Our regular reviewers provide some choices of what were the best, or at least for them, the most interesting, books of the year in 2018
The well-known writer and educator, Fr Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, died from cancer in November 2015. Thomas G. Casey, an Irish Jesuit priest who knew Fr Gallagher, has produced an insightful biography, Wisdom at the Crossroads: The Life and Thought of Michael Paul Gallagher SJ (Messenger Publications, €12.95).
This excellent book is an introduction to the life and thought of Michael Paul. Fr Casey writes: “He was an orthodox thinker, but in a compassionate manner. He didn’t threaten those who were confused or lost, but reached out to them with kindness and understanding. He had a deep respect for them, wherever they were on the journey of life.”
Michael Paul was always interested in what atheists had to say. He respected their sincerity and conviction, He was a great listener and he enjoyed dialogue. Fr Casey writes: “He invited them to open new doors into the mystery of themselves, so they could discover a God who was beyond anything they had dared to imagine.”
Michael Paul Gallagher was a truly inspirational man. He was kindness, compassion and erudition personified. In Wisdom at the Crossroads Fr Thomas Casey has managed to capture something of his gentleness and profound learning.
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, who was brought up as a Catholic, and is currently an agnostic. He is a Founding Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture.
He has also travelled widely and gained deep experience of some eastern religions and of atheistic communism. And as an academic philosopher he is well versed in the works of the ancients as well as of modern thinkers.
His conclusion on the benefits to the entire human race resulting from belief systems in Why We Need Religion: An Agnostic Celebration of Spiritual Emotions (Oxford University Press, £20) is encouraging.
And his book is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking and erudite.
I much admired Notes to Self by Emilie Pine (Tramp Press, €15) for its startling honesty and well-constructed prose. Her unsettling description of her father’s alcoholism (he’s still alive!) and her unsparing account of trying to conceive a baby impress. Her secularist mindset omits anything transcendental, but she’s a good writer. And I’m glad to see her essays bob to the top in a sea of fiction.
One of the most compelling historical works of the year was Antonia Fraser’s The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland and the Fight for Religious Freedom 1789-1829 (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £25).
Lady Antonia brings an especially empathetic eye to the back story of Catholic Emancipation, and a human feeling for characters like O’Connell, Wellington and even dotty old George III.
One of the most necessary books of the year was Tony Connolly’s Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities and the Inside Story of the Irish Response (Penguin Ireland, €21.00).
Ace reporter Connolly has the inside dope on the dramatic period we’re living through.
Tensions between ‘the West’ and Russia, from Stalin’s Soviet Union through to Putin’s Russian Federation, have been constant for almost a century, and continue to be a major factor in geopolitics.
Conor O’Cleary’s valuable and relevant The Shoemaker and his Daughter (Penguin Ireland, €17.99) in describes the experiences and travails of an average Russian family across the generations from the days of the Tsars down to today.
The head of the family was born deep in Armenia in 1902. Later the family lived in the Caucasus, where they witnessed Stalin’s purge of half-a-million Chechens. Next they were forced to immigrate to Siberia.
The family survived the vicissitudes of the Russian Revolution, the dictatorship of Stalin, “the great Patriotic War” (otherwise WWII), the autocratic regimes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and then the disintegration of the Soviet Union into autonomous republics under Gorbachev and Yelsin.
O’Cleary’s memoir is a useful illustration of the enormous complexity of present-day Russia. He also highlights the lack of freedoms, the challenges, the sheer physical hardship endured by Russians in their daily lives.
John Moriarty, whom I think of as the ‘Kerry mystic’, has both attracted and repelled me. I found his writings too daunting with their daring attempt to find a synthesis between Christianity, eastern religions, Native American folklore and mythology.
One was fascinated and at the same time baffled at the extent of his learning. He worked it all out the hard way through years of manual work and spartan living under the Twelve Bens in Connemara and the McGillicuddy Reeks in his native Kerry.
Now his friend and admirer, Mary McGilllicuddy, has unlocked many, if not all, of his difficult writings in John Moriarty: Not the Full Story (Lilliput Press, €20).
