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Winter Books

Readers’ choices

NCR readers love to read. When invited by Editor Michael Farrell to tell us what books informed, pleased or moved them in the past year, they leapt to their work. Here is part of the avalanche that, we’re grateful to say, came our way. Space does not permit us to publish them all this week. Look for more next week.

Gordon Houser
Newton, Kan.

My recommendation is Damascus Gate by Robert Stone, Houghton Mifflin, $26. Stone’s sixth novel has it all: complex characters, suspenseful plot, vivid setting, challenging ideas, great writing. The complete package. I predict that in a hundred years he will be one of the more respected writers to come out of the late 20th century, one who reveals the tenor of our times while probing the complexities of the human condition.

J. Chepey
Fort Garland, Colo.

I recommend Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John S. Spong, HarperSan Francisco. Stephen Hawking, the famous British physicist noted for his time and black hole studies, was recently asked by a Canadian TV journalist if he believed in God. Hawking replied that he would not answer that question. If he said yes, then you might think he believed in your God. If no, then you would call him a crass materialist.

John Spong writes that the word God should be forbidden for several centuries. (For me, the word carries too much baggage.) Much of what the gospels contain was strongly influenced by first century science. Those of us who are not satisfied with orthodox belief, Spong calls “believers in exile.”

This book is not long, about 250 pages, but is not an easy read. It’s not for the “simple faithful.”

Terry Ellen Ryan
New Berlin, Wis.

In his first novel Unless A Grain of Wheat, Wind-borne Publications, P.O. Box 733, Hales Corners, WI 53130, Stephen Boehrer addresses realistically and sensitively the major issues and concerns faced in the church today. He describes the abuse of power and authority by a hierarchy determined to preserve the institution at the expense of the gospel message of servant leadership.

This novel speaks truth in an understandable manner that forces readers to stop and reflect on institutional justice issues. It also provides hope that even bishops can experience a metanoia!

Fr. Ed Eschweiler
St. Francis, Wis.

I recommend The Heat is On: The High Stakes Battle over Earth’s Threatened Climate by Ross Gelbspan, published by Addison Wesley. A convincing presentation of the evidence that global warming, along with its consequences, is a fact and not merely a theory. He documents the industry funding of doubting scientists. Frightening, yet offering hope.

Michael Leach
New York

I recommend Protect Us from All Anxiety: Meditations for the Depressed by William Burke, ACTA Publications. If you suffer from depression, clinical or otherwise, or if anxiety is often an unwelcome guest, this book offers insight, strength and hope. The author is a caring priest who has suffered through these agonies and understands what so many of us must go through. His journey, like yours or mine, is marked with pain but filled with grace. His honesty, faith and compassion moved me deeply. When I finished the book, I felt a kinship with him and no small measure of gratitude and assurance. If I were a priest or a counselor, I’d have 50 of these books in my office to give to people who suffer from anxiety or depression. The problem is that big, and the book is that good.

Fr. Joseph Gallagher

Leap Into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe, by Leo Bretholz, Woodholme House, Baltimore. Books about the Holocaust are nothing new and understandably depressing. But this one will be especially uplifting for NCR readers. Its author, a Viennese Jew whose mother was a native of Czestochowa, received critical help from Catholic religious figures in his flight from the Nazis: first from Franciscan friars in Germany, then from two parish priests in France and finally from an angelic nun named Soeur Jeanne d’Arc. After fainting on the street from a hernia attack, he woke up in a French hospital where the operation that saved his life had also betrayed his Jewishness. A young nun whispered in his ear: “As long as you are in my charge, you have nothing to fear.” (He has lately tracked her down to a retirement home. Granting him permission to tell their story, she amusingly stipulated: “Don’t romanticize me.”)

At age 17, Bretholz obeyed his mother and fled from Vienna the year Hitler took over the city. He spent the next seven years preserving his life and his freedom in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland and France. Captured several times, he spent time in internment camps and made an incredible escape from the boxcar taking him to Auschwitz. After World War II he came to Baltimore, where he still lives. A well-informed and literate man, his book reads like a masterly novel. It ends with an emotional bombshell detonated when he reconnected with the scenes of his youth. It ranks among the most humane and thrilling books I have ever read.

