There’s some rhyme and reason to how I select my reading material. I check reviews, I try to be alert to what gets mentioned when friends and colleagues talk literature, and I deliberately set myself a diet that balances spiritual books, novels, intellectual essays, and select biographies. Nonetheless, invariably, some of the best books I read each year are stumbled upon by accident. I ascribe to the theory that the book you’re supposed to be reading at a given time finds you.
What books found me this year? Here are some that stood out:
Among the novels I’ve read:
• Sebastian Barry’s, The Secret Scripture, is a brilliant piece of writing. It takes time for the tension to build, but it’s worth the wait and the language is art.
• Barbara Kingsolver’s, The Lacuna, is in the mode of several of Kingsolver’s other books, fictionalized history, with Kingsolver’s genius as a story teller everywhere evident.
• Toni Morrison, A Mercy. Morrison has already won the Nobel Prize for literature and this book, like her others, shows why. Not always an easy read, she never is, but many of her paragraphs are constructed like paintings to be looked at again and again.
• A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book. Byatt is perhaps the foremost novelist in the English language today and will, no doubt, one day win the Nobel Prize for literature. The Children’s Book, like all her novels, is dense and not easy to read, not just because it is over 600 pages long, but because it mixes history, art, architecture, politics, economics, oppression, ideology, mythology, love, sex, abuse, and family life in a way that unsettles a settled mind. Life, as she lays it out, doesn’t move along clear, easily defined moral lines. Any easy concept of history, morality, family, or sex, will unravel as you read her.
• Don DeLillo, Point Omega. If you want a textbook on postmodernism, this is your book.
• Colm Toibin, Brooklyn. A story of a young woman emigrating from Ireland to New York a generation ago. This story has been told before, but not always as warmly as Toibin tells it.
• Jane Urquhart, Sanctuary Line. I’ve never read a Jane Urquhart book that’s disappointed me and this one doesn’t either, though it did for awhile. A slow, plodding diary of young woman, it saves its major tension and revelations until the end and, then, Urquhart’s gift as a story-teller breaks through.
Among the books of essays:
• Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother. A brilliant series of essays about her mother from one of America’s best novelists. Perhaps my favorite read this whole year.
• Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. A wonderful apologetics for faith and for a desire for something beyond the simple sweetening of life. Recommended to parents to give you your college-age kids.
• Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. A very, very challenging account of why a woman of deep faith and Christian commitment, and a gifted writer, has left the church.
Among the spiritual books I’ve read this year, two stand out:
• W.H. Vanstone, The Structure of Waiting. A truly brilliant, deep study of the Passion of Jesus and what it can teach us about waiting. This book deeply influenced Henri Nouwen.
• Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft, Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Written from a naturalist rather than a faith perspective, this book might be disturbing to some, but contains many psychological insights (and testimonies about inner transformation) that can, I believe, be very helpful in understanding how the soul journeys.
Finally, a couple of biographies and autobiographies:
• Doris Lessing Under My Skin, Volume One of my Autobiography, to 1949, and. Walking in the Shade, 1949-1962, Volume Two of my Autobiography. The first two volumes of Lessing’s autobiography are written as befits a Nobel Prize winner: They not only tell Lessing’s story, they also give the reader a feel for English and African culture and politics during nearly half a century. An adult “Diary-of-Anne-Frank”.
• Don Brophy, Catherine of Sienna, A Passionate Life. If you know next to nothing about Catherine of Sienna, and I didn’t when I purchased this book, this is a good place to start. It’s the most recent biography of a truly exceptional woman.
• Lorna Crozier, Small Beneath the Sky. I may be biased because the author is from Saskatchewan (my roots as well) and sets her story there, but this is a good piece of writing which, among other things, shows how the prairies help shape a soul.
• Nora Ephron, I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections. The author of When Harry Met Sally is approaching seventy and offers a very witty account of growing older. Beyond the wit and the fine writing, this book is a wonderful challenge to our innate grandiosity that likes to mask itself as seriousness.
De gustibus non est disputantum.