2021 in Literary Review

2021 has been an insane year. I started out as a trainee with Cincinnati Ballet, went through a major transformation and healing through Totus Tuus, and threw myself into the intellectual world at University of Dallas. Oh, and I’m minoring in political philosophy now, so that’s just one example of how many weird things Jesus has brought into my life.

But whether I was a dancer, missionary, or student, there was always a book nearby. Below is a list and short review of most of the books I read for fun over the last year. Hopefully this list will provide you with at least one new literary friend for 2022! Enjoy and be sure to comment with any book recommendations you have for me!

Fiction

  1. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

I still own the copy that I annotated in my literary analysis class when I was in eighth grade. Something that makes this novel such a joy is the way that my relationship with the book changes as I grow older. This is a dramatic yet sincere story of a young woman maturing in life, love, and spirituality, all of which are informed by the educational forces in her life.

2. Turtles All the Way Down, John Green

It’s definitely a step down from Jane Eyre, but I devoured this teen mystery and drama in approximately 24 hours. Set in my corner of Indianapolis, the novel depicts suffering in a raw, yet redemptive way that leaves the reader feeling both seen and hopeful.

3. Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis

This book. Any time I’m suffering or feel lost, I open to a page in this book and the Lord finds a way to speak to me. This was my second time through Till We Have Faces from cover to cover and it’s incredible to begin to realize the depth that lies in this seemingly simple fairy tale. Dedicated to his wife who passed away from cancer shortly after their marriage, C.S. Lewis uses the myth of Cupid and Psyche to delve into the pain of the human condition that we’re too frightened to explore for ourselves. He ultimately reveals that Love Himself makes all things new.

4. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

This Russian tragedy’s chaotic structure mirrors the chaos of fallen human nature. Following the sickly but pure-hearted Prince Myshkin, the novel explores the ways that people combat against and succumb to the vices in society. It is filled with political and religious commentary, conveyed through moving characters in whom you see yourself, both to your delight and dismay.

There are layers to The Idiot that went way over my head and will require many re-readings. But I picked up this novel because it’s where we get the famous quote, “Beauty will save the world.” And if that quote is true, this haunting and clever story is certainly helping to save the world.

5. Island of the World, Michael D. O’Brien

Where to even begin? If you’ve read Island of the World, you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps the best way to describe this 815-page emotional rollercoaster is through an excerpt from the author’s afterword:

“Wherever you may be in this world, please know that I presumed to write about your memory, your blood, your loss, as if it were my own. . .In eternity, we will know fully; in Him, we will see face to face. Then we shall understand even as we are understood, and love even as we are loved.”

O’Brien seeks to depict the entirety of human suffering in a single volume. This novel, which begins in the Balkans in 1933, depicts the atrocity of war and Communism with painfully graphic violence and devastating emotional agony. But it also portrays the miraculous qualities of love and grace, the way that our first human love brings hope and spurs us on to an encounter with the merciful One who has first loved us. While memory can be traumatic, it also has a healing power. Island of the World reveals that in a culture of dehumanization and demonic evil, the most effective revolution lies in beauty and forgiveness.

6. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis

I haven’t picked up this classic in about four years, but it’s just as earth-shattering now as it was then. As the name might suggest, this short book is a series of letters written from the demon Screwtape to his nephew and apprentice Wormwood. As our little habits and daily vices are scrutinized by the enemy, Lewis unapologetically calls out the reader. But his description of our heavenly Father’s compassion renders impotent any attempts of our tempters to draw us into discouragement or despair.

7. Leaf by Niggle, J.R.R. Tolkien

Pairing this short story with The Screwtape Letters would make for a powerful examination of conscience. Tolkien’s allegorical autobiography depicts the untimely trip of an eccentric and in many ways mediocre man and artist. This story captures the power of the arts with piercing beauty and honesty. But it’s that second voice in the hospital room that makes all the difference.

8. The Song at the Scaffold, Gertrud von Le Fort

I’m rarely so quick to re-read a book (My first time through The Song at the Scaffold was in Spring, 2020). But in my politics class this past semester, we spent a lot of time discussing the concepts of revolution, anxiety, and dying while singing. So I couldn’t help but re-read this novella as part of my Advent reading. Le Fort’s simple writing style startles you into absorbing the complex themes of the story. From the Nativity, to fearful people, to the Agony in the Garden, to a rioting mob, The Song at the Scaffold causes the reader to never quite see the mysteries of Christ’s life, and therefore all human life, in the same way.

