Books for Christmas 2016

Published December 7, 2016

George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference

Take a stand against the electrification of reading and consider the following, in properly bound form, as gifts for those on your Christmas—not “Holiday”—list:

Exodus, by Thomas Joseph White, OP, is a recent addition to the multi-volume Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Father White’s brilliant reading of one of the foundational texts of Western civilization is well-introduced by series editor R. R. Reno, in a preface that should be required reading for anyone doing serious study of the Bible.

Russia promises to loom large on the foreign policy agenda in the year ahead. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs 1613-1918 (Knopf) sketches the historical background in fascinating, if often chilling, detail, while Peter Pomerantsev takes us to what he calls (accurately) “the surreal heart of the New Russia” in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Public Affairs).

The election cycle happily fading into the rear-view mirror brought the sorry condition of many white working-class communities to national attention; no one tells the story of one part of that world, its strengths and its pathologies, better than J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper)—a tough and occasionally hilarious book that also suggests, inadvertently, an enormous evangelical failure on the part of both Protestants and Catholics.

Then there is Roger Simon’s I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already (Encounter). It’s an apt gift for friends at any point along the political spectrum, because the disjunction between intentions and results that is crippling our political culture by destroying accountability knows no partisan label.

The nation of Chicken-à-la-King and Swanson’s TV dinners has now become a nation of foodies. In Ten Restaurants That Changed America (Liveright), Paul Freedman aims high with portraits of Le Pavillon, Chez Panisse, and Antoine’s, but doesn’t neglect things a bit more down-market, with the often surprising stories of Howard Johnson’s (where many of us learned to love fried clams), Schrafft’s, and Mama Leone’s. The book also includes classic recipes from each of the ten eateries portrayed.

In The Black Widow (Harper), Daniel Silva takes his readers inside ISIS, its ideology, and the horrifying plans it has for the future in a gripping novel as contemporary as tomorrow’s headlines. Part of Silva’s genius is his recognition of the moral ambiguities of even good-guy counter-terrorism, though he never loses sight of the fact that there are, in fact, good guys and bad guys in this world.

Want to repel the black legends constantly flung at Catholics by secularists? Then arm yourself and your friends with Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History(Templeton). Professor Stark, it should be noted, is not a Catholic, and as he makes clear in his introduction, “I did not write this book in defense of the Church. I wrote it in defense of history.”

Aurora Griffin’s How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students (Ignatius) is slightly mis-named, in that Miss Griffin not only stayed Catholic at Harvard, she became moreCatholic at Harvard while winning a Rhodes Scholarship. Her advice is well-suited to any high school senior on your list, no matter the college or university they’re contemplating.

In recent years, William E. Simon, Jr. shifted his professional focus from investment management to the Church, and a first result of that vocational redeployment is Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive (Ave Maria)—a portrait of the rich diversity of Catholic life in the United States, especially in those local churches that have taken the New Evangelization seriously.

Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada (Houghton Mifflin) was first published when I was in the third grade (1959, if you must ask) and sits comfortably within the conventional Whig narrative of England’s “Good Queen Bess” of England vs. authoritarian King Philip II of Spain. It’s also the finest classic historical writing I’ve read in a long time, a penetrating study of character, and a meditation on the unexpected and its role in era-defining events.

Finally, and for teenagers looking for heroes and a proper understanding of the heroic: A Distant Trumpet (Nonpareil Books), by Paul Horgan, the nonpareil U.S. Catholic man of letters of the 1950s, now sadly neglected today.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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