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"The Best Books I Read in 2009..." | Ignatius Press Authors, Editors, and Friends | December 30, 2009

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The long-standing (five years!) tradition continues. Several Ignatius Press editors, authors, and staff were asked to offer their picks for the best books they read during the past year. The books didn't have to be published in 2009--no need to limit great authors and books--nor did they have to be about a specific topic. Simply, "What were the best books you read in the past year?" Commentary was optional.

Dale Ahlquist, president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society, author of acclaimed books on Chesterton, including G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton, as well as associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student Handbook, and editor of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K. Chesterton.

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. Best book I read this year (that wasn't by Chesterton). I started each day this summer with it, like daily devotions. The inspiring thoughts of someone hungering and thirsting for holiness amidst all the daily troubles we all face, only she had to face them on an augmented scale. I didn't want the book to end. If you still think Dorothy Day is a socialist, then you're a fool. Here's a great line from one of her entries: "Communism yielded to the temptation to turn stones into bread."

I Loved Jesus in the Night, by Fr. Paul Murray, a small book about a saint written by a future saint. Fr. Murray was one of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's confessors, and he talks about how she dealt with the darkness in her life and the constant sense of defeat.

One Man, One Woman, by Dale O'Leary. A Catholic defense of marriage using actual scientific studies as opposed to the agenda-driven psycho-babble that has been foisted upon us by the homosexual lobby. Dispels all the myths about homosexual partners and demonstrates our need to protect traditional marriage. Catholics need to be equipped with the arguments and evidence in this book.

Children of Men, by P.F. James. The movie was great. The book is better. The pro-life argument has seldom been presented so powerfully and artistically.

The Splendor of Sorrow, by Eddie Doherty. A journalist-turned-priest places himself mystically into the life of the Christ and reflects on the Seven Sorrows.

Last Call, by Tim Powers. Harry Potter for grown-ups. A supernatural thriller. Couldn't put it down.

Ancestral Shadows. Ghost stories by Russell Kirk, of all people. Quirky and memorable.

The Church and I, by Frank Sheed. A first-hand account of meeting and knowing the great Catholic literary giants of the early 20th century, engaging in street corner apologetics, running a Catholic publishing company on both sides of the Atlantic at once, and watching the changes in the Church, both good and bad, produced by Vatican II.

Unfinished Business, by Maisie Ward. All of the gaps of the above account, filled in by Frank's wife. Includes a marvelous up-close and personal picture of Hilaire Belloc.

Understanding Europe, by Christopher Dawson. Ironically, one of the best chapters in the book is not about Europe, but about America. "American religion has lost its supernatural faith and American philosophy has lost its rational certitude."

The Ratzinger Report. Yeah, I know it's an old one, but I have a whole stack of books by this guy that I haven't read yet, and that one called to me. Good call, too.

Peace of Soul, by Fulton Sheen. Exquisite. A true "Examination of Conscience" as Sheen takes apart modern psychology and truly studies the soul.

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, by William Oddie. Drawing on newly discovered sources, Oddie describes G.K. Chesterton's path to Christianity, leading up to the writing of Orthodoxy in 1908. A more in-depth treatment than has ever been given to Chesterton's spiritual development. We hope it's volume one of a two part biography.

Speaking of Chesterton, I read 200 previously uncollected essays of his that almost no one knew about. I found them on old microfilm at the Library of Congress. Fantastic stuff. I also re-read Orthodoxy (which everyone should do every year), Tremendous Trifles, The Coloured Lands, Where All Roads Lead, The Common Man, A Handful of Authors, and Maisie Ward's biography of Chesterton.

British author Lucy Beckett lives in Yorkshire. She as educated at Cambridge University and taught English, Latin and history at Ampleforth Abbey and College for twenty years. She has published books on Wallace Stevens, Wagner's Parsifal, York Minster and the Cistercian Abbeys of North Yorkshire, as well as a collection of poems, two novels, The Time Before You Die and A Postcard From the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany (Ignatius Press, 2009), and In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition (Ignatius Press, 2006). She is married, with four children.

