For G.K. Chesterton fans

My commercial plug of the day, especially for Chesterton fans: has put on sale a Kindle version of a 50-book G.K. Chesterton collection for $1.99. I don’t know if this is a one-day deal or an ongoing price. Fellow bookworms, help yourself. I’m going to add it to my own collection. Use the link to get to and you’ll be supporting the blog at the same time. Thanks, and happy reading!

He said it: Paul Johnson on heroism

Paul Johnson, historian, from his book Heroes (HarperCollins, 2007):

Paul Johnson (at right, with Dr. Norman C. Francis and Ruth Johnson Colvin) receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2006.  photo by "PaulJohnson1" by White House photo by Shealah Craighead.
Paul Johnson (at right, with Dr. Norman C. Francis and Ruth Johnson Colvin) receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2006. photo by Shealah Craighead.

So how do we recognize the heroes and heroines of today? I would distinguish four principal marks.

First, by absolute independence of mind, which springs from the ability to think everything through for yourself, and to treat whatever is the current consensus on any issue with skepticism.

Second, having made up your mind independently, to act – resolutely and consistently.

Third, to ignore or reject everything the media throws at you, provided you remain convinced you are doing right. 

Finally, to act with personal courage at all times, regardless of the consequences to yourself.

On a lighter note: good reading, good viewing

Rather than wring my hands over the fact that a film glorifying sexual abuse pulled in a gazillion dollars last weekend, I’m going to accept and share a challenge from Erin McCole Cupp: shine a light on quality entertainment. As she says, #showusyourlist. This is for everyone, although she is pointing particularly at Catholics who are fuming at 50 shades of whatever. (Hey! That’s me!) Erin complicates matters by making a rule that no non-fiction can go on the list.

showusyourlistlogoSo here I go with this Mardi Gras celebration, letting you in on some of my favorite media where entertainment and food for the soul come together. The items are listed in no particular order, and this isn’t a comprehensive list (no music listed, for example, because I scarcely know where to begin). Comment below with your own lists, so I can enjoy them & learn from you. All kinds of media are fair game. If World of Warcraft is your idea of edifying entertainment, let’s hear about it.  Quibbles, comments and disagreements welcome. That’s what comment boxes are for.


Groundhog Day. After countless viewings, I still find it side-splittingly funny, and my heart always glows a bit when Bill Murray finally gets the day right.

His Girl Friday. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell: what else do you need to know?

Anything by Alfred Hitchcock from ’39 (Rebecca) to ’58 (Vertigo).

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, Rio Grande, Fort Apache. All directed by John Ford. I’m generally indifferent to Westerns, but these four stand up to repeated viewing. Fascinating characters, good stories, great respect for the land where the stories take place. Every time I watch one of these, I see something new.

Of Gods and Men. I’m stretching the no-non-fiction rule here. This is not a documentary, but it’s based on a true story.  A small community of Trappist monks in Algeria lives peacefully with Muslim neighbors during the 1990s, until an Islamist insurgency forces the monks to decide whether to stay or leave. Serious stuff here, wonderfully written and acted. The monks’ choice and its consequences will leave you thinking.

The Lives of Others. Watch what happens when an East German Stasi agent starts feeling sympathy for the people on whom he’s keeping surveillance.

The Harry Potter series (but the books are better; see below). Ditto for Lord of the Rings.

All About Eve. Bette Davis is at her best. It would be tough to find a better what-goes-around-comes-around story.

A Man for All Seasons. I’ve seen this performed as a play, but the 1966 film with Paul Scofield as Thomas More takes the prize.


The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy. For that matter, pretty much anything by Walker Percy. The Thanatos Syndrome is a look at what happens when people are at the service of “science” and not the other way around.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. A spiritually-indifferent woman impulsively calls on divine intervention in a crisis, and she’s stunned when she gets it. Now what?

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I’ve loved this story from the moment I picked up the book from my mom’s night table long ago. A forty-something woman, extremely successful by any measure, enters a convent – and not just any convent, but a monastery of cloistered Benedictine nuns. It’s a book full of surprises – how the main character gets to the monastery, why she stays, how a community of women from wildly-varying backgrounds come together in common purpose, how even in a religious community human nature asserts itself over and over again.

