Summer is in full wilt, and that means it’s time for the InsideCatholic Summer Reading List. We’ve asked bloggers, staff, and writers to suggest a few titles they’ve recently enjoyed. They’ve obliged.
Have a look at the list — you’ll find something for every interest — and then add your own recommendations in the Comments section below.
The most important book of recent years is Remi Brague’s The Legend of the Middle Ages. No book, in such a brief time, explodes so many myths: that Islam does not seek to conquer the world by holy war, that there is theology outside Christianity, that the Middle Ages are unimportant in understanding ourselves, or that proud man thought he was the center of the universe. Brague’s work is so erudite, moreover, that it makes the average academic program look positively unenlightened. In addition to that, the book is amusing.
The second book is, naturally, my own The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays. Revelation is addressed to intelligence. The early Church did not address itself to other religions; it addressed the philosophers. The Catholic Church has been lead by popes in our time of extraordinary intelligence. Few have noticed, which says nothing about the popes. There is no reason to be Catholic other than to pursue the Truth, including the truth that is revealed to us, which, when pondered, is also addressed to our minds — not just that they wake up, but that they know what is.
Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Mind That Is Catholic, is published by Catholic University of America Press.
Catherine de Medici, by Leonie Frieda
I recommend for summer reading this excellent biography of one of the most significant figures in western history, first published 2003 (Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins.) The estimable Paul Johnson called it “stunning.” He certainly was right about the “tumultuous, cruel and gaudy times” in which Catherine lived, and which she embodied. Those times shaped her as much as she shaped them. She was not a pleasant lady, but she was an important one, and it is not possible to understand the formation of modern Europe without information of what she did to shape the basic geopolitical and cultural form of what we knew as Europe up until its current decay. The 400 or so pages read more like a daily newspaper report than archival research.
The Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviour in New York City. His latest book, A Crisis of Saints: The Call to Heroic Faith in an Unheroic World, 2nd edition, is available from the Crossroad Publishing Company.
Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry
Published by the University of Evansville Press, this biannual review features a wonderful variety of poems in traditional forms, as well as interviews and essays. Great for a quick dip on hot summer days, and especially refreshing for readers who think that all modern poetry is unmusical, inaccessible, or incoherent. Subscription information is available here. (Editor Paul Bone tells me that the next issue will probably be mailed by the end of July.)
Selected Stories, byAndre Dubus
Twenty-three superb stories from Dubus, who died ten years ago this past February. His characters are often, to use Richard Ravin’s description, “the wounded and the weak and the stubborn” (and the Catholic); while it is an overstatement to say, as Ravin does, that “every one of them demand[s] our compassion and respect,” their psychological depth certainly commands our interest. Many of the stories linger long after reading, particularly “Miranda Over the Valley,” “The Pretty Girl,” “A Father’s Story,” and “Killings.”
Christopher Scalia is an assistant professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He is the literary editor of InsideCatholic.com.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Depending on your temperament, this post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic could be horrifying or darkly comforting. It spans three eras of a new world that survives an atomic war, regenerates, and self-destructs again — but, as promised, a remnant survives. It’s not a book about war; it’s about men of conscience struggling against a world in love with its own fallenness. It’s a witty, weird, and fascinating read that takes the doctrine and difficulties of Catholics seriously.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
In the world of this astonishingly original novel, the state of Israel collapsed in 1948, and all the Jewish refugees have made a home in Alaska, where life goes on, complete with Yiddish, seltzer, and some dust-ups with the Tlingit natives. But the land is set to revert to Alaskan control, and no one knows what will happen next — who will stay, who will be adrift again. Landsman, a homicide detective with a ruined life, wants to solve one final murder, which of course turns out to be more significant than anyone expected.
It’s a book about death, marriage, fatherhood, food, and the Messiah. It will actually make you laugh and cry, and the style of prose will make you read sentences twice, just to enjoy them again. (Warning: lots of foul language and harsh images, but nothing gratuitous.)
