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"The Best Books I Read in 2008..." | Ignatius Press Authors, Editors, and Staff | January 2, 2009

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The 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 2008--in fact, most of them weren't--nor did they have to be about a particular 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 Seal: A Priest's Story, by Timothy Mockaitis. An amazing account of how a jailhouse confession was secretly taped in a capital crime in Oregon and the subsequent ramifications. A blend of theological treatise and courtroom drama and the personal hell that the priest himself went through.

Secret Hiding Places, by Michael Hodgetts. A fascinating, matter-of-fact study of the design and locations of priest holes used to hide priests in Elizabethan England.

Belinda, by Hilaire Belloc. A novel that reads like Dickens.

The Death of America, by Samuel Nigro. A prophetic book, written in 1974 by a child psychologist who shoots straight from the hip, laying bare the social problems created by the legalization of abortion.

The Lobotomist, by Jack El-Hai. A biography of Dr. Walter Freeman, who advocated and performed thousands of lobotomies as a treatment for mental illness.

Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why it Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. A report of extensive research conducted by the Barna Group. Mainly aimed at Protestant Evangelicals, but very interesting. Guess what. We don't live in a Christian society. And guess what else: Christians are not highly regarded by the rest of society.

North Star Country, by Meridel Le Sueur. Written in 1945, a history of "ordinary people" in the Upper Midwest, based on interviews with people who still had first-hand accounts of the pioneer days.

Cain, Where is Your Brother? by Francois Mauriac. Social criticism written in 1962. Mauriac, like Chesterton, saw it all coming. Chesterton saw it first. In fact, Mauriac says so.

Speaking of Chesterton, I re-read The Everlasting Man (out loud for an audio book), Orthodoxy (it was the centennial of that great book this year), The Judgment of Dr. Johnson (a play), Fancies vs. Fads, Sidelights on New London and Newer York, and read a bunch of uncollected essays that will thrill you as soon as we get them published.

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 lives in Napa, California with his wife and five children.

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My interests and my work lead me to read a lot. Here is a list of the best books I read in 2008. It does not include books I read for Ignatius Press publishing purposes. When I say "best" books, I mean most important, thought-provoking, notable books I read. I don't necessary mean to suggest I agree with these books in all details or even in the thrust of their main theses. I'm sure I left something out but that's okay.

The Suspended Middle, by John Milbank. Those who know de Lubac and Balthasar well generally say Millbank gets both wrong on some key points, especially Balthasar, but there is enough that is correct to make the book worth reading, even apart from its value in the contemporary debates about de Lubac, nature and grace, and the proper interpretation of Thomas Aquinas and the commentatorial tradition.

Return to Rome, by Francis Beckwith. The reversion story of the former head of the Evangelical Theological Society of America and a noted Evangelical writer and thinker. Oh so much that could be said here. Every thoughtful Catholic should read this book. It says so much about why people leave the Catholic Church and why some come back

Defending Life, by Francis Beckwith. Lays out the prolife case using superb philosophical and legal reasoning. Surely it will become a standard point of departure in the right life debate.

Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer. Explodes the myth of Einstein as atheist or tacit atheist that some of the new atheists try to peddle on unsuspecting readers. Catholic philosophers and theologians would quibble and argue about this or that. But in general I think they would find Jammer's Einstein interesting and helpful, notwithstanding his shortcomings—which when it comes to a depth of knowledge of philosophy and theology are considerable. In the debate with Dawkins, Einstein is definitely an ally for the theistic position, although Dawkins makes noises as if this were not so.

Render Unto Caesar, by Charles J. Chaput. A good primer on Catholic political responsibility, especially in the American context. Every Catholic college student or high school senior should be required to read it.

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger. A terrific first novel by Enger. The wide acclaim of the book is well-deserved. A great coming of age story, with real life, family-style adventure, Christianity and, if you worldview will allow, miracles. Make of it what you will.

A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle. The first Sherlock Holmes novel. I had not read this book since high school. We reread it for our little reading group. Lots of fun. Lots I never saw. Mormons, however, are likely to find it appalling, not appealing.

Exiles, by Ron Hansen. A novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins and how the sinking of the Deutschland and the deaths of five nuns with it led the Jesuit poet back to writing.

Philosophy of Mind, by Edward Feser. Billed as one of entries in the Beginner's Guide series, the book is readable enough for the beginner, but by no means an oversimplification of the subject matter. Indeed, experts on the subject would benefit from the volume.

