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Review: Books I Read in 2017 (“The Others”)

Books Read 2017 (part 2)

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This is me reading.  It is not me reading one of the books on this list.  Actually, its not even from this past year.  Make of it what you will.  


My last post was the list of books I challenged myself to read (and succeeded, I might add) in 2017.  Check out the post to see just how crazy I am. 


This essay lists all of the books that were not from “The Big Ten,” but that I read anyway.  I’ll call them “The Others.”  


“The Others” (also in no particular order)


  1. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien – I assign my freshmen a book report assignment in the second and third quarter.  In solidarity with them (because a teacher should not assign an assignment that he isn’t willing to do himself) I did the report on a book of my choosing from the list.  I chose this posthumously published collection of sagas from the Middle-Earth before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien spent the majority of his life working on these stories, rewriting, adjusting, simplifying and expanding them.  Some are better than others (the creation account is amazing, but you would have to read my wife’s essay from the 2016 Tolkien Seminar for more on that), and it isn’t as much of a continual story, more a collection of stories from the time before the events of The Hobbit.  Overall, I enjoyed it immensely.  


  1. Charmed Life by Diane Wynn Jones – My wife and I read this together.  I had not read any Diane Wynn Jones books prior to this one (I just didn’t read a lot of fiction as a child).  It was great, featuring an interesting fantasy world of real life Britain mixed with magic.  I look forward to reading more Jones books. 


  1. The Church & the New Media by Brandon Vogt – Another book I read in solidarity with my freshmen. This one featured several essays by a variety of notable Catholics involved in the New Media.  Some looked at more spiritual or theological aspects of discussing the Faith on the Internet, while others were more advice driven, explaining how Catholics and Catholic organizations can use the New Media to reach more people and expand their ministries. 


  1. Real Love by Mary Beth Bonacci – Another book I read in solidarity with my freshmen. Bonacci answers real questions from real teens who have real relationship problems.  The answers aren’t mere “Here’s the Church’s teaching” type answers; the majority of the answers invoke statistical evidence, making the book approachable for those outside the Church.  The book was a great help for me as a high school teacher, as I often get similar questions inside and outside of class.  


  1. Scripture Matters by Scott Hahn – Scott Hahn is one of the most recognizable Catholic Scripture scholars.  This collection of essays, covering a wide range of Scriptural topics, looks less at particular interpretations of specific passages, but rather at Scriptural exegesis as a whole.  Overall, the book is a good introduction to the Church’s study of Sacred Scripture. 


  1. On the Passion of Christ According to the Four Evangelists by Thomas a’Kempis – This was my spiritual reading during Lent.  Drawing from the Passion accounts in the Gospels, the mediation, which was a portion of a larger work on the life of Christ, walks with Jesus along his path to the cross.  Even though it was clearly written for those in religious communities (there are explicit references to life as a religious brother, to your religious superior, and to regularly praying the Divine Office), anyone can read it and draw deeply from a’Kempis’ spiritual well.


  1. One Heart Full of Love by Mother Teresa – This collection of speeches and interviews by St. Teresa of Calcutta is, shockingly, my first real introduction to the saint’s public addresses. I grew up knowing the greatness of this woman (I was 11 when she died), but I hadn’t read or heard any of her talks.  This collection shows the depth of Mother Teresa’s love for the poor and the neglected, as well as for Christ.  You feel her heart in every line, every word, in the collection. 


  1. Angels (and Demons) by Peter Kreeft – Written in question & answer format, this book (an easy read, I might add) delves into the theological and philosophical tradition about angels (and demons). Humor infuses Kreeft’s reflections, as do references to literature (Kreeft posits that the best depiction of angels in literature lies in the opening section of The Silmarillion, which I had read just prior to this book) and the writings of various saints. 


  1. The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander – My wife and I read this together. This is the first of the Prydain Chronicles, a fantasy-adventure series that I, in my majority non-fiction reading youth, hadn’t encountered before my marriage (I had seen Disney’s The Black Cauldron, which is sort of based on the series).  Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper under the care of the enchanter Dallben, goes on an adventure against an evil lord Arawn.  Along the way, he meets an increasingly interesting cast of characters, the kind he will want by his side in his other adventures.  [Side note: My favorite memory of reading this book wasn’t as much the plot or characters, but my wife’s reading it.  Her version of Gurgi, the man-beast that befriends Taran, is adorable!]


