7 Quick Book Recommendations

Tis the season for finding gifts, and how could you possibly do better than books?  Seriously, when I was a little kid, the tooth fairy left money and YA fiction in our beds.  It’s hard for me to cull from my list of favorites, so these seven books (plus one bonus recommendation) are all culled from things I read for the first time in 2012.

Oh, and don’t forget that when you buy books or anything on Amazon through my links, I get a small cut that I turn into more book purchases and reviews/meditations for you!  You don’t need to be buying the item linked, anything you get after clicking my referral link counts.

— 1 —

Well, after a paen to Lewis on Monday, a defense of him on Wednesday, and some awfully good news for him yesterday, I feel obliged to kick off this list with his Reflections on the Psalms.  Since I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I was casting about for good references on the Psalms.   There are better places to go if you want a big scholarly discussion of their history or in-depth analysis of individual psalms, but reading Lewis’s book is like having an intense conversation until the coffee shop closes with a friend who’s spent a long time with these verses.


— 2 —

I’ve mentioned I tend to appreciate Lewis more for his apologetics than his fantasy/scifi, but boy howdy do I love those genres generally and I really loved reading Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy this year.  I don’t write fiction, but you don’t need to need this book to love it.

I’ve always liked the Peggy Noonan remark that the beauty of a speech is in its logic, and Card does a great job of showing you how he’s thought through or been surprised by the consequences and relationships of the worlds he built.  Oh, and Eliezer Yudkowsky has said this book helps him write Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.  (I’d still like him to write and write faster).


— 3 —

And while we’re talking about writing fantasy that casts a spell on the reader, I have to recommend Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and it’s sequel The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice. Reading these books made me feel a lot of kinship with the king in Scheherazade – I was alternately enraptured and enraged.

But Scheherazade’s spouse had it easy; she started a new tale every night and stopped at the cliffhanger, so he couldn’t kill her the next day.  Then she’d finish the story and start a new one the next night.  In Valente’s two books, the characters in the stories that our girl is telling in the frame tale start telling stories of their own, or are told them by the people they meet.  And the stories are so good, that you can’t decide which level down you need catharsis on most.

Not to mention that, a lot of the time, a nested story will cast new light on one of the stories still spinning out, sometimes when the antagonist gets a chance to talk, and sometimes when one narrative just glances off the other, but some small fact is explained (oh that’s where the three mute maidens stole the tongue they shared!).

If you’re looking for gifts for younger readers, try Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and its sequel The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.  It’s on a par with The Phantom Tollbooth in surreal beauty.


— 4 —

Like everyone else, apparently, I really liked Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  (I didn’t love Bring Up the Bodies or A Place of Greater Safety quite as much).  The length is part of what makes it excellent (and why I didn’t love Bodies); there’s a lot of room for Cromwell to have to work around his king and his culture.   Mantel was also the cause of me reading A Man for All Seasons this year, which I juxtaposed with A Place of Greater Safety recently.


— 5 —

Mantel brought me into history through fiction, and Peter Brown caught me with his nonfiction work The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity.  It’s a nice reminder about how much work moral theology is, and it’s comforting to see that I’m not the only one who flails around a bit when it comes to all those questions about the realtionship between intellect and embodiment, caritas and eros.

Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is another great book that works through historical problems and makes you think awfully hard about the dignity of the body now.  Not quite sure if it counts for this list, since I’d read excerpts before for an epidemiology class, but this year I actually read the whole thing.


— 6 —

My default mode is more puzzle-solving and abstract philosophizing than anything all that spiritual or communal.  That’s why I’m really glad I read The Presence of God, Weeds among the Wheat, and The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today. I am not the best at thinking of God-the-Person instead of God-the-truth-proposition, and I found these helpful.


— 7 —

Earlier this year, when I was still working on the truth proposition problem, I was trying to decide what I needed to do to have finished doing due diligence so I could walk away from the question of God and feel intellectually satisfied.  For some reason, I decided this meant I needed to read the big Christian novels I’d been so frequently recommended.  Which is great, because it meant I finally read The Brothers Karamazov.  I kept coming back to ideas and quotations from it for months.  (And when that petered out, I think it was a sign I was due for a reread).

P.S. Did you know William Shatner played Alyosha in a film adaptation?!?