Kathy Shaidle

The best book of the year is, without a doubt, God Rides a Yamaha, by Kathy Shaidle. I should know; I wrote it. It’s a collection of my award-winning columns for Canada’s Catholic New Times -- a Gen X, “relapsed” Catholic’s struggles with faith, chronic illness and bad hair days. God Rides a Yamaha is published by Northstone.

J.J. Browne
Upper Sandusky, Ohio

My favorite book this year was Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. Good nonfiction book for the year; bought a few for gifts for friends.

Barbara Sanders
Park Ridge, Ill.

The book I like this year: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It is a well-written novel. She tells the story of Camelot as seen from the women involved in the story. The women were archetypes, and I found myself identifying with all of them at different times. Her use of religion was also interesting. She speaks of the one God or Goddess and it is our creator in either religion -- Christianity or Druidism. However, the practitioners of both religions are human, thus flawed.

Fr. Stuart Juleen
Karnes City, Texas

That Same Flower by Jostein Gaarder, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998, is subtitled Floria Aemilia’s Letter to St. Augustine. It’s an insightful look at how Augustine’s mistress might have thought about their relationship and her response to Augustine’s Confessions. Gaarder is a philosopher and brings an intellectual dimension to the text that confronts Augustine’s philosophy, morality and his renunciation of the secular life. Floria Aemilia is no timid soul, and she asks serious questions in an attempt to get her “lost love” to look critically at himself. I found the book enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Jacques Renault
Soccoro, N.M.

Of Passion and Folly: A Scriptural Foundation for Peace by Congregation de Notre Dame Sr. Patricia McCarthy, Liturgical Press, offers scriptural tools of prayer to lead one into Christ-centered peacefulness. This is a strong book and doesn’t propose a wimp’s peace; no, it insists on Jesus’ peace. The author asks at the very beginning, “Why is peace simultaneously so desirable and so unimportant to us?” Her answer is that it is not unimportant: It’s difficult and, being difficult, can only be made with a good set of tools. Of Passion and Folly is a toolbox. Each of the 11 chapters is a set of instructions for a scriptural tool: Covenant, Temptation, Beatitude, Love of Enemies, Eucharist, Mary, Missioning, Prophets, Conscience, Suffering and Passionate Folly. The first two chapters lay the theological foundation of the book. The third chapter invites us to become the kind of peaceful human beings Jesus teaches us to be. Succeeding chapters show us how to take up the tools and put them to work to make peace in the world.

Congregation de Notre Dame
Sr. Patricia McCarthy
Providence, R.I.

Everyone desires a meaningful, productive, happy life. Jesus of Nazareth promises us the way, the truth and the life. But most of us seem to miss the road signs along this way. Reaching Jesus: 5 Steps to a Fuller Life by Fr. David Knight, St. Anthony Messenger Press, can be the road map many are looking for. The book is concise, direct and encouraging. You don’t have to be a saint to read it, but it will make you one if you put the suggestions into practice. Many books presume a certain amount of commitment to start with. This one takes us from Step 1 of accepting being a Christian, right through to Step 5 of transforming society into the kingdom of God. The choices along the way are simple, clear and specific. You don’t have to be heroic to start living them. You don’t even have to be an especially good Christian. You just have to be willing to start. It’s Vatican II theology in everyday language. It’s the kind of book that you will keep in your backpack, not on your bookshelf.

Betty K. Dohn
Lizella, Ga.

I recommend A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler, Knopf, 1998. Tyler continues to provide profound depth in quirky, eccentric characters and circumstances. Salvation is found in most unusual places; redemption often comes in the ordinary. A good opportunity to laugh at ourselves through the characters and what they hold dear.

Robert A. Bernstein
Auburn, Ala.

