America's ten best reviewed books of 2016

What do we mean by “best”? A review that grabs us and draws us in? A book that other reviewers have praised? The author’s reputation? The reviewer’s grace and style? Inevitably some of these characteristics count. But as I looked back at every book America reviewed in 2016, I looked for books where I was confident that the reader would somehow be a better person when he or she turned the final page. Here is my top ten.

10. Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, By Larry Tye (Random House). Reviewed by David O’Brien. “Robert Kennedy, if he had lived, would now be 91. When he was assassinated in 1968, he was a young man who had been with us for a long time.” The years between his brother’s death and his own consisted of violence against black people and Mexican-Americans, summer riots in major cities and the never-ending Vietnam War. In the spring of 1968, he finally ran for president—for 85 days. This biography might find a place in American saint studies, with those of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, but we will have the “bad Bobby” and “good Bobby” legends to think about. What set him apart was not the “knotty fabrics” of American politics but his ability to “move beyond ordinary political categories to speak at times, without embarrassment, of love.”

9. Guantánamo Diaryby Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems (Little Brown). Reviewed by Luke Hansen, S.J. The author Mohamedou Ould Slahi, from the North African country of Mauritania, arrived at Guantánamo Bay in 2002. He had never been charged with a crime and won a federal court decision in 2010 but was not freed until this past October, after 14 years in captivity. He had no connection with the attacks on Sept. 11 and has never fought against the United States. He had been questioned by U.S. authorities and released, but he was rendered to Jordan, the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and finally Guantánamo where he was tortured subjected to sexual humiliation and placed in isolation. The prosecutor Lt. Col. V. Stuart Couch, motivated by his deep Christian faith, refused to cooperate in any way with the case against him. Luke Hansen, S.J., writes that this memoir belongs in the canon of great social justice memoirs.

8. Systematic Theology: A Roman Catholic Approach, by Thomas P. Rausch, S.J. (Liturgical Press). Reviewed by Terrence W. Tilley. To categorize this volume as merely a textbook from which the professor draws his lectures and quizzes would be to deny oneself an enriching, satisfying intellectual experience. In The New York Times on Christmas Day, Nicholas Kristof interviews an evangelical pastor about Christian beliefs—the virgin birth, the resurrection, miracles, the salvation of unbelievers, etc.—that he finds problematic, and the pastor delivers fundamentalist responses unilluminated by recent theologians. Father Rausch, who has read deeply in Karl Rahner, S.J., and Avery Dulles, S.J., raises the same questions then surveys a number of contemporary approaches. The chapter on Jesus Christ, for example, moves through the historical Jesus to the various New Testament Christologies. Mr. Kristof should use this book next time he has a question about Christian beliefs.

7. University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics, by James F. Keenan, S.J. (Rowan and Littlefield). Reviewed by Nicholas Cafardi. Why do law, medical, nursing and pharmacy schools all have local ethics requirements, based on general ethical principles adapted to case studies in each profession, while the university itself has no consensus on ethical principles? The daily newspaper and TV news report stories of sexual abuse, fraternity hazing, cheating, sexual and racial discrimination and the underpayment of adjunct professors, while the university itself has no shared moral principles common to every school and department Why? Because the institution is guided by commodification, selling a commodity evident in Taj Mahal residence halls and recreation centers, material comfort over intellectual challenge. Father James Keenan makes a convincing case for ethical reform.

6. Submission, by Michel Houelleberg, translated by Lorin Stein (Farrar Straus). Reviewed by David Leigh, S.J. Published on the day in 2015 of the attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, this novel has been the center of critical debate for over a year. It has provoked laughter and criticism for vulgarity, caricatures of women and races, of Europeans and Islam. The French prime minister has called it unpatriotic. Others, thought provoking. The narrator is a French professor at the Sorbonne who dislikes students, except for those he treats like female sex objects. In 2022, a coalition of socialists and Muslims elects a Muslim prime minister who forces professors to become Muslims or be fired. Our reviewer sees this controversial and complex tale as a critique of both contemporary secularism and decadence and a plea for a retrieval of religious and spiritual values.

5. Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writingsby Simone Weil, edited by Eric Springsted (Notre Dame). Reviewed by Brenna Moore. Weil wrote these essays from 1940-43, living in Marseilles where she had fled to work in the resistance to the Nazis and starved herself, disregarding her health and appearance to just be a thinker, and died at 34. In one essay she argues that we do not perceive the world, we “read” it. Her emphasis is on learning compassion,but also inventing institutions that will help cultivate the selfless practice of listening, attentive to those who would tell us what we are not used to hearing. The reviewer concludes that as long as we “have people who harm one another, we need Simone Weil.”

4. Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives, by David Denby (Henry Holt). Reviewed by Mike St. Thomas. “Face it, they just won’t read.” Words from a frustrated teacher—high school or college—who has given up. David Denby, who gave usGreat Books, a study of Columbia University’s great books program 20 years ago, has devoted a year to sitting in on English classes in three public high schools where one teacher in particular knows how to engage the class through debating, small group discussions and relating the stories to their own lives. They must, he says, “put down their screens and be fully present to their literature and to each other.” Lit Up is a must-read for all educators, says reviewer Mike St. Thomas. This book “reminds us that the work of an English teacher, whether in a religious or secular school, is nothing if not a spiritual vocation.”

3. Faith and Joy: Memoirs of Revolutionary Priestby Fernando Cardenal, S.J. (Orbis Books). Reviewed by Paul Lakeland. Liberation theology, the adherence to which at one time could get a priest or a nun in hot water, has taken on a new respectability under Pope Francis. In the days of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, several priests accepted appointments in the Sandanista Marxist-socialist government. One was Fernando Cardenal, S.J., who joined the Sandinista Front in 1980 and served as minister of education and so was eventually forced by the pope to leave the Society of Jesus, although he continued to live in the Jesuit community. This story of one man’s struggle to serve the poor against the approval of the church’s leadership, says Lakeland, is distressing; but the message of hope comes through when the Jesuits make Cardenal the first person to have been dismissed and then welcomed back into the society.

2. Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, by Robert Kanigel (Knopf). Reviewed by James R. Kelly. For any of us who were teaching during the 1960s, Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a prime example of secular holy scripture that alerted us to the forces that make and unmake vital cities. Jacobs made no high school honor roles and didn’t finish college, but she wrote for her high school newspaper, served as a secretary in the federal bureaucracy and used her eyes to understand and tell us what architects and city planners could not. The mixed neighborhood worked: short blocks, buildings old and new, dense concentrations of various people plus factories, warehouses, shops, groceries and bars. She said, “I think from the concrete.”

1. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond (Crown). Reviewed by Mark J. Davis. Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, lived in a white trailer park in Milwaukee and in a rooming house in a black neighborhood as he interviewed hundreds of landlords and tenants, then focused on eight families, black and white, and depicts aspects of the eviction problem in stories that call to mind characters from Dickens and Steinbeck. Every year millions of families are evicted because they are forced to spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on housing. Desmond writes, “No moral code or ethical principle...can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”

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Raymond Glennon
2 months 4 weeks ago
I consider myself an educated lay Catholic active in several parish ministries. Thanks for this excellent summary of these 10 books with links to the original reviews. I am particularly interested in taking a closer look at Systematic Theology: A Roman Catholic Approach, by Thomas P. Rausch, S.J. In his synopsis of the book Tim Reidy, refers to the Nick Kristof interview of an evangelical pastor (he doesn't name Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC) published in the NY Times on Christmas Day. Reidy says Keller "delivers fundamentalist responses unilluminated by recent theologians" in his responses to Kristof. I am writing to disagree with that unfortunate characterization. As an educated lay person I am no expert, but based on my reading Timothy Keller is no fundamentalist. Within the past several months I have read Keller's The Reason for God, Making Sense of God, and Hidden Christmas. Keller's work well footnoted work is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, echos the work of N.T. Wright, and is consistent with many of the themes regularly advanced by Bishop Barron. In fact, I would suggest that there might be fruitful collaboration between America Magazine and Dr. Keller--especially since you are both NY based. I could imagine a discussion between Fr. Malone and Dr. Keller or Fr. Martin and Dr. Keller on the issues of the day--perhaps especially at the beginning of a Trump presidency. Once again, thanks for the excellent list of books and helpful synopses. Ray Glennon Twitter: @RayGlennon
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