One Potato, Two Potato, by Cynthia DeFelice, illustrated by Andrea U’Ren
The perfect children’s book. A hungry old couple is down to their last potato. But what is this the husband finds in the garden? Salvation, an unforeseen problem, and a happy ending!
The old, funny, joyful story is simply and exquisitely told, and the deceptively simple illustrations are gorgeous and perfect — a story in themselves. I was sorry to return this one to the library.
Simcha Fisher is a blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
The Believers: A Novel, by Zoe Heller
Highly entertaining, beautifully written, wisely insightful, Heller’s portrait of a New York City family steeped in liberal activist politics is the best contemporary novel I’ve read in a long time.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Have You Seen . . . ? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films, by David Thompson
If you haven’t discovered the film criticism of David Thompson, you are missing a real treat — he’s a first-class stylist and a master at capturing the importance of a film in a single page. A book to have by your bedside so you can let Thompson entice you with his astute summaries of his favorite movies.
A Grave in Gaza, by Matt Reynon Rees
Part of Rees’s Omar Yussef Mystery Series, each volume is set in some part of the Middle East. Rees has a great insight into life on the ground in and among Palestinians and their complicated relationship with Israelis. All the action revolves around the amateur sleuthing of the lovable but nosy Omar Yussef, a semi-retired high school teacher who can’t stop following where the clues lead him.
Deal W. Hudson is the director of InsideCatholic.com.
Kristen Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
Undset, a convert to Catholicism, describes nothing less than the awakening of a human soul. Kristen, the heroine of this trilogy of novels set in medieval Norway, begins by being everything that the modern feminist would want her to be, willfully disobeying her father, rejecting the love of a good man, dominating the scapegrace she does marry, working diligently and intelligently, and nevertheless bringing unhappiness to herself and to those whom she tries to love. She must learn, and she does learn, humility — and that will bring her to life.
The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), by Alessandro Manzoni
Manzoni was raised an atheist among the salon-goers in France during the Revolution but converted to Catholicism as an adult, and fused his genuine love for the common people with an understanding that the true good of man, whether rich or poor, lies in the Love that comes to us from above, and that transforms our lives here and now. The novel is epic in its sweep, but, like the work of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, precise in its examination of the minds and hearts of human beings as they love and hate, or struggle and suffer. I know, too, of no finer portrayal of the heroism of the good priest than is to be found in this work. An unread masterpiece.
On Aquinas, by Rev. Herbert McCabe, O. P.
Utterly readable and sensible philosophy, but rolling out heavy artillery against the illogical materialism that has bedeviled us since Descartes. Recommended for bright high school students and all college students.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a senior editor for Touchstone magazine. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery).
All Things Considered, by G. K. Chesterton
One of Chesterton’s earlier essay collections, published a couple of years after Orthodoxy, its 35 short essays cover a wide diversity of subjects, from spiritualism to science and religion, from Cockney jokes to political secrecy to “limericks and counsels of perfection” to “demagogues and mystagogues” to St. Joan of Arc. It shows Chesterton’s prose style at its freshest and most inventive, with his characteristic techniques most tightly tied to the subject, and his insights keep you saying “A-ha!”
A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell
Watching the BBC’s necessarily inadequate presentation of a roughly 3,000-page series of twelve novels has sent me back to the books. It’s a history of England in the 20th century, told by a narrator of the bookish, ironic, patrician sort, and focusing on the effects of the pursuit of the will. Much more Enlightenment and Tory than Christian, it does give you much to reflect on. It’s also very funny. The author was, not surprisingly, a friend of Evelyn Waugh’s.
Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, by William Oddie
This is one book I’ll be reading for the first time. Judging from the first hundred pages, it is an exceptional biography first in getting the facts straight and then in exploring the development of Chesterton’s thought. So far I’d much recommend it.
David Mills’s book Discovering Mary: Questions and Answers about the Mother of God will be published by Servant in late July.
