Here I share my comments about just a few of my favorite, most inspiring books, read (some of them several times) over a number of years. Most of these reviews were requested by, and earlier versions appeared on, the now defunct website Others were originally posted at Previous versions of each review posted here still appear there.

Annette Vallon by James Tipton:

Annette Vallon has been marketed as a historical novel about English poet William Wordsworth’s youthful love affair. But Tipton’s book is about Annette, a remarkable woman who made of herself much more than a famous poet’s early muse. And it is about the French Revolution, including the Reign of Terror, which shaped her destiny. 

Daughter of a respected physician from Blois, France, Marie Anne Vallon, known as Annette, spent her childhood in the final bloom of the French bourgeoisie. She wore silk dresses and attended elegant parties at aristocratic chateaux in the Loire River valley. 

As a young woman she succumbed to a charming English poet’s desire for a “nature marriage” in accordance with his own religious views. She always believed they were married, because William Wordsworth promised to go with her to a priest for a Church marriage, in accordance with her own religious views. He was forced to flee the Revolution before they could act on that promise. 

Annette remained in France to become acquainted with “The Mother of Orleans” who hid refugees from the Reign of Terror in secret rooms, and crawled through a crypt to free prisoners condemned to the guillotine. She became acquainted as well with “The Fearless Blonde Chouane of Blois” who created a forest sanctuary where refugees could receive fresh water and food; and who rescued innocent peasants from the “cargo” barges that would have drowned them without a trace in her beloved Loire River.

Despite all her trials, and by author Tipton’s remarkable skill throughout her first person narrative, Annette never lost her quintessential French subtlety. About Queen Marie Antoinette’s tragic end, she says: 

“Hebert wanted her head as his own political trophy. When he himself mounted the scaffold six months later, his screams were far different than the quiet dignity with which [devoutely-Catholic] Antoinette lightly stepped up on onto it. Perhaps they both knew where they were soon bound.” (Tipton, p. 392).

She even preserved the joie de vivre that was her birthright. At every stage of a difficult life, Annette delighted in her forests, her river, her daughter, her garden and her friends.

The author's luscious language and masterful pace with exciting action made this book a delight to read. His descriptions of events in the French Revolution are accurate and realistic without overwhelming the reader. Annette Vallon resonates with metaphors and lessons for contemporary times. 


In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

In This House of Brede opens with a sea change in the life of Mrs. Philipa Talbot, a middle-aged professional woman of considerable renown, who has lived all over the world. She is in the final stages of shutting down her life in London to catch a train. Her destination is Brede Abbey.

The novel ends with another sea change for Dame Philipa of Brede. In this sense, she might be viewed as the protagonist. She brings unusual gifts and uncommon obstacles into the community. The book hints early that she has lost her only child. Her history and her future are not revealed until after the reader, like Philipa, has been strengthened through many seasons of monastic life. 

Author Rumer Godden lived in the gatehouse of an English Benedictine Abbey for three years to prepare for writing this novel. She converted to the Catholic faith one year before it was published in 1968.

She was already widely admired for clever plots and luminous sensory detail in her previous novels about India. Even at less than this volume's 638 pages, any book about life in a monastery could be viwed as a daunting read.

Yet the discernment Godden brought to this tale makes it an absorbing experience, one that moves remarkably swiftly, with subtle characterization, ingenious plot turns and laser-focused dialogue:

'“Flowerets!” groaned Dame Agnes. “’Petals from the Little Flower.’”'

'“It’s either that or the haiku,” said Abbess Catherine . . .'

'“And at least she knows she has to study them,” Dame Agnes said in fairness. . .'

'“Now she wants to write the childhood of Christ in haiku . . .”'

“’But we know scarcely anything about the childhood of Christ,” Dame Ursula objected.'

“Dame Veronica does,” said the prioress.

'“But Mother,” said Dame Edith . . . “you won’t let her publish any of these books.”'

'“Think of the reputation of the house,” Dame Ursula said. . .'

'“Which is worse,” the prioress asked . . . “Dame Veronica exalted or humble?”'

'“Humble is more dangerous,” said the abbess and sighed.'

