“That is a good book,” wrote Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), the father of novelist Louisa May Alcott, “which is opened with expectation, and closed with delight and profit.”
It’s also true, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, of making many books there is no end. But, of course, I read that in a book—The Good Book. A world without books is hard to imagine, and among the great joys of this life are reading, contemplating, and conversing about good books. It has now been 10 years since I posted the first “Best Books I Read in…” piece, and each year since there have been more contributors and more books. This is the third year that this popular feature has been on the CWR site (it was originally featured on the Ignatius Insight site), and this year we have nearly 40 contributors. I am thankful for their willingness to take part in this special end-of-the-year feature.
As always, the criteria given to contributors is quite simple: “What were the best books you read in the past year?” The books chosen can address any topic and could be published recently or centuries ago. I hope that reading this list of good reads begins with expectation and closes with both delight and profit. Read on!
Carl E. Olson, Editor
I was on a Richard III kick. In addition to re-reading Shakespeare’s play, which is fascinating and utterly false, I read Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of this truly tragic (and Catholic) king of England, and the novel Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, which is rightly considered one of the greatest mysteries ever written, but full of facts!
Then I went on a Sheila Kaye-Smith kick. A contemporary of Chesterton, and, like GKC, a convert and famous in her own day but forgotten in ours. I read her autobiography, Three Ways Home, and two of her novels, The End of the House of Alard (better than Downton Abbey and covering the same subject!) and Superstition Corner.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, explains why a lot of developing nations around the world are, to put it mildly, not too happy with America. Sobering.
For something more inspiring and edifying, I read The Spiritual Writings of Flannery O’Connor. Unlike many of my friends, I’ve never been keen on her fiction, but this book is exquisite.
During a visit to Italy this summer I discovered the Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi—delightful stories about a small village in Italy following World War II and the ongoing battle of wits and wills between the Communist mayor and the parish priest. The priest is inspired somewhat by Chesterton’s Father Brown, but they are not to be confused! My favorite book of the year.
Now, I also read some books that were actually published in 2015, though one of them may not count, since I published it: The Woman Who Was Chesterton, by Nancy Carpentier Brown. The first biography ever written about Frances Chesterton, GKC’s wife, who has remained in his large shadow far too long.
Chesterton and the Jews by Ann Farmer is thorough scholarly treatment of this thorny issue. It is longer than most biographies of GKC, and it fully and calmly addresses the onerous criticisms against a good man, who loved everyone, including the Jews. I am reminded that GKC once wrote: “Brave men do not resent an accusation, they refute it.”
Another great book about GKC came out late in the year: G.K. Chesterton – A Reappraisal, by Denis Conlon, one of the world’s great Chesterton scholars. Drawing on years of research, he brings out wonderful new material by and about GKC. A perfect complement to the Frances Chesterton biography.
Of course, I also read a lot of pure Chesterton because, as it turns out, I’m still on a Chesterton kick. I read mostly from his Daily News and New Witness essays, in which I ran across this line: “Liberty is never an easy thing. The man or the nation who seeks liberty under the impression that it is an easy thing, has always sunk, and always deserved to sink, back into slavery, which is the very home of ease.”
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society and publisher of Gilbert Magazine.
Much of my reading in 2015 was to prepare for the Ordinary Synod on the Family. Books that I found invaluable were: Mary Eberstadt, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution; Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense; Eleven Cardinals Speak On Marriage and Family: Essays From a Pastoral Viewpoint (ed. Winifred Aymans).
Rumer Godden was a gifted Catholic author whose novels pierce and heal the heart. In The Battle for the Villa Fiorita, when a perfectly proper English mother is swept into an illicit romance by an Italian movie director, she leaves behind (temporarily, she hopes) her three children. The younger two brave unknown perils to follow her to the lovely hamlet of Malcesine on Lake Garda to “bring Mummy home.” The children knew “why marriage matters.”
Every few years I re-read The Trouble of It Is or If Nothing Don’t Happen by David Newell. Newell was editor of Field and Stream, a friend of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and of Annie Oakley. His fictionalized true stories are a colorful splash of life along the Withlacoochee River in Florida before WWII. These books never fail to bring belly laughter and rueful recognition of Fallen Man. Beg, borrow, or pay dearly for this out-of-print treasure. On the topic of World Wars, to mark the hundredth anniversary of WWI, I read British historian Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. It helped me get my mind around what happened? Eerily, many of the same conditions and attitudes exist again in Europe.
Herman Wouk is 100 years old. The author of such classics as The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War, Wouk wrote The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion at age 95. This slim volume spans the cosmos, in a manner of speaking. Wouk (a believing Jew) describes his interviews with stellar scientists as “monstrously pushy” but we learn that at least the atheist Feynman (atomic bomb, quantum mechanics) was amused. I’m not sure this is a favorite 2015 entry yet, but I will reread it. After all, science is neutral data. What matters is why and how we apply science—and science doesn’t have the answer to that question.
Peggy Noonan knows America and Americans. A collection of personally chosen columns spanning decades, The Time of Our Lives offers cultural insights that pack a punch despite her signature restraint—don’t miss it.
Two philosophers I read each year are James V. Schall, SJ and Marion Montgomery. The former is already beloved by many CWR readers. The latter was a Southerner, a professor, and a “witness” to a world dangerously devolving. This year I read Virtue and the Modern Shadows of Turning. The primary question addressed is “Can virtue be taught?” The context is virtue within a decaying civilization, which brings to mind the recent discussions about “the Benedict Option.” Montgomery saw our horizon—the chaos on our university campuses: “…in these hard times such a question is seldom raised in the usual academic environment.”
Adults are also examined. In the chapter “The Hungry Sheep Look Up and Are Not Fed,” Montgomery thumps religious leaders for their rather militant pacifism. Here, he quotes Schall, “If the summum bonum is merely preventing the world from being blown up, we are headed for a world organized by the doctrine that only physical survival matters.” Montgomery warns, should that be the prevailing dogma, then “…life has meaning only at the materialistic level…an absolute advanced by the dialectical materialist.” There is clarity to be had—both of these philosophers point the way. Montgomery rejects despair: “Where two or three are together, we have been reminded, all manner of things shall be well.”
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications.
The older I get, the more diverse reading technology becomes (e-books, audiobooks, “book” books), the more words I find myself devouring. I still prefer the actual physical, tangible, real-life book, but when it comes to travel or snuggling with a four-year old daughter, it’s hard to beat the convenience of the e-reader. This year was especially good in terms of reading—what was printed and what was re-discovered.
I spent the vast amount of reading time during summer break to re-read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and large parts of the larger Tolkien (J.R.R. and Christopher) mythology. I’ve read, written about, and taught Tolkien for years, but the wisdom contained in Tolkien’s Legendarium hit me as never before. Perhaps it’s my age or perhaps it’s the age, but I believe that if every college student had to read The Silmarillion before graduating, the world would be a better place. Two related works hit me hard as well. Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond meticulously edited and annotated the gorgeous The Art of the Lord of the Rings. Over at The American Conservative, I happily labeled this my favorite book of 2015.
A close one—in terms of absolutely joys—is Janet Brennan Croft’s Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. Nothing Brennan Croft does is unimportant, but this collection is especially captivating and moving. It also serves as a critical piece of literary criticism, placing Tolkien in the context of his earth-shattering times. I had a chance to ask her about the motive behind publishing the book. She graciously responded: “I wanted to demonstrate that much of the great flowering of fantasy literature by British writers in the early and mid-20th century could be interpreted as a response to the Great War—in part transforming the authors’ personal trauma into something more bearable, applicable, and universally relevant” with deep if not comprehensive glimpses into “the home fronts, the infirmaries, the wounded landscapes both interior and exterior, and the healing that can come from myth and fantasy.”
One of my best new personal encounters this year was with the sci-fi masters and book publishing entrepreneurs Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. I’ve been reading them both for well over 20 years, but this year I thoroughly enjoyed the first two volumes of Anderson’s mind-bogglingly vast Saga of Shadows trilogy, his Enemies and Allies (a deeply psychological examination of Batman and Superman, set in the Cold War of the 1950s), and several of his Dune books.
Historically intriguing, beautifully written, and simply captivating is the first Kindle single written by John J. Miller, The Polygamist King, the horrifying true story of a rebellious Mormon dictator who established a kingdom in the Great Lakes in the 1850s. The single, tellingly, begins with regicide. By the end of this roller-coaster read, the reader is none-too-sorry to see the would-be king’s demise.
When it comes to political thought, I found James R. Otteson’s The End of Socialism the first great book in that area of study since Hayek’s 1960 Constitution of Liberty. The author is one of Western civilization’s finest living thinkers. Along the same lines, the irrepressible Tom Woods’ Real Dissent is a must-read and must-own. A devout Catholic, Woods analyzes nearly everything that matters regarding domestic policy in this whirligig we call America. To round out this trio of excellent and painstaking political and economic thought, one should also read Steve Horwitz’s latest masterpiece, Hayek’s Modern Family.
My favorite re-discovery was The English Way: Studies in English Sanctity from St. Bede to Newman, edited by Maisie Ward in 1933. I’ve had the book on my shelves for nearly a decade, and, for some reason, it fell into my hands this fall. Featuring penetrating essays by G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, and Hilaire Belloc, I read the book in a day. It desperately needs to see print again. The English Way stimulated my brain, to be sure, but it, more importantly, energized my soul.
A book I’ve studied lovingly this year—a publication almost as beautiful as The Art of the Lord of the Rings—is Hugh Symes’s Art of Rush. Written by Stephen Humphries, the book looks at 40 years of art behind the albums, books, and concerts of one of rock’s most enduring bands. Additionally, I read lots of Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, and Chuck Dixon.
Bradley J. Birzer is the second Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Professor of History at Hillsdale College.
London life means lots of travel by bus, Tube and train. No wifi (yet!) on London buses. I do embroidery (church kneelers, since you ask—easy work with wool), enjoy sudden glorious views—Tower Bridge in evening light, red-brick Westminster Cathedral among grey office blocks—and I read. A lot.
Best books this year:
Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher: Volume 1 Not for Turning and Volume 2 Everything She Wants. The second volume has fascinating material on the Falklands war, and gripping accounts of her meeting with Gorbachev and the visit to Russia where she was mobbed by eager crowds. This was one of the central moments in the collapse of Communism. Reading Moore’s superb books—well researched, elegantly written—does more than just revive memories among those of us who were young in the 1980s: it also sets the record straight for today’s young, who are being taught rubbish by school history lessons too often dominated by the straitjacket thinking of the political left enforced through teaching unions and curriculum “advisers.”
George Weigel’s revised and reprinted Letters to a Young Catholic. I’m not young (see above) but bought the book on the grounds that I could give it to a godson, and then got stuck into it myself so will have to buy a new copy for him. It’s an excellent read: the Letters are all from different places and explore various aspects of the Faith, offering often challenging insights. It was a good idea to revise and update this book with new material from the author’s continuing travels: I liked the thoughts from Ely Cathedral, refreshingly free of standard stuff about ageless stone and so on, and it is impossible not to be moved by descriptions of Maximillian Kolbe’s Auschwitz cell or Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses.
Benedict Rogers is a friend: he asked me to read his book From Burma to Rome before it was published. It described his decision to become a Catholic in the context of his work for persecuted Christians through the organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The result is a fascinating and unusual story of a spiritual journey set alongside other journeys to different parts of the world. His reception into the Church finally took place in Burma, at the hands of the archbishop there—this is very much a 21st-century story and a post-Vatican II Church and it makes for a fresh and inspiring read that reflects the great and wonderful possibilities emerging for the Church in the years ahead. If you have been brought up on the conversion stories of Newman, Ronald Knox, and G.K. Chesterton, try this new one and you will see what I mean. There’s a sense of continuity mixed with growth and change, all rather exciting.
