The best books we read in 2018
Jeff, Phil and I thought it would be fun to do a review of our favorite reading of 2018—not only books published this year, but which we encountered for the first time or which made a new impression on us. 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 podcaster and arts commentator, I took the liberty of including some other media in my list as well.
Note: to provide you with additional fun, we also did a podcast with more extensive discussion of selections from this list.
Dr. Jeff Mirus:
I’ve decided my mind must be full, since I examine so many ideas and retain so few of them. Nonetheless, among the new “improving” books I have examined in the past year, five stand out.
Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought by Elio Guerriero: Published by Ignatius Press in October, this large 706-page hardback book rivals, in the field of papal biography, George Weigel’s definitive 1999 study of John Paul II. I confess I am only half way through it, but since I began it only a week ago, that testifies to the importance I attach to it. Guerriero covers everything thoroughly, from Joseph Ratzinger’s birth in Bavaria in 1927, though his early brush with Nazism and his later meteoric rise as a Churchman, to his relatively quiet life as Pope Emeritus today.
When dealing with Ratzinger, of course, a biographer must have a firm grasp of theology. The theological issues facing the Church in the post-war world have continued to be formidable, and Pope Benedict has contributed more than anyone to their resolution. Guerriero illuminates these issues, clarifying their origins in the various schools of thought in a rapidly secularizing Church, recognizing Ratzinger’s decisive contributions as a theologian who draws inspiration from Scripture and the Fathers, and even distinguishing some of the ideas which Ratzinger first thought fruitful but, with greater experience, has chosen to reject.
Still, in a biography the theological issues are only one aspect of the subject’s life. So if you need a more focused introduction to the theology alone, harken back to Tracey Rowland’s brilliant and readable 200-page book Ratzinger’s Faith (2008), which I reviewed in 2009.
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary by Brant Pitre: Subtitled “Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah”, this is a delightful trip through Scripture and related ancient Jewish literature to reveal the full meaning of the person of the Mother of God as she would have been understood by the Jews who accepted Christ. Pitre himself developed reservations about Mary when a Protestant used Scripture to warn him against the “Queen of Heaven” (part of pagan worship, as recounted in the Book of Jeremiah). Later he realized that there was a much deeper richness in Jewish thought which could be applied positively to Mary. As I mentioned in my larger review of the book in September, the author has written several highly readable studies of this type, all of which are at one and the same time suitable for theological study, apologetics and popular devotion.
In this connection, I would also like to call attention once again to Michael Hesemann’s Mary of Nazareth: History, Archaeology, Legends, which uncovers the archaeological traces of Mary from the earliest times in Israel, Turkey and Egypt. (See my two-part review from 2016: Sing of Mary, 4a and Sing of Mary, 4b.)
Heart of the Redeemer, Second Edition by Timothy O’Donnell, STD: It is fitting to allow Mary to lead us to her Divine Son, so I next recommend the new edition of Tim O’Donnell’s incomparable book on the Sacred Heart—the best book on the subject by a wide margin. This came out at the end of 2017, too late for inclusion in last year’s list. My review was written in late December. O’Donnell, who is the President of Christendom College, covers the dogmatic foundations and history of the devotion, the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, relevant Magisterial statements, the more recent contributions of the Second Vatican Council, and the insights of Pope St. Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis. The final chapter explores the universal relevance of devotion to the Sacred Heart. The work as a whole may be read for both theological and devotional reasons.
Aquinas and Modern Science: A New Synthesis of Faith and Reason by Gerard Verschuuren: Although published in 2016, this book did not cross my desk until early this year, when I included it in a review of four recent books on God and Truth. Of the four—all of which were excellent—Verschuuren’s was the only one I actually read from cover to cover in order to enhance my own knowledge. This is an exploration of how the epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas (that is, his understanding “how we know”) can help us to integrate into a cohesive outlook on life today’s preoccupation with what we call modern science. In his brilliantly-executed work, Verschhuren explores cosmology, physics, genetics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and the social sciences. Again and again he demonstrates the Angelic Doctor’s contribution to a proper understanding of the nature and role of every branch of study, and how all can coalesce in a cohesive worldview, rooted at once in both faith and reason.
