The best books we read in 2017
Dr. Jeff Mirus, Phil Lawler and I thought it would be fun to do a review of our favorite reading of 2017. This doesn’t only include the specifically Catholic material we would ordinarily cover for this site, but also reflects our broader range of interests that our readers might not be aware of. Since I am Catholic Culture’s resident arts commentator, I took the liberty of including some music and films in my list as well.
Dr. Jeff Mirus
Typically I do only three types of reading these days: Spiritual reading; reading to review books for CatholicCulture.org; and purely recreational reading which, for me, tends to be mysteries. Only the middle category is what we might call timely, in that I generally review new books. Or perhaps I should describe them as “newish”, as it can easily take a year for me to get to something I would like to delve into for the benefit of our audience. Here are my top half-dozen this time around.
Henri de Lubac’s Vatican Council Notebooks: Henri de Lubac, SJ was one of the greatest (and most faithful) theologians of the twentieth century. Happily, he served as a theological advisor (or peritus) at the Second Vatican Council. He also took copious notes, day by day, as he attended both the Conciliar sessions and ancillary meetings. Ignatius Press brought these notebooks out in two volumes, the first in 2015 and the second in late 2016. They are valuable for three reasons: (1) As a primary source for the conciliar debates; (2) As a commentary on the various currents within Catholicism at that time from a theologian of deep faith; and (3) As a source of anecdotes about a large number of key figures within the Church. I published extensive highlights from the first volume throughout the middle of 2015, and a few particularly telling observations from the second volume in November 2017.
Mark Riebling’s Church of Spies: Moving from primary to secondary sources, I come to the brilliantly entertaining study of “The Pope’s secret war against Hitler” by Mark Riebling, which forever gives the lie to John Cornwell’s extraordinarily blind and biased account entitled Hitler’s Pope. As you can learn from my late-2016 review, Church of Spies thoroughly chronicles the clandestine efforts of Catholics and others within the Third Reich, in coordination with Pope Pius XII, to both assassinate Hitler and form an alternative government, based on Catholic social teaching, to fill the consequent vacuum of power. The latter was essential if things were not to go from bad to worse. Meticulously researched, Church of Spies nonetheless packs all the excitement of a suspense novel. If you are looking for a book to entertain, inspire and increase your apologetical clout at one and the same time, look no further than Church of Spies.
José Luis Olaizola’s General Escobar’s War: One step removed from brilliant history is the historical novel, in which the right author can often capture underlying truths which primary accounts leave untouched. A case in point is the novel for which the Spaniard José Luis Olaizola won the Premio Planeta prize in 1983, translated into English and published by Ignatius Press in late 2016. As I said in a very brief review mostly about other things, it is a tribute to Olaizola’s mastery that he has written “a novel that is impossible to read without forgetting it is fiction.” Told through the eyes of a military man with conflicted family loyalties, who did his duty as he saw it and, in the end, suffered for it, this brilliant novel enables us to understand how difficult it is to choose sides in war, particularly civil wars, and perhaps even most particularly the Spanish Civil War. So often all choices are bad. No convenient pronouncements by later generations can make such fratricidal conflicts any less difficult for people in the midst of them to judge—even if, with all their hearts, they desire to judge rightly.
Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s That Nothing May Be Lost: Subtitled, “Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion”, this collection of brief, homiletic essays can be used as spiritual reading, as they are grouped into four sections on Our Lord, paradoxes of Faith, the saints, and the life of grace. The title is taken from Our Lord’s instruction to the disciples after feeding the five thousand: “Gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost” (Jn 6:12). This has always been a key component of Catholicism, in which creation in general and human nature in particular are viewed as good, viewed as gifts which are to be taken up and perfected in Christ—that nothing may be lost. Fr. Scalia, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, offers here a series of fragmentary yet profound glimpses of the mysteries of Faith which, taken together, can lead any soul toward fulfillment in God, losing nothing, gaining everything. (See my review of Fr. Scalia’s essays along with two other collections.)
