Best of 1996

Crisis editors and writers put their heads together to share their favorite books, movies, and CDs of the past year.

Ralph Mclnerny

Literature has been defined as anything you will read again. I read War & Peace for the third time this summer and hope to read it again. Dombey and Son, on the other hand, I am just finishing and it is amazing. I picked it up with the idea that I had read it before, but to my great delight I had not.

I found Huckleberry Finn as delightful as ever and Victoria Glendenning’s life of Edith Sitwell brightened my convalesence, as did Updike’s new novel In the Beauty of the Lilies (Random House). May he win the Nobel for his oeuvre. Father Jim Schall’s At the Limits of Political Philosophy, just out from CUA Press, is his masterpiece. I mordantly enjoyed a new biography of Ambrose Bierce, Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (Crown Publishing) by Roy Morris.

I read Aquinas every day

Gwen Vereen Purtill

Not since Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson faced off in Pride and Prejudice have Jane Austen lovers seen such enjoyable screen adaptations of her novels.

Sense & Sensibility, was a sumptuously filmed delight starring the matchless Emma Thompson, whose habitually knit brow perfectly suited her character, Miss Dashwood. The best of the excellent supporting performances were by Hugh Laurie (who makes W.C. Fields seem a Pollyanna!) and Alan Rickman. Even coy playboy Hugh Grant does a creditable job as the mostly absent lover—even if the thought of him longing to become a cleric brought snickers.

Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, nicely captured Austen’s best novel. The movie does surprising justice to the beautiful story of Mr. Knightly’s rebuke that saves Emma from self indulgence and teaches her what true love is made of. The film’s only serious flaw was the unaccountable decision to play Mr. Knightly as a love-sick puppy.

Clueless, a modern adaptation of Emma, best captured Austen’s sly wit. The movie was a joy even if it, more than the others, reduced its story to the most superficial level.

Of the four Jane Austen releases this year, only Persuasion suffered from the self-conscious, schoolmarmish feel the English sometimes bring to great literature. But it, too, had its charms.

Scott Walter

“Great saints must have minds as strong as hearts, and backbones strong as both,” exhorts George Rutler in his Crisis of Saints, an uncompromising collection of essays on the “culture war” raging in the West—and in the bosom of the West’s mother, the Church. Not only worldly foolishnesses like relativism and its soothing partner materialism feel this manly priest’s lance; so do churchly errors in liturgy, education, etc.

Readers saddened by our predicament as harshly illuminated by Ruder may seek solace in his fellow convert from Anglicanism, Ronald Knox. If you haven’t read this delightful and prolific English cleric, sample the new Quotable Knox before turning to his original works. Don’t take my word on Knox: Evelyn Waugh revered him, and the Daily Mail named him “wittiest young man in England.” “Sanity realizes,” wrote Knox, that the truth “matters furiously,” and Rutler likewise insists that truth sets us “free from unreality.”

Few authors are more sane or follow the trail of truths, sacred and profane, more sedulously than Crisis’s own James V. Schall, S.J., especially in his latest opus, At the Limits of Political Philosophy: From “Brilliant Errors” to Things of Uncommon Importance. Again, don’t trust me: No less a sage than Ernest Fortin (whose collected essays are now being published) declares this book the work of a “superb pedagogue,” its readers partners in Schall’s “relentless quest for wisdom.”

Russell Hittinger

For readers who share my frustration in not being able to find good, recently published books in theology, I have three recommendations. None of them is in my own academic specialty, but each is accessible to an educated amateur.

Sister Paul Jean Miller, F.S.E., who teaches moral theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has written a book entitled Marriage: The Sacrament of Divine-Human Communion (Franciscan Press). The book is a commentary on St. Bonaventure’s Breviloquium. Sister Jean shows the beauty and the intellectual power of Catholic matrimonial theology—qualities that are so often missing in contemporary approaches to the subject. Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God: An Analytical Commentary (Cistercian Publications) by Emero Stiegman contains an English translation of Bernard’s work, a useful commentary, and copious notes that relate Bernard’s theology to the work of contemporary theologians.

Finally, I can recommend the recent book of Paul Quay, S.J., who died just as the manuscript went to press. Father Quay was a physicist, philosopher, and theologian who published in wide range of disciplines, from philosophy of science to moral theology. The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God (Peter Lang) is his life’s work.

