Our favorite books and films of 2021
A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all Catholic Culture readers! As usual at this time of year, I’ve asked our staff to list the books (and in some cases, other media) they enjoyed most in 2021.
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Among the books I read in 2021, four stand out as recommendations that will stand the test of time—and in some cases, already have. All four were reviewed on CatholicCulture.org during the course of the year, but this will definitely be a value-added summation.
Jesuit at Large
Perhaps the one contemporary writer who best combines an unfailing defense of the Faith with tremendous spiritual depth, a brilliant literary style, and a keen sense of humor is the brilliant Jesuit Fr. Paul Mankowski, who was spurned and in some ways silenced by the culture-bound superiors who dominate the Order. Or perhaps I should say that Fr. Mankowski was this one special author, for he died in September of 2020. But his brilliant writings—from theological argument, to Scriptural analysis, to social and spiritual satire, to clerical exposé—remain a matter of record. Upon his death, his Jesuit superiors seized his computer very quickly, lest any other revelations be found and published.
Fr. Mankowski was a brilliant essayist, and in 2021 the process began of collecting his essays into new collections. The first of these, edited by George Weigel, was Jesuit at Large: Essays and Reviews by Paul V. Mankowski, SJ. Phil Lawler, who knew Fr. Mankowski well, did the honors of reviewing the book for CatholicCulture.org (Silenced but Unquiet: A Faithful Jesuit’s Witness). Be sure to read that review. But (value-added) note that, under Phil’s editorship, Ignatius will bring out a second volume of Mankowski writings in 2022, collected from the short essays this brilliant priest wrote under the pseudonym of Diogenes…on CatholicCulture.org.
By far the deepest book I enjoyed in 2021 was the unsurpassable Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer, by David Fagerberg. This is not a book about the liturgy as in rubrics or style or reverence, but rather an exploration of the reality that the substance of Catholicism and of the Catholic way of life is profoundly liturgical—that is, the faith and life of the Church is received from and constantly returning to God.
As I mention in my review, Liturgical sensibilities, liturgical understanding, Fagerberg does us the immense favor of encapsulating his insights in relatively brief chapters of five to seven pages, each highlighting one aspect at a time of the profoundly liturgical character of our relationship with Jesus Christ. But (value added) I received permission from Ignatius Press to reprint one of these chapters on CatholicCulture.org, as a taste of this brilliant book: Can’t live forever without Liturgical Temporal Cosmology. You will see that Fagerberg delights in words (which, of course, have a certain sacramental quality). This means that his prose style, while truly excellent, can be challenging in its vocabulary.
If you are looking for a very readable book which tells you exactly what is wrong spiritually with the COVID nightmare we have been living through, look no farther than Phil Lawler’s Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic. While those who closely follow CatholicCulture.org have already benefited from Phil’s continuing commentary on the pandemic, his book is an important aerial view of the Church’s response to COVID, including the failure of some bishops to maintain the primacy of her sacramental mission above all else. While the spiritual response has improved, many battles remain with those Catholic leaders who believe it is best to suspend or severely restrict spiritual ministry out of fear of physical infection. Phil’s book is also, as its title suggests, a strong statement of Christian hope.
My review of this highly readable book, Contagious Faith in a Church that saves, gives you more information. Once again, though, we add value: When you purchase the book from Sophia Institute Press, use the promo code “CONTAGIOUS25” to get 25% off of this book and anything else you purchase along with it. Moreover, in a follow-up to Contagious Faith, CatholicCulture.org has published a new ebook which contains Phil’s COVID essays since his book was published, plus all of my own COVID essays: A Church of Hope?, available now as a free download.
The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God
Fr. Gerald Vann (1906-1963) was a Dominican priest with a doctorate in Theology from the college in Rome which became the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. He authored many sound books which were noted not only for their theological brilliance but their spiritual depth. Among these was a short 1947 masterpiece, which has been recently reprinted: The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God. This makes excellent reading for any Catholic at any time but, of course, especially during Lent. It is a wonderful meditation on Christ’s suffering. But if the final section on the nature of suffering in God is a bit too challenging theologically—since it is, obviously, a complex and much-debated subject—then this section can be omitted from devotional reading.
I reviewed The Pain of Christ briefly in Out of the past, three surprise books, all occasions of grace. In this case the added value is the two other books mentioned in that same review, one on the Shroud of Turin, and the other a new edition of just the four key “constitutional” documents of the Second Vatican Council—the three (perennially valuable) dogmatic constitutions and the one (less permanently valuable) pastoral constitution.