Sharon Davies’ Rising Road: I encountered this remarkable book back in 2010, but it remains a compelling memory seven years later. It is a study of anti-Catholic bigotry in the American South with a very human face. Let me simply quote the first paragraph of my 2010 review: “When she was twelve years old, Ruth Stephenson was found sitting on the porch of the rectory of St. Paul’s Church in Birmingham, Alabama. She lived about a block away and was very attracted by the quiet faith of Catholics as they entered and left their church each day of the week. By chance, Ruth’s father happened by, saw her talking with the pastor, Fr. James Coyle, and peremptorily ordered her home. Six years later, on August 11, 1921, Ruth’s father murdered Fr. Coyle in broad daylight on that same porch by putting a bullet through his head.” Author Sharon Davies has unearthed the entire story, which was published by Oxford University Press.
Mystery Writers: When it comes to purely recreational reading, my wife and I have often joked that all we want is a good clean murder. We are uninterested in authors who are driven to score points for the latest sex-and-gender ideals, and we don’t particularly like heroes and heroines who hop in and out of bed with every third person they meet. Sadly, strong characters with genuine religious faith are hard to find without resorting to authors of seriously secondary quality. That said, there is a difference between true-to-life characters who exhibit normal cultural conditioning and those who are always being used to push the envelope.
Among mystery authors writing today whose stories are refreshingly free of sexual infidelity of any kind, I can recommend Charles Todd’s series of novels about the shell-shocked post-World War I Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge, and Donna Leon’s evocative tales of Commissario Guido Brunetti in contemporary Venice (though in one of her mysteries, Leon ignorantly and unfortunately treats Opus Dei as a nefarious secret society). Among the best authors whose leading characters are strong but imperfect men—with sins within a normal range and never distastefully described—two rank particularly high in my estimation: Ian Rankin for his Scottish Detective John Rebus; and Peter Lovesey for his English counterpart, Detective Peter Diamond. In terms of writing quality, I would say that Leon is the virtuoso, but all four of these authors tell extraordinarily good stories in exceptionally fine prose.
Darwin’s House of Cards, by Tom Bethell, is a provocative tour of the arguments for and against the theory of evolution. Bethell has followed the scientific debate carefully, and he takes deep dives into the available evidence. He has also interviewed many of the most important participants in the discussion, recording their misgivings about some of their colleagues’ arguments. Bethell’s makes a thorough and devastating critique of Darwinian orthodoxy. If I have any complaint about the book, it is that the referee should have stopped the fight earlier, when it became clear that the Darwinian cheerleaders could no longer defend themselves.
Winston S. Churchill, by Randolph Church and Martin Gilbert. When Hillsdale College offered a special deal on this massive 8-volume work, I snapped it up, planning to read a little at a time. Unlike Gilbert’s one-volume biography, which is a “mere” 1,077 pages, this effort supplies details of correspondence, memos, interviews, and notes—in what amounts to a historian’s archive rather than a formal biography. Still, since Churchill’s life touches on so much of the history of the 20th century, it is a nearly inexhaustible lode of interesting perspectives.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt. One of several books on this list that I probably should have read years ago, this famously controversial volume raises questions about the “banality of evil,” the Jewish response to the Holocaust, and the reasons why Eichmann—a bureaucrat rather than a policy-maker—became a symbol of Nazi ideology.
Life After Life, by Raymond Moody. My interest in “brain death” has led me to read more broadly about what death actually is: a topic that is more complex than it first appears. Moody’s book, originally published in 1975, has become the classic study of near-death experiences, providing an account of the remarkable experiences that many people have shared: the long tunnel, the bright light, the encounters with deceased relatives, etc. The author makes an uneven effort to explain how these experiences are compatible with the teachings of Christianity, the beliefs of the ancient Greeks, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It seems that our society is the outlier in its understanding of death.
An Introduction to Vatican II as an Ongoing Theological Event, by Matthew Levering. Discussions of the Council’s teachings, and how they should be interpreted, remain very much alive today. Examining the major documents and then the contrasting work of two contemporary theologians, Levering makes a compelling argument that the right understanding of the Council will flow from a focus on the Person of Jesus Christ (as explained by Father Robert Imbelli), as opposed to a historicist interpretation (as suggested by Massimo Faggioli).
Submission, by Michael Houllebecq. This novel, which created a sensation when it was published in France, is not for the faint of heart. Some scenes are frankly obscene, in their portrayal of a society that has lost its moral compass. The entire book is disturbing, telling an all-too-plausible story of how a European society that rejects its heritage becomes prey to both crass materialism and Islamic militancy.