Ben-Hur by General Lew Wallace. Trust me on this: as splendid as the 1959 movie was, the book has a much richer story.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, particularly volumes 4 through 7: HP & the Goblet of Fire, HP & the Order of the Phoenix, HP & the Half-Blood Prince, and HP & the Deathly Hallows. I love the characters. I love the language and the vocabulary. The most compelling idea in the whole series – even more than the fight between good and evil – is that those who deny that evil exists might as well be doing evil themselves.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein is far more thought-provoking and beautiful than any high-budget trilogy of movies could hope to be.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a serious contender for Book I’d Most Like To Have if I were deserted somewhere. A down-at-heel college boy in England is drawn into his best friend’s rich and nominally Catholic family between the two World Wars. No cardboard-cutout characters here. Cordelia is who I want to be.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. A book about kids, but not a kid’s book until you want your kid to know how messy life can be. The book is unsentimental and perfect. When I was a kid, Francie Nolan and I were both bookworms …and that’s how I was drawn into her world.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Two dissimilar 19th-century French priests, a most unlikely pair of friends, are sent to what is now New Mexico to re-establish a Catholic presence in a newly-outlined diocese. That tells you everything about the plot and nothing about the story. The story comes in the relationships built by each priest with the local settlers, the established (and sometimes resistant) missionaries, and the regional indigenous peoples.


On Patheos, blogs by Kathryn Jean Lopez and Elizabeth Scalia

Anything by Jay Nordlinger.

Right here in New Hampshire is a blog called New Hampshire Garden Solutions that has some of the loveliest close-up nature photography you could hope to find. A feast for the eyes.


New Hampshire’s Cohos Trail, rail trails, state parks … we Granite Staters are lucky people.

So … what’s on YOUR list?








Basic Books: an MLK classic


I found Why We Can’t Wait in a cardboard box at someone’s used-book sale a few years ago. I pounced on the little Signet paperback because it was by Martin Luther King Jr., not about him, free of celebrity blurbs and explanatory essays by scholars. King wrote it in 1963-64, in the midst of civil rights ferment, to explain the movement and his philosophy to a general audience. It’s a dispatch from the culture-of-life struggle, short but insightful.  

His words here about nonviolence in the civil rights movement are timely as ever. “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”

One chapter of Why We Can’t Wait is the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which can be found in other anthologies as well as on its own. King wrote the letter in response to some clergy who found his nonviolent demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” Anyone who has worked to defend the right to life since 1973 has surely heard those words from someone in authority. Read King’s letter for a thought-provoking reply.

Anyone who thinks the pro-life movement has no business being mentioned in the same breath as the civil rights movement should read this book. Nonviolent defense of human rights wasn’t just a ’60s thing.

My copy of the book is a 1964 paperback, priceless to me not only for the contents but also for the dry little note on the cover about the author: “Martin Luther King, Jr., is a clergyman and author … and is a frequent contributor to national, as well as religious, periodicals.” How strange to see him described in his lifetime as though he were just another scribbler. Some of his best work lay ahead when Why We Can’t Wait was published. Without knowing anything about what came before or after the book, though, it stands up well on its own.

Basic Books: a pro-choice journalist uncovers the down side of sex-selection

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

by Mara Hvistendahl (2011: PublicAffairs/Perseus Book Group, eISBN 978-1-586-48991-5)

What can a pro-choice science journalist do when she sees a Chinese classroom with a surprisingly large proportion of boys? Mara Hvistendahl started asking questions, and she wound up going all over the world to find out why some cultures value one gender over another. Abortion was an inescapable part of her findings.

A culture that prefers one gender over another is, of necessity, not a culture of life. Hvistendahl reports on what she found in South Korea, India, China, and the United States. One troubling observation after another forces author and reader alike to examine how culture influences personal choices, and vice versa. Gender imbalance and the search for the perfect child, including in the United States, leave us with phenomena like sex-trafficking, bride-buying, and “designer babies.”

The author takes note more than once of how abortion “rights” and gender rights are both linked and opposed. “A woman should have the right to terminate a pregnancy, but she should not have the right to shape the individual represented by that pregnancy to her own whims.” [emphasis added] Hvistendahl is candid about her pro-choice beliefs even as she acknowledges the ambivalence caused by the data she discovered.

This is a long book, but it makes for quick reading. It’s written by a woman who is accustomed to writing about scientific topics for mass-circulation publications. She wears her pro-choice preference on her sleeve, but that doesn’t keep her from being taken aback by what she finds around the world. This is an important book not only for the information it provides, but also for the glimpse it gives the reader into the mind and heart of the author. She’s an abortion advocate honest enough to raise an eyebrow at some of the implications of her own beliefs.

Check out these Basic Books from earlier posts:

Unplanned by Abby Johnson

Deadly Compassion by Rita Marker

Aborted Women: Silent No More by David C. Reardon

Aborting America by Bernard Nathanson, M.D.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas

Planned Bullyhood by Karen Handel