Quay’s application of the Patristic doctrine of recapitulation to moral and spiritual theology is a tour de force. The reader might find the first five chapters rough going, in which case he can begin at chapter six.

George Sim Johnston

T. Coraghessan Boyle, a young novelist with all the right moves, has written a knock-out work of social realism, both wrenching and funny: The Tortilla Curtain. Its only competition, David Wallace Forster’s Infinite Jest, lives up to its title, although I doubt I’ll finish its thousand-plus pages before the millennium. Deal W. Hudson’s Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction (Rowman & Littlefield) is a high-end piece of philosophy that explains why two hundred years after the Enlightenment everyone is out of sorts.

In Bible and Science (Christendom Press) Stanley Jaki clarifies issues that have befuddled Christian and Jewish thinkers for two thousand years.

And it was a good year at the cinema. In adapting Sense and Sensibility to the screen, Emma Thompson and company have taught Merchant Ivory a lesson: The soul of a good movie is made of celluloid and not paper and ink. I enjoyed seeing the White House vaporized in Independence Day. More satisfying yet was Yankees baseball on the radio, especially when announcer John Sterling called a home run: “It’s high. It’s far . . . See ya!”

Deal W. Hudson

The musical highlight for me during this past year was a CD by tenor Robert White and pianist Stephen Hough, “Bird Songs at Eventide” (Hyperion CDA 66818). White’s rendering of “He shall hide me in His tabernacle” from the familiar “The Lord is my Light” is spiritual singing at its best. Chandos is recording the complete symphonies of Edmund Rubbra, a Catholic convert. Don’t miss the first recording of his stunning Passion setting, Symphony No. 9, Symfonia Sacra for chorus and soloists (Chan 9441).

Two books stand out—Brian Moore’s novel The Statement and Curt Sampson’s biography Ben Hogan. Moore’s story about a war criminal hiding in French monasteries taught me an important lesson, even though I disagreed with the doctrinal slant of the narrator. While not revealing the secret of Hogan’s perfect swing, Sampson’s portrait does reveal what drove this Texan toward perfection.

Next to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, the only new film worth a strong recommendation—Kristin Lavransdatter—hasn’t yet been released in the United States. Gibson’s tribute to old-world Catholicism would have been improved with fifteen minutes less violence. That such a film about heroic leadership can still be made, however, is heartening.

Samuel Casey Carter

In the decidedly rare but equally precious literary genre of jazz hagiography, Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz (North Point Press), is a supremely polished gem. Dyer’s words are themselves the voice of jazz. Coming from a different angle, Stanley Crouch, the great jazz critic and conservatism’s curmudgeon extraordinaire, has produced perhaps the only title worth reading in this year’s endless onslaught of books on race. The Great American Skin Game (Pantheon Books) is a book about the blues, and, so armed with a deep understanding of man’s morale, disarms so much nonsense that otherwise qualifies for thought in various matters of public policy often associated with race.

Despite its unwieldy size, Nicholas A. Basbane’s A Gentle Madness (Henry Holt) makes for excellent bedtime reading.

Lovers of books, whether they love their shape, their heft, their history, or their contents, will glory in this volume’s near endless accounting of the joys, pains, and even criminal acts worked out by bibliomanes from the day man first put pen to paper.

As far as movies are concerned, in our first year of marriage my wife, Suzanne, and I are unanimous: David Zlotoff’s The Spitfire Grill is the best you can find.

Brian C. Anderson

As a Christmas gift, Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah (HarperCollins) might seem, well, not very joyous, but it is unavoidable. Bork has managed, in a withering, eye-opening narrative, to offer the most powerful synoptic account we have had of America’s cultural decline since Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Robert Altar’s new translation of Genesis (Norton) is nothing short of breathtaking, to be read again and again.

George Weigel’s The Soul of the World (Eerdmans) richly treats the social thought of Pope John Paul II and displays amply the author’s facility in moving across idioms in the necessary quest for a new public philosophy. Harvey Mansfield’s Machiavelli’s Virtue and his new translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses (with Nathan Tarcov), both from the University of Chicago, explore in depth the founding of the modern project, whose consequences surround us, for good and ill.

