“The first use of good literature,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his essay “On Reading” (found in the 1950 Sheed & Ward collection The Common Man), “is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness…”
I’m happy to say that this edition of “Best Books I Read in 2018″—the 14th such collection, dating back to this much shorter list posted on the Insight Scoop blog for books read in 2005—does not suffer from narrowness, nor does it hew to anything “merely modern.” You’ll find ancient books about timeless truths and newer books about ancient truths, including (but not limited to) works of history, literature, theology, philosophy, biography, and commentary.
In a way, this online list, which has long been a reader favorite, is a bit like wandering through an eclectic bookstore filled with new and old books—preferably with many of them overflowing the shelves and stacked on the floor. (My personal belief is that you shouldn’t trust a bookstore that doesn’t have books on the floor.) And I’ll readily confess I’ve already bought a few books based on reading the entries.
“Literature, classic and enduring literature,” Chesterton further noted, “does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone.” Dare I suggest that this true even of the most whimsical Wodehouse novel (mentioned by more than one contributor), which reminds us that hearty laughter and authentic comedy are essential to being fully human? That is especially the case in a year filled with so much bad news that when we hear the word “news” we instinctively think, “It must be bad!”
Good books, however, remind us that there is good news, just as the Good Book tells us the true and saving story of Good News, which broke into the narrowness of history two thousand years ago in a most radical and astounding manner. For the first time, we are posting this compilation before Christmas, in part as a small, but hopefully enjoyable and joyful, gift to you, our readers.
May all words of truth draw us more deeply into the light the Incarnate Word, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
Carl E. Olson
Editor, Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight
Christopher R. Altieri:
Reading in 2018 has involved more legal documents and current events than philosophy or theology. There was a good deal of poetry and some history.
One book published this year, by which I was both edified and delighted, was The Life of St. Neilos of Rossano, translated into English by Raymond L. Capra, Ines A. Murzaku, and Douglas J. Milewski. The period in which St. Neilos lived in Italy, the 10th century—which saw Muslim incursions and advances, Byzantine assertions of power and political authority, piracy, and all manner of intrigue—by itself guaranteed the read would be captivating.
The translators, however, provide the reader with an elegant rendering of a classic work in a genre little known outside academic circles: Italo-Greek monastic spiritual biography. The translation faces the carefully prepared Greek text of the Life, which is helpful and delightfully challenging.
The translators’ brief introduction is as carefully crafted as it is deeply learned. It not only rendered accessible but drew me into a world I only very vaguely knew: that of Italo-Greek monasticism at a crucial moment in history, before the sad and sinful dynamics of division and exclusion took hold, and crippled the witness of Christians in the world down to the present.
If that were not enough, the book also gives unsparing insight into the severe mercy lived and practiced by a great master of a spiritual discipline almost entirely lost to the popular consciousness, at least in the West. For me, it was water in the desert.
Phil Lawler’s Smoke of Satan was another title I read this year—and reviewed for the Catholic Herald. It certainly is a title I’d recommend to anyone interested in understanding how we go to this moment of crisis in the life of the Church.
I read several manuscripts—including a couple of excellent ones from CWR’s editor-in-chief, Carl E. Olson.
One was a collection of meditations on the Sunday readings from Sacred Scripture for all three cycles of the Roman lectionary. Anyone interested in preparing to receive the Word proclaimed liturgically, or looking for help in preparing to preach on the Word proclaimed, will greatly benefit from Carl’s work when it appears.
The other manuscript of his was a Lenten spiritual itinerary, constructed around the Lord’s Prayer and the weeks of the penitential season. I hope someday not too far in the future to be able to return to both, and hope then to be holding pages printed and bound.
I mentioned poetry. I spent a good deal of time with an unpublished manuscript of verse by my dear friend, David Franks. I am deeply grateful to David for exhibiting the confidence he did in sharing the manuscript with me and inviting me to make editorial remarks—a debt outstanding as of this writing—but before that, I am grateful to him for rekindling in me a love of English verse at a time my soul could not afford to be without the light and warmth it gives. His gift was fire to one who was in the dark, battered by wind and cold.
His poetry is dense and exquisite, didactic and ecstatic—sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once—and I believe that in a better world, you all would know his name and have a few lines of his committed to memory.
Christopher R. Altieri is co-founder and general manager of Vocaris Media and the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.
Alan L. Anderson:
Among the best books I read this last year would be Mons. A. Robert Nusca’s The Christ of the Apocalypse. As a convert, I’m sorry to say I’ve always approached the last book of the Bible with some trepidation, scarred just a bit from non-Catholic writers who in my youth used the imagery of Revelations to construct imaginative, yet ultimately false, roadmaps to predict future events—complete with a legend to identify the primary actors (say, Gorbachev) and institutions (say, the Catholic Church) which would culminate in the Second Coming. My healing began with Catholic treatments of the book from writers like Scott Hahn and I’m pleased to announce a full recovery after reading the good monsignor’s offering. Nusca predicates the book on a simple premise: that all scripture is meant to introduce us to the Person of Jesus Christ. Replete with Old Testament references upon which the imagery found in Revelations is based and with a particularly interesting discussion of the Seven Letters to the Churches, the reader is led to a deeper relationship with Our Lord through a greater understanding of Jesus as the Risen Christ ruling in Heaven.
While orthodoxy in the Faith is something devoutly to be pursued, in the area of secular history I occasionally find a bit of heterodoxy can prove an enjoyable indulgence. Such is the case with Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, a biography of Aaron Burr which paints the assassin of Alexander Hamilton in a far more sympathetic light than would virtually all other historians. Also, in the category of biography I read, thoroughly enjoyed (and reviewed for CWR) Laura Gossin’s One Man Perched on a Rock: A Biography of Dr. Warren Carroll and relaxed with Brian Kilmeade’s Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans.
In the area of fiction, I delved into P.G. Wodehouse’s The World of Mr. Milliner. Chalk it up to the deficiencies and depredations of a public school education that I regrettably reached the age of almost three score before doing so.
I had the pleasure of reading most of St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew for a course I’m teaching on the New Testament and found a wonderful devotional to our Blessed Mother from Father Edward Looney, entitled A Heart Like Mary’s. Father Looney offers a loving thirty-one day meditation on Mary with just a twist of contemporary flavor perfectly illustrating how our Faith can be both ‘ever-ancient’ and ‘ever-new.’
Finally, it seems like every year I come across a book that I just don’t want to end. Last year, it was Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence. This year, it’s Father George Rutler’s Calm In Chaos, a collection of essays from various online publications such as Crisis and our own Catholic World Report. Father Rutler possesses a vast store of knowledge on a wide array of subjects and a penetrating insight into the human condition which, together, truly do bring a sense of peace to the soul of the sane Catholic seeking to comprehend the growing insanity which surrounds us. Only Father Rutler could offer a three-sentence paragraph which begins with a vignette from the life of Marie Antoinette and concludes with a quote from the country-western singer, Dolly Parton, to convincingly make a point. The book is proving a soothing balm during these most chaotic of times both within the Church and our culture at large.
Alan L. Anderson worked at the parish and diocesan level in catechetics in the Diocese of Peoria for over twenty years. He writes on culture and the Faith from Roanoke, IL.
Witness by Whittaker Chambers. Greater souls have commended this book and its author for decades. I can only say that it lives up to the highest expectations. Chambers’ epic, courageous story, and his writing—both elegant and humble—have already changed history. It will go on changing lives, and the more who read it, the better. The overall weightiness of the book may be daunting, but the unabridged audio book helped me overcome that intimidating factor.
Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy. Rumer Godden, who can make a page-turner out of cloistered convent life (as she did in In This House of Brede), creates a thrilling cocktail in this book by mixing convent life, history, reformed female criminals, creepy enemies, gardening, and the Rosary. Don’t miss it. But maybe don’t read it at night by yourself. Unless you have a cozy fire and a whiskey-bolstered cup of tea. Then by all means, do.
Out of the Ashes. Both sobering and sustaining, this social commentary reads beautifully, of course, because Anthony Esolen wrote it. I particularly enjoyed his point that things don’t lie: “Things, in their beautiful and imposing integrity, do not easily bend to lies. A bull is a bull and not a cow. Grass is food for cattle but not for man. A warbler is alive but a rock is not. The three-hundred-pound stone will not move for a little child or a boy or a feminist professor. Water expands when it freezes and will break anything unless you allow for that. Things are what they are. They know no slogans, and they do not lie. And they give witness to the glory of God.” Such things were points of grace for both Whittaker Chambers, and Soeur Lise of Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy. The harmony among good books is astounding.
Flight of the Doves by Walter Macken. I’m convinced that anything by Macken is gold. This adventure may appeal particularly to boys ages 7-13, but I’m telling you—I was mighty tempted to hide in a closet and continue reading on my own after telling the kids I had to take a break from reading aloud to them.
Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed. Full confession: I haven’t finished yet. I won’t let that stop me from 100 percent putting my weight behind this brilliant and sometimes wryly hilarious reminder that our Faith is entirely reasonable, beautiful, and a love story written by God. Besides the fact that Frank Sheed is the author, Karl Keating endorsed it, so you know it’s solid. Ah, and Ignatius published.
Mother Angelica’s Answers Not Promises. I doubt a single page of my copy escaped being highlighted or underlined up the wazoo. Mother Angelica’s saintly wisdom and hilarity beat all.
33 Days to Morning Glory by Father Michael Gaitley. Suzie Andres says it best. All I can do is second her dare. My husband and I do this in-home-retreat together every year.
The Little Juggler written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. A charming take on the traditional “clown of God” folktale, which Cooney transforms into a Christmas story graced by her own delightful art.
The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. A favorite author plus a favorite illustrator make this child’s book a total winner, even if it’s a secular Christmas-themed story. It’s beautiful in its own worldly way. Maybe they went to Mass after the story? Or to the Vigil? (To use my sister’s defense to Mom’s critique of Easter Parade.) There, now everyone’s happy.
Elizabeth Anderson is a stay-at-home mother and independent writer.
Mary Jo Anderson:
Book lists are among my favorite end-of-year reading pleasures. I look forward to the Catholic World Report list with great anticipation, just as so many of our readers do.
In no particular order:
Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017). The subtitle, The Journey to Quantum Gravity, shouldn’t deter the non-scientists among us: Rovelli’s genius is teasing the cosmic down to earth. Earlier, I’d swooned in amazement after each chapter of Rovelli’s very slim volume, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (New York: Riverhead Books, 2016).
Rovelli’s delight in the quantum-ness of the universe pairs well with The Universe We Think In(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2018) written by the incomparable James V. Schall, SJ. Father Schall lifts our vision beyond ourselves to the wonder that awaits the mind that will ponder “what is.”
Laurence Bergreen’s vast account, Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), is a bracing corrective for anyone with a mild case of chronological superiority. The knowledge, courage, wit, and ingenuity of Marco, Kublai Khan, and their cohorts cannot help but amaze soft and comfortable modern man. Four faiths were treated as equal in the courts of the Khan: Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. “The Great Khan showed he holds that Christian faith for the truer and better because he says it commands nothing that is not full of goodness and holiness,” wrote Marco Polo.
The Path of Martyrs: Charles Martel, the Battle of Tours, and the Birth of Europe, by Ed West, (Amazon Digital Services, 2018). A solid account of one of the most decisive battles in Christian history. This volume isn’t academic but it’s not simplified. At 99 cents for Kindle, it’s a great value.
Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness (Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 1983) is Warren Carroll’s packed history of the famous apparition. Carroll’s account offers a valuable historical context, plus the evangelization effect of the image. Today, much of the savagery of the era is lost in a romantic retelling of the event.
Patrick Deneen’s much-discussed book, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018) has been described as “radical,” “persuasive,” and “engaging.” It is all of that. My mistake was to download the audio version. I need a hard copy in which to make margin notes.
An Audible selection that’s been the right format for travel is The Spy and The Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre. This is spy history written as a novel. The layman will be disabused of any of James Bond’s flashy glamor—think instead of the gritty realism of Alan Furst’s spine-tingling spy stories.
Some reading on the crisis within Catholicism was unavoidable this year. The Smoke of Satan: How Corrupt and Cowardly Bishops Betrayed Christ, His Church, and the Faithful…and What Can Be Done About It (Tan Books, 2018), is veteran Catholic editor and journalist Philip F. Lawler’s contribution to the growing stack of such titles. Why Lawler’s book? His love for the Church and its teachings is his starting point.
Can a cookbook be a travelogue? London-based chef Olia Hercules’ Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Beyond (San Francisco: Weldon Owen, 2017) is adventurous.
The Monk’s Daily Bread, written by Sylvia Durham, illustrated by Christopher Tupa (Tan Books, 2018), will charm your youngest friends with its pleasing rhymes and clever drawings. The cupboard is bare, the monks share a prayer, but the work of the day must go on. This is a sweet mediation on trust in Providence.
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications.
