“The Best Books I Read in 2012…” (Part 2 of 3)

Selections from Thomas P. Harmon, Thomas Howard, Brian Jones, James Kalb, Paul Kengor, Joseph Martin, Fr. David Vincent Meconi, S.J., Sandra Miesel, Christopher S. Morrissey, Fiorella Nash, and Carl E. Olson.

Thomas P. Harmon is assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI: Each of the three volumes of Jesus of Nazareth are gems.  The final installment is no exception.  The Holy Father brings his vast erudition to bear on Jesus’ origin, pointing out that the question, “Where are you from,” which Pilate asks in John’s Gospel is the perennial question about Jesus.  The answer begins in Bethlehem but ends with God the Father.  The Infancy Narratives helps the reader to uncover a little bit about Jesus’ divine origin and in doing so sheds light on the great mystery of the Incarnation, in which eternity and time are brought together and the divine is mingled with the human without abandoning divinity.  My longer review of this book was published recently on the CWR site.

Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine, by J. Brian Benestad: Benestad offers a thorough presentation of the social doctrine of the Church, a fruit of long years of reflection.  Benestad cuts through many of the acrimonious and convoluted disputes about the various policy applications of CSD to illuminate what Catholic Social Doctrine is, why it was developed, what relationship it has to past Church teaching on the relationship of Christianity and the political order, and what is required in order to understand the social doctrine of the Church. The answer to the latter is, quite a lot. Fortunately, we have Benestad’s introduction. The book is a work of hefty scholarship, so it’s best not to expect beach reading.

Confessions, by St. Augustine, trans. F.J. Sheed, edited with notes by Michael Foley: Most readers of CWR won’t need to be convinced that Augustine’s great book should be on everyone’s list. I mention this edition because Michael Foley has done a terrific job with his notes and glossary. Not everyone can just jump into an ancient text, even one with as much universal appeal as the Confessions. Foley’s well-written, insightful notes help the reader to get the most out of the book.

The Birth of Philosophic Christianity, by Ernest L. Fortin: Father Fortin was a master essayist and herein are contained the best of his essays on faith and reason, the encounter between Jerusalem and Athens, and a variety of other, related topics. A provocative book, there will be more mind-blowing moments per page in this book than in almost any other comparable volume.

The Modern Age, by James V. Schall: Modernity has been a problem for the Church since its inception. But just what it is an what its origins are is pretty controversial. Fr. Schall tackles these questions with his usual wit and wisdom, drawing on his decades of reading and thinking about political philosophy and theology. Along the way, Schall leads us in a conversation with some of the best minds who have thought about what modernity might be: Jacque Maritain, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Pope Benedict, Etienne Gilson, and G.K. Chesterton.

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, by Leon Kass. Leon Kass is best known as the inaugural president of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. He’s also a medical doctor, a renowned teacher of the great books in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and the finest philosophic mind to attempt an interpretation of the whole book of Genesis in the 20th century. Kass brings with him an unsurpassed sensitivity to the way texts are written and attention to detail born out of a deep respect for the text of genesis and the wisdom it contains. Genesis, says Kass, is addressed to the one who seeks wisdom. Kass is able to draw out a remarkable amount of it by asking great questions of the text: how can there be plants before the sun is created? Why is it significant that Adam and Eve sew themselves girdles after the Fall? Why is Abel’s sacrifice pleasing to God, but Cain’s isn’t? What is the nature of sacrifice in Gensis in the first place? Why do shepherds seem to find favor with God, but farmers and townsmen do not? Why does Abraham stop at ten when he asks God whether he will spare Sodom if he finds enough good men present there? What’s the deal with Joseph’s embalming in Egypt? A lengthy read, but quite accessible.

The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis: If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in a while, do yourself a favor. A short book, funny, but chock full of spiritual insights, centered around a bus ride from hell to heaven. The question is: why doesn’t everyone get to heaven? The chilling answer: because not everyone wants to be there. It turns out that Hell is locked from the inside and it takes both wisdom and will to begin to acquire the taste for solid but startling reality of heaven. Most of the time, we want to be satisfied with shadows of our own choosing rather than the really real. As a theologian, I especially appreciate the presence of the Episcopal Ghost, who would rather lead a theological book club in Hell than to serve in heaven.

