why is Cardinal Sarah so clear in his teaching? Why is he so fearless and
strong in his faith? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that from a very early
age, thanks to the simple circumstances of his family and to the witness of
French missionaries whose faith was clear and uncluttered, he learned that the
ultimate choice in this life is between God or nothingperiod. It is a choice
we must all make. This book will help us appreciate its import very much more
clearly. If you haven’t read it, perhaps have it to hand for the start of Lent
occasioned an encounter with a very small and quite old book, Thomas Merton’s Praying the Psalms, first published in
1956. It is a great blessing that in addition to clergy and religious many, many
lay men and women pray the Divine Office today. Merton has, I think, much to
give us all by way of a fundamental orientation in our approach to the psalms
and indeed to all liturgical prayer:
There is no
aspect of the interior life, no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need
of man that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms. But we cannot lay
hands on these riches unless we are willing to work for them. It is no longer
so much a matter of study, since the study has been done for us by experts. We
need only to take advantage of the texts they have given us, and use them with
faith, and confidence and love. Above all we need zeal and strength and
perseverance. We cannot by mere human ingenuity or talent exhaust all that is
contained in the Psalms. Indeed, if we seek only “to get something out of them”
we will perhaps get less than we expect, and generous efforts may be frustrated
because they are turned in the wrong direction: toward ourselves rather than
In the last
analysis, it is not so much what we get out of the Psalms that rewards us, but
what we put into them. If we really make them our prayer, really prefer them to
other methods and expedients, in order to let God pray in us in His own words,
and if we sincerely desire above all to offer Him this particularly pure homage
of our Christian faith, then indeed we will enter into the meaning of the
Psalms, and they will become our favorite vocal prayers.
Dom Alcuin Reid is a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît
in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France. He has lectured internationally and
has published extensively on the Sacred Liturgy.
find that I return to some key books around Christmas and Easterthe high
seasons of the soulor at least begin them again, though it may take me a while
to get through them. This year, the most unflagging of my re-reads was C.S.
Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which I
regard as the greatest piece of fiction he ever produced (though I admire the
space trilogy quite a bit too, especially Perelandra
and That Hideous Strength). Till We Have Faces is his “retelling” of
the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, or love and the soul. I’m never quite
sure what to make of itand I think I read once that neither did Lewis. But
suffice to say that his literary power was never greater, and it’s put to use
in a tale that takes you into some realm of transcendence rare in all of modern
literature. I don’t know why it’s relatively unknownperhaps its the lack of
explicit Christian content puts off the Christian partisans and the secular
literary world already thinks it knows what to make of Lewis.
secular perspectives, Clive James’ newest book, Latest Readings, like everything by him, is just nonstop high spirits
about books and authors. James is dying from leukemia but it doesn’t seem to
have slowed his reading and writing one bit. His Cultural Amnesia, too, is a volume to keep on the nightstand and
read over again and again for the sheer scope of his mind. Not a Christian
writer, though he’s translated Dante in his declining days (badly, I’m sorry to
say, but we may hope he was seeking something other than poetry there). Still,
a representative of a high cultural tradition when much else in the culture has
nosedivedbest documented, in my view, in Mario Vargas Llosa’s newly translated
Notes on the Death of Culture.
death, Rene Girard’s passing in November sent me back to The Girard Reader. A Frenchman who taught literature for many years
here in America, Girard elaborated one of the most powerful explanations of
Christ’s uniquenessever. Jesus was not a scapegoat, like the scapegoats of the
ancient Hebrews and pagans. His willingness to die on the Cross inverted that
ancient method of casting the sins of the community onto an innocent victim.
You have to read the whole thing in context to realize what a singular thing
the Christian story did to our all-too-human tribal inclinations to revenge.
tryingas we all are these daysto figure out where our American tribe is
headed, and the role the Church can or cannot play in what seems like a period
of global disorientation. In times like these, it sometimes helps to go back to
the point where things seemed still reasonably sane or at least tolerable. The
times have driven me to re-reading Jacques Maritain’s Reflections on America, which he gave as a series of lectures at
the University of Chicago. Maritain found Americans, whatever their flaws, less
inclined to cynicism and skepticism than their European counterparts.