Eccentric Culture, by Remi Brague. As a sort of antidote to Houllebecq, Brague’s philosophical work explores the European heritage, with its roots in Rome and its most powerful manifestation in Catholicism. Brague observes that Europe’s identity has been formed by absorbing the best of other cultures. This could still happen today, but only if Europeans still cherish their heritage.
Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop. To be honest I stumbled across this book, took a quick look, and then became fascinated. Siedentop points out that the focus on the individual as the primary unit of society is a relatively modern development; ancient societies were based on the family, the clan, or the tribe. He suggests that the Church, with its emphasis on conscience—and more specifically canon law, with its designs for equal treatment of all souls—laid the foundation for the modern approach.
What Did Jesus Do, by Thomas Nash. A clear and engaging work of apologetics, this is a book one might give to a skeptical friend. Nash assumes nothing, but shows how an unbiased look at the available evidence—not just from Scripture but from history and science and reason itself—supports the teachings and claims to authority of the Catholic Church.
The Teammates, by David Halberstam. The death of baseball Hall-of-Famer Bobby Doerr prompted me to look up this older book about the friendship that united Doerr, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, and Dom Dimaggio, former teammates on my beloved Red Sox. Although Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest) has an enviable reputation as a story-teller, I was not terribly impressed by the way he related the tales. Still the larger-than-life personalities made for a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope. Relaxing at year’s end with a real classic of story-telling, I have dipped back into the Barsetshire Chronicles, discovering once again that Trollope never fails to satisfy, and never misses an opportunity either to provide a detail or to offer his own eccentric commentary on his novel’s characters.
I’ll start with my own discipline:
The Nightingale, by Yana Nikol, Mark Christopher Brandt, and Katherine Colburn. This beautiful and accomplished work for flute, piano and cello is my Album of the Year. It combines long-form classical composition with jazz-based improvisation. Check out my interview with Brandt for more about this composition, which he considers his masterpiece, and the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired it.
Sorrowful Mysteries, by The Duskwhales. I also interviewed indie rock trio The Duskwhales about their latest album, dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows. They’ve got lots of melody, instrumental texture and classic Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies, and an ethos that, like Mater Dolorosa herself, is melancholy but ultimately upbeat and full of hope.
Pet Sounds, by The Beach Boys. It was The Duskwhales who inspired me to pick up Brian Wilson’s most influential and acclaimed work. It’s been a long time since a pop album got me this excited—aside from the gorgeous melodies and harmonies, it’s a masterwork of innovative orchestration and production, the intent of which was specifically to make listeners feel loved and at peace. Wilson writes: “Just before God Only Knows, Carl and I had a prayer session asking the Lord for guidance and maximum love vibes for this crucial single. It was the first time that anyone ever used the word ‘God’ in a commercial song...at least this is what we were told. During the production of Pet Sounds, I dreamt I had a halo over my head. This might have meant that the angels were watching over Pet Sounds.”
Requiem, Op. 9, by Maurice Duruflé. I always loved Duruflé‘s famous Ubi Caritas, without knowing the name of the composer. This year I was blessed to hear a live performance not only of his four motets (including Ubi Caritas), but of his incredible Requiem, surely some of the most beautiful music ever composed. The composer, a devout Catholic, based this work for orchestra, choir, organ and soloists on traditional Gregorian chants. Mid-20th-century purveyors of atonality like Pierre Boulez did their best to vilify Duruflé and anyone else composing with traditional harmony, but beauty will out.
The Nightfly, by Donald Fagen. “Maxine” is worthy of the Great American Songbook. (For those who don’t know, Donald Fagen is one half of Steely Dan.)
All of Bach. I don’t mean I listened to all of Bach’s music this year. Rather, I am referring to a wonderful website created by the Netherlands Bach Society. Since 2013, this organization has been uploading video performances of every single extant work by Bach (they have done about 1/5 of them so far). They seem to use period instruments mostly, and the performances are often in authentic and picturesque locations: churches for sacred works, living rooms for chamber pieces. Each performance has an accompanying video with the performer explaining some things about the piece. The educational and bite-sized approach makes it an accessible way to get familiar with a wider range of Bach’s musical output.
Finally, let me urge you to invest in quality speakers or headphones for music listening. Aside from the decline in music itself, society is suffering from a general decline in sound quality so that fewer and fewer people know what music is actually supposed to sound like. Don’t settle for the mediocre sound quality of streaming or of your phone, iPod or laptop speakers. Trust me, you will hear the difference.