This Autumn I re-read Cardinal Stefan Wyzsinski’s prison diaries, published under the title A Freedom Within. My edition had a foreword by Malcolm Muggeridge. It was with a sudden shock that I realized that Wyzinski’s situation might one day be that of a bishop in a Western country with a grimly hostile government. When I first read the book 40 years ago that would have seemed impossible—although Muggeridge often wrote with warnings about the West’s moral collapse. The main lesson to be learned from Wyzinski’s reflections comes in a comment he makes concerning his guards: that they are always cross, distrustful, and gloomy and somehow, it is they rather than those they guard who seem to be the real prisoners.
Top of the list of books I’ve relished in 2018 is George Weigel’s collection of topical essays, The Fragility of Order, a deeply readable comment on a range of current issues—much recommended. I’ve passed my copy on to a friend and now wish I hadn’t, so I’m buying it again for a January read.
Also published in 2018 was something quite different—a small booklet, A Beautiful Fragrance by a Scottish writer, John Watts. Sentimental title, but it tells a story worth discovering: that of Scottish mystic Margaret Sinclair. Born and brought up in poverty in Edinburgh, this young woman, known for her cheerfulness and good humor, worked in a factory and lived in what we would today regard as unacceptable housing in a bleak area. Without ever being priggish about it, she spent long hours in prayer, attended daily Mass, and sought life as an enclosed religious sister. After she was finally able to join a convent, she worked humbly and cheerfully at allotted tasks—and slowly the sisters realized what her family, friends, and neighbors at home had also known, that she was a most remarkable and saintly woman who spread a radiance of joy and peace. Before you dismiss this, read about her: it’s a tender story but also one that brings a reminder of a vanished world of strong, family-based, working-class Catholicism with deep moral convictions and real knowledge of the Faith.
Another slightly unlikely read: the new Walsingham Pilgrimage Handbook. The small village in Norfolk, about six miles from the sea, became “England’s Nazareth” in the last days of Saxon rule, when the local noblewoman had a vision of Mary who told her to build a replica of the Holy Family’s Nazareth home. At that time, pilgrims could not visit the Holy Land because it was in Muslim hands, and so the shrine at Walsingham became immensely significant. Over the next centuries thousands visited every year. Destroyed by Henry VIII, revived in modern times, Walsingham is now extremely popular and the new handbook is a response to pilgrims’ needs: it has prayers, hymns, litanies, the story of the shrine, and more. It is also pleasing to use and handle: attractive illustrations, a good layout—even the village map is charming as well as useful. I bought the book at Walsingham this summer and am using it here at home: it will travel with me on pilgrimage to Walsingham in 2019.
Alister McGrath’s The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis was published in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death. 2018 marked the 55th anniversary. There is much to discover about the man who gave us Narnia: an Oxford man who taught at Cambridge, a classicist whose main job was teaching English, a childless man who produced some of the most enchanting children stories for children. A most satisfying read.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
E. Christian Brugger:
With the crises of Church and State gaping their ugly maws, I decided to do a lot of pleasure reading this year. It cheers me up. Here’s a sampling.
My undisputed favorites (and yes, I was only reading them for the first time) were Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Both are instances of greatChristian literature, neither of which, to my knowledge, has been described that way. Absolutely fantastic. Both surely on my lifetime top ten. The kind of books, as a melancholy friend once described to me, that leave you feeling sad when you’re done, like you’ve left behind a cherished companion.
I read again the magnificent novel by Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972), or as I described to my kiddies, “the story about rabbits” (at first, they squinched their eyebrows…till they heard the story!). Don’t worry, it’s an adult book.
And then…get ready for it…Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1866)! David Balfour’s harrowing trek through the Scottish Highlands with the weather-beaten wag, Alan Breck, is like no other adventure in literature. As Henry James wrote of Breck in 1888: “though the man is extravagant, the author’s touch exaggerates nothing; it is, throughout, of the most truthful, genial, ironical kind, full of penetration, but with none of the grossness of moralising satire.”
Herman Meliville’s short Billy Bud (published posthumously in 1924) describes with a kind of brutal delicacy just how the virtues of innocence and beauty fare when they fall into the hands of envy and ugliness. And Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) tells all who insist on remaining “Forever 21” just how their stories will end. I thoroughly enjoyed both.
Last and least on the year’s favorite booklist was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951). Its satirical thesis is alive and well. It reminded me of a stanza from Coleridge’s Rime (revised a bit):
The firemen are here;
The firemen are there;
The firemen are all around.
They scorch and growl,
And burn and howl,
Like noises in a swound.
At length did cross an albatross…
E. Christian Brugger is a senior research fellow of ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, DC.
The annual disclaimer: I don’t list Ignatius Press titles I have read in the year, whether in published form or in ms., even if I regard them as among the “best books I read.” Otherwise they’d dominate my list!
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. This was a book club pick, a title I likely would not have read on my own but which I am glad I read. We used the word “soc” (sōsh) somewhat differently in high school from the term’s use in this book. And we didn’t have “greasers.” Our high school world—at least as I experienced it—wasn’t so bifurcated. Even so, it was fascinating to read what was, in effect, an Oklahoma high school girl’s interpretation of high school boys, especially those deemed “outsiders.” It was also a delight to read a story about strong male friendships without those relationships having to be homosexual. But then the book was published in 1967. Dysfunctional families, conflicting values, social class tensions in school, economics, juvenile gang violence, youth alienation, and many other problems depicted in the book have become much more common. Too bad.
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. A re-read. As is often the case with books first read long ago, this book was like a new book to me. Aliens (Overlords) put limits on human earthly aggression. Humanity blossoms. But the full flowering leaves man behind for a transcendent step to almost-godhood and ultimately some kind of union with the Overmind behind it all.
Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen. An important book, whichever side of the liberalism debate one falls on. By “liberalism,” of course, he doesn’t mean politics of the American left, but the political philosophy originating in the 18th century Enlightenment, which philosophy comes in both rightwing and leftwing forms. Deneen argues that liberalism’s inherent contradictions bring about liberalism’s self-destruction. The more liberalism succeeds, Deneen argues, the more it fails.
Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright. A well-done, moderately scholarly biography of the Apostle to the Gentiles by one of today’s top New Testament scholars.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. A fun, updated retelling of Norse myths.
God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America by Larry Eskridge. Jesus People San Fran.
Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? by Gregory Alan Thornbury. I’ll eventually write a review of this book—probably a review essay. It really deserves a lengthy discussion because Larry Norman and the music he helped create have had a tremendous effect on American Evangelical Christianity—certainly in ways Norman never intended and in ways in which to some extent he came to oppose. The subtitle is: “Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.” Perils, indeed. For Norman and for many others. Christianity, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, doesn’t quite know how to handle pop culture—whether the world’s pop culture or its own. There are lots of things to glean from Thornbury’s book.
Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset. We read the first part of the trilogy for our book club. This is my wife’s favorite work of fiction, which she has read zillions of times. I see why. It is not a “chick book”—not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is an astounding trilogy work of medieval historical fiction, centered on a powerful female protagonist. It is also profoundly spiritual. It got Sigrid Undset the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Vatican I by John O’Malley, SJ. The Jesuit historian continues his series of books on recent (relatively) Church councils.
The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. Reread. Classic Lewis.
Philosophers and Philosophies by Frederick Copleston. One of three Copleston books I read as follow up to last year’s reading of his Memoir. A collection of essays that add up, loosely, to a consideration of the philosophical truth behind certain ideas of various philosophers such as St. Thomas, Spinoza, Hegel, Nietzche, Bergson, Jean-Paul Satre, and Ortega y Gasset, and issues of philosophical relativism.
Philosophers and Cultures by Frederick Copleston. Another one of three Copleston books I read as follow up to last year’s reading of his Memoir. Copleston explores the transcendent and enduring and the immanent and culturally conditioned in philosophy.
Religion and Philosophy by Frederik Copleston. The third of three Copleston books I read as follow up to last year’s reading of his Memoir. A reflection on metaphysics and its relation to religion, broadly conceived, or, perhaps better, the movement from the conditioned to the unconditioned, from the finite to the Absolute.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. The film is a favorite. The book on which the film is based is significantly different. It’s not the same Holly Golightly. And “Fred”—Paul Varjak—isn’t. That is, not merely not the same character but absent altogether. His role is somewhat taken up by the first-person narration. Somewhat. Sans love affair and getting the girl. Holly remains an uncaged bird, apparently flown to Africa. An insightful but somewhat depressing story of how some people live when they don’t have to and how they manage to make life a long whistling in the dark by imbibing an ersatz joie de vivre.
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor. Reread it because some of us at Ignatius Press were reading a screenplay for it. The book is, well, Flannery Amazing O’Connor. The screenplay wasn’t amazing but it was very good. Or if it amazed, it amazed by taking a great novel and rendering it well in the screenplay format. Anyway, the Christ-haunted South in full affliction and violent redemption. The book could be subtitled, “How not to raise a Prophet.” Then again, it could be “How to raise a Prophet in spite of oneself and him.”
Rebel in the Ranks by Brad Gregory. A biography of Luther and related 16th century Reformation matters by one of today’s top historians of the period. It showed up a bit late for me to read it as a personal reading choice marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but late or otherwise a book from Brad Gregory is always worthwhile. This is no partisan picture of Luther.
The Big Picture by Sean Carroll. At once fascinating and disappointing. The philosophical stuff was, I am sorry to say, hardly worth the effort to read. It doesn’t seriously engage the best philosophical thinking on subjects it considers. The science was worth the effort—history of everything scientifically speaking. As a result, the author provides a not-so-big picture. Still, I learned from it.
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.
Anthony E. Clark, PhD:
It is a reassuring exercise to write this list of books each year for CWR—it reminds me that good reading is an ointment that soothes us in trying times. In last year’s entry, I lamented the chaos that seemed to prevail around the Church; this year I mourn the chaos that has afflicted the Church from within. I am reminded of Yeats’ poignant lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” J.R.R. Tolkien lived through a Church wracked with tension and division in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and he bemoaned that what “once felt like a refuge now feels like a trap.” I am an Eastern Rite Catholic, and we are well prepared for such times as we now confront—each Easter (Pascha) we pass through what Byzantine Catholics call a “joyful sorrow.” The sorrow of Lent is made joyful by the promise of the Resurrection. This year’s reading was as much a distraction from the news as it was an opportunity to strengthen my faith in these arduous times.
The best book I read this year, and in the past several years for that matter, was John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. It is an expansive tome, and getting through it was more of a slog than usual. For Christmas this year I want all educators to read this book. His words are an analgesic against the muddled view that a college education is merely a treadmill toward a high salary. “To advance the useful arts is one thing,” Newman writes, “and to cultivate the mind is another.”
Christopher Dawson’s marvelous study of the modern obsession with progress, Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry, was a surprising treasure this year. I had never before read anything by Dawson, and his ideas are as germane to our own era as they were when he published this work in 1929. The current mania for an ambiguous notion of progress, Dawson suggests, has distracted humanity from the reality that religion is the soul of a culture, and any society that has lost its spiritual roots is dying.
This year I finally read C.S. Lewis’ monumental critique of modern sensibilities and their potential to extinguish humanity, The Abolition of Man. What we do in this moment, Lewis argues, transforms or abolishes our future. It this incisive work, Lewis asserts that, “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means…the power of some men to make other men what THEY please.”
Shall I include a children’s book in this year’s list? Yes, I think I should. I read and deeply enjoyed the amusing tale of a real cat that lives at the Birmingham Oratory, Pushkin the Pontifical Puss: Tails of an Oratory Cat. While in England this summer, I met Father Anton Guziel, CO, who is the owner of adorable Pushkin and the author of this entertaining tale of Pushkin’s meeting with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who like me is a cat lover. Read this to your children—read this to your friends.
Last on my list of the best books I read in 2017 is another work by the Anglo-Catholic novelist, Barbara Pym. Pym’s No Fond Return of Love has a somewhat slow start, but midway through the narrative her witty and shrewd insights into life and humanity erupt into a series of delightful dialogues that make one wish she or he was in Oxford drinking tea near an herbaceous border with the distant sound of change ringing sweetening the air. In one of Pym’s most perceptive remarks, she quipped, “There are some things too dreadful to be revealed, and it is even more dreadful how, in spite of our better instincts, we long to know about them.” Perhaps next year I’ll spend more time reading and less time keeping watch over the latest buzz in world news.
I write this year’s list while families gather on the city streets outside the windows of my downtown loft; fathers on long coats, hats, and scarves, and mothers with young children in arms stop to stare into display windows. Advent has begun and the Nativity is approaching. May 2019 bring us all solace and the tenderness of “joyful sorrow” that evokes a sense of expectation, for Christ is born, and has conquered all sorrow.
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University.