Catholics (and others!) should read Michael Budde, The (Magic) Kingdom of God, Westview Press, 1997, on how the “global culture industries” make it nearly impossible for us to train people to be “passionate” Christians. For me, chapters 4 and 5 are key to the book. In those, Budde lays out the need for the Catholic church to teach and for students (young or old) to learn, believe and live the “language of faith,” “the life story of Christ.” Learning, believing, and living are, however, not easy. Television, computer games and so on steal time (and place) that might be devoted to the inculcation of faith. Mass culture programming, advertising (including some that abuses religious symbols), and other tools of the global culture industry ensure that those seeking to learn or to practice passionate Christianity will be ostracized by those around them. We should all be concerned about how to develop people of faith, people whose daily actions reflect that faith. This is far more important than developing people who are nominally church members but whose actions reflect little more than a desire for comfort and a hesitancy to get involved.

Budde is convinced that current efforts at religious education do little to produce people of faith and combat the seductiveness of the global culture industry. Furthermore, he sees little hope in either telling people to “turn off” the culture industry or in using tools of the industry to inculcate faith. He calls for “radical” changes (including substantial community control) to produce “disciples.” Those changes may not be met with enthusiasm by many of your readers, but it will be well worth their time (not too much time, the book is just 150 pages) to think about the logic behind the proposals.

Donald F. Kabara

I can only hope my spiritual director does not read NCR, because he knows I do too much reading about spirituality and not enough time “doing it.” The Human Core of Spirituality by Daniel A. Helminiak, State University of New York Press, $21.95, paper, will leave me enough to think about for months. Helminiak, a professor of psychology, offers a departure from the norm of either building up or tearing down the past, in terms of spiritual development, to investigate the future. This book is a definite departure from what I have read in the past and a move into an investigation of what really makes us tick. I was going to place this book on my bookshelf next to my de Mellos, but then the word got out; today I am sure this work will soon have the big X on it, so it’s pretty bad (good?). It’s quite academic and not very practical, except for the definition of the structure of human spirit and the criteria of authenticity: Be responsible, be reasonable, be intelligent and be attentive. It makes previous psycho-spiritual works look like primers, which they probably were, and it sets a pace for the future that will be hard for traditionalists to contend with. It’s my favorite book this year -- and, I promise, my last for the year!

Theresa Fenzl of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary
Alameda, Calif.

A book that has nurtured my spiritual life and to which I have returned after its initial reading is Hidden Springs by Thomas Hart. Published by Paulist Press, this book has helped me in my ministry of retreat and spiritual direction as well as in my own spiritual life. In the midst of a recent challenge, I turned to this book. Chapter 3, “Toward a Healthy Spirituality: Ten Guiding Principles,” has been especially helpful. There is a thought-provoking reflection on each principle and related scripture references. I have used this chapter for my prayer. I also found the lived examples and shared (anonymous) examples of therapy sessions around specific issues helpful to me personally and as I participate in the ministry of helping others heal and grow in their spiritual lives. I strongly recommend this book.

Fr. John Garvey
Webster, S.D.

I haven’t yet finished The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, Pantheon. I ordered it on the basis of a plug given it on the Web site of the American College at Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium (www.acl.be). It will be up there with the best reading I have done this summer. It will make you long to go or return to that wonderful country that is Belgium.

