Books

Audiobooks, The Word Spoken

By Deal W. Hudson

Homer, the first great poet of the West, wasn’t a writer but a performer, with the dining halls of ancient Greece as his stage. Before the advent of written literature, the medium of poetry was dramatic utterance and song. Eyes were no more necessary to the enjoyment of words than they were to blind Homer’s creation of his epics.

Now, thanks to sprawling suburbs and lengthy job commutes, united with the digital age, the Homeric practice of listening to literature rather than reading it is back in fashion with the burgeoning business of audiobooks. Taped literature originated in 1932, when the American Foundation for the Blind created the Talking Book on long-playing records (themselves an innovation). Two years later, the Library of Congress introduced the Readophone, which could contain as much as two hours and 20 minutes of literature and music.

The modern “recorded book” was launched in a moment of glory in 1952, when Dylan Thomas recorded his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” for Caedmon at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. This may still be the most nearly perfect recording of anything by anyone. Listening to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and other recordings of Thomas reciting his own poetry-or his lectures, often delivered while he was intoxicated, will likely convert anyone to the recorded-book medium. The unmatched beauty of Thomas’ voice will stick in your memory and become the measure of everything else you hear.

Several other early “star” readers deserve to be mentioned along with Thomas in the audiobook hall of fame. Sir John Gielgud left a large legacy of recordings, from early Argo vinyl disks to readings of Pilgrim’s Progress and Brideshead Revisited on the Caedmon label. Unfortunately, Gielgud’s version of the Brideshead is abridged. Jeremy Irons, the star of the 1982 television miniseries version of Brideshead, has an unabridged version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel nearly as good. Jeremy Irons made splash some years ago with a complete recording of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for Random House to complement his appearance as Humbert Humbert in the 1998 film version of that novel. The reading is a total tour de force, for adults only, of course.

The recorded audiobook, so convenient for automobile listening, had its beginnings in 1948, soon after Ampex started mass-producing the tape recorder. The first taped audiobooks were designed not for commuters but for blinded veterans of World War II. Philips produced its first mobile audiocassette, known as the 8-track, in 1963. By 1975, the smaller cassette had replaced the 8-track in most cars and homes. The biggest boost to recorded books came in 1979, when Sony introduced the Walkman, adding joggers and bus riders to its pool of listeners. Then came digital files that could be downloaded and stored, or streamed through, on personal computers, tablets, iPhones, and Androids. You can listen to an audiobook anywhere.

A sure sign that recorded books came of age was novelist-journalist Tom Wolfe’s decision to write the first stand-alone audiobook, Ambush at Fort Bragg (1997), read by Edward Norton (Bantam Audio). That same year, Audible came into being offering digital audio players four years before the iPod was introduced. In 1998, Audible created its first website for downloading books onto personal computers. Though struggling in the first few years, Audible has experienced a meteoric rise in visibility and sales. This growth was stimulated largely by the launching of Audible Air in 2005, making it possible to directly and wirelessly download books to PDAs (personal digital assistant) – no computer needed. Audible’s content has burgeoned to over 150,000 audio programs amounting to over 1,500,000 hours of programming.

I joined Audible in March 2003, almost 10 years ago, and have experienced its move into the wireless age. So it seems like an appropriate time to take stock. Here are all the books I’ve downloaded in the past decade, and if I have listened to them completely I have rated them in tiers from 1 to 6, with two additional tiers to indicated those I have not finished or those I plan to read in the future. That I did not finish should not necessarily be regarded as a lack of a recommendation because my lack of interest could have been due to my mood at the time. More than once, I have returned to a book I didn’t care for in the past and enjoyed it thoroughly, Proust’s Swann’s Way comes to mind – loved it the second time around. A good audiobook will remind that the origins of storytelling, of all fiction, are in the word spoken.