9. The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh

You may think that you have a twisted sense of humor, but do you have a rom-com-turned-tragedy-set-in-a-mortuary-and-pet-cemetery-where-people-flirt-by-sending-smiling-corpses twisted sense of humor? Regardless of how you answered that question, this novella is a bizarrely delightful read.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same author who penned Brideshead Revisited, but Waugh’s dry humor and elegant prose gives him away. Subtitled An Anglo-American Tragedy, this movie makes fun of Americans and British alike, offering social commentary in a sobering and unforgettable way. Be warned, you will never read The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats through the same lens.

Non-Fiction

10. Happy Are You Poor, Thomas Dubay

I love Dubay precisely because of his radical pursuit of Christ’s command to surrender everything for the sake of divine intimacy. But that doesn’t make his writing easy or comfortable to read. This book takes an honest look at Christ’s commands and warnings about material wealth. I don’t agree with everything Dubay writes in Happy Are You Poor, but for the most part I have had to acknowledge that it’s not the writer who needs to change. It’s me.

This book is a game-changer. It’s one you want to wrestle with, take to prayer, and discuss with others who can offer advice about how to apply Dubay’s advice to your life. Ultimately though, this book’s message is one of deep joy. You don’t want to miss out on that.

11. Unplanned, Abby Johnson

I’ve been involved in the pro-life movement pretty much since birth. But it can be easy to forget the horror story that comes to life every day in abortion clinics. This book was a powerful, painful reminder of the atrocity of abortion and I was sobbing within the first couple pages. But it also reminds the reader of the humanity of those in the abortion industry. So many people on the other side of the fence honestly desire to help women – they’ve just fatally deluded themselves. Abby’s testimony portrays humanity at its worst and best, as well as the compassionate God who works all things for good and is always ready to forgive the most grievous sins.

12. Captivating, John and Stasi Eldredge

Every time I see this book for a low price, I buy it so I can give it to as many people as possible. I KNOW I call so many things life-changing, but I really, really do mean it! Captivating provides a beautiful, entertaining, personal exposition of the Christian understanding of femininity. The writers combine testimonies, classic fiction, and Scriptural exegesis to “unveil the mystery of a woman’s soul.” It’s written in such a way that regardless of your age, there is something to gain from it. I don’t endorse every sentence or concept in the book, but overall, this book is one that every Christian woman really ought to read (and then re-read).

13. The Dialogue, St. Catherine of Siena

This Lent was all about the Father, so I decided to read St. Catherine’s transcript of her conversations with the Father. This work has everything in it: the call to repentance and self-denial, the stages of prayer and the spiritual life, divine justice, and unfathomable divine love for every soul. It can be a little hefty and hard to get through at times, but this spiritual classic is a truly beautiful source of grace.

“The love of Christ embraces all without exception. Fire of love, crazy over what You have made. Oh, divine Madman.”

14. The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux

Y’all know I could write an entire book about this book. I actually already wrote about my reflections on this most recent read of Therese’s autobiography, so I’ll keep it short. Therese has honestly been the champion of my 2021 and I love her so much. I know parts of the book can be difficult to get through and maybe y’all aren’t besties yet. But just wait. She’ll sneak her way into your heart, one way or another.

15. Belonging, Nora Krug

This multi-media book combines text, collage, photography, and drawing to depict the author’s journey to discover her German family’s history and involvement in WWII. Krug’s collection of various physical objects to convey a deeply personal story is captivating, as is her poetic writing style and inquisitive, honest heart. It led to many questions for me about home, history, family, and how it all combines to create the person I am today.

Short Stories (One sentence summaries)

16. Parker’s Back, Flannery O’Connor

In a matter of pages, O’Connor uses a story about a man who would qualify for a My Strange Addiction episode on tattoos to confront the reader with questions about beauty, art, the thirst of the human heart, and the undeniable presence of the only One who can quench that thirst.

17. The Red Masque of Death, Edgar Allan Poe

Very awkward to read during a pandemic, but it’s so good it’s worth it.

18. The Black Cat

It’s amazing and I love Poe, but don’t read it right after your family buys a cat who is obsessed with you even though you don’t like him.

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