My principal summer reading falls into three categories:
Ancient prose. In the near future my wife and I plan to take our first-ever trip to Greece. My Hellenic interest is not so much in the lovely islands of the Aegean as in the ancient historical sites (some of them islands) that for decades now I’ve been telling my students about. So I’m re-reading Thucydides (in the old Jowett translation) and Herodotus (the Robin Waterfield translation).
Contemporary prose. I have just read a marvelous little book by Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. Kagan explains — convincingly, I think — why Americans and Europeans take different attitudes toward geopolitical questions. Americans are willing to use force and the threat of force, while Europeans are great believers in reason, diplomacy, and the rule of international law. Americans feel they are living in a world of Hobbesian disorder, while Europeans feel they are living in a world that is responsive to Kantian principles of rational law and order.
Contemporary poetry. Norah Pollard has just produced her third volume of poems, Death and Rapture in the Animal Kingdom (Antrim House, 2009). Pollard is technically proficient –fine words and fine rhythms — but she’s much more than a skilled technician. While she writes very concretely of singular things and events, you, as a reader, can’t help but get a sense of her ambiguous view of the world, her crepuscular vision. Hers is a world that abounds in heartbreak and tears, yet it is also a world with plenty of room for humor, for many small pleasures, and — above all — for love.
David Carlin is the author of Can a Catholic Be a Democrat? He can be reached at [email protected]
Summer is my favorite season! The farmers’ market overflows with sweet tomatoes; the scent of tulip trees perfumes the neighborhood; the humid, swampy air caresses the skin . . . Okay, not all of my tastes are universally shared. But these four summer-reading suggestions aim to please.
Fragmentation and Redemption: Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, by Caroline Walker Bynum
I know this sounds heavy, but it’s actually a fascinating, easy-to-follow essay collection discussing everything from Eucharistic miracles to whether we’ll get all our hair back in the Resurrection. The first essay is the only one with a bit of academic jargon; if you can fight your way through that, you’ll find a book that illuminates the Church’s intense focus on physicality and incarnation. Walker Bynum describes the ways medieval women drew inspiration from their era’s views on gender, without glossing over the degree to which those views of gender constrained their choices and their spirituality.
The Friend, by Alan Bray
More from the wild world of the Catholic Church! A careful, surprising, and heartfelt study of vowed and commemorated same-sex friendship in England from 1000 a.d. through the 19th century. Check out the introduction to get a sense of Bray’s perspective: He’s not trying to deploy history in the service of a particular ideological stance in the contemporary debates about sexuality; he’s more concerned with rescuing forgotten traditions of love and friendship, and describing how the modern concept of friendship differs from its medieval counterpart.
Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs, edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman
Every summer-reading list needs one hit of pure pleasure. This collection includes escaped meringues, renegade eels (“This Whole Place Is Slithering”), owls, maggots, and Anthony Bourdain’s priceless description of the very worst New Year’s party ever. (Since these are cooks, you can expect rough language in a few of the essays.) There’s also one strange and troubling story, the tale of the blind line cook — think of it as that quick squeeze of acidity every good dish needs.
Three Shadows, by Cyril Pedrosa
Last we have a beautiful, poignant comic book about a father who goes to the ends of the earth to protect his little son from the three threatening figures of the book’s title. There are picaresque elements, but overall this is a fairy tale about the need for parents to let their children grow up. The art is confident and curvy, adding to the atmosphere of fable.
Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
This summer I’m reading:
Fiction: Love in the Ruins and The Second Coming by Walker Percy and re-reading The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. This is because I am itching to try my own hand at fiction and hope something rubs off . . .
Non-Fiction: The Christian Mystery by Louis Bouyer and The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix, because this former Bob Jones boy still has a lot to learn in the liturgy department.
Practical Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill — because impractical mysticism is also impracticable — and Mary, Mother of the Son Trilogy by Mark Shea — a terrific must-read for all Catholics to know the Mary side of their faith better.
What I’m writing: A lightweight little book, How to Be a Spiritual Hero;my autobiography, There and Back Again; and some short stories.
What I’m publishing: A Sudden Certainty — Priest Poems; The Gargoyle Code — Lenten Letters from a Master Tempter.
