Looking for Christmas gifts to nourish the mind and soul? Here’s a potpourri of (mostly) recent books, guaranteed to do both.
“Hopkins: Theologian’s Poet,” by Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Sapientia Press): A masterful, brief introduction to the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., followed by spiritually rich expositions of Hopkins’ major poems. I had been trying, and failing, to understand and appreciate Hopkins since high school. This summer, Father Nichols helped me, not only to understand one of Anglophone Catholicism’s important modern literary figures, but to esteem him and his literary accomplishment.
“The New Concise History of the Crusades,” by Thomas F. Madden (Rowman & Littlefield): In both politics and inter-religious dialogue, the Crusades are regularly invoked these days—more often than not, in a way that displays abysmal ignorance of their historical context, their contemporary impact, or their long-term effects. Madden’s small, accessible book is comprehensive, judicious, and fair. It should be required reading for anyone presuming to discuss crusading, crusaders, and the Crusades.
“Come Be My Light,” by Mother Teresa and Brian Kolodiejchuk (Doubleday): A priest-friend who reads widely described this record of Mother Teresa’s struggles and triumph as “the best spiritual reading I’ve done in 20 years.” Many would agree. That the tiny Albanian nun with the heart as big as the world had enormous physical stamina was already well-known, this remarkably revealing volume is powerful testimony to Mother’s poignant and awe-inspiring spiritual stamina. Like John Paul the Great, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta reminds us that “no cross, no crown” is no pious cliché, but the central truth of Christian life.
“The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL,” by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Books): Long before Terrell Owens and similarly self-absorbed adolescents dominated the professional gridiron, there were titans abroad in the land. More than a few of them—including John Unitas, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Pat Summerall, and Charlie Connerly—clashed on the frozen tundra of Yankee Stadium a half-century ago, on Dec. 28, 1958. The first and only overtime championship game in professional football history ensued; it put the NFL on the American sporting map to stay. Mark (“Black Hawk Down”) Bowden captures the moment, and the manliness, in the best sports book of 2008.
“Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy,” by Yuval Levin (Encounter Books); “In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology,” by Eric Cohen (Encounter Books): I’m a suspect witness, as they’re both friends and colleagues, but I’ll risk the charge of special pleading by saying that Yuval Levin and Eric Cohen are two national treasures—finely-honed analysts of those myriad issues at the intersection of science and ethics, the resolution of which will determine whether knowledge leads to healing and flourishing or to the brave new world of manufactured and stunted humanity. These first books will be followed by many others, I’m confident.
“The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944,” by Rick Atkinson (Holt): “Nothing was right except the courage,” was one British commander’s summary of one of many botched tactical moments in an often-ignored World War II theater; the epitaph could easily serve to memorialize the entire bloody mess that was the American Army’s introduction to war against the Wehrmacht in continental Europe. This is the second volume of Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy,” which began with the story of the North African campaign and will conclude in due course with D-Day, Normandy, and the drive on Germany. As in his previous volume, Atkinson combines massive research with narrative drive and an eye for the telling personal detail.
Finally, a not-so-new book that still yields insight and pleasure on the 50thanniversary of its publication: “The Leopard,” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Pantheon). It’s the great modern Italian novel, an elegy for the aristocratic past, and a penetrating dissection of secular modernity. Lampedusa never lived to see his masterwork in print. The Swedish Nobel Committee could begin to redeem itself from decades of folly by honoring Lampedusa posthumously with its now-tattered Literature Prize.