The Last Superstition, by Edward Feser. A refutation of the new atheism and its philosophical underpinnings. Good. Some are apt to find the book a bit too polemical here and there but it is a very helpful response to the arguments of the new atheists.

The Mystery of the Supernatural, by Henri de Lubac, updated edition, 1998. This is essentially Rosemary Sheed's translation, but the Latin texts quoted by de Lubac have been translated—unlike in the original 1968 English edition. The 1998 edition has an introduction by David L. Schindler.

Ratzinger's Faith, by Tracey Rowland. A good overview of Ratzinger's theological vision. Probably the best short overview on the subject.

Far and Away, by Anthony Boucher. A collection of short stories by one of the greats of the Golden Age of science fiction. Boucher—a Bay Area writer—was a Catholic and theological elements frequently factor into his stories. Also, I read The Complete Boucher. Even better because it has more stories.

Star Trek and Philosophy, ed. By Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Decker. It seems as if every year I read at least one book with a title that features some aspect of popular culture conjoined to philosophy or science or some specific science, usually physics or biology. This year I read a few of them, including Superheroes and Philosophy and The Physics of Superheroes. However, the best such book I read was Star Trek and Philosophy. Not all of the philosophical conclusions are solid, nor are all of the philosophical analyses correct. But the book is fun for Star Trek fans who want to think a bit more about what they watch and perhaps who want to learn to watch a bit more intelligently.

Einstein and Aquinas: A Rapprochement, by John F. Kiley. An older work. Interesting thesis but heavy going in some parts. Presupposes a fair amount of knowledge in physics and philosophy. Essentially, argues for a basic confirmation of Aquinas' realism and sees this view, as a matter of metaphysics and epistemology, was implicitly underpinning the process by which Einstein's theory of relativity came to be. Difficult for the non-expert like me to assess. Also, historians of science may quibble with Kiley on particulars when it comes to how Einstein came to formulate his ideas. Still, the basic premise of the book seems sound.

A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Goedel and Einstein, by Palle Yourgrau. Goedel and Einstein contra mundum when it came to realism. Einstein didn't like wearing socks with his shoes. Goedel didn't like screen windows because he claimed they interfered with his breathing. Goedel developed theorems that showed complete consistency in formal systems cannot be had. He also tried to show that the "intuitive" sense of time (as opposed to the relativistic sense of time) was unreal. And he developed an ontological argument for God's existence that he never published because he feared what being regarded as a theist would do to his reputation in a professional environment that he regarded as atheistic.

Catherine Harmon is the managing editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review and Catholic World Report.

Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait, by Peter Seewald: Seewald gives the fascinating back-story of his book-length interviews with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, framing key moments in Benedict's early pontificate within the context of the pope's biography and intellectual life.

Parenting, Inc.: How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers—and What It Means for Our Children, by Pamela Paul: I spent most of 2008 pregnant, so much of this year's reading was pregnancy, childbirth, or newborn-related. This book was a much-needed dose of common sense about how well-meaning parents are manipulated into spending a mint on their babies, thanks to toy manufacturers, parenting magazines, and "scientific" studies about childhood development.

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger: A very moving novel about family, the miraculous, and the Midwest.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen: OK movie, great book.

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne: I reread this book, this time with my husband. It's better than you remember from your freshman American lit class.

Gunnar's Daughter, by Sigrid Undset: While not my favorite of Undset's novels, this is a short but engrossing tale of honor and revenge in medieval Norway.

Pope Benedict in America: I had the good fortune to be able to attend the Holy Father's Mass at Nationals Ballpark in D.C., and like everyone else, watched all of his U.S. speeches on television. While capturing the excitement of the pope's visit, this book allows for deeper reflection on Benedict's profound message to the U.S., and the introduction by Father Schall is excellent.

Dr. Thomas Howard is a highly acclaimed writer and literary scholar, noted for his studies of Inklings C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams as well as books including Chance or Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism, Hallowed be This House, Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, If Your Mind Wanders At Mass, On Being Catholic, The Secret of New York Revealed, Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome and Dove Descending. He has also produced a video series, aired on EWTN, titled "Treasures of Catholicism." The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard was published by Ignatius Press in 2007. Visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page for a full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press.

Jesus of Nazareth, by Benedict XVl. Magisterial. Glorious. Heartening. Bang on. Hurrah.

The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Benedict XVl. Should be Required Reading for every bishop, priest, religious, and layman in the global Church.

The City of God, by St. Augustine. It gets better with every reading.

