"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, December 20, 2019

Best Books Read in 2019

Over at Catholic World Report is the annual, and very popular, series of posts from contributors on the books they most enjoyed in 2019. The terms do not require that the book be published in 2019, but merely that you have read and enjoyed a given book in that year. As readers of this lowly blog will of course know, there are plenty of other books I have read this year, but we were limited to 600 words. My list is here.

Since we were limited to 600 words, I thought I'd expand on that list a bit here, linking you to some of the interviews I did with authors on my list, and to longer discussion on here of some of those books.

Cynthia Haven’s very interesting biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. I started a discussion of the book (here) back in January when I get back from Romania.

Serhiy Plokhy, as I said at CWR, is one of those historians one must always read if one has any interest in East-Slavic history. I've read a couple of his other books (some noted here), and this year got around to reading his Yalta: The Price of Peace, which is a superb.

Given the complexity of the issues, and the fact the war was still raging, the temptation in writing such a book must surely have been to make it six times as long, dragging in all sorts of related and obviously important issues. But it's a masterfully restrained work, looking at the week-long conference with just enough detail to give context and shrewd analysis and then letting the reader go, confident in the knowledge that a billion other books have been written on everything leading up to February 1945, and a billion more on the aftermath. It remains true that it takes much more discipline to write a relatively short book like this than a big sprawling one.

Adam Phillips is always worth reading, including, this year, his aphoristic On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life. I posted some of the choicest of those aphorisms here.

If you go here, you will see some of the thoughts I wrote up after reading Guy Beiner’s Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster. As noted, this is a dense but deeply fascinating book for all sorts of reasons, not least its singular insights into the complex processes of repressing and remembering our conflicts.

This year I read the second installment in David Kynaston's superlative series: Family Britain 1951-1957. On last year’s list, I recommended the predecessor volume, Austerity Britain 1945-1951which I wrote about in some detail here. So this year I read the 1950s volume, which is equally marvelous for the same reasons as I discussed last year.

In 2020, I will get around to reading the next installment, Modernity Britain: 1957-1962. What is especially noteworthy and masterful in both volumes so far is the author's deft handling of huge quantities of data from Mass Observation, Gallup, and other then-new social surveying agencies almost punch-drunk polling people on myriad issues in diverse forms.

My friend Bill Mills was interviewed here discussing his very honest, moving, and funny book about the realities of parish life: Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding. For those of you with married clergy in your life, you need to send them this book.

Will 2020 finally see the election of a party and candidate that will allow the United States to join the mid-20th century? Will Bernie Sanders be our Aneurin Bevan, the fiery Labour cabinet minister in Atlee's 1945 government and the politician who brought about Britain's National Health Service in 1948? This year I read (and here discussed) John Campbell’s Aneurin Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism, whose off-putting title did not spoil what was a surprisingly enjoyable study of the great Welsh leader.

A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop by Rembert Weakland. This was, as I discussed here in some detail, an unexpectedly fascinating and important book, whatever the sins and scandals of the author, now well into his 90s.

The priest Christiaan Kappes is a dynamo of a scholar whose newest book, The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence, is an exhilarating ride. He was interviewed here.

Apart from his decision about nuclear weapons, there are some impressive virtues in Harry Truman, perhaps foremost among them the fact it never occurred to him to swan about the world after 1953 collecting huge fees for vomiting up canned speeches and intolerable banalities to big banks and other mercenaries. I have read previous works about him, including David McCullough's biography. So this past June after a dear friend, a retired history teacher, died, and we inherited her library, I found therein Margaret Truman’s 1973 book Harry S. Truman, which is part memoir and part family biography.

I also inherited Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which apparently played a part in the 2012 Spielberg film, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis. I watched the film with my kids on Netflix in October, and found it a captivating performance by Lewis.

This led me to pick up the Goodwin book and to find it quite enjoyable in its own way. Indeed, parts of it are just riveting, which I have never before been able to say about 19th-century American history. Perhaps--though this remains to be seen--this book will be the beginning of the end of my total lack of interest in 19th-century American politics and especially the Civil War. Other wars--the Crimean, certainly, along with the First and Second World Wars, on which I have often commented on here--continue to fascinate me even after two decades of reading about them regularly. But for some reason the Civil War has seemed too provincial, too uncomplicated, to attract much interest. Perhaps that will change.

I have previously drawn attention to Pia Sophia Chaudhari's new book, Dynamis of Healing: Patristic Theology and the Psyche. I am reviewing it for an academic journal so cannot say much about it here other than it is a very impressive book which I warmly commend to all with interest in patristic theology (especially Maximus the Confessor, to whom I have drawn a good bit of attention on here over the last decade) and depth psychology. Among this book's several virtues is one in particular: it reminds me that I have sometimes too facilely and snobbishly dismissed Jung in the past in favour of our father among the saints, Sigmund of Vienna. (I made some atoning gestures for past sins against Jung here, where I went on to praise him as more enlightened than Freud on at least one key issue.)

The book is also very rightly and closely in dialogue with two of the most interesting and important object-relations analysts to come out of Britain: W.R.D. Fairbairn, and Harry Guntrip, whom I briefly discussed here. Both of them wrote with great insights into the schizoid personality type, Fairbairn in his groundbreaking 1940 essay republished in Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality; and Guntrip in Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations, and the Self.

Juan-David Nasio, Psychoanalysis and Repetition: Why Do We Keep Making the Same Mistakes? This is a very short book that packs a tremendous number of insights into its relatively few pages. I discussed it at some length here.

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