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Winter Books:

Readers’ favorite books

For each Winter Books issue, we at NCR ask our readers to share their wealth of reading experience and tell us their favorite books from the past year. As usual, many enthusiastic recommendations came our way. Here are some of the responses, with more to follow next week.

(Br.) Patrick Hart
Trappist, Ky.

One of the most challenging books I read this past year was Mairead Corrigan Maguire’s first collection of peace writings, The Vision of Peace, edited by Jesuit Fr. John Dear, (Orbis Books, 124 pages, $14). Maguire is no stranger to peacemaking; along with Betty Williams, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1976/1977. Since then she has worked tirelessly for the sake of peace and justice not only in Northern Ireland where she lives, but all over the world -- most recently, Israel and the former Yugoslavia.

With a preface by the Dalai Lama and a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire’s prophetic vision of peace scarcely requires an endorsement from me. However, having read her collection of peace lectures and writings, I heartily recommend this volume, geared to all readers, young and old, Christian and non-Christian, to all persons concerned with global peace in our time.

Tom Brubeck
Silver Spring, Md.

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond by Larry McMurtry (Thorndike Press, $21): While most writers write about writing, this writer writes about reading.

Michael DeCleene
Park Ridge, Ill.

Man or Mankind by Edward F. Halpen (Dorrance Publishing) solves the symbolism of Genesis.

Joann Crowley Beers
Lodi, Wis.

Dennis Danvers’ novel The Fourth World (Avon Books, $23) has something for everyone. If you like to read about the indigenous struggle in Chiapas, if you prefer to ponder the possibilities of future technology and extraterrestrial colonization, if you are attuned to the destruction of our environment, if you like romance and adventure and intrigue, you can find all of this in The Fourth World.

Danvers’ novel skillfully integrates contemporary institutionalized greed with the world’s immediate future. In Chiapas we see indigenous people killed indiscriminately to maintain control of land in a few wealthy hands, as Zapatistas carry on an almost futile guerrilla revolution. The scene shifts to a cosmic arena where colonization of Mars operates on the same destructive values that colonization brought to this planet. Meanwhile, the powerful of the earth are seeking a place of refuge when the ozone layer collapses and the earth is no longer habitable. Three mega-issues may seem like too much content for one novel to incorporate, but Danvers weaves them together so well that the real possibility is frightening.

Like all good novels, this page-turner engages us with the loves and lives of compelling characters, while it also mirrors for us the reality of the society we live in, now and tomorrow, warning of what awaits us if conversion is not also on the horizon.

Eva R. Weber
San Francisco

Bamboo Swaying in the Wind: A Survivor’s Story of Faith and Imprisonment in Communist China by Claudia Devaux and George Bernard Wong (Loyola Press, $21.95): Although I am an avid reader, I have not often come across books with such depth of content and superb style. Faith, hope and love have been realized to heroic levels in the life of Jesuit Fr. George Bernard Wong, whose life is portrayed in Bamboo Swaying in the Wind. I appreciate the introductions to each chapter, full of history and other relevant information. Our youth ought to study such high-quality, excellently written literature and ponder such an exemplary role model who was blessed, despite all he endured, by a peacefulness that surpasses all understanding. I am grateful to have come across this masterpiece.

(Fr.) Placid Stroik, OFM
New York

In this Jubilee year 2000, Long Have I Loved You: A Theologian Reflects on His Church (Orbis Books, $20) is a favorite of mine because it has become an instrument of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Walter Burgardt brought peace to my wondering heart and discussions with these words: “We are ‘we’ before we are ‘I’ or ‘thou.’ This is central in Christian revelation and of primary importance for our contemporary culture of individualism, where we think first of self and then how we can join others in community -- as though community did not precede the individual genetically, physically, socially and spirituality.”

(Sr.) Irene Hartman, OP
Larned, Kan.

The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Crossroad) by Robert Royal is a historically accurate account that shows what happens in one’s life when one takes the scriptures seriously. There are well known, little known, unknown “saints” whom Royal brings to life and introduces as they walked journeys that included dying for Christ. Sadly few nations are omitted in this masterpiece. Are we proud of their achievements or ashamed that we have allowed so many to die without cause?

Lurline Johnson
Bartlesville, Okla.

I am a cradle Roman Catholic, shut-in, disabled from a fall years ago. An Episcopalian friend gave me Robert Ellsberg’s book All Saints (Crossroads, $19.95). Therein, the daily life of spiritual persons from early Christian martyrs to Mother Teresa, Gandhi, etc., inspires and sustains me each day.

