Mouth-watering recipes, gorgeous photography, and heart-warming Swiss guard anecdotes come together in a merry and bright Christmas cookbook! The Vatican Christmas Cookbook combines the history of Christmas at the Vatican with David Geisser’s sumptuous recipes in a delectable melding of art, culture, and fine cooking.
Recipes Swiss Guard turned professional Chef
David Geisser’s unique career path from Swiss Guard to professional chef makes him the perfect guide to a Vatican-inspired Christmas. He brings you over 70 special recipes for Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and beyond into the Christmas Season. You won’t want to miss his sections on authentic Swiss Fondue and Italian Christmas cookies! I’m excited to try out the Vaud Fondue, Papalin Fettuccine, and Amaretti recipes.
Catholic History and Culture
Interspersed with the delectable food pictures are superb photographs of Rome, the Swiss Guard, and Roman Catholic artwork from the Eternal City. There are also short stories on notable Christmases at the Vatican with Pope Saint Leo the Great, Pope Gregory, and others. There’s history about the Swiss Guard and anecdotes from Swiss Guards who served under Pope John Paul II.
An Impressive Gift
With its glossy, thick, colorful pages, The Vatican Christmas Cookbook makes a splendid Christmas Gift. Anyone who loves cooking, Catholic culture, or just the Catholic faith in general will appreciate this high-quality book!
I’m always inspired by conversion stories. The thirst for truth, the sacrifices, the joy of Catholic converts, is so heartening to experience vicariously through these first-person accounts of modern day converts like Jennifer Fulwiler, Edith Stein, Peter Kreeft, Abby Johnson and more.
In the days of the early, persecuted Church, the occasional brave Christian would write an apologia: an explanation and defense of his Christian beliefs. Even in later years, this tradition continued, as in John Henry Newmans Apologia Pro Vita Sua .The apologia tradition has been revived in recent years. Since Catholicism is such a maligned religion, high-profile converts are once again called to make a defense of their beliefs. Enjoy each modern day apologia on this list, and be uplifted and confirmed in your Catholic faith.
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Of all the conversion stories I’ve read, one of the most moving is Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God. A passionately rational atheist, Jennifer is cruising through a Hollywood-perfect life complete with wealth, friends, and a handsome husband. But she keeps wondering, “Why does anything matter?” This book is funny and insightful and rationally argued all at once.
Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s story of conversion starts in a Presbyterian Seminary and ends in Rome Sweet Home. The Hahn’s journey is convicting in its Theological integrity, yet maintains an easy-to-follow conversational style throughout.
Yes, Left to Tell isn’t strictly a conversion story in the sense that Immaculee was raised Catholic. But, when she was confronted with the Rwandan genocide, her faith is tested by fire. This is her story of choosing to embrace her Catholic faith, forgiveness, and love as she experienced intense persecution.
Not God’s Type is English professor and fencer Holly Ordway’s journey from Atheism to Catholicism. I loved that Ordway’s lifetime of exposure to great literature plays a roll in her conversion. Also, you learn quite a bit about fencing.
When pressed, I usually admit Chesterton is my favorite author. Orthodoxy is his exuberant, joyous reflections on some of the formative ideas that led him to Catholicism. His wit and wisdom never disappoint.
Edith Stein is the dramatic story of the talented German philosopher who became a Catholic, a Carmelite Nun, and eventually died in Auschwitz.
For more Jewish conversion stories, check out Honey from the Rock. Here are the moving stories of 16 Jews who found the fulfillment of their faith in Catholicism.
Surprised By Truth, Surprised by Truth 2, and Surprised by Truth 3 are a trilogy of thoughtful essays from a variety of (mostly) Protestant converts explaining their journey to Catholicism. Inspiring and give you a great basis in Apologetics. These books were a great source of faith growth for me as a teenager.
Chosen is a chunky book, containing 23 conversion stories. There’s a pleasing diversity in this collection, which features Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, and Protestant converts.
Some times it seems like life issues like abortion, contraception, and sterilization drive people away from Catholicism. This refreshing collection of 10 conversion stories features the opposite: how the Catholic Church’s strong teachings on the sanctity of life led to conversions.