Fr. Paul F. McDonald
San Antonio

A Measure of My Days: The Journal of a Country Doctor, by David Loxterkamp, University Press of New England, Hanover, N.H. 03755, 1997, 321 pages, hardbound, is the yearlong diary of a Catholic family physician in Belfast, Maine. In describing his daily routine, he personifies the spiritual wisdom of a Georges Bernanos as he unveils the joys and frustrations encountered in his desire to practice a compassionate service to patients, colleagues and family. He discovers a richer meaning for life through involvement in parish activities such as RENEW, which provided him a much-needed opportunity for faith-sharing and a sense of connection with his Catholic neighbors. I felt as though I were making a retreat at New Mellery as I savored how easily he punctuated his diary with the encouraging thoughts of authors who seemed to be his daily companions in the pursuit of a richer meaning of life: works of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Raymond Brown, Georges Bernanos, Flannery O’Connor, Kathleen Norris and others. Better than television’s “E.R.,” Loxtercamp gives us the real thing. In a final chapter he muses: “I have come to a dubious age. The specialty of family practice, like all of medicine, finds itself on sandy soil in a time of seismic change. The old pillars are falling, our leaders have left. And I feel not so much abandoned as vulnerable, like a hermit crab caught outside his shell. I have outgrown my old ambitions, satisfied parental expectations, repaid my student loans and earned that elusive right to self-respect. And I must now stake out the future on my own.” This is an engaging book to be read not only by health professionals but anyone seeking to be educated and inspired to aim higher and do better in the pursuit of any career.

School Sister of Notre Dame Phyllis Ann Price
St. Louis

Who of us has not said, “There is never enough time”? In Sabbath Sense: A Spiritual Antidote for the Overworked, by Donna Schaper, Innisfree Press, the author in her own unique style offers suggestions as to how we can celebrate Sabbath in our day-to-day living by packing our spiritual baggage and journeying to a place called “enough” -- enough time, rest, and play. Sabbath Sense is easy, delightful reading, filled with Sabbath rituals for taking back our time and caring for our souls.

Andrew M. Schneider, a permanent deacon
Northport, N.Y.

When I read NCR’s request for a “Best Book,” I immediately thought of Snow in August by Pete Hamill and published by Warner Books. I liked being taken back to 1940s Brooklyn through the eyes of an 11-year-old Irish-American boy. This book gets my vote.

Joe Geist
Fayette, Mo.

I recommend The Short History of a Prince by Jane Hamilton. This rhapsodic, local-color novel from a gay person’s perspective makes us rethink a lot of the cliches and stereotypes that often become a part of the carry-on baggage we take through life. It will take a long time to forget the short history of this prince.

Jocile Walsh
Chandler, Ariz.

For the best book of the year, I would vote for Reclaiming Spirituality by Diarmuid O’Murchu, Crossroad. This is a wonderful book about spirituality versus religion and the importance of “engaging creatively with our evolving universe.”

Virginia Saenz McCarthy
Pacheo, Calif.

My favorite book of the year is: The Catholic Tradition: The Church in the Twentieth Century, Loyola Press, $15.95, by my late husband Timothy G. McCarthy who died in April. This is the revised and expanded edition of his book, first published in 1994, which now, most fittingly, includes a chapter on “Women in the Postconciliar Church.” It is a comprehensive, balanced and sensitive examination of contemporary Catholicism and the profound changes of the last century. Tim’s gifts of clarity and simplicity in his writing and his thorough scholarship make his book a readable and valuable resource for anyone seeking a greater understanding of the key issues affecting the church today. Readers will also undoubtedly be affected by Tim’s spirit of deep love and commitment to the church, which subtly but clearly permeates the book. The back cover quotes a review from America magazine that sums it up nicely: “The Catholic Tradition offers nourishment not only to the mind, but also to the heart.” OK, I’m biased. But I’m certain other readers will also find this book delightful and encouraging.

Barbara Heider
Webster, Mass.

Measuring just 7 x 5 inches with only 96 pages, it certainly isn’t a big book. The cost is quite reasonable at $4.95. The Joy of Being a Eucharistic Minister was a recent gift from a friend who has pretty good taste in books. Seeing Mitch Finley as the author with an endorsement by Blessed Sacrament Fr. Eugene LaVerdiere made it worth a second look. This little book from the Spirit-Life series of Resurrection Press is a treasure. The insights into Eucharist are worthwhile for any reader, and essential for eucharistic ministers. A parish community would do well to plan the training and “retraining” of eucharistic ministers around this wonderful book. Not the biggest book I read in 1998, but certainly one of the most important.