Father Seán Connolly:
This past year I discovered the works of Mother Mary Loyola, an English convert and sister who served for a time as headmistress and Mother Superior of Bar Convent School in York, one of the finest in England. Her exceptional teaching ability was recognized and she was encouraged to write. Her works became very popular, making her a household name among Catholics of her time. But as times changed after her death in 1930, her books fell out of use and print. St. Augustine Academy Press is a small family apostolate located in the Chicago area, dedicated to finding and republishing out-of-print classics of Catholic literature. Their special focus is the work of Mother Loyola. They have gone to great lengths to make her life and works known again. I have benefitted tremendously from these efforts in my own discovering of Mother Loyola this past year. Her works are especially brilliant catechesis for the young, but can truly benefit readers of all ages. My personal favorite is her rendition of the Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth: The Story of His Life Simply Told. This version of the life of Christ is told wonderfully with the most vivid images that draw the reader into each scene. Her pious anecdotes that may be unknown to many readers are sure to provide deeper insight and plenty of inspiration. The most common word in the gospels used to describe the reaction of the crowds to Our Lord’s words and works is “thauma,” that is, “wonder” or “awe.” No version of the life of Christ has instilled this sentiment within me as much as Mother Loyola’s.
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.
David P. Deavel:
Let’s get my shameless plug out of the way. People compliment Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, which I edit and to which you should subscribe, for being a substantive intellectual and academic journal filled with readable and even stylish prose. One reason for that is our managing editor, Elizabeth M. Kelly, who is a writer herself. Her prizewinning Jesus Approaches is aimed at women but equally powerful and helpful for men in understanding women (and also understanding themselves). I found reading it the same year I read Lorenzo Scupoli’s classic and “masculine” Spiritual Combat made for a very balanced approach to discipleship.
Other books provided spiritual substance that helped explain our age. Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity diagnoses the reign of secular religion, even in the Church, in a startling way. His balanced criticism of Pope Francis meshes well with the reportage and analysis in Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church and Henry Sire’s The Dictator Pope, both eye-opening books in different ways.
Orestes Brownson, to whom Mahoney points as a resource, provides meaty reflections on political and ecclesial life in Richard Reinsch’s fine anthology of 18 seminal essays titled Seeking the Truth. My colleague Christopher J. Thompson provides his own ethically sourced meat in his meditative arguments for care of creation in The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism. And Father Gregory Jensen’s The Cure for Consumerism provides clarity on a disease that bothers rich and poor alike (hint: the cure is found in asceticism).
Though he wasn’t a theologian, the passing of Tom Wolfe made me turn back to his richly detailed portraits of the follies and glories of our age in his first novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and his turn-of-the-millennium essay collection titled Hooking Up. His gimlet eye was and remains useful for looking at where we are.
Soon-to-be Saint John Henry Newman continued to provide vision for me as well, as did some very good books on him. Ryan J. Marr’s To Be Perfect is to Have Changed Often examined Newman’s ecclesiological development, showing how he balanced infinite reverence for the Church with a clear eye about its failures and abuses. Kei Uno’s Japanese Catholic Intellectuals and Newman Studies showed how Newman influenced—and could have influenced more!—Catholic thought in the Land of the Rising Sun. Finally, I read an advance copy of a wonderful book on Newman and Aquinas by the brilliant theologian Reinhard Hütter—look for it next year, I hope.
Other great lives to ponder included the Problem Called Maria and her family, via Agathe (the real eldest child) von Trapp’s Memories Before and After The Sound of Music. Waiting for Snow in Havana was the sometimes angry, weird, grateful, and Catholic remembering of Carlos Eire growing up in and then leaving Cuba because of Castro. Brad Birzer’s Russell Kirk: An American Life brought home the glorious Catholic mind of an American original whose thought is experiencing a deserved rediscovery. And I’m well into the parliamentary career of a lady who was truly iron in Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands.
In addition to Wolfe, my fiction included The End of the Battle, volume three of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy. Newman said few writers could end well; Waugh ends tremendously. The other favorites were also oldies: Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park gave laughter and wisdom. Finally, for sheer hilarity, nothing tops P.G. Wodehouse. My favorite is whatever I just read. Joy in the Morning was it this time.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).
Adam A.J. DeVille:
My friend, the Orthodox scholar Nicholas Denysenko, has just written the definitive history of what has been going on recently in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. His superb The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation should be required reading before anyone dares to comment on a complex situation. I interviewed him about it here.
Carlos Dominguez-Morano’s Belief After Freud: Religious Faith Through the Crucible of Psychoanalysis is a stunning book just published in English after going through five editions in Spanish. The author is a Jesuit theologian and psychoanalyst. He deserves a wide anglophone audience for his book is the most unapologetically theological engagement of Freud I have encountered in the quarter-century I’ve been reading such books. It offers many welcome challenges to a Church staggering under corrupt leaders and ideas.
Ashley Purpura’s God, Hierarchy, and Power: Orthodox Theologies of Authority from Byzantium is important and timely for all the reasons I noted in my interview with her.
Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide, Vol I. The older I get the more I loathe contemporary books in the “spirituality” category for their candy-floss “options” comforting the bourgeoisie. Maggie Ross, an English solitary, is a kindred spirit in this regard, for she says modern notions of spirituality and mystical experience are covers for “voyeurism and self-aggrandizement.” Our task of silently beholding God requires no “consumer circus” of gimmicks or gurus: “modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the ‘directee’ become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined ‘spiritual life’ instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other.”
A similarly no-nonsense figure I finally read this year is the late English Dominican Herbert McCabe, whose God, Christ, and Us contains very useful discussions of prayer and much else. McCabe’s on-going attraction for me, in this season of endless corruption in the Church, is summed up in his Law, Love, and Language, where he says: “Like Peter and the 12 we remain Christians because there is nowhere else to go: if Christianity is not the revolution, nothing else is.”
I did not expect to so thoroughly enjoy David Kynaston’s massive Austerity Britain, 1945-1951, but I did thanks to a compelling narrative as well as its very sobering insights into what my Glaswegian grandparents lived through. Now I understand why, having been half-frozen and half-starved during and after the war, they emigrated to Canada, heated their home to an unbearable 85 degrees, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes like mad, and applied masses of butter, cream, and sugar to almost everything!
John Bew’s Clement Atlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain is fascinating, showing many charming characteristics of a vastly under-rated figure overshadowed by Churchill.
A second British biography I enjoyed is John Sutherland’s Fairbairn’s Journey into the Interior, about W.R.D. Fairbairn, a Scottish psychoanalyst significantly motivated by his Christian faith.
Other works in psychoanalysis this year included Todd McGowan’s utterly compelling Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. For anyone concerned about how capitalism covertly colonizes the Christian mind, perverting our understandings of asceticism and Catholic social teaching alike, this book is enormously insightful.
Paul Roazen’s Meeting Freud’s Family is an endearing book based on his interviews from the 1960s onwards with the remaining children and other relations of the great man. For all the hoary portraits of Freud as some kind of atheistic revolutionary, his family life in Vienna was remarkably conservative and convivial, with everyone gathering daily for the main meal and wide-ranging conversation. How many of us pull that off today?
Adam A.J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy at the University of St. Francis, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
William Doino, Jr.:
My favorite books of the year were decidedly eclectic: a major biography of a great Catholic saint; a terrific defense of the Church’s Marian beliefs; a father and son’s intertwining memoirs about a crisis now devastating America; and a great novel by an underrated Catholic writer.
The biography is Elizabeth Seton: American Saint by Catherine O’Donnell. Mother Seton is widely known as the first American-born saint—but that’s all most people do seem to know about her. O’Donnell’s biography—meticulously researched and years in the making (it exceeds 500 pages)—thankfully remedies that. The book recounts Seton’s remarkable life as a wife, mother, young widow and Catholic convert, and, finally, foundress of the Sisters of Charity. Movingly written and faithful to Seton’s vibrant vision for the Church in America, O’Donnell has written a superb biography that deserves all the accolades it has been receiving.
Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject. Pitre is a rising young authority in the world of Catholic scholarship, and his new work will make him even more admired. Through a careful and richly informed study of the Bible, Pitre shows how Catholic teachings on Mary are not only grounded in the New Testament, but, especially, the Old—a fact that other scholars have often and inexplicably overlooked. If you need a robust, convincing, and up-to-date defense of the Catholic Church’s teachings on Mary—particularly if you want to answer a Bible-quoting friend who disputes those teachings—this is the book to read, and offer as a gift.
In preparation for a review of the acclaimed film, Beautiful Boy, based on the memoirs of David and Nic Sheff—about the latter’s struggle with a fierce drug addiction—I read David’s memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, as well as Nic’s, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, both bestsellers when they originally appeared. A word of caution: neither book is written from a Catholic perspective (and sometimes, far from it)—but both are extremely powerful, and do reveal basic truths about the human condition compatible with a Christian outlook, including the depths of parental love, and a refusal to give up even in our darkest hours. Just as important is the Sheffs’ ability to shed real light and understanding on an epidemic now threatening to engulf America.
George Bernanos, the French Catholic writer, is best known for his novel, Diary of a Country Priest (also made into a great film). But he wrote many other outstanding works, and among them is one of his early novels, Joy. Recently re-published by Cluny Media, with an excellent introduction, Joy is a study of a young woman, Chantal, who exemplifies holiness and finds authentic joy in her faith—two admirable goals for any serious Christian. But she is surrounded by people who are unstable and even wicked: they resent her purity and gratitude to God, and so try to undermine her at every turn—much like today’s secularists try to shake committed Christians. Joy thus depicts the great spiritual battles being waged every day, within the souls of men and women—serving both as a warning, yet also an inspiration, for those striving to be holy in our own tumultuous times.
William Doino, Jr. has written about religion, history, and culture for many publications, including First Things, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and America.
Thomas M. Doran:
I didn’t think a novel with the themes and craftsmanship of A Gentleman in Moscow could receive mass-market publication today. The best new novel I’ve read in many years.
I re-read several novels this year: The Lord of The Rings, limiting myself to two pages a day (even smaller things make a big impression), accompanied by Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-Earth; and Around the World in Eighty Days. We’re so familiar with this story, we can overlook Verne’s brilliant idea for having the most calculating, predictable man in the world instantaneously and willingly subject himself to the unpredictability of 19th century travel.
Reading stories to my grandsons that can be enjoyed by adults on a different plane. This year, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (virtue!) and Winnie the Pooh (growing up, and everything accompanying this passage).
Years ago, I watched Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and remember thinking Hollywood had juiced up the story for audience appeal. This year, I read the book and learned the film doesn’t tell the half of it. What those men did and built with next to nothing, while being watched and dogged by their guards, is a testament to man’s ingenuity and spirit.
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam and its 2018 sequel The Lucifer Ego.
As I look over the books I read in 2018, I realize that another year has come and gone where I did not read as much fiction as I would have liked. There is always next year! Still, two pieces of fiction that I read (or reread) made me laugh. A lot.
The first was The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. I’m embarrassed to say that before this year, I’d never picked up Wodehouse. That changed after reading Catholic World Report’s 2017 Best Books list, in which my friend Jared Ortiz extolled the virtues of Wodehouse’s Jeeves. The riotous adventures of the bumbling Betram Wooster and his genius valet, Jeeves, are as fresh today as they were when Wodehouse first began writing them over a century ago. They were a nice escape after a hard day’s work.
What do you get when you combine a neurotic graduate student, the Church’s teaching on contraception, and academic politics? The hilarious novel, The British Museum is Falling Down, by David Lodge. I reread the book this year and it cemented its place as one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The novel tells the story of one day in the life of Adam Appleby, a struggling literature graduate student. Appleby and his wife are practicing Catholics, grudgingly following the Church’s prohibition on contraception. Appleby’s wife may or may not be pregnant—yet again—and Appleby’s dissertation is woefully behind. From those starting points, a hysterical novel springs.
This year I finished Robert Royal’s magisterial A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century. That this book has not gotten more press is a deep shame, because it is a tour de force that combines genuine insights with clear writing. The terrain Royal covers is vast and includes philosophy, theology, scripture studies, and the Catholic Literary Revival. This is a great book for theological survey courses but also for the layman looking to grow in his knowledge of the 20th century Church.
Another book I read this year, Tracey Rowland’s Catholic Theology, complements Royal’s book nicely. Rowland gives an overview of the dominant modes in Catholic theology today. I benefited greatly from Rowland’s Ratzinger’s Faith, and this book was equally edifying. It is wonderful to be led by a great teacher.
This year I also returned to Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More. This book is not only one of the best biographies I have ever read; it is, quite simply, one of the best books I have ever read. You see, hear, taste, and feel the London of More’s time through Ackroyd’s storytelling and incredible prose. St. Thomas More becomes more human and, indeed, more Catholic in Ackroyd’s expert hands.
I also reread—only a few years after it first came out—Robert Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith. This is a modern spiritual classic. Long after debates concerning footnotes and private letters have subsided and been forgotten, this book will still be remembered and treasured.
This year I also read my first Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginnners. Why did I wait so long? Sheed is brilliant. His ability to distill the dense and complex into the digestible and understandable is amazing.
Finally, just before submitting this list, I finished D.C. Schindler’s Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Run, don’t walk, to buy this book. Schindler is a great teacher whose project is to clear the fog of modern life and reconnect his reader with reality in its fullness. This is one of the most profound books I have ever read.
Conor Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
E. Christian Brugger, The Indissolubility of Marriage & The Council of Trent (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017).