Stories about Saint John Paul II, edited by Wlodzimierz Redzioch, is a terrific read: lots of powerful material, many rich insights. Best among a great collection is the interview with Wanda Poltawska, the Ravensbruck survivor who worked with Archbishop Karol Wojtyla to help families in the difficult social conditions created by communism, and through his ministry found her own healing and peace. The testimony of Archbishop Deskur—paralyzed by a stroke, visited by Pope John Paul hours after the latter was elected pope—is also a great read. And the stories from the Vatican gendarme who helped ensure security when John Paul escaped from the Vatican to go walking and skiing in the mountains is a delight. I think this was my chief must-read among all the books of 2015.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
As usual, I exclude the outstanding Ignatius Press titles I read in manuscript form and any Ignatius Press published titles I read. (There is one semi-exception, as you will see.)
Although I read a lot, I can’t say I retain as much as I should, nor that I adequately profit from the time spent. Oh well. Reading for sheer fun is sheer fun. I do that pretty well. Reading “for fun and profit” (“profit” broadly construed) is leisure-work. As such, it is intrinsically rewarding but it also takes some effort. In a certain respect, it is like investing in the stock market. You can probably get by okay, if you’re reasonably lucky in your picks and have a modicum of intelligence or, more likely, good advice. But to make a “killing,” you have to put a lot more time and effort into it. You have to invest. The bigger the investment, the bigger the pay-off. Probably I should “invest” more.
In any event, here are the main titles I found worthwhile in 2015.
Aristotle for Everybody by Mortimer Adler. My sixth reading. I read it on my iPad, on a plane trip to and from St Louis. Adler was a master of lucidity. (At least the older Adler was.) Aristotle was, well, Aristotle. The philosophy of common sense was his thing. As mediated by Dr. Adler it is “everybody’s business.” This book is a great starting point for young people of whatever age who are interested in thinking well about the world, even about such mundane things as apples and eternity (in a certain Aristotelian sense). The book provides a great overview of man the maker, man the doer, and man the knower. I know the experts will roll their eyes. That’s okay. A few of them should read the book—not to learn about Aristotle, all about whom they know, but how to write about him (and other subjects) for the rest of us.
Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who edited by Gregory Thornbury and Ned Bustard. Insightful evangelical Protestant Christians write about Christianity and Doctor Who. The essayists largely use Who episodes as springboards to discuss big ideas and major issues in life, according to evangelical Protestant Christian perspectives. Lots of fun and insights.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London. A classic animal story? Not quite. It’s more complicated than meets the eye. Yes, it’s about dogs—especially the main character, Buck—and men looking for gold in the Klondike region. But, although some folks treat the book as children’s fiction or an adventure tale for teens, its themes are complex. If you read this as a boy or a girl, re-read it as an adult. See what you think. How ought we to react to the changes in Buck’s character? Do these changes bear on human development? Is this social Darwinism?
The Catholicity of Reason by D.C. Schindler. I found this a challenging read but well worth the effort. Many Catholic philosophical and theological types these days start from a more or less Thomist perspective regarding faith and reason. Especially the apologetics folk I sometimes interact with. This work travels a more Augustinian theological route.
Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George. Sheer good sense on the subject of marriage, especially as regards public policy. Marriage is one of those basic things familiarity makes it difficult for many of us to think clearly about. Lee and George help immensely. Some folks who aren’t enthusiastic about the new natural law theory may not like this or that element of their argument. But still. Even granting their reservations about basic goods, such readers should find the book an insightful treatment of marriage, one immensely useful in wider discussions of what was once obvious to most people but which is now highly controversial.
The Drama of Salvation by Jimmy Akin. A great overview of the Catholic “take” on the subject. Highly readable.
Einstein’s Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity by John Gribbin with Mary Gribbin. A work of biography, history, and physics marking the centenary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. (Note: Gribbin stresses that it is the General Theory of Relativity, not the Theory of General Relativity. Good luck to him in his efforts to make the titular point stick.) 1915 trumps 1905, in Gribbin’s account.
Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation by Matthew Levering. One of the six thousand books Matthew Levering published in 2014. A good overview, with the subject matter explored in terms of the themes of Church, liturgy, priesthood, gospel, tradition, development, inspiration, and philosophy. Levering is a real theologian who is a pleasure to read (not all real theologians are).
Ethica Thomistica by Ralph McInerny. An overview of ethics representing “standard-take” Thomism by one of the late-20th century’s great Thomist philosophers. The “old natural law” school as opposed to the new natural law theory of Finnis, Grisez, George, and others.
Exploring Catholic Theology by Robert Barron. He writes too well to be a theologian and (now) a bishop. But he is both. Amazingly so. He “does” real theology. And you can understand what he writes. In fact, he is so lucid you might be tempted to think he isn’t really “doing” theology. Isn’t theology always supposed to be difficult to understand? Nope. Not that this book is the lazy reader’s guide to theology. You do need to think about what you read here. It’s just that you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what the author means before you can start thinking about whether you think it’s true. The things he writes about pose the challenge to the reader’s thinking, not the words in which he chooses to write about them. In some ways, this is a collection of various articles, with a modest structure to link them. Still, there is a great theological framework connecting many of the essays. God, theology and philosophy, liturgy and Eucharist, and the new evangelization are the main categories into which the author places his various essays.
The Iliad by Homer, translated by W.H.D. Rouse. I re-read the Iliad. It was like reading an expanded edition of the original. It’s amazing what re-reading a work after 20 years can do for your understanding of a great book. I simply missed huge parts of the story—such as how well Homer depicts the multiple dimensions of Hector, including his tenderness as husband and father, and the authenticity of Achilles’ transformation from the subhuman/ultrahuman beast-god into a real human being who can exercise prudential restraint and compassion. Maybe gaining significant life experience helped me to see more this time!
The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate by John H. Walton. Another evangelical Protestant discovers Divino Afflante Spiritu. (Sorry. I don’t really mean to be snarky.) Another in a series of recent books by evangelical Protestant scholars emphasizing that you don’t need to be a fundamentalist to respect the Bible. Indeed, that not being a fundamentalist is more respectful of the Bible. Some of the particulars I find problematic (as if my judgment in such matters has significance) but the general thrust of the book seems helpful. There may not be as much distance between ancient Hebraic thinking about creation and later Christian theology as the author supposes, but there certainly is much more distance than fundamentalists presuppose.
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. This is the semi-exception to my rule against including Ignatius Press books, as this is a public-domain book available from other sources in addition to being published by Ignatius. Probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve read this book. Really, this has to be made into a feature film. It’s fun, philosophical, and even mystical. Like Chesterton himself. A detective story of a very different sort from Father Brown tales. A great Sunday afternoon read.
The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographic Approach by Michael R. Licona. Masterful work of evangelical critical scholarship. A bit too long in the set-up dealing with the philosophy of history (in my humble opinion) but still a major contribution. A careful, humble, honest, intelligible treatment of the subject matter by someone trying to be critical and self-correcting regarding his interpretive and conceptual “horizon,” when it comes to assessing the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
The Theology of Marriage by Cormac Burke. It should be required reading for every (1) leader of a diocesan office for marriage and family life; (2) seminarian; (3) bishop; (4) priest; (5) deacon; and (6) participant at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops 2014 and the Ordinary Synod of Bishops 2015. (Not to mention those working in the tribunal.) It’s not the last word but it’s a helpful, significant word.
Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America by Thomas G. West. Going to high school in the 1970s: the founders weren’t as great as you and I were led to believe. They pretty much were losers. Reading Thomas G. West: the founders weren’t as bad as you and I were led to believe. They said and did great things, despite having their flaws and other limitations. When all is said and done, West’s side of things seems right, contrary to what many of our high school and college teachers let on. Criticisms of the founders are due but not in the ways many of us were taught, and there is much to commend. Sorry if my opinion in this regard is taken as impinging on somebody’s “safe space.”
The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor. How can you not like a book with a protagonist named Tarwater? In many ways this is the story of my life. In most ways, though, it ain’t. Likewise with you, probably. Deo gratias. Unless you’ve been called to be a prophet or a school teacher, in which case this is a cautionary tale or perhaps a vocational discernment challenge. Otherwise, it’s just a terrific (in many senses) story.
Mark Brumley is president of Ignatius Press.
As much as I disagree with Will Durant’s disdain for Christianity, I must admit my admiration of his affinity for reading good books. In his usual flare for elegant prose, Durant once wrote of his aspiration to adore the books in his library, “and string their names like beads on a rosary,” reading his beloved volumes in “voluptuous chairs inviting communion and reverie, shaded lamps illuminating sanctuaries here and there.” This year was a busy one, occupied with too much travel and a demanding academic schedule, and it was the rare hours of reading in “voluptuous chairs” that constituted some of the most nourishing moments of 2015.
On a whim I pulled my copy of Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness off my shelves and placed it beside my bed for “nighttime reading.” It made sleeping difficult, for its richness of thought and insight into the meaning and purpose of the Roman Catholic liturgy kept me awake to digest the next page. Few books would I recommend so adamantly as this one, and few books would I insist that seminarians read with alacrity as Mosebach’s masterpiece of correct liturgical thinking.
In the same vein of liturgical enrichment, I read Hugh Wybrew’s The Orthodox Liturgy and mused on how an Anglican clergyman could write so well of the Divine Liturgy without entering fully into the Apostolic Catholic or Orthodox churches. As a Byzantine Rite Catholic I was impressed by Wybrew’s ability to present such an informed and cohesive explication of the liturgy of the Eastern Church, and hope that Roman Catholics commit to reading this work, so that, if nothing else, they can better understand the Eastern “lung” of the Catholic faith, as St. John Paul II referred to the Eastern Rites.
In a fit of pessimism regarding the state of our political landscape, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I have little to say about this book other than that it would be an appropriate Wikipedia entry for “The Twentieth Century.”
Professors, and especially the university administrators who oversee professors, should read Mark William Roche’s trenchant work Why Choose the Liberal Arts? Why choose the liberal arts? Because, as Roche puts it, only the liberal arts can help students “find a higher calling that allows them to gain meaning” in a world that has become more attentive to the “benefits” of a lucrative salary than the far more profound and priceless gifts of intellectual and spiritual wisdom.
Perhaps a bit onerous to work though at times, but well worth the exertion is the brilliant collection of lectures by Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas entitled Lectures on Christian Dogmatics. Despite his occasional reproach against Catholicism—gripes that I think are overstated or uninformed—Zizioulas’ ideas are unusually astute, especially his remarks about what it means to have been created “in God’s image,” and how this relates to our obligation to provide due care for our burdened planet.
Among the best scholarly books I have read in recent years is Ernest P. Young’s monograph Ecclesiastical Colony, which outlines the missionary ethos of French Catholics in 19th- and 20th-century China. While popes and comparatively enlightened clergy advocated the formation of an indigenous clergy in China, the predominance of French missionaries preferred the model of la mission civilisatrice, or a belief that to better convert the Chinese to the Catholic faith, the Chinese must also be converted to the “civilizing influence” of French culture. This is an exceptional work of scholarship.