Rev. Dwight Longenecker is Chaplain to St. Joseph’s School in Greenville, South Carolina. His books are available at www.dwightlongenecker.com.
Someone asked me about the most robust explanation of the business cycle from an economic, moral, and juridical point of view. No question: Jesus Huerta de Soto’s Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles, a massively important work that is already in five languages. De Soto investigates the nature and function of money and banking from the ancient world to the present, covering the critical insights of the medieval period and taking on the Keynesians in a way that they will not and cannot answer. What a dream.
The Ethics of Money Production by Jorg Guido Hulsmann provides the rarest combination of monetary and moral theory through the eyes of the 14th-century Bishop Nicolai Oresme, an economic theorist of the first order. He shows that there is no justification for government monopoly of money, either economic or moral. It is a great piece of history and economic analysis, and the precise thing that all religious people need to read now to get a handle on current events.
The problem with Robert Murphy’s newest work is its title, which masks its seriousness: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal. It is not a political polemic. It is a work of science that makes an outstanding contribution to the understanding of this period and the causes and effects of government policy leading up to the crash and during the New Deal. I would recommend this work before any other to understand what happened then and how not to repeat it.
Jeffrey Tucker is the editor of Mises.org and a frequent contributor to InsideCatholic.com. His new book, Sing Like a Catholic, can be purchased here.
Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker, by Anthony Lane
After the recent Star Trek movie, I remembered that New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane had reviewed Star Trek: First Contact in that magazine, so I dusted off my copy of his collection of essays and found this:
What is it with Star Trek? Why can’t it be like any other TV series and stay where it belongs? . . . We don’t have to sit through Roseanne IV: The Wrath of Dan or ER II: The Search for Doc, so I can’t really see the point of Star Trek: First Contact.
Bingo. Lane’s writing is, of course, painfully funny, but more than that, he’s simply the best critic — and best writer — in the business. While so many others seem barely able to tolerate the industry they cover, Lane’s love of cinema, both high and low, shows in every word. Maddeningly, he’s equally adept at covering everything else: The book includes essays on T. S. Eliot, astronauts, even Legoland . . . all written with the same insight, skill, and humor of his film reviews. The essays themselves are easily digested between naps on the beach, making it perfect summer reading.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
When someone asks, “What happens when we die?” it’s usually a question about what happens to the soul. But Mary Roach is more interested in what happens to the body, which she covers in engrossing detail in Stiff. Roach explores the many ways our bodies can have life after death — as medical subjects, forensics specimens, in transportation safety research studies, etc. — and how different cultures have handled death and the dead through the ages. Chapters on our modern funeral industry and how we define “death” in the first place are worth the price of admission.
Roach isn’t afraid to examine the queasy details of death and its aftereffects — it may not be for the faint of stomach — but she does so with a light humor and respect for her subject. Stiff is crammed full of fascinating tidbits, and Roach does an important service by helping to demystify the unknown terrain at the end of earthly life.
Margaret Cabaniss is the managing editor of InsideCatholic.com.
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo: A Novel, by Peter Orner
Publishers Weekly describes The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo as “a poetic, episodic examination of the varieties of life at an isolated Catholic primary school deep in the veld of Namibia [cohering] around the title character, a beautiful guerrilla fighter turned kindergarten teacher.” I describe it as one of the best books I have ever read. Textured, funny, and beautifully written, the story is exotic and unusual, and to be successful can be no other way, given the utter foreignness (for Westerners) that is life in the heart of Africa. I have been a huge fan of Orner’s since the release of his story collection, Esther Stories, nearly a decade ago (also recommended).
In this novel, Orner has taken his prose to a new level. The pure act of reading the prose, which is unusual, rhythmic, evocative, and surprising, alone makes the book worth reading. He writes short. And the book is made up of “chapters” ranging from one to three pages. But take solace, prospective reader, that the narrative compilation does not make for a choppy read, and the wonderful prose surprises do not overpower the story or distract. The best books are those that combine superior story and prose style while bringing to life a world previously unknown to us. Orner accomplishes all three. And come on, how many books have you read that are set in Namibia?