Mary F. Hazlett
Akron, Ohio

In September 1998, Crossroad published Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of his Final Year. I have been unable to put it down. I remember reading two years ago of Nouwen’s sudden death and at that time experienced a deep grief, a sense of loss. I never met Nouwen, but his willingness to expose his vulnerability, his deep need for affirmation and encouragement, his sense of low self-esteem -- this willingness touched me deeply. Sabbatical Journey is perhaps Nouwen’s most intimate book yet and reveals a man genuinely searching within himself as to how best to live his vocation while revealing God’s presence to others. The book reveals small faith communities “popping up” around Nouwen wherever he goes. As Nouwen ponders his future, I know that the future for him is nearly over. He died three weeks after his last entry. I highly recommend this book to anyone needing a spiritual lift, needing some guidance.

Rose Mary Meyer

I recommend Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints, by Elizabeth Johnson, Continuum, 1998. During this year when we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, Elizabeth Johnson provides a theology of the communion of saints. Although the official list of saints is dominated by men, Johnson acknowledges the universality of women’s issues and the value of difference, which allows for integral human development and unique stories. By enriching ourselves with the retrieval of and the re-membering of those who have gone before us, we acknowledge our communion with one another. The communion of saints strengthens us with hope in our work for global solidarity with each other and Earth.

C. Ann Redford

The best of the recent crop for me is titled Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President. The author is Carl Sferrazza Anthony; the publisher is William Morrow in New York; the hardcover price is $30. It’s a hefty book, running to over 500 pages. This is not a book I would have thought of looking at, but after hearing an interview with the author on National Public Radio, I thought it might at least be worth a try. What a pleasant surprise! I hauled this book everywhere I went. Even lost a little sleep because I couldn’t put it down. Anthony brings to vivid life the years at the end of the last century and the America of the early 20th century, all the while painting a portrait of a woman far ahead of her time: her relationship with the media, her activism on behalf of the less fortunate preceding that of Eleanor Roosevelt, her political savvy, her strength and fortitude in the face of approaching scandal and the ultimate loss of husband and her place as First Lady. She is vulnerable, driven, remarkable. The book has extensive endnotes and resource information also, which alone make fascinating reading. It’s definitely one that I will read again.

Thomas Bolin
San Antonio

John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Really Happened in the Years Following the Execution of Jesus, HarperSan Francisco, 1998, is the massive sequel to Crossan’s 1992 study on the historical Jesus and answers many of the questions raised by that first book. This elegantly written work is an eye-opener that cautions against our understanding the development of the gospels and the practice(s) of the early church too simplistically. Chapters dealing with the historical unreliability of oral tradition (amply illustrated with examples) and with the myriad evidence for a multiplicity of Christianities at the earliest strata will do much to correct the naive assumptions about the early church that inform both the left and the right in current theological debate. Crossan offers clear discussions concerning the role of archaeology and anthropology in biblical studies, and paints a compelling picture of the complex origins of Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. This book does much to put flesh and bones upon our picture of the early church.

Kathryn Bergeron
Old Lyme, Conn.

My nomination for “Best Book” is The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, by Harper. It will give you a new appreciation of what men risk to bring us fresh fish. It’s a true story about a ship out of Gloucester, Mass., which goes down with all hands. Harrowing and inspiring.

Kathleen Farago

My recommendation for “Best Book” is David Kline’s Scratching the Woodchuck: Nature on an Amish Farm, University of Georgia Press, 1997. This is a delightful and informative collection of essays on nature on an Amish farm in Ohio in the Killbuck area. The author talks about birds, mammals, clouds and plants during the four seasons of a year. Very readable.

C.G. Estabrook
Urbana, Ill.