Finally, I can offer some tips on the kind of recreational reading I enjoy most, namely mysteries. Among my own newly-discovered authors are two from the golden age of English and American mystery. Consider the highly-engaging novels of Agatha Christie’s favorite American mystery writer, Elizabeth Daly (1878-1967). Daly reeled off sixteen novels between 1940 and 1951, all featuring a delightful American rare book dealer based in New York City (Henry Gamadge) who is often called upon to assist the police along the picturesque sea coast in rural Maine.
In addition, I have recently discovered the works of another American writer, John Dickson Carr (1906-1977), who spent some years in England honing his craft. Carr seemed troubled in the years following World War II, which is not surprising. He was a Presbyterian with significant Catholic sympathies, and his best and most common character, Dr. Gideon Fell, is modelled on G. K. Chesterton, whom Carr admired and with whom he argued frequently about religion and politics. In one mystery Dr. Fell very sensibly defends the Inquisition (in comparison with the secular judicial systems of its time).
In any case, Carr wrote a great many mystery novels and short stories under several closely-related versions of his real name. These featured a number of different detectives, especially the French Henri Bencolin, the English Sir Henry Merrivale and Colonel March, and, most frequently of all, the Chestertonian Dr. Fell. He penned a number of stand-alone historical mysteries as well.
This year I have finally tackled A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor. You might say that I arrived late on the scene, since the book was published almost fifteen years ago. But this book will not lose the interest of readers for a long, long time. Taylor argues that secularism today stems not merely from a decline in active religious faith (although that is certainly part of the story), but from a philosophical trend that he traces back to long before the Enlightenment. He shows how Western thought, which once presumed belief in God, evolved to make it possible, then acceptable, to live without faith. This is a serious book, with an important thesis.
During my bout with Covid, I was sustained by a much older book. The Last Chronicle of Barset is the sort of delightful, easy reading one expects from Anthony Trollope—but long enough to sustain a patient through many hours curled up on the couch. This is the final volume of The Chronicles of Barsetshire, a series which should appeal to anyone who enjoys poking fun at pretentious clerics.
Speaking of Covid, The Price of Panic—by Douglas Axe, Jay Richards, and William Briggs—showed how a panicky and misguided reaction to a serious disease caused problems for society even more damaging than the disease itself. This book heavily influenced my own, Contagious Faith, which applied the same analysis to the damage done to the Catholic faith.
My friend Michael Pakaluk provides a great deal of material for contemplation in Mary’s Voice in the Gospel According to John. St. John wrote his Gospel after years during which he had every opportunity to speak with the Virgin Mary, to profit from her profound understanding of her Divine Son. Pakaluk highlights her influence in John’s Gospel—and offers a new translation to boot.
Joshua Mitchell caught me by surprise with American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. He sees “identity politics” as a sort of Christian heresy, or even a reversion to primitive religions, in which pagans sought scapegoats to blame for their problems.
As a non-scientist, I do not even pretend to understand the secrets of relativity and quantum mechanics. But I enjoy knowing how the theories at the cutting edge of scientific research might influence thought in other fields. So I am always on the lookout for a readable guide to the latest exploration of the very large (relativity) and very small (quantum mechanics). Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, fills the bill.
James T. Majewski
Conversion: Spiritual Insights Into an Essential Encounter with God by Fr. Donald Haggerty. I am told that a homily by Fr. Haggerty is something to behold—still more, his reverent celebration of the Mass. For those outside of the Archdiocese of New York, this book written with the brevity and depth characteristic of true spiritual wisdom, will suffice. Recommended for anyone seeking a spiritual kick in the pants.
Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay. Not having had much prior knowledge of either St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, this accessible and comprehensive volume not only served as an excellent introduction to the life and work of each, but also as a practical guide to prayer.
Art and Scholasticism with other essays by Jacques Maritain. This work is an essential primer for any artist seeking to better understand himself, his craft, and his social role. In an attendant essay, Some Reflections Upon Religious Art, Maritain offers invaluable considerations for anyone engaged in sacred art.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. I found Dr. Frankl’s story of survival as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps more compelling than the logotherapy he subsequently elaborates. Nevertheless, both parts—the autobiographical and the theoretical—come together in this powerful and inspiring classic.
Finally, to make only one addition to Thomas’ already very complete list of film recommendations: Peter’s Jackson’s masterful three-part documentary series, The Beatles: Get Back, came as a total surprise this year. Featuring never-before-seen footage and audio recordings from the making of the Beatles’ 1970 album Let It Be, the film is an engrossing watch not only for any Beatles fan, but for anyone fascinated by the artistic process.
Thomas V. Mirus
Many of the items on my list were discussed on the Catholic Culture Podcast or Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast—click the link for each to find the relevant episode.