Calm in Chaos by Fr. George William Rutler: Fr. Rutler is very likely the English-speaking world’s premier living Catholic essayist, combining broad knowledge, sound judgment, delightful historical anecdotes and deeply Catholic humor to make important points about the spiritual challenges of our times. He writes and speaks regularly and his best pieces tend to end up in collections of essays as time goes by. Subtitled “Catholic Wisdom for Anxious Times”, these essays are drawn mostly from the author’s columns in Crisis Magazine in 2015 and 2016. Each essay runs to about six pages, and each makes delightful bedtime reading. Here we have wit and wisdom at its best.
Fr. Roger Landry on the abuse crisis: If you do not listen to any other of the Catholic Culture Podcasts, you owe it to yourself to listen carefully to Thomas V. Mirus’s interview with New York City priest Fr. Roger Landry, who is an expert on the abuse crisis. The two-part interview encompasses Episode 19 (Understanding the Church’s Abuse Crisis) and Episode 23 (How the Laity Must Respond to the Abuse Crisis). Fr. Landry is knowledgeable, incisive, sound, and always right on target. You will know more about the problem after listening, but you will also be spiritually anchored and encouraged.
As I mentioned last year, my entertainment in reading runs to mysteries. In this category, I do not concern myself with whether or not an author or a book is new, as I usually do with the books I review. But over the past year I have explored a number of authors who are worthy of mention. Among their books I nominate the famous exploits of the French Inspector Maigret in a series of nearly eighty short novels, written between about 1930 and 1970, by the Belgian Georges Simenon. Maigret consistently relies on a shrewd understanding of human psychology to solve his cases. Happily, Penguin books has been reprinting the entire series at a rate of one per month since November of 2013.
During 2018, I also discovered the ongoing “Billy Boyle” series of World War II mysteries authored by James Benn. Boyle, is a young relative of “Uncle Ike” Eisenhower (the supreme commander of the Allies). Because of his experience as a Boston police detective, Billy is assigned to solve military crimes before they can cause serious problems which affect the war effort. The thirteenth in the series was published in September by Soho Crime. Lastly, for a fine heroine, consider Stephanie Barron’s brilliant series featuring the real Jane Austen as she figures out who committed a series of highly significant (fictional) crimes. Barron’s evocation of English life around the year 1800 is masterful. The books are written as if they are Jane Austen’s diaries, and she has Jane Austen’s writing style down cold. Also from Soho Crime, the last of the thirteen novels was published in 2013, but Barron is still writing, so….
Moving from novels to television, I recommend The Doctor Blake Mysteries, an Australian series that ran for five seasons between 2013 and 2017. It was forty-four episodes in all, concluding with a television movie in November of 2017. I’ve been streaming it from Netflix, but it is also available for streaming on BritBox. You can order seasons one through four on DVD individually or as a set (36 episodes). Season 5 can be hard to find on DVD, but a new DVD version will be released in January of 2019. Doctor Blake is an Australian medical doctor in the 1950s who, as the medical examiner for the police in the town of Ballarat, helps to solve the constant murders with which the settings for television crime series are always afflicted. The characters are engaging, and the acting superb.
For this list I’ve chosen only books that came out this year, and mostly ones that are not in my regular wheelhouse related to Catholic affairs.
Matthew Mehan and John Folley, Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals. I confess that I have a personal relationship to the illustrator, John Folley, who is my son-in-law. This series of poems about mythical mammals is the sort of book that you read to your children but you get a good deal out of it yourself. I think it’s an answer to a problem in our society, which is that we don’t encounter good poetry very much. In order to develop a taste for great poetry, you have to be acquainted with good poetry.
