De gustibus non est disputandum. That’s a famous line from St. Augustine wherein he suggests that taste is subjective and that what one person fancies might not be to another person’s liking. Under that canopy I would like to recommend the following books to you. Among the books that I read in 2013, these ten stayed with me in ways that the others didn’t. So, with no promises that your tastes will echo mine, here goes …
Among the different novels that I read, I recommend:
Alice Munro’s, Dear Life – Stories: These stories won’t give you easy moral comfort, but will stretch you. They’re moral in that they name things as they are. Munro might have entitled these stories – It is what it is! Since publishing this novel, she has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, no surprise to anyone in Canada.
Barbara Kingsolver’s, Flight Behavior: This is a novel about global warming which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though everyone will learn from it. More important even than her moral message is the flashlight she shines into ordinary life. Told from the viewpoint of a young mother, trapped in poverty and frustrated by her lack of education and her lack of choices, Kingsolver brilliantly lays bare a human heart, with both its temptations and its virtues.
Toni Morrison’s, Home: Morrison isn’t easy reading, and her story line isn’t always the easiest to follow, but her writing is art, the best, and her language conveys a color and feeling that has few equals among novelists. She didn’t win the Nobel Prize for literature undeservedly.
Within the genre of biography and history, these books stood out:
Roger Lipsey’s, Hammarskjold, A Life: Lipsey, using mountains of material from Dag Hammarskjold’s journals and letters, reveals that Hammarskjold was all that was hinted at in Markings, and more. Hammarskjold, both as a public figure and in his private life, tried to mirror the greatness of life. Nearly 800 pages long, it’s worth the effort, the story of a great soul.
Brenna Moore’s, Sacred Dread, Raissa Maritain, the Allure of Suffering and the French Catholic Revival (1905-1944): Not an easy read, but anyone with an interest in the world of Maritains, Leon Bloy, Charles Peguy, and the French Catholic Revival at the beginning of the last century will be given a deeper insight into that world.
Kay Cronin’s, Cross in the Wilderness: An old book, published in 1960, and now available only in libraries, Cronin traces the history of the Oblate missionaries coming to Oregon and British Columbia and opening churches there. I was truly inspired by the selflessness and courage of these men and what they accomplished. French intellectuals, many of them, they were sent into the wilderness with little preparation and survived there on ideals and faith, and flat-out toughness. Food, shelter, and doctors often weren’t available. Reading their story made me, more than ever, proud to be a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Mary Gordon’s, The Shadow Man, A Daughter’s Search of Her Father: We only understand ourselves when we understand our parents and how their virtues and weaknesses helped shape our own souls. Mary Gordon, better than most, has been able to do this. Many of us are familiar with her brilliant book on her mother, Circling my Mother. Here she does the same thing with her father. How she understands her father will help us to understand our own.
In the area of spirituality, I much recommend:
Belden C. Lane’s, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Desert and Mountain Spirituality: Very much in the genre of Bill Plotkins’, Soulcraft, Lane gives us insights into the important role that geography can play in shaping our souls, and hints of how we might more deliberately expose ourselves to that. For Lane, spirituality isn’t something that should be done only in air-conditioned prayer centers. Rather, nature, the desert, the wind, and the sun need also to wash over our souls and bodies.
Jim Wallis’, Rediscovering Values – On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street, A Moral Compass for the New Economy: This book should come with a warning: It will upset you if you’re a fiscal conservative, but, if you are, you might want to give yourself this challenge. Wallis is as close to a “Dorothy Day” as our generation has.
Donald H. Dunson’s and James A. Dunson’s, Citizen of the World, Suffering and Solidarity in the 21st Century: Socrates once said that he was a citizen of the world first and only, after that, a citizen of Athens. How do we widen our hearts and our attitudes so as to live out a citizenship that’s wider than our own ethnicity, nationality, history, geography, self-interest, and natural affinity? Donald and James Dunson try to answer that, and they do it with remarkable nuance. This book is a genuine moral compass, what prophecy should be. Good prophets don’t spray you with guilt; they make you want to be a better person.
Again, de gustibus non est disputandum.