Published in 2021
Joshua Hren, How to Read and Write like a Catholic, from TAN Books. This is the best newly published book I read in 2021. Joshua is one of the rare Catholic literary critics who brings both keen artistic insight and spiritual discernment to his reading. This survey of Catholic and Catholic-relevant fiction is more than the sum of its parts.
Holly Ordway, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages. This significant new piece of Tolkien scholarship, which overturns the misconception that Tolkien was not interested in or influenced by modern literature, was also the first book to be published by Word on Fire Academic.
Tolkien’s late revisions
The biggest Tolkien event this year was the release of a new volume of previously unpublished Tolkien notes, The Nature of Middle-Earth, which I won’t comment on because I haven’t finished it yet. The reason I haven’t finished it yet is because I first went back and read an earlier work which provides essential context for this new book: Morgoth’s Ring (The History of Middle-earth, volume 10, ed. Christopher Tolkien). Of the few HoME volumes I’ve yet read, Morgoth’s Ring is certainly the most fascinating and revolutionary for my understanding of Tolkien’s work.
In the last two decades of his life, Tolkien became preoccupied with working out the metaphysical, theological and cosmological consistency of the fictional world he had created. In some instances this was clearly warranted and productive. For example, one of the great gems brought forth in Morgoth’s Ring is the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, a complete Platonic-style dialogue between an elf-lord and a human woman discussing the philosophical and theological implications of the differing fates (in terms of mortality) of elves and men. This work was partially spurred by a letter from a priest who questioned his description of human mortality as a “gift” in The Lord of the Rings. I highly recommend the Athrabeth even to fans not hardcore enough to read all 12 volumes of HoME. Morgoth’s Ring also contains Tolkien’s attempts (valiant if unsuccessful) to resolve the biggest metaphysical flaw in The Lord of the Rings, regarding orcs, evil and free will.
Some of the material in Morgoth’s Ring is quite alarming, however. Readers of the Silmarillion know that central to Tolkien’s legendarium is the light of the Two Trees, for which the sun and moon were only replacements after their destruction. However, Tolkien, who conceived of Middle-Earth as being one and the same with our world, at one point became dissatisfied with his mythic explanation of the sun and moon, reasoning that the Elves would have known better than to pass down down fanciful stories. Instead of simply letting go of the idea that this was our world and therefore needed a compatible cosmology, Tolkien began to revise fundamental aspects of his cosmology, causing serious problems for the stories he had already written and guaranteeing that the Silmarillion would never be published in his lifetime. This material is admittedly fascinating, if rather frustrating and bound to make those who love the published Silmarillion a bit queasy.
A few of us from the Online Great Books community read and discussed all of Walker Percy’s novels as an extracurricular. (Well, I managed five out of six.) I confess that I came away from the experience with grave misgivings about this canonical Catholic novelist—by the time I finished his fourth novel, I was somewhat disgusted with him and required a break (hence I missed the fifth).
Not only did I find Percy’s preoccupation with the same ideas and (seemingly personal) pathologies in every novel tiresome, but I was disturbed by his tendency to grow increasingly explicit, as his career went on, in describing the degeneracy he had managed to deal with more tastefully in his earlier work. I have doubts about the Catholicity of his overall body of work and am fairly certain he does not deserve to loom so large over 21st-century Catholic letters.
Jacques Maritain is often associated with opposition to the Church exercising authority over the temporal powers, but you wouldn’t know it from an early work of his republished by Cluny Media—The Primacy of the Spiritual: On the Things That Are Not Caesar’s. It functions well as a primer on the extent of the Church’s spiritual authority over secular governments, and on the importance of obedience to the functioning of the Church.
Samuel Hazo, The Next Time We Saw Paris. In his early nineties, the Catholic Poet Laureate of Pennsylvania is still prolific with multiple new novels and poetry collections. This is one of the latter. He was the honored guest for my 100th episode of the Catholic Culture Podcast.
Daniel Toma, Vestige of Eden, Image of Eternity: Common Experience, the Hierarchy of Being, and Modern Science. A Catholic geneticist brings Aquinas and the Eastern Fathers to bear on modern science.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Marie Borroff. I had previously read Simon Armitage’s translation of this beloved medieval poem; Borroff’s too is excellent. Skip the new movie, by the way.
James Majewski narrated St. Alphonsus Liguori’s spiritual classic Uniformity with God’s Will on Catholic Culture Audiobooks this year. I highly recommend it.
I’ve just begun reading Plutarch’s Lives (trans. John Dryden) with the Online Great Books program. My taste in history runs less to the military-political and more to the religious, cultural, intellectual and personal. Thus I had difficulty making it through Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, enjoyed the cultural digressions in Herodotus’s History somewhat more, and find Plutarch to be the ancient historian by far most suitable to my interests. Plutarch was the first historian who believed that a man’s offhand comments and everyday habits could be more instructive than his great public deeds. The lives of Lycurgus and Alcibiades are particularly fascinating.