George Gilder, Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy. Gilder is an old friend; you may remember his book Wealth and Poverty, which was a massive best-seller during the Reagan administration. For the last twenty years or so he has been at the cutting edge of Internet development. Gilder’s argument is that the current problem with the Internet is that it is controlled from the top down, by Google and Facebook and Amazon. This isn’t the way the Internet was supposed to be. Like any book by Gilder, Life After Google is a bit of a disorganized rant, but it’s a fascinating read. He concludes that we’re about to see a new development using blockchain technology that will make Google and Facebook obsolete, returning the Internet into the user’s control while solving the problem of data breach.
Scott Hahn, The Fourth Cup: Unveiling the Mystery of the Last Supper and the Cross. A bit of a mystery story: this is a discussion of Hahn’s research into the meaning of Our Lord’s omission, during the Last Supper, of the fourth cup which would be typical of a Jewish seder meal. Hahn goes into the biblical scholarship on this matter and the process of exploration which ultimately pointed him to the Mass and towards Catholicism.
Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. I was nervous about this book because I was working on my own book on the same topic, Lost Shepherd. But it’s not a competitor, in the sense that we’re saying different things. Douthat makes the argument that Pope Francis is determined to change the way the Church works her mission of evangelization, and is willing to be as abrupt as necessary in doing so. I’m not persuaded of that—I don’t see a persistent effort by Pope Francis to do what Ross says he’s doing—but it’s an interesting read while he makes the argument.
Thomas V. Mirus:
Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn. This is a strange and enchanting fantasy classic. Beagle’s prose is gorgeous and clever. What baffles me is how he is able to go back and forth from the sublime to the ridiculous, evoking all the solemnity of faerie at one moment and then, in a distinctly modern mode, using a group of taco-eating bandits in the woods to satirize ethnomusicology. These whiplash-inducing shifts of tone and perspective somehow all work in the same story, as a reflection of encroaching modernity and the loss of mystery.
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This year I read the Narnia series for the first time since having it read to me as a little boy. Dawn Treader is my favorite. Reepicheep and Puddleglum (from The Silver Chair) stand out as Narnia’s most memorable inhabitants (besides, of course, Aslan himself).
Mark Christopher Brandt, His Footsteps... Your Calvary: A Heroic but Practical Way of the Cross. As he did last year, Brandt makes it on the list with both a book and an album. This book contains several sets of reflections on the Stations of the Cross, some for extended individual reflection before the Blessed Sacrament and others for doing the Stations in the typical way. There are two sets of reflections for use with children, with tips for parents on how to teach little ones to enter into this spiritual practice. Particularly timely is Brandt’s reflection on the women of Jerusalem weeping over Jesus: rather than simply getting emotional about injustices going on in our own lives or in the world, we must see everything spiritually and refer everything to the meaning of Jesus’s redemptive suffering.
Bl. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University. A classic explanation and defense of liberal education. See my podcast interview with Newman scholar Paul Shrimpton.
Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles. Reading Homer for the first time since college (because of my Online Great Books membership), Fagles made it easy for me to dive back in. Like most moderns, I relate to Odysseus’s values and skill set more than to the wrath of Achilles, but Fagles’s Iliad is so vivid it’s like watching an action movie.
Jacques Maritain, Art and Poetry and (with Raïssa Maritain) The Situation of Poetry. These two short essay collections round out my reading of Maritain’s philosophy of art. In the former, Maritain comments on three painters (Chagall, Rouault and Severini), debates with the aesthetes and immoralists of literature, and gives his only extended reflection on music. In the latter, subtitled Four Essays on the Relations between Poetry, Mysticism, Magic, and Knowledge, Jacques and his wife Raïssa, herself a poet, fill out an area that was insufficiently (to my desire) explored in Jacques’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: the relation and distinction between poetic and mystical knowledge. Both are types of knowledge by connaturality, and so akin to one another, but they proceed to different ends: the former toward the uttering of the poetic word, the production of a new form in the material order, and the latter towards silence. These essays, however, are not the best place to start with Maritain on art—I recommend instead Art and Scholasticism or The Responsibility of the Artist.
