Christmas books

Peter Costello examines the season’s offerings

Christmas has become the major selling season for the publishing industry. But it is a time of the year when the shops are also flooded with instant and often unnecessary books.

Out of all of these seasonal offerings, here is a selection of titles with something suitable for some member of the family circle, books which are both relevant, entertaining and of some lasting value.


Pope Francis: Untying the Knots

by Paul Vallely

(Bloomsbury / Continuum, £12.99)

This was perhaps the most interesting of the books quickly produced after the election of Pope Francis. Journalist Valley goes back to Argentina to explore the new Pope’s background in order to provide some indication of his frame of mind as a guide to what the future may possibly hold. This book will provide valuable insights for all readers. Valley’s biography, along with Evangelii Gaudium and the lengthy Jesuit interview, will together give the clearest insight into a man who might rightly be thought of as ‘the man of the year’.


The Keys to Jerusalem

by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

(Oxford University Press, £68.00)

This year saw the passing of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, one of Ireland’s most distinguished scriptural scholars, an expert on the early church and the Holy Land, especially the life and labours of St Paul. This collection of his major essays provides in summary form the results of a lifetime’s research into the setting in the Palestine of the ministry of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles. Here archaeology meets with scrupulous modern scholarship in a creative way, which will prove enlightening for the ordinary reader as well.


The Story of the Jews

by Simon Schama

(Bodley Head, £25.00)

Connected with the television series which was such a success, this history of the Jewish people provides not only a background to early Christianity but also insights into the realities of one of the world’s great and still influential religions, whatever one’s own views. For the Christian, however, the Old Testament, the story of the Older Covenant will always be a foundational work. But it is important to know that not all the claims made about Judaism today have foundations in real history. Conservative Judaism owes more to Europe than it does to the Holy Land.


Music in the Castle of Heaven

by John Eliot Gardiner

(Allen Lane, £30.00)

This biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, hailed as one of the greatest composers of sacred music, will delight all of those to whom his music is one of the greatest of European cultural achievements. Sir John is one of the world’s leading authorities on the music of the period, and he has been engaged with the music of Bach since his childhood.  He says that his aim in this book is “to give the reader a sense of inhabiting the same experiences and sensations that Bach might have had in the act of music-making. This, I try to show, can help us arrive at a more human likeness discernible in the closely related processes of composing and performing his music.” This entails, naturally enough, an engagement with the interaction of Bach and religion.



by Eleanor Catton

(Granta, £18.99)

This long ambitious novel of Dickensian dimension is set in the Victorian gold fields of New Zealand in the early days of its colonisation soon after the Maori Wars. As did Dickens, the author utilises elements of the murder mystery, the ghost story  and other popular elements with a panoramic view of the interconnected nature of individual lives not only on the goldfields, across New Zealand, but around the globe. The novel won the Man Booker Prize for 2013 for Eleanor Cannon’s small independent publisher and the received warm reviews everywhere.  With changes in the rules which allow the Americans to take part this may well be the last year in which the prize retains is distinction before becoming just another award. 



by Frank McGuinness

(Brandon, £12.99)

This is the first novel of playwright Frank McGuinness. It is set in 1950s Donegal, an area he knows well, then a section of land almost cut off from the outside by the border. Derry might be nearby, but it belonged essentially to a different world. Into this rural backwater there comes a young Italian artist commissioned to paint a set of Stations of the Cross. As an exotic outsider he is a curiosity. The title alludes of course to the disciples who were said in legend at least to have brought Christianity into the British Isles, indeed to have brought the boy Jesus there on his trading trips for tin. Here too different ideas of faith are set to be contrasts, much as in his play the author contrasts different aspects of society. 


This is Rugby

by George Hook 

(Hachette Books Ireland, €24.67)

The sports fan – and there has to be at least one in every Irish household – who has long since exhausted any small interest in Sir Alex Ferguson’s fourth volume of memoirs, a catching up with past enemies sort of book, will find the opinionated George Hook  provides something more interesting going forward into the New Year.  Who is the greatest Irish rugby player of all time? What was the best Irish Grand Slam team? Who are the game’s greatest rivals? Arguments for sitting room and pub are all set to go. The book takes the form of an extended interview with RTÉ’s Hugh Cahill, so this is really a sort of portable radio show. To those who listen to the real thing, enough said perhaps.