This is an impressive historical study of the behind the scene discussions at the Council of Trent on the indissolubility of marriage. Prof. Brugger provides a compelling case for recognizing that Trent did indeed define the indissolubility of marriage and not merely the Church’s authority over the sacrament.
The Cardinal Müller Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017).
Cardinal Müller’s interview with Father Carlos Granados is filled with many great insights and much hope for the future of the Church. The one unfortunate element is the Cardinal’s rejection of the Marian title “coredemptrix” as a false exaggeration. Such a rejection seems difficult to sustain in light of the Holy See’s approvals of prayers invoking Mary as coredemptrix during the pontificate of St. Pius X and the multiple uses of the title by Pius XI and St. John Paul II.
Rocco Buttiglione, Risposte amichevoli ai critici di Amoris Laetitia (Milano: Edizioni Ares, 2017).
This book contains a brilliant introductory essay by Cardinal Müller and many perceptive insights by Prof. Buttiglione. It enters into the true intentions of Pope Francis, and it shows that many of the critics of the exhortation fail to understand its deeper meaning.
Father Stefano Manelli, F.I. Blessed John Duns Scotus: Marian Doctor (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2011).
This book shows the deep spiritual side of Blessed John Duns Scotus and his constant devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God. It provides papal testimonies to the holiness of the great Franciscan theologian.
Marilyn H. Fedewa, María of Ágreda, Mystical Lady in Blue (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009).
This is a well-researched and well-written biography of the Franciscan Sor María of Ágreda (1602–1665), the author of the Mystical City of God. It covers Sor María’s visits as the “Lady in Blue” to the Native Americans via bilocation in what is today the US southwest.
Gloria Falcão Dodd, 2012. The Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace: History and Theology of the Movement for a Dogmatic Definition from 1896 to 1964 (New Bedford MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2012).
Dr. Dodd’s book provides much valuable information about the movement to have Mary proclaimed the Mediatrix of all grace. The volume covers the arguments for and against such a proclamation and highlights the efforts of Cardinal Mercier of Belgium.
Mark Miravalle, “With Jesus”: The Story of Mary Co-redemptrix (Goleta CA: Queenship Publishing, 2003).
This book is an invaluable resource for those unfamiliar with the history of Mary Co-redemptrix.
Msgr. Arthur Burton Calkins, Totus Tuus: Pope St. John Paul II’s Program of Marian Consecration and Entrustment Second Edition (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2017).
Msgr. Calkins provides many insights on the Marian theology of St. John Paul II, and he explains the history and meaning of Marian consecration.
José Pereira, Suárez: Between Scholasticism and Modernity (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2007).
Prof. Pereira (1931–2015) provides compelling reasons for rejecting Gilson’s description of Suárez as an “essentialist.”
Father Christiaan Kappes, The Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While John Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas & Mark Eugenicus Professed the Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2014).
This study is an impressive work of original scholarship written by someone with a profound knowledge of the original Greek Byzantine sources.
Dr. Robert Fastiggi is professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Father Charles Fox:
I have always enjoyed reading, but have not always been a dedicated reader of the classics. Therefore, much of my reading since I entered the seminary in 2000 has been devoted to making up for lost time in this respect. I am also an avid re-reader of old favorites, and seldom turn to newly published books. My program of reading—one I try to pass on to the seminarians I teach—is to have at least one book of theology, one of spirituality, and a book in some other genre (fiction, poetry, history, etc.) going at any given time.
Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott. Blessed John Henry Newman credited Scott for promoting enthusiasm for the Middle Ages during the Victorian era. Scott’s novel about King Richard the Lionheart, his trusted knight Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and his familiar band of Merry Men, and some of the major themes of early-Medieval England (e.g., the ongoing rivalry between the Saxons and their Normal conquerors) make for a rousing literary visit to an age of glory, chivalry, brutality, and dedication to God and country.
Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, P.G. Wodehouse. If I were to add a fourth category to my list of kinds of books always to be reading, I would create a separate category for the works of P.G. Wodehouse, particularly his “Jeeves” series. Never was such beautiful English prose expended on such seemingly inconsequential stories. And yet the reader of depth and sensitivity (so this reader imagines) will discover that there are treasures to be discovered in the bromidic adventures of Bertie Wooster: joy, the interplay of order and disorder, the last vestiges of a truly Christian culture, and self-sacrificial loyalty to one’s family and friends.
Inferno, Dante, translated by Anthony Esolen. I had read the Dorothy Sayers translation of Dante’s Inferno many years ago, and profited both by Esolen’s excellent translation (at least, it seems excellent to me, but I’m far from an Italian scholar) and his thorough and deeply insightful literary, philosophical, and theological notes.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. Doerr’s prose is as elegant and evocative as that of P.G. Wodehouse, though the plot of this World War Two-era novel is of a very different mood from that of a Wodehouse novel. The story involves the intersecting lives of a blind French girl exiled from Paris to a seaside town and a young German soldier, whose scientific interests and sensitivity make him an unlikely Nazi warrior. The tale is at once tragic and hopeful.
St. Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton. A re-read of an old favorite. It’s the kind of book one could fruitfully re-read every year.
Guide for Confessors, St. Alphonsus Liguori. A helpful preparation for teaching a course on the sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick.
Sackett, by Louis L’Amour. I grew up reading Louis L’Amour’s Western novels, and it was a great pleasure to revisit one of them in the late summer.
Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope. The second novel in Trollope’s famed Chronicles of Barsetshire, this is a wonderful study of ecclesial life (in the Victorian-era Church of England) and human nature. A delight.
The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, by Anthony Korb (2015). We all know that depression and anxiety seem to be ubiquitous these days. This book blends scientific insights with practical advice about reversing one’s “downward spiral” into depression (anxiety is also treated) not through any single, decisive act, but by means of many smaller steps that work in tandem to get a person’s life and psychological health moving in the right direction. A useful book for those engaged in pastoral counseling (with the caveat that the insight we gain from such books does not preempt the need people often have for competent, properly trained psychological and medical professionals).
Father Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin:
A Bloody Habit, by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson—Dominican vampire slayers. Hilarious prose. I reviewed it here.
M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary—surprisingly scary (but genteel) classic ghost stories. Where has this author been all my life? Am reading the sequel now…
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables—I usually read this gothic novel about once a year. Still delicious. If you want more Hawthorne you can check out my anthology of Hawthorne’s short fiction.
Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life—a beautiful biography of one of my favorite American writers. For my take on Thoreau, you can read my piece on him over at the Wall Street Journal.
John J. Miller’s Reading Around—a must-have collection of essays for booklovers. Catholic journalist Miller writes on everything from H.P. Lovecraft to The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and assistant professor of English at Hillsdale College.
Timothy J. Gordon:
My three most 2018-instructive books were Father Louis Bouyer’s The Word, Church, and Sacraments in Protestantism and Catholicism (Ignatius Press), Antonio Socci’s The Fourth Secret of Fatima (Loreto Publications) and the Book of Exodus in Sacred Scripture.
In an epoch in which one stalks the halls fervidly searching for an honest positive remark about the postconciliar Church—especially about the recent Church equipoise respecting Catholic-Protestant ecumenism—Father Bouyer furnishes something substantial in The Word, Church, and Sacraments. Seeking to “foster unity and deeper understanding among Christians” is something typically paired with romanita’, the modern Catholic impulse to pull punches diplomatically and thereby to mute the superiority of our own patrimony. But not in Father Bouyer’s little book.
In the first of three sections, Father Bouyer begins with ecumenical-sounding indicia pointing up plenty of remaining Scriptural unity within Christendom subsequent to 1517; he is friendly but fairly so. In the second section, on the authority of the Church, Father Bouyer opens up a bit on the anti-magisterial weaknesses of Protestant approaches to Scripture. The reader quickly sees that this is not the usual Church-masochism piffle of the obsequious Seventies or Eighties. It turns out, Father Bouyer converted from Protestantism for a real and lasting reason. And in his third section on the sacraments, his jabs become straight overhand rights as those reasons for his conversion clarify and sharpen into devastating sacramental arguments against the Reformation rejection of the Church. What is Christianity without the sacraments? one cannot help but wonder. And without the entire Catholic apparatus, why does a Protestant bother with the perfunctory, ambivalent rhetoric about the sacraments at all?
In all, the book is both a great primer for the study of sacramental theology, not to mention a great apologetical handbook.
Given his precise, dispassionate handling of his book’s explosive content, Mr. Antonio Socci has become one of my very favorite Italian public intellectuals. The Fourth Secret of Fatima makes repeated reference to an undisclosed second part of the third secret given to the seer Sr. Lucia dos Santos by the Virgin Mary in Portugal in 1917. And yet the book carries forth none of the National Enquirer-esque sense of kaffeeklatch borne by books with similar themes about Fatima.
With The Fourth Secret of Fatima—a book in which Socci initially set out counterfactually to disprove the “Fatimists” but upon research, wound up embracing their point of view—it is best to say what the book does not attempt to accomplish. This factual account of the chronology of the Church’s handling of the contentious third part of the Fatima secret (especially in the years between 1960 and 2000) does not smear high Vatican officials, speculate about unknowable unknowns, or engage in fatuous gossip. (What it does is analyze undisputed facts surrounding Fatima and connect logical dots that contradict the account of the Third Secret offered by Cardinal Bertone in 2000.)
The sum of Socci’s well-premised mini-conclusions will surprise even the most cynical—and the most skeptical—reader. Over a decade after its original publication, one is left wanting a sequel to the book summarizing Socci’s research.
Finally, most readers will be familiar enough with the Book of Exodus. What it may lack in narrative form, it makes up for in typological content. Every Christian understands that the events of the Exodus merely “tee up” Christ’s soteriological Exodus: while Moses freed the Israelites from the material bondage of Egyptian dominion, Jesus freed all the world from suffering, sickness, and death—the ontological ramifications of sin.
I read Exodus in conjunction with the “Exodus 90” program of fasting, exercise, and self-denial, which I recommend to all. God bless your Christmastide and Year of Our Lord, 2019!
Timothy J. Gordon resides in central California with his wife and five children, where he writes and teaches philosophy and theology.
The single best book I read this year was The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is set in a post-Arthurian Britain still inhabited by the occasional dragon and wandering knight, and covered in a mysterious mist that makes everyone within it forget. There haven’t been many days since I finished this book last spring in which some image or scene or line of dialogue hasn’t come to my mind. It is about memory and vengeance and guilt, but also love and forgiveness. And there’s one scene with the most terrifying pixies…
Another great read was Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster, by filmmaker and naturalist David Attenborough. It’s a history of the early years of BBC television as much as it is Attenborough’s own story, and it details the practical, physical, and financial hurdles involved in making the nature documentaries that have earned the BBC much acclaim. Look up clips from Attenborough’s specials from the 1960s on YouTube and compare them with today’s Planet Earth or Blue Planet—the technological advancements are amazing.
Another book I enjoyed on media from days gone by was American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. Smith was a Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter whose columns span four decades and cover some of the great moments of 20th-century sports with wit, insight, and a beautiful economy of words. His baseball columns—on Dizzy Dean and Joe DiMaggio and Connie Mack and many more—are particularly wonderful, especially at this all-football-all-the-time part of the year.
Two books that go together very nicely are The Catholic All Year Compendium, by Kendra Tierney, and Around the Year with the von Trapp Family, by Maria von Trapp. The former was published this year (I interviewed Tierney about the book for CWR); the latter was originally published in 1955 and has been re-issued by Sophia Institute Press. Von Trapp’s book lovingly describes Old-World customs following the liturgical year, as well as the ways her family adapted many of them when they immigrated to the United States and began touring the country with their musical act. Tierney’s book builds on that same mindset of remembering how the liturgical year was observed in the home by previous generations, and looking for practical ways for families to keep those traditions alive (and also to introduce some new ones as well). You don’t need to have your own chapel in your house (yes, both these ladies have their own chapels in their houses) to find inspiration and encouragement in these books.
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.
There has been a plethora of books released since the 2016 election that have sought to describe the current American social and political scene. Neither the political left nor right have agreed on much of anything over the last few decades, until now. Many of the authors of these new books, be they conservative or liberal, at least share one thing in common: they are turning to the same source for guidance, namely, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America reveals itself as a standing pillar of analysis and prescription amid the radical shifts in the democratic age. Tocqueville foresaw that exhaustion, in all its varied forms, could likely overwhelm democratic citizens. Such a condition of soul would more than likely push citizens either to flounder about aimlessly and viciously into the world (“activism”), or to retreat within themselves. Oscillating back and forth between these two poles, according to Tocqueville, pushes democratic citizens to increase their love, not for freedom, but for equality. He feared that we would be so fatigued that we would even take slavery as our lot, so long as we were equal.
Without the existential realization of needing other persons to form and ground our lives, American citizens risk falling into what Tocqueville called “soft despotism.” And when we read stories like the one described in this New York Times op-ed, we hopefully see that Tocqueville’s description and prescription for our time needs to be continually in the forefront of our minds.