The Church and the Land, by Rev. Vincent McNabb
You might recognize the author’s last name, as it is my own. Father Vincent (d. 1943) was my great-grandfather’s brother, and there have been few in history like him. In his reflections on Father Vincent, which precede this edition of the book, Hilaire Belloc finishes an emotional account of their friendship with the sentence, “Never have I seen or known [holiness] on such a scale.” Both he and Chesterton regarded Father Vincent a saint. Fathher Vincent was an ardent Distributist, a leader of the Catholic “Back to the Land” movement in England in the 1920s, the lead speaker for the Catholic Evidence Guild at Hyde Park for several decades, a noted crank, an ascetic, a prolific writer, and a loveable and brilliant man.
These mostly short, readable essays are a compendium of work published by Burnes & Oates in 1925, and address the issues (still — or should I say, even more — relevant today) of economic justice, the decline of family life, and the craft of communing with God. William Fahey, in his foreword, provides a heartfelt tribute to Father Vincent, but has a good bit to say himself about our current state of affairs. This edition of the book was released in 2003, while Fahey was a professor at Christendom College in Shenandoah, Virginia.
Small Is (Still) Beautiful, by Joseph Pearce
Basically an update (and a tribute) to E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, published in 1971. The central argument is maintaining a human scale in our personal and professional lives in order to maintain our human dignity. My favorite part is the dissection of the absurdity of certain economic indicators — most prominently GDP, GNP — that no one ever seems to question, yet which provide the basis — GROW, GROW, GROW — for most business decisions on both a corporate and governmental level. Beautiful is not just in the title, but in the prose. Pearce, writer-in-residence at Ave Maria, is an amazingly productive writer best known for his literary biographies, but his ability to distill difficult economic concepts into meaningful vignettes speaks to the faculties of this great writer and thinker.
Andrew McNabb is the author of the short-story collection The Body of This. Read Deal Hudson’s review here.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman
The finest, most chilling analysis of our recently completed presidential election I’ve read yet was written nearly a quarter century before the event itself. Postman, borrowing heavily from Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message, predicts with terrifying accuracy the consequences of a society that relies more and more heavily on television and the entertainment industry for its news and political dialogue. The key contention of the book — every medium allows for a unique level of discourse, hence “the Medium is the Metaphor” — might be of more importance now than it was 25 years ago. (His brilliant analysis of the differences between the dystopian visions of Orwell and Huxley, and why we were all mistaken to fear the vision of 1984 over that of Brave New World, had me thinking for weeks.)
Roads of Destiny, by William Sydney Porter
Nothing says kicking back for the summer quite like a volume of short stories from the true “master of the short story” himself: O. Henry. This particular collection is as charming and humorous as anything he ever wrote, and includes one of my all-time favorites: “A Retrieved Reformation.” The opening story, from which the collection gets its name, is quite a departure from O. Henry’s usual sunny style, revealing him to be as comfortable in more darkly sinister territory as many of his fellow “short story craftsmen.” And let’s not overlook one of the best parts about reading O. Henry: if you like his stories, there are thousands more where those came from. I heartily recommend The Four Million as your next stop.
Joseph Susanka is a blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
Sony Reader PRS-700
Whatever you choose to read this glorious summer, read it on a Sony Reader PRS-700. I’ve had mine now for three months and it just keeps getting better. I’ve exercised supreme restraint and downloaded only 110 books. Because of Sony’s recent deal with Google Books, the Reader has free access to over 500,000 books with expired copyrights (including a good number of classics). That’s an almost inexhaustible list of books and a positive return on investment after only about 30 downloads. It has a built-in back light, plays mp3 files, displays pictures, and allows multiple formats for reading (.pdf, .doc, etc). Honest, I can’t put this thing down. Reading the toughest material goes quickly. Plus, the ability to bookmark and write notes makes this gem irreplaceable.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
This will get you cooled off in the dead heat. Beautifully written, and so much better now that I don’t need a flashlight under the bed covers. Quite the love story, but it moves at the pace of a frightened stallion, so hold on. Two thumbs up for including a Texan.