A silly cover decks one of the best books of philosophical theology I’ve read in a while. The University of Notre Dame Press, in its collective wisdom, chose to adorn Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity, by Dominican Fr. Fergus Kerr, with a picture from an awful Maxfield Parrish painting: A nude of ambiguous sex sits on a rock in an uncomfortable position and gazes soulfully aloft. This ambitious collection of studies that Kerr presented as the Stanton Lectures at Cambridge University in 1994-95 deserves better. The editor of the British Dominican journal New Blackfriars has here undertaken to examine a number of contemporary thinkers in order to uncover the religious and theological presuppositions present in their work. And quite a varied list it is: the classical philosopher Martha Nussbaum; the disgraced but influential Martin Heidegger; the novelist and Oxford don Iris Murdoch; the Lacanian feminist Luce Irigaray; the literary and film critic Stanley Cavell; and the philosopher of self and community Charles Taylor. Then on the basis of his insightful readings and a reflection on the Christology of Karl Barth, Kerr addresses with freshness the Scholastic chestnut of natural desire for God. Kerr is a master of the arcane hermeneutical art of actually reading closely what his authors wrote. He has a talent for turning close reading into insightful prose. The reader comes away from this book excited about what these writers have written and knowledgeable about what the issues are.

Clare McBrien
Wytheville, Va.

The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram, Vintage Books, contained so many aha! moments for me. This is a well-written and well-researched literary work, poetic in places. Abram writes extensively of the relationship of oral cultures and the land. The land itself “is the ever-vigilant guardian of right behavior” for oral cultures. An Apache woman tells him: “The land is always stalking the people. The land makes people live right. The land looks after us.” Tribal stories are intertwined and inseparable from the landscape. Aside from the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, the alphabet shares in the blame for our lost contact with the magic of place. With the alphabet, images become associated with only human-made sounds. Abrams says that with writing, civilization entered a wholly self-reflexive mode of animism or magic. He points out that indigenous peoples saw human engagement with “talking leaves,” the black marks on the flat, leaflike pages, as talking directly to the one who knew their secret. Thus we are animists, too, in this sense. Early writing, pictographs, ideographs and even rebus-like writing still used and depended upon sensorial participation with the natural world. Written language divorced the alphabetic culture from nature and made it possible to pursue lifestyles and activities that contribute to the destruction of whole ecosystems. This is one of those books that really makes one think and re-examine the place and purpose of human activity in nature.

Jack Darragh
Gig Harbor, Wash.

Written for “My mother, her mother and mothers everywhere,” The Color of Water by James McBride, River Head Books, 1996, is a spiritual tribute to an extraordinary mother written by her son. The author is the child of a black father and a Jewish mother. He and his 11 siblings were fathered by two black men of grace, dignity, courage and intelligence. The daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, his mother married a black man for love and for the chance to escape the prison that was home and her father who was the warden. The cost was great. She never again saw her only sister, whom she adored, or her partially crippled, partially blind mother. She was shunned in the white community for marrying a black -- a hanging offense for the male in 1942. She was treated as dead by the Orthodox community.

With her first husband, she found Jesus and the strength the Holy Spirit gives. In 1954 they started a living room church that survives in Brooklyn as the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church. All 12 of her children, in spite of almost indescribable odds, attended college, some becoming doctors or professors. The author is a writer and musician. His mother gives all the credit to Jesus.

She describes a home early in her marriage: “The bathroom was in the hallway and used by all the tenants, and there were roaches everywhere. Every Sunday when I’d take my church hat out, roaches would crawl out. We had four kids in that one room. We lived in that one room for nine years, and those nine years were the happiest of my life.” The book tells a story of the melding of white and black, Jewish and Christian, and sacrificial love over bigotry and hate.

Georgiann Lyga
Sacramento, Calif.

I recommend The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry, edited by Daniel Burton-Rose with Dan Pens & Paul Wright, Common Courage Press, 1998. All those anti-military/industrial complex activists who have gone into hibernation since the end of the so-called Cold War need to wake up, sit up, get up and start to work on the newest bogeyman in our society: the prison/industrial complex. The 4-A syndrome afflicting the United States (affluence, apathy, arrogance, avarice) is glaringly present in this unsettling documentation of abuses blithely funded by us, the taxpayers.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998