Mary McGillicuddy skillfully brings the reader through the phases of John’s extraordinary life based on two volumes of his autobiography and at the same time interpreting his more difficult writings. I was thus encouraged to have a go at his first book, Dreamtime. Even his admirers found it hard going, but with the help of Not the Full Story, the Moriarty vision begins to emerge.
Sr Jo O’Donovan’s Bright Wings, Dappled Things (Messenger Publications, €19.95) is a superb collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems beautifully complemented by Fr Francis Browne’s photographs and Sister Jo’s sympathetic commentaries.
The most vitriolic book of the year is Kevin Kiely’s Seamus Heaney and the Great Poetry Hoax : a critical exposé of Faber & Faber’s verseman (Areopagitica Publishing, £7.60), an engaging treatise which scores some good points along with more than a few own goals.
Alan Hayes’s Reading the Future: New Writing from Ireland Celebrating 250 Years of Hodges Figgis (Arlen House / Hodges Figgis, £20.00) is a comprehensive, valuable and most welcome anthology of contemporary Irish writing. (All profits go to the Hodges Figgis ‘Emerging Irish Writer Bursary’.)
This is the Year of the Armistice and the end of the Great War. But it was also the beginning of the Spanish Flu epidemic that wiped out more humans than did that War.
Dr Ida Milne, in her Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland, 1918-19 (Manchester University Press, £25) has written a wonderfully evocative account of the catastrophe.
Why I love this book is not just the forensic spotlight it throws on a neglected topic, with its carefully researched statistics and scholarly analysis, but primarily because of the human stories it conveys in such rich and attractive writing. Dr Milne is a skilled oral historian, and here she uses eyewitness testimony to bring to vivid life the subject of death.
I had expected that Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster, £20) by Bob Woodward might give us a mesmerising account of the chaotic and criminal Trump administration – but the book was strangely dull and had about it the smell of a group of earnest researchers.
A poor year, too, for Irish writing in general – though Conor Bowman’s Horace Winter Says Goodbye (Hachette Books Ireland, £7.99) was lively and well-written.
That said, the book which I most valued this last year was The Dublin Notebook, volume VII of the Oxford Collected Works of Hopkins (Oxford University Press, £122.50), which I slowly re-read.
These pages bring us so close to the real Hopkins: working on teaching and correcting exams (now we learn that “he did his job thoroughly”); composing a little music; doing scholarly research on Pindar and Cicero; scrutinising a few Bible texts in his Retreat notes while agonising over his sense of being “a straining eunuch’”– and yet having the energy to compose some wonderful poems while calmly asserting that, “I do not waver in my allegiance, I never have”. Hopeful Hopkins indeed.
My book of the Year has to be Richard Brook’s Bean Counters: The Triumph of the Accountants and How They Broke Capitalism (Atlantic, £18.99). Offering example after shocking example Brooks describes how slipshod work by the ‘big four’ companies that dominate the profession – PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst &Young, Deloitte, and KPMG – has brought about “the demise of sound accounting”.
The obvious somehow goes unnoticed these days. KPMG for instance offered unqualified endorsement of the finances of British bank HBOS as it went to the wall. “How they signed off on the accounts as true and fair is a mystery to me,” remarked an amazed Judge Donal O’Donovan, while presiding over legal action against Ernst & Young for its work on Anglo.
Things become clearer if you accept Brooks’ contention that the ‘big four’ look the other way because they put business relationships before honest accounting. Nowadays they earn more from consultancy – offering advice – than they do from auditing. The consultant who tells it straight risks antagonising the client. Continuity comes before candour.
An engrossing book warns that a likely consequence of a failure to shake up the Big Four – and reform the financial markets – will be another crash.
Atheists have no problem with suffering. The cruelties that afflict us are natural. Why argue with nature? Believers do: how could a loving God allow a child die in agony?
Philosophers have their answers. These often seem evasions that do not get to the heart of the matter.
Eleonore Stump, one of the leading Thomists of our day, who teaches at St Louis University, goes beyond philosophy.