BMG has just released the first ten volumes of The Mravinsky Edition in a boxed set, documenting the work of the greatest of the modern Russian conductors. Yvegeny Mravinsky’s discipline was legendary, and these performances show it.

Michael M. Uhlmann

Michael Behe, a brilliant young biochemist at Lehigh University, demonstrates in Darwin’s Black Box (Free Press) the inability of orthodox evolutionary theory to explain the origin and development of complex biomolecular systems. Though his argument does not rest on religious supposition, it offers strong scientific evidence for intelligent design in the universe. The Neo-Darwinians will ignore or trash his book; you shouldn’t.

For admirers of St. Thomas More, Gerard Wegemer of the University of Dallas offers a double-barreled treat: Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage (Scepter Press), intended for general audiences, and Thomas More on Statesmanship (Catholic University Press), intended for more scholarly readers. Wegemer is sure-footed in his treatment of the “man for all seasons,” who, as Dr. Johnson said, was the greatest person of virtue England ever produced.

The sonorous lyricism of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music haunts the listener long after the last chord has died away. Although best known for his piano and orchestral compositions, nothing surpasses the Vespers, his choral setting of the monastic evening prayer. Just listening to it can become a spiritual act. The best recording is by Robert Shaw, the master sans pareil of choral performance. (Telarc CD # 80172)

Tom Bethell

I highly recommend Bernard Nathanson’s autobiographical account, The Hand of God (Regnery Publishing). He tells the story of becoming an abortionist, and of his growing sense of horror and disgust at what he was doing. Eventually he resolved to become a Christian, and has received instruction from John McCloskey, a priest of Opus Dei. He is expected to be received into the Catholic Church soon. The book is very well written, with a welcome brevity and literary flair.

Michael Behe, has made a valuable contribution with Darwin’s Black Box (The Free Press). Darwinian theory is incapable of explaining the complex structures discovered by microbiologists in the past forty years. In the nineteenth century, the convenient assumption was made that at the microscopic level, the component parts of organisms come together easily of their own accord. Now we know better. Reviewing Behe’s book, James Shapiro of the University of Chicago wrote:

“There are no detained Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system.” They must have been designed, Behe concludes.

Peter Duesberg of the University of California at Berkeley has for several years claimed that AIDS is not caused by the virus HIV, and is not an infectious disease. His account of the corruption of science by politics, Inventing the AIDS Virus (Regnery), details what I believe will eventually be regarded as the greatest medical scandal of the twentieth century.

Chris Wolfe

While relatively little of my reading includes recent publications (I’m knee deep in Trollope’s Palliser series right now), I can suggest a few possibilities.

First, Robert George’s Making Men Moral is an important work that provides devastating criticism of “antiperfectionist” liberals who want the state to be “neutral” on questions of the good life (thereby compelling public toleration of abortion, pornography, drugs, homosexual activity, and so forth). It also provides an interesting natural law-based theory of civil liberties. Not easy reading, but very worthwhile—it provides needed ammunition for our current “culture wars.”

Second, on the lighter side, Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders is a very enjoyable (if disturbing) read, and one that raises serious questions about something we may have only begun to see: biological and chemical terrorism.

Third, on a spiritual note, Immersed in God contains the recollections about the founder of Opus Dei, Blessed Josemaria Escriva, by his confessor and successor, Don Alvaro del Portillo, himself a remarkable man. It offers many insights into a saint who promoted a lay spirituality that has had significant influence in the world and the Church.

Robert Royal

At the risk of appearing self-serving, I warmly recommend a book I translated this past year, Jean-Pierre Torrell’s Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work (Catholic University Press). Father Torrell is a Dominican living in Fribourg who has been involved with the Leonine Commission. Thanks to that connection, he has at his fingertips intimate knowledge of St. Thomas’s life and he reviews the decades of discoveries and advances made in Thomistic scholarship since the last great biography, Joseph Weisheipl’s Friar Thomas D’Aquino.

I discovered another great book this year that comes at crucial questions from a very different angle. Donald Philip Verene’s Vico’s Science of the Imagination (Cornell University Press) illuminates in a few pages many of the philosophical mistakes and cultural aberrations of the past few centuries by explaining a wholly different view of the human mind and its powers in a little-known but important figure, Giambattista Vico.