This collection focuses on atheists ( and agnostics) who found their way to Catholicism. Includes Joseph Pearce’s conversion.
Joseph Fadelle knew full well that to become a Christian in his country was to face death. This is a dramatic story of a young Islamic man’s determination to find truth and the true faith no matter what the cost.
Derya Little’s journey from Islam to Protestantism to Catholicism is unlikely, to say the least! _ offers a fascinating story of God changing a young woman’s heart.
Abby Johnson’s conversion to Catholicism came right after her conversion to the pro-life cause, described in Unplanned. Both of Abby’s conversion were partially precipitated by her exposure to the faithful Catholics of 40 Days for Life. A very readable and fast-paced book.
Faith and Reason is a collection of 10 philosophers’ conversion stories. Each philosopher shares his or her meticulously considered reasons for choosing Catholicism. The theme in these essays is that wisdom and reason can lead people to God. Includes Peter Kreeft’s conversion story.
For more inspiring books for Catholic adults, check out my other lists!
As a Theology major, I had the joy of taking classes focused on reading and studying John Paul II’s Theology of the Body at Christendom College. Approaching sexual education as a Catholic parent can be a daunting task. Here are some of my favorite resources to help you introduce sexual morality and education to your children in light of Theology of the Body.
From introducing basic concepts about human dignity, the body as a gift, and the value of life to tricky questions about contraceptive mentality and transgenderism, these books have answers! Feel educated and empowered to prepare your child to face questions of sexual morality in this fallen world!
Books for Parents to Read with Kids
Angel in the Waters is a lovely story about an unborn baby’s experience in the womb and experiencing the world for the first time. A great introduction to fetal development and sanctity of life for very little ones.
God Made All of Me is a well-done and age-appropriate approach to teaching children basic body safety. It focuses on the inherent goodness of the body, appropriate and inappropriate ways of touching the body, and how to ask for help if someone makes you uncomfortable. We read this with our children starting around age 3.
***Warning: the first two pages, before the story proper begins, are a list of sexual assault statistics that could disturb young readers. Cutting or gluing together these pages easily solves this problem.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr. sets up your sons (and daughters) to understand and avoid the dangers of pornography. Without becoming inappropriately graphic in the least, this phenomenal picture book introduces the concept that some pictures and videos are bad. It helps your children learn an action plan involving telling a parent if they are ever exposed to pornography. We use this beginning at age 5.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures is a more advanced porn-proofing book aimed at 8-12 year olds. This book is intended for parent and child to use and discuss together. It includes a story, discussion questions, and strategies to deal with potential porn exposure.
Wonderfully Made! Babies is an absolutely awesome Theology of the Body based approach to teaching exactly where babies come from and why. The why is so important! This book uses medically correct language to explain biological differences and sex, but also dives into why God designed sex to be so good, why marriage is a necessity, and why babies are amazing!
Books for Parents about Talking with Kids about Sex
Beyond the Birds and the Bees is a Catholic psychologist’s advice on what to say to your kids and when! The book is handily divided into chapters by age so it can easily be referenced over the years for age-appropriate discussion topics and information.
Made This Way is probably my favorite book on this list. Leila Miller and Trent Horn take a brilliant natural-law-heavy approach in this book. As a mom and grandma, Leila recognizes that teens in our culture need more than simple do’s and don’t’s when it comes to sexual ethics. So in this book, she provides:
1. The Church’s teaching on a moral issue such as homosexuality, transgenderism, pornography, contraception, divorce, etc.
2. Discussion points from the natural law to use in forming younger children on the topic.
3. Natural law, common sense, and research-based explanations for teens on the why of each issue.
Books about Sexual Morality and Theology of the Body for Adults
Three to Get Married by Fulton Sheen is my favorite book to give to newly engaged or married couples. With his typical clarity, Sheen explains God’s irreplaceable role in marriage. A thought-provoking book on the meaning and beauty of marriage, children, and human love.
Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love and other titles by Dietrich Von Hildebrand are a great option if you are looking for a more succinct yet still highly insightful and philosophical look at God’s plan for marriage and love.
