If memory serves, this past year saw electronic books top printed books in the sales figures at Amazon.com. Be that as it may, books—real books—still make wonderful Christmas gifts. Here are some recently published (and read) titles I can recommend with enthusiasm.
“The Union War,” by Gary W. Gallagher (Harvard University Press): As the Civil War Sesquicentennial gets underway in earnest, it’s good to have Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia as a guide to why what happened, happened. “The Union War” argues that the northern war was, above all, a war for the Union, as his previous volume, “The Confederate War,” demonstrated that nationalism, and the defense of what the South understood to be its liberties, was at the heart of its war effort. Gallagher uses the tools of social history (including letters from veterans on both sides and Civil War-era journalism) to buttress his case.
“Ascension Theology,” by Douglas Farrow (T & T Clark): One of North America’s rising younger theologians, Doug Farrow of Montreal’s McGill University, is also a superb writer who makes theology come alive for the literate, but not necessarily specialist, reader. He positions the Ascension at the center of the Christian proclamation and creed and thereby sheds new light on everything, from the nature of the Church to the full meaning of the Eucharist.
“Newman and His Contemporaries,” by Edward Short (T & T Clark): Another Newman book? Well, yes, and a particularly fine one that explores Newman’s relationships with the great ecclesiastical, literary, political and journalistic figures of his time. Short’s close reading of Newman’s vast correspondence also demonstrates just how many of our post-Vatican II arguments were anticipated in the 19th century among Newman and his interlocutors.
“YouCat” (Ignatius Press): I will admit to a certain skepticism when the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church was announced, but my dubieties have given way to enthusiasm. The Q&A of a classic catechism is complemented here by deftly chosen, brief selections from Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, great saints, and noble human spirits of many cultures. Good for the “young” from, say, 18 to 85 or so.
“The Tigress of Forli,” by Elizabeth Lev (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): I’m a suspect witness in the matter of Liz Lev, a friend with whom I’m working on a book on the Roman station church pilgrimage of Lent. She’s the best Anglophone art and architecture guide in Rome, and in her first book she has also shown herself a master story-teller. Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici was indeed, as the book’s subtitle proclaims, “Renaissance Italy’s most courageous and notorious countess,” and Lev’s re-creation of her life opens up a dramatic world of intrigue and passion, even as it illuminates Italian Catholic life on the edge of that religious tsunami, the Reformation.
“The Forum and the Tower,” by Mary Ann Glendon (Oxford University Press): A collection of essays on scholars, politicians, and their interaction from one of the Catholic Church’s most distinguished laywomen, who, in her new book, runs the keyboard from Plato to Oliver Wendell Holmes without misplaying a chord. The former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican is equally at home explaining why Cicero was the superstar of ancient Rome and how Eleanor Roosevelt worked with the Lebanese scholar-diplomat Charles Malik to give birth to the modern human rights movement. Further disclosure: Professor Glendon is another friend—and the mother of Elizabeth Lev, thus falsifying any claim that parent and child can’t share a literary vocation.
“Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith,” by Robert E. Barron (Image): The companion book to the brilliant 10-part television series, this eminently readable exploration of Catholicism-in-full is an even ampler introduction to the mind and spirit of the Church’s most important American apologist.
“Portrait of a Spy,” by Daniel Silva (Harper): It’s hard not to get addicted to Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels of international skullduggery. James Bond and his supporting cast were cardboard cartoons compared to the fictional characters Dan Silva, a man with a well-calibrated moral compass, has created.