Americans, be believedthinkers and people alikehad a passion for truth. Much has changed since then, of
course, but a useful reminder that there may be a dance in the old dame yet, if
final note: Hawthorne’s novel The Marble
Faun. It’s the story of a group of American artists living in Rome during
the 19th century when Rome seemed dilapidated and the capital of gross
superstition. The old Calvinist in Hawthorne says some harsh things about the
Church and its influence in Italy. And yet…the novelist in Hawthorne resonates
in some beautiful passages to something about Rome he can’t quite grasp, but
can't ignore either. Grace can be a very sly thing indeed.
Robert Royal is the president of the Faith &
Reason Institute in Washington, DC and editor of The
books I read, three stand out.
First, The Complete Short Novels by Anton Chekov (Random House Vintage).
The author, who as much a anyone deserves recognition as the father of modern
fiction, is best known for his short stories and plays, but he also wrote five
longish (but not novel-length) tales, all of them collected here. The titles
include at least two undoubted masterpieces: The Duel and The Steppe.
The English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is clear and
Second, Theological Highlights of Vatican II by
Joseph Ratzinger (Paulist). Books about the Second Vatican Council continue to
appear. This is one of the earliest and one of the best. The author, Father
Joseph Ratzingerlater Pope Benedict XVIwas among the theological stars of
Vatican II and published these essays at the time in a German periodical. They
remain remarkably clear and informative expositions of the issues at stake and
an admirable introduction to the council as a whole.
Third, The Coup at Catholic University by Peter W. Mitchell (Ignatius). The
coup in question is the one that took place at the American bishops’ own
university in 1967 and 1968 and focused on Father Charles Curran and his
colleagues in dissent. Though slightly on the heavy side, Father Mitchell’s
careful volume is fascinating though discouraging reading for anyone who wants
to understand how the institutionalization of dissent came about in American
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of
the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference
from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books.
To remember the soldiers who fought in the Great War, I
read Max Hastings’ riveting Catastrophe
1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf),
which builds on the work of Michael Howard and Hew Strachan to argue that “it
would be entirely mistaken to suppose that it did not matter which side won.”
Why? King Billy’s territorial aims were no less ambitious than Herr Hitler’s,
and if Germany had won European freedom would have vanished. That the price of
freedom proved so high only proved its preciousness, not the folly of those who
fought to protect it.
In defending that freedom many rediscovered the Cross. The
novelist Frederic Manning captured something of this when he described how the
hero of his novel The Middle Parts of Fortune
(1929) marched past a stone Calvary with his fellow infantrymen and they “who
had known all the sins of the world, lifted, to the agony of the figure on the
cross, eyes that had probed and understood the mystery of suffering.” In
addition to Manning’s novel, I read Ford Madox Ford’s memoir, It Was the Nightingale (1933), which
sheds a good deal of light on our own travails. “A social system had crumbled,”
Ford observed of the Great War’s toll. “Nay, it had been revealed…that beneath
Ordered Life itself was stretched the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses
of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was
more frail than any canvas hut.”
In the past year, I also reread two books that never fail
to send me back to the good fight with renewed serenity and pluck: Monsignor
A.N. Gilbey’s We Believe: A Simple
Commentary on the Catechism (Gracewing) and Ronald Knox’s The Window in the Wall and Other Sermons on
the Holy Eucharist (Sheed &
Ward). The best Catholic biography I read was David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor (Oxford), a
masterly study of how the great convert’s faith animated his judicious rule.
Other recent Catholic books worth commending are Lynne Surtees’ Blessed Roger Cadwallador; Father
Francis Selman’s The Sacraments and the
Mystery of Christ; and Jennifer Moorcroft’s St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her
Sisters, all from Gracewing.