Alice Von Hildebrand, like her husband, wrote brilliant and eloquent books about marriage, sexuality, and human nature. In Man & Woman: A Divine Invention, Von Hildebrand explores the intrinsic complimentary of men and women, God’s design for them, and how sin destroyed this perfect harmony.
Not quite ready to take on the nearly 800 pages of Man and Woman He Created Them? Try Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul II’s precursor which contains many of the same themes about understanding the human person as a whole in a more manageable length book.
William May is a respected moral theologian with a plethora of interesting works on marriage and life ethics. Marriage The Rock On Which The Family Is Built is his explanation of the importance of marriage and family in the context of society. He draws on the writings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.
With his customary brilliance, Fr. Michael Schmitz takes on the tricky question of navigating same-sex attraction in yourself or someone close to you. Made for Love is a concise, thorough guide to the correct Catholic response to homosexuality.
Edith Stein’s life is the stuff of a fascinating drama. Her journey from being Jewish to atheist to Catholic is captivating enough, but this great saint had a formidable intellect and was a respected writer. And she also became a nun. And also died in a Nazi death camp. Her writings are a great resource if you want to explore the nature and vocation of women in depth with your daughters.
Programs to Teach Theology of the Body to Kids and Teens
Ruah Woods Press offers a comprehensive K-12 Theology of the Body program. I appreciate the literature-based approach in the lower levels.
TOBET provides a great assortment of books geared for K-12 that reinforce the basic concepts of Theology of the Body such as: the goodness of the body, the purpose of the body, male and female differences, etc.
Ascension Press has a DVD/parental discussion guide/student workbook combination package to introduce Theology of the Body to teens. They have a special edition just for middle schoolers also.
James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
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AT THE END OF A LONG DAY…
The kids have been up since o-dark-thirty. You’ve cooked and cleaned and worked and changed a dozen diapers and played referee to a hundred fights and gone over the silent e rule for the thousandth time and cooked again and cleaned again and read that story the kids want to hear for the zillionth time and finally, they’re asleep. You’re too tired to clean any more, and really what sounds best is dropping on the couch and binge watching a TV show until you can’t keep your eyes open anymore.
I know, I’m there too most nights. And I’ll confess there was a period where I did exactly that nearly every night: watched TV because it seemed like my brain was too foggy for anything else. But eventually, I broke the cycle and got back to my first love: reading books. Not because it’s easier, because it’s not. And not only because it’s better for me, though it is. I read because it makes me a better mom, wife, and person.
There are at least 9 great reasons to spend some time reading at the end of the day, even as a brain-fogged, busy mom.
2. Read to grow spiritually. Here’s an obvious one, but spiritual reading is a easy and accessible source of spiritual growth. What better way to form a more personal relationship with Christ than by studying His life and learning from His friends? Maybe you like to sit down with your Bible and a journal. Or perhaps you prefer to read a spiritual classic like St. Francis de Sales’ An Introduction to the Devout Life or St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle.
3. Read to give a better perspective on your life. We all get mired down in the difficulties of our particular here and now. Like little kids, we feel miserable because we’ve got a cold, or our favorite mug shattered, or the air conditioning broke, in July, in Florida, at 36 weeks pregnant. Reading other people’s stories can help us both gain perspective on our minor everyday woes and learn to embrace true suffering when it comes with grace. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a major wake-up call to me recently to be grateful for how blessed my life really is. A Severe Mercy had a similar effect, but also is an inspiring account of suffering leading to growth and hope.
4. Read to set an example for your kids. We all know the old “do what I say, not what I do” advice doesn’t work with kids. Telling your kids they should be reading instead of glued to electronics doesn’t carry much weight unless you’re following your own wisdom. I intentionally read in front of my kids sometimes so they see that I enjoy it. In fact, at breakfast time in our house I encourage everyone to read at the table!
5. Read to improve your vocabulary. Of course, I don’t think we all need to speak in words with a minimum of 12 letters at all times. But since what you read impacts your writing and speech, you will find reading well-written books helps your vocabulary and diction. Our family favorite for this purpose is P. G. Wodehouse. His mastery of the English language is truly unparalleled. His books are the perfect blend of easy to read, yet studded with wonderful words like ephemeral, insoluble, dearth, peremptory, and poltroonery. Really, though, any literary classic cannot but help improve your diction. Try some Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, L. M. Montgomery, or George Orwell.
