Christmas Book Recommendations

A book is sometimes the most difficult gift to offer. Usually it is not the most expensive, but often it is the most rich. Sometimes it means the most when it comes from an older person to a younger one. Then it is the gift of self, imparting, one hopes, the joy and wisdom that have changed one life and now might change another. Ultimately, at any age, it is an expression of love.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
Literary Editor

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Fertile Ground

I recommend buying five copies of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila and doling them out as follows. The first should go to a friend who’s been a lifelong atheist, who thinks all religion is patent, mean-spirited nonsense. Present the second copy to a cultured Christian friend, maybe on the East Coast or the West Coast, who associates small-town Midwestern Christianity with bigoted fundamentalism. Do you have a Jesuit friend who suspects that Calvinism is, theologically and spiritually speaking, a train wreck? Give the third to him. Send copy number four to an elderly friend, particularly one who finds little joy in the aging process. And save the last one for a friend who has spent a lifetime studying Christianity and who still often wonders how any honest person can possibly defend this religion. That’s five. A rather extravagant sowing of the seed? Some will fall on rocky ground no doubt, but if just one takes deep root....

Denis Janz teaches the history of Christianity at Loyola University in New Orleans. 

The Path Ahead

The journalist Ben Montgomery’s heartfelt and satisfying mini-epic Grandma Gatewood’s Walk traces the quiet but meaningful journey of 67-year-old Emma Gatewood, who in 1955 became the first person to hike the entire length of the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. Wearing a pair of Keds tennis shoes and carrying a simple bag (the accouterments of REI-style retail outdoorsmanship did not yet exist), Gatewood left her home in Ohio (without telling her children where she was going) and calmly, simply began hiking the trail on a spring day in Georgia. Montgomery diligently digs beneath the story of the woman dubbed “Grandma Gatewood” by a curious press that tracked her northward progress. He discovers that she was emotionally scarred yet resiliently, obsessively committed to her trek. What emerges is a powerful tale about finding solace not only in nature, but also in the generosity of strangers—an ethic that still exists on the trail today.

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s television critic.

A Modern, Medieval Tale

The Holy Sinner, by Thomas Mann, was one of those books I could not put down. Through no fault of his own, Gregor is burdened with the guilt of his parents, and must face many trials before discovering who he really is. At first he is handed off to a kindly monk, but when he realizes that there is more to his life story than he’s been told, he sets off on a series of adventures that will lead him to the point of oblivion, literally chained to a rock. When he is rescued from his plight, he finally grasps his destiny and fulfills his calling. I won’t divulge the remarkable ending but will only hint that it will remind contemporary readers of a popular pope. Mann composed this book, the retelling of a medieval morality tale, while living in Los Angeles during his own exile from wartime Germany.

Paul Crowley, S.J., teaches theology at Santa Clara University. 

Can Virtue Be Taught?

The word leadership will get a workout in the coming election year. But do you know what it is? Do you think leadership can be learned or taught? The ancient Greeks understood leadership to be part of arete (virtue). In Plato’s Meno Socrates tries to search for a definition of virtue with a young Thessalian general called Meno. Although the search ends in failure because they resolve that virtue comes only as a gift from the gods and so is not teachable by humans, Socrates still offers hope. If a person could learn virtue then he would be like Odysseus—able to traverse the netherworld with the guidance of the blind Tiresias. While Tiresias knows, he does not see. While Odysseus sees, he does not know. Leadership, then, depends on engaging in spirited dialogue with others who can speak but do not show the way. For that, leaders must learn to look for themselves.

M. Ross Romero, S.J., an assistant professor of philosophy at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb., is the author of Without the Least Tremor: The Significance of the Sacrifice of Socrates (State University of New York Press, 2016).

Flawed, Deeply Moral

When I gave The Book Thief by Markus Zusak to a teenage friend, I hoped she would find it as inspiring as I did. I liked the substantive themes of family, community, friendship, the power of words and acts, the meaning of life and death; and I liked it that the author treats moral questions about poverty, tyranny and anti-Semitism historically. The characters are Germans living in a small town near Munich as World War II breaks out. It matters too that Liesel Meminger, the heroine, is no superhero endowed with superhuman powers. Superior powers can let ordinary readers off the hook, morally speaking. Instead, Liesel enters the story as a skinny, illiterate child, wounded by her brother’s death and by her own situation—farmed out to foster parents. Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a flawed but deeply moral couple, provide a loving home for Liesel and an invaluable example. They harbor a Jew in their basement, an act of humanity for which they pay dearly. Like them, Liesel takes the consequences of her choice to act morally when her moment comes.

Karen Sue Smith, former editorial director of America, is immersed in art classes as a retiree.

A Transcendant Account

My recommendation for any reader older than 16 is Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. The great river has inspired countless poets, novelists, historians and Paul Simon, who sings of it as “shining like a national guitar” on Graceland. Twain captures the power and unpredictable personality of the Mississippi River as he found it in the late 19th century. The narrative flows with impeccable pacing and Twain’s lyrical voice, yielding memorable profiles of the people he encountered in his travels, pitch-perfect descriptions of towns and cities, the early explorations and Indian communities, interlaced with a judicious crediting of historians and sources in the text. The book can also be experienced as a viewfinder into the mind of a great writer. I am not aware of another work that also includes an advertisement for a forthcoming work, as Twain packs into an early chapter, an episode from Huckleberry Finn. You couldn’t get away with that today, but it actually works. I have reread Life on the Mississippi several times and find it a transcendent account of American life, with an optimism that appeals to readers of all ages.