Silence, by Martin Scorcese. The first new film I saw in 2017 was also the best. As I argued in my review, Silence is a contemplative masterpiece which transcends the controversy surrounding it. It also inspired Patricia Snow’s “Empathy Is Not Charity”, which is my favorite essay of 2017 even if I disagree with Snow’s interpretation of the film.
Dunkirk, by Christopher Nolan. I don’t have much to say about this one. It’s just fantastic.
A Hard Day’s Night, by Richard Lester and the Beatles. I always more or less liked and respected the Beatles, but this movie made a fan out of me. I figured it would be fun, but it turned out to be a truly beautiful experience. All four Beatles are surprisingly great comedic actors and improvisers, and convey a sense of youthful freedom and joy rarely seen as our world becomes increasingly cynical. The way Richard Lester filmed the musical sequences was groundbreaking for its time.
Where Is My Friend’s House?, by Abbas Kiarastomi. A simple, lovely story of kindness in a small Iranian village. A great one to share with children old enough to read subtitles. This movie is hard to find; I streamed it on FilmStruck.
A Serious Man and Hail, Caesar!, by Joel and Ethan Coen. Two of the Coen brothers’ best comedies deal explicitly with religion. In the darkly funny A Serious Man, a Jewish man in 1960s Minnesota has a mid-life crisis of almost Jobian proportions. I can’t comment on it with any special insight on one viewing, but I certainly liked it, as did Bishop Barron. Hail, Caesar! is more uplifting; in fact, it is one of the warmest stories told by a filmmaking duo often accused of being cold. It’s a humorous portrayal of a Hollywood studio in the 1950s, with a protagonist whose Catholic faith is treated respectfully and affectionately. Eddie Mannix tries to discharge his somewhat overwhelming duties with integrity and grace—duties which, as a movie producer in the 50s, include keeping the moral image of his stars squeaky-clean and meeting with the Catholic Legion of Decency. Particularly interesting is the plotline involving the production of a film about a Roman centurion who encounters Christ, as Mannix must meet with representatives of various religious denominations to assure them that the Lord will be depicted reverently.
(I also saw Jaws and It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time this past year and loved both, but you don’t need me to tell you about those.)
Divine Mercy in My Soul, by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. Though I have not yet reached the end of St. Faustina’s diary, it is so important that I must include it here before any lesser works. This is not a book to tickle the intellect but one to challenge, illumine and heal the soul. St. Faustina was not an intellectual, and that is just the point: she did not need to be, because she was taught directly by Jesus Himself. The mysteries of the Catholic faith, from the prophets of the Old Covenant to the new dispensation of Incarnate Love, are laid bare as Faustina describes, writing under obedience day by day, the process by which Jesus made of her a spiritual masterpiece. We all need to encounter and learn from this profoundly simple, humble and obedient soul. And more important than the saint herself is the message of Divine Mercy entrusted to her by the Lord, a Mercy the world needs now more than ever. There is a reason St. John Paul the Great considered this revelation of Divine Mercy to be the most important spiritual event of the 20th century, along with Fatima. Which brings me to...
A Year of Favor, by Mark Christopher Brandt. You may recall my August interview with Brandt, a Catholic composer and pianist, about his masterpiece The Nightingale. Now he has published his first spiritual book, a collection of sixteen meditational rosaries for use in front of the Blessed Sacrament. They are scheduled around the liturgical calendar, with seasonally appropriate meditations and prayer intentions. These meditations, which the author has given while leading his parish’s Saturday morning Rosary for the past 14 years, will increase the devotion and efficacy of visits to our Eucharistic Lord and prompt conversion of soul. While it can easily be used on one’s own, I will point out that the booklet is inexpensive and suitable for ordering in bulk for group use and for giving away in order to promote the Rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and the First Saturdays devotion requested by Our Lady of Fatima.