Catholicism in America: Challenges and Prospects, edited by Matthew L. Lamb: A collection of essays on the place of the Church in America, the particular challenges she faces in staying true to her mission because of hr American context, and what the Church offers America to moderate her faults and bring out what is best in her politics and culture. The list of contributors reads almost like a who’s who of broadly conservative Catholics who have thought seriously about Catholicism in America from ecclesiastical figures like Cardinals George and Levada and Archbishop Chaput, to political philosophers like Daniel Mahoney and Peter Augustine Lawler, theologians like Matthew Lamb and Marc Guerra, philosophers like Thomas Hibbs, and public intellectuals like George Weigel and Michael Novak. The range of opinions runs from those like Cardinal George who strongly emphasize the challenges and incompatibility of Catholicism and American politics and culture, to the more sanguine approach of Michael Novak, and the middle position of Daniel J. Mahoney, who argues for a prudent accommodation of the Church to America. Fascinating essays about a momentous topic.

Hark! A Vagrant! By Kate Beaton: Switching gears here quite a bit. I had to include this book because it’s been a while since I’ve laughed this hard. Beaton’s an indie cartoonist who riffs on historical topics and literature, whose eye for the absurd and the incongruous is matched only by her skill with simple line drawings. Read here about hipsters throughout history, the hilarious haunting of Nero by Aggrippina, what happens when multiple Shakespearian crazies occupy the same play, Suffragettes in the City (Susan B. Anthony may not approve!), and more. My favorite sequence was her series of cartoons exploring Edward Gorey’s book covers, which often seem to have little to do with the contents of the book. Beaton’s challenge: to unfold in three frames, based on the cover, what the book must really be about.

Night Train to Rigel, by Timothy Zahn: Looking for some mostly frivolous relaxation reading? Zahn’s your man. Fun marriage of detective fiction and science fiction, with space-age swashbuckler, plot twists galore, some clever banter, and a galaxy-wide conspiracy! This is the first book in a series of five. The sci-fi conceit: a galaxy-spanning railway operated by mysterious aliens provides the necessary faster-than-light travel gimmick and simultaneously imposes the technological limitations that are necessary in order for the sci-fi elements not to get out of control and also lets Zahn imitate his noir source material even in other solar systems.

Zita the Space Girl, by Ben Hatke: I’m not a fan of graphic novels, but I make an exception for Zita. My pre-schooler loves Hatke’s book, which is clever, funny, wholesome, and enjoyable. And I concur. Zita has a sequel, too, which I’ll enjoy reading with my daughter in the new year.

Dr. Thomas Howard is a highly acclaimed writer and literary scholar, noted for his studies of Inklings C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams as well as books including Chance or Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism, Hallowed be This House, Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, If Your Mind Wanders At Mass, On Being Catholic, The Secret of New York Revealed, Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome and Dove Descending. He has also produced a video series, aired on EWTN, titled “Treasures of Catholicism.” The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard was published by Ignatius Press in 2007.

Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Br. Simeon). A perfect harmony of searching exegesis and very rich food for the inner man. Entirely readable for the ordinary laity.

Jesus of Nazareth (all three volumes). Benedict XVl. There are no words to do justice to this achievement. It is Water from the Well of Bethlehem for all who have been parched by the ravages of modern biblical literary-critical techniques. Vastly heartening, coming as it does from the Vicar of Christ in Rome.
Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Very heady stuff; but, believe it or not, accessible to any reasonably educated laity. Bite-sized sections allay any misgivings one might have about tackling Thomas.

The Early Christian Fathers. Henry Bettenson, ed. & trans. Should be required reading by all modern Christians, harried as they are by the tumultuous cross-currents that clutter the Faith in our time. Here is that Faith, articulated and interpreted by the generation of men immediately following the Apostles themselves.

The Life of Samuel Johnson. James Boswell. Here is the strongest and best antidote to all woolly thinking, muddy prose, and nonsense. Pure delight–hilarious, actually. Should be perpetual reading by anyone wishing to re-discover what conversation, discourse, and clarity of thought were like before the noisome effluvium of modern “education” did its lethal work. A splendid purgative.

An Experiment in Criticism. C. S. Lewis. Archetypical Lewis stuff. Astounding and invigorating in its perspicacity. One comes away a better man for having sat under this tutelage.

King Lear, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry V, Hamlet, etc. These chestnuts will never lose their glory. One who leaves them on his shelf undusted is a man to be pitied. At least two per year might be a salvific dosage.