Finally, if you’re looking for something refreshing to do during the time you spend in the car, pop Stepping Stones, (Penguin Audiobooks) the recently released recording of Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney reading and explaining his own work, into the tape player. Heaney has an uncanny ability to write believably of visions and the ghosts of people he has known. He turns religious pilgrimages and the troubles in Ireland into Dante-like episodes. Some people find the images of bogs, water, and household implements unpoetic. Heaney demonstrates that you don’t have to restrict yourself to the genteel and the fashionable to write great poetry.

Nancy Pearcy

Publishers have noted a blossoming interest in the Christian classics, driven by a hunger for a deeper spirituality than is offered by contemporary American Christianity. My own tapping of spiritual roots has been complemented by exploring the Church’s musical heritage.

Reading the Church Fathers can be enhanced by listening to Soeur Marie Keyrouz, a Lebanese nun who renders ancient Byzantine chants in a rich, throaty voice—a vivid reminder that the Church emerged from Near Eastern culture. Reading St. John Chrysostom can be accompanied by the noble sonorities of his liturgy, sung by the Greek Byzantine Choir. Study of St. Ambrose is fleshed out by listening to Ambrosian chant. A six-disk set titled Les Tres Riches Heures du Moyen Age: A Medieval Journey (Harmonia Mundi) offers a comprehensive introduction to medieval music.

Sequentia has several CDs devoted to the lively songs and chants of the visionary Hildegard von Bingen, giving a glimpse of the twelfth century. The Waverly Consort sings hauntingly beautiful music of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Spain on its latest offering, “Traveler.” Anonymous 4, with its transparent tones and ethereal vocal blending, has shot medieval music up the bestseller charts. My personal favorite is Renaissance sacred polyphony: the serene harmonies of Palestrina, the seamless textures of John Taverner. Thanks to the early music movement, we can now reconnect with our religious heritage, through rich auditory experiences, all the way back to its earliest beginnings.

Matthew Spalding

It is always hard to find good books about great men. One this year is Richard Brookhiser’s intellectual biography, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (Free Press), a compelling portrait of the man whose life still sets the standard for our ideas of self-government and good character. It is compact and lively, and reads well. Another is Lord Charnwood’s elegant 1916 classic, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, now available from Madison Books. It combines beautiful prose and an acute understanding of the historical context to capture the principles and prudence of our 16th president.

Speaking of statesmen, Capitol Nashville has released a wonderful collection of country troubadour Merle Haggard’s best anthems to working-class virtue and counter-culture patriotism, all recorded between 1965 and 1972 (Merle Haggard: Vintage Collections). “Mama Tried,” “Family Bible,” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” remind us that country honky-tonk is of the quintessential American genre.

And I liked Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah: An Apocalypse (Ignatius Press), despite the critics. It is an accessible work that weaves intrigue and orthodoxy into a thriller about the Church besieged by atheistic materialism. Imagine a pope who sends a Carmelite priest on a secret mission to encounter the man that may be the Antichrist.

Anne Husted Burleigh

If you are like me and require for your peace of mind some time outdoors rejoicing in the world of nature, you will delight in an enchanting little book by David Kline, with a foreword by Wendell Berry. Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal (North Point Press), is a collection of short essays describing the beautiful variations of God’s creation that Kline sees in the ordinary course of the seasons on his form in Fredericksburg, Ohio. Kline is Old Order Amish, and therefore he reveres life in all its forms, whether it be manifested in a Kentucky warbler, a great horned owl, or in his little daughter, who is his companion for a spring walk.

Kline, like most Amish, practices traditional diversified farming, which is simply the agriculture developed in eighteenth-century Europe and handed down, as Kline says, “from generation to generation and yet with innovations and improvements constantly added along the way.” The Amish, he points out, “are not necessarily against modern technology. We have simply chosen not to be controlled by it.” As a result, David Kline farms both intelligently and efficiently, preserving the link between farm, family, church, and community, which are all at the service of God. Beauty is an integral part of this quiet, orderly world. Read Kline’s reflections on this world some chilly day by the fire. Then bundle up and go outside for a winter walk.