Before the tiers, may I first offer a few awards to:

Most Enjoyable: Frank Langella, Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
Most Deeply Moving: Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
Best Memoir: William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf
Best Classic Novel: Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Montecristo, read by John Lee.
Biggest Disappointment: Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood
Best Self-Help, Steven Pressfield, Do the Work
Most Funny: Justin Halpern, I Suck at Girls
Most Laughs: Stephen King, 11-22-63: A Novel
Most Touching: Tony Bennett, Life is a Gift
Best American History: Winston Groome, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans
Best European History: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
Best Celebrity Bio: William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
Biggest Scare: Reginald Hill, The Woodcutter
Most Gripping: James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
Best Poetry: William Shakespeare, Ages of Man, read by Sir John Gielgud
Best Performance: Hartley & Hewson, Macbeth: A Novel, ready by Alan Cumming
Best Portrait of the Present Age: Deborah Moggach, The Ex-Wives, a novel.

Tier 1: The Best: a great place to sample an audiobook if have been reluctant or uninterested.

1. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
2. Philip Roth, American Pastoral
3. Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
4. Paul Collins, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars
5. Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Montecristo
6. Tony Bennett, Life is a Gift
7. Steven Pressfield, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
8. Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s
9. James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
10. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
11. Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichman
12. Stephen King, 11-22-63: A Novel
13. Robert Zorn, Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind Behind the Lindbergh Kidnapping
14. Margaret George,The Autobiography of Henry VIII
15. Winston Groome, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans
16. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
17. William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
18. Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
19. Laura Moriarty, The Chaperone
20. Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fy: A Novel
21. Compton MacKenzie, Whisky Galore
22. Emma Donohue, Room: A Novel
23. Frank Langella, Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
24. Reginald Hill, The Woodcutter
25. James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
26. William Shakespeare, Age of Man, read by Sir John Gielgud
27. James Lasdun, Give Me Everything You Have

Tier 2: Please read this: (Which also applies the tier above)

1. Anton Chekhov, The Short Stories, v. 1
2. Somerset Maugham, Short Stories, v. 3
3. Carl Hiaasen, Skin Tight
4. Guy de Maupassant, Short Stories, v. 1
5. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
6. William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
7. Joe R. Lansdale, Sunset and Sawdust
8. Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road
9. Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
10. Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
11. Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
12. William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf
13. William Maxwell, The Chateau
14. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
15. James Agee, A Death in the Family
16. Michael Caine, The Elephant to Hollywood
17. Jess Walter, The Financial Lives of Poets
18. Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945
19. Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End
20. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
21. John Green, The Fault in Our Starts
22. Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
23. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
24. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
25. Hartley & Hewson, Macbeth: A Novel
26. Rachel Joyce, Perfect: A Novel
27. Donald Dewey, James Stewart: A Biography
28. Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography
29. Philipp Meyer, The Son
30. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
31. Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles: A Novel
32. Theresa Anne Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
33. Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
34. Justin Halpern, I Suck at Girls

Tier 3: A strongly recommended read:

1. Mike Waltari, The Egyptian
2. Nancy Mitford, The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles
3. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
4. Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies
5. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
6. A. J. Langguth, Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence
7. Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
8. Bob Rotella, Putting Out of Mind
9. Emile Zola, Therese Raquin
10. Marion Meade, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties
11. Anthony Doerr, About Grace
12. Edith Wharton, False Dawn
13. Boris Akunin, The Winter Queen
14. Ernst Junger, The Storm of Steel
15. George Eliot, Middlemarch
16. Simon Sebaq Montefiore, Young Stalin
17. Multiple authors, The Chopin Manuscript: A Serial Thriller
18. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, Book 1
19. Jane Harris, The Observations
20. Adam Carolla, In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks
21. Kenneth S. Lynn, Charlie Chaplin and His Times
22. David Thompson, The Moment of ‘Psycho’
23. Tony Horowitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
24. S. J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
25. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
26. Michael Hauge, Screenwriting for Hollywood
28. Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram
29. Carl Hiaasen, Strip Tease
30. John Dos Passos, 1919
31. Gillian Flynn, Dark Places: A Novel
32. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
33. Melvyn Bragg, A Time to Dance
34. Compton MacKenzie, Monarch of the Glen
35. Andrew L. Mellen, Unstuff Your Life: Kick the Clutter Habit
36. Thomas, Hardy, Wessex Tales
37. Selden Edwards, The Lost Prince
38. Devin McKinney, The Men Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
39. John Banville, Ancient Light
40. Patricia Wentworth, Spotlight
41. Maggie Shipstead, Seating Arrangements
42. Sol Stein, Stein on Writing
43. Robert McKee, Story
44. Steven Pressfield, Do the Work
45. Michael Frayn, Skios
46. Julian Fellows, Snobs
47. Judi Dench, And Furthermore
48. Patricia Highsmith, Selected Novels and Short Stories
49. Medavoy & Young, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One; 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for which I Should Be Shot
50. Bart & Gruber, Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and (Mis)Fortune in Hollywood
51. Deborah Moggach, The Ex-Wives
52. Jason Zinoman, Shock Value
53. Julian Fellows, Past Imperfect
54. Wyn Craig Wade, The Titanic: Disaster of the Century
55. Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
56. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
57. Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins
58. Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses
59. Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie
60. Joe Lansdale, Edge of Dark Water
61. Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought Against Nazi Germany
62. Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of Movies
63. Classic Christmas Stories
64. Classic Christmas Radio Plays
65. Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery Novel
66. Elizabeth von Arnim, Love
67. Edward Ball, The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures
68. Diana Preston, Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World
69. James Dickey, Deliverance
70. Jane Ellen Wayne, Clark Gable: Portrait of a Misfit George Saunders, Tenth of December
71. D. J. Taylor, Derby Day: A Novel
72. Robert Lewis Taylor, W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes
73. Holly Goddard Jones, The Next Time You See Me
74. Dan Schultz, Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West
75. Michael & Elizabeth Norman, Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March
76. Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands
77. Emma Donohue, Landing
78. William Landay: Defending Jacob: A Novel
79. Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
80. Bram Stoker, Dracula
81. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent
82. Alyson Richman, The Lost Wife: A Novel
83. C.V. Wedgwood, The ThirtyYears War
84. Tony Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, the War of 1812
85. Javier Marias, The Infatuations
86. Charles Bukowski, Hollywood
87. Michael Dibdin, Cabal: Aurelio Zen, Book 3
88. Scott Weidensaul, The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America
89. Fred Anderson, The War That Made America
90. Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
91. Simon Winchester: The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible
92. Ross King, The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism

Tier 4: A worthwhile and enjoyable read:

1. Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
2. James Meek, The People’s Act of Love
3. Rumer Godden, The Greengage Summer
4. Thomas Hardy, Two on the Tower
5. Guy de Maupassant, Normandy Stories
6. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
7. Stendhal, Scarlet and Black
8. Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
9. Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness
10. Joanne Harris, Blackberry Wine
11. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
12. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, v. 1 & v. 2
13. Crimes of Passions (various short stories)
14. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
15. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
16. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
17. Tiny Fey, Bossypants
93. Elmore Leonard, Road Dogs
94. Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich
95. Jo Nesbo, The Redbreast
96. P. G. Wodehouse, The Adventures of Bertie and Jeeves, v. 1
97. Dennis Miller, Ranting Again
98. Michael Diblin, End Games
99. Noel Coward, The Noel Coward Reader
100. P. G. Wodehouse, A Pelican at Blandings
101. T. C. Boyle, The Women: A Novel
102. G. J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918
103. Stephen Simpson, Play Magic Golf
104. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
105. Brett & Kate McKay, The Art of Manliness
106. Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star
107. Graham Gardner, Inventing Eliot
108. Joseph Parent, Golf: The Art of the Mental Game
109. Bob Rotella, The Unstoppable Golfer
110. Patricia Highsmith, Ripley Under Water
111. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
112. Martin Sixsmith, Russia: Part One: From Rulers to Revolutions
113. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
114. Mark Kermode, It’s Only a Movie
115. Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter
116. Andrew Miller, Pure
117. Sean Ryan, Be the Ball
118. Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais
119. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantree
120. Charlotte Rogan, The Lifeboat
121. Alex Grecian, The Yard
122. David Morrell, The Successful Novelist
123. Robert Goddard, Caught in the Light
124. Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home
125. Elfriede Jelinek, Greed
126. Gregory A. Freeman, The Forgotten 500
127. Gregg Hurwitz, They’re Watching
128. Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
129. Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Renaissance World
130. Ian Burma, The Year Zero: A History of the Year 1945
131. Schmidt & Rendon, Writers Between the Covers
132. Eve Golden, John Gilbert
133. Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violent
134. G. J. Meyer, The Borgias: The Hidden History
135. Dan Callahan, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman: Hollywood Legends (read the new bio by Victoria Wilson)
136. Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
137. Lawrence Durrell, The Black Book
138. Michael Paterson, A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain
139. Peter FitzSimons, Nancy Wake
140. Reginald Hill, A Cure for All Diseases
141. John Creasey, The Toff and the Fallen Angels
142. Barbara Leaming, If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth
143. Stephen King, Joyland
144. Billy Crystal, Still Foolin’ Em
145. Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk

Tier 5: Should have been better:

1. Tom Wolfe: Back to Blood
2. Julie Andrews, Julie Andrews, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years
3. Karen Russell, Swamplandia
4. Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan
5. John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

Tier 6: Avoid

1. Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil: A Novel
2. Kyung-Ran, Tongue

Tier 7: Left unfinished:

1. Peter Cary, My Life as a Fake
2. Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Count Luna
3. Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem
4. James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of Shakespeare
5. R.D. Wingfield, A Killing Frost
6. William Murray, City of the Soul
7. Eleanor Updale, Montmorency
8. Halldor Laxness, Under the Glacier
9. Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement
10. Daniel Suarez, Daemon
11. Margaret MacMillan: The Modern Scholar: Six Months That Changed the World
12. Michelle Moran, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution
13. J. Randy Taraborrelli, Elizabeth (The Mann bio is so much better!)
14. Elizabeth Douglas Jackson, Caligua
15. Justin Cronin, The Passage
16. Alexander Soderberg, The Andalucian Friend: A Novel
17. Michael Korda, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
18. John Connolly, The Gates
19. Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend
20. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
21. David R. Gillham, City of Women
22. Alison Moore, The Lighthouse
23. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
24. Cervantes, Don Quixote (this is just so long!)
25. John Boyle, The Absolutist
26. John D. McDonald, The Deep Blue Good-By
27. A.L. Kennedy, The Blue Book
28. Stephen Harrigan, Remember Ben Clayton
29. George & Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody
30. Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Tier 8: On my reading list for the future.

1. Mitchell Zuckoff, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
2. LeRoy Ashby, With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830
3. George Simenon, Pietr the Latvian
4. Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1946 Invasion of Mexico
5. Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper
6. Terence Stamp, Double Feature
7. David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It
8. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
9. Andrei Makine, A Hero’s Daughter
10. Andrei Makine, Music of a Life
11. Robert Goddard, Past Caring
12. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
13. Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now
14. Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before the Storm
15. Bruce Courtenay, The Potato Factory: The Australian Trilogy, Book 1
16. Ivan Turgenev, Torrents of Spring
17. Charles Emerson, 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War
18. Edmund Crispin, Swan Song
19. Marisha Pessi, Night Film: A Novel
20. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
21. Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War

Published at Catholic Online, 2002.

 

The Exorcist Author Learns Death Is a Lie

Published April 29, 2015 at The Christian Review

A Book Review:
William Peter Blatty, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death
Regnery Publishing, March 30, 2015
256 pages, $27.99

Honesty is rare, and when it’s found in a book such as this the effect is quite arresting and compelling. I rarely read a book at one sitting, as I did Blatty’s Finding Peter. The author amazes me for several reasons, the foremost being his ability to engage the most religiously skeptical reader to reflect on the possibility of the supernatural.
Blatty accomplishes that, in part, by not talking directly about the supernatural or the theology it belongs to. Rather, his book is a memoir of a distinct kind — a recounting of the providential moments in his life and the tragic death of his teenage son, Peter, who continued to communicate with his parents from beyond the grave.

Thus, it’s not an accident that the narrative begins with a hilarious and touching homage to his Lebanese mother, Mary, or that he casually mentions the copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions he carried in his “battered old G.I. footlocker” on the train from NYC to Georgetown University for his freshman year.