Brian Jones currently an MA philosophy student at the University of St. Thomas in Houston; he received an MA in theology from Franciscan University.

The Politics by Aristotle. There is simply nothing quite like reading Aristotle. I read this ancient classic during the 2012 election, which made it all the more insightful, and dare I say, alive. Here are just a few points of Aristotle’s genius, practicality, and wisdom that our society must recover: 1) Democracy, as a pure regime, is a bad constitution for the fact that, in Aristotle’s experience, it so often lead to tyranny; 2) Good regimes, ones rooted in citizen-wide virtue, entail that citizens actually participate in the order of politics at a substantial level; 3) Finally, while politics is a great and noble good (not the result of the Fall), it is the contemplative order that is supreme, for it alone is sought for its own sake and most in accord with human nature. If this is forgotten, or rejected, then politics cannot achieve its good and, ultimately, something inhumane results.

Man and the State by Jacques Maritain. This is a tremendous work to continuously re-read, for Maritain’s insights have such an intellectual depth to them that is combined with a unique practicality that is rarely witnessed. While his view of democracy and rights has some definite weaknesses to it, he nevertheless shows himself to be a genuine reformer, and not simply a critic of cultural and politics.

The Mind that is Catholic: Political and Philosophical Essays
by Fr. James Schall. While he will no longer have his teaching duties at Georgetown, can anyone imagine Fr. Schall taking “his boots off” to retire? His writing projects (essays and books) will surely continue, and we ought to be so grateful. He often says some of the following things about his favorite authors (Chesterton, Johnson, Belloc, Schulz, Maritain, Pieper, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas): “they are such a delight to read”; “in them is found a complete liberal education”; “they are our greatest guides towards truth.” All of these phrases can be said of this Schall classic, as well as the rest of his encyclopedic output. It is truly delightful to read, and it lifts the soul because it actually helps one to see the truth of things. There is no greater vision than to be able to see everything in its proper order; through Schall, much like his heroes, we can simply affirm that the truth is lovely.

Philosophy of Democratic Government
by Yves Simon. Another timeless classic that all serious students ought to read. Much in the line of Maritain’s work mentioned above; in fact, I would highly recommend reading them together in order to see their great complementarity and wisdom. Simon is certainly much more prudent than Maritain in his appraisal of modern democracy and whether it is the best regime today. His chapters on “Sovereignty,” “Authority,” and “Technology” are filled with such clarity and insight that one is half-tempted (or fully) to buy copies for his local politicians. Perhaps they, like Augustine, would then hear that soul-wrenching phrase: “Tolle lege!”

How Science Enriches Theology
by Benedict Ashley O.P. and John Deely. This book is nothing short of a gem. Post-moderns, as well as many Catholics, hold a rather separationist relationship between faith, science, and reason. To claim that sacra doctrina has no intimate and necessary relationship not only contradicts the teaching of two great doctors (St. Albert and St. Thomas Aquinas), but it also distorts and corrupts both disciplines in themselves. Ashley and Deely create a marvelous synthesis whereby we actually can allow and encourage the discoveries of modern science to flourish and respond to the irrational atheistic presuppositions, while also enabling us to more intimately see how this gives greater strength to the light of faith. This is a great book for an intro theology or philosophy class (also good for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses). Both authors have provided a real gift for theologians, philosophers, and scientists.

James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008).

The most valuable current book I read this past year was Christopher Ferrara’s Liberty, the God That Failed. Catholics need to rethink our role in political life, and Ferrara’s well-researched polemic counter-narrative raises issues we need to consider.
In general, though, this has been the year I discovered the e-reader and public domain books. There are a lot of them out there, and these are good times to reconnect with what’s been thought and felt in the past. With that in mind, here are some highlights from my wanderings:
The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon. A prophetic vision of the technological state by one of its founding fathers. The vision is an alarming one if you read between the lines and think about the powers of the Solomon’s House research institute that basically seems to run Bacon’s utopia. They can create illusions at will, for example.

History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, by Ferdinand Gregorovius. The saga of the greatest of cities, as told by the (unfortunately non-Catholic) nineteenth century historian. Popes, passions, and politics, they’re all there, together with other aspects of the life of the city—which quarter the Greeks lived in, how things stood with learning and the arts, which ancient buildings were used for what, and so on. It’s 3200 pages long, so you don’t have to read the whole thing at a go. (I’ve only reached the year 1000 or thereabouts.