Karol Wojtyla, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, trans. Boleslaw Taborski. The plays of St. John Paul II are not always easy reading, but as so often with this saint, I feel they are addressed directly to me. In particular, I expect to study Our God’s Brother, The Jeweller’s Shop and Radiation of Fatherhood over a lifetime. Disturbingly, this collection seems to be out of print, but no doubt someone will take up the task before too long.
I haven’t been too busy making my own podcast to keep up with some others.
The History of English Podcast. For those who are etymology geeks, this is a great one: a very thorough history of our language, starting with its Proto-Indo-European roots.
Iroquois History and Legends. It’s hard to find material that doesn’t use the indigenous peoples of this continent to bolster some ideology. Hosted by two amiable brothers from upstate New York, this show does not “take sides” with either the Native Americans or the colonists. It simply presents the history with respect and compassion for the human beings involved. Bonus points for their sympathetic treatment of the Jesuit missionaries.
The Catholic Podcast. Solid catechesis and down-to-earth reflections.
The Thomistic Institute. The TI hosts lectures and conferences with great Catholic scholars all over the country every week. It’s too much for me to listen to all of it, but I keep an eye on the feed and pick out what appeals to me.
Mark Christopher Brandt and Yana Nikol, Structure and Freedom/Sunflowers and Roses. Last year, Mark broke new ground as a composer with his album-length chamber suite, The Nightingale (see my interview with him). The virtuoso flutist who graced that project, Yana Nikol, returns for this equally remarkable piano-flute improvisational venture. The DVD, Structure and Freedom, is both a master class for those interested in the process and craft of musical improvisation and a work of art in its own right, with a number of fun and unexpected twists and turns. Sunflowers and Roses is the “soundtrack” CD containing all the music from the DVD, plus some outtakes. I highly recommend this for musicians and music students in particular, but anyone who loves beauty will find joy here. It’s all about freedom of soul.
The Duskwhales, Hospital Dreams. The Duskwhales follow up last year’s Sorrowful Mysteries with more sorrow (in a good way!). This short, acoustic EP is inspired by drummer Chris Baker’s experience of cancer and chemotherapy last winter. I interviewed him in an early episode of The Catholic Culture Podcast.
Mariah Carey, Mariah Carey. It’s Mariah Carey’s first album, before they devoured her! Her virtuoso singing aside, I’m inspired by the poppin’ production on this thing. It’s also odd to think that the same drummer who played his heart out with Mahavishnu Orchestra when he was 17 was involved with this project.
Finally, there are three late-50s jazz classics which I had heard before but appreciated more this year. As with so much jazz of the era, there’s some overlapping personnel among these three records, but each is unique. Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Soul Station by Hank Mobley are firmly in gritty, funky hard bop territory, while John Coltrane’s Blue Train looks forward to his later harmonic innovations. All in all, I think Moanin’ and Blue Train have the compositional advantage—each has multiple tunes that became jazz standards—but Mobley’s outing holds its own with sheer musicianship and good spirits, including some brilliant solos by my favorite pianist of the 50s, Wynton Kelly. For me, Blue Train has benefited from the decade that’s passed since I listened to it extensively as a young music student, a time when I respected Coltrane more than enjoyed him. Now my ears have caught up…somewhat.
Of the new films I saw this year, the greatest is Roma by Alfonso Cuaron (previously known for Gravity and Children of Men among other movies). It has been a massive critical success, hailed as a world-historic masterpiece, and its production by Netflix has also sparked a conversation about where the film business is headed. I’m not qualified to say if it’s world-historic, but it’s certainly a masterpiece. This black-and-white film follows a family living in the titular Mexico City neighborhood (where Cuaron grew up). Its style is naturalistic and nonjudgmental; it sucks you and your heart into real life in a quiet but emotionally intense way. The performance by the main actress, in her first role ever, has garnered especial praise. The extraordinary sound design contributes tremendously to this film’s immersive power, which is why I’m glad I saw it during its brief time in theaters. (Fair warning: Roma contains one extended instance of male nudity.)
