The National Catholic Review
Patricia A. Kossmann

This is shaping up as the season of “kindness.” I’ll cite only three book examples. First, there is On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20 hardcover). Phillips is a psychoanalyst who has written 12 other books. Taylor has written acclaimed books on the history of feminism. Both writers reside in London, where this book made its debut. If, as they posit, kindness is necessary to an integrated life—and besides, it is shown that doing good makes us feel better—then why are we suspicious of kind behavior? One chapter provides “A Short History of Kindness” from the ancient philosophers through the Enlightenment to contemporary social theory. Rousseau, the authors argue, is a key figure in this history, his thoughts “providing a crucial bridge between past and present.” The book abounds in insights—some startling—on the “pleasures and perils” of moving beyond self-interest to a communal spirit. And these involve the areas of sexuality, gender roles and mother-child bonding and childhood development.

Do One Nice Thing: Little Things You Can Do to Make the World a Lot Nicer is by Debbie Tenzer, an innovator and founder of DoOneNiceThing.com (Crown, $20 hardcover). The book is wise, practical and bursting with useful information. It is easy to fall victim to hopelessness or anxiety in a war-torn world where mistrust and fear are rampant. But Tenzer is living proof we need not stay mired there. Her Web site now benefits people across the globe. Each chapter of the book, beginning with “Do One Nice Thing…” ranges from “with friends and family” to “for children” and “for pets and the planet” to “things that heal,” and others contain hundreds of suggestions on how and whom to help in creative, inexpensive ways. Throughout the author provides contact information, related Web sites and more. I know of no other book quite like this one—both upbeat and serious—but above all, consciousness-raising in many ways.

The recently released Loukoumi’s Good Deeds, by Nick Katsoris, with illustrations by Rajesh Nagulakonda—the third in a series—is for children ages 4 to 8 (NK Publications Inc., $15.95 softcover). And it comes with a CD narrated by Jennifer Aniston and John Aniston. The Grammy winner Gloria Gaynor and the Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis are the voices of the characters. (The author serves as general counsel for the Red Apple Group.) The eponymous character is a cuddly lamb, and the story follows her adventures over several days observing people helping others. So she begins doing the same with her friends and her parents. The book’s refrain is, “Whatever you do, whatever you say, do something nice for someone today!” Now there’s a message we might all take to heart. (By the way, the publisher is donating $2 from the sale of each book to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital).

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Over the past few years, in a variety of settings and before various audiences, including youth, seminarians, scientists and world leaders, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken clearly and forcefully of Catholic social teaching on stewardship of all God’s creation. The distinguished journalist and best-selling author Woodene Koenig-Bricker has diligently assembled the pope’s messages and writings on environmental issues in Ten Commandments for the Environment: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks Out for Creation and Justice (Ave Maria Press, $15 paperback). Our “green Pope” preaches that we have a moral responsibility to live an eco-friendly lifestyle.

And the pope practices what he preaches. Unknown to many people is the fact that in 2007 “the Vatican became the world’s first carbon-neutral country,” and plans for other “green” projects are underway for Vatican City and Castel Gandolfo. Koenig-Bricker provides the narrative context and historical background to the papal writings contained herein. Many of the book’s unsettling facts prompt an immediate response. Just a few: a quarter of the world’s mammals and one out of every eight plants face extinction; there will be no glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2030. “In the face of such frightening prospects,” the author notes, “Benedict is telling us…Christian and non-Christian alike, that we were created to be caregivers, stewards, champions of God’s Creation—not despotic rulers.”

And what are the Ten Commandments? By now they ought to be familiar. Here’s just a sampling: in dealing with environmental problems, ethics and human dignity should come before technology (No. 4); ending global poverty is related to the environmental question, remembering that all the goods of the earth must be shared equitably (No. 7). Each is developed fully in a separate chapter.

Although not inscribed on stone tablets, these 21st-century commandments, Benedict would agree, are to be internalized and practiced by Catholics and all people of good faith. Our world, he would add, demands nothing less.

Book Briefs is written by Patricia A. Kossmann, literary editor of America.