The Thousand and One Nights, Commonly Called the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, translated by Edward William Lane. Surprising adventures, strange transformations, stories within stories, the arbitrariness of fate and human decision, and the ultimate omnipotence of God. That can seem a lot like real life, at least in some moods.

Four Arthurian Romances, by Chretien de Troyes. More everyday realism: you go into a room, incomprehensible rules apply, something happens, everything changes, you have to pass some strange test, and so on. The main takeaway: remember to hear mass before you set out on your next strange adventure.

Leaves from the Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voragine, chosen by H. D. Madge. A selection of the lives of the saints from the medieval best seller. You need to know these stories!

Moving from traditional tales to a twentieth century holiday from reality: A Damsel in Distress, by P. G. Wodehouse. One of the best of the pre-1923 (and therefore public domain) books by the great master of comedy and English prose. His earliest stories are mostly about golf or cricket and don’t really show his mastery, but by the time he wrote this one he had hit his stride.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007), The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, God and Ronald Reagan, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, among others.

Brian Latell, Castro’s Secrets. This is a fascinating look at the crimes committed by Fidel Castro over the last 50 years, written by a CIA insider. Castro’s many ignominious episodes include possible prior knowledge of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—a real blockbuster, for sure.

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Presidents Club. Written by two senior writers at Time magazine, this is an extremely interesting look at the many relationships among living ex-presidents and the president currently governing at the time. If you ever wonder what’s really being said and thought among, say, Bill Clinton and the current Bushes, or, 50 years ago, among Eisenhower and Truman and Hoover, this book gives you the scoop. It’s terrific history.

Tim Goeglein, The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era. Tim Goeglein served President George W. Bush faithfully for seven years, but then suddenly found himself guilty of a major lapse of judgment: plagiarism. This is the story of how Goeglein survived that ordeal and of the extraordinary grace of the president he served. President Bush forgave him, and the way in which he did so is extremely moving—enough to bring tears to the angriest Bush basher. This is a story of personal redemption for Goeglein, but it is also an illuminating account of the character of our last president, who, despite whatever faults, is a thoroughly decent man.

Mark Kriegel, Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich. Pete Maravich, a local boy from my neck of the woods in Western Pennsylvania, became the most prolific scorer in the history of college basketball. The path started with his father, who rose from the steel mills of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. It ends with a retired by still young Pete Maravich collapsing on a basketball court with some Christian friends, dying at a young age. This is a tale not only of a basketball star but a man who found Christ.

David Kupelian, How Evil Works. This is a book that takes a largely secular look at evil and its power and influence in American society. It is a political book, not a theological one, though it certainly has a spiritual root.

M. Stanton Evans and Herb Romerstein, Stalin’s Secret Agents. These two Cold War veterans have just produced this masterful look at communist penetration into FDR’s administration and American government in the 1930s and 1940s. The new information on Alger Hiss at Yalta alone is worth the price of the book.

Joseph Martin, PhD, teaches Graphic Design at Hampton University in Virginia, where he keeps an eye on students’ leading and kerning as well as the Atlantic surf. His completed his doctorate at Regent University with the dissertation, “Lingua Franka: An Examination of the Frank Sheed’s Apologetic Rhetoric of Faithful Persuasion.” Prior to his arrival at Hampton, Dr. Martin was Creative Director of Accelerator Graphics in Norfolk, VA. His work has been commissioned by Walt Disney Studios, Paydirt Records, and Paramount Pictures, and his review work crops up occasionally on assorted web pages where it’s read by people who read that sort of things.

Maxx Barry’s Syrup is a fun read. Amy Welborn’s Wish You Were Here is an emotionally effecting one. David Maine’s The Preservationist, a novel on Noah, is so good it helps banish unwanted residual memories of the banal “Evan Almighty.” On the subject of cinema, “Premium Rush” is for my money what more movies should be like—entertaining and mindless, mostly inoffensive fun. Musically, personal quirks battled my critical instincts in 2012, and so I found myself downloading Brit Nicole’s Gold (where she girlishly channels Lorenzo Scupoli) and country crooner Don Williams’ unassuming So It Goes alongside Audrey Assad’s Heart, J. Medeico’s The Rockies, and Van Morrison’s Born to Sing. Dial-surfing I was also alternatingly struck by Big & Rich’s “That’s Why I Pray” and smitten by Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Sweetie.”