6. Read to lower stress and improve sleep quality. Did you know that less than ten minutes of reading drastically lowers your stress levels? Studies show that your stress levels drop by 68% by the time you’ve read a book for ten minutes! If you struggle with falling asleep or insomnia, try curling up with a good book for a half hour before turning off the lights.
8. Read to escape to a better place. We all have difficult seasons. Maybe we struggle with depression, loss of a loved one, or financial trouble. A good book can be a refuge for a time from the stress of the moment. Our minds can be soothed and our hearts lifted for a time, at least by an engaging adventure, romance, or comedy. You can find some of my favorite “light” reads like Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy on this list.
9. Read so you can answer your kids’ questions. My kids are like sponge-shaped question marks. They ask questions like “Why can’t the devil be forgiven?” and “How do we know there isn’t life on the moon?” and “Why is that flower yellow?” Now, I know there’s no way I will ever be able to answer all their questions offhand, but I hope that if I continue to learn, I’ll be able to answer some of them anyway. Particularly that one about the devil.
Suffering. We all experience little sufferings on a daily basis. And sometimes, we experience great sufferings: when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, when a baby is lost, when a marriage crumbles, when a hurricane destroys one’s home, when a child falls away from the faith.
In moments of intense pain, we find ourselves confronted with the age old question: how can a loving God allow His children to suffer such pain? We ask, “Why, God? Why me? Why my child?” Or we meet friends who have fallen away from the Catholic faith because, “God let bad things happen to me.”
Fortunately, as Catholics, we have thousands of years of the human race’s most brilliant minds to look to for answers. Here are some of the books which have helped me come to terms with “The Problem of Pain,” as C. S. Lewis calls it.
To begin with a little philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is a particularly powerful tool in dialoguing with agnostics and atheists. Boethius relies solely on natural reason and Hellenic philosophy as he explains why bad things happen to good people.
Historically juxtaposed to Boethius is the Book of Job, the Hebrew look at the problem of evil and suffering. Although much of the Old Testament seems to imply that God inflicts suffering as a punishment for sins committed by individuals, the story of Job offers a completely different perspective. Job is the innocent, good man who still loses everything he loves and undergoes intense suffering. Look it up in your Bible if you’ve never read it. Also, if you enjoy fiction, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday explores many of the same themes found in Job.
In a personal favorite of mine, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis contemplates suffering and human pain with his usual lucidity and conciseness. I find his way for harmonizing a good God and the problem of suffering particularly helpful. He also has a fascinating chapter towards the end of the book in which he speculates about animals and heaven.
Another favorite author of mine, Peter Kreeft, takes on suffering in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering. Kreeft’s book is an apologia for the Catholic understanding of suffering as meaningful.
Sheldon Vanauken lost the love of his life to a terminal illness after a far too short marrigae. A Severe Mercy is both heartbreakingly tragic and breathtakingly beautiful. This is a powerful true story of how the death of a loved one can lead to a greater good.
Another powerful personal testimony, in Man’s Search for Meaning Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes his soul-crushing experience of spending three years in concentration camps during World War II. During his imprisonment, Frankl had to watch his pregnant wife and family all die from hardship and starvation. Yet Frankl’s book is full of hope and a message about finding meaning in suffering.
If you enjoyed my last list of Good Books for Catholic Kids that are also Good Movies, here is a companion list for older teens, young adults, and parents too! How much fun would it be to have a book club that read one of these books, discussed it, and then watched the movie together?
To begin with the obvious, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is such a masterpiece of fantasy and literature that if your teenager has not read it yet, they most certainly should! And the Lord of the Rings movies are a splendid adaptation, mostly because they tried to stick to the book as closely as possible even if that resulted in a 10 hour plus movie.
Another amazingly successful adaptation is Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s TV series Jeeves & Wooster. I am a die-hard fan of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster books, which are each comedic masterpieces. But I happily admit that Fry and Laurie so capture the dynamics of Wodehouse’s hilarious duo that it is difficult to choose whether to read or watch in this case!