— 8 —

Unfortunately, many people are reading these great books on Kindle, which may be convenient, but makes it awfully hard for me to spot what you’re reading and strike up a conversation.  So why not use a new signalling mechanism?

You can still buy either of the snazzy philosophy t-shirts my college friends and I designed in our spreadshirt store.  And, according to Nick Carr, Google’s autonomous cars might be taking the thought out of thought-experiment when it comes to the trolley problem:

So you’re happily tweeting away as your Google self-driving car crosses a bridge, its speed precisely synced to the 50 m.p.h. limit. A group of frisky schoolchildren is also heading across the bridge, on the pedestrian walkway. Suddenly, there’s a tussle, and three of the kids are pushed into the road, right in your vehicle’s path. Your self-driving car has a fraction of a second to make a choice: Either it swerves off the bridge, possibly killing you, or it runs over the children. What does the Google algorithm tell it to do?


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  • I just added two of your recommendations to my wish list: the one about the psalms and the one about the examen.
    The Brothers Karamazov is among my all time favorites. I also like all the writings by Fr. Thomas Green. The one about the weeds and the wheat helps me understand the world in which we live and to cope with the intermingled weeds and wheat in my own soul.

    • deiseach

      Book recommendations – haven’t read her latest one, “Dolly”, yet but Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” is a fantastic ghost story. They’re always making stage adaptations of it and there’s the recent film with Daniel Radcliffe, and since Christmas is for ghost stories – there you go!

      Also, on the theme of ghost stories, the stories of M.R. James which yes, are old-fashioned and yes, are written in a particular arch English Edwardian style, but are simultaneously not gory and extremely scary since he deliberately wanted to go away from pale, powerless spectres who haunted for a particular reason and instead went for physically present (and capable of harming humans), malign haunts that would go after you for no more reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      • Arizona Mike

        I love the ghost stories of M.R. James. If you like those, I can recommend suggest the writings of the early 20th century author, Father Robert Hugh Benson, whose “A Mirror of Shallot” is a collection of tales of ghosts, the supernatural, and the uncanny told after dinner each night by a group of priests on a sabbatical in Rome. Some extremely subtle and chilling stories, against a backdrop of orthodox Catholicism, and Fr. Benson, a Catholic convert who was the son of the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury, a masterful apologist for the Church, and a science fiction/fantasy author, somehow made it all work. You can get a copy very inexpensively on Kindle.

  • deiseach

    “Either it swerves off the bridge, possibly killing you, or it runs over the children.”

    What I want to know is this: where the heck are the Health and Safety Authority when it comes to these trolley-car and automobile manufacturers not including blinkin’ brakes in their vehicles? Seriously, lads, if your only option is to kill the driver/kill pedestrians, look into methods of stopping the machine.

    I hear there’s this great new invention called Anti-lock Braking Systems.

    And yes, I know about stopping distances, which is why my father drilled it into my brothers when they were learning to drive that you always watch out for kids to run out from behind parked cars, etc. so you can stop in good time. Modern computers can’t be as smart as my father (born 1926)?

    • Niemand

      Why does the google alogrithm drive the car at 50 mph on a road that has pedestrians crossing it? The speed limit should be much lower on a non-limited access road, especially one with pedestrian crossings. Given how poorly it was programmed, who knows what it’ll decide in the event?

      The correct answer is swerve off the bridge: you’ve got a seatbelt and an airbag and a higher chance of survival.

      • Niemand

        Oops. Misread the scenario. The kids were on a walkway, not crossing the road. A bridge with a pedestrian walkway and which can be crossed at 50mph will have enough room to swerve into the next lane. So it should go over into the next lane. What it would do if a car is in that lane, I don’t know, because I’m not sure if you can program a car well enough for it to recognize the difference between one obstacle versus another, so it probably would simply see that there was no way to avoid all obstacles in which case…who knows?

        • deiseach

          Or scanners – I mean, the car must have some kinds of optical device to see the path in front of it, or electrical signal pickup to know it is on the road (and not moving onto the footpath) and suchlike.

          So if it can’t recognise “large group of humans in vicinity” and slow the heck down for these very reasons, then I think I’ll be waiting a loooong time before I avail of a self-driving car (as distinct from using my brothers as a free taxi service).