The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations of a Free Society by Ryzard Legutko
Two somewhat strange social phenomena seem to be taking place in America. On the one hand, there is the rise of second-generation immigrants who are seeking to return home to their once totalitarian-occupied homelands. And secondly, there is continual praise for the growing Chinese economy and its aim towards prosperity, while still being a Communist country. How can these two features be understood?
The political philosopher and politician Ryzard Legutko’s book is capable of doing just that. Legutko sees in modern liberal democracy a subtle, yet real, overlap with the Communism he experienced in Poland. The totalitarian and technocratic tendencies of modern democracy have convinced more (certainly not all) second-generation immigrants that perhaps America is not as safe as they once believed. Additionally, the difficulty of seeing human beings in predominantly quantitative and procedural terms provides a framework to look at a nation’s GDP as the most significant indicator of its health. Legutko’s book provides a much-needed lens by which we can see such startling realities in their proper light.
Brian Jones the Coordinator of Liturgy at St. Anthony of Padua in the Woodlands, Texas. He is also a philosophy PhD student in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
My usual beats are international relations, political geography (with a focus on Russia), and whatever catches my eye in American culture.
Black Wind, White Snow by Charles Glover (Yale University Press, 2016) examines the efforts in the Putin era to form a new answer to the question “Who are we?” The old answer, “We are Soviets, harbingers of world revolution” no longer being operative, some new communal identification linking masses to the regime is imperative. Thus the old term “Eurasian” has taken on a new significance in this matter, but as a key to Russian self-identity it has an old history. Glover traces this history, starting from post-Bolshevik revolutionary times, when the rejection of Leninism as alien to the Russian soul kindled among certain surviving elements of Tsarist, “White Russian” society a low flame of resistance. This belief in a special Russianness rooted in a semi-mystical amalgam of Slav, Mongol (Tatar), and numerous smaller steppe tribal groups was a dangerous sentiment to hold in Stalinist times. It survived only in underground literary circles and among some of the military ranks. It has reemerged in the career of Alexander Dugin, the shadowy polymath eminence grise of Putinist think-tank circles. Dugin’s writing and lecturing, in classic Russian tradition, draw on contemporary European thought, resulting in a shape-shifting hybrid post-modernism. Putin has publicly urged his followers to read Dugin, and he himself uses Dugin’s terminology in his speeches. “Eurasianism” for Dugin is the core of Russian “exceptionalism,” and his vitriolic attacks on Western liberalism have earned him the (sort of) jocular title of “The Cyril and Methodius of Russian Fascism.”
Robert D. Kaplan, author of 18 books on foreign affairs, demonstrates, year after year, his prescience for shifts in the global struggle for power. Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (Random House, 2014) surveys the nations of the “cauldron” of the title, illustrating their clashing political, economic, and cultural interests. With surging China as the sun of this watery galaxy, the reader quickly sees why already several US administrations have fixated on this geopolitical cockpit. In Kaplan’s The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century (Random House, 2018), which is a collection of his essays from The Atlanticmagazine, he sees parallels between power shifts of the 13th century and those of today: a fracturing Europe, a Chinese “Belt and Road” system that seeks to revive the old Silk Road that connected Asia and Europe, with the added stress of a declining American ability to shape events. Which leads me to my next recommended book, John Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Yale University Press, 2018). Here is a clear warning for liberal polities such as our own: if we make our liberal ideals the heart of our foreign policy, we of necessity are setting ourselves up for failure abroad and a weakening of our domestic liberalism as well. In Mearsheimer’s analysis, when exported liberalism arouses, inevitably, the national pride of the target state, liberalism must yield.
Finally, I returned to an “oldie” that has turned out to have legs in cultural analysis. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking Penguin, 1985), by Neil Postman. The book, which made quite a splash when first published, alerted Americans to the debilitating effects of the “new” media (it was television then) on the wider culture. The penetration of entertainment values into every facet of our society is widely noted now. But if the “medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan established, we now are experiencing something akin to his insight “on steroids,” as they say. With the Internet, the unanticipated consequences of the digital revolution have impacted every sector of our experience. From sexting to hacking to the dumbing down of discourse to virtual reality and on and on, we are truly experiencing in “real time” a profound explosion of change, at once astounding and unnerving. Much has been and will be written about this, but Postman’s book raised the warning flag over 30 years ago. Merry Christmas!
Joseph Kremers is a political scientist who taught political ideologies, international relations, and Soviet/Russian studies in Oregon for 28 years.
Timothy D. Lusch:
My ratio of books acquired to books read will end up being approximately 20:1. If it were anything else, it might be obnoxious. Or a diagnosis. The only saving grace is that my wife loves books as much as I do so she never objects to more and more and more and… She does, however—like Lt. Commander Jo Galloway in A Few Good Men—“strenuously object” to piles of books on floors and furniture.
I read three volumes of Donald Hall’s essays (Life Work, Essays After Eighty, A Carnival of Losses). Chiefly a poet, I enjoy his prose more. He writes about New England ancestors, baseball, getting old, work, and interesting people he has known. He writes of daily life (a “bliss of sameness”) with his wife, poet Jane Kenyon (whose poetry I prefer). Nostalgia, humor, and grief give the essays a texture not often found in essayists today. All of life is here.
Keeping with memoir-ish writing, I finally read Michael Herr’s Dispatches. These vignettes of his work as an investigative journalist embedded with American units in Vietnam are trippy, nightmarish, hilarious, and devastating. His coverage of the battle of Hue, by turns ghastly and ghostly, is unlike anything else. All of life is here, too. Only weirder. And darker.
Not much for danger myself, I like to read about it. In the middle of Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015, an ordinary freighter ran smack into an extraordinary storm. The results, you can imagine, were not good. But the drama that unfolded in the crew’s final 24 hours was captured by the ship’s black box recorder. It recorded the conversations of the officers and crew on the ship’s bridge until the end. The transcript is riveting. And terribly sad. Rachel Slade’s Into the Raging Sea and George Michelson Foy’s Run the Storm are magnificent. The former moves at breakneck speed, while Foy’s book dives deeper into the stories of the crew and the cascade of failures leading up to El Faro’s demise.
When not reading stories of real danger, I read stories about imagined danger. Both Louis L’Amour’s High Lonesome and Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda fit the bill nicely. Both are slim books that read quickly. And the bad guys get it in the end.
Two biographies I thoroughly enjoyed were Lightfoot, Nicholas Jennings’s life of Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, and Jeffrey Lee’s God’s Wolf, a rollicking ride into the world of the famed crusader Reynald de Chatillon. Regarding a crusade of a different sort, I read Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. It pairs very well with George Weigel’s book of essays, The Fragility of Order. Both should be on every Catholic’s Christmas list.
The book I’m really proud of reading is Fr. Augustine Wetta’s Humility Rules. It is pithy, witty, and funny. It is also effective. One doesn’t gain humility from it, but it is impossible not to recognize the opportunities to practice humility after reading it. It gives sight to the blind.
The Bizarro Book Award goes to Czeslaw Milosz’s The Mountain of Parnassus. Poet, essayist, and philosopher of human freedom, Milosz takes a shot at science fiction. It remained unpublished until very late in his life. It is episodic and oracular, but not incoherent. “The Cardinal’s Testament” is remarkable. It can be read, oddly enough, alongside Douthat and Weigel.
Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer.
Lauren Enk Mann:
One Beautiful Dream by Jen Fulwiler. Writing again in an autobiographical format, Fulwiler here explores the struggle many women face when married life and children seem to leave their creative talents stuck on the back burner of life. Less explicitly related to Catholicism than her first book about her conversion from atheism (Something Other than God), One Beautiful Dream seeks a broader appeal. Fulwiler tells of her own experience finding her gifts as a writer amidst back-to-back pregnancies and financial struggles. While the book is more likely to spur discussion than provide a blueprint of action, Fulwiler’s main thesis is that anyone (man or woman) will find more fulfillment and happiness in their daily duties if they seek an appropriate outlet, within the context of their family and vocation, to pursue the particular creative gifts God gave them—their “blue flame,” as she calls it—and in fact make that a part of their family’s life and goals.
On the Other Side of Fear by Hallie Lord. Episodic and anecdotal in style, held together by theme rather than story arc, Lord’s book is essentially a collection of stories drawn from her personal experience that illustrate the vanity and emptiness of anxiety and God’s faithfulness to His promises. Warm and personable, Lord approaches the topic of anxiety and fear from a variety of angles, her experiences ranging from complex life decisions that span years to single-afternoon adventures. The result is an encouraging and pleasant read, perhaps too sentimental for some, but it makes its point effectively and enjoyably.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Notable both for its unusual setting (a tiny community in the English Channel recovering from World War II) and its uncommon format (an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters), the story looks lovingly at the joy to be found in closely-knit small communities and the beauty of letter-writing relationships. Shaffer and Barrows have achieved a largely inoffensive and appealing tale that is a joy to read and genuinely feels like it belongs in the late 1940s. With a memorable plot and artfully drawn characters, the story also offers a sobering and intimate portrait of European recovery from World War II, a topic often neglected by American depictions of the period.
Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy. Existentialist satire of the best sort. Even those unhampered by existential angst will find food for thought and reason to laugh at Percy’s pointed skewering of modern self-absorption and resulting emptiness. I recommend (as does Percy, actually) skipping the lengthy digression on semiotics in the middle of the book unless the nitty-gritty linguistics of modern philosophy happen to be one of your hobbies.
Bonus current reading list:
The Fisherman’s Tomb by John O’Neill. Intriguing account of the characters behind the archaeological dig that uncovered the bones of St. Peter beneath the Vatican.
To Raise the Fallen, ed. by Patrick Kenny. Selected letters and writings of Father Willie Doyle, a heroic and saintly Irish chaplain who died in World War I.
Lauren Enk Mann is a freelance editor residing in Northern Virginia.
Joseph F. Martin:
Ali, by Wilfrid Sheed, Newman and His Age by Sheridan Giley, and Rebel for the Hell of It: Tupac Shakur, by Armond White. Three books by three terrific writers on three very different sorts of fighters. Walter J. Ong, SJ’s Fighting for Life supplied the context for all that aggression.
Three others that proved an assist as I waded through the Old Testament’s Book of Job: Edward Kissane’s sturdy out-of-print Catholic commentary, Oswald Chamber’s Baffled to Fight Better, and Father George Rutler’s The Impatience of Job. (Also predictably good was G.K. Chesterton’s essay on the Man from Uz).
My ongoing attempt to disambiguate competing Evangelical and Catholic identities led to reading lots of theology—stuff that might be “interesting if you’re the sort of person who’s interested in that sort of thing.” Henri De Lubac, SJ’s Scripture and Tradition and Timothy Ward’s more recent Words of Lifeboth seemed to integrate older ideas about verbal inspiration with insights crystalized by modern communication theory. Beguiling hat tricks both.
Catholics and Evangelicals: Do They Share a Common Future? was a hardly-noticed but encouraging ecumenical anthology by another Jesuit named Thomas P. Rausch. Much breezier was layman Peter J. Kreeft’s Catholics and Evangelicals, which in sparked a reappreciation of Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit & Forms of Protestantism. That one’s on my personal list of best books ever, despite a cumbersome title—a better one would be What Was Right (and Wrong) About the Reformation. James T. O’Connor’s The Hidden Manna, another contemporary classic, reminded me of what also remains very right about Rome. The forward to that last one, written by a deceased cardinal, prompted me to check out Nat Hentoff’s John Cardinal O’Connor. I was glad I did.
Other arresting reads…
My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, by Macy Halford, an oddball pairing in which a writer for The New Yorker pays tribute to Oswald Chambers, Evangelicalism’s low-flying literary gadfly.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, by Mark Yarm, which renewed my determination to visit Seattle.
Robert Browning and His World, by Maisie Ward, and Mother Teresa: Holiness in the Dark, by J.I. Packer, two works whose authors wrote as deftly as they believed.
The Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict XVI, which gave me permission to finally believe in all the merry details of Christmas I’d been told most certainly never happened.
Looking Backward at Us, by William Raspberry, a collection of columns by a Washington Post journalist who dignified the calling of a city journalist.
A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, edited by James Rosen, and Soul Survivor: A Biography by Jimmy McDonough, because who can touch William F. Buckley or Al Green?
Joshua Hedley’s Mr. Jukebox. The perfect Countrypolitan revival.
A searing Chris Cornell project. The perfect posthumous tribute, with 64 songs proving the boxed set died too soon.
Kevin Maxx’s Romeo Drive. The perfect Tron soundtrack that should’ve been.
Lauren Daigle’s “You Say.” The perfect CCM single, with powerhouse vocals and production flourishes to match improbably impeccable lyrics.
…and guilty pleasures:
The Scriptorium Daily, a blog where Biola University’s Fred Sanders holds forth with manic energy, moving from Tertullian and Karl Barth to Madeliene L’Engle and The Catholic Encyclopedia without catching his breath.
No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie, a biography of Joseph Smith by the niece of a Mormon prophet. The author got herself excommunicated out of the Mormon Church for this humdinger that profiles the life of its prolific and rhetorically virulent founder. Seventy years on, no biographer’s managed to best her achievement.
