Almost there, friends. We’re almost at the end of 2020.
As excited as we all are for the new year, I haven’t heard much about plans for ringing in 2021 with enthusiasm. I was so excited for 2020 that I wore a flapper dress on New Year’s Eve. A freaking flapper dress. So much for the roaring 20s.
I’d also assume nobody is very ambitious in making New Year’s resolutions for 2021. But in case you’re looking for a new book to read, I want to share everything I read, completed reading, or will complete in this crazy year. Some of these books delighted my heart and were even used by the Lord to keep me in His light during very difficult moments. There are others that I hope to never read again. Please enjoy this list, and I would love to hear what you read over the last year!
The Way of a Pilgrim, Anonymous
The origins of this Russian work are rather mysterious, so it was hard to know where to place this book, but it reads like a work of fiction. The story of a beggar pilgrim is used as a vehicle to convey the beauty of contemplative prayer within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I think you have to remember that that’s the motivation for the work or else you get bogged down in the somewhat unrealistic virtue and piety of the narrator. When those concerns are set aside (it’s likely that you’re a more virtuous and less snarky individual than I am), The Way of a Pilgrim is an enjoyable narrative that provides a window into both the countryside of 19th century Russia and Orthodox spirituality.
I’ve been trying to get through this tiny book for a long time now, but finally pushed through and finished this Lent. I’m so grateful because it was such a comfort to pray the Jesus prayer and practice the presence of God in a year when God’s sacramental presence felt distant.
Dracula, Bram Stoker
When I was younger, I was terrified of vampires. So I’m surprised, but delighted to say that I absolutely loved this great Father-novel of vampire stories. Although it’s a story of suspense and monstrosity, my favorite part about the book was the emphasis on the nature of man and woman. There are beautiful messages about the complementarity and unique gifts of the sexes, as well as portrayals of chivalry, self-sacrifice, and courage. All of this is given through beautifully constructed sentences that ended up filling my own journal. I do think that the plot can get a little slow and found the ending of the book very disappointing, but in Dracula you read the origin of Halloween stories as we know them today and receive a lesson in human nature, all in one fairly short novel. I’d say it’s worth it.
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
I know you’re judging me, I know. But I was writing a college application essay in a Barnes & Noble and writer’s block had taken its hold. The Fault in Our Stars was sitting on a shelf right next to me and three days later I was crying on my pillow.
It’s one of those books that you re-read and try to figure out why on earth you invested in it. The writing quality is poor, the romance is cheesy, and the characters are fairly unbelievable. But there’s something comforting about all that. In a year of so much stress, I didn’t have to stress over phenomenological terms or complex ideas. I simply enjoyed a captivating plot line and delighted in the quotable phrases that are John Green’s trademark. And as an Indiana girl, I had so much fun reading a story set in my own city. The gas station where an ambulance is called is actually the gas station just down the street from my house.
Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, Michael O’Brien
This book. I wept, I rejoiced, I was converted, I fell even further behind in pre-calculus because I couldn’t put it down. Sound like a lot? It really is. I began Father Elijah during April when it felt like we might have been near the apocalypse. And while this suspenseful story isn’t exactly what I expected for an end-times novel, it was exactly what I needed in this year. Michael O’Brien explains that while we might not be living in the end-times, every age is called to battle the anti-Christ and every soul has a pivotal role in that fight between good and evil. The deceit and good that the media is capable of was also very prevalent and eye-opening to read this year.
I don’t know much about Michael O’Brien, but his writings seem to portray a man who knows what it is to pray and hunger for contemplative union with God. This book is steeped in Carmelite and Franciscan spirituality, not as a textbook or catechism, but as a romance that breathes through the pages. All while narrating espionage, terrorism, and murder.
But for me, the most beautiful fruit of Father Elijah is the side story that lasts for only a couple of chapters when Father Elijah meets an evil man near death. Like many of us, I was struggling with the problem of evil this past Spring and this chapter was the answer for me. All I know is that now the Lord has started calling me “dziecko” in prayer. You’ll have to read the book to understand what that means.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins
I have never before closed a book and said out loud, “Well, that was a waste of my time.” But there were a lot of things I had never done before that I did in 2020. When I was in 8th grade, I was obsessed with The Hunger Games. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those books got me through a lot. I was so excited to relive some of that with this book that tells us the origins of President Snow. But I think Collins realized that no matter what she wrote, she would receive a lot of money. I also think she really wanted this to be made into a movie, as the book reads more like a screenplay than a novel most of the time. I do think some scenes would be fascinating and enjoyable on the big screen, between the music, mockingjays, and harrowing scenes of betrayal. But that’s not what I paid $25 for.
The Song at the Scaffold, Gertrud von Le Fort
This novella tells the true story of the sixteen Carmelite nuns who died at the guillotine during the French Revolution. It’s beautifully written in simple prose and unearths a heart of Carmelite spirituality that is sometimes not recognized in the intensity of Teresa and John’s writings. This book asks the reader two questions: Are you ready to die? And what are you ready to live and sing for? If you find these questions terrifying, this book is ready to love you and comfort you right where you are.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
I’m still finishing this one up, but this is my second or third time reading the classic novel and every time I fall more deeply in love. I first read this book for school in 8th grade and it’s really beautiful to see that the way I relate to the characters and the plot changes as I grow older. If you want a coming-of-age novel with higher and gloomier stakes than you find in Austen or Alcott, this is a perfect winter read.