While spending two weeks in Pittsburgh last summer I met Father Ivan Kaszczak, a Catholic priest of the Ukrainian Byzantine Rite, and I read his marvelous book, Metropolitan Andrei Shepytsky. It would be misleading to suggest that the Eastern Church has never encountered condescension and dismissiveness by its Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, despite the persistent support and love of the Roman pontiffs. This book highlights the blessings and blunders that have marked the complex relationship between the Catholic Churches of the East and West.
After several years of gathering dust on my shelves, I began again to read through my favorite Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, which equals five thick volumes in English translation. Each time I read these pages anew, I quite plainly vacillate between uncontrollable laughter, sighs of grief, and moments of intellectual amusement. The uninitiated Western reader might never know how life changing this classic work from China’s past can be.
Happily, I finally acquired and read the short memoirs of the Chinese Benedictine abbot at St. Andre’s Abbey in Bruges, Belgium, Dom Lou Tseng-Tsiang (Lu Zhengxiang), OSB. The English translation of Lou’s memoires is Ways of Confucius and Christ, and for anyone wishing to apprehend the intellectual and spiritual culture of Catholic Christianity in China, this should be the first book read and ponder.
Each year, when the first snow falls outside our window, my wife and I read again to each other C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. These books, perhaps more than all the others I read, lift my soul and restore my sense of hope, especially as the world around me seems more populated by dufflepuds. Well, perhaps we are all dufflepuds…increasingly in need of the grace and redemption offered for all persons by Christ, the Lion.
Anthony E. Clark, PhD is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University.
There were three books that I found particularly memorable this year. The first, which I read on my then-functional electronic reader, was Jeremiah Curtain’s 1895 English translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: A Narrative in the Time of Nero. (I have Quo Vadis in the original Polish, and reading that is part of my next Five Year Plan.) I expected a weary trudge through 19th-century diction; instead the rapid pace of Quo Vadis blew my socks off. And, come to think of it, who couldn’t love an adventure story involving a handsome Roman officer, a beautiful proto-Polish Christian princess, a narcissistic emperor, and a whole lot of martyrs including Saints Peter and Paul? Although the principal plot concerns Roman Marcus’ unholy pursuit of proto-Polish Lygia, there are fascinating sub-plots, one involving the unforgettable Petronius, a leading member of Nero’s court, and also—I suspect—the epitome of pagan classicism to his author. What I enjoyed most of all about Quo Vadis is the male romantic lead is neither the smartest nor the bravest man in the book. There’s glory enough for all. Meanwhile, the Poles would like you to know that the whole thing is a metaphor for Poland suffering under the yoke of Austria, Russia, and Germany.
The second book, also a novel, was The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden (Macmillan, 1958), the author of Black Narcissus and the superlative In This House of Brede. Godden was not received into the Catholic Church until 1968, but she was interested in Catholicism, sin, and redemption many years before that. In The Greengage Summer, she places five children at the mercy of a French hotel when their mother becomes deathly ill en route. The narrator, a 13-year-old girl named Cecil, finds herself responsible for her siblings when her eldest sister Hester also falls ill. The children are reluctantly caught up in such adult mysteries as the relationship between the hotel proprietor, Mademoiselle Zizi, and her mysterious English guest Eliot. The story takes a complicated turn when beautiful Hester finally emerges from the sickroom, inspiring awe in Eliot and a tornado of envy in Mademoiselle Zizi. Throughout the story innocence is confronted by corruption, and it is never clear which will win the day.
The third book was the English translation of Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing (Ignatius Press, 2015) which I reviewed here. I haven’t much to add except that the book has had a profound influence over my spiritual life; I found the advice about prayer particularly helpful. However, I will repeat that I am grateful to the cardinal for his tribute to the European priests who laid down their lives to bring Christ to his village. After years of being told Christian missionaries were imperialist stooges, I felt like a dead white male who has been allowed into heaven. And, as if an added bonus, Cardinal Sarah gives the fear-based paganism of his ancestors a good kicking, too.
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad.
Even in an El Niño winter, Minnesota makes me look forward to baseball season. In February I read Allen Barra’s Mickey and Willie. Like many great performers, Mantle and (to a lesser extent) Mays were atrocious persons who needed God but were instead treated as gods. I’m more familiar on a day-to-day basis with the foibles and atrocities of the professorial class, however, so it was nice to laugh at one of the great comic university novels, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim.
It’s a joy, on the other hand, to read about the lives of excellent performers—or at least writers—who were excellent people, if flawed in many ways. I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading C.S. Lewis this year, including That Hideous Strength (third in his space trilogy—time to re-read the first two!) and his prescient essays in The Weight of Glory and The Abolition of Man. Reading Alister McGrath’s recent biography, C.S. Lewis: A Life, Lewis’ own pre-conversion diary from 1922-1927, All My Road Before Me, and the first volume of his Collected Letters made me appreciate the man’s intellectual and spiritual honesty—and his personal attractiveness. I’m reading the second volume of letters and hope to read the third.
I also continued my study of Penelope Fitzgerald, reading: her sole short story collection, The Means of Escape; her collected essays, A House of Air; and her collected letters, So I Have Always Thought of You. A master of the unspoken word and sly allusion, I find her more powerful than ever. Hermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald, deepened further the mystery of a writer who had sympathy for the “exterminatees,” life’s losers who don’t give up. Re-reading The Summerhouse Trilogy by Catholic novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, I saw Fitzgerald’s sympathy with a bewitching weaving of the Catholic faith’s beauty and oddities in her polyphonic account of a bad engagement.
Blessed Newman I already knew as a good man and a genius, but Frederic Aquino’s An Integrative Habit of Mind gave new insights into Newman’s philosophy of knowledge and education. John F. Crosby’s The Personalism of John Henry Newman opens up Newman’s personalist approach to faith and reason using insights from, among others, John Paul II and Hildebrand.
Nancy Brown’s The Woman Who Was Chesterton is the first biography of Frances Chesterton, a hidden saint who didn’t just take care of her practically helpless husband, but revealed her own charity and wisdom in letters, poems, and plays. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus, on the other hand, sought out and thrived in the spotlight. Randy Boyagoda’s Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square is a brisk, often perceptive account of a remarkable man.
Stepping back from individuals to systems, Harold James and James Stoner’s edited collection The Thriving Society provides a big-picture look at what’s necessary to rebuild American institutions and culture. My colleagues Jeanne Buckeye, Kenneth Goodpaster, T. Dean Maines, and Michael Naughton provided a close-up look at how understanding subsidiarity can enhance business in their jointly-authored Respect in Action: Applying Subsidiarity in Business.
Acting for the future involves looking to the past. Patrick Leigh Fermor was neither a saint nor a Catholic, but his A Time to Keep Silence looks more perceptively into the heart of monasticism than many Catholic books do. A Time of Gifts, the first volume of his memoir of walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s similarly paints vividly the strengths and weaknesses of European Christendom as it was disappearing. I hope to read the final two volumes in 2016.
David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and teaches Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
In the 1990s, when I thought of training as a psychoanalyst, I read a book from a singular British psychoanalyst, Nina Coltart, entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Only this year have I had a chance to read some of her other delightful and insightful works, including The Baby and the Bathwater. Along the way, I re-read Robert Coles’ intellectual biography of another unique female analyst who practiced largely in Britain, Anna Freud: the Dream of Psychoanalysis.
I also recently finished Jeffrey Prager’s 1998 book Presenting the Past: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering. I have been revisiting psychoanalytic thought this year on the question of the uses and abuses of “memory” in the context not just of Catholic-Orthodox relations, but also Christian-Muslim relations. Anyone needing to see the relevance of this just has to listen to ISIS, which regularly and fatuously refers to Western countries as “the Crusaders.”
I’m about half-way through a new collection of scholarly articles: Geoffrey Dunn, ed., The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2015). It’s a solid collection with a great deal of food for thought not only on the changing forms of papal authority, but also on difficult historiographical questions.
I spent considerable time on my blog discussing the fascinating and recently translated Memoirs of Louis Bouyer. They confirm in detail that the commission charged with implementing liturgical reforms after Vatican II was engaged in a giant swindle that robbed the Latin Church of so much of her patrimony with consequences, as Cardinal Ratzinger famously said in his 1997 book Milestones, that “could only be tragic.”
I have been reading many works by and about him for over a decade now, but still not exhausted the ever-expanding category of Churchillania. This year I read Churchill: the Struggle for Survival 1945-60, the fascinating diaries of Lord Moran, his personal physician.
I’m just about finished with Richard Toye’s The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches, which shows the complex political calculations and consequences of his major speeches.
Cita Stelzer’s Dining with Churchill: Policy Making at the Dinner Table is a relatively light but informative read. The gourmand Churchill has always struck me in some ways as a natural Catholic if one takes Chesterton’s definition of Catholicism as a thick steak, frosted stout, and good cigar!
Evelyn Waugh, who died on Easter Sunday 1966, is often acclaimed, then and since, as the greatest Catholic novelist of the 20th century. I am thinking of giving a lecture on his lasting legacy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death next year. I re-read his works with fresh enjoyment, and this year decided to re-read two of the four major biographies of him: Selena Hastings, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1995); and, two decades before her, Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1975). Both are good, though limited in different ways. Far and away the truly outstanding study of him remains Douglas Lane Patey’s The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography.
Margaret MacMillan’s recent The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, is, as one expects with MacMillan (whose 2003 book, Paris 1919, is a true marvel and delight), magnificent and magisterial in equal measure.
Finally, Julian Baggini, The Virtues of the Table is a relaxed, accessible book in the burgeoning category of “food ethics,” many of whose authors are the tiresome busybodies and hectoring nannies you’d expect—but not Baggini, who recognizes the complexity of some of these issues and their emotional freight, and graciously leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about whether one should eat only locally sourced meats, only organic vegetables, etc.
Adam A.J. DeVille is associate professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis.
Heaven’s My Destination by Thornton Wilder is a story about a Depression-era traveling salesman who strives to live his life based on strong religious principles, and to evangelize a jaundiced and skeptical world. Hilarious without being satirical or cynical, Wilder plays it straight, posing serious questions about what a good life entails. I have a hard time imagining how a book like this could be published today.
Both Red Harvest and The Glass Key, lesser-known novels by Dashiell Hammett, mix atavistic behavior with opaque codes of honor, and they feature Hammett’s wicked sense of humor. The Glass Key exemplifies Hammett’s spare style of writing, where readers have to discern what characters are thinking by what they say and do, not by the author telling us what they’re thinking or feeling. These stories read like modern Greek tragedies. Harsh at times, yes, but thought provoking: isn’t any code of honor futile, even pathetic, if we live in an exclusively materialistic universe, and with nothing having any permanent meaning?
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White: effortless writing and storytelling, or so it seems. Assemble a list of books that can be read, plumbed (albeit on different levels), and enjoyed (really enjoyed) by children and adults alike—a very short list. I read the story to my grandsons over a dozen sittings—how special was that?
Almost everyone has heard of mystery writers Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P. D. James, but hardly anyone has heard of the American women crime writers who were contemporaries of Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I’m reading an anthology and some of these noir novels are every bit as good as Hammett and Chandler, including Laura by Vera Caspary, The Horizontal Man, by Helen Eustis, and The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. More than “mere crime novels,” these stories do a deep dive into the minds and hearts of the characters and the cultural atmosphere of these times.
Thomas M. Doran is a professional engineer, an adjunct professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and a novelist.
As a graduate student in scholastic theology, I spend most of my time reading Thomas Aquinas. While reading the Summa Theologica for extended periods of time is an experience I’d recommend to anyone, the privilege has left me little time and mental space to stray far off the beaten path in terms of other reading. Therefore, I hope you will forgive my recommending titles that may already be familiar, but reading these five books enhanced my life over the past year.