  • deiseach

    I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, because some of the reviews make it sound as if she absolutely loves Thomas Cromwell, and as an Irishwoman I find it hard to think sympathetically of a person with the surname “Cromwell” (what with his great-great-grandnephew, Oliver, and his little trip to these shores).

    So I’m torn between wanting to read decent historical fiction and the very real risk of flinging books violently across the room from me (I love books too much to mistreat them). Persuade me it’s worth the risk, Leah, and I’ll consider it 🙂

    • leahlibresco

      She does really love him, but she tends to use pronouns more than surnames, so maybe you’ll be ok?

    • Niemand

      Buy an ebook and delete it to the last electron without remorse if you’re not satisfied with the way its going.

  • Darren

    Number 8:


    [bump], [bump], [bump]

  • The answer is it does whatever the programmer told it to do in this situation. Autonomous vehicles are programmed first and foremost to protect the occupant and the vehicle. As an aero engineer I can tell you that the resolution algorithm in traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) are inhibited at low altitude. Why? CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) has an almost certain outcome, hitting something else has a less certain outcome. Risk is probability based. Off the bridge, certain death. Hit kids equals unknown. Based on probabilities, it swerves as much as possible to avoid going over the bridge but hits the kids if necessary. It would be a whole new ball game in safety automation for morals to be programmed into the machine. This was of course the hatred Will Smith had for the robots in I, Robot.

  • Niemand

    Since the trolley question has come up…what is your answer? Throw the switch and kill one not previously in danger or let the trolley run over 5? (Ignoring real world issues like brakes.)

    • Ted Seeber

      My answer to this is still extremely meta-metaphysical- Remove the brake grip, throw it down in the tracks, derailing the trolley and probably committing suicide in the process.

      But very Catholic, for Man never shows greater love, than to be willing to lay down his life for others.

      • Ted Seeber

        And thus, I want the Catholic Google Car that places the life of pedestrians as a higher priority than the life of the occupant! Either that, or more in keeping with my teenage self, a hackable Google car so that the video game I’m playing on my smartphone is watching the data flow from the NFC radar to begin with……

      • Niemand

        Won’t work. The trolley is sealed and so you can’t throw anything onto the track from it. (It’s a thought experiment. You can’t get out of it that easily.)

  • Niemand

    I’ve also seen a different formulation of the “trolly problem” with slightly different implications…

    You’re traveling in an unnamed third world dictatorship. You stumble on a bunch of soldiers who are about to execute ten prisoners, who they say are terrorists bent on destroying the country. Knowing what you do about the country’s government, you suspect that they’re really people who spoke out against the government or maybe, at most, attempted to assassinate a government official or maybe are just completely innocent people swept up in a system where they can’t defend themselves. But you don’t know that they aren’t true terrorists bent on killing civilians to disrupt the government, possibly with plans to put an even worse dictator in place.

    Be that as it may, the officer in charge, seeing you as an honored foreigner, offers you the chance to participate in a local tradition: You can, if you choose, shoot one of the prisoners and the others will be given amnesty in honor of you. If you refuse, they’ll just go through with the planned execution. You can’t possibly shoot the officer, much less all the soldiers before they kill you, so turning the gun on the dictator’s forces isn’t an option (it would just end up with you and all the prisoners dead.)

    What do you do? Apart from wishing that your travels took you elsewhere.

    • Darren

      There is a little uncertainty in your description as to whether or not they might be guilty, in which case you should refuse and let them all be executed, but assuming they are all innocent.

      Shoot one, nine go free.

      The dilemma is less challenging than others because it is clear that all ten will die with no action so you can’t even play around with the intentionality squik from the classic trolley-car.

      Since you share a fondness for dilemma’s, try the one over at Love, Joy, Feminism about the hypothetical situation of the firefighter in the fertility clinic:

      ”If you would, address this purely hypothetical situation: There’s a five-alarm fire at a fertility clinic, and you’re the first firefighter to enter the building. On one side of the building, there’s a petri dish with half a dozen frozen embryos. On the other side, there’s a cowering five-year-old girl. You only have time to save one. Which would you choose and why?”