Most of my year was spent completing research on the rhetoric of famed apologist Frank J. Sheed. The Church & I, his autobiography, remains an infectiously buoyant, prosaically pungent book deserving more fans. An unexpectedly galvanizing effect also came from sitting under the light emitted by the constellation of authors orbitting around his publishing firm of Sheed & Ward. It’s a stargazing exercise I’d recommend to anyone. Fr. Cuthbert’s God and The Supernatural, C.C. Martindale’s The Faith of the Catholic Church, Ross Hoffman’s Restoration, and Hubert Von Zeller’s Old Testament portraitures were all good.

Sheed’s wife Maisie Ward wrote several ought to be classics herself, foremost among these a couple of thick biographies of her English Catholic Recusant family. The Wilfrid Wards and the Transition and Insurrection or Resurrection tell the story of the Catholic Church in the days of Wiseman, Chesterton, and Newman, and offer fascinating first hand glimpses of personalities including Alfred Loisy, Bernard Shaw, and Tennyson. The figure of John Henry Newman was a pivotal influence on the Wards: Maisie’s father Wilfrid Ward composed a large two-volume authorized Life of the Cardinal that still reads easily, and his Last Lectures offer accessible insights into JHN’s complex thought. A generation on Sheed’s son could still joke to friends that Newman was “just a [family ghost] who lives at our place.” In seeming confirmation Maisie published her inspiring Young Mr. Newman, a worthy prequel to her father’s opus hinting that the ecumenical influences that later surfaced through the initiative Evangelical and Catholics Together were no mere late-blooming nineties novelty. That intuition receives further confirmation in Christopher Dawson’s Spirit of the Oxford Movement. Turning to Newman as a primary source, it has been an arresting experience to wrestle with his sermons (Confederacy of Evil) and the Grammar of Assent and realize that the challenges posed by the New Atheists and Secularists are anything but new.

Another theological book that I confess made me fist bump my bookshelf gargoyle was the always excellent Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? This is an even-handed exploration that will gratify Rob Bell haters even as it irks the JPII Can-Do-Know-Wrong crowd. Finally, in the aftermath of the election I found Carl Trueman’s Republocrat to be a helpful Rx soothing my anxieties as we approach a new year.

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, S.J. teaches patristic theology at Saint Louis University and is also the editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is the author of works on Catherine Doherty, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward (Orbis), and is also the author of the new critical edition of Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Ignatius); he is the co-editor, along with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, of a history of Catholic deification, Called to be Children of God (in process), as well as co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge University Press). He is busy preparing two other monographs on Augustine, a new biography as well as a study into how Augustine understands the concept of unity.

Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering by Eleonore Stump. This book is not for the intellectually lazy but it is worth every moment of pondering and prayer. In these pages (full disclosure) my colleague here at Saint Louis University, Dr. Stump, offers a Thomistic defense of the problem of evil. Using biblical narratives to show how the Lord is unshakably faithful to his people and to his promises, she argues that God can use evil in his longing for us to flourish here on earth (versus the “stern-minded” who think of heaven alone) as well as to be with him (and one another) forever in perfect peace.

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie. For my senior seminar in theology this coming spring on Twentieth Century Catholicism, I re-read Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own—his work on Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day—which led me to picking up his new book on Bach. This was a fortuitous move, in that this traditionally Lutheran composer never looked so quintessentially Catholic!

Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement by Rowan Williams. When Rowan Williams announced he was “resigning” as Archbishop of Canterbury this year, I saw one of my Jesuit brothers reading this book and wondered what Williams had to say. I found this short work on how postmodern culture has affected how we think of ourselves (chapters on childhood, charity, remorse and being culturally rootless) well worth the time.

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne. Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece on Catholic culture and conversion did not spring unawares, but arose from his own circumstances and encounters with the various manifestations of English Catholicism around him. Here Byrne chronicles as well as she can how real places, people and events came to shape Charles, Sebastian, Julia and Lord Marchmain.

Gustav Mahler’s Letters to His Wife, ed., Henry-Louis De La Grange. Mahler’s life has fascinated me for some time now and I have tried to read a biography each year since. This collection of letters reveals the intimacy and true love Mahler had for his wife Alma; like his symphonies they are simultaneously exhilarating and excruciating to encounter.
Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Little did I realize how brash and brawling an artist of the late 16th and 17th centuries had to be. Reproducing and employing his most famous paintings, this beautifully-written biography takes us through the gritty details of one of the most influential artists the Church and world have known.