Yet another brilliant adaptation: the BBC version of Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice. The book is a classic of wit and wisdom, humor and human nature. And it is hard to imagine a better adaptation than the Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
While talking about Jane Austen, another enjoyable adaptation is the Sense and Sensibility movie starring Emma Thompson. The book Sense and Sensibility is a less mature Austen work stylistically than Pride and Prejudice, but still a worthwhile novel about two impoverished sisters with very different personalities.
For animal lovers, James Herriot’s humorous and touching memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small will be a true joy to read. These were my very favorite books as a teenager, and I still enjoy re-reading them as an adult. These books were made into six seasons of an enjoyable TV series: All Creatures Great & Small. Parental advisory: books and shows contain some colorful Yorkshire cursing at times.
North to Freedom is a powerful book by Ann Holmes about a boy who grows up in a Nazi concentration camp and finally escapes. His wide-eyed wonder at the world outside the camp, and journey to find his family, is sure to bring tears and smiles. The awesome movie adaptation is as least as good as the book and is called I Am David. This is a fun one to watch with both mature tweens and teens.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is the classic story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who grow up during the Civil War. There are many movie adaptations, but I like the old Little Women with Katherine Hepburn as Jo best. Another fun one for all teenagers.
Gone with the Wind is a unusual book movie duo in that the movie is actually appropriate for a younger audience than the book. The book Gone with the Wind is a magnificent, sweeping account of the Civil War and its impact on Southerners, seen through the lens of the memorable and irrepressible Scarlett O’Hara. Although a must-read for adults, parents should be advised that the book contains content dealing with subjects like adultery, fornication, and prostitution. I would recommend it for older teens, who will also love the movie Gone with the Wind. Starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, the movie is great in its own right, though there is no way to really adequately condense the 800+ pages of the book to a two hour film.
Who doesn’t love The Sound of Music? This beloved film was inspired by the real life Trapp Family. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the real Maria Augusta Trapp’s version of the family’s story, is charming and inspiring and even better than the movie! (Appropriate for fourteen and up.)
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a Catholic classic. Best understood and enjoyed by older teens, this is a story of great sin and redemption, a war torn world, a family destroyed, and an unexpected conversion. An acclaimed TV series was produced based on the book: Brideshead Revisited . The movie is best for college aged and older, mostly due to one unfortunate scene involving adultery.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most popular and easily read of Charles Dicken’s numerous works. Historical fiction about the French Revolution, it is a touching story of love and sacrifice juxtaposed with the horror of the guillotine. The 1935 movie A Tale of Two Cities is a good adaptation if you enjoy older movies.
I’ve done a review for you on why I think The Hunger Games is acceptable reading for older Catholic teens. If you agree, your older teens will be thrilled to also watch The Hunger Games movie. Yes, it is violent, and I would recommend this book and movie for high schoolers and older, not younger teens.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a wonderful novel about revenge and redemption. The movie The Count Of Monte Cristo is entertaining, but does fail to capture one of the major themes of the book: that revenge is not the right answer. I would recommend watching it for discussion purposes to see how differently Dumas and the movie producers viewed happiness and revenge. There is one scene of implied fornication (easily skipped) that makes this more appropriate for older teens.
Recently, Christie’s book Crooked House was adapted into a creepy, captivating movie: Crooked House. Her book Ordeal by Innocence was also adapted into a multi-episode Amazon Prime series of the same name. These two films deal with more chilling evil and some adult content which make them more appropriate for viewers over 18.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Ocrzy has always been one of my favorite novels. This fascinating historical fiction novel captures the terror of the French Revolution and also has one of the most memorable love stories in literature. The old black and white adaptation, Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon has wonderful acting and is my favorite, despite the the blurry film quality common in early black and whites. The Scarlet Pimpernel made more recently in 1982 with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour is also excellent, though parents need to beware of one scene, fairly easily skipped.