The Flash, the CW Network’s multi-layered superhero TV series with a multi-racial family and a posse of villains sporting absurdly excellent names like Zoom, Savitar, The Thinker, and Gorilla Grodd (utterly convincing as a hyper-intelligent, telepathic ape).
Columnist Joe Bobb Briggs, who winkingly managed to condense Michael McClymond’s massive two-volume History of Christian Universalism down to a 1,700 word dissent. In the spirit of that brevity, Happy New Year and roger ‘n’ out.
Joseph F. Martin is a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Hampton University in Virginia.
The Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo’s best-known work is Silence. However, his Deep River is even better. It follows a group of Japanese tourists with tormented pasts visiting the Ganges in search of solace. One is a successful businessman who ignored his wife until her death of cancer. Overcome with guilt, he travels to India to look for her new incarnation. Another tourist, meanwhile, ate the leg of a comrade-in-arms in a violent fit of hunger during the Japanese invasion of Burma. While Catholic readers may find Endo’s implicit suggestion that all religion, Eastern or Western, is equally valid to be problematic, Deep River is a powerful indictment of contemporary consumerist society and its failure to quench man’s spiritual anxiety.
In 1960, Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope St. John Paul II, published his classic work on love and sexual ethics, Love and Responsibility, based on his pastoral work with young couples and his insights as a philosopher. It provided this single man with many valuable insights. If more priests made use of Wojtyła’s work and its personalistic explanation of the basis for Christian sexual ethics—that the person should above all be treated as a subject, not an object for gratification—in preparing couples for marriage, perhaps today’s divorce rate would be lower. Love and Responsibility also offers advice on how to build a successful relationship and marriage based on friendship and affection that can outlast the point when it seems that “love fades,” to quote one of my favorite movies, Annie Hall.
Christian communities in the Middle East are among the world’s oldest, but today they face extinction. Before the American-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s Christians numbered 1.5 million, compared to merely 300,000 today. Although an atheist, Danish journalist Klaus Wivel was moved by their predicament and has written a harrowing account of the persecuted, shrinking Christian populations in Egypt, the Holy Land, Iraq, and Lebanon (Lebanon’s sizeable Christian minority is not persecuted, but because of poor economic prospects many Lebanese Christians are emigrating). Although his book The Last Supper: The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands is unlikely to awaken the consciences of secular politicians and Church officials, hopefully it will at least raise public awareness of the tragedy of Arab Christians and foster prayer and activism on their behalf.
In 2018, Archbishop Oscar Romero, a courageous defender of El Salvador’s poor and victims of political violence, was canonized. Unfortunately, his legacy has been high jacked by the political left. Roberto Morozzo della Rocca’s Oscar Romero: Prophet of Hope is an excellent corrective to the myth of “Ernesto ‘Che’ Romero” as well as an outstanding intellectual and spiritual biography of the martyr.
This year, I also read two fine new books about Solidarity, the nonviolent movement strongly tied to the Catholic Church that helped end communism in Poland and, eventually, across Eastern Europe: Bernard Brien’s Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko: Truth Versus Totalitarianism and Seth G. Jones’ A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland. The former is a moving tribute to the martyred Solidarity chaplain Father Popiełuszko by a French priest who had for decades been away from the Church but had a conversion in middle age when his marriage and business fell apart. He then entered seminary; Father Popiełuszko played a pivotal role in his vocation. The book also recounts the miraculous healing of one of Brien’s parishioners through Father Jerzy’s intercession. Jones’ book, meanwhile, is an engrossing must-read for all who are interested in Cold War history about how President Reagan authorized the CIA to aid generously the peaceful Polish revolution.
Filip Mazurczak is the assistant editor of the European Conservative and a correspondent for the National Catholic Register.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is high time for Catholics to know their faith, perhaps in a particular way the Church’s moral teachings, and since the Catechism is available for free online, you may want to dedicate 2019 to reading it.
Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? Questions and Answers About the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus by Carl Olson (Ignatius Press, 2016). In the interest of full disclosure, I am still in the process of reading this noteworthy text; as a full-time Catholic high school theology teacher, I receive a lot of questions related to the Paschal Mystery, and have found Carl Olson’s book admirable in its coverage of these considerations.
Follow: Your Lifelong Adventure with Jesus by Katie Prejean McGrady (Ave Maria Press, 2018). Prominent Catholic speaker and evangelizer Katie Prejean McGrady shares her testimony about why being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a joyous, lifelong pursuit.
God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For by Ulrich Lehner (Ave Maria Press, 2017). You should read this book as an antidote to these times of what I deem “OKism,” marked by a whimsical belief in a therapeutic God who ushers everyone into heaven with no effort on anyone’s part.
The Great Adventure Catholic Bible by Jeff Cavins (Ascension Press, 2018). Catholics need to know our Faith better, and Bible master Jeff Cavins takes us on a tour de force through the Bible in a way that provides us with a clear and cogent presentation of the sequence of Salvation History within the Sacred Scriptures.
Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know by Kevin Vost (Sophia Institute Press, 2015). As a lay Dominican, it was only a matter of time before I made a plug for the Dominicans, and reading about the monumental figures in the Church who have defended “Veritas”—“Truth”—against heresy will indicate that, no matter the lies a wayward culture may promulgate, we have been there before.
The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn (Doubleday/Image, 1999). I returned to the practice of the Catholic faith around 15 years ago, and this was the book that “sealed the deal” for me, so to speak, and I have enjoyed reading it again.
Mother Mary: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis by Alicia von Stamwitz (editor) (Franciscan Media/Servant Books, 2017). Right now in the Church, we need to make recourse to our dear Mother’s heart, and the Holy Father’s Marian reflections can help us.
Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals by Matthew Mehan, illustrated by John Folley (TAN Books/Saint Benedict Press, 2018). This entertaining book (that is fortunately reflective as well) by a fellow Catholic educator here in the Archdiocese of Washington is for youth and their parents alike, as it portrays beauty, truth, and goodness in a creative way.
Reform Yourself!: How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation by Shaun McAfee (Catholic Answers Press, 2017). We now have over 500 years of unfortunate division between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches, but Shaun McAfee, himself a convert to Catholicism, indicates why we should pay close[r] attention to the saints of the Reformation era.
Target Africa: Ideological Neocolonialism in the Twenty-first Century by Obianuju Ekeocha (Ignatius Press, 2018). I recently had the opportunity to meet Obianuju at a pro-life talk at Georgetown University, and you would do well to consider the implications of her book as they relate to the future of Africa, all of humanity, and the Catholic Church (those three should just about cover it).
Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be, Too) by Brandon Vogt (Ave Maria Press, 2018). I read this book twice, and when you read it (hopefully at least once), you will appreciate energetic Catholic convert Brandon Vogt’s delineation of how he came into the Catholic Church, and why we should all take our remarkable Faith seriously. I had the honor of being able to formulate the complementary study guide for Ave Maria Press.
Justin McClain has written books and articles for various Catholic outlets.
Thomas L. McDonald:
Looking back over my reading log for 2018 I noticed that almost half were things I’d read before. It was also the year I turned 50. These facts are not unrelated, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Mileposts like this draw the gaze backwards, so I returned to beloved classics, rereading the complete Sherlock Holmes canon, as well as The Lord of the Rings, P.G. Wodehouse, Gawain and the other works of the Pearl poet, and the tales of Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, M.R. James, and Seabury Quinn. I revisited Gondolin with Tuor, with a final farewell from Christopher Tolkien after a lifetime of curating his father’s work, and grazed in the fertile fields of his twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, as well as the three volumes of The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide by Hammond & Scull.
This, and subscriptions to Nova et Vetera, Speculum, and Kmt, meant I finished far fewer books than usual, and many of those were my go-to light reading: poetry, short stories, Pepys’ diaries, and Golden Age mystery novels.
Other than Gondolin, the only 2018 book I read was Ron Chernow’s Grant, a magnificent achievement. Chernow’s Washington is the best biography I have ever read, and if Grant isn’t quite that grand achievement it’s only because Unconditional Surrender was not wrapped in the same mythical gauze that tends to suffocate portraits of Washington. In far too many biographies, there comes a moment when you realize the author has started to despise his subject, the project, himself, and probably you. Chernow never flags, and by the end this quietly brilliant, bull-headed, wrongly maligned, unexpectedly complex man emerges. His Grant lives.
Another bright spot was my first full reading of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. It takes a little time to fall into the book’s peculiar narrative flow and parallelisms (everything is said twice), and the names—Lemminkäinen, Väinämöinen, & c.—can be brutal. I’d recommend what I did: get a good translation and a good audiobook. I used the Francis Peabody McGoun, Jr. version in print and the Keith Bosley reading from Audible. The stories themselves—by turns funny, horrifying, grim, exciting, and baffling—demand to be read aloud. These were, after all, usually sung, collected from ordinary people by Elias Lönnrot on field trips in the 19th century. Reading them—hearing them—you also detect their profound influence on Tolkien, who retold the story of Kullervo. Put on some Sibelius to complete the trip.
The mystery novels and stories of Edmund Crispin were my new discovery this year. The pseudonym of composer Robert Bruce Montgomery, Crispin uses the witty, observant literature professor Gervais Fenn as his detective. The short stories are neat little puzzles, while the novels are more expansive character pieces. He doesn’t always sustain the novel length, and his most famous work, The Moving Toyshop, is a clever book marred by an overlong ending sequence. Frequent Hearses, about a dysfunctional movie studio making a glitzy film about Alexander Pope, is probably the best of the novels, with some passages worthy of Wodehouse. Most of them are available in fine readings on Audible.
A final few standouts were The Way We Live Now (Anthony Trollope’s withering and timely satire of the financial scandals of 1870), The Buried Giant (a misunderstood and underrated take on the Arthurian legend by Kazuo Ishiguro), and Father Roger Landry’s common-sense self-help book Plan of Life.
Finally, both IDW and Fantagraphics have ongoing series’ of classic comic strip and comic reprints. In particular, Don Rosa’s endlessly entertaining Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics are being reprinted an essential ongoing series from Fantagraphics. You can treat your children, and yourself, to no better Christmas present.
Thomas L. McDonald is a Catholic journalist who writes about the unusual side of Church history atWeirdCatholic.com.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ:
Eleonore Stump, Atonement. As only Stump can, the key doctrines of atonement theory throughout the history of Christian theology are presented, analyzed, remedied where need be, and given a new life for today.
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian. This fictitious memoir allows you to experience what everyday life at the turn of the first century must have been like.
Adrienne von Speyr, The Passion from Within. Ever grateful to Ignatius Press for keeping Adrienne alive, a worthwhile companion during Lent especially.
Gerard Kilroy, Edmund Campion: A Scholarly Life. After Evelyn Waugh wrote his more popular biography of Campion, he expressed how we still needed a rigorous detailing of the great English saint’s life. This is it.
Francis Bethel, John Senior and the Restoration of Realism. This is what an intellectual biography should be: lively, serious, and full of hope that maybe—just maybe—the higher pursuits are still very well worth it.
Eds., David Ford and John Behr, Saint John Chrysostom’s Letters to Saint Olympia. Understanding the friendship between saints is key to living a holy Catholic life, as none of us can do it alone; these letters, many previously untranslated from Greek into English, reveal a beautiful harmony of minds and wills for Christ.
Ed., Joaquin Martinez Pizarro, Writing Ravenna: The Liber Pontificalis Ecclesiae Ravennatis of Agnellus Andreas. A priest of Ravenna, Agnellus Andreas (d. c. 845) composed a topography of his beloved city, an amazing trek through the Roman Empire’s later capital and important Christian port town.
William Berg, Verdi With a Vengeance: An Energetic Guide to the Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera. Having grown up in a family where Italian and opera were always in the air, many memories came through these pages, revealing Verdi’s real genius and explaining why each of his operas still delight.
Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Gearing up for a course on the Role of Beauty in the Catholic life, I have been reading many works on aesthetics and this was one of the more intriguing, forging a connection between beauty and what is truly just in a society.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ is associate professor of historical theology as well as the director of the Catholic Studies Centre at Saint Louis University; he is also the editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
This year I’m going to group my choices topically. Let’s start in Middle-earth with The Fall of Gondolinby J.R.R. Tolkien as edited by Christopher Tolkien (2018). With The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beren and Lúthien (2017), it’s the last of the Three Great Tales cut and stitched by Christopher from bales of his father’s manuscripts. Though enhanced by much critical apparatus and luminous Alan Lee illustrations, this volume unfortunately can’t supply the climactic battle that J.R.R. failed to write. Another lovely new addition to one’s Tolkien library is A Middle-earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor (2018) by John Howe, conceptual artist for the Peter Jackson films. His drawings and paintings include places and events beyond the texts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I haven’t had a chance to examine the huge exhibition catalogue Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by Catherine McIlwaine (2018) but my daughter Marie highly recommends it.
When Tolkien sparked the explosion of fantasy writing in the mid-20th century, American science fiction was already an established genre. Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018) combines biography and cultural history while tracing the tangled relationships among magazine editor Campbell and three of his principal writers. Not only did Campbell publish Hubbard, he helped him create dianetics, his “science of mental health,” forerunner of his invented religion, Scientology. Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Study of America’s Most Secretive Religion (2011) and Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (2013) tells you all you need to know about that powerful and profitable institution.