The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev. This was just given to me at Advent and I could not put this biography of Caterina Medici (d. 1509) aside. They’re all here—the eager Pope Sixtus IV, Machiavelli, and the Borgias, all wrapped around this one woman’s finger!

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI. My year was appropriately crowned by the Holy Father’s presenting Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “Where are you from?” (Jn 19:9). From that question of origin, we are brought back to Bethlehem…and beyond. Wonderful!

Sandra Miesel is is the co-author of the best selling The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code. She holds masters’ degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois. Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly appears in Crisis magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut. Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited fiction.


Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550. A gracefully written, magisterial survey of economic conditions and social attitudes in the Patristic era by the foremost historian of Late Antiquity.

Jason Fisher, editor, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources. A wide-ranging collection of source-hunting essays by major Tolkien scholars. 

Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. An accessible, even witty study of the Decline and Fall, emphasizing the military and economic aspects, implicitly refuting moral degeneracy as an explanation.

Barbara Newman, editor, Voice of the Living Light: St. Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. A fine collection of essays on the fascinating saint’s context.

Tim Powers, Hide Me Among the Graves. Powers’ latest fantasy novel is a sequel of sorts to The Stress of Her Regard, but set among the Pre-Raphaelites instead of the Romantics.

Tim Powers, The Bible Repairman and Other Stories. A collection of Powers’ horror/fantasy short fiction featuring soul-swapping.

New Films:

The Avengers. Pulp, but splendidly executed pulp.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Magic realist weirdness in the bayou.

The Dark Knight Rises. A satisfying and redemptive finale to the Batman saga.  

Lincoln. Brilliant acting and superb period atmosphere.

Christopher S. Morrissey is a professor of philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College, the Catholic liberal arts college at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Gregorian Institute of Canada. His translation of Hesiod’s Prometheus myth is available from Talonbooks.

Kevin Miller’s documentary movie Hellbound? heated up the debate last year among Christians about heaven and hell. Catholics may be familiar with the debate due to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s excellent book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? (Ignatius Press, 1988). Ralph Martin carried on conversation last year with his Will Many Be Saved? (Eerdmans, 2012). But because it takes up the crucial topic of purgatory (the very issue highlighted with acuity by Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi, nn. 41-48) and deals so well with it, my commendation goes to Brett Salkeld, Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment? (Paulist Press, 2011). I am grateful that it came to my attention last year; if you haven’t read it yet, please let me bring it to yours.

Fiorella Nash is author of Poor Banished Children, was born in Italy of Maltese parents. She grew up in Wiltshire, England, and attended Cambridge, where she received a BA in English Literature and a Masters in Renaissance Literature, specializing in the English verse of Robert Southwell, S.J. She won the National Book Prize of Malta (foreign language fiction category) for her second novel The Cassandra Curse. Fiorella lives in Surrey with her husband and children and blogs at “The Singular Anomaly”.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E Frankl. I read this book after hearing Frankl quoted during a lecture on end-of-life care and I cannot recommend this magnificent work too strongly; it should be on every school syllabus. Viktor Frankl was a Viennese Jewish psychiatrist who developed the theory of logotherapy, essentially the theory that human fulfillment is driven not—as Freud mistakenly believed—by sex drive but by the need to find a sense of purpose in life. He also endured three years of intense personal suffering in concentration camps including Auschwitz, and lost all those he loved – his parents, brother and pregnant wife.

Man’s Search for Meaning is part memoir, part exploration of logotherapy and its application in the modern world. Frankl writes candidly and compassionately without a hint of bitterness, anger or self-pity. What shines through the pages of this harrowing work is Frankl’s extraordinary humanity and the hope he offers that human beings never lose the freedom to make the right choices. As he writes: “It was men who built the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but it was also men who entered those gas chambers, heads held high, with the words of the Shema or the Lord’s Prayer on their lips.” If you only have time to read one book in the coming year, let it be this one. It is a testament to man’s inherent dignity in the face of the greatest evil the world has ever witnessed.     