I picked up My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell on a whim, hoping for a mildly interesting Ebook to pass the time while waiting for my youngest to fall asleep one evening. By the end of the first page, I was intrigued. By the end of the first chapter, I was captivated. By the end of the book, my ribs were sore from laughing and I had stayed up too late finishing it. My Family and Other Animals is quite difficult to classify, being one part travel, one part autobiography, one part natural history, and one part comedy, with a thread of descriptive language running throughout that sometimes raises it nearly to poetry. All in all, a real delight of a novel to read for any adult or older teenager.
Unconventional Childhood My Family and Other Animals begins with the Durrell family deciding on a whim to escape a miserable British summer and take a vacation to the Greek island of Corfu. The Durrells enjoy Corfu so much they end up spending five years on the island, which suits young Gerry perfectly. His book is a memoir of a childhood full of sunlight and wonder, memorable animals, colorful Greek natives, and, of course, his ever-entertaining family. There is his oldest brother Larry, who “was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.” Next comes Leslie, whose sole interests in life were shooting and firearms. Gerry’s older sister is Margo, who fights acne and flirts with peasants. Last but not least, there is Mother, who herds her eccentric children around the globe lovingly, encouraging and placating in a most satisfactorily motherly way.
A Unique Education
Durrell offers an interesting critique of traditional education, though subtly rather than overtly. He describes how he was enthralled with anything related to the natural sciences, but otherwise uninterested in traditional education. If he had been confined to a traditional school setting in England, he very well may never have become the great naturalist he grew up to be. His mother’s decision to move the family to Corfu during some of his most formative years provided an atypical educational experience that allowed young Gerry to develop his passion for flora and fauna into a career as a naturalist. In his book, Durrell explains how all attempts at teaching him French or geography or arithmetic were quite useless until a creative tutor found ways to relate them to biology and zoology. He learned best by exploring the island, gathering specimens, and reading about them in his considerable collection of nature books. His mother wisely allowed him to spend most of his time exploring his passion for all things animal, and Gerry thrived on Corfu in a way that would not have been possible in a typical school. In many ways, I found My Family and Other Animals a strong case for homeschooling.
Durrell the grown up uses the most delightful diction in describing his childhood as Gerry. I will pay him the tremendous compliment of comparing his word choice to P. G. Wodehouse, the master of the English language. In fact, I recommend reading with a nature encyclopedia and a dictionary at hand if you wish to receive the full benefit of Durrell’s descriptions. Unless of course you know offhand exactly what diaphanous means or what a boungainvillaea looks like. The impressive diction used in My Family and Other Animals is one of the reasons I recommend this book for readers sixteen and older.
Local Color and Hilarity
Throughout his book Durrell scatters colorful characterizations, and sometimes caricatures, of local inhabitants, flora, and fauna of Corfu. He has a keen eye for foibles and humor both human and animal. You will laugh till you cry at his description of the misadventures of his mother’s sea-slug of a dog Dodo with the leg that pops out of joint. His account of a battle between a mantid and a gecko is an epic in miniature. And the time his older brother opened a matchbox containing a snugly ensconced mother scorpion at the dining room table leads to a situational comedy of legendary proportions. These and other adventures of the Durrell family created a genuine problem as I read because it made me laugh so hard it woke my nursing baby repeatedly. Taken as a whole,My Family and Other Animals is a happy mix of P. G. Wodehouse’s humorous writing and James Herriot’s appreciation for All Creatures Great and Small which I wholeheartedly recommend as a worthwhile book.
In our house, I am undeniably the bibliophile. My very busy, military officer husband used to claim he didn’t like reading, but over time has altered his position to: “I only like (and have time for) reading practical, inspiring books.” Once he actually finds a book he likes though, he thinks everyone should read it! This list includes some of his favorites, which you will probably hear recommended over dinner if you ever come to our house.
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Peter Kreeft’s clear, logical style resonates with men, so it’s no surprise my husband’s first book recommendation is usually Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions. Actually, both of us loved this book, because it offers exactly what the title states: practical wisdom about everyday moral decisions. Kreeft provides a general framework and then addresses some specific common moral conundrums.
Another Matthew Kelly book which is perfect for a couple to read together is The Seven Levels of Intimacy. This book is sure to help you improve communication with your spouse and build a more meaningful relationship. Matthew Kelly’s simple, direct style makes this a quick and easy read.