In the real world, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, and Islam by Douglas Murray (2018) is a depressing prognosis—soon to be an autopsy—on European civilization. Astute pattern-spotter Michael Burleigh outlines the power structures upholding Yi Jinping, Putin, and Trump in The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A History of Now (2017).
Although its 500th anniversary has passed, I’m still reading Reformation history. Brad S. Gregory rejects trendy methodologies in Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (1999), an admirably even-handed survey of who martyred whom and why. On a finer scale, Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2018) reconstructs this tireless bureaucrat’s life and his role tilting Henry VIII’s church in an evangelical direction.
My favorite book of the year circles back to Tolkien territory with major Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (2018). Equally at home with medieval in sagas and current TV shows, here Shippey explores the grim ethos of the pagan North through its brave and blackly humorous “art of dying well.” It was a world better read about than lived in.
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer.
Christopher S. Morrissey:
Seth Abramson, Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America (Simon & Schuster, 2018)
Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton, 2018)
Robert Arp, Steven Barbone, and Michael Bruce (eds.), Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018)
John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (Ignatius Press, 2018)
Max Boot, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right (Liveright, 2018)
Cicero translated by Philip Freeman, How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship (Princeton University Press, 2018)
Epictetus translated by Anthony Long, How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (Princeton University Press, 2018)
John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (Penguin Random House, 2018)
Elio Guerriero, Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought (Ignatius Press, 2018)
Stephen J. Harper, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption (Penguin Random House, 2018)
Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (Michigan State University Press, 2018)
Hesiod edited and translated by Glenn W. Most, Theogony and Works and Days and Testimonia (Loeb Classical Library, 2018)
Hesiod translated by A.E. Stallings, Works and Days (Penguin, 2018)
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics vol. 2 (Hildebrand Press, 2018)
Peter Kreeft, The Platonic Tradition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2018)
Christopher S. Morrissey, The Way of Logic (Nanjing Normal University Press, 2018)
Josef Pieper, Don’t Worry about Socrates: Three Plays for Television (St. Augustine’s Press, 2018)
Donald Robinson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life, Second Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2018)
Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)
Roger Scruton, Music as an Art (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018)
Roger Scruton, Souls in the Twilight (Beaufort Books, 2018)
John Sellars, Hellenistic Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2018)
Seneca translated by James S. Romm, How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life (Princeton University Press, 2018)
Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (Tim Duggan Books, 2018)
Gregory Allan Thornbury, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent Books, 2018)
Rick Wilson, Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever (Free Press, 2018)
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC.
Ines A. Murzaku:
Recently, I came across The Bookman’s Manual: A Guide to Literature by Bessie Graham, published in 1921. I have a passion for old books; I like their smell a great deal, too, although the old accumulated dust has been causing me some allergic reactions. The author focuses on the “ancient calling of bookselling and an interesting business for which increased training is needed if our present day is to be served adequately.” I did not know much of the bookselling education. I was stunned by the advice provided to librarians to “read without ceasing,” which sounded like “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), as monastics in both East and West have been practicing for centuries. I am sure I have done the first—“read without ceasing”—this year. For the second–“pray without ceasing”–some special training and practice is needed, which means one cannot learn to pray without ceasing until one learns to pray for a few minutes at a time. But for the sake of this exercise let me focus on “read without ceasing” and what I have been reading since this time last year.
Well, as my family says, I have become a St. Mother Teresa addict–reading everything I can get my hands on published in the USA or elsewhere in the world. Let me mention a few titles I literally have on my desk which I have read and now am quoting in my upcoming book on St. Mother Teresa.
Catholic Albanian Families in Skopje, Documents, Pictures and Testimonies, published in 2018 in Shkup/Skopje, Macedonia. The book includes primary sources on the Catholic Albanian families of Skopje and on the family of Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the future Mother Teresa.
Madre Teresa, Una Goccia d’Acqua Pulita by Angelo Colamastri, published in 2016 in Milan, Italy, by Paoline on the occasion of Mother Teresa’s canonization.
Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk’s 2016 book A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve is a must-read for all interested in St. Mother Teresa, the apostle of mercy, canonized in the Extraordinary Year of Mercy. This book and his Mother Teresa. Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, are extraordinary companions to knowing St. Mother Teresa in and out, as my students would say. I used both books in my classes and have to say, the millennials enjoyed them.
I can mention more books on St. Mother Teresa I have read and enjoyed, but for the sake of word count I’ll mention another topic that has been another important focus in my scholarly interest and writing: clergy sex abuse and crisis in the Catholic Church. I reread Clerical Celibacy in East and West by Roman Cholij, a must-read for all interested in celibacy. I read Living the Celibate Life: A Search for Models and Meaning by former Benedictine priest A.W. Richard Swipe, a researcher and expert on sex abuse who died in August just a few days before Carlo Maria Viganò’s first testimony on sex abuse.
Beside these two topics I have been interested in the canonization of Paul VI, Sino-Vatican relations, and the Moscow-Constantinople fight over the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. For the first I dwelt particularly on a new book published in Italy in 2016: Karol Wojtyla e Humanae Vitae by Fr. Pawel Stanislaw Galuszka, which I highly recommend and wish would be translated into English. I do not have space to elaborate on China and Ukraine, but I think I did pretty well this year. I am not sure if I “read without ceasing,” but I will practice better next year.
Ines A. Murzaku is professor of Church history and director of the Catholic Studies Program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Carl E. Olson:
Much of my reading time is taken up with news and articles, far too much of it online. In short, I wished I actually read more books cover to cover. That said, I did manage to get to a few actual books this year.
I began my 2017 list with the Gospel of Luke, and so this year I’ll start with the book of Joshua, which I am currently teaching in a weekly Bible study at our parish. Joshua is well-known, of course, for the famed and miraculous conquering of Jericho. But there is much more to the book, which is a continuation in many ways of Deuteronomy, with core themes being faithfulness to the covenant, the centrality of liturgy and worship in the life of the chosen people, and constant struggle to hold fast to the Torah and the essential call to covenant. As with all Scripture, its challenges to readers are timeless, reminding us that no culture—regardless of its power, wealth, or technological sophistication—can remain healthy and humane without being ordered to transcendent truth and purpose.
Directly related is the only Ignatius Press book I’ll mention here (I could happily mention many others as well), the remarkable work titled A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre. I expected this to be a good book, but it is, I think, an immediate classic, combining rigorous and illuminating scholarship with an amazing accessibility, all of which is a testament to the authors’ impressive talents and hard work. An absolute “must have” book for any serious student of Scripture.
Scott Hahn, who is also a fine Scripture scholar, has written a powerful, blunt, and sometimes surprising work, The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order, that makes an uncompromising argument for upholding the Catholic truth about marriage in a public square almost entirely set on destruction such truth. As he rightly notes, “our culture isn’t wrong to recognize that moral actions have an inherently public dimension; it’s just committed to enforcing a disordered mentality.” Written for a popular audience, Hahn manages to blend moral theology, sacramental theology, and social doctrine into a bracing call for fidelity and witness.
I own nearly everything written by Dietrich von Hildebrand, but was fortunate to find—used and for only $2.49!—a pristine copy of one I’d never seen before: True Morality and Its Counterfeits, written in 1955 with Alice Jourdain (yes, now Alice von Hildebrand; they married in 1959). It was quite fascinating, perhaps even surreal, to read it in the aftermath of Amoris Laetitia and the various controversies surrounding that apostolic exhortation. So, for instance: “The horror of pharisaism, of any pharisaic taint, tends to degenerate into indulgence toward sin. Sometimes it even creates a ‘sin mysticism,’ which projects into sin a kind of mysterious depth, a halo of humility, as though sin itself were a protection against pharisaism.” Now there is a term that we may need to hear more about: “sin mysticism.”
Last year, I wrote that “James Matthew Wilson seems to write a brilliant book each year.” On cue, his collection of poems, The Hanging God, arrived a few weeks ago. Wilson is remarkable poet on several counts, but the two that stand out to me are his theological brilliance (reminding me at times of T.S. Eliot) and his ability to employ, without any sense of manipulation, a variety of voices and perspectives. Put another way, his poems are deeply rooted in the messiness of life while drawing upon and pointing to the mysterious edges of eternity. A book to be slowly savored.
Ross Douthat, in To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, and Phil Lawler, in Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, both tackle topics of great complexity and importance. I have my quibbles with both books, but think they are important because, contrary to what some critics have claimed, they are written with care, precision, and charity. While they certainly overlap in many ways, they are worth reading in tandem, as Douthat seeks to place the current pontificate in a larger context (both theologically and culturally), while Lawler emphasizes narratives, incidents, persons, and connections.
Speaking of larger contexts, Conor Sweeney’s Abiding the Long Defeat: How to Evangelize Like a Hobbit in a Disenchanted Age, provides both a Big Picture view of where we are (modernity) and how we got here (long story!), and an often incisive explanation of how to live as baptized, divinized men and women in a secular wasteland. Sweeney’s emphasis on theosis (though he rarely, if ever, used the word) is especially welcome. As Sweeney states, “theology can speak only from within the ambit of the Cross, the descent into death with Christ and the rising up with him into the new life of baptismal adoption.” This is a heady book of ideas, but the heart of it shines through: a radical, transformative discipleship rooted in baptism.
The late Father Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox theologian, is a personal favorite, and David W. Fagerberg (a contributor to Called To Be the Children God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, which I co-edited with Father David Meconi, SJ), is a fabulous guide to his thought, as demonstrated in Liturgy Outside Liturgy: The Liturgical Theology of Father Alexander Schmemann. There is some heavy sledding involved, but this is a rich and thoughtful work about the nature, meaning, and purpose of liturgy, and with a distinctive Eastern perspective. It further bolstered my deep conviction, to put it simply, that if we don’t get liturgy and worship right, most or all of our other efforts aren’t going to be worth much.
As is too often the case, I’ve read very little fiction this year. But I did track down a copy of the not-yet-published (in the United States) novel Tombland, the seventh edition in the Shardlake series by British lawyer and historian C.J. Sansom, and it quickly proving the equal of the previous six books. Set in Reformation-era England, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake deals with a range of powerful and lowly characters while struggling with a variety of internal tensions, not least his religious beliefs. In fact, the arc of his increasingly Catholic sympathies is handled with adroit and poignant minimalism, while the destruction wrought by Protestantism is portrayed with an unsparing but non-polemical pen. Fun, gripping, and even educational. Highly recommended.
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.
O Lord, I Seek Your Countenance: Explorations and Discoveries in Pope Benedict XVI’s Theology, by Emery de Gaál (Emmaus Academic, 2018). This presentation of Ratzinger/Benedict’s many insights into the theological crises of our times is a virtuoso performance. It includes reference to some of the lesser known of Ratzinger’s interventions at the time of the Second Vatican Council, hitherto unpublished lectures from his period as a university professor, and highly penetrating expositions of Ratzinger’s better known ‘high points of European intellectuality’. One can read this collection of essays and feel proud to be a Catholic. Intellectual rigor is matched with love for the subject and with an elegance in expression which can only be the fruit of the high culture of the Incarnation in its middle-European embodiment.
Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology by Douglas Farrow (Baker Academic, 2018). Farrow offers a panoramic view of the crisis points in theology, combined with unpicking a number of long-standing theological knots. He is at home in the worlds of both Protestant and Catholic theology, and he brings the two together with recommendations for an irenic concordat. Farrow’s style is engaging: the essays could be appreciated for their literary qualities alone, quite apart from the theological insights they contain.
Abiding the Long Defeat with J.R.R. Tolkien: Faithfulness in a Disenchanted Time by Conor Sweeney (Angelico Press, 2018). This work offers reflections on evangelization and Christian survival in dark times with reference to themes in the works of Tolkien.
Mary, Star of Evangelization: Tilling the Soil and Sewing the Seed, by Jacob Phillips (Paulist Press, 2018). This is another reflection on evangelization. Its focus is the intersection of Mariology and the theology of culture. There is a particularly interesting section juxtaposing the ideas of Joseph Ratzinger and Pedro Arrupe on inculturation and evangelization.
Music as an Art by Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury, 2018). This is vintage Scruton holiday reading.
Embracing our Finitude by Stephan Kampowski (Wipf and Stock, 2018). This work draws together themes in both classical and contemporary philosophy, including Continental and Anglophone philosophy, to present a positive account of human finitude. Kampowski argues that the typically post-modern mentality of wanting to keep all options open, of avoiding irrevocable choices, is hubristic. In the end we do not choose anything. As we move through time all the options we had, or thought we had, close themselves off. It is rather through the making of binding promises that our humanity realizes its capacity for greatness. The book avoids academic jargon, and is accessible to anyone with an interest in truth, beauty and goodness.
Faith and Politics by Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press, 2018). This is the only book that collates all of Ratzinger’s most significant speeches and essays on political themes inside the one volume. Instead of rummaging through “Ratzinger” files and searching the indexes of different books, one can now find Ratzinger/Benedict’s political reflections in one place.