The book’s subtitle, A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death, tells the reader what Blatty intends to convey, but how he conveys it is never didactic or sentimental. In fact, Finding Peter can aptly be called humorous because every story Blatty tells he tells with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, as if thinking, “How can this be happening to me?”

His memoir begins with his impoverished childhood in New York City, where he helped his indomitable mother sell quince jelly on the steps of the Plaza Hotel. From there we follow Blatty as he adjusts to the upscale surroundings of Georgetown; heading the Policy Branch of the U.S. Air Force Psychological Warfare Division; his years working in Beirut, Lebanon, for the United States Information Agency; and the chance beginning of a writing career, which led him to Hollywood and the life of a successful screenwriter, novelist, and, eventually, film producer.

Blatty talks about his Hollywood years, and especially The Exorcist (novel 1971/ film 1973), with some reluctance. His stories about friends Shirley McLaine, Danny Kaye, Grace Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Blake Edwards, J. Lee Thompson, Darryl Zanuck, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, among many others, are told by a master of comic writing but with the purpose of revealing “only so much of it as I think may be needed to convince you of my truthfulness and credibility.”

In other words, the reader learns William Peter Blatty was a successful man of the world, succeeding in one of the deepest shark pools of contemporary existence, Hollywood’s film business. Blatty, the reader is assured, is not “some gullible New Age wacko who wasn’t born on this planet but, in point of fact, landed here with the manuscript of The Exorcist tucked under his arm.”

The heart of this book is Blatty’s account of the life, death, and afterlife of his Peter, who in 2006 was found dead sitting in front of a television with a remote still in his hand — a victim of viral myocarditis, an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.

Peter was the first child of Bill and Julie Blatty, born on May 17, 1987, in Stamford, CT. He was a child who seemed infused with the love of God. At age three he said to his mother, “Mommy, do you know why I came here . . . I came here to help people.” Other comments followed, such as the question, “How do you learn? I learn from the sky, God teaches me.” But the most touching of all is what he said to Julie Blatty at age 5:

“You know, Mom, when God was making me I was a little bit sad and a little bit scared. But then I saw you.”

In the year before he died, Peter was diagnosed with Type One bipolar disorder, which led to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. But things were looking up for Peter when he was found lifeless in front of the TV. Blatty doesn’t shy away from describing the agonizing pain visited upon him and his wife. However, in the midst of that suffering, very quickly things began to happen that could not be explained, until enough of them happened that they realized Peter was communicating to his parents that he was alive, happy, and loved them.

Among the many “paranormal” events Bill and Julie experienced was the lost, and then found, miraculous medal that once belonged to Peter. Bill had taken the medal and worn it around his neck after Peter’s death, only taking it off to get through airport security. One morning he woke up to find the medal was missing, and only the chain lay around his neck. He and Julie scoured the house, paying special attention to the shower, going over and over the small space several times.

A few days later, Bill got in the shower very nervous about a speech he had to give to a large audience. He saw something shiny on the floor and reached down to find Peter’s miraculous medal.

“Let’s go over it again: the glassed-in, brightly-lit shower stall measured a little less than four feet by four feet. Julie and I had separately entered the shower and meticulously searched it in broad daylight at least three times, in my case at least five.”

Here’s another: Julie went to meet a friend for lunch in downtown Bethesda. Seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk across from the restaurant, she told her friend that Peter, with his bipolar disorder, could have ended up like that. At that very moment, the homeless man shouted, “My birthday is May 17!” Julie froze, that was Peter’s birthday. Bill later went to talk to the man, got to know him a bit, and learned that his name was Pee Wee. Pee Wee’s birthday was May 17, but he didn’t remember shouting it out to anyone.

Then there were other surprising experiences involving cats, stuffed dolls, dreams, light bulbs, a lost rosary, a dried-out sunflower, and a recently planted tree. These went on for eight years after Peter’s death. Some of them were experienced by friends of Peter.

William Peter Blatty is by nature a skeptical man, and it was his own skepticism he had to overcome before accepting the meaning of these unusual events. At a certain point he could no longer hold out against the insistence of the son who was determined to touch him from the afterlife. He knows now that all the unexplainable happenings were, in fact, explainable because they were caused by Peter. As Blatty told me in our radio interview, when these things happen so regularly over such a long time “it’s not rational to conclude otherwise.”