Daniel J. Mahoney

Decades before it became commonplace, Irving Kristol traced the specter of nihilism that haunts the democratic idea and erodes the moral capital of bourgeois civilization. In Neoconservatism (Free Press, 1995) Kristol collects his surprisingly cheerful essays, preceded by a fascinating autobiographical memoir that highlights his “neo-orthodox” religious sensibilities and reveals the pivotal role of Leo Strauss, Lionel Trilling, and Sidney Hook in his intellectual formation.

For those who dare to think philosophically about “the soul of man under democracy,” I recommend two remarkable books by European Catholic thinkers. In The Utopian Mind (Athlone) Aurel Kolnai explores the origin of utopianism in a powerful impulse to negate tensions inherent in the human condition. In Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (Rowman & Littlefield) Pierre Manent argues that Tocqueville, writing more that 150 years ago, provides the most penetrating description of our current political and spiritual situation.

Finally, for a different take on “the woman question,” I recommend Finding a New Feminism, edited by Pamela Jensen (Rowman & Littlefield). These essays illustrate how the much dismissed canonical works of the tradition articulate sexual difference and complementarity without denying the ties of common humanity or the dignity of human reason.

Francesca Murphy

The year’s best article was Paul Johnson’s explanation of the Rushdie Affair. In his Parisian exile, the Ayatollah had a supply of caviar, with which he paid Samuel Beckett for a course in English literature. Ulysses left him with an abiding distaste for modernist fiction. He pronounced the Fatwa in order to give Rushdie something to write about. Johnson concludes: “Ayatollah Khomeini is still known in Iranian circles Anglais as ‘the last Leavisits”‘ (Spectator, April 1, 1995).

Despite its indigestible title and horrible non-sexist language, Bruce McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology (Clarendon, 1996) is an excellent work of historical scholarship. David Schindler’s translation of Charles Peguy’s The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (Eerdman’s, 1996) is a real joy. As one of the musically challenged community, I am enjoying the vogue for mediaeval music. The Dufay Collective’s new CD, Miri It Is, has my favorite, “Sumer is a cumen in,” and some beautiful Marian hymns.

Aberdeen, Scotland is a cinematic blackhole.

Greg Wolfe

For Catholics—or anyone else for that matter—the literary event of the past year was the publication of Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos. This novel is a profound and affecting book, one of the most insightful explorations of what it is like to live a Christian life to have been published in many years. It achieves that rare thing in literature, a convincing portrait of goodness. Mr. Ives, a devout Catholic, watches his family grow and prosper. Then one day, his seminary son is brutally murdered in a random act of violence. Hijuelos depicts Ives’ struggle to reconcile this tragedy with his religious faith in an utterly convincing and memorable fashion.

For somewhat lighter reading, I have made two discoveries over the past year. The first is the series of novels by Patrick O’Brien on the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Not only are these novels delightful yarns about the great age of sailing ships, but in the character of naval physician Dr. Stephen Maturin, O’Brien has created a wise and sharp-witted Catholic hero.

And if you are at all devoted to the writings of Raymond Chandler, check out one of his best literary descendants, Robert Crais, whose detective, Elvis Cole, is a Philip Marlowe for the 1990s.

There have been a number of terrific films released in the last year. I’ll simply single out two: The Usual Suspects—a devastating glance into the nature of evil—and The Secret of Roan Inish by John Sayles, a powerful mythopoetic fairy tale that will print itself indelibly on your children’s memories.

Since my colleagues are probably recommending high-toned classical CDs, let me promote the latest releases from three outstanding folk-rock groups—October Project, Cowboy Junkies, and, yes, the politically left but musically brilliant R.E.M.

Robert R. Reilly

For the neophyte in Classical music, or for the grizzled veteran, I can think of no better stocking stuffer than Ted Libbey’s superb NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection (Workman Publishing). The book contains short essays on the major composers, with discussions of their greatest works as performed by this century’s finest musicians. Winner of Crisis’ 1995 Jeeves Award for contribution to culture, Libbey is one of the finest writers and music critics of which this country can boast. His style is impeccable, his insights penetrating, and his recommendations sound. But don’t take my word for it. In the introduction, Mstislav Rostropovich says that not only is Libbey “one of the world’s greatest musicologists,” but that “only a handful of critics are as insightful about what goes on in the performer’s mind.” In short, a delightful read and a wonderful gift.


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