 [pp. 551-553]

The women of Brede seek charity and balance. Under the Rule of Saint Benedict which shapes their lives, their first vow is stability, commitment to house and community. With poverty, chastity and obedience, the four vows create a cauldron in which each character must confront her own true nature. 

'“Weren’t you surprised that God should have chosen you?” a young woman reporter, 
writing a piece on vocations, asked her.'

'“Yes,” Dame Perpetua answered, “but not nearly as surprised as that he should 
have chosen some of the others – but then God’s not as fastidious as we are.”'

[p. 336]

Ultimately Brede Abbey – in Godden’s artful hands replete with orchards, parks, flowers, bells and birds – emerges as a single living organism. The monastery itself becomes the central protagonist. 

Each of the well-developed individual human plot lines, including Dame Philipa’s, at first depends upon, and then resolves into the historical, continuous and forward-reaching Benedictine Opus Dei

In fact, the most critical events on which the plot and characters turn are always those that affect the community as a whole: 

A dying Abbess’rumored “stone sickness;” 

Her apocryphal last word “Sor-ry”; 

A looming economic crisis with serious consequences for everyone in the monastery; 

A humble wooden pectoral cross carved long ago by a Savoy princess, just before she went to the guillotine, that has been worn by every abbess of Brede; 

Postulants for a new foundation in Japan;

 The Second Vatican Council. 

Phyllis Tickle, in her Introduction to the Loyola Classic Edition of In This House of Brede, suggested four different possible ways to read it: 

As a biography of one unique woman; 

As a well-plotted story; 

As a portrait of Benedictine monastic life; 

And as a universal parable for life, anywhere. 

I would suggest a fifth: 

As stunning lesson in how to write a great Catholic novel.


Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy:

Set in the crazy years following the Second Vatican Council, Love in the Ruins is a trenchant satire, one that oscillates its well-aimed commentary between bourgeois foolishness and an equally foolish emerging counterculture.

Our protagonist and guide through this literary landscape is psychiatrist Dr. Tom More (the saint who shares his name is a collateral ancestor). His former curate, the former Father Kev Kevin, is now married to a former nun. Kev “counsels . . . takes clinical notes, and runs the vaginal console” (p. 123) at the Love Clinic, where “volunteers perform sexual acts singly, in couples, and in groups, beyond viewing mirrors in order that man might learn more about the human sexual response” (p.14).

Dr. Tom still believes in God, but he has not “eaten Jesus” in some time. Because he feels completely unrepentant for his own sins of lust, his current confessor, sighing, cannot give Tom absolution. As the state of his soul, so the state his parish:

“Just below me . . . rises the yellow brick barn-and-silo of Saint Michael’s. A surprisingly large parish it was, big enough to rate a monsignor. But the church is empty now, abandoned five years ago. The stained glass is broken out. Cliff swallows nest in the fenestrae. . .” (p.5).

In addition to the church where he once found comfort, Tom’s personal life has also changed dramatically. His teenage daughter and only child, Samantha, recently died of an incurable neuroblastoma. In the aftermath of grief, his Episcopalian wife Doris turned to “spirituality” and ran off to Cozumel, with a gay British pseudo-Buddhist guru named Alistair Fuchs-Forbes.

When Doris died herself a short time later, she left Tom a rich man. He inherited her R.J. Reynolds stock. But cannibalistic vines, like the Triffids, creep deeper every day into Tom’s house, golf club, life and brain.

“. . . I am a physician,” he tells us, “a not very successful psychiatrist; an alcoholic, a shaky middle-aged man subject to depressions and elations and morning terrors . . . a bad Catholic; a widower and cuckold . . .” (p. 11).

We enter his story at a cusp in his time and place. It’s a cusp whose description still resonates in 2013:

“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world . . . the question came to me: has it happened at last? Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good. . .” (p. 3).

In suburban Paradise Estates, where Tom lives, “The scientists, who are mostly liberals and unbelievers, and the businessmen, who are mostly conservative and Christian, live side by side . . . There are minor differences. When conservative housewives drive to town to pick up their maids in the Hollow, the latter ride on the back seat in the old style. Liberal housewives make their maids ride on the front seat. . . “ (p. 15).

