It always makes me a little nauseous. Sitting down to make a list of favorite reads, I mean. Because there will be books I love that don’t make the cut. And they will sit there on the page imploring and asking me how they failed me. And I will want to cry. Because yes, they were very good. And I will remember some exquisite passage and exactly where I was when I read it and what it awoke in me. And I will feel like a traitor.
But the fact is, I have found my most memorable books from the recommendation of friends. And we have time to read only so many books before we die. Therefore, I feel a moral obligation to tell others about wonderful books I read, even if the process is excruciating.
Here are standouts from this year’s crop:
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas This is one of those novels that demand revisiting. The plot is complex, with subtleties and nuances that will require a lifetime to sort out. A disturbing, redemptive, provocative meditation on justice and grace.
Thirst: Poems, Mary Oliver This book lies on a table in my bedroom. I can not tell you how many times this year I have picked it up, searching for just the right words. And finding them. Mary Oliver has proved a very good friend. Her poems give voice to rumblings in my soul. Yearnings. Delicious joys.
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being…” Is it any wonder that I love Merton so? His exploration of the interior life continues to compel and instruct me.
Peace Like a River Leif Enger I recall with vivid clarity the moment I knew this story was not going to have a happy ending. Could not have a happy ending and be true. I almost dug my heels in and refused to finish it. But I could not not finish it. I had invested myself too deeply in these characters and I had to follow it through. The best books are very like life. Messy, painful, but relentlessly tinged with hope. Even when all circumstances prescribe against it. This is such.
Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts, Ian Cron Too fantastic to be true, yet absolutely true. A story filled with intrigue, heartbreak, and renegade joy from a fabulous storyteller: winsome, funny, poignant. Read my full review HERE.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand Hillenbrand weaves an enthralling narrative around the true story of Louis Zamperini whose plane was shot down in the middle of the Pacific during World War II. We follow his terrifying weeks aboard a life-raft, the horrors of life as a prisoner of war, and the surprising challenge of returning home. It is a survivor story to be sure. But it is also a story of going beyond just survival. Highly recommended.
Stained Glass Hearts: Seeing Life from a Broken Perspective, Patsy Clairmont Patsy Clairmont, humorist extraordinaire who can captivate a whole auditorium with her stories, reveals her softer, poetic underbelly in this lovely ode to the beauty in brokenness. Contemplative. Poet. She who has a deep ache for beauty, transcendence, truth. Weaver of words who can turn a phrase with a delicate, fragile loveliness that pierces the heart. Read the whole of my rave HERE.
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough While many Americans were heading west to find their fortunes, another group headed east to Paris to study. Art, science, and industry were still in their infancy in 19th century America. But Paris was a cauldron of idea and audacity. And the people who spent time there would return to shape the America of the future. McCullough carries us there with fascinating stories of people whose names will be familiar, though I’ll wager the many of the stories will surprise you. I did not write a review of the book, but you can read a post inspired by it HERE.
A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.” Yes indeed. Pulitzer prize winning Oliver has much to say about the craft of writing. I found much inspiration and nourishment here.
Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition, John Oliver O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord. Father Oliver builds his remarkable illumination of the Holy Spirit around this portion of the Trisagion prayers. It is one of the most stimulating books our Tuesday study group has ever read. You can sample a bit of his teaching in this post, inspired by one of the more difficult chapters for me personally.
Hannah Coulter: A Novel, Wendell Berry It is, perhaps, because she seems so familiar. Very like someone I have known. Or, perhaps it is simply Berry’s winsome telling of her story. But this was a comforting, sustaining read for me. More thoughts HERE.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard I dragged out the reading of it out over a couple of months. Very unlike me. Because I dreaded being done with it. Not walking with her through the woods, over the pond, across the meadow. I miss her directing my gaze to something I would surely have missed. I miss her quirky observations and her detailed explanations. Mostly, I miss her words.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee I can’t believe I read it for the first time at 45. A rich exploration of life inside the mind of a young girl growing up in the rural south. Some of her experiences very like my own, some completely other. Whimsy, superstition, intrigue, honor, courage, pain. All of these in generous measure. One of the best books I have ever read.
*Honorable Mentions: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury I found both of these to be terribly troubling. Mostly because the disturbing worlds they predict have so very much in common with the world in which we are living. Worlds where reading is banned and thinking for oneself is a thing of the past. Where we are spoonfed beliefs “for our own good” and for the “benefit of society”. I find it difficult to call them favorites when they made me so uncomfortable. But I haven’t the least difficulty calling them important.
What books did you read this year that rankled, inspired, or captivated?