Here, in no particular order, are some books I much admired in 2009:

Augustine of Hippo: A Life (Oxford University Press 2009), by Henry Chadwick, a book found and published after Professor Chadwick's death. A wonderfully crisp and intelligent short biography by one of the most admired scholars of late antiquity.

Augustine and the Jews A Christian Defense of Jews and Judasim (Doubleday 2008), Paula Fredriksen, is a fascinating learned monograph on Augustine's perception of the vital importance of Jewish history and faith, and survival, to Christianity.

Theology for Pilgrims (Darton, Longman & Todd 2008), by Nicholas Lash. A collection of very interesting, wide-ranging and thought-provoking essays and lectures by a distinguished English Catholic theologian.

Five Germanys I Have Known (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006), by Fritz Stern. A great autobiography, beautifully written, wise, learned and humane, by a great historian who arrived in the U.S. as a Jewish refugee born and raised in Breslau, Germany, is now University Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, has written a number of invaluable books, and has played a part in U.S. and German history at a high level.

Edith Stein: a philosophical prologue (Continuum 2006), by Alasdair MacIntyre. A brilliant account of how the circumstances of her life, her friends and teachers, and the terrible times in which she lived turned Edith Stein, who died in Auschwitz, into a remarkable philosopher and a brave Catholic.

The Polish House: an Intimate History of Poland (Orion 1997), by Radek Sikorski. The splendid story of a Polish writer brought up under Communism in a poor country district of Poland that, when Poland was partitioned, was in Germany.This is a lively, attractive account of a bold and enterprising life and of Poland's recent history. Sikorski is now Poland's foreign minister.

Mark Brumley is President of the Board of Directors of Guadalupe Associates and Chief Executive Officer for Ignatius Press. He is associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com. He also oversees magazines for Ignatius Press, is project coordinator for the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, and is editor of Ignatius Press's Modern Apologetics Library. Mark is also the author of How Not To Share Your Faith, and a contributor to The Five Issues That Matter Most. Mark and his wife live in Napa, California, and have five children.

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Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn. Another medieval "first contact" story, but told with attention to detail, character development, knowledge of the Middle Ages, and a light-handed Catholic sympathy.

Three Days to Never, by Tim Powers. Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. Israeli intelligence. Parallel worlds. Harmonic Convergence. Lots of fun.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Ok for Jane Austen. Not my favorite, by any means. Still, one of the better books of 2009 for me.

Aquinas, by Robert Barron. The prolific, popular, pistic pedagogue priest on the theology of the Angelic Doctor. A good intro.

Aquinas, by Edward Feser. The prolific philosophy professor gives us a very helpful intro to St. Thomas' philosophy. Underscore philosophy. This is not a theological work. (By "theology" I mean sacred theology; there's plenty of natural theology.)

Embryo, by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen. An interesting work. I found the explanation of the science generally accurate but not as accessible as it might be. Very helpful philosophical reflection on the origin of the human person and the personal status of the human embryo. Obviously, such a discussion is immensely relevant to the abortion debate, but as also the issue of experimentation and killing of embryonic human beings. Some experts will disagree with this or that element of the philosophical argument but the book is nevertheless an important one that must be reckoned with.

The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton. Always worthwhile. I wish I could read it every year.

Life After Death, by Dinesh D'Souza. Popular apologetics at its best. D'Souza makes a good case for the afterlife. The New Atheists must really love him.

Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne. Another book club pick. I read it as a teenager. Forgot almost all of it except the main idea.

Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton. A book club pick. Great read because it's Chesterton. We're all awaiting the movie.

Moral Philosophy, by Jacques Maritain. A classic.

The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. Always learn something when I read this book. To read him is to grow in mental health, as Lewis said of, I believe, Spencer. Unfortunately, one of the things I always learn from this book is how far I fall short in agape.

The Common Sense of Politics, by Mortimer J. Adler. A great book by one of the promoters of the reading of the Great Books. Many people would be annoyed by how he uses the term "socialism" and anti-democrats would reject his claims about democracy as the most just form of government (actually, the only fully just form of government). Adler's presentation is similar to the approach of philosophers such as Maritain and Simon. Simon's Philosophy of Democratic Government is a great work as well, but Adler's is far more accessible and addresses a wider range of issues.

Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz. A monastic mystery and spiritual thriller for Koontz's character Odd Thomas. Lots of fun. Koontz is an entertaining writer who is a Catholic.

Naturalism, by Stewart Goetz and Charles Talifaferro

The Servile State, by Hilaire Belloc. Re-read this work in light of the growing emphasis on state action and intervention in the economy.

How to Read Wittgenstein, by Ray Monk. Bertrand Russell thought Wittgenstein would be his scientific philosophical missile to destroy traditional philosophy. Wittgenstein came to have other things in mind. Monk does an excellent job of giving an accessible account of what those other things were.

Dr. Paul Kengor is a professor at Grove City College and the executive director of the College's The Center for Vision and Values. He is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. Kengor is a frequent television political commentator and opinion page contributor, as well as the author of several best-selling books. He is the author of several books, including God and Ronald Reagan, God and George W. Bush, God and Hillary Clinton, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, and co-editor with Peter Schweizer of Assessing the Reagan Presidency. He is the co-author, with Patricia Clark Doerner, of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand

Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2009), by Clarke Forsythe. Clarke Forsythe is senior counsel for Americans United for Life, the legal arm of the pro-life movement. Forsythe is not Catholic, but this book is one Catholics will find not only friendly but uplifting. Tellingly, all four of the endorsers on the back cover are Catholic, including Bishop Charles Chaput, Professor Robert George, and the late Richard John Neuhaus. Quoting great minds from Augustine to Aquinas, from Hamilton to Madison to Jefferson, from Lincoln to Wilberforce, Forsythe reminds us that we live in a fallen, imperfect world—comprised of fallen, imperfect men and women—and thus ought to expect fallen, imperfect results from our political system. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." But men aren't angels, and neither are their governments. Thus, the need for an integral understanding of the virtue of prudence in the public square: the focus of Forsythe's very timely book. Forsythe makes clear that we should hope for the best in politics, but not expect the best, and should never place our happiness in politics. We should make our decisions prudently, and expect change to come slowly—and not get frustrated along the way. These are especially needy lessons for pro-lifers.

On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books, 2002), by Michael Novak. In this book, Novak, the excellent Catholic theologian, brilliantly applies John Paul II's "two wings" of "faith and reason" to the brilliant work of the American Founders. In all of my reading and teaching on the American Founding, I had never encountered this application—until Novak. It gave me an entirely new Catholic understanding of what happened in 1776. The appendix of the book should not be neglected, as Novak gives brief synopses of the religious beliefs of figures ranging from Alexander Hamilton to Tom Paine. This is excellent reading for every July 4.

Fides et Ratio (September 14, 1998), by Pope John Paul II. Speaking of "faith and reason," this profound encyclical by the late pontiff examines the hand-in-glove relationship between fides ("faith") and ratio ("reason"). Here, Pope John Paul II considered the "two wings" of faith and reason "on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." This encyclical was issued on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.

Life and Holiness (Doubleday, 1962), by Thomas Merton. This moving work was Merton at his best, and here in a largely forgotten gem that I found tucked away on the shelf of our parish library. This small book on how to aspire to holiness cannot be quickly read in a day. Each page is like a meditation to be savored.

The Lamb's Supper (Doubleday, 1999), by Scott Hahn. I read this book a second time last spring as the feature book in our parish apologetics class. It really is a superb work essential to an informed intellectual understanding of the Eucharist. Every adult Catholic who presents himself or herself for Holy Communion needs to study this book. Doing so will amplify the experience in ways far deeper than the typical Catholic can conceive.

World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West (Pantheon, 2008), by Laurence Rees. Now for a history selection: This book by British historian and documentarian Laurence Rees includes newly released archival information on the very troubling relationship among the Big Three: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet mass-murdering despot Joe Stalin. Among them, FDR's naiveté on Stalin was devastating to post-war Europe. The material on Poland, in particular, is tragic, from the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion in September 1939 to the cover up of the Katyn Woods massacre. On the latter, FDR turned a blind eye to the Soviet role in the initial crime and the subsequent cover up. The book was accompanied by an even more engaging DVD series, which was carried this year by PBS affiliates.