Damiana Chavez
Los Angeles

If your life is so busy you’re spinning, stop the spin long enough to read Plainsong by Kent Haruf (Alfred A. Knopf, $24). Like the title, it’s “a simple, unadorned melody” of unlikely relationships, generous love that cares about others -- no gooey sentimentality. Among those you’ll meet are the McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, two old no-nonsense bachelors whose routine life is turned upside down when they agree to do a favor. Kent Haruf wrote a novel you’ll remember for a long time.

Cathleen Ryan
New Britain, Conn.

Illuminated Life by Joan Chittister (Orbis Books, $15): In this book the author takes us through the letters of the alphabet on a spiritual journey toward wholeness and holiness. Through beautiful concise imagery, she lays before us qualities to be sought in daily living. Highlighting topics as common as beauty and faith and time and work, she challenges us to delve into our minds and our hearts.

I greatly appreciate the way she begins each topic with a vignette about a person of wisdom and then breaks open the thought of making it come alive in our world. The writer has the gift of making complex virtues simple if we but ponder their underlying essence with an honest appraisal.

(Sr.) Angelina Breaux, CDP
San Antonio

My all-time favorite book is Catholic Means Universal by David Richo (Crossroads). Richo offers new ways to think about and relate to old truths, encourages trust in one’s conscience to guide one’s spiritual search, and challenges one to accept responsibility in religious matters as in every other aspect of adult life as a way to find a richer, deeper, more fruitful spiritual life.

(Br.) Paul Feeney, CFX
Shrewsbury, Mass.

No Power but Love (His Way Communications, $15) by veteran spiritual writer Fr. David Knight is an exposition of Christian nonviolence for which I have been yearning almost all my adult life! As a way of life to which every baptized person is called, Christian nonviolence has never been more cogently and persuasively presented from a Roman Catholic perspective than it is in this work.

Through the lens of Matthew’s Gospel, Knight places before the reader a series of reflections so profound, passionate and challenging that one is necessarily forced to reexamine one’s understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. To attempt to follow the life-altering implications of his exposition is to feel the full effect of the gospel’s tremendous power.

Written in a clear and engaging style and making pedagogically effective use of repetition and recapitulation, Knight displays all the artfulness of a deeply learned teacher and eloquent preacher.

(Sr.) Irene Kelly, RSHM
Tarrytown, N.Y.

Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate by Phyllis Zagano (Herder & Herder, $16.95) is my favorite book for the new millennium. It has opened the question of ordaining women to the service of the church in a timely way with an honest and respectful argument. It is clear and precise, easy reading, and should be on the bookshelf of every thinking woman -- and man -- in the church.

Turhan Tirana
Stamford, Conn.

Stages of the Soul by Paul Keenan is the book that made the most difference in my spiritual life in 2000. Keenan draws on his own long deliberations of the mind and spiritual acumen to map for laymen as well as the theologically sophisticated a route to what he calls the soulful life that is, in fact, analogous to that described by many of the great mystics, including St. Teresa of Avila.

Jack A. Artale
Doylestown, Penn.

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (William B. Erdsman Publishing Co.) by Allen C. Guelzo: Lincoln had one purpose in taking arms against the rebellious South -- to preserve the Union. He would say that slavery was not the issue in waging the war.

By the middle of 1862 many, including Lincoln, thought the Civil War had gone on much too long. The North’s military had not been performing well, had not succeeded in suppressing the rebellion. Lincoln became convinced that Providence had purposely stalled the war because the issue of slavery had to be addressed. Thus, he decided to outlaw slavery not only as a matter of justice, but also as a useful strategy in depriving the South of their most valuable resource.

The author had one primary purpose in adding yet another book to the already great number of existing books on Lincoln. He wanted to explore and understand the heart and mind of this great man. He has done it well.

Loretta M. Butler
Adelphi, Md.

Papal Sin (Doubleday, $25) by Garry Wills: Wills made me, an African-American Catholic woman, feel that someone cared enough to reveal the history of how certain leaders in the church mishandled their responsibility to listen and respond to the needs of the people. The author stressed the issues of slavery, women’s rights and the humanity of all people.

The author defined the true community and provided examples of how laity and clergy are working for effective change. Having experienced racism, institutional and otherwise, I have had the good fortune of having worked with organizations and people dedicated to peace and justice.

The historical data provided by the author informs readers about the past and the need for change in the present and future. He poses a challenge, one that I know can be met, because of my associations and particularly by the knowledge of the struggles and perseverance of African-Americans -- Catholic and of other religious affiliations. Wills’ book gives me hope.

Joan S. Foster
New Milford, Conn.

I Can Tell God Anything: Living Prayer (Sheed & Ward, $14.95) by Jean Maalouf is a spiritual masterpiece for all that shows us how God is living in us. Maalouf challenges us and affirms us, reminding us that holiness is achievable here on earth, moment by moment. I Can Tell God Anything will transform you. It is a glorious guide for the journey to heaven.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000