The first is the memoirs of Benedict XVI, called Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977. I found Benedict’s descriptions of his childhood and early priesthood charming, and remarkably simple. Perhaps the key to understanding his life and papacy are contained in the last pages of the book, in which he describes wanting to return to his life of quiet scholarship, but serving in the Church leadership as God called him to. Though in some ways I miss his papacy, he is blessed to return to the academic search for truth he loved before the end of his life.
It was also a year of re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and a couple books to learn more about it. The first is the Silmarillion, the incomplete account of Tolkien’s mythology compiled by his son, Christopher. While one can see the results of the existence of God throughout LOTR, it is fascinating to learn directly about God, the “Illuvatar,” as well as the “Valar,” the angels. As a classicist, I appreciated diving into Tolkien’s mythical world and seeing my favorite epic trilogy in a new way. Similarly, I read Peter Kreeft’s Philosophy of Tolkien to reflect more on how Tolkien’s worldview shaped LOTR. Using quotes from Tolkien and Lewis, Kreeft answers questions ranging from metaphysics to philosophy of language in a thoughtful, but approachable way.
The book that has most directly influenced the practice of my faith in the past year is Josef Pieper’s classic: Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Pieper articulates the importance of maintaining sacred temporal space for prayer that serves like physical space for liturgical worship in a church. When I began thinking of my Sundays this way, and daily Mass like a small Sunday, I drew much more refreshment from my leisure time.
Finally, living in Oxford, I could not resist re-reading Brideshead Revisited. That book offers me something new every time, and in this reading I kept a close eye on Sebastian Flyte’s statements about Catholicism. For example, when Charles remarks that Catholics seem just like everyone else, he responds “That’s exactly what they are not…they try to hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time.” The reader is left to question how someone who could beautifully articulate these insights about the faith could fall prey to such a tragic decline. In the end, perhaps Sebastian is a holy man, if a very broken one. His character allows us to reflect on the strangeness of God’s mercy—belief does not guard against all problems in this world, but Jesus assures us, “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Aurora C. Griffin attended Harvard College, where she served as president of the Catholic Student Association, and is now pursuing a graduate degree in theology at Oxford University.
The top book that I read in 2015 was Silence by Shusaku Endo. This was a book I couldn’t stop talking about with anyone who stood still long enough to listen. I read it during Lent, which I highly recommend. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film adaptation will be released in 2016; in interviews Scorsese has been clear about his admiration for the novel, but I am nervous about how the filmmaker will handle the book’s themes of sin, pride, and sacrifice. We’ll see!
A close second for top book of the year for me was Cardinal Robert Sarah’s God or Nothing. The Guinean cardinal speaks about the Church, her teachings, and her liturgy with both clarity and pastoral insight; the early part of the book details his remarkable life as an impoverished young boy who learned about Christ from French missionaries, through his studying for the priesthood in France and in Rome, and his being named the youngest bishop in the world at the age of 34, only to be threatened with assassination by his country’s Communist dictator. By turns thrilling and inspiring.
This year I read the Little House on the Prairie series to my two daughters. I could tell my seven-year-old was enjoying and following the fictionalized account of Laura Ingalls’ pioneer-girl life, but I was unsure how much my three-year-old was getting out of the books. The sixth book in the series, The Long Winter, is about the Ingalls family’s struggle to survive a particularly grueling winter in a tiny frontier town. At the end, when the snow finally begins to melt and the whistle of the train bearing food and supplies for the near-starving pioneers sounds across the prairie, my younger daughter jumped out bed cheering, “The train is here!” Even if she wasn’t able to follow every detail of the plot, she’d definitely become emotionally invested in the story and in the plight of the characters. A literary high-point of my year!
Other memorable reads for me this year included Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Edith Stein by Walfrid Herbstrith, The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor, and The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski.
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Perhaps because of the precarious state of the world right now, I have found myself drawn to themes of “good and evil” in my reading choices this year. And, as I look at my current reading shelf, I see more fiction titles—especially horror and supernatural themes—than I usually allow myself to enjoy. I just re-read some my favorite terrifying tales in Russell Kirk’s Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales. It is not a political book—even though Russell Kirk was a brilliant political essayist. Rather, Kirk’s stories are inspiring tales of redemption, retribution, and justice. The tales are informed by faith—but never “preachy.” He surprises you and certainly scares you, but he provides a warning of what happens when morality and justice are ignored. Bad people suffer consequences—and good prevails.
Likewise, I read several Dean Koontz books this year, including two of his most recent releases, Innocence and The City. Both books are magical—not really “horror” stories—yet they are “real” stories because they give readers hope that “everything will be okay in the long run.” A Catholic writer, Koontz, like Kirk, writes like a faithful Catholic who understands the real battle between good and evil. Koontz knows—as all Catholics know—that evil exists in this world, yet unlike some writers of terror and suspense, Koontz offers us the promise of redemption in this world or the next. Koontz has a new novel, Ashley Bell, that is to be released later this month and I have already pre-ordered it.
Beyond the burgeoning fiction shelf in my house, I was inspired this year by Chiara Corbella Petrillo’s heartbreakingly beautiful Witness to Joy. A “saint in our time,” Chiara’s joyful story of accepting God’s plan for her helped to remind me of how important each individual life is to God and to all of us. But, more importantly, her story demonstrates how much in love with God one can be—even when enduring such profound suffering.
Lastly, I just finished reading John Henry Crosby’s translation of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s inspiring memoir, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich. In his book notes, Crosby writes that he was drawn to von Hildebrand as the man of culture and the “moral hero.” He said that “Hildebrand was a great and compelling defender of the beautiful. And since beauty has always been for me the path to grasping the truth and the good, it was not difficult to give my heart to one who so deeply understood and celebrated the beautiful.” Crosby’s translation helps us discover Hildebrand’s heroic “witness to truth” against Nazi power by showing us how he courageously defied the popular culture by going to battle against Hitler. Hildebrand sacrificed his reputation as an act of love for the truth—his faith in God, and his love for his native Germany and his fellow Germans, for his family, and his friends. Hildebrand was sustained by his Catholic faith—it gave him hope and tremendous peace even in the shadow cast by the evil of Nazism. I am still recovering from this inspiring book—but find myself already revisiting it again for continued inspiration to fight the battles we too are facing this year.
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Books I read in 2015 included a few new books, a bunch of old books, and a number of children’s books (with my kids). Here are some standouts in no particular order:
Bad Religion by Ross Douthat and An Anxious Age by Joseph Bottum. Both books are pretty much about the same topic: religion and America. I found Bottum’s book a more interesting read, as Douthat seems more driven to cap his arguments off in a pundit-style manner which is often unsatisfying.
Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis. I found a lot to meditate upon and learn from in Pope Francis’s second encyclical, which is primarily a synthesis of the thought of Popes Benedict and John Paul II on ecology and the human person. But Francis adds his own comments to the mix—the current Pope’s take on creation and the care of it reminded me a lot of agrarian-influenced writers and thinkers such as Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterton.
Elucidations by Hans Urs von Balthasar. One of the problems with reading Balthasar is that his writing is so dense with intensely evocative and provocative ideas. This collection of essays provides a good introduction, and with the shifting topics it never overwhelms.
Ida Elisabeth by Sigrid Undset. As with her other novels, Undset is unsparing in her depiction of the consequences of personality flaws and poor decisions. I wrote up a short review of the book here.
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. One of Pratchett’s Disc World fantasy novels, Night Watch features a rather convoluted plot involving time travel, social unrest, and dialogue that would make Chesterton chortle. “Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions.”
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. As worries about a technocratic society grow, the feverish depictions of future dreamed up by Philip K. Dick speaks more and more to us. This book, the basis for the film Blade Runner, asks some disturbing questions about artificial intelligence, empathy, and what makes us human.
We’ll Never Tell Them by Fiorella De Maria. I was surprised at how much I kept thinking back over this book after I finished it, and ended up writing a short review here.
Little Robot by Ben Hatke. The latest graphic novel by Ben Hatke features some of the loveliest drawing he’s ever done, and it’s a great story as well. My kids loved it and were thrilled to meet Ben when he had a reading and book-signing at a local comic shop.
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.
David O’Connor, Plato’s Bedroom: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love (St Augustine’s Press)
A master teacher at the University of Notre Dame, David O’Connor, who delivered the Drumwright Family Lecture at Baylor this year, has been teaching a popular course on love for years. In his new book, O’Connor weaves reflections on philosophy, literature, and film into a series of readable and practical discussions of love, discussions in which readers will discover eloquent articulations of their deepest passions and aversions, attractions and fears. About the topic of the book, he writes,
Is what you want a kind of intimacy with another person, an intimacy that creates within us a fearfulness, a fearfulness because we’re being taken somewhere we don’t control, and whose end we do not see, an end for better, for worse, till death? The question of how we can open our heart enough…to live that path becomes a central question for us. It’s not just a philosophical question.
O’Connor dissects the brittle, reductionist, and unimaginative discourse of love in the contemporary world. The deterioration of our language petrifies our experience of love, as our longings are deepened and enhanced by rich articulation. Drawing upon varies resources, from Plato and Shakespeare to Genesis, O’Connor strives to recover a language of love as a sublime and transforming experience.
Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books (Viking Books)
In her best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir of her time in Iran as an underground teacher of a group of young Iranian women with a curriculum consisting of forbidden Western literary texts, Azar Nafisi, who gave the Beall-Russell Lecture at Baylor in 2006, makes a compelling case for the power of these texts to keep human longing alive and thus to subvert the aspirations of a totalitarian regime. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi, now a professor in America, wonders at the indifference of Americans to their own literary heritage, an indifference that she fears will endanger the democratic ideal. In totalitarian countries, liberal education is a “basic need,” as it enables readers to reclaim an identity always under assault. What about ordinary Americans? Do they even “know what they are missing”? Is it possible to “rekindle the hunger”? If we ignore this literature, we deprive ourselves of the stories that help us to understand and articulate what it means to be human. Nafisi’s books are a great place to start.
Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, translated, with a foreword, by James G. Williams
In the past few days after hearing of the death of Rene Girard on November 4, I have been re-reading his work, which with the escalation of violence both at home and abroad seems as pertinent as ever. With work spanning anthropology, psychology, literature, and theology, Girard had two big ideas. His first insight was that human desire is largely imitative; it is based, not so much on our private, individual wishes but on wanting what others want—everything from consumer goods such as cars and iPhones to our desire for honor, respect, and recognition.
Girard’s second idea, the role of the scapegoat in human society, arises out of mimetic desire. Imitative desire leads to competition and envy and can easily escalate into violence. Society becomes unified and avoids debilitating conflict by identifying a scapegoat, a sacrificial object. A perusal of Twitter feeds or comments sections on blogs, which quickly devolve into political or racial scapegoating, indicates that our allegedly enlightened society has not fully left this behind.
What is most interesting about Girard is that he detected in Christianity, especially in the trial and crucifixion of Christ, an acknowledgment that the victim is often innocent and that sacrificial love is the only alternative to the violence that mimetic desire fosters.
Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University.
At the Limits of Political Philosophy: From Brilliant Errors to Things of Uncommon Importance by James V. Schall
This is my annual “book by Schall that is a must-read.” If someone were to ask me what book he should read to get at the heart of Schall’s wisdom, I would have them read this. It is one of the keys to unlocking Schall’s understanding of the history and truth of political philosophy, as well as how it relates, and is open, to revelation. Unique to Schall’s perspective, and something too infrequently mentioned or understood, is what he calls the “incompleteness of both political philosophy and revelation.” Each needs the wisdom of the other. If revelation is left aside, then politics become the fundamental arbiter of what it means to be human. On the other hand, revelation without the wisdom of politics and philosophy leads to a reductionist view of the faith whose sole focus become “poverty reduction” and inner worldly goals that neglect the transcendent character of the Catholic faith. Reading Schall is akin to being liberally educated.