Of all the Catholic titles I read none proved of greater
practical benefit than Grace Mazza Urbanski’s Pray with Me: Seven Simple Ways to Pray with Your Children (Ave
Maria), a wise, resourceful, charming book, which, as the besotted papa of a
daughter of three, I can warmly recommend to all parents keen on transmitting
the Faith to the younger generation.
Another book that I should recommend is Bernard Bailyn’s Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History
(Knopf), which shows yet again what a marvelous intellectual historian Bailyn
is. Writing good intellectual history requires not only great learning but a certain
imaginative humility, and Bailyn has both. He also writes a pellucid, elegant
prose. Admirers of Bailyn will also enjoy The
Selected Writings of Thomas Paine (Yale) edited by Ian Shapiro and Jane E.
Calvert, which includes a superb revisionist essay on Paine by another crack
intellectual historian, J.C.D. Clark.
A few other titles I enjoyed include Lord Salisbury on Politics: A Selection of his Articles in the
Quarterly Review, 1860-1883 (Cambridge), edited by Paul Smith, which shows
what a brilliant, witty, discriminating mind Salisbury had; Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber (Yale),
which chronicles the life of the slave boy who left the iniquitous sugar
plantations of Jamaica to become the servant, friend, and legatee of Samuel Johnson;
and Sir Frederick Ponsonby’s Recollections
of Three Reigns (Eyre &
Spottiswoode), the funniest diplomatic memoir ever written.
Lastly, I enjoyed dipping into The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary (1958), edited by
John Coulson, a wonderfully edifying summons to holiness.
Edward Short is the
author, most recently, of Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews
2015 was the first in over three decades where I did not review a single new
book. Indeed the sole
book review of mine published during 2015dealing with the short-lived British
composer Constant Lambert, and included in The American Conservative’s July-August
issuewas written in 2014. Every other volume I read this year had been issued
earlier than that. These three warrant noting:
The Politics of Plainchant in Fin-de-Siècle France (2013), by British
musicologist Katharine Ellis. No one should be deterred by the
less-than-alluring title. Dr. Ellis has supplied an excellently researched,
riveting, sometimes alarming account of how an obscure French pamphleteer named
Augustin Pécoul appointed himself crusader on behalf of Gregorian chant expert
Dom Joseph Pothier, and how Pécoul interpreted this brief as licensing him to
calumniate every other Gregorian chant expert, above all Dom Pothier’s fellow
Solesmes monk Dom André Mocquereau. This is unabashed micro-history here, with
plentiful and fascinating ancillary information about printers’ unions, secret
diplomatic missives, Franco-German hostilities (focused on Regensburg’s chant
editions), intellectual property concepts circa 1900, and political intrigue at
the highest levels in Paris and Rome. Though Pécoul died in 1916, he represents
a type of male familiar now from the purportedly Catholic blogosphere: fluent,
vitriolic, obsessive, borderline-deranged, pseudonym-addicted, conspiratorial,
andfor all his ostentatious
displays of eruditiontrapped
at the empathetic level of Pinkie in Brighton Rock.
Zuleika Dobson (1911), by Sir Max Beerbohm. It is extraordinary how often,
before returning to a classic which one happened upon in youth, one has
remained deaf to the classic’s tone. Having recollected Zuleika
Dobson as an instance of what P.G. Wodehouse called “musical comedy without
the music” (a musical comedy based on the novel did actually appear in 1957), I
dug it out in 2015 and found myself newly shaken by how sad, as well as how
funny, it is. In 1911, Beerbohm’s climactic scene of upper-class British
manhood committing collective suicide must have seemed a real hoot. Within the
decade a frighteningly large proportion of upper-class British manhood had done
just that, in the mud and blood of Flanders fields. Beerbohm’s prosemuch more inclined to simple declarative
sentences than its author’s reputation for ornate dandyism would suggeststill sparkles. Yet it is (to quote an
Agatha Christie title) sparkling cyanide.