The Office’s (and now Jack Ryan’s) John Krasinski demonstrates his ample chops in direction, writing, and dramatic acting in A Quiet Place. This is a mainstream film with almost no dialogue, and as is so often the case, the silence draws you in. It’s a horror movie about family and sacrificial love. I loved it.
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is a solid, well-produced film elevated by its risky subject matter: Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist who was convicted for murdering multiple babies after they were born. Why would those who insist that abortion and infanticide are two different things nonetheless be threatened by such a story? That is the question this film asks and which also needs to be asked about this film, which was widely ignored by the media despite box office success. See my podcast with one of Gosnell’s writers, Ann McElhinney.
Better Call Saul. It’s not a movie, but it’s my favorite show currently on television. Each season of this slow, patient character study is better than the last, and it has made Michael McKean one of my favorite actors. I’m hoping, and I think there’s a chance, it’ll get a more redemptive ending than did its progenitor, Breaking Bad.
Now I must take a moment to mourn the recent demise of FilmStruck, a little-known movie streaming site which was a collaboration between the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. For those unfamiliar with Criterion, they put out very nice DVD and Blu-Ray editions of classic films—in the case of older films, often painstakingly restored versions—with superb special features. FilmStruck featured an outstanding selection of these movies with all the special features one would get on the Criterion disc. So this was a wonderful resource for those interested in classics, indie features and foreign films which are often hard to find. Sadly, it was marred by a poor website which probably contributed to its lack of success. Happily, Criterion is starting their own streaming service in early 2019!
Another great thing about FilmStruck was that it had many of the harder-to-find items on the Vatican film list. When I found out it was shutting down, I tried to get through as many of them as possible:
Babette’s Feast, 1987. Of all the films I watched in 2018, this is my favorite. It’s a gently humorous, humanistic tale of French (and so Catholic) culinary culture disrupting a Puritan village on the coast of Denmark. It’s hard not to see Eucharistic symbolism in a lovingly prepared and sensually overwhelming feast bringing some warmth, joy and reconciliation into a cold, crabbed, Calvinist community. It also has much to say to artists and to anyone who thinks they missed their calling in life.
La Grande Illusion, 1937. Jean Renoir’s classic was a great influence on The Great Escape. This story of French officers in a German prison camp during WWI explores the kinship of humanity transcending nations and the disappearance of the old nobility. The aristocratic French captain has greater rapport with his German counterpart, who holds him prisoner, than he does with his working-class lieutenant.
Au Revoir les Enfants, 1987. Jumping forward to WWII, this film based on the childhood of director Louis Malle is about children in a Carmelite monastery school in Vichy France. Unbeknownst to all but a few, the monks are sheltering some Jewish children. Malle treats childhood in a subtle and unsentimental manner; he knows how they really think and act, especially with no adults around. This is a hard film, though by that I don’t mean either that it’s hard to watch or that it’s difficult to understand
Andrei Rublev, 1966. I had been meaning to watch Tarkovsky’s masterpiece about the Russian icon painter for about five years; I finally got my chance when it played in the theater at Lincoln Center. Far more epic and sweeping in its scope than I expected. I have little to say about it until I can see it again, but it ranks with Babette’s Feast as my top film on this list.
Stagecoach, 1939. If you’re wondering why this classic John Ford/John Wayne Western is on the Vatican’s list, it’s because the films fall under three headings: Religion, Values and Art. This was in the Art section, and it certainly is that.
Dersu Uzala, 1975. This lovely film by Akira Kurosawa was a Soviet-Russian production, and his first non-Japanese-language work, based on the memoir of Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev. Arsenyev explores the Russian Far East with the help of a native trapper, Dersu Uzala, who has almost preternatural wilderness survival abilities. A true friendship develops between these men, one civilized and the other of the wild—but can they ultimately understand one another, or even live in the same world?
Wise Blood, 1979. This one isn’t on the Vatican’s film list, but it’s a solid adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. It’s a late John Huston feature (director of The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen in an earlier era). The protagonist, Hazel Motes, is played by a young Brad Dourif (best known now as Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings).
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