Will Many be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin
Martin has done a tremendous doctrinal and spiritual service to the Church by elucidating what the Church actually teaches about the grace and possibility of salvation. At the heart of his book is an exposition of Lumen Gentium 16 and reaffirming the Church’s teaching that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Key also to Martin’s work is dispelling the all-too-common belief that there is a radical separation between doctrine and pastoral practice, and he calls for a deeper explication of the former so as to enlighten and guide the latter.
Adventures in Philosophy at Notre Dame by Kenneth M. Sayre
It would not be a stretch to say that one of my greatest heroes is the philosopher-novelist Ralph McInerny, who taught in the Notre Dame philosophy department from 1955-2009. It is for this reason that I wanted to read Sayre’s book. McInerny used to always tell the story that there were two reasons he was hired at Notre Dame: he was Catholic and he was a Thomist. Since Notre Dame has become a “research university,” hoping to emulate its secular peers, it would be likely that McInerny’s two reasons for being hired in the 50s would be the precise reasons he would not be hired today. Sayre does a good job providing a detailed history of the department and its inner workings, along with each chapter focusing on a specific personality that was in the department during the particular time period he treats. While I enjoyed many parts of the work, Sayre fundamentally misses the essential meaning of what it is to be a truly Catholic university. Furthermore, he does not grasp why philosophy is fundamental to theology, not just in terms of helping to understand the faith (what John Paul II called the “intellectus fidei”), but also as being capable of showing the “rationality of faith.” This is why the Church has consistently upheld St. Thomas Aquinas as the model for doing both philosophy and theology. McInerny saw this relationship of faith and reason as the heart of a true university. To Sayre’s credit, he rightly points out that Notre Dame’s problem (among others) is that it is still too caught up with “research,” “pluralism,” and that ever-successful destroyer of loving and searching for the truth, namely, “professional philosophy.”
Brian Jones is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Here are a few high spots from this year’s reading:
Marshall G.S. Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (three volumes) is a classic history of Islamic (or rather “Islamicate”) civilization, written from a grand world-historical perspective. The author has a deep grasp of the events, peoples, languages, and literatures of the whole period, together with a historical and philosophical framework that enables him to make sense of them as a whole and in connection with other civilizations. It’s an extraordinary achievement, although at times he seems more an advocate than I would like of the Islamicate world over and against Christendom.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, November 1916. This is the second of his four-part series of novels on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. He has a really excellent political mind, and stays quite close to historical events and personages. He also has the broad human sympathy needed to portray persuasively a huge variety of people and situations: men and women, work, war, leisure, peasants, intellectuals, conspirators, love affairs, marital issues, and workers’ demonstrations.
Michelle Marder Kamhi, Who Says That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts. What’s gone wrong in the high-end art world? According to Kamhi, it’s repeatedly taken marginal cases as central and ended by destroying art as a specific activity worth attending to. She’s done her homework, her book’s clearly, vigorously, and persuasively argued, and she includes fascinating aspects of the history of 20th century art that don’t get played up in the official accounts.
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces
Often neglected in C.S. Lewis’ canon, Till We Have Faces is an unusual and deeply introspective novel which deserves careful reading. Lewis explores many compelling ideas in this retelling of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche; identity, self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, pride, and the many intellectual and spiritual barriers we put between ourselves and God are here on unforgiving display.
As in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis utilizes his spiritual insight here to great advantage. With its penetrative discussion of the complex human psyche, Till We Have Faces would make for valuable Lenten reading, giving readers new perspectives on the life of the soul. The barriers between mankind and God are of our own making: we cannot see God until we have faces—until we know ourselves well enough to become who we are meant to be.
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of novels set in medieval Norway, is not for the faint of heart. Far from a merely romantic or idyllic depiction of medieval life, the setting is both grimly and beautifully realistic. The characters are deeply human and complex—and deeply flawed. Undset weaves their stories together with remarkable vision of the human soul, rich historical detail, and thrilling storytelling power.
Following all of Kristin’s life, her many and sundry sins, her constant battles with pride and selfishness, often with tragic consequences, can give a reader something like literary battle fatigue. The reader follows Kristin for years of peace and war, sin and grace, joy and agony. The reason for this lengthiness, however, is that the story opens at the time Kristin reaches the age of reason and is capable of choosing right or wrong, good or evil. The story follows all of those subsequent choices—and ends with her death. The book is thus, in the truest sense of the word, a story of a soul.
This calls to mind a very different story of a soul—that of St. Therese of Lisieux, whose compelling autobiography of her short 23 years on this earth is entitled The Story of a Soul. Yet Kristin is the total opposite of the Little Flower. Therese chose God above all and so opened her heart to a love that transcended her short life of suffering. Kristin chooses her own will and seeks happiness in anything but God throughout her tragedy-riddled life; at times she realizes only His grace will give her peace but still seeks to withhold some precious portion of her heart from His sometimes-piercing, always healing love.
G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World
As is almost always the case with Chesterton’s works, re-reading this classic this year reaped rich insights underappreciated the first time around. Chesterton’s critique of the central problems with modern society is not merely revealing, but truly revolutionary. He challenges as harmful and heedless some of the re-structuring of human institutions and ways of living which were relatively new and unorthodox in his day: but these same errors have become standards of life now.
At the heart of GKC’s understanding of how society and human life ought to be structured is a zealous reverence for the human person, his rights and needs and dignity. And GKC uncompromisingly skewers the modern misunderstandings that undermine man’s freedom and chance at a fulfilled life. From education to the work-place to the home, he explores just where the modern era has gone wrong. In fact, there is hardly a topic Chesterton does not touch upon in this book—art, economics, feminism, imperialism, employment, politics, parenthood, domestic life, and poverty. By exposing modern errors, he points clearly to the ideals of human flourishing which, if respected and upheld, would certainly leave the world better off than it is now.
Lauren Enk Mann blogs about the New Evangelization and pop culture at The Pantheon.
Stumbling upon Linda Ronstadt’s autobiography, I half-remembered her 80s Elvis Costello covers and half-expected a rash of nonsensical Dixie Chicks-ish political peeping as I eased myself into a bookstore chair for a blast from the past. Simple Dreams happily validated my better memories. It’s a gracious and self-deprecating memoir recalling musically less self-conscious times, and one that leaves the impression of the singer as a song’s best friend. Her story prompted revisits to Round Midnight and Winter Light, projects where her performances confirm such impressions. On the latter Ronstadt gives life to Ira Gershwin’s lyric, “With love to lead the way I’ve found more clouds of gray / Than any Russian play could guarantee,” and that maybe provided subliminal prodding for me to pick up The Gospel in Dostoevsky, Plough Books’ easy entreé into the imposing imagination of Russia’s epileptic colossus.
Humani Generis might be the real encyclical Catholic educators most wish you’d forget (never heard of it? See! They’re much better teachers than you think), but the pesky topic of the historicity of Genesis is not about to go away. To those inclined to associate such concerns with fundamentalism, I recommend cracking Hans Madueme and Michael Reeve’s crackerjack Adam, The Fall, & Original Sin, as well as Frank Sheed’s older but up-to-the minute Genesis Regained. But truth be told, the book that most stayed with me was David Maine’s Fallen, a novelization of Genesis that’s a trenchantly fast-reading testimony to the fact that even the world’s very first family was seriously dysfunctional.
In the ’00s lots of religious literati come off like Kardashian-style Christian exhibitionists, but back in the day Elisabeth Elliot’s life and books were the real deal. Her exacting prose and jarring conservatism may strike millennials as a little uptight, but they could do a lot worse than learning to appreciate the already vanishing legacy of books like These Strange Ashes.
Good stuff in the Applied Theology Department…Fulton Sheen’s Preface to Religion (repackaged by Ignatius Press with the less brilliant title Remade for Happiness—but who am I to judge?), Patrick Downey’s Desperately Wicked (now there’s a title), and Hans von Balthasar’s Short Primer for Troubled Laymen, of which I am one. David Robertson’s Magnificent Obsession is a breezy introduction to things like, well…you know, God and Jesus, that wants to wear its imperative lightly and mostly succeeds. Quoting the likes of Pope Benedict XVI, Bob Dylan, and John Calvin all between the same covers, the cumulative flavor of Robertson’s friendly freeflow suggests a mix of C.S. Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, and Maya Angelou—and I mean that in a good way.
Another book that succeeded remarkably in reasserting the buoyancy of belief was Peter Kreeft’s The God Who Loves You. I loved it. As I did Zack Erswine’s Spurgeon’s Sorrows. I first balked at an endorser’s description of this brief reflection on the pulpiteer’s battles with depression as “poetry for the soul,” but guess what—it is. J.I. Packer might be regarded as one of C.H. Spurgeon’s worthier rhetorical heirs, given his seemingly effortless stylistic elegance and his penchant for the Puritans. Both traits are on display in Rediscovering Holiness, the newest edition of which fascinated me with its added chapter on “Mother Teresa: Holiness in the Dark.” Watch a British 5-point Calvinist establish convincing common ground with a soul-sick Slavic nun, and understand anew what talk of real “spiritual unity” is all about. And realize that despite relentless online bickering, somewhere goodwill still remains. An even stronger reminder comes from David Watson’s 30-year-old but still fresh Fear No Evil: One Man’s Battle with Terminal Illness. “Our people die well,” said John Wesley. “The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them,” wrote Thomas More. Preach it, brothers.
Joseph F. Martin, PhD, is a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Hampton University in Virginia.
Looking back on a year’s reading list, three genres inevitably come into focus for me: books for the head, books for the heart, and books for the soul.
The “books for my head” invariably include research of the Christian world in late antiquity and especially of the life and times of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). On the top of this year’s list is:
Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press) is an exceptional examination of how early Christians used wealth to supply for the Church and her needs. Brown is a trustworthy historian with an unmatched awareness of the cultural and social trends of Christianity’s pioneers.
Paul Rigby, The Theology of Augustine’s Confessions (Cambridge University Press) is a new look at an old work. Rigby is worth reading because he incorporates helpful modern theological and psychological trends into reading the perennial themes Augustine raises in his timeless works.
Rémi Brague (b. 1947) is finally being read in the States (in partial thanks to Father James Schall, SJ). He is a classicist-turned-theologian whose insights seek to recover the brilliance of Christianity. This year I read Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, wherein Brague argues that it is neither Athens nor Jerusalem that has shaped the best of human culture, but Rome. This “Roman mediation” of course shines brilliantly in the Church’s complementarity of faith and reason, human eros and divine agape.
Standing out under “books for the heart” are two new poets introduced to me this year: Barbara Crooker (Selected Poems) and Charles Wright (Bye-and-Bye). The poems here are uneven but every now and then some verses here can elevate the heart and shine a new light on the mind.
Alan Jones’ The Soul’s Journey: Exploring the Three Passages of the Spiritual Life with Dante as a Guide belongs on the shelf of those who read Dante as a faithful friend in the interior life.
Christoph Schönborn’s retreat he had once preached to St. John Paul II, Loving the Church (Ignatius Press).
Jean-Charles Nault, OSB, The Noonday Devil: The Unnamed Evil of Our Times could not be more precisely named!