The Stricken Deer, by Lord David Cecil. Thetenderest, most exquisite biography (of the l8th century hymnwriter William Cowper) ever written.

The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius. Sheer good reading, about those titanic figures.

The Warden of Barset, by Anthony Trollope. The best bedtime reading ever.

The Diaries of James Lees-Milne. Positively the most unput-downable, and utterly engaging, books I've read for a very long time. Vastly civilized, droll, self-effacing.

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 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

The Last Secret of Fatima (Doubleday, 2008), by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. This book is superb for getting the facts on Fatima, and from a truly authoritative source.

Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth," August 6, 1993), by Pope John Paul II. I'm rereading this encyclical yet again. During his visit to America this spring, Pope Benedict was clearly reiterating this message. Here's a piece I wrote for National Catholic Register on that point

The Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt Brace, 1998 edition), by Thomas Merton. I believe I mentioned this book last year as well. Okay, I'm a slow reader! Really, I put the book down, only reluctantly because of certain obligations and deadlines, and just picked it up again. The spiritual component of the book comes on strong only toward the later chapters. This memoir is a classic for good reason. I recommend it most emphatically for young men discerning the priesthood and grappling with the vices of our modern culture.

Surprised by Truth (Basilica Press, 1994), edited by Patrick Madrid. I read this back when I was considering converting to the Catholic Church. It was one of the most influential books in my conversion. I dug it out this fall as the featured book for our apologetics class at our local parish. I run the class, which includes roughly twenty cradle Catholics. This book is a tremendous eye-opener for them. It is also a masterpiece of apologetics. This book is teaching them how to respond to the litany of attacks they've endured from Protestants for decades.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (HarperCollins, 2008), by Amity Shlaes. We still have not learned the right lessons of the Great Depression, and we may now be destined to repeat them again. This book has it right. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Washington's God (Basic Books, 2006), by Michael Novak and Jana Novak. This is the book on the faith of George Washington. The research is superb.

Operation Solo: The FBI's Man in the Kremlin (Regnery, 1996), by John Barron. This is an incredible story on the single most crucial American spy during the Cold War: Morris Childs. Would you believe that the number two man at Communist Party USA (CPUSA)—so close to the Kremlin that the Soviets loved him like a brother—was an FBI agent? Few people know the stunning, unknown story of this forgotten America. Here's a review I recently wrote on the book: "Remembering an Unknown Hero: Morris Childs, America's Greatest Cold War Spy".

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.

Here's my list, in no particular order of merit:


El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III, by Sarah Schroth and Ronni Baer. The catalog of a fine exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England, by Peter Brears. A fascinating and detailed look at this most basic aspect of everyday life.

Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America, by Ann Braude. The irrational underside of Victorian society was more influential than previously supposed.

Silk Art Embroidery: A Women's History of Ornament and Empowerment, by Donna Cardwell. A gorgeous look at craft and context that is, needless to say, more wholesome than spiritualism.

Last Call, by Tim Powers. The myth of the Fisher King is played out in Las Vegas via Tarot cards.

Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present, by Michael D. Bailey. An excellent, up-to-date introduction.

Smith of Wooton Major, by J.R.R. Tolkien (extended ed. Verlyn Flieger). Tolkien's loveliest short fiction, with extra goodies and the original Pauline Baynes illustrations.

Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, by Marjorie Burns. Burns analyzes mythological themes from both of Tolkien's "Northern" sources.

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration, edited by Stratford Caldecott and Thomas Honegger. This collects papers from a 2006 Oxford Conference on Tolkien.

Recovery and Transcendence for the Contemporary Mythmaker: The Spiritual Dimension in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, by Christopher Garbowski. Spirituality in the legendarium gets a sophisticated and insightfulexamination.

Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, by Brian Rosebury. Good analysis using tools of formal literary criticism.

Movies and DVDs:

Bleak House. The Gillian Anderson version of Dickens' novel for Masterpiece Theater, glossier than the one with Diana Rigg.

The Dark Knight. Stunning visuals plus moral questions.

Mongol. The early life of Genghis Khan, splendidly filmed in Central Asia.

Persepolis. Minimalist animated cartoon about a girl growing up in Revolutionary Iran, adapted from a graphic novel of the same title.

The Red Shoes. Love versus art in the world of ballet, still a visual treat 60 years after its debut.

WallE. Pixar's quirkiesteffort, where unlike The Red Shoes, love and life triumph.

Read Part Two of "The Best Books I Read in 2008..."


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