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
It took me a while to figure out where this was going; but, as I was reading it, I felt so tied to the history of an emerging power in today’s world. Reading of colonial India provides a pretty good context in which to understand India’s current struggles and growing importance. Could it be that an Indian now could write of a Kim in Britain?
Laurance Alvarado is a blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Summer reading is supposed to be lighter than that of the rest of the year. This sci-fi novel is thoroughly enjoyable, even for non sci-fi fans like me. The story will draw you in, and the deeper philosophical musings are so skillfully woven throughout the tale, you’ll find yourself thinking without even knowing it. I can almost guarantee you’ll regret finishing it (I mean that in a good way). Good thing it’s only the first in a whole series.
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brien
The inspiration for the way-cool movie of the same name, this is the first of the famed Aubrey and Maturin historical novels. They can get a little ponderous at times in their detailed descriptions of British naval ships of war and the art of sailing, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking up this skillfully told chronicling of the life of a seaman during the Napoleonic Wars. The friendship that grows between the garrulous, outgoing man of action Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and his pensive, homely, brilliant, and deadly naval surgeon Stephen Maturin is a pleasure to read. Stephen’s reflections on human nature, including a critical glance at his own life and situation, will delight all students of that school.
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
This recommendation is much more weighty than usual summer fare, but with the movie due to come out and our liberties continually under fire, I think it’s high time all people of good will put aside their pride and actually read this novel. You don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid and become a “Randroid,” but you owe it to yourself to consider the points she raises.
Jason Negri is a blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse
This is the fascinating story of Anna Spafford, an American woman who came to found the now-famous American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem. Geniesse has a way of pulling the reader into her immaculately researched stories. Here, she provides a window into post-Civil War America and the rise of Protestant Evangelicalism, as well as the fall of Ottoman rule of the Holy Land and the creation of the British Mandate.
From the bustling streets of Chicago we journey to Jerusalem where the Spafford family and their quasi-Christian sect set up headquarters to await the Messiah. This is a history lesson wrapped up in an engaging biography of a complex woman who made her mark on two continents. The book is hard to put down.
Napoleon, by Vincent Cronin
The Economist called this book “probably the best life of Napoleon we have.” I don’t doubt it: Napoleon reads like a novel and gets my highest recommendation.
Cronin’s knowledge of subject and time period is impeccable — he brings Napoleon to life through fast-paced storytelling. (Any writer who can actually keep me glued throughout the frequent battles is a talent indeed.) And he dispels various myths along the way (Napoleon was not as short as most people think.)
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan
Of course I had to recommend a food-related book! Michael Pollan is known for his best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and this is a kind of follow-up, but a shorter read. If you’re interested at all in nutrition, you’ll find this book thought-provoking.
The former investigative journalist examines the rise of “nutritionism” in the 1950s and how it radically changed the way we eat and think about food. He argues for a return to real food, with a focus on moderating our appetites and returning food to its proper place in our lives. Pollan makes a persuasive argument that good health is not about eating according to science books, but according to seasons, pleasure, and tradition.
Zoe Romanowsky is a development consultant and blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales, by Leo Tolstoy
No one can go wrong reading Tolstoy. This collection of short stories makes the perfect graduation gift, and I keep several copies on hand for those occasions. I imagine it would also make excellent summer reading (you can definitely finish a full story between naps on the beach or by the pool). Although I haven’t read the entire collection yet, two of my favorites are included in this edition: “What Men Live By” and “Where Love Is, God Is.” Both typify Tolstoy’s master story-telling and spiritual insight. If you’re tempted by but are afraid to commit to any of the weightier Russian classics this summer, I’d start here.