A Right to be Merry, Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
Have you ever wondered what life looks like in a cloistered monastery? Probably not, but when we entered what we thought was 14 days of enclosure, I thought this would be an appropriate read. A Right to be Merry is a non-fiction book written by a Poor Clare nun and seeks to honestly depict life in the monastery while providing an overview of Franciscan spirituality, vocation, and the gift of life invested totally in Christ. I can honestly say that this is one of the most delightful books I have ever read. I couldn’t put it down because of the joy that truly exudes from every sentence. I found myself laughing out loud at the author’s jokes and holding back tears at her moving stories and proclamations. This book also served as an honest and valuable guide for all of that added time in the solitude and chaos of lockdown. I learned about the gift of silence and how to navigate the difficulty of living in close quarters with family when I didn’t have activities to escape to.
The Other Side of Beauty, Leah Darrow
This book is written by a former contestant on America’s Next Top Model who experienced a Damascus-like conversion and is now a Catholic speaker and writer. If that sounds like a mouthful, the lovely thing about this book is that Darrow’s writing is incredibly accessible and meets you where you are, whether you’ve been walking with Christ your whole life or don’t believe a word she says. Darrow provides you with a history of the fashion and beauty industry, exposing its need to lie to and compromise the dignity of women for profit. But she also explains how we can reclaim the beauty industry and our own hearts. She even includes lists of toxic makeup ingredients to avoid and modesty guidelines that help you discern the classiness of your wardrobe choices.
Fire Within, Thomas Dubay
I was told that this book would change my life, and I was not told wrong. I would love to say that after reading this, I know more about prayer than ever before, but this book made me realize how little I know and will probably ever know about prayer. An overview of Carmelite spirituality and contemplative prayer, Fire Within is a summary of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I haven’t read much by either of these Saints, but I was still able to follow along and learn so much. This is definitely the heftiest read on this list and it was so dry at certain points that I actually took over a year to finish the work. So if you’re already apprehensive, I would suggest reading the introduction, first couple chapters, and the final chapter. These are probably the easiest and yet most powerful parts of the book. They have fueled my desire for God so profoundly.
Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen
This is the review where you’re probably going to stop reading if you’ve read Life of the Beloved. I know it’s supposed to be a spiritual classic, but I honestly wasn’t a huge fan. I don’t want to say I disliked this book, but I think by the time I read it I felt like I had already read it a hundred times in the form of retreat talks, blog posts, and personal prayer. Life of the Beloved isn’t meant to be a dense theological treatise, as it’s written to someone who hasn’t begun to walk in relationship with Jesus Christ yet. I think that makes it a valuable gift to the Church, and I do think I would have loved it when I was younger. The opening is very beautiful and the final chapter provides an excellent summary of disciple spirituality. I just wasn’t in the right time and place to enjoy this book like others have.
Making Missionary Disciples, Curtis Martin
Written by the founder of FOCUS, The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, this short book is an excellent overview of the formulae employed by FOCUS to bring college students into a transformative relationship with Christ and His Church. It’s important to keep in mind that nobody is suggesting a cookie-cutter method to fill the pews. Rather, this book provides simple answers and suggestions to the question Catholics ask over and over: How exactly do I evangelize? The answer is simple and adventurously beautiful.
The Lamb’s Supper, Scott Hahn
Let’s face it: at some point this year, we all wondered if the Book of Revelation was playing out before our very eyes. According to Dr. Hahn, it was. Hahn believes (very convincingly in my opinion) that Revelation can only be fully understood in the context of the Mass. This book provides a very satisfactory explanation of Revelation that still acknowledges the mystery of the Book. He also encourages Catholics to experience and love the Mass in a new way, and I’ve found myself more participatory in and appreciative of Mass thanks to this book.
Behold, He Comes: Meditations on the Incarnation, Fr. Benedict Groeschel
I’m still finishing up this series of meditations that carries you from Advent to Epiphany, but I would highly recommend it for any Christian who wants to be convicted to rise to the next level of virtue. Sometimes Advent devotionals can get a little fluffy (“Is there room in your heart for Jesus? If not, here are some candles that are sure to do the trick”), but this one is intense while unrelenting in its proclamation that the reader is infinitely, unfathomably loved.
Short Stories and Long Poems
The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It doesn’t get better than Sherlock Holmes, especially if you (like me) find it hard to fit in time or focus to read. This short story was read in 30-45 minutes and contains all of the quintessential elements of a Holmes adventure: a bizarre crime, a train ride, baffled police, a snarky consulting detective, and a straightforward yet undeniably satisfying denouement. Make a cup of tea and before you know it you too will be speaking in a British accent and trying learn the criminal background of strangers in the grocery store.
A View of the Woods, Flannery O’Connor
I think I’m too dumb for Flannery O’Connor. I know she’s incredible and her writing style is brilliant, but I just don’t get her. This story is so dark and disturbing that I couldn’t really enjoy it because I couldn’t figure out her hidden meaning. That being said, it’s short, so I would encourage you to read it and tell me what you think it means.
The Dream of Gerontius, St. John Henry Newman
I don’t think there could be a better Memento Mori read than this poem that narrates a holy soul’s death, judgment, and hope-filled punishment of Purgatory. It captures the human fear of death, a fear that doesn’t mitigate a person’s Faith in God but rather gives that Faith value. Most convicting of all, it portrays that horrible, breathtaking moment when we will look upon perfect Beauty Himself. There is nothing cuddly about the God we worship, but there is infinite Love in His gaze. That gaze will heal all of our wounds.
In Principio Erat Verbum, St. John of the Cross
I have never wept over a poem before. I actually don’t think I’ve ever cried this hard over anything written before. But this poem spoke so tenderly to some deep wounds and I was left wanting to enter into deep prayer. It’s about the Incarnation, which makes it the perfect Christmas poem.
So there you have it! Merry Christmas, friends, and I pray that you have a blessed, bookish New Year, regardless of what it brings.