Atonement, by Ian McEwan. I have mixed feelings about Ian McEwan (I loved A Child in Time, but found First Love, Last Rites so offensive and disturbing I stopped reading after the first few short stories). Atonement, however, is a stunning, if depressing, evocation of 1930s England. We are introduced to Briony, a conceited 13-year-old girl who tells a lie which tears her family apart and destroys the lives of two people. Like The GoBetween (the novel which apparently inspired McEwan) Atonement looks at the subject of childhood guilt and the way in which memories are preserved and reconstructed, but it goes much further than that. It explores the moral dangers surrounding fiction writing with such force that, as an author, I felt personally challenged to justify the purpose of creative writing. An unsettling but compelling read.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report and IgnatiusInsight.com. He is author of Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press, 2003), recognized by the Associated Press as one of the best religious titles of 2003, and co-author, with medievalist Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (Ignatius, 2004). Carl writes for several Catholic periodicals, pens a weekly Scripture column for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper, and is the co-founder of the music blog, Progarchy.com. A former Evangelical Protestant who entered the Catholic Church in 1997, he has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas. Carl lives in Oregon with his wife, three children, two cats, one dog, and a bevy of books and CDs.

2012 was the Year of Reading in Fits, Starts, and False Starts for me. For every book I finished, there were countless that I merely scanned, skimmed, read in part, or some combination thereof. But here are some books that I either completed, or nearly completed, and think worthy of reading in full.

The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 2012) by Dale Ahlquist. If there is a better guide to Chesterton than Dale, I’ve not met him. Lucky for me, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Dale, and he is as Chestertonian as they come: witty, deep, thoughtful, hilarious, insightful, and graceful. The perfect introduction to one of the greatest minds of the past hundred years, with observations on every possible topic.

After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy (ISI Books, 2012) by Chilton Williamson, Jr. A bracing, sobering, and challenging read, one that every serious citizen should take up in order to better understand where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might well be heading. An erudite lesson in history, political philosophy, and current events.

The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas (Sentinel, 2012) by Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg has long been one of my favorite political pundits, in part because of his great sense of humor, but also because he is a very good thinker and writer who avoids empty, banal clichés. Or, in this case, tears them to shreds, with delightful and occasionally surprising results.

Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press, 2012) by William Kilpatrick. Another bracing and challenging read, as politically-incorrect as it is badly needed. Kilpatrick presents the big picture—historically and culturally—along with plenty of substantiating details. A warning shot that demands attention.

The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press) by Roger Kimball. The talented Mr. Kimball could write essays about snowboarding or advanced geometry and I’d read them; he is one of the finest essayists writing today. Fortunately for us, he writes about literature, art, religion, politics, and other meaty fare.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (Image, 2012) by Pope Benedict XVI. The third (and final volume) in the Jesus of Nazareth series is short, but long on insight and wisdom. The tone is more conversational and accessible than the two earlier (and much longer) books. To read this is to sit at the feet of a humble man who has spent his entire life pondering the Bible and its central subject.

Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Ivan R. Dee, 2001) by John Simon. This was one of many wonderful finds in the local St. Vincent de Paul stores. Simon is a brilliant and caustic critic. I don’t agree with his low assessment of T. S. Eliot, but I found his thinking challenging and his writing delightful.

The Constitutions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). We have been reading and discussing these in our monthly men’s reading group, and they have led to much fruitful, thoughtful discussion. My favorite remains Lumen Gentium, which I think is the cornerstone document of the Council.

For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963, 1973) by Alexander Schemann. This relatively short book by the great Orthodox priest and theologian is simply brilliant. But more than brilliant, it is challenging in every good way. It contains some of the most piercing insights into the sacramental and modernity ever penned.

Style: The Art of Writing Well (Harriman House, 2012; third edition) by F. L. Lucas. I’m still making my way through this classic book on writing, and it is like sitting down to a gourmet dessert each time I open it. A delightful and opinionated book that is delightful in large part because it is so opinionated. A must read for writers. And readers.

Pity the Beautiful: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2012) by Dana Gioia and New and Collected Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988) by Richard Wilbur. The aforementioned John Simon urges authors to read poetry, as it expands their vocabulary, construction, and sense of rhythm. Among modern American poets, you cannot do better than Gioia and Wilbur, whose poems often leave me stunned, breathless, and moved.

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2012) by Ted Gioia and Citizens of Hope and Glory: The Story of Progressive Rock (Amberley, 2012) by Stephen Lambe. Yes, Ted Gioia is the brother of the poet Dana; he is also a leading jazz critic and historian whose detailed insights into jazz tunes are nearly as lyrical as his brother’s poems. The book by Lambe is a must read for anyone curious about progressive rock. My detailed review of it can be read on the Progarchy.com site.


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