  1. Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis – I read this book during Adoration over the span of a couple months. Rather than reflecting on each individual Psalm, Lewis examines themes and doctrines found in the Psalms, connecting them to literature, history, and philosophy, as well as the rest of the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition. 


  1. Rising Sun by Michael Crichton – I’m a big Michael Crichton fan.  I had read almost everything of his except this book.  Now I have.  Corporate corruption abounds in this murder mystery/crime drama, with Japanese businesses essentially controlling the economy of the United States.  The novel follows our hero as he tries to follow conflicting leads and questions less than helpful suspects, all the while trying to make it through the night alive.  Enjoyable, but I still stand by my view that Crichton was at his best when writing sci-fi novels.  


  1. Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid – A collection of conversion stories from a variety of converts with an equally wide range of backgrounds. Some big names are in here, as well as more obscure ones.  Quite the emotional roller coaster; more than once the convert would be so close to the Church, then take a sharp left, and I, way too invested in stories to which I already know the conclusion, would scream in my head “You’re so close!  COME IN!  The Tiber’s great!”  Anyway, I liked it.  


  1. Ablaze! by Colleen Swaim – This is the first of TWO books by someone I know personally on this list (the other is directly below). I teach with Colleen (she’s one of the greatest teachers I know) at Bishop O’Connell, and when I became chairman of the religion department, with her joining the department at the same time, I decided I needed to get to know her a little better.  So I read one of her books.  She wrote this book and it’s companion, Radiate, years before she came to O’Connell.  Both of the books contain short biographies of saintly teens written for teens.  I must admit, I learned a lot from the book. 


  1. The Demon Maelstrom by Nicholas Mason – My wife and I read this together. I’m friends with the author from our time at Christendom College.  This is the second book in his Subversion Trilogy, which is set in a dystopian future Washington DC area.  Filled with crisp action scenes and thought-provoking dialogue, the story rushes towards a dramatic conclusion that sets the stage for the final installment.  Central to the drama of this series is the dignity of the human person; outside of our heroine and the rebels she fights with against the corrupt central government, the whole society, in true “theology of the body” fashion, disregards human dignity on a societal and personal level.  It is a dark precognition, one that feels more likely each day.    


So, that’s what kept me so busy during 2017.  Altogether, I began and finished 24 new-to-me books. 


This year, I plan to do something different.  In my living room, my wife and I have a bookshelf; friends and professors of ours wrote the books that inhabit the first two shelves.  Many of them I’ve read at some point, but a substantial number remain unread at the dawn of 2018.  Therefore, my reading goal this year is to read ALL of the books by people I know that I have not yet read by the start of the year.  As of now, there are a little more than a dozen books on the list.


I’m off to a good start too!  As of this posting, I’ve finished SIX new-to-me books, including three from this list of books by people that I know. 


Want to know what I thought of them? 


You’ll have to read my post on them next year. 


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Review: Books I read in 2017 (“The Big Ten”)

These past couple of years, I have kept a tally of the books I’ve read that were new-to-me, ones that I read for the first time that year.  In 2015 and 2016 I tried to read as many books as I could, trying to reach my personal goal of reading forty books.

I still have yet to reach that goal. 

This year, I did something different.  Readers may remember that my 2016 book list essay, posted at the dawn of 2017, included a list of ten books that I was determined to read before the end of the year.  I would also keep track of additionally books that I read. 

I’ll divide my reviews into two posts, one on “the Big Ten” and the other on the others.  