The Apostles (Our Sunday Visitor, 2007), by Pope Benedict XVI. This relatively brief book is a superb exposition on the Apostles. I strongly recommend it for any Adult Education class at a parish. It is both accessible to the casual reader and also intellectually satisfying to more serious students of the faith. The chapters on Peter and Paul ought to be required reading for any RCIA program, especially the Peter chapter.

John Dewey and the Decline of American Education (ISI Books, 2006), by Henry T. Edmondson III. For anyone looking for a thoughtful primer on John Dewey, the founder of modern public education, this is a good source. The brief book nicely captures Dewey's penchant for "experimentation" and general corrosive influence on education in America. For an insight into the colossal failure of American public education, and especially the nation's horrible teachers' training departments at universities, this is a nice starter. Edmondson also briefly addresses Dewey's militantly atheistic statements on religion.

Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2009), by Mark Rudd, and Radical Son (Free Press, 1997), by David Horowitz. These two books will seem an odd choice for a Catholic's recommended reading list. Neither Rudd nor Horowitz is Catholic; both are Jewish, with Rudd (to my knowledge) remaining a non-practicing Jew. Both share a very similar background: they were 1960s communist revolutionaries. Horowitz was raised a communist, a self-described "red-diaper baby." In the 1960s, Horowitz became editor of the radical publication Ramparts, while Rudd became a major figure in SDS and the Weather Underground. Today, Horowitz has converted into a dynamic political conservative, whereas Rudd remains a man of the left. Why recommend these books to this audience? Both books are gripping memoirs about life and the dominant figures in the 1960s political left, many of whom today run our universities and pervade the political climate, from Congress to the White House. Rudd is now a leader of "Progressives for Obama," and seems shocked that Americans—including a majority of Roman Catholics—finally agreed with him on a presidential candidate. Both books are brutally honest memoirs. Rudd's story is a shocking tell-all, holding nothing back, and fully revealing the breathtaking depths of depravity of the 1960s counter-culture. There are moments in reading Rudd's book when the reader will want to simply go take a bath—or grab a rosary. (Nonetheless, kudos to Rudd for his painful honesty.) Certainly, the Rudd book is not even remotely spiritually edifying (the Horowitz book is politically edifying). Both books are very enlightening politically, and speak volumes about the long march of the "progressives" now governing America courtesy of American (and Catholic) voters. Catholics might want to read these books to learn a little something about what they've just elected.

Sandra Miesel is a Catholic journalist, medieval historian, and co-author of The Pied Piper of Atheism and the best-selling The Da Vinci Hoax. She holds masters’ degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois. Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited fiction. Sandra and her late husband John raised three children.


Holy Man: Fr. Damien of Molokai, by Gavan Daws. An old but excellent biography.

Henry VIII: Man and Monarch, edited by Susan Doran. Catalog of an exhibition at the British Library, showing many key original documents from his reign.

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn. Solidly researched historical science fiction puts space aliens in 14th C. Germany--just before the Black Death.

The Company They Keep, by Diana Pavlac Glyer. Traces networks of friendship among the Inklings in minute detail.

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, edited by Richard M. Golden. Exhaustive synthesis of recent research on the European witch-craze.

God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages, by Barbara Newman. A brilliant study of feminine personifications in medieval art and literature.

Medieval Schools, by Nicholas Orme. Complements his earlier study, Medieval Children.

Our Lady of Guadalupe 1531-1797: Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, by Stafford Poole. Text-based survey of the devotion's history.

On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers. A delightful stew ofpirates, Voodoo and zombies in a fantasy version of the 18th-century Caribbean.

Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religion and Culture, by Miri Rubin. Insightful lectures on Marian piety.

The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe, by Stephen Wilson. The superstitions our ancesors lived by.


Lost: This metaphysical fantasy is the most densely layered series ever to run on network TV.


Ponyo: A charming animated fable from Japanese master Miyazaki.
Roman Holiday: Still a delight after more than 50 years but this time I noticed the socio-political subtext.
Star Trek: Terrifically entertaining reboot of the old TV series.
Up: Lovely blend of serious themes and comedy in fine Pixar style.

Read Part Two of "The Best Books I Read in 2009..."


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