Is That a Fsh in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventures of Translation

George Bellos

(Particular Books /Penguin Books, £8.99)

Making oneself understood in one’s own native language is hard enough, much harder in another language. Perils lie that way for all of us. So much depends on translation, from world peace to the meaning of the Bible. In this entertaining excursion George Bellows explores the adventures, and misadventures of translation, over the centuries.  Once the world (or a large part of it) was dominated by Latin, then by French, then English, and in the future, perhaps by Chinese. But as such dominant languages fade so too do others die away in the remoter parts of the world – including perhaps the West of Ireland. An insightful account of how words in translation from one language to another, one culture to another, one person to another, shape our whole life.


A History of the World in Twelve Maps

by Jerry Brotton

(Penguin, £10.99)

Today we take maps a little for granted. But in former times maps from the very earliest times were, like history, a way of making sense of the world we live in. In this entertaining book author Jerry Brotton takes 12 historically significant attempts to represent the world, to the schematic forms of ancient and medieval times down to those now generated by views from outer space – including our own Ordnance Survey it is has to be said. 

What lies behind a map of any kind lies an idea of reality, but always the ancient North-South layout all too often hides from us realties we may not wish to accept. For the family history buff an essential book to have and to hold.

I am Malala

by Malala Yousafza with Christina Lamb

(W & N, £18.99)

This courageous and extraordinary young woman has become something of a world symbol. Her stand for the education of women in her own native Pakistan was a courageous one, but it should not lead Western readers to think that such things only happened over there. She and her family now live abroad, but as her speeches and appearances show, she continues her campaign for the right of young people everywhere to fully realise their potential.


Vintage Value: Classic pamphlet design from 20th Century Ireland

ed. by Lir Mac Cárthaigh

(Veritas, €19.99)

The publisher’s current art director exploits the back catalogue with this account of the cover (though not the contents) of Catholic pamphlets from the 1930s through to the 1960s in which some of the precepts of Catholic life and morality were brought to young people. Not all were earnest, some were stories. Not all were Irish; here are the books of Daniel Lord the American Jesuit for instance. But the art history interest of these booklets still leave the reader to solve the riddle of why they seem not to have achieved the full effect their authors hoped for. Undoubtedly the novelty item of the season. But there is oddly enough an edge of satiric contempt which some may find grating or distasteful.  


Genesis, a photographic album

by Sebastião Selgado

(Taschen Books, £44.99)

The explorations of the world and its changing form and the peoples who live on it by one of our era’s greatest photographers, in fact greatest artists, the Brazilian Sebastião Salgado is well served by his German publisher in the stunning nature of his photographs.  He is one of the rare photographers who work almost wholly in monochrome, but the rich tones of his plates capture the reality of nature and man in a man that is truly remarkable.  This album is a collection of the most extraordinary images I have ever seen, all suggestive of the world in its days of creation. Undoubtedly one the best art books of the year. 


Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2014

(Jesuit Communications Centre,  €10.99)

The website from which this now annual treasury derives has some five million visitors. By now it needs no real introduction, yet it still meets a need.  This would be the ideal Christmas gift that goes on proving its worth over the 12 months of the coming year.  A sample from its pages suggests the contents as a whole:

What each one is interiorly,

face to face with God,

Unknown to anyone, is of vital consequence to all;

And every act of love, every act of faith and adoration,

Every mute uplifting of the heart,

Draws the whole world nearer to God…

— From Where To From Here? by Brian Grogan SJ.


1914: Fight the Good Fight

by Allan Mallinson

(Bantam Press, £25.00)

The chief insight of this book is that the war was largely settled in the very first 20 days of mobile fighting. When the forward movement of the Germans was stalled and then stopped and the war became bogged down in the trenches of the Western front, what we think of as the Great War began. The next three years were in effect a chronicle of human suffering that in effect led peoples everywhere to revolution, social break down, and personal turmoil. We will soon be flooded by books about the Great War. This, though one of the first, may well be one of the best.


The Autobiography

by Seán Òg Ò hAilpìn

(Penguin Ireland, €20.00)

In a way this story of his experiences by a leading GAA star is the story of modern Ireland – the compromises that have to be made to keep the game an amateur game and invest it with the necessary power to win. Keeping tradition alive with the aid of modern systems.

Promoted by the publishers as the story everyone wants to read, this will fill the stocking for many fans around the country. A giant of the Rebel country, he was something of a rebel himself as the rows with the Cork County Board showed. 

For all GAA enthusiasts this book will prove to be a ‘must have’ gift.