In recounting these stories in Finding Peter, Blatty hopes to provide comfort to parents who have lost children or other loved ones. He is telling those who grieve, “They are not dead, talk to them, they will hear you.”

Writer’s note: All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to a special fund at the high school Peter attended — The Heights School in Bethesda, MD.

For Christmas: Books Containing a Witness to Human Horror

Published at The Christian Review Dec. 6, 2015

If you give only one book for Christmas, I recommend The Complete Works of Primo Levi (boxed in 3 volumes). The books are beautifully bound and edited, the pages sturdy, the fonts well-chosen, and the lay-out assures no hot lights or squinting are required for reading. The entire collection has been newly translated.

Levi’s Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man (1947), should be required reading for every high school senior — his account focuses on the prisoners themselves, how they struggled to adapt to their captivity, their hunger, their slave labor, their constant beatings, and fear of death. Levi speaks as a scientist turned humanist and philosopher, as an ethnic Jew who looks upon religion appreciatively but from the outside. One might say this book contains a portrait of ‘humanity in the raw’ but the tone of condemnation is reserved only for the most egregious acts of inhumanity. As he wrote years later in the deposition used at the trial of Adolf Eichmann:

“‘Forgive’ is not my word. It is inflicted on me, because all the letters I receive, especially from young, Catholic readers, have this theme. They ask if I have forgiven. I believe that I am in my way a just man. I can forgive one man and not another; I’m able to pass judgment only case by case. If I had had Eichmann before me, I would have condemned him to death. Indiscriminate forgiveness, as some have asked me for, is not acceptable to me.”

Most readers will turn first to Levi’s major works found in these volumes, including The Truce (1963) where he describes his long return home to Turin, Italy from Auschwitz, including some months in a Soviet facility for concentration camp survivors. His circuitous train journey took him through most of Eastern Europe where he witnessed the spectacle of displaced persons picking there way through the carnage, trying to find their homes.

His final reflection on Auschwitz was published in 1986, The Drowned and the Saved, where he asks aloud why some survived, including himself, while most perished. At a moment when he knows he faces being selected to die, Levi is tempted to pray to the God he believes does not exist, but resists, explaining, “equanimity prevailed.”

In The Periodic Table (1975), the scientifically trained Levi uses each of the elements to write a short chapter on his experiences, beginning with his doctoral studies in chemistry under the Italian Fascists, his arrest and interrogation as an anti-Fascist partisan, his transport to Auschwitz, and life after his return to Italy.

In addition to these books, the Complete Works contains six volumes of short stories, three essay collections, two novels, two poetry volumes, and a collection of interviews. A critic I much admire, Michael Dirda, admits Primo Levi has been “somewhat neglected,” writing in the Washington Post, “Whether as witness or imaginative artist, Levi stands high among the truly essential European writers of the past century.”

However, the novelist Philip Roth, summarizes Levi’s achievement most succinctly: “With the moral stamina and intellectual pose of a twentieth-century titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose.”

Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, jumping from an interior landing of his apartment building and falling to his death on the ground floor. It was well-known among his friends that he suffered badly from depression. A few friends believe he lost his balance, arguing as a chemist Levi would have devised an easier way to die. A fellow Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel understood it best, perhaps, when he said, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.”

This publication of Levi’s complete works, along with the subsequent Primo-Levi-007spike of recognition, comes at a good time in Western culture. We have been witnessing another form of incomprehensible inhumanity, beginning with the Al-Qaeda attack of 9/11, continuing with the barbarisms of the Islamic State (ISIS). We are a civilization under attack and a people struggling with our hate of an enemy who targets the innocent.

The witness of Primo Levi, found in these three volumes, will not remove our hate — Levi would not have approved of that — but reminds us what can happen among those who are threatened, which means the entirety of Western peoples. The determination to defeat the enemy will not be uniform: there will be those who put their comfort and survival ahead of any other concerns, even the defense of civilization itself. As a result, they will turn their fury towards those who place themselves in the front lines.