Also with OGB, I read Plato’s Republic for the first time. Enough said…
“The Recollection of Claude McKay”: James Matthew Wilson, at the Benedixt XVI Institute, reflects on one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance, who became Catholic later in life.
“Astronomy According to Dante”: Plough interviews astronomer and Dante descendent Sperello di Serego Alighieri.
Ashley Fernandes, “Why Did So Many Doctors Become Nazis?”, at Tablet.
Martin Mosebach’s 2017 First Things essay on the Latin Mass, “Pope Benedict’s Red Thread”, also made a major (if tragic) impression on me.
2021 also saw the publication of a significant episcopal document against gender ideology, by Bp. Burbidge of Arlington, VA. I was able to interview one of the priests who helped Bp. Burbidge draft “A Catechesis on the Human Person and Gender Ideology”.
Mark Christopher Brandt’s Joy, a new album for family choir and piano based on the structure of the Rosary, is a must-own.
I enjoyed exploring the work of another Catholic jazz pianist, Mary Lou Williams. Her music is wide-ranging and there’s no one album I’d single out—just listen to my episode on her and see what you like.
I have benefited from the new podcast Chant School, in which two members of the vocal ensemble Floriani teach the listener various Gregorian chants by repetition—you don’t even need to be able to read music.
I’d also like to highlight my two favorite episodes from our podcast Way of the Fathers with Mike Aquilina this year. “Julian, the Apostate Who Aped the Church” served as a kind of Inauguration Special without ever mentioning the current American President. “Chrysostom (Part 1): Golden Mouth and Golden Mysteries” was a beautiful exposition of the Eastern Father’s teaching on marriage.
This year James Majewski and I continued our work on Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. We reviewed some new films and also continued plowing through the 1995 Vatican film list (we’re now about halfway through). As background research for the podcast, I’ve continued to educate myself about great films more generally.
The best thing I can say about Dune: Part One is that it’s one of the first movies in some time to make me feel immersed in a strange new world. This is in part due to the integrity of its visual concept and production design, with detail comparable to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. It’s also a rare true epic among modern blockbusters, worth seeing on as big a screen as possible. I discussed the film with Fr. Brendon Laroche.
2021 also saw the American release of an outstanding religious documentary, Lourdes, originally released in France in 2019. This deeply moving glimpse of the hearts of the sick people who visit Our Lady’s grotto was directed by two agnostics but written by a Catholic journalist who volunteers at Lourdes, Sixtine Leon-Dufour, whom we were able to interview on the podcast.
Of the other films we discussed on Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast this year, these stand out to me the most. The first four are on the Vatican film list.
Maurice Cloche, Monsieur Vincent (1947). One of the best saint movies we’ve seen, about St. Vincent de Paul.
Alain Cavalier, Therese (1986). This film has its odd, unsettling moments, but an incredibly compelling performance by the lead actress as the Little Flower.
Roland Joffe, The Mission (1986). The much-beloved historical epic about Jesuit missionaries in Paraguay.
Federico Fellini, 8 ½ (1963). Morally problematic but cinematically fascinating.
Eric Rohmer, My Night at Maud’s (1969). By a legendary French Catholic director, about a young Catholic engineer whose convictions are tested by a woman who attempts to seduce him on Christmas night. Contains brief nudity.
Dallas Jenkins, The Chosen, season 2. See our podcasts discussing this remarkable if sometimes theologically flawed series. But you can skip the new Christmas special, which has the series’ most unworthy portrayal of Mary yet.
Three of the greatest films I saw this year:
Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter (1955). A scary, surreal fairy tale with a beautiful ending. Few films affect me so viscerally.
Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). A tragedy about how we treat our elderly parents. By the Catholic director who brought us Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, The Bells of St. Mary’s, etc. This and the above film have an emotional reality unusual for films of their time.
Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon (1950). Shows us multiple versions of the same event and leaves us to decide which character, if any, is telling the truth.
Some more good ones:
World War I
Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory (1957)
Bertrand Tavernier, Captain Conan (1996)
Terrence Malick, The New World (2005)
Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus (1966)
Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Preston Sturges, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943)
Preston Sturges, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Frank Capra, It Happened One Night (1934)
Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game (1939)
Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole (1951)
Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Francois Truffaut, The 400 Blows (1959)
Victor Sjöström, He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
George Stevens, Shane (1953)
Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo (1958) (not on the list because I enjoyed it; on the contrary, it gave me an upset stomach for hours afterwards)
Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past (1947)
Frank Borzage, Moonrise (1948)
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