Letter to Artists, by Pope St. John Paul II. At the beginning of 2017 I attended a series of very fruitful discussions of this work with a large group of young Catholic artists in NYC. St. John Paul was not only the vicar of Christ on earth and a saint, he was a great artist himself. Need any more reason why every artist, Catholic or not, should read and reflect on this letter? The letter covers all the bases: the artist in relation to God and society, the ancient role of artistic expression in Scripture and throughout the Church’s history, the obstacles between the Church and artists in modern times, the Church’s need for artists, art’s need for the Church, and the Holy Spirit’s presence in genuine artistic production. It is inspiring, challenging and consoling. (For a quick sample of the letter, watch a video produced by students at John Paul the Great Catholic University.)
The Intellectual Life, by A. G. Sertillanges, O.P. This is one of those books which changes lives, and one which, upon finishing, you want to begin again and immediately start applying the wisdom therein. What is it about the French? First published in 1920, the Dominican priest’s classic treatment of the nature and demands of an intellectual vocation is deeply profound and deeply practical. Sertillanges has a fully integrated Catholic view of the intellect; there is no allowance for compartmentalization or being a mere brainiac in his regime. The book is challenging and at times downright scary—yet the author always has an encouraging word to offer in due season. Should be read by any serious college student and, certainly, by all intellectuals. (It also has quite a bit of help for artists, or to anyone else whose work involves intense study.) My comments here are only brief because I have a longer article in the works.
Joy in the Morning, by P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters is the funniest book I’ve ever read. Joy in the Morning (titled Jeeves in the Morning in the U.K.) just about ties it. If you haven’t discovered the immortal Jeeves and Wooster yet, do so.
The Princess and Curdie, by George MacDonald. Would that every work of fiction inspired the reader to grow in virtue, as this one does! Give yourself and your children the great gift of acquaintance with George MacDonald. C. S. Lewis said that reading MacDonald prior to his conversion baptized his imagination. To be read after The Princess and the Goblin.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Simon Armitage. Enter into the world of courtesy with one of the greatest medieval English verse narratives. Simon Armitage’s translation is wonderful and includes the Middle English text on opposite pages for those who want to encounter the original language.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey. Shippey, who held Tolkien’s old chair at the University of Leeds, makes a compelling and eye-opening case that Tolkien was indeed the greatest novelist of the 20th century, whatever the jealous, spiteful and nihilistic literary elite have had to say. He shows that Tolkien was, while greatly influenced by medieval literature, a distinctly modern author who innovated not only in his unprecedented worldbuilding but in his use of language and narrative structure. My only major gripe with Shippey’s analysis is his claim that Tolkien varies between a Boethian view of evil (evil as a mere privation of good) and a Manichaean view (evil has its own existence). The view of evil in Middle-earth seems to me entirely Boethian, with only a minor, ambiguous wrinkle, which Tolkien later regretted, in the case of orcs. Nonetheless, this is a very enjoyable book which will greatly enhance your appreciation of Tolkien’s artistry even if The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion are already your favorite books. (But if you haven’t read Tolkien’s letters and his essay “On Fairy-Stories” yet, read those first.)
Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction, ed. Fr. Paul Check and Janet Smith. This comprehensive collection of essays provides a number of (orthodox) perspectives on same-sex attraction; see Jeff Mirus’s 2015 review for details. Certainly it is essential reading for anyone with a practical connection to this issue, and should be read by many others. Even though I am not in the former group, I found the material on childhood attachment psychology helpful in understanding myself. After all, none of us was raised perfectly and all of us must deal to some degree with disordered sexuality.
Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, by Thomas Sowell. This was my first Sowell book, and it made me want to read all his others. The great black economist takes a critical look at what he calls the “civil rights vision”, and while the book was published in 1985, it still packs a mighty punch today. Can we assume that a vision that grew out of the very specific experience of black Americans is equally applicable to that of every other minority group (not to mention women)? And to what extent has the legacy of the original civil rights movement been what its leaders would have hoped? Sowell uses the tools of an economist to take apart many near-universal assumptions; his international perspective on race and ethnicity also yields surprising results. And after reading Sowell, I’ll never look at statistics comparing various groups the same way again. The man is lucid, persuasive, concise and really, one of the best writers I’ve ever read.
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, by R. H. Tawney. In this classic work, Tawney (a Protestant) asks, among other things, why the Protestant reformers went down in history as champions of individualism, when such a legacy would have horrified them. In short, by tearing down the medieval Catholic institutions which took a nuanced and realistic approach to the Christian task of restraining mammon, these arrogant perfectionists ensured that mammon would not be restrained at all.
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