Archbishop Luis M. Martinez, The Sanctifier, is a highly recommended classic on the nature and the effects of the Holy Spirit.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ is assistant professor of theology at St. Louis University and editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Robert Boenig, C.S. Lewis and the Middle Ages (2012) examines how Lewis’ immersion in medieval literature influenced his own approach to writing criticism and fiction. Follow this up with Lewis’s synthesis of medieval cosmology, The Discarded Image (1964).
Celts: Art and Identity, ed. Julia Farley and Fraser Hunter (2015), is the splendidly illustrated catalog of an exhibition organized by the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland that incorporates the latest archaeological findings.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and The Golden Age of Journalism (2013) traces the lives and friendship of two very different presidents against the struggles of the Progressive era. Goodwin’s finely detailed portraits demolish stereotypes of frenetic Theodore and fat Taft.
G. Ronald Murphy, SJ, Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North (2013) explores the enculturation of Christianity in Scandinavia through the image of the World Ash Tree. For more of Father Murphy’s erudite insights, see his Gemstone of Salvation (2010) on Parzival’s Holy Grail or his Saxon Savior (1995) on the Gospel through Germanic eyes.
Regine Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence for Her Vindication (2007) gathers a cloud of witnesses from the transcript of the trial that righted a monstrous wrong.
Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin, Joan of Arc: Her Story, rev. and trans. Jeremy Duquesnay Adams (1998), presents Joan of Arc straight from documentary sources.
Abigail Santamaria, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis (2015) uses newly available materials to give a clearer—and not always flattering—picture of Joy Davidman. This biography dovetails with Alister McGrath’s C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013).
Philip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams (2015) emphasizes the careers of the principal Inklings, giving Barfield and Williams their due. It nicely complements The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac Glyer (2008) on the Inklings as a community.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Inside Out (2015)
The Martian (2015)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Song of the Sea (2014)
Sandra Miesel is a medievalist and author.
A baker’s dozen, all published in 2015.
Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative
Mark Dooley, Moral Matters: A Philosophy of Homecoming
Edward Feser, Neo-Scholastic Essays
Karl W. Giberson, Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World
Josef Pieper, What Does ‘Academic’ Mean? Two Essays on the Chances of the University
Peter Redpath, A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics: Written in the Hope of Ending the Centuries-Old Separation between Philosophy and Science and Science and Wisdom. Volume One: Re-Establishing an Initial Union among Philosophy, Science, and Wisdom by Recovering our Understanding of Philosophy, Science: How Philosophy, Science, Is, and Always Has Been, Chiefly a Study of the Problem of the One and the Many
Jonathan J. Sanford, Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics
Roger Scruton, The Disappeared
Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left
Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason
Stefano Tomelleri, Ressentiment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society
Ryan Topping, Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education
John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate
Christopher S. Morrissey is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute who lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.
Two of the best books I read in 2015 were published this year.
The first book is Briefly Considered from the Mainstream, Notes and Observations on the Sources of Western Culture (St. Augustine’s Press) by Jude P. Dougherty. The author is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, and the editor of the Review of Metaphysics. He uses the term “Mainstream” to represent the classical and Christian sources of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, as well as their commentators through the ages. The book applies this time-tested perspective on a wide array of topics, including philosophy, social and political thought, science, and religion. What shines through these sundry essays and reviews is that a Catholic scholar is one who honestly and rigorously engages philosophy and science with the confidence that these disciplines can enhance (not contradict) the Catholic faith.
The book has three parts: Part I, the largest part of the book, presents eleven essays on current social and political uses, including the salient intellectual currents that run against the Mainstream. These include the trends of secularism and positivism, and the resulting denial of the roots of ordered liberty, including religious faith, reason, the natural law, the rule of law, the sanctity of the family, private property, and of human nature itself. Within this moral and cultural vacuum has crept an increasingly contentious society based on power politics and legal rights derived solely from state power instead of human dignity.
Part II presents twelve book reviews on significant works in the history and philosophy of science that the author has published over the last decade in the Review of Metaphysics.
The scholarship reviewed demonstrates that scientific progress did not require the abandonment of the Mainstream. Instead, the Mainstream’s understanding of an intelligible and ordered cosmos was an essential social contribution to the origins of modern science.
Part III presents a respectful and informative survey of significant sources of Islamic scholarship, including the historical, cultural, and doctrinal development of Islam. These reviews provide the reader with an excellent introduction to a number of studies of a religion with a global reach that presents a modern political challenge to the West. Dean Dougherty’s prescient overview addresses the diverse views of scholars about important issues in today’s headlines, including whether there is Quranic support for violent jihad, and whether Islamic fundamentalism supports terrorism or murder.
And now for something completely different: Bounty of the Bay (Old Mount Vernon Publishing House) by Michael T. Dougherty. This is an entertaining book of historical fiction that takes the reader into the lives, characters, and charm of the Chesapeake Bay region. Each of its ten short stories provides a unique, illustrative account of local life in a sea-faring community, engaged in boat building, authentic cooking, and both ordinary and extraordinary historical events. Read about General Billy Mitchell’s piloting of his small plane across the Bay, as well as his interactions with the locals in 1921; a German U-Boat that circled the Bay during World War II; and the legendary downfall of the Pirate Blackbeard in the Eighteenth Century.
The reader gets an insider’s view of heroic efforts to rescue a Spanish ship from a storm, the survival tactics of crew members of a crippled U-boat, and the hard work and detail required to build small fishing boats from humble tools during that period. The book is also suffused with humorous accounts of the people and culture of that place and time.
Michael J. Nader teaches Catholic social doctrine for pastoral leaders with the Archdiocese of San Francisco and with the Diocese of Oakland.
“Some books,” wrote Francis Bacon, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Alas, I taste far more books than I swallow or digest, a testament to my propensity to bite off more than I can chew and the busyness of being an editor, writer, husband, father, and occasional music critic.
That said, I tasted and chewed on a number of exceptional books this past year. Many of them were works featuring complex doctrine, which is currently frowned on in some corners—but not in mine! (As in the past, I will refrain from promoting or praising Ignatius Press books—with two exceptions.)
God and Eros: The Ethos of the Nuptial Mystery (Cascade Books, 2015), edited by Colin Patterson and Conor Sweeney, is a bracing and learned collection of thirteen essays by members of the faculty of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, including Tracey Rowland, Father Peter Elliott, and Marc Cardinal Ouellet. Each chapter focuses on some aspect of marriage, family, and sexuality through the lens of John Paul II’s thought; the compilation is especially strong in its analysis of secularism.
Bishop Robert Barron published three books this year; I managed to get to two of them. Exploring Catholic Theology: Essays on God, Liturgy, and Evangelization (Baker Academic, 2015) is the more academic of the two—but written with the accessible and articulate ease that characterizes all of Bishop Barron’s work. Seeds of the Word: Finding God in the Culture (Word on Fire, 2015) is a collection of movie and book reviews which demonstrates Bishop Barron’s ability to sympathetically and critically engage with “the good, bad, beautiful, and ugly found throughout American culture,” as I put in my April 2015 review of the book. That same review also highlighted another fine collection, Essays on Modernity: And the Permanent Things from Tradition (2015) by James Patrick, a theologian, teacher, and “sometimes apologist.” Whereas Barron employs a more evangelistic approach in approaching the dominant culture, Dr. Patrick’s modus operandi is deeply diagnostic, even resorting to emergency surgery when necessary. Both approaches are needed, and these books are examples worth emulating. (Bishop Barron’s third book of 2015, for those wondering, is his commentary on 2 Samuel, published by Brazos Press.)
Continuing with works of theology, The Glory of God’s Grace: Deification According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Sapientia Press, 2015) by Daria Spezzano is an impressive and detailed study of an important topic that is enjoying a happy resurgence of late in Catholic circles (it has long been a focus of Orthodox theologians). It is of particular interest to me because—shameless self-promotion alert!—I have co-edited a book on the same topic titled Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, due out this coming spring from Ignatius Press. Spezzano argues—convincingly and with crystalline rigor—that Aquinas “thinks of human salvation as deification.” And so do the Fathers, other Doctors, mystics, saints, Councils, popes, and many more besides. In fact, it is quite prominent, for instance, in Lumen Gentium (1964), which states at the start that God’s “plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life” (par 2). I re-read that Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council in preparing to teach a course on ecclesiology for the Archdiocese of Portland; I also re-read John Paul II’s final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), which is full of theological and pastoral riches.
One of the more challenging books of the year was Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference (Angelico Press, 2015) by Robert Magliola. Dr. Magliola, who has studied Buddhism for decades, is to be commended for being sympathetic without being syncretistic in showing how Catholics can better understand Buddhism without glossing over serious differences in belief. Magliola’s use of Derrida will likely perplex some readers, but the second half of his book is especially informative and helpful. I found Dr. Paul Kengor’s book Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage (WND Books, 2015) to also be challenging—but for a different reason. There were times, in reading in his pull-no-punches history of leftism vs. marriage that I was almost sick, especially in reading about the hedonistic lifestyles of Sixties’ revolutionaries. But Kengor is not sensationalistic; rather, the material is often startling and repulsive. Required reading for those trying to connect the dots between Karl Marx and Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, alerted me to Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, 2012), a collection by the Anglican poet Malcolm Guite. The sonnets are marked by theological depth and poetical mastery, as evidenced by “O Sapientia,” which contains echoes of Donne and Eliot. Another Anglican, Os Guiness, wrote a thoughtful work on rhetoric and evangelization, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (InterVarsity Press, 2015), which offers many solid suggestions for those trying to articulate the Gospel in a post-modern, post-Christian culture.
My friend Bradley J. Birzer has been working on Russell Kirk: American Conservative (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) for several years, and the result is impressive. Not only is it is a biography (with recourse to hundreds of unpublished letters and papers), it is a map to 20th-century American (and western European) political thought and a work of blunt but sophisticated cultural criticism. Those who think Rush Limbaugh and FOX News embody “conservatism” need to read this book and be happily corrected.
On the lighter end of the spectrum, Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia (Penguin Books, 2005) and Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History (Oxford, 2015) offer opinionated, detailed, and idiosyncratic takes on music. Both men know their subject matters through and through, and both are a joy to read—even when I disagreed with them on certain points. Two works of fiction stand out, both of them historical mysteries: Lamentation (Mulholland Books, 2015) by C.J. Sansom and The Silver Pigs (1989) by Lindsey Davis. Lamentation is the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel, set in London during the final days of Henry the VIII, who is presented as a fascinating but loathsome creature, and The Silver Pigs (the first of some 20 Marcus Didius Falco mysteries) is set in Rome and Britain in the early 70s AD. The authors, both British, create vivid characters, tell a very good story, and have clearly done their research.
Finally, my book of the year is, yes, an Ignatius Press title: God or Nothing (Ignatius Press, 2015) by Cardinal Robert Sarah. The African Ratzinger, as I call him, is direct and blunt but never scolding; he addresses theological questions with an often remarkable combination of clarity and subtlety; he exhibits a depth of insight matched by an obvious holiness; and he is not distracted by fads and secular pressures, but is focused firmly on the Gospel and the reality of God. Highly recommended.
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.
Over the past few months, my wife and I have enjoyed reading Alexander Smith’s series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Set in modern-day Botswana, it tells to story of Mma Ramotswe and her efforts as the first female detective in her country. Alternatively brilliant, funny, poignant, and thrilling, it is a must-read.
Nick Olszyk is Chair of the Department of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, California.
