An old adage says that the book you need to read finds you. I believe that, though obviously the book likes a little help from its reader who needs to be combing bookstores, listening to friends, and watching reviews. Then the right series of accidents can conspire to place that book in your hands.
What books found me this year? Here are the ones that touched me most:
• Jhumpa Lahiri’s three novels, Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesakes, and Interpreter of Maladies, exhibit great emotional intelligence and help lay bare the anatomy of the heart, marriage, and family life.
• Anne Michaels’, The Winter Vault, is dark story, but the best writing I’ve encountered this year. Prose bordering on poetry.
• Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s, Monsieur Ibrahim, is a tiny book, but its second story, the letter of a young boy dying of cancer, is an exceptional read.
• Alice Munro’s, Too Much Happiness, is a collection of short stories that are mostly dark and take strange twists, but Alice Munro has, I believe, no equal in short-story writing. The pages turn themselves.
• Sebastian Barry’s, The Secret Scripture, will tax your patience as you wait for the suspense, but its writing, in line with a long tradition of great Irish pieces in this genre, makes up for its slow pace.
• Joanna Trollope’s, Friday Night, is a lighter, airplane read, but with more emotional intelligence than most books in this category.
Among essays and biography
• David Oliver Relin’s & Greg Mortenson’s, Three Cups of Tea, is the story of a genuine hero who is trying to teach us that the answer to terrorism is education and friendship not war.
• Carrie Fisher’s, Wishful Drinking, is a great piece of wit and an answer to self-pity.
• Robert Moore’s, Facing the Dragon, Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity, finally puts on paper the essential insight of a great thinker.
• Kevin Rafferty’s, Fragments of a Life, is an unpretentious autobiography of a great churchman who uses his own life to write a remarkable chronicle of Roman Catholicism from 1950 – 2008.
• Raymond Brown’s condensed scriptural commentaries for the major seasons of the year: The Crucified Christ in Holy Week; A Risen Christ in Eastertime, A Coming Christ in Advent, are remarkable, readable little books that synthesize for the non-professional scholar the insights of one of the great biblical scholars of our time. They can be reread many times.
• Joan Wickersham’s, The Suicide Index, Putting My Father’s Death in Order, is the memoir of a daughter trying to come to grips with her father’s suicide. Well-written and helpful to anyone who has experienced something similar.
• Trevor Herriot’s, Grass, Sky, Song – Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. This is a book about birds, but really, more deeply, about life, morality, and our future. Moral challenge written as it should be written.
• Jim Wallis’, The Great Awakening, Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, articulates signs of hope within our culture, particularly the coming together of two things, justice and faith. According to Wallis, our generation’s Dorothy Day, the Left are finding Jesus and the Right are finding the poor. This bodes well for the future. Wallis at his best, if not always at his briefest.
• Barbara Brown Taylor’s, Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith, is a remarkable memoir of a woman ministering in the church and facing all the innate complexities of that. A first-rate, mature account that doesn’t blame and doesn’t self-pity. A good read for anyone ministering in the church or involved in a healing profession.
• Barbara Brown Taylor’s, An Altar in the World – A Geography of the Faith, is one of the better books about “getting into the present moment”. She gives some good, balanced directives about how to get into the present moment and, just as importantly, on how to turn that everyday experience into a sacrament.
Heavy Academic Reading
• Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age, is a huge book, not recommended for airplane reading. The faculty at our school is studying it over the course of this entire year. This is a history of ideas that traces the roots of our secular consciousness both in terms of the disenchantment of our previous consciousness and the positive building of a humanism that can pretend to supplant faith. Very heavy but worth the effort.
I leave you with a sample of Anne Michael’s writing: “Only real love waits while we journey through grief. That is the real trustworthiness between people. In all the epics, in all the stories that have lasted through many lifetimes, it is always the same truth: love must wait for wounds to heal. It is this waiting that we must do for each other, not with a sense of mercy, or in judgment, but as if forgiveness were a rendezvous. How many are willing to wait for another in this way? Very few.”