The Secrets of a Fire King, by Kim Edwards
Okay, I confess that I haven’t actually read this yet, but I’m picking up a copy on the recommendation of a reliable friend before heading to a beach vacation. I’m a fan of the short story and currently in need of something light and amusing that I’ll be able to finish while dad and the grandparents are around to attend to my six-month-old. I’m told it’s “easy, entertaining, and not too scandalous,” which sounds good to me.
Christina Jopson is associate editor of InsideCatholic.com.
Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
Mount Everest has taken many lives, but on May 11, 1996, the mountain claimed its largest single-day tally of eight climbers. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air details this horrific tragedy — the days and months leading up to it and the postmortem analysis. I was initially hesitant to pick up this book; mountain climbing holds little interest for me (I prefer lower-risk activities, like sipping pina coladas poolside), but after reading another of Krakauer’s books about Mormon fundamentalism, Under the Banner of Heaven, I knew he could make any subject matter fascinating. I wasn’t disappointed. Into Thin Air is a fast-paced and exciting read.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith
This is the first book in the popular mystery series by Alexander McCall Smith. The book follows the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s very own Nancy Drew. Using money from the sale of her late father’s cattle herd, Precious sets up Botswana’s first ladies’ detective agency. While Precious’s intuition and keen understanding of human nature win her many professional successes, she still experiences uncertainty in her personal life, particularly with regard to her indefatigable suitor, the very good and kind Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. These are charming stories set against the cultural and geographical backdrop of Southern Africa.
Ann Waterman is the business manager of InsideCatholic.com.
An Irish Country Doctor, by Patrick Taylor
Patrick Taylor is an authentic Irishman and physician who writes charmingly of the fictitious rural Irish town Ballybucklebo and its inhabitants. Barry Laverty, a young doctor just out of medical school, has traveled to this small town to be the apprentice of Dr. Fingal O’Reilly — as memorable a character as you’d ever hope to meet in a novel. You will delight in the exploits of these two physicians — one a lovable, quirky but wise practitioner; the other an urbane, by-the-book young doctor — as they manage to minister to a multitude of eccentric patients (and eccentric patients’ pets!). This is fun, light reading, but a book that will bring a smile to your face and warm your heart. Taylor is a natural storyteller, and An Irish Country Doctor is a grand story.
The Industry of Souls: A Novel, by Martin Booth
Alexander Bayliss, a British citizen, is wrongfully arrested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s as a spy and sentenced to 25 years in a labor camp. On his 80th birthday, having lived since his release in a small rural Russian village, he reminisces about life in the gulag: its horrors, its inhumanity, but also of the friends who shared his confinement. Alexander, who became the village schoolmaster, lives with the daughter and husband of his dearest friend who died in the camp. On this day, as he wanders throughout the town heavily reminded of the past, Shurik (as he is called) also reflects on the life he has lived among the good people of Myshkino.
The book is a study in contrasts of good and evil, darkness and light. I was struck by the beauty of its narrative and its triumphant celebration of life and freedom. Strongly recommended.
Brenda Steele is the development assistant for InsideCatholic.com.
The Boxer Rebellion, by Diana Preston
In the summer of 1900, a militant but popular religious cult in China initiated a wide-scale slaughter of Westerners, with particular attention to missionaries and Chinese Christians. The victims of the Boxers — so called because of the frenetic martial art they practiced — died horribly. Those who were not simply raped and hacked to death were dragged back to a Boxer camp to be skinned.
After depopulating the countryside of Christians, the uprising moved to the cities. The foreign legations in Peking and Tientsin were surrounded and sieged by the Boxer mobs and allied armies of the Chinese Empress. Under constant assault and cut off from communication and reinforcements, a few thousand diplomats, missionaries and soldiers from England, the United States, Russia, Germany, Japan, France, and Italy held off a hundred thousand Chinese and Boxer troops. And they did it for two months.
Historian Diana Preston knows her subject matter. In The Boxer Rebellion, she has written an absolutely riveting account of the greatest siege of modern times. The rebellion was a deeply significant event, and anticipated most of the major crises that erupted in the early 20th century.
Brian Saint-Paul is the editor of InsideCatholic.com.