Shade | Season 2, from Brother Isaiah — Maggie Garnett

A consecrated religious with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Brother Isaiah draws on Scripture, Tradition, and a rich contemplative life to offer beautiful songs of praise and prayer. I’ve long been a fan of his music but his latest album, Shade, drew me deeper into the simplicity and joy of life lived with Christ. Peaceful prayer is set alongside simple acoustics, and — as befits a Franciscan artist — listeners are invited into the imperfections of our poverty as sirens or car honks can be heard in the background of the tracks, recorded on the rooftop of a friary. As we desire to once again join in the Mass “with full heart and voice,” Brother Isaiah invites us to pray: “let this longing be a love song that you’re teaching my heart to sing.”


The Lives of Others —  John Burke

This 2006 German film follows the story of an East Berlin Stasi officer who is sent to spy on a famous playwright suspected of disloyalty to the Socialist Party. As the officer listens to the conversations, arguments, and music coming from the playwright’s house, he begins to piece together an image of true humanity, inspiring actions of great bravery and mercy. I cannot recommend this film enough. With religious liberty perpetually on trial and objective morality facing constant onslaught, we must learn how to promulgate truth and beauty in the midst of oppression. The Lives of Others offers a handbook on how to do so.  There is a reason why the founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley, claimed it was the “best movie [he] ever saw” and why it tops the list for best conservative movies written in the last 25 years. My only disclaimer is that the movie is rated R for containing graphic scenes of violence and sexuality. 


Brave New World, Aldous Huxley — Mary Frances Myler

Brave New World has haunted me during the four years since I first read it during high school. I succumbed to the temptation to reread the novel over break, and I’m so glad I did. Published in 1932, Huxley’s portrayal of a society engulfed by its unthinking pursuit of pleasure, where distraction reigns supreme with conformity as consort, presents a world with eerie similarities to our own. Yet, one character stands in contrast to the scientific futurism and unabashed hedonism of Huxley’s godless utopia — John, a “savage” born and raised in the uncivilized territory of the American southwest. Lacking indoctrination into the bizarre utopia, John is, to put it simply, human. The striking contrast between John and the rest of civilization foments dissent among utopian society, and invites the reader to grapple with questions of truth, power, human nature, and what we owe to each other. Brave New World presents a prophetic meditation on the topics which pervade our world today, rendering it a timeless yet topical recommendation. 


Anastasia, Fox Animation Studios — Luke Koenigsknecht

The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov was the youngest daughter of the last Tsar of the Russian Empire, Nicholas II, who was presumed dead after the massacre of her family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. However, many rumors persisted into the Soviet Era that she had miraculously survived. The 1997 animated musical film bearing her name tells one of these stories, of course with a magical twist: an amnesiac orphan girl named Anya is recruited by a pair of con men to play the part of Anastasia in order to collect a ten-million-ruble reward for her safe return to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress living in Paris, all while being pursued by the evil mystic Rasputin.

I watched this film for the first time in December, as Disney’s recent acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox had brought the film to Disney+. I was greatly impressed by the animation and pacing, which, while predictable as many films of this type are, flow wonderfully together. However, the real star is the music: Anya’s solos “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” are true show-stoppers, while Rasputin’s classically dark “In the Dark of the Night” rivals The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s “Hellfire” for best animated villain song. I would highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys musicals or simply wishes for an enjoyable family-friendly adventure film.


Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult — Sydney Missigman 

This novel by the prolific Picoult is—to me, at least— her most important book. Set in the current 21st century, Small Great Things tells the story of a Black delivery nurse, Ruth, who is faced with litigation from white supremacist parents who order her not to touch their newborn baby (despite his failing health conditions) simply because of Ruth’s skin tone. The feelings of shock and disgust when reading the story are only heightened by the realization that this sort of racism and dehumanization happens in America every day. Told through a beautiful lens of friendship, discovery, and understanding, Small Great Things allows readers to get an inside look into the discrimination that is still very prevalent, even in our “advanced” society.  It was an especially topical read, in light of intensified racial injustices brought to the surface over the summer. I highly recommend Small Great Things for anyone looking for an easy to read (but hard to grasp) novel that explores the importance of seeking to more deeply understand one another. 


Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz — Bea Cuasay

This book first came to my attention, I believe, through Jennifer Frey’s Sacred and Profane Love podcast. I’ve been a fan of Professor Frey for a while, so if she recommends a book, I’ll read it. Lost in Thought has also been critically-acclaimed by none other than MC Hammer. If MC Hammer is touching this book, you know it’s good. Coincidentally enough, I began listening to it on a plane ride down to a Thomistic Institute symposium where I would see Jennifer Frey for the first time in person (yes, I am a fangirl). I was taken by the ideas which Hitz explores in the book, namely how one in the Ivory Tower avoids being out of touch with what really matters. Ultimately, one finds the importance of connecting with others no matter their place in life and the centrality of contemplating the truth in learning.


The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton—Lizzie Self

Throughout December and January, a small group of PLS students assembled on Zoom to enjoy this Catholic classic. I did not expect to be so affected by this modern Confessions, and it took some time for me to admit how much I identified with the young, ambitious Merton. This book offers profound commentary on the state of social, familial, and educational relations today and highlights the spiritual hunger underlying American life. Merton’s artistic touch and honest narrative render this book a spiritual testament to be reckoned with, and I needed several weeks to appreciate the care with which Merton examines the most crucial years of his life. Did Seven Storey inspire a few vocational crises for me? Yes. Did it get me excited to consider how my own story might read, and how I might continue recording it? Again, yes. The best reading does both in us.