essays from The Rambler. The battle to convince the world that Dr. Johnson would
remain a great thinker, great stylist, and great versifier even if Boswell had
never existed seems unwinnable. Where T.S. Eliot failed, we far lesser scribes
shall not presume to succeed. But with The Rambler, aphorism after
aphorism has acquired a chilling new relevance, given that 2015 saw hitherto
though not, alas, exclusively in Australiaturn themselves again and again into honking, gibbering
apologists for Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemous filth. It would beseem such
apologists to ponder (on the perhaps over-optimistic assumption that they
retain sufficient intellect to ponder anything more ethically elevated than Charlie
Hebdo itself) the memento mori which concludes Rambler 69, released
by Dr. Johnson on November 13, 1750:
He that grows old without
religious hopes, as he declines into imbecility, and feels pains and sorrows
incessantly crowding upon him, falls into a gulf of bottomless misery, in which
every reflection must plunge him deeper, and where he finds only new gradations
of anguish and precipices of horror.
R. J. Stove lives
in Melbourne and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, 2012).
On the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped,
there are two books that stand out. One is Hiroshima by
John Hersey, rightly hailed a classic. In a short narrative, the author
recreates that unforgettable event and its aftermath. The other is A
Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai: Scientist, Convert, and Survivor
of the Atomic Bomb by Paul Glynn. The story of Nagai is
impossible to forget, and impossible not to effect a change in the reader.
An epic life of a different sort is recorded in Peter
Ackroyd’s Charlie Chaplin. The descriptions of the actor’s
London childhood and belated return to his home city, after having achieved
global stardom, are particularly haunting.
Continuing in the world of cinema, Stephen Rebello’s Alfred
Hitchcock & the Making of Psycho remains one of the
best books that I have come across which tracks a film from real events to
cinematic concept, through to production, release, and beyond. Another
Hollywood legend caught “off camera” is to be found in Henry Jaglom’s My Lunches with Orson: Conversations
Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. This is a chance to eavesdrop on
Welles as the actor lambasts and rails against the world that didn’t recognizeor
fundhis genius. As informative as it is provocative, as funny as it is
poignant, this is not for the faint-hearted, or the easily offended.
Alice Von Hildebrand’s Memoirs of a Happy Failure is a reminiscence of an altogether
different sort. It starts with a night-time U-Boat attack during World War II
and builds from there. It is above all a story of triumph against the odds in
the increasingly hostile world of secular academia. Still on the subject of
World War II, Principalities and Powers:
Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 by George William Rutler is a compellingly
erudite and original read, as well as a strangely moving one. Its cover has to
be one of the best in years.
Finally got round this year to reading Joseph Pearce’s Roy
Campbell biography Bloomsbury and Beyond: The Friends and
Enemies of Roy Campbell. He was an extraordinary man and poet whose
work and life deserves to be better known.
Better known, of course, is Hilaire Belloc. Reading Essays
of a Catholic today one is struck at how penetrating and wise
his essays remain. Both thought-provoking and relevant, they are, above
all else, never less than beautifully written.
It is a beautiful life that is recounted in Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy
by Simone Troisi & Cristiana Paccini.
It is sobering to realize that these dramatic events happened so recently.
Saints are still being made if only we have eyes to see.
A new and distinctive voice has emerged in Catholic
poetry. Sarah de Nordwall’s inaugural collection, 50 Poems for My 50th: A Beginner’s
Guide to Opening the World with Words
is as original in its wit and insight as it is orthodox in beliefhere’s a name
to look out for.
Book of the year, however, is Unbroken by Laura
Hillenbrand. As with her earlier Seabiscuit, this is a wonderfully
written, emotionally involving read. The pages seem to turn themselves, but don’t
take my word for it as, last time I looked, there were over 26,000 glowing
reviews on Amazon. I pitied the filmmakers...
K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer
and filmmaker with a degree in theology from the Maryvale Institute.