      Being as I have worked in the tissue banking industry, I would replace the dish with a refrigerant canister containing, say, 1,000 frozen embryos, which would be not-a-bad ballpark for a container that was almost, but not quite, too heavy to carry out of a building, and certainly too heavy to carry in addition to a 5 y/o.

      • Niemand

        This variant plays directly into the question of whether you are responsible for damage due to your inactions as well as your actions without the confounding issue of putting someone in danger who wasn’t previously. Also, you don’t actually know whether they are “innocent” or not (though how do you know that the people on the trolly track aren’t on their way to a serial killer’s convention?), which plays into the question of whether it’s ok to kill people (or let people die) if they are “guilty”.

        As a side issue, how responsible would you feel for future events, depending on your actions? Suppose you shot one person and the others were let go. A year later, you find out that you saved the leader of the rebellion and they have succeeded in taking over the country and turning it into a democracy. Do you get credit for that? What if a year later, you hear that terrorists have blown up a nuclear bomb in the capital city of the country in question and one of those involved was a person you saved. Are you responsible for that act?

        I think you’re right that the way Libby Anne described the fertility clinic dilemma doesn’t work perfectly. For one thing, if you can carry a 5 year old, you can carry a five year old and a petri dish. For another, the embryos are already dead. (Third point: If the embryos are sitting in a petri dish, they’re presumably warming for implantation…what happened to the prospective parents?)

        But having moved the embryos back into liquid nitrogen, which do you take?

        • Darren

          Ah, I misread your dilemma. Not knowing, or even having a very high probability estimate, whether they are guilty or not makes the choice difficult. I suppose one could attempt a Bayesian probability of guilt and consequences of freeing terrorists .vs. probability of innocence and consequences of innocent death. Thank you for the correction.

          For the embryos, it is likely a quibble, but I had the same thoughts regarding portability of petri dishes and viability of the embryos, etc. By positing a ‘portable’ container, this ensures the embryos, if removed from the building, would be viable and implantable, while making the lugging of a couple hundred pounds of unwieldy stainless steel through burning corridors to be suitably challenging.

          My initial answer was to clearly prefer the girl to the embryos, no matter the number of embryos. I later reexamined, wondering if perhaps the anguish of the donor parents at loosing their embryos (assuming at least some of them would be unable to simply produce more, perhaps due to chemotherapy or some such) might, with a suitably large set of embryos, outweigh the single girl’s suffering and death in the fire. I rejected this argument on the basis of the large numbers of children without parents, and that each embryo also represented an opportunity cost in substituting for adoption.

          Do I value the single instantiated human’s life more than the more provisional lives of the embryos? No, I would actually value the embryos, but if we just play the numbers game, then human lives become commodities, and the embryos are fungible with orphans and post-fire replacement embryos.

          I would have to say my decision is determined, not by preferring the girl’s life to the lives of the embryos, but instead by abhorring the girl’s death more than the death of the embryos.

  • If we’re going to talk Trolley Problem, read one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels, because one of them has an extended discussion on this. 🙂 Right now, I’m blanking on it, but I love this series, and if you like good, smart, atmospheric writing (they take place in Scotland) with a lot of music, art, and philosophy sprinkled in, go for them. Excellent Christmas gifts!

  • Hey Leah, could you tell me, if there are books or something historical that proves jesus existed? Thank you! God bless u!

  • jenesaispas

    Great idea for quick takes. In particular, thanks for reminding me about the Brother’s Karamazov (I’m sure I can slip into my university application somewhere). I watched the trailer immediately thought “oh it’s Yule Brynner from the King and I” I don’t suppose you get anything if I wish list stuff, I have quite a lot to read at the moment (some Gerald Durrell stuff, a biography of Charles de Gaulle, another random Russian book I found in the library today, the Bible, Light of the World: the Pope, the Chuch…, YouCat and studying l’Etranger at “school”).

  • Rachel K

    I second “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”–I write spec fic (mostly horror, but supernatural horror really is just fantasy that’s intended to scare the pants off you), and his is one of my go-to books. As a novice writer, I was especially influenced by two of Card’s observations–that magic always has to have a cost to keep it from being the “do-anything” button (I was writing a pretty terrible D&D pastiche at the time and realized that my magic system was way too simplistic) and that you need at least one human viewpoint character to give your readers a frame of reference (and there went my story idea where every major character was a dragon).