Jason Berry, an investigative journalist, is the author of several exposés of corruption in the Catholic Church.

Where Are You Going?

While many of my friends consider it an antiquated piece of Eastern European romanticism, I am still deeply moved by Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 masterpiece Quo Vadis? Sienkiewicz paints a narrative following the intrigues of the Emperor Nero, the early persecution of the Christians and the final days and death of the apostle Peter, with a love story connecting all three. This culminates when Peter is seen fleeing Rome and Christ appears to him and begins walking away, prompting Peter to ask Jesus, “Where are you going, Lord?” to which Jesus replies, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” a fate Peter ultimately fulfills.

When I was in Rome in summer 2014, I walked along the Appian Way to the church of St. Mary, where this meeting is immortalized. Today, it continues to remind us that we must always ask ourselves where we are going in our daily lives.

Nicholas Sawicki is currently a senior at Fordham University.

The Meaning of a Movement

Bad Feminist is a collection of essays by Roxane Gay, in which Ms. Gay explores what it means to be a “bad feminist”—that is, what it means to believe in the idea of feminism yet love so many aspects of our culture that have been traditionally defined as anti-feminist. Bad Feminist was so important for me when I first read it because it allowed me to delve deeper into what my own feminism meant to me, particularly when she writes, “I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.” Ms. Gay’s work was also the first time I delved into feminist writing by a woman of color. Her writing is accessible, intelligent, funny and extremely thought provoking. For this reason, I would recommend this book to any curious, young woman or man interested in learning more about feminism—or to anyone who is interested in great contemporary writing.

Olga Segura is an associate editor of America.

The Measure of Friendship

My godson, Gabriel, is quickly approaching the age I was when I found a passion for the written word. As much as I appreciated my education in the humanities from a Jesuit university, I cannot say that it is something from the canon I would first give Gabriel. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series taught me that it was okay to be an outcast, and what the true measure of friendship was. She crafted a world where choices define who you are and your abilities do not; where loss and grief are all too familiar emotions; where rules are broken once in a while, and sometimes you’re even rewarded for it. In many ways it was “the boy who lived” from Privet Drive who paved the way for an encounter with another boy who lived from first-century Palestine.

Zac Davis, a graduate of Loyola University in Chicago, is an editorial assistant at America.

No Plaster Saint

Patrick Jordan’s new book, Dorothy Day: Love in Action, is a clear, concise and keenly observed biography of the feisty, saintly and sometimes contradictory social activist Pope Francis praised during his historic speech to Congress.

Since it is both very readable and inspiring, I recommend it to high school or college students as an introduction to a remarkable life—and also to those long familiar with Day, since Jordan offers fresh insights based on his association with her in the Catholic Worker movement. Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal who previously edited a collection of Day’s writings. His book, part of the Liturgical Press series “People of God,” is admirably brief and yet rich in detail. There is no plaster mold for this saint.

Paul Moses, author of An Unlikely Union, on Irish and Italians in New York, teaches journalism at Brooklyn College.

Unaskable Questions

King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play, and in teaching it I stress Lear’s question to his daughters in Act I, Scene 1: “Which of you shall we say doth love us more”—“Which of you loves me most?” This is a question a parent should never ask—an “unaskable question”—and in Lear it ultimately brings about madness, suicide, murder, injustice, two ruined families, war and a country in turmoil.

And as I teach my students how to be human, I continue, “What are some other ‘unaskable questions’?” The answers are powerful, often heartbreaking: Never ask a childless couple, “Why didn’t you have children?” Never ask parents, “What’s wrong with your child?” If a parent, never ask, “Do you feel like you’re a success in life?” or, “Why aren’t you more like your sister/brother?” Never ask a veteran, “Why don’t you talk about your war experience?” or, or, or.....

Knowing what not to ask is a stark but grand exercise in Christian and Jesuit humanism—and gentleness.

Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., teaches English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

The Magnificent Seven

As an English professor, I have spent much of my life recommending books I love to young people. In fact, this is my job, a circumstance I celebrate daily. In 32 years of teaching, I have listed hundreds of books on my syllabus—each worthy to be read and reread—so choosing one is impossible. Since I can’t recommend all of them, I’ll settle for listing the books my students most love: Oscar Hijuelos’s novel, Mr. Ives’ Christmas; Andre Dubus’s stories, Dancing After Hours; Mary Karr’s poems, Sinners Welcome; and Thomas Merton’s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. These are the books that speak to them, that move them, that change their minds and change their lives. If I could add my own best-loved books, they would be Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.This magnificent seven constitutes a collection of wisdom books, each in its own idiom teaching us what it means to be a human being. They speak the languages of loss, redemption, forgiveness, mercy, goodness, grace and gratitude. Any one of them is gold.

Angela O’Donnell, a regular columnist for America, teaches English at Fordham University.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
MaryMargaret Flynn
1 year 11 months ago
years ago i read many of Thomas Mann's books. I did find 'the Holy sinner" on my shelf and just finished reading it today. I agree the Pope in Mann's beautifully imagined and written book reminds me that Mann's Pope in his emphasis on mercy and understanding of the complexity of human sinfulness and the providential grace that saves us "fortells" the Holy spirit in our current Pope Francis. I also could not read anything else until I finished this masterpiece. years ago I read his Joseph books and will probably read at least some of them anon. thanks Paul Crowley sj

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