Outside the artificial golf development lies Honey Island Swamp, “ . . . once the haunt of raccoon and alligator . . . now rubbed bare as monkey islands at the zoo by all manner of disaffected folk: Bantu guerrillas, dropouts from Tulane and Vanderbilt, M.I.T. and Loyola; draft dodgers, deserters from the Swedish army . . . antipapal Catholics, malcontented Methodists, ESPers, UFOers, Aquarians, ex-Ayn Randers, Choctaw Zionists . . . and even a few old graybeard Kerouac beats, wiry old sourdoughs who carry pilgrim staffs, recite sutras, and leap from hummock to hummock as agile as mountain goats . . .” (pp. 15-16).

Though More spends almost as much time in the hospital as he does in his office “. . .recovering from seizures of alternating terror and delight with intervening periods of immense longing . . .” (p. 28), Tom More is a good-hearted doctor who treats the disenfranchised children of the Swamp with as much consideration as he does their parents in Paradise Estates.

He’s blessed with a faithful nurse, “. . . a beautiful though dour Georgia Presbyterian of the strict observance named Ellen Oglethorpe . . .” who “. . . approves of money on religious grounds . . .” and is willing to take away his bottle when necessary for him to see patients (p. 30). Tom first met Ellen in the hospital, “wrists bandaged and lashed to the rails” (p. 109).

He promptly propositioned her. “She almost did!” (ibid.). But instead she followed Tom back to his private psychiatry practice; and as his private office nurse, keeps a close eye on his welfare. During one of his residencies at the local asylum, “. . . I leapt out of bed at the height of the storm and yelled at my fellow patients: ‘Don’t be afraid brothers! Don’t cry! Don’t tremble! I have made a discovery that will cure you! Believe me, brothers!’ ‘We believe you, Doc!’ the madmen cried in the crashing thunder, and they did. Madmen, like possessed souls in the Gospels, know when you are telling the truth” (p. 28).

Tom has invented a “Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer” that can measure the electrical regions of the brain associated with psychological disturbances. The machine really works, and Tom hopes people might finally be healed of their psychological traumas.

But things start to go wrong. A mysterious man who claims to be a government agent stalks Tom and modifies the machine, making it possible to treat people’s brains. Tom’s ambivalent colleague also passes out prototype models indiscriminately, beginning with students at a medical conference, and his “pilot project” yields unprecedented results.

The treatment process involves an ion that can turn the ‘Heavy Salt’ of the Swamp into a lethal cloud. Tom overhears a plot to take over the golf club, Bantu guerrillas kidnap a bus full of baton-twirling-competition mothers, and to top it all off, the President and Vice President are coming to town. Tom himself is kidnapped and imprisoned in his former parish church. He designs his escape by remembering that “I was on the building committee” (p.308).

Tom keeps trying to figure out how he can save all three women he loves – among them a competitive Texas cellist who assisted his escape with her horse; a spoiled but beautiful young secretary from the Love Clinic; and the redoubtable Ellen. Amid Bantu snipers and the ominous looming cloud, Tom stands at a cusp, arguing with God on the Fourth of July.

Tom recalls his last conversation with his daughter:

“Papa, have you lost your faith?”


. . .

“Just promise me one thing, Papa.”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t commit the one thing for which there is no forgiveness. . . The sin against grace.”(pp. 373-374).

As both bourgeois and countercultural perceptions of reality unravel all around him, psychiatrist Tom More begins to recognize more fully the dangers of detached metaphysical abstraction – what he calls in his psycho-medical jargon “angelism.” He recalls his former appreciation of the Catholic sacramentals. He perceives in a new way how the physical signs of grace help to keep individual human beings on this planet anchored, in their bodies, their identities and their sanity.

Author Percy employs a canny wit, and a grasp of the absurd that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. might well have envied, to deliver a modern parable about the limits of science and the tensions of faith. But unlike Vonnegut’s universe, where patterns iterate forever and the world ends in ice from pole to pole, Percy’s universe contains a God. And Dr. Tom More, “bad Catholic” or not, does eventually manage to find true happiness at last.