Two of my choices for “best books read in 2015” are related to J.R.R. Tolkien (not surprising, given my own academic interests!). First, a must-have for anyone seriously interested in Tolkien’s life and work is John Garth’s Tolkien at Exeter College. Garth, who wrote the ground-breaking study Tolkien and the Great War, has extended his research to Tolkien’s time as an undergraduate, with new discoveries and insights (and photographs). This new, short book is an excellent complement to the longer study, and deepens our understanding of the origins of Tolkien’s lifelong work on the Silmarillion.
A second Tolkien book that I appreciated was Raymond Edwards’ Tolkien. Edwards does a particularly good job of presenting the academic side of Tolkien’s life, both at Leeds and at Oxford, and showing the extent of Tolkien’s professional responsibilities and the way that he was generous with his time to colleagues and students. Tolkien’s work as a professor was not merely a day job, but a deeply important part of his life, something which Tolkien scholars have recognized, but which is often missed in more popular treatments of Tolkien’s life and work.
Moving to the wider circle of the Inklings, another favorite from 2015 was the volume C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, edited by Roger White, Judith Wolfe, and Brendan Wolfe. You can read my full review for CWR here; let me sum up by saying that it’s an excellent choice for all readers who enjoy the work of the Inklings. The book has a rich and interesting combination of memoirs and essays, including pieces by Rowan Williams, Malcolm Guite, and Walter Hooper, and an informative (and indeed inspiring) short history of the Oxford Lewis Society by Michael Ward.
A delightful discovery this year was The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home, by David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler. This book offers a helpful, practical approach to making one’s home a place well suited for prayer, with suggestions that are suitable for single people as well as families. I found the sections on setting up a “prayer table” or “prayer corner” and choosing icons and religious art to be particularly valuable, and indeed have put their ideas into practice already.
Last but not least, I thoroughly enjoyed Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome. An account of his pilgrimage on foot from France to Rome, the book is by turns funny, moving, light-hearted, eloquent, and profound. It’s really in a class and style of its own, so rather than saying more, I will simply commend it to you, Reader!
Holly Ordway is Professor of English and director of the MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University.
The book I valued the most this year was not about the Catholic perspective of ecology, a topic I usually read and write about. But because quite a few eco-books do make this list, we’ll cover those first and save the most important for last.
In preparation for covering the buildup and release of Laudato Si’, I came across a few excellent texts about what Catholicism offers today’s ecological discussions. The first is Just Sustainability: Technology, Ecology, and Resource Extraction (Orbis, 2015), edited by Christiana Z. Peppard and Andrea Vicini. It holds just under 30 essays on topics ranging from education to economics to energy and is authored by Catholic eco-powerhouses such as Celia Deane-Drummond, Erin Lothes, and the up-and-coming Daniel DiLeo. It’s a text that’s at home both in the living room and classroom—and I’d encourage it being in both.
In July I rediscovered a similar collection of essays—one that keeps offering pleasant surprises. Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States (Lexington Books, 2013), edited by Jame Schaefer and Tobias Winright, is one of those sleeper books that might get little attention but offers much to keep the faithful rooted in sound Catholic teachings.
I should also note two older books that, while not necessarily Catholic, certainly have Catholic sensibilities. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961) made it to a colloquium I co-taught at Providence College this spring. Their authors intended to use modern science to demonstrate how modern science—when used poorly—are harming people and places. In the end, both books cheer the need for community and for caring about one’s neighbor—indeed, loving them, often sacrificially so—as the antidote to the poisons introduced into our blood streams and ecosystems as well as the social designs that damage communities. They both illustrate reason finding answers in faith, whether or not it had intended to look there.
I cannot leave out this small, humorous book: Fearing the Stigmata (Loyola Press, 2012) by Matt Weber. The book is good for a much-needed laugh and an insight or two about faith in the modern world. Weber—a Harvard graduate and devout Catholic—pulls from his childhood and his youth (he was 28 when he wrote the book) to find modern parables about seeking holiness in an increasingly secular world.
This gets me to my most important book in 2015: Robert Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith (Ignatius Press, 2015). Reading it provided a similar experience as Peter Seewald interviews with the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. As I read Cardinal Sarah’s plain, precise communication of orthodoxy, and his analysis of world events, I couldn’t help but cheer.
And I wondered if, like Ratzinger’s, I was reading the words of a future pope.
Several stand-outs from 2015, all of which contributed to a grander appreciation of God’s gifts and this good life:
Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends by my friend Mary Claire Kendall, which I’ll soon be reviewing for CWR. It shines with celestial star power and affirms my appreciation of the Duke and Coop and makes me love Patricia Neal all the more—one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, and a truly beautiful soul who went through a lot of pain before coming to our Lord.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, the unfinished and posthumously published work of a man I dearly would have loved to have known, especially since we share the same birthday and follow the same wanderlust. Aside from Tolkien and Eugenio Corti and, yes, Chuck Colson (see below), no writer has literally left me breathless, albeit—thank God—momentarily. He was a legend in his own right, a dashing doer of deeds—a commando who captured a German general off the island of Crete—as well as a masterful teller of tales, tall and short, all rooted in truth. After being kicked out of his English public school in 1933 for being an unruly lad, the 17-year-old “Paddy” up and left old Blighty and took a walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland almost to the gates of Constantinople. He still hadn’t finished his journey by the time the War broke out, having stayed with a host of interconnected aristocratic families when he wasn’t tramping the countryside among the peasantry. Decades later, based on an outstanding memory and the journals he kept, over the span of three decades he wrote a trilogy recounting his experiences. It’s the Lord of the Rings of all travelogues, though categorizing it merely as such grossly generalizes a work of multivarious wonder. But it left me with has an abiding sense of sadness, for the world the young Paddy loved so deeply was on the brink of permanent, infernal change. And yet the old order lives on where the Faith burns bright in the hearts among those in that Old World, ever new.
I began reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Paddy. Fifty pages into it, I lent it to a friend in Wisconsin, and look forward to picking it up again when we meet for lunch in Spring Green shortly after the New Year.
Another man I really wish I could have known, though we have living friends in common, is Chuck Colson. It sounds cheesy and so self-helpish, but The Good Life: Seeking Purpose, Meaning, and Truth in Your Life, written with Harold Fickett, helped save me from desperation when I discovered an unbroken copy on my grandmother’s book shelf last July. Colson came to Christ after he was imprisoned for his role in the Watergate scandal, causing his former world and worldview to collapse. He said going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to him. Rejecting lucrative offers in business after his release, he pursued the vocation he discovered in prison—bringing inmates the same hope and truth he discovered in Christ—and went on to found the international ministry, Prison Fellowship.
Though Colson never crossed the Tiber, he really should have—an Aquinas-quoting Prottie, I like to think he would have if given a longer lease on life. If he isn’t with our Lord now, I fear my own fate. The Good Life is a powerful witness to the good, the beautiful, and the true, and I owe Fickett dinner for his role in bringing it to light.
Anything written by a man named Basil Maturin should be worth reading, especially if said man is a priest who went down with the Lusitania, last seen comforting desperate passengers who died in a legitimate act of war. (The Britain-bound boat was loaded with munitions, and the Germans gave advance notice in the New York Times that it would be sunk on sight.) Sophia Press republished a book he wrote early in the last century, before the world about him went mad. It can save a soul from madness and uplift and empower even the most lightsome Christian. Christian Self-Mastery: How to Govern Your Thoughts, Discipline Your Will, and Achieve Balance in Your Spiritual Life—I keep a copy in my brief case, and it’s one of those books you’ll want to give to friends. Definitely worth ten bucks a copy.
Lastly, as prep for a trip to Spain to visit friends occupying Gaucin, a mountain village overlooking Gibraltar, I recommend Pepita Aris’ The Spanish Kitchen. It’s a tasty introduction to the cookery of the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, sans the Portuguese. If I could have tapas for breakfast, I would, and just might.
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.
I am sure that I am by no means alone in saying that the book of 2015 is Robert Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing (Ignatius Press). Reviewers have tended to highlight the cardinal’s clear and faithful exposition on the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family in the light of modern challenges and issues—particularly gender ideology—and there is no doubt that he underlines fundamental principles and makes crucial distinctions in these areas which are essential. The clear and uncompromising teaching of this successor to the apostles on such hotly debated questions that is to be found here itself makes the book essential reading. So too (if I may be permitted to say so) does his profound realization and exposition of the centrality of the Sacred Liturgy in the life and mission of the Church.
However what touched me most deeply were the first two chapters, describing the early life and emerging vocation of the young Robert Sarah in Guinea. For those of us born in more developed countries, with perhaps a more comfortable upbringing and education, and who are used to seeing cardinals from similar backgrounds, these autobiographical pages may well serve as a very timely “wake-up-call.” Why is Cardinal Sarah so clear in his teaching? Why is he so fearless and strong in his faith? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that from a very early age, thanks to the simple circumstances of his family and to the witness of French missionaries whose faith was clear and uncluttered, he learned that the ultimate choice in this life is between God or nothing—period. It is a choice we must all make. This book will help us appreciate its import very much more clearly. If you haven’t read it, perhaps have it to hand for the start of Lent 2016.
2015 also occasioned an encounter with a very small and quite old book, Thomas Merton’s Praying the Psalms, first published in 1956. It is a great blessing that in addition to clergy and religious many, many lay men and women pray the Divine Office today. Merton has, I think, much to give us all by way of a fundamental orientation in our approach to the psalms and indeed to all liturgical prayer:
There is no aspect of the interior life, no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of man that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms. But we cannot lay hands on these riches unless we are willing to work for them. It is no longer so much a matter of study, since the study has been done for us by experts. We need only to take advantage of the texts they have given us, and use them with faith, and confidence and love. Above all we need zeal and strength and perseverance. We cannot by mere human ingenuity or talent exhaust all that is contained in the Psalms. Indeed, if we seek only “to get something out of them” we will perhaps get less than we expect, and generous efforts may be frustrated because they are turned in the wrong direction: toward ourselves rather than God.
In the last analysis, it is not so much what we get out of the Psalms that rewards us, but what we put into them. If we really make them our prayer, really prefer them to other methods and expedients, in order to let God pray in us in His own words, and if we sincerely desire above all to offer Him this particularly pure homage of our Christian faith, then indeed we will enter into the meaning of the Psalms, and they will become our favorite vocal prayers.
Dom Alcuin Reid is a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France. He has lectured internationally and has published extensively on the Sacred Liturgy.
I often find that I return to some key books around Christmas and Easter—the high seasons of the soul—or at least begin them again, though it may take me a while to get through them. This year, the most unflagging of my re-reads was C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which I regard as the greatest piece of fiction he ever produced (though I admire the space trilogy quite a bit too, especially Perelandra and That Hideous Strength). Till We Have Faces is his “retelling” of the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, or love and the soul. I’m never quite sure what to make of it—and I think I read once that neither did Lewis. But suffice to say that his literary power was never greater, and it’s put to use in a tale that takes you into some realm of transcendence rare in all of modern literature. I don’t know why it’s relatively unknown—perhaps its the lack of explicit Christian content puts off the Christian partisans and the secular literary world already thinks it knows what to make of Lewis.
Speaking of secular perspectives, Clive James’ newest book, Latest Readings, like everything by him, is just nonstop high spirits about books and authors. James is dying from leukemia but it doesn’t seem to have slowed his reading and writing one bit. His Cultural Amnesia, too, is a volume to keep on the nightstand and read over again and again for the sheer scope of his mind. Not a Christian writer, though he’s translated Dante in his declining days (badly, I’m sorry to say, but we may hope he was seeking something other than poetry there). Still, a representative of a high cultural tradition when much else in the culture has nosedived—best documented, in my view, in Mario Vargas Llosa’s newly translated Notes on the Death of Culture.
