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Our Favorite Books of 2013

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What have Janet Smith, Robert George, Joseph Pearce, Paul Mariani, and other Aleteia Experts been reading this year?

I don’t know about you, but for me Christmas means books.

They're not the most important thing about Christmas, I acknowledge, unless we count the Word of God as a book (and I’m sure there’s a theologian out there who can help us with that). But for me, since my childhood, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Christmas has been the giving and receiving of books, not to mention the time to curl up beside the fire with a brandy and eggnog to read (though I haven’t been drinking brandy and eggnog quite from childhood!).

So it was with my mind on books that I turned to the bibliophiles on the Aleteia experts board and asked them for their favorite books of 2013. I told them that while I had a slight preference for books published in 2013, I was interested in any captivating book they read this year that they would like to recommend to you, our Aleteia readers.

Herewith follows the list–with annotations by the experts.

And I hope you will add to it with your own selections in the comment box below!

Eric Brende, rickshaw drive and soap maker

George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House, 2012). This award-winning short story writer has Catholic sensibilities.  He was a finalist this year for Tenth of December, his most recent collection. Even better was CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his inaugural collection that put him on the map in a big way. He is like no other writer: think science fiction meets Oprah meets Dilbert's boss after repenting. When I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I thought I'd read no more eloquent defense of the dignity of the human person, placed in situations that our increasingly bizarre and unfolding future is likely to bring us.

Janet Smith, Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Issues at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit:

[Editor's note: Dr. Smith's first two selections were in no way coerced by the editor of this publication!]

Daniel McInerny, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare  (Daniel McInerny Productions, 2012). The best, best, best comedic novel I have read since P.G. Wodehouse.

Daniel McInerny, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits (Trojan Tub Entertainment, 2011). Terrific and funny children’s book.

Aili and Andreas McConnon, Road to Valor (Crown Publishers, 2012). A biography of Gino Barelli, a world class cyclist who delivered false documents used to rescue Jews from Nazis and Fascist. Read in service of my pursuit to demonstrate the moral legitimacy of some falsehoods.

Gordon Thomas, The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012). Pius XII did an incredible amount to save the Jews–including providing false documents. Wonderful book.

Margherita Marchione, Did Pope Pius XII Help the Jews (Paulist Press, 2007). Short and convincing defense of Pius XII.

Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ (Image, 2008). Clear and deep. I am working to advance the cause of Archbishop Fulton Sheen as I seek his intercession for a cure from cancer for my brother Gary.

Alejandro Bermudez, Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend (Ignatius Press, 2013). A great introduction to Pope Francis by those who knew him well. Delighted to find that he supplied false documents to help the persecuted flee their persecutors.

Theodule Rey-Mermet, Moral Choices: The Moral Choices of Saint Alphonsus Liguori (Liguori Publications, 2012). I am working on the question of cooperation with evil. This book is an excellent introduction to the life and thought of Liguori.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (Pantheon Books, 2013). I enjoy almost all of Smith’s books, especially this series that began with the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Sweet novels.

John Corvino, What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? (Oxford University Press, 2013). A book full of fallacies, but useful for those who want to understand how proponents of homosexual acts and unions reason. Corvino engages in a respectful debate.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant, 2012).  The amazing story of a woman who was in a lesbian relationship but was won over to Christianity from her study of Scripture and the witness of a loving and honest minister.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Praying In Rome (Image, 2013). A recount of the conclave.

Rolland and Heidi Baker, Always Enough (Chosen Books, 2013). A moving and inspirational account of an unbelievably effective ministry in Mozambique.

David Gelernter, Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale University Press, 2009). Not finished yet with this one but love it.

Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club (Penguin, 1995) An amazing writer. Too crude for many. A convert to Catholicism.

Joanne Koenig Coste, Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s (Houghton Miflin, 2004). Invaluable for those caring with those who suffer from dementia.

Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera. The original novel.

Julian Fellows, Downton Abbey Script Book Season 1 (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2013). Haven’t finished it but greatly enjoyed seeing what was left out and why in my very favorite series.

Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government, Berry College:

I just finished teaching a course on Technology and Biotechnology, which included a huge and diverse array of texts. Here’s what moved me the most:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Solzhenitsyn Reader (ed. E. Ericson and D. Mahoney, ISI 2009)–especially Solzhenitsyn's 1992 lecture to the International Academy of Philosophy–"We Have Ceased to See the Purpose," which, among many things, explains that our technological era was given to us as a great trial to our free will and that, beneath the surface of Western/American happy-talk pragmatism it's easy to hear "the howl of existentialism."

Tyler Cowen, Average is Over (Penguin 2013). I wouldn’t say that this is, exactly, a good book, but it's a rather stunningly prophetic one. Cowen, the complacent libertarian, explains that the middle class is withering away. Being average will be less and less common. Techno-society is dividing into a hyper-productive and morally stunted cognitive elite that's distinguished by its comfortable mastery of super-smart machines, and a marginally productive majority that will be something like an idiocracy diverted from its plight by endlessly entertaining screens and legalized marijuana. If you want to know why Pope Francis worries about capitalism does to virtue and relational life, read this book.

Paul Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology, Duke Divinity School:

Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life (Stanford University Press, 2013). From Italian. A serious and very stimulating treatment of the Christian idea of renouncing ownership.

Jim Crace, Harvest (Vintage, 2013). A novel of great beauty about the human relation to the non-human created order, and about a radical transition from one way of organizing that relation to another.

J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus (Viking, 2013). Perhaps the most gnomic of Coetzee's novels. A serious satire, with Cervantes and the New Testament as its principal inspirations.

Karl-Ove Knaustaad, My Struggle (Archipelago Books, 2013). The first two volumes (of six), from Norwegian. The most thickly-described and compellingly agonizing depiction of a daily texture of a human life known to me.

Laszló Krasznahorkai, Satantango (New Directions, 2012). From Hungarian. A depiction of hell to rival Dante's.

Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2013). A journal kept by O'Connor as a young woman. It's penetrating and precise about prayer, and a clear witness to O'Connor's deep intelligence and passion.

Stephen Mulhall, The Self and Its Shadows (Oxford University Press, 2013). A new collection of essays by one of the best (Catholic) philosophers working today: on individuality and identity and negation. Theologians ought to read it.

Michael D. Torre, Do Not Resist the Spirit's Call: Francisco Marín-Sola on Sufficient Grace (The Catholic University of America Press, 2013). Marín-Sola (1873-1932), an under-studied Fribourg Dominican, seems to me to have gotten as close as we can get here below to the correct account of the relations between grace, freedom, and perseverance. Read Torre's treatment of his thought, and then go back to Augustine's De dono perseverantiae, and you'll see what I mean. 

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