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