Vigo Auguste Demant: Not one World, but Two: A Miscellany of Preachments edited by SławomirNowosad, Foreword by Andrew Louth (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin [KUL], 2017). This is a collection of sermons by Canon Vigo Auguste Demant (1893-1983) who was the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford (1949-1971) and a leading member of the Christendom movement within Anglicanism. It begins with a substantial foreword by Andrew Louth and is the only book I have so far discovered that contains a reflection on St. Frideswide who is the patron saint of Oxford University.
The Perfection of Freedom: Schiller, Schelling and Hegel Between the Ancients and Moderns, by D.C. Schindler (James Clark & Co, Cambridge, 2017). Although the subject matter is dense and the chapter titles a little ‘scary’, Schindler does manage to present his analysis in language that is much clearer than is commonly encountered in academic books on German idealism. Valuable for students of political philosophy.
Proceedings (including the speeches delivered) of the conferral of an honorary doctorate uponGerhard Ludwig Kardinal Müller, by the Catholic University of Croatia, in 2016. Published as a special edition of Lux Vera. Of particular interest was Müller’s speech titled ‘The God Question Today’.
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is the author of several books.
Gerald J. Russello:
This past year, there were a number of noteworthy books. Christian di Spigna’s biography of Joseph Warren, Founding Martyr, brings to life an often forgotten part of the revolutionary era and one of its early heroes. Michael Federici’s collection of The Catholic Writings of Orestes Brownson comes at an opportune time, as Catholics once again reassess their relationship with the American variant of modern liberalism. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed has taken the intellectual world by storm in its contentions that liberalism’s very success has guaranteed its failure, and that a new framework for understanding political life is needed. Finally, in the tenth year since the financial crisis of 2008, I would pair Deneen’s book with Mary Poovey and Kevin Brine’s Finance in America, which explains in detail not only the mechanics of American finance but its underlying ideological assumptions.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.
James V. Schall, SJ:
Back in January, Jordan Teti in Los Angeles gave me a copy of Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. These are one-page per day selections from the writings and speeches of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. And it is best to read the book one day at a time. Each selection has something memorable about it. The range of his mind is amazing.
The Catholic University of America Press recently reprinted Msgr. Robert Sokolowski’s two books Moral Action and Presence and Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being. Both of these books display Sokolowski’s usual clarity and profundity of thought. These books make welcome demands on the reader’s attention.
My own book, On Islam, came out in April. Three other recently published studies in the same area are most welcome considerations on the legacy of Islam: David Pinault’s Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion to the Study of Islam; Raymond Ibrahim’s Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, and Robert Spenser’s The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS. All of these books insist on knowing Islam both from the book and from its historical record.
Of particular insight was Jennifer Roback Morse’s The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies Are Destroying Lives and Why the Church Was Right All Along. A wonderful book to read along with the Morse book is Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times.
In the broad realm of political philosophy, my book, The Universe We Think In, came out in April. Two books in political philosophy to be read carefully are the Ignatius Press edition of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s Faith and Politics and Leo Strauss and His Catholic Critics.
Daniel Mahoney’s The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity is a relatively short study about the issue that most concerns us about the Church today, namely its integrity.
Finally, I got around this year to reading Brad Miner’s Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry. The book that perhaps goes best along with the consideration of gentlemanliness is Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary and Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought.
James V. Schall, SJ taught political philosophy at Georgetown for many years, and is the author of numerous books.
I offer three titles this year: Best Stories of Walter de la Mare (Faber and Faber), The Lord by Romano Guardini (Regnery), and Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI (Doubleday).
Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) was the author of several novels, several collections of stories, and poetry, along with some children’s books. He is not much in vogue today, but his short fiction, especially his tales of the supernatural, continues to attract an audience and one or two of his poems are still anthologized.
The Best Stories were selected by de la Mare himself. My favorite among them is the brilliantly told “All Hallows” about a semi-abandoned cathedral now being taken over by demons. This can be read as allegory (the decline of faith in Europe or something like that) but it also can, and no doubt should, be read as a remarkably well written piece of horror fiction—easily the scariest thing I’ve read in years.
(Incidentally, I also strongly recommend a de la Mare story called “Miss Jemima” about an unhappy little girl and a malevolent fairy. Not included by the author among his “best,” but well worth the trouble if you can find it.)
Romano Guardini was a leading Catholic theologian of the years before Vatican Council II. The Lord is not encumbered with the running argument about form criticism that burdens much recent theological writing about Jesus, nor is it an exercise in biblical fundamentalism.
Rather, as Guardini says in his introduction, the book is a set of spiritual commentaries on the gospels “undertaken with the sole purpose of obeying as well as possible the Lord’s command to proclaim him, his message and works.”
Trying to explain to someone why I like The Lord, I called it “the work of a brilliant mind reflecting on Christ from the standpoint of profound faith.” I recommend it highly as spiritual reading.
Covering the period from Jesus’ baptism to the Transfiguration, Jesus of Nazareth is the first of Pope Benedict’s three volumes about Christ. He is at pains in his introduction to point out that it is “in no way an exercise of the magisterium” but an expression of his personal search. As such, however, it is the search of a gifted theologian—Joseph Ratzinger—who is concerned to engage recent theological and exegetical writing.
This makes the book a bit heavy going in spots, but it also adds a dimension largely untouched by Romano Guardini while providing important insights from recent scholarly sources. For those prepared to stick with it, an uplifting and highly informative read.
Russell Shaw is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and American Church.
I’ve got a bit of an idiosyncratic mix. The first is Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality (Harvard University Press, 2016). Harper’s excellent historical analysis of the transition from ancient Roman to Christian sexual norms (often in eye-opening detail) sheds fresh scholarly light on the irrepressible newness of early Christian treatment of sex. This first sexual revolution was, as Harper shows, not just a modification of existing norms. Rather, Christianity’s insistence that “[a]ll the world’s diffuse erotic energy was to be cramped into one, frail, sacred union” represented a veritable sacralization of sex, and thus a direct attack on a Roman sexual economy dominated by venal pleasure (Harper details just how rife the prostitution trade was, for example), restrained only by social codes of honor and shame. Harper thus shows the extent of Christianity’s radical “transvaluation” of sex, one might say. Nietzsche would approve.
My second is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Alan Lane, 2018). This book is worth reading if only for a serious textual snapshot––other than a YouTube clip––of the man who in my estimation has done more to light an existential spark in people than the entire “new evangelization” industry of the Church. How? Simply by his commitment to tell no lies, to give it to people raw, and thus his uncanny ability to bear witness to something real and existential “for which I can live and die,” as Kierkegaard would say. Moreover, the Church could stand to learn something from Rule 6: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”––in the vernacular: clean your own damn room first.
Next up is an interview-format book by Ivan Illich and David Cayley, Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as Told by David Cayley (Anansi, 2005). This one’s been around for a while, but it piqued my interest and I bought a copy. It’s one of those reads where there is enough to agree with and disagree with on every page, but what I agreed with I found myself agreeing with a lot. The best thing about it is Illich’s intense musings on the mysterium iniquitatis and the deep paradox that the Incarnation will bring (and is bringing) out the worst possibilities of human history. His reading of modernity as corrupted Christianity (in this sense, he does not think we inhabit a “post-Christian” age) is worth the price of admission. Cayley’s introduction is excellent, as is a forward by Charles Taylor.
I’ll close with two short mentions. I finally read Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Yale University Press, 2003)––should have done it years ago. Delightful. Really opens up the world of the Fathers and early Christianity. Lastly, it won’t be out until next year, but keep an eye out for what is a uniquely rich treatment of the history and theology of marriage, Anna Silvas’ The Mystery of Christian Marriage through the Ages: The Scriptures and the First Thousand Years (Wipf and Stock).
Dr. Conor Sweeney teaches at John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne), where he lectures in sacramental theology and continental philosophy.
Father Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM., Cap.:
Basilica: The Splendor and Shame: The Building of St. Peter’s by R.A. Scotti
I found this a marvelous book to read. Scotti not only tells the fascinating tale of the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, but she also provides intriguing portraits of all the characters involved—popes, architects, financiers, painters, sculptors and engineers. In the midst of the great glory and all-too-human sin, St. Peter’s rises up in all of its grandeur—truly a rock that symbolizes St. Peter’s faith.
Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote
One needs the virtue of “stick-to-it-tiveness” to read all three huge volumes of Foote’s history of the American Civil War. It took me five years! Nonetheless, if one is so inclined it is well worth the time and effort. Foote’s masterful narrative allows one not only to get a feel for all of the battles and the people involved, but also for the sheer magnitude of this four-year conflict—geographical, logistic, political, and emotional. Other than the founding of the United States, the Civil War is the most defining moment of our history.
The Trinitarian Christology of St. Thomas Aquinas by Dominic Legge, OP
On a more academic note, my good friend Father Dominic Legge has authored an excellent book on the Trinitarian Christology of Aquinas. While some Thomistic background may be needed, Legge clearly presents, in all of its facets, how the Incarnation of the Son of God finds it source in the Father’s abundant life and the Spirit’s all-pervading love. To read and understand Legge’s exposition is to come to love the Trinity more and to praise Jesus, the Spirit-filled Father’s Son, in all of his glory.
Christ the Ideal of the Priest by Abbot Marmion
I wish I had read this book 45 years ago. Marmion is an excellent spiritual writer who truly knows Jesus. His understanding of the ordained priesthood in relation to the priesthood of Christ is one of the best I have read. Not only is it theologically sound, but also spiritually uplifting. As one reads this book one rejoices in the honor of having been called to be priest as well as being challenged to be the priest that Christ ordained the priest to be. This is an excellent Christmas gift for priests—especially for younger priests. They should not have to wait 45 years.
Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM, Cap.’s latest book is Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels.
The list below might puzzle some. There’s absolutely no central theme or through line, no particular area of concentration. I suppose if I had to really explain myself, it would all come down to human behavior. I am interested in why people do what they do and how they explain and understand themselves and their own moment in history.
An Empire Divided by Stanford historian J.P. Daughton—a fine study of what might seem to be an obscure topic: how Catholic missionaries did their work in the context of France’s anti-Catholic Third Republic. Very specific, yes, but fascinating and important, still—as we, contemporary disciples of Jesus, try to figure out how to evangelize in a hostile world.
Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant, known for his short stories, is a rich, at times crazy novel about a striving journalist in 19th century Paris. In Bel Ami, Maupassant paints a vivid portrait of late 19th century Paris, but there’s hardly any of it that isn’t recognizable or really that foreign. The press exists, not to tell the truth, but to manipulate public opinion and government for the financial benefit of a few, and most of them are pretty lazy. Human beings are greedy and needy and readily use other human beings to satisfy their desires for…whatever. Human relationships are complex and fraught. Desire seizes us and the fight against it can feel as if it’s a fight to the death. People with money spend it in extravagant, showy ways. There’s a great deal of pretense in human behavior. Things are hardly ever what they seem. And religion? Religion is around, some people seem to believe what it teaches, but many more use it to establish their place in society and maintain the aura of respectability.
I read Nightfall by David Goodis as part of a noir-reading spree this summer and fall. It’s a fantastic book, reflective and nuanced. In one way it’s completely of the genre: a man caught up in circumstances—he knows he definitely killed someone, but is not sure why—now on the run. Because this protagonist is essentially a good person, though, escape from responsibility for his actions is not really what he’s about. It’s more—having been pulled into criminals’ lives by pure accident, he’s trying to sort out whether there is any way he can stay hidden but also own up to his responsibility.
Finally, The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.
It’s the story of an extended Mexican-American family, told via the events of a day or so—the funeral of an elderly woman and, the next day, the birthday of Big Angel, her son, the patriarch of the family. Of course, the narrative flashes back and forth in time within that 36-hour framework, so we ultimately get the gist of this family’s whole story, beginning decades ago in La Paz, in Baja California.
Coming down from Seattle to the gathering is another Angel—Little Angel, the youngest brother of Big Angel, but a son of their dead father by another mother, an American woman named Betty. The two Angels, both broken in various ways, and their siblings, spouses, and children, embody all the varied layers of immigrant experience and the almost unimaginable distance between the struggle and poverty in Mexico half a century before and the present day, surrounded by English-only speaking, smartphone-wielding grandchildren.
Pulling all of this together is the fact (no spoiler—it’s clear from the beginning) that Big Angel is dying, in the final stages of bone cancer. His mother dies, and his birthday will be the next day, so he’s convinced that this will be his last birthday. So the novel, even as it weaves many stories together, is essentially about Big Angel: his journey, his sins, the gifts he’s leaving and, in the end: his gratitude.
It took me a day or two to get into it, mostly because I found the riot of characters pretty confusing, and had to keep flipping back and forth to establish who was who and who was married to whom and whose kid this was. But when I finally got all of that straight, I couldn’t put it down. It was lovely and wild, jumping back and forth through time and space—which is my experience of consciousness and reality—and hilarious. Loved it.
Amy Welborn is a writer currently living in Birmingham, Alabama.