St. Alphonsus de Liguori’s Uniformity with God’s Will is a very short but highly practical little book which lays out a path to holiness based on submitting our will to God’s throughout the events of every day life.
Since we were blessed to attend classes by Dr. John Cuddeback during college, we have a particular fondness for True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. Cuddeback draws on Aristotelian philosophy to explain what true friendship looks like and what its purpose is.
My husband has a fondness for Venerable Fulton Sheen’s work, whether in audio or book form. We own Life is Worth Living, which is a collection of scripts from Sheen’s extremely popular television show of the same title. Each chapter is short, but thought-provoking.
Dale Ahlquist takes G. K. Chesterton’s prodigious genius and simplifies it to a level that mere mortals can understand at the end of a fourteen hour work day. All Roads: Roamin’ Catholic Apologetics is a series of very short (three page usually) chapters which clarify Chesterton’s unique wisdom and insight on a wide variety of topics.
The Way, Furrow, The Forge are three spiritual classics by Josemaria Escriva which my husband enjoys for its concise yet compelling one liners about following Jesus.
Because of Our Fathers is a wonderful new collection of inspirational stories from Ignatius Press. Tyler Rowley edits these moving accounts from 23 famous modern Catholic figures about the impact of their fathers on their lives. A great Father’s Day present!
Moms and dads need fiction too! I firmly believe it is not only important but integral to a balanced life for parents to read books too. This list has a lot of readable classics, some fun mysteries, some historical fiction, some Catholic fiction, and some humor. I hope the books on this list inspire, refresh, and satisfy your thirst for the good and true and beautiful!
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In Port William, a love for the land and for neighbors create a tight-knit farming community in rural Kentucky. Wendell Berry‘s Hannah Coulter is a wise elderly woman’s reflections on her life and loves for both people and places. A touching, tantalizing, sometimes tragic picture of a way of life that is mostly lost.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Norwegian Catholic author Sigrid Undset is a beautifully-written trilogy about sin and its far-reaching consequences as seen in the life of a Norwegian woman from girlhood to death.
Undset’s other famous trilogy, The Master of Hestviken, is less recognized in America, but she considered it her greatest work, and I agree that I found it even more powerful than Kristin Lavransdatter.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating mix of an apologia for Catholicism and a recognition of the imperfection of individual Catholics. In addition to his overarching theme of Catholic redemption, Waugh describes the decay of the English aristocracy around the time of World War II. This masterfully written classic is one of my very favorite books to savor.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is not fiction at all, but rather his autobiographical tale of true love, found first in his wife, then ultimately in God. This beautifully written and moving book details Vanauken’s love affair with his wife, conversion to Christianity with the assistance of C. S. Lewis, and strengthening of faith through the devastating loss of his wife.
One of my favorite Steinbeck books, East of Eden explores themes of family history, free will, depression, truth, and more. Very dark at times with a sadistic female antagonist, the theme in the end is about forgiveness and the truth setting one free. For a shorter introduction to Steinbeck, try The Pearl, which is a heartbreaking story about greed and true happiness.
Desperate to make ends meet, small-town spinster Barbara Buncle writes a book inspired by her neighbors. General chaos and hilarity ensue upon publication of Miss Buncle’s Book. Clean, good, cozy fun!
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’sCrime and Punishment is a masterpiece both on philosophical and literary levels. My favorite Russian novel, this book deals with deep themes such as redemption through suffering, true happiness, and ends justifying means.
Chesterton wrote so many fabulous fictional works! In The Ball and The Cross, a Catholic and atheist find an unlikely affinity in their passion about their beliefs. Manalive is my favorite: a hilarious and thought-provoking apologia for a joyful life. The Man Who Was Thursday is one of Chesterton’s most famous works, a fast-paced adventure with a subplot of allegory.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is considered the very first detective novel ever written! Collins uses multiple narrators to tell an engrossing, well-written story. The Woman in White is also excellent.
Michael O’Brien’sVoyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel achieves the considerable feat of captivating the reader for a whopping 587 pages. Lengthy, yes, but still surprisingly readable, Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a futuristic story of a voyage from earth to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. The quirky, wise elderly narrator, Neal, is juxtaposed to the controlling, totalitarian government most obey blindly.