Speaking of death, Rene Girard’s passing in November sent me back to The Girard Reader. A Frenchman who taught literature for many years here in America, Girard elaborated one of the most powerful explanations of Christ’s uniqueness—ever. Jesus was not a scapegoat, like the scapegoats of the ancient Hebrews and pagans. His willingness to die on the Cross inverted that ancient method of casting the sins of the community onto an innocent victim. You have to read the whole thing in context to realize what a singular thing the Christian story did to our all-too-human tribal inclinations to revenge.
I’ve been trying—as we all are these days—to figure out where our American tribe is headed, and the role the Church can or cannot play in what seems like a period of global disorientation. In times like these, it sometimes helps to go back to the point where things seemed still reasonably sane or at least tolerable. The times have driven me to re-reading Jacques Maritain’s Reflections on America, which he gave as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago. Maritain found Americans, whatever their flaws, less inclined to cynicism and skepticism than their European counterparts. Americans, be believed—thinkers and people alike—had a passion for truth. Much has changed since then, of course, but a useful reminder that there may be a dance in the old dame yet, if we’re lucky.
An odd final note: Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun. It’s the story of a group of American artists living in Rome during the 19th century when Rome seemed dilapidated and the capital of gross superstition. The old Calvinist in Hawthorne says some harsh things about the Church and its influence in Italy. And yet…the novelist in Hawthorne resonates in some beautiful passages to something about Rome he can’t quite grasp, but can’t ignore either. Grace can be a very sly thing indeed.
Robert Royal is the president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, DC and editor of The Catholic Thing.
Among the books I read, three stand out.
First, The Complete Short Novels by Anton Chekov (Random House Vintage). The author, who as much a anyone deserves recognition as the father of modern fiction, is best known for his short stories and plays, but he also wrote five longish (but not novel-length) tales, all of them collected here. The titles include at least two undoubted masterpieces: The Duel and The Steppe. The English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is clear and fluent.
Second, Theological Highlights of Vatican II by Joseph Ratzinger (Paulist). Books about the Second Vatican Council continue to appear. This is one of the earliest and one of the best. The author, Father Joseph Ratzinger—later Pope Benedict XVI—was among the theological stars of Vatican II and published these essays at the time in a German periodical. They remain remarkably clear and informative expositions of the issues at stake and an admirable introduction to the council as a whole.
Third, The Coup at Catholic University by Peter W. Mitchell (Ignatius). The coup in question is the one that took place at the American bishops’ own university in 1967 and 1968 and focused on Father Charles Curran and his colleagues in dissent. Though slightly on the heavy side, Father Mitchell’s careful volume is fascinating though discouraging reading for anyone who wants to understand how the institutionalization of dissent came about in American Catholicism.
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books.
To remember the soldiers who fought in the Great War, I read Max Hastings’ riveting Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf), which builds on the work of Michael Howard and Hew Strachan to argue that “it would be entirely mistaken to suppose that it did not matter which side won.” Why? King Billy’s territorial aims were no less ambitious than Herr Hitler’s, and if Germany had won European freedom would have vanished. That the price of freedom proved so high only proved its preciousness, not the folly of those who fought to protect it.
In defending that freedom many rediscovered the Cross. The novelist Frederic Manning captured something of this when he described how the hero of his novel The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929) marched past a stone Calvary with his fellow infantrymen and they “who had known all the sins of the world, lifted, to the agony of the figure on the cross, eyes that had probed and understood the mystery of suffering.” In addition to Manning’s novel, I read Ford Madox Ford’s memoir, It Was the Nightingale (1933), which sheds a good deal of light on our own travails. “A social system had crumbled,” Ford observed of the Great War’s toll. “Nay, it had been revealed…that beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.”
In the past year, I also reread two books that never fail to send me back to the good fight with renewed serenity and pluck: Monsignor A.N. Gilbey’s We Believe: A Simple Commentary on the Catechism (Gracewing) and Ronald Knox’s The Window in the Wall and Other Sermons on the Holy Eucharist (Sheed & Ward). The best Catholic biography I read was David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor (Oxford), a masterly study of how the great convert’s faith animated his judicious rule. Other recent Catholic books worth commending are Lynne Surtees’ Blessed Roger Cadwallador; Father Francis Selman’s The Sacraments and the Mystery of Christ; and Jennifer Moorcroft’s St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her Sisters, all from Gracewing.
Of all the Catholic titles I read none proved of greater practical benefit than Grace Mazza Urbanski’s Pray with Me: Seven Simple Ways to Pray with Your Children (Ave Maria), a wise, resourceful, charming book, which, as the besotted papa of a daughter of three, I can warmly recommend to all parents keen on transmitting the Faith to the younger generation.
Another book that I should recommend is Bernard Bailyn’s Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History (Knopf), which shows yet again what a marvelous intellectual historian Bailyn is. Writing good intellectual history requires not only great learning but a certain imaginative humility, and Bailyn has both. He also writes a pellucid, elegant prose. Admirers of Bailyn will also enjoy The Selected Writings of Thomas Paine (Yale) edited by Ian Shapiro and Jane E. Calvert, which includes a superb revisionist essay on Paine by another crack intellectual historian, J.C.D. Clark.
A few other titles I enjoyed include Lord Salisbury on Politics: A Selection of his Articles in the Quarterly Review, 1860-1883 (Cambridge), edited by Paul Smith, which shows what a brilliant, witty, discriminating mind Salisbury had; Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber (Yale), which chronicles the life of the slave boy who left the iniquitous sugar plantations of Jamaica to become the servant, friend, and legatee of Samuel Johnson; and Sir Frederick Ponsonby’s Recollections of Three Reigns (Eyre & Spottiswoode), the funniest diplomatic memoir ever written.
Lastly, I enjoyed dipping into The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary (1958), edited by John Coulson, a wonderfully edifying summons to holiness.
Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews (Gracewing).
The year 2015 was the first in over three decades where I did not review a single new book. Indeed the sole book review of mine published during 2015—dealing with the short-lived British composer Constant Lambert, and included in The American Conservative’s July-August issue—was written in 2014. Every other volume I read this year had been issued earlier than that. These three warrant noting:
The Politics of Plainchant in Fin-de-Siècle France (2013), by British musicologist Katharine Ellis. No one should be deterred by the less-than-alluring title. Dr. Ellis has supplied an excellently researched, riveting, sometimes alarming account of how an obscure French pamphleteer named Augustin Pécoul appointed himself crusader on behalf of Gregorian chant expert Dom Joseph Pothier, and how Pécoul interpreted this brief as licensing him to calumniate every other Gregorian chant expert, above all Dom Pothier’s fellow Solesmes monk Dom André Mocquereau. This is unabashed micro-history here, with plentiful and fascinating ancillary information about printers’ unions, secret diplomatic missives, Franco-German hostilities (focused on Regensburg’s chant editions), intellectual property concepts circa 1900, and political intrigue at the highest levels in Paris and Rome. Though Pécoul died in 1916, he represents a type of male familiar now from the purportedly Catholic blogosphere: fluent, vitriolic, obsessive, borderline-deranged, pseudonym-addicted, conspiratorial, and—for all his ostentatious displays of erudition—trapped at the empathetic level of Pinkie in Brighton Rock.
Zuleika Dobson (1911), by Sir Max Beerbohm. It is extraordinary how often, before returning to a classic which one happened upon in youth, one has remained deaf to the classic’s tone. Having recollected Zuleika Dobson as an instance of what P.G. Wodehouse called “musical comedy without the music” (a musical comedy based on the novel did actually appear in 1957), I dug it out in 2015 and found myself newly shaken by how sad, as well as how funny, it is. In 1911, Beerbohm’s climactic scene of upper-class British manhood committing collective suicide must have seemed a real hoot. Within the decade a frighteningly large proportion of upper-class British manhood had done just that, in the mud and blood of Flanders fields. Beerbohm’s prose—much more inclined to simple declarative sentences than its author’s reputation for ornate dandyism would suggest—still sparkles. Yet it is (to quote an Agatha Christie title) sparkling cyanide.
Samuel Johnson’s essays from The Rambler. The battle to convince the world that Dr. Johnson would remain a great thinker, great stylist, and great versifier even if Boswell had never existed seems unwinnable. Where T.S. Eliot failed, we far lesser scribes shall not presume to succeed. But with The Rambler, aphorism after aphorism has acquired a chilling new relevance, given that 2015 saw hitherto Burkean conservatives—particularly though not, alas, exclusively in Australia—turn themselves again and again into honking, gibbering apologists for Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemous filth. It would beseem such apologists to ponder (on the perhaps over-optimistic assumption that they retain sufficient intellect to ponder anything more ethically elevated than Charlie Hebdo itself) the memento mori which concludes Rambler 69, released by Dr. Johnson on November 13, 1750:
He that grows old without religious hopes, as he declines into imbecility, and feels pains and sorrows incessantly crowding upon him, falls into a gulf of bottomless misery, in which every reflection must plunge him deeper, and where he finds only new gradations of anguish and precipices of horror.
R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, 2012).
On the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped, there are two books that stand out. One is Hiroshima by John Hersey, rightly hailed a classic. In a short narrative, the author recreates that unforgettable event and its aftermath. The other is A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai: Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb by Paul Glynn. The story of Nagai is impossible to forget, and impossible not to effect a change in the reader.
An epic life of a different sort is recorded in Peter Ackroyd’s Charlie Chaplin. The descriptions of the actor’s London childhood and belated return to his home city, after having achieved global stardom, are particularly haunting.
Continuing in the world of cinema, Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock & the Making of Psycho remains one of the best books that I have come across which tracks a film from real events to cinematic concept, through to production, release, and beyond. Another Hollywood legend caught “off camera” is to be found in Henry Jaglom’s My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. This is a chance to eavesdrop on Welles as the actor lambasts and rails against the world that didn’t recognize—or fund—his genius. As informative as it is provocative, as funny as it is poignant, this is not for the faint-hearted, or the easily offended.
Alice Von Hildebrand’s Memoirs of a Happy Failure is a reminiscence of an altogether different sort. It starts with a night-time U-Boat attack during World War II and builds from there. It is above all a story of triumph against the odds in the increasingly hostile world of secular academia. Still on the subject of World War II, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 by George William Rutler is a compellingly erudite and original read, as well as a strangely moving one. Its cover has to be one of the best in years.
Finally got round this year to reading Joseph Pearce’s Roy Campbell biography Bloomsbury and Beyond: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell. He was an extraordinary man and poet whose work and life deserves to be better known.
Better known, of course, is Hilaire Belloc. Reading Essays of a Catholic today one is struck at how penetrating and wise his essays remain. Both thought-provoking and relevant, they are, above all else, never less than beautifully written.
It is a beautiful life that is recounted in Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy by Simone Troisi & Cristiana Paccini. It is sobering to realize that these dramatic events happened so recently. Saints are still being made if only we have eyes to see.
A new and distinctive voice has emerged in Catholic poetry. Sarah de Nordwall’s inaugural collection, 50 Poems for My 50th: A Beginner’s Guide to Opening the World with Words is as original in its wit and insight as it is orthodox in belief—here’s a name to look out for.
Book of the year, however, is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. As with her earlier Seabiscuit, this is a wonderfully written, emotionally involving read. The pages seem to turn themselves, but don’t take my word for it as, last time I looked, there were over 26,000 glowing reviews on Amazon. I pitied the filmmakers…
K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker with a degree in theology from the Maryvale Institute.