“The Big Ten” (in no particular order)

  1. Witness to Hope by George Weigel – The first part of Weigel’s monumental biography of Pope St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope came out in 1999, before John Paul II’s 2005 death.  The book is enormous (over 900 pages, and I read the first edition, not the one with a new Preface and Afterward), but essential if you want a complete picture of John Paul the Great.  One of the best biographies I have ever read.  Well worth the work that went into reading it. 
  1. The End and the Beginning by George Weigel – This is the sequel to Witness to Hope, but it is more than a sequel. Yes, it covers the life of John Paul II from 2000 (where Witness to Hope ended) through his death in 2005, but it also reexamines John Paul’s war against communism, or rather the communists’ war against him, thanks to the opening of Soviet archives.  The communism section is part one and the rest of John Paul’s biography is part two.  The third part offers Weigel’s reflections on the successes and failures of John Paul’s papacy.  Engaging and informative.  
  1. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi – This one is written for younger readers, but it was exciting nonetheless.  I won’t spoil anything about the plot, but I will quote you the opening sentences, just to whet your appetite: “Not every thirteen-year old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.  But I was just such a girl. . .”  Grabs ya, no?  I wasn’t too fond of how the book ends, but the rest of it was great!
  1. The Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology by Michael Newton – Anyone who knows me knows that I have a not-so-secret love for cryptozoology (the study of hidden animals, like Bigfoot, Nessie, sea serpents, animals that should be extinct but are reported to be alive, etc).  This is the most encompassing book I’ve ever found on the topic.  In addition to at least a short entry on most of the important creatures, locations, or people associated with cryptozoology, the book also has appendices listing movies, novels, and television shows featuring cryptozoological storylines.  There is also a comprehensive bibliography, for further reading.  
  1. Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard – The first of O’Reilly and Dugard’s collaborations on the end (“Killing”) of famous people and institutions. An exciting read, filled with details I did not know about the Lincoln Assassination plot and the final days of the Civil War, it was a little frustrating for me for personal reasons.  My family might be distantly related to Mary Surratt, who was executed in connection with the assassination.  For all the detail put into researching the book, the treatment of Surratt’s role seemed cursory in comparison, following the standard narrative. 
  1. The History of the Catholic Church by James Hitchcock – I had previously thought of using this one-volume history of the Church for a high school Church History course. While it won’t work well in that regard (a little challenging for a textbook), it is a fantastic introduction to Catholic History.  Every page contained stories and facts I had never learned, and it approaches its story, not surprisingly, from a person-centered viewpoint.  
  1. The Life You Save May be Your Own by Paul Elie – Having majored in English and History, I have a special place in my heard for literary biographies. Paul Elie’s volume, which examines the life and work of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy, does an excellent job not only examining the lives of these writers and their important role in mid-twentieth century Catholic intellectual history, but also how their lives and writings intertwined, and how one would influence the other.  It is a compelling read.  It really made me want to read the authors’ works, which is probably the ultimate goal of all good literary biography.   
  1. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – Many people read this emotional novel in their high school literature courses. I did not; I feel glad I didn’t, though, because I feel that high school me would not have appreciated the depth of this mediation on African paganism’s reaction to European Christian colonialism.  Of “the Big Ten,” this one in particular sparked in me a desire for conversation.  The beauty of the imagery, the emotional pull of the story, the complexity of the characters.  All of it came together in a masterpiece of not just African literature, but of the human creative experience. 
  1. The Poem of the Cid by Anonymous – Years ago I bought a bilingual version of this book (not that I can read Medieval Spanish; it was the only version that I could find at the time) because I thought I would need it for a history course at Christendom College (turns out I had an outdated book list so I didn’t have to read it).  It was quite the epic, very similar to other medieval epic poems like The Song of Roland (which I did read for school).  Lots of battles and loot-getting.  Check it out if you haven’t yet.   
  1. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt – I must admit, this was my least favorite of the books I read this year (that includes the books not on “the Big Ten” list). The major parts of McCourt’s autobiography are compelling and emotionally charged, beautifully using Irish dialects and standard English to paint with words.  Yet I found the book to be too sexual.  [Related note: I’m beginning to have mixed feelings about reading memoirs, since the majority (at least what I’ve read, outside of conversion stories) include too much detail about the sexual exploits and desires of the author].  McCourt’s story begins when his parents, both newly arrived in America, met each other and had casual sex in a pub, which led to little Frankie’s conception, and ends with him having a one-night-stand with a girl at a party upon returning to America.  See?  It’s symmetry!  Sigh. 

That’s “the Big Ten.”  Next time, I’ll talk about the other books that I read in 2017. 