In her major work Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the problem of suffering (Clarendon Press, £31.49 pb), she retells the stories Job, Samson, Abraham and Mary of Bethany.
While her narratives, informed by Aquinas’ account of love and human weakness do not solve the problem, she shows us how a loving God encounters humans in their failures to love which is the heart of the matter.
FELIX M. LARKIN
Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster, £20) is a devastating account of the first year of the utterly dysfunctional presidency of Donald J. Trump. Woodward, one of the duo who broke open the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post in the early 1970s, is the doyen of US political correspondents. His sources are unimpeachable.
He portrays Trump as bullying, ignorant and incompetent – and congenitally untruthful. According to Woodward, some of his closest associates say of him that he is a “moron” and a professional liar’, that he ‘really doesn’t understand anything …[and] doesn’t know what he is talking about’, and that he ‘acted like – and had the understanding of – a fifth or sixth grader’ (aged 10 or 11).
These comments are attributed to four of the most senior officials in Trump’s administration: respectively, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump’s former chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, National Security Advisor John Kelly and Secretary of Defence James Mattis – the last two being four-star generals, the highest rank in the military.
Trump is also shown to be self-delusionary. Woodward tells us, for instance, that he claimed to be “the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters” – a reference to his outrageous tweeting.
In an interview with Woodward in March 2016, seven months before his election as president, Trump expressed the view that “real power is fear”; – hence the title of Woodward’s book.
The American people and all the rest of us have much to fear while this man is in the White House. In the words of General Kelly, quoted by Woodward, ‘we’re in crazytown’.
JOHN F. DEANE
James Harpur’s new collection of poems, The White Silhouette (Carcanet Press, £9.99) this year was a stand-out collection for me, one of the best in the last few years.
The book is rich in language, thought and imagery and the title poem is a visionary and yet down-to-earth exploration of one person’s anxious search for meaning in life.
There is a long poem focusing on our own Book of Kells, a deeply penetrating work in poetry; then there are several finely-wrought and moving lyrics, all expanding on the poet’s own earlier work and opening new horizons for the rest of us.
A poetry feast to be relished over and over again.
These are two books which everyone should be aware of, for different reasons.
The selection of life stories contained in Sharing the Wisdom of Time, by Pope Francis and friends (Messenger Publications, €24.95 / £27.50) which were written in response to a request he initiated, should not be seen as merely an attractive ‘coffee table book’. This book contains insights which can be read as going to the very heart of his papacy, because they go to the very heart of Christianity.
My other selection might seem an austere academic book. But Thomas Cromwell: A Life (Allen Lane, £30) by Diarmaid MacMacCulloch is an important work, revealing yet elegantly written and entertaining. His subject, the criminal who undertook much of Henry VIII’s ‘dirty work’, has become a familiar person , especially in Tudor obsessed England, the book is an essential balance to Hilary Mantel’s so widely admired fictional vision.
But there is a taint about this Tudor enthusiasm that still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and one has to wonder why the monster that was Henry VIII is, along with Hitler, all the history that seems to be taught in English schools. Can there be something seriously wrong with the way the English (rather than the British) see the world?
JOHN WYSE JACKSON
I haven’t read my book of the year yet. But I know what it will be: Scottish author C. J. Sansom’s latest novel Tombland (Mantle, £20), which has just been published.
Among the delights of running Zozimus Bookshop, my second-hand bookshop in Gorey, is that customers recommend authors to me. Recently I have been urged to read (and to stock) books in the Matthew Shardlake series by the Scottish writer C. J. Sansom.
I tried one at the beginning of the year, and have been captured ever since, motoring my way through the first six of them. Sansom writes very well, and for me his books slipped down more easily than either of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels.
In these historical whodunnits, Shardlake is a lawyer, one of many officials loosely attached to the Tudor Court. In each book, almost despite himself, he finds himself solving murders or other crimes.
The world he inhabits is a dangerous one, and he must avoid treading on the toes of the King’s courtiers. His diffident character and personal difficulties – he is a hunchback – puts the modern reader firmly on his side.
This modern reader can hardly wait for number seven!