The Best Of ’98: The Editors’ Picks for ’98

Deal W. Hudson

1998, a rather lean year, has nonetheless provided some clear winners among books, films, and recordings. Kay Gibbon’s sixth novel, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (Putnam), confirms what many have suspected, that this North Carolinian would one day emerge as a great American writer. The female narrator tells an unforgettable Civil War tale while haunted by the memories of her ferociously eccentric and cruel father and redeemed by the presence of her husband, a Yankee physician who gives his life ministering to the Rebel wounded. Fans of English composer Gerald Finzi’s religious masterpiece, Dies Natalis, finally received the modern recording they have been waiting for—tenor sensation Ian Bostridge sings Traherne’s mystical verses with complete understanding and sensuous beauty (Neville Mariner, cond., Phillips CD 454-4382). Ralph Vaughn Williams’ tuneful setting of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was recorded by conductor Richard Hickok with spectacular success [Chandos CD 9625(2)]. There are moments in this opera-oratorio that are as beautiful as anything in 20th century music. A movie Crisis recommended many months ago, Wide Awake, finally made its way onto video; another viewing confirms that this film will undoubtedly become a Catholic classic among families hungry for movies that affirm the faith without settling for painless platitudes. One only hopes that the inept treatment that writer/director M. Night Shymalam received at the hands of Miramax’s marketing department will not discourage him from revisiting religious themes. Another video, Big Night, written and directed by Stanley Tucci, about two brothers struggling to keep open their Italian restaurant, contains sacramental touches throughout. Finally, don’t forget to add Russell Shaw’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine (Our Sunday Visitor) to your library; I find myself dipping into it on a regular basis and always close its pages more than satisfied with what I have found.

Daniel Kennelly

The genre of apocalyptic novels, I admit, has for me the same kind of lure as watching an auto accident. But aside from the fascination one feels watching the world fall apart on a grand scale, such novels have the genuine benefit of showing how even the worst evils of our time can be transformed, by God’s grace, into good. I spent my summer reading recent apocalyptic novels. The most notable among them were Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah and Ralph Mclnerny’s The Red Hat, though the latter would be better termed a novel of an averted apocalypse. While every bit as gripping as O’Brien’s novel, The Red Hat approaches the subject of the Church’s dismantling at the hands of the modern world with much more subtlety. The battle lines in the world of Mclnerny’s book are the same as in ours, only drawn more clearly. As the plot unfolds, the reader gradually sees how even the anxieties of the post- Vatican II world could be resolved for the best.

Anxieties are something the world has a surplus of right now, perhaps chief among them being the current crisis in leadership. For those who despair that principled leadership and effective government are mutually incompatible, Gerard Wegemer’s Thomas More on Statesmanship is indispensible. Wegemer, a renowned scholar on More, reconciles the English saint’s volume of writings with his final act as a martyr. More’s writings, and entire life, become an example of principled, yet also efficacious, leader-ship, culminating in his courageous resistance of another leader who had a way with women.

Gwen Vereen Purtill

I have no idea what was released in 1998. I spent the year in the literary ghetto of the prenatal section at Borders. I even ignored the universal advice to seize my last opportunity to see a non-animated movie. (A beautiful, healthy little girl; 7 pounds, 5 ounces at birth and going strong at four months, in case you’re wondering.) But if you or someone you love is expecting a first child, I know what you need. Head for the nearest bookstore and buy The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood by Vicki Iovine. Of course everyone should read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and What to Expect the First Year. But, frankly, that series is to pregnancy and mothering what Martha Stewart Living is to keeping house. By the third chapter I was convinced no baby could survive, let alone thrive, in my care. Fortunately, my future sister-in-law gave me The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood last Christmas. By New Year’s my sense of humor and proportion were restored. Iovine is a former centerfold, and her moral compass tends to go south occasionally, but her political correctness is more than compensated for by her fierce devotion to her husband and (four!) children. Meanwhile, she does what she promises: She gives you the skinny (from sublime to ridiculous) on pregnancy, childbirth, and recovery from that remarkable experience. Be forewarned: Iovine is about as, well, direct, as the Starr Report. But having a baby is not for sissies and you need a fairly blunt assessment of what you’re about to go through in these days of long-distance families. After all, you can only make just so many of those “Mom, what does it mean when. . .” phone calls before you can’t afford the car seat.

Justin Torres

The best literary endeavor of 1998 was not an Oprah Winfrey book club pick; neither was it one that will thrill the Starbuck’s crowd. Instead, it’s Derek Walcott’s The Bounty (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a collection of poems in which Walcott takes up the disparate questions of how to negotiate the remnants of a dying modernity. Touching on the mixed legacy of Christianity—the hope it provides for a new age vs. its painful legacy of conquest and conflict—it teaches a beautiful lesson on how to grow old that has great relevance to a fin de siecle era: among other things, the perfect antidote to millennial jitters. Paul Johnson’s History of the American People (HarperCollins) is a remarkable reminder of the grandeur of the American Experiment; in the Age of Clinton, the redoubtable historian (a Brit, no less) seems to be recalling to us a better time, when Americans knew that character really is important to the body politic. Finally, I can only echo Terry Teachout’s remarks about the Darren Aronofsky film, π, in the November 1998 Crisis. Conservatives are increasingly interested in the reconciliation of science and religion; the stark beauty of π may make them think twice about what they’re asking for.

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