Till We Have Faces is a haunting and thought-provoking retelling of the Psyche story from Greek mythology. Psyche’s older sister sets out to write this angry charge against the gods who have ruined her life, as she sees it. But in the process she discovers her own faults and finds truth.
North and South is a novel of contrasts: the gentile South and the industrialized North of England, humanism and capitalism. British literature fans will enjoy this classic work by Elizabeth Gaskell.
G. K. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas are a wonderful balance of carefully researched history, theological and philosophical insights, and Chesterton’s signature poetic imagination. These biographies are memorable and well-worth reading.
In any contest about sheer hilarity and perfect use of the English language, I consider P. G. Wodehouse invincible. His Blandings Castle series will have you laughing until you cry with its cast of idiosyncratic English aristocrats, servants, and imposters.
In Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the decadence of ancient Rome and the passionate conviction of the persecuted Christians.
In stark contrast to Wodehouse’s levity, Flannery O’Connor‘s The Complete Stories are quite dark on the surface, often dealing with tragedy and ugly sin. But each story contains a lesson about human nature and motivations and insight into O’Connor’s Catholic vision which the discerning reader may discover.
Agatha Christie is the queen of the golden age of mysteries. Her plots are clever and thought provoking in more ways than one. Her most famous books, such as Murder on the Orient Express, feature eccentric Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Christie’s Miss Marple stories illustrate that crimes whether large or small can often be solved by a knowledge of basic human nature. Sometimes humorous, often tragic, Christie’s mysteries satisfy the human desire for justice, though her solutions strike a discordant note with a correctly informed Catholic view of morality. At times, she advocates solutions such as allowing a criminal to kill himself as a merciful solution.
Although Christie is the queen of mysteries, I personally prefer Dorothy Sayers, who is considered by many a close second in the lineup of golden age mystery writers. Her Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series feature aristocrat sleuth Lord Peter whose lazy manner masks a sharp intelligence. I am partial to Sayers’ books because in addition to producing a fine mystery, she also writes from a broad liberal arts platform, rife with references to other great literature and philosophical insights.
Cry, the Beloved Country is a thoughtful book about racial injustice in Africa. It’s a beautifully written book about the dignity of all people. Sad yet hopeful.
Jan Karon‘s Mitford series, beginning with At Home in Mitford, is a charming, calming collection. Father Tim, an Episcopalian minister, ambles amiably through life, accompanied by his eccentric parishioners. Funny and light-hearted.
A modern classic, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene captures perfectly the anger and jealousy and emptiness of a man looking for love in the wrong places. The narrator feels his lover has abandoned him for God and sets out to learn why. Will he be transformed by his search?
Susan Fraser King recounts the life of Saint Margaret of Scotland in a fascinating way. Queen Hereafter tells the story of a young Margaret’s tumultuous life, highlighting her calm trust in God which carried her through her many trials.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a formidable volume, but really, it does move fast! This famous work by Alexandre Dumas explores themes of revenge and forgiveness in an unforgettable way.
Kate Morton writes wonderfully plotted multi-generational historical fiction mysteries like The Secret Keeper. I love how she keeps the reader guessing right to the end. I also enjoy her vibrant elderly narrators, who are often the protagonists of her works.
Yes, everyone has read Pride and Prejudice, but have you read all of Jane Austen?
If you have an appreciation for the classics, you will empathize with Samantha, the protagonist of Dear Mr. Knightley. A modern romance with many nods to classic literature. Check out my full review here!
The Brontë Sisters‘ major works are classic novels. Often dark in their themes, these are nonetheless important books with great insight into human nature.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written due to its picture of human nature with all its complexities and faults. This is a lengthy read, but fast moving enough to keep the reader’s interest.
Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt is a gripping historical fiction novel detailing the story of a Catholic priest secretly but faithfully performing his ministry to the persecuted English Church. An inspiring story of faith and love of Christ under trying circumstances.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a fascinating historical fiction novel set during World War II. Two sisters help the French resistance while struggling to survive the horrors of the war. So much depth to this novel; read my Review of “The Nightingale” for full details!