And, of course, someday soon, I’ll ACTUALLY post a Q & A essay.   

Until then, keep reading!

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Review: BOOKS READ IN 2016

I love to read. 

You know how people ask you about your hobbies?  Mine is reading (and writing, like for this blog!).  Pretty much always has been. 

In 2015, I tried to read as many books as I could during the year (including books read with my wife Sarah, of course).  I kept track of the books, which had to be books which I had never read before. 

I read thirty-eight, almost thirty-nine (so close).

This year, I tried again to read as many books as I could.  I also kept track of each book’s length, so I could see how many pages I read by the end of the year.  The list of books is below, with a little review for each.   

This past year was an adventurous one, what with my wife and I both delivering talks in Leeds, England about J. R. R. Tolkien in July, and with me delivering a talk about Pope Francis at Franciscan University of Steubenville in November.  My Tolkien talk was entitled “Tolkien and the Battle of the Somme” and the Pope Francis talk was called “Memory and the Family: Pope Francis’ View of History.”  I’ve indicated which books were read in the process of researching for these talks, in case people would like to read more about the topics. 

  1. Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church by Raymond E. Brown – 121 p – Fr. Brown’s take on several of the big “issues” in the Church today. Made me frustrated a few times. 
  1. Unless Some Man Show Me by Alexander Jones – 155 p – Collections of columns written about Scripture interpretation for a Catholic newspaper in England. Very useful. 
  1. The American Catholic Almanac by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson – 408 p – Read for a review for Homiletic and Pastoral Review. A story from American Catholic history and culture for every day of the year.  I learned a lot!  I only wish there was a Bibliography so I could dig deeper. 
  1. Christ in His Fullness by Bruce Sullivan – 222 p – Conversion story and refutation of the major arguments that had held this former Church of Christ minister from entering the Church.  A very quick read. 
  1. Why Johnny Doesn’t Behave: Twenty Tips and Measurable BIPs by Annemieke Golly and Barbara D. Bateman– 122 p – A book on teaching for a change. It focused on how to deal with misbehaving children and implementing Behavioral Implementation Plans (BIPs)   . 
  1. The Ten Commandments by Charles Pope – 80 p – Short but sweet overview of the Decalogue and the Church’s teaching on the commandments.
  1. The Crown of Sorrow by Alban Goodier – 156 p – My Lenten spiritual reading this year. Slowly moves you through the passion account, beginning and ending with the Scriptures, to draw you into Christ’s Passion.  It worked well as a daily Lenten meditation. 
  1. Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – 870 p – Read this with my wife. Harry is a whiny teenager, people start gathering to fight the evil guy and someone dies (da da DA!)
  1. J. R.R. Tolkien: His Life, Work, and Faith by Raymond Edwards – 88 p – Little Bio about Tolkien. Read to help prepare for the Tolkien talk in England. 
  1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – 374 p – Part dystopian novel, part love letter to the 1980s. Had a predictable ending and parts that I really didn’t like (the full page apologia for touching yourself was not appreciated). 
  1. The Broker by John Grisham – 422 p – The only John Grisham novel I’ve read. Guy from Washington DC gets a pardon set up by the CIA and lives on the run in Italy. 
  1. Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling – 652 p – Read this with my wife. Harry’s less whiny.  Good mystery in this one. 
  1. Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth – 313 p – Read to help prepare for the Tolkien talk in England. About Tolkien’s early life and his time in World War I.  Very interesting. 
  1. Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury – 364 p – Collection of stories by the master of science fiction short stories. Included the story that inspired the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
  1. Prove It: You by Amy Welborn – 125 p – Book on morality written for teens.
  1. Why Be Catholic by Patrick Madrid – 230 p – Read for a review for Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Good reflection on why it’s great to be Catholic.  The book weaves in personal stories about each topic. 
  1. Francis: Pope of the New World by Andrea Torinelli – 180 p – Short biography about Pope Francis written soon after his election. Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – 759 p – The last Harry Potter book. It is the climax.  Anyone else feel like Rowling was inspired by C. S. Lewis while writing this one, especially by The Great Divorce?
  1. 2201 Fascinating Facts by David Louis – 376 p – Fun trivia facts on basically everything. A little dated (it was published in the late ‘80s).