    Have you read any of the “Writer’s Digest” series on writing fiction? Some of them are terrible (I wouldn’t recommend “Plot” to anyone), but others are excellent even if you aren’t a writer, which my non-writer husband can verify since he’s also sneaked peeks at them. “Character and Viewpoint” (also by Card), “Beginnings, Middles and Ends,” and “Scene and Structure” are particularly good. “Scene and Structure” made a fascinating point about scenes that, now that it’s been pointed out to me, I see everywhere: well-written fiction revolves around a character entering a scene with a specific goal in mind. At the end of the scene, his goal is never greeted with a simple “yes” or “no,” because that just closes the door on his goal; instead, it’s answered with “yes, but,” “no, but,” or “no, and,” any of which open brand new doors for the story to follow. For instance:

    Harry and Ron try to fly Mr. Weasley’s car to Hogwarts rather than take the Hogwart’s Express. Do they succeed?
    No, AND Ron’s wand breaks in the ensuing car accident, which is going to give him all kinds of problems throughout the book.

    Harry is trying to convince Snape that he didn’t sneak to Hogsmeade without a permission slip. Does he succeed?
    Yes, BUT in the process Snape finds the Marauder’s Map and Lupin confiscates it; furthermore, Snape knows about the secret passage in the statue of the one-eyed witch, so Harry can’t use that anymore.

    Harry and Dumbledore go to get the Horcrux locket. Do they succeed?
    No, BUT the fake locket has a clue that’s critical to bringing Kreacher over to Team Non-Death Eater.

  • Yay for Valente and Mantel!! The Card book is fantastic (I do write fiction so I can vouch for it from that perspective as well 🙂 But Shatner in Russian literary drama?? The mind boggles…

    I share your sadness that use of e-readers makes it impossible to know what others people are reading. How can you know if you might want to strike up a conversation if you don’t know what’s holding their attention?? The first time Mr Psmith and I took a long train trip together he was reading Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea for the first time, and as we walked through the car we saw another passenger reading the exact same edition of the exact same book. We didn’t interrupt her (she looked happily engrossed) but that little moment of connection was very sweet. Kindles and Nooks really need to have a little display panel on the back that shows the title one is reading (with the option to suppress, of course, in case you don’t want people to know you’re reading Danielle Steele or Victorian porn LOL!).

    • leahlibresco

      I saw someone reading Dune on the metro, so I stood right behind him on the escalator and started intoning “Fear is the mind killer…”

      • grok87

        Cute. So what did he do?

        I must not fear.
        Fear is the mind-killer.
        Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
        I will face my fear.
        I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
        And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
        Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
        Only I will remain.[2]

        “Origin of the name

        The phrase bene gesserit is Latin. It comprises the adverb bene, meaning either “well” or “properly” and the verb gero, gerere meaning either “to govern” or “to bear or carry”. The verb is in the third-person singular[18] of the future perfect active indicative tense, and translates as “(She) will have conducted herself well”,[19] referencing to their selection, indoctrination, and training programs. It also could be interpreted as “(she) will have carried / birthed well”, referring to their selective breeding program.

        In Dreamer of Dune, Brian Herbert’s 2003 biography of his father, the younger Herbert speculates that the name “Gesserit” is supposed to suggest to the reader the word “Jesuit” and thus evoke undertones of a religious order. Like the Jesuits, the Bene Gesserit have been accused of using casuistry to obtain justifications for the unjustifiable.[citation needed]”

  • grok87

    ” Since I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I was casting about for good references on the Psalms. ”
    Nice wikipedia link (reposted below):
    The Texts and Audio links at the bottom are helpful but some are broken. Here’s a working link to the Radio Vaticana site:

    here’s a link to the divineoffice.org site:

  • jenesaispas

    I might have missed this but did you finish Ora et Labora Et Zombies? Was it good?

    • She can’t have finished it yet, because there’s no way to get more than 1 letter per week, so no way to finish before Christmas next year.

      And while I don’t know what Leah thinks, I confirm it’s good up to letter 14, which is the last I got.

      • jenesaispas

        Ah, thanks, that’s a long time to wait! And quite a lot of letters still to come.