  1. The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui by Affleck Gray – 178 p – The only book on Scotland’s hairy biped (like Bigfoot). Purchased in Scotland.
  1. Black Priest/White Church by Lawrence E. Lucas – 270 p – About overcoming racism in the Catholic Church during the 1960s and 1970 (when the book was written). I didn’t agree with all of the priest’s points, but it did make me think about what I can do to help race relations in my own experiences.  
  1. Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer – 227 p – Historical fiction for middle schoolers. Actually a pretty fun read. 
  1. On the Family by Pope Francis – 120 p – Pope Francis’ Wednesday Audience reflections on the family from 2015. Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. A Song for Mary by Dennis Smith – 374 p – Memoir of growing up as a Catholic poor kid in New York.
  1. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie – 247 p – My first Agatha Christie novel. I won’t tell you how it ends.
  1. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide by the Writers of the Series – 207 p – The title pretty much says it all. The only problem is that it was over too soon!
  1. Doctor Who: Big Bang Generation by Gary Russell – 238 p – An adventure based on the TV show characters. Lots of fun when you hear the actors’ voices in your head while reading the story. 
  1. Pope Francis Speaks to the US and Cuba by Pope Francis – 175 p – All of the homilies, talks, and interviews Pope Francis gave during his visit to America in 2015. Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis – 225 p – The controversial Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis on the Family. Lots of good stuff, but the confusing parts are legitimately confusing.  Read to help prepare for the Pope Francis talk at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
  1. Creation, Evolution, and Catholicism by Thomas L. McFadden Sr. – 138 p – Independently published. Argued that you cannot be a Catholic and hold that evolution, even theistic evolution, is true.  Lots of insults against Jesuits in this one.  Not too fun of a read. 
  1. Liturgical Question Box by Peter J. Elliott – 189 p – Adapted from the author’s column in an Australian Catholic newspaper
  1. Poor Richard’s Almanac, etc by Benjamin Franklin – 130 p – Little book of “advice” from Poor Richard. . . I mean Benjamin Franklin
  1. The Enchanted World: Dragons by the editors at Time-Life – 130 p – Part of a series of books published by Time-Life. Lots of fun stories and pretty pictures. 
  1. Irish Saints Robert T. Reilly – 169 p – Lots of short lives of great Irish saints (and some saints to be?).
  1. A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn – 293 p – Dr. Hahn presents the story of Salvation in an interesting, entertaining, and spiritually enlightening way. I’ve already begun incorporating material from this book into my lesson plans. 
  1. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter – 277 p – The official biography of the great author. Very interesting read.  I read parts of this for the Tolkien talk, and I read the rest of it later in the year. 
  1. Catholics in America by Russell Shaw – 149 p – Short bios of key figures in American Catholicism. Really made me want to read more about these people. 
  1. Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating – 340 p – This work of apologetics helped launch a revival of Catholic apologetics (which this blog is hopefully a small part). Very informative, looking at Fundamentalist arguments and answering them with the Church’s teaching. 
  1. Narrative Poems by C.S. Lewis – 186 p – Of the four poems in this book, only the first one, Dymer, was published in Lewis’ life. Good, quick read. 

And for those that weren’t keeping track, that’s 10,279 pages read in 2016. 

For 2017, I’m doing something different (again).  First, again I’m trying to read as many books as I can (my goal is forty).  Secondly, and different for this year, I have picked ten books that I have been meaning to read for a while (in some cases, over a decade).  The goal is to read all ten of them before the end of the year.  I own them all, so getting my hands on the book is the easy part.  The order of me reading them doesn’t matter, which hopefully will make things easier. 

Anyway, here’s that list (in no particular order):

  • Witness to Hope by George Weigel
  • The End and the Beginning by George Weigel
  • The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
  • The Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology by Michael Newton
  • Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
  • The History of the Catholic Church by James Hitchcock
  • The Life You Save May be Your Own by Paul Elie
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • The Poem of the Cid by Anonymous
  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

In other words, it’s looking like 2017 is shaping up to be a great year for reading!  Expect a short review of each of the ten, and every other new book I read this year, in January 2018.

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