Merry Christmas, dear reader. Before today’s post, please join me in praying for the repose of the soul of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In the Office of Readings for Christmas day, Pope St. Leo the Great exhorts, “Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life.” Let’s rejoice in the gift that Benedict is to our church and pray with hope that his own birthday of eternal life takes place within the octave of Christ’s birth:
Remember, oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, oh Virgin of Virgins, my Mother. To thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. Oh Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petition, but in thy mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.
We love you, Holy Father. Thank you for teaching us that, “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
With his love for study, perhaps it is fitting that today’s post is a survey of the books I read for fun in the past year. These annual mini-reviews are posts I always look forward to writing. This year I continued to be astounded by literature’s capacity to become a conduit by which Beauty Himself directly intervenes in our lives. Through this fascinating art form the person is offered the words he dare not pray and invited to experience a reality which surpasses his greatest hopes and fears; namely, the reality of grace.
In 2022, Jesus amazed me with the literature I read for two of my four core English classes at the University of Dallas. It’s hard to complain about school when your assigned reading is Dante’s Commedia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, a smattering of lyric poetry, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
But when it comes to my own reading, this was certainly the year of French literature. A sizeable number of the books I read, particularly over the Summer, were translated from French, and it makes me that much more excited to visit France when I study abroad in Rome next semester! So without further ado, let’s jump into the books which accompanied the highs and lows that were 2022:
1.The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
Amidst the many obsessions this nerd has undergone, my affinity for little-folk is an evergreen love. It’s powerful to re-visit an old favorite and to encounter the artistic and theological nuances that went over my head as a sixth-grader. In this conclusion to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I was particularly struck by the way Tolkien subtly utilizes different styles of prose to make the work seem as if it’s a compilation of manuscripts from diverse nations and authors. I was also deeply moved by Eowyn’s character, as well as all of the characters hailing from Rohan and Gondor, and the way they illustrate that Christ encounters us in and through our broken humanity and the humanity of those around us.
Exemplary Quote: “The hands of a king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”
2. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
The first in The Neapolitan Novels series, the novel follows two best friends in a neighborhood broken by poverty, crime, and vice, and the way that their differing education launches them into separate lives.
I’ve heard this book praised by many intellectuals who I admire. Compared to basically any book displayed at Barnes & Noble, it’s very good. The characters are vivid, the social commentary fascinating, and the elegant, suspenseful prose kept me eagerly reading until I was finished. But I honestly don’t get the excitement surrounding the novel. The story is dark, but without any furtive redemption, and left me feeling empty when I finished. Perhaps it is because God has been banished from the world which Elena and Lila inhabit that the story is so hopeless and devoid of beauty.
Exemplary Quote: “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”
3. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
For years, I was stopping and starting and sighing over the multi-volume novel that the kids on Tumblr1 justifiably call “The brick.” Over this summer I was finally able to finish the book that inspired my favorite musical. As tears literally streamed down my face reading the closing pages, I could confidently say that this beautiful book makes the most beautiful musical look like a children’s coloring page.
Now, could Mr. Victor have benefitted from an editor? I’d like to think so (although I was surprised by how short the infamous sewer chapters really are). And yet, there is a beauty to the attention that Hugo lavishes on scenes, places, and individuals that many of us would pass by without a thought. Through following the conversion and eventual crucifixion of one man, Hugo shows that behind every face is a story of astonishing joy and grief. Charity is the key which unlocks the recesses in our own hearts and which allows us to see God emanating from the person standing before us.
Exemplary Quote: “Of all the things that God has made, the human heart is the one which sheds the most light, alas! and the most darkness.”
Bonus Exemplary Quote: “He had the air of a caryatid on vacation.”
4. The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
I’ve already written one post on this book and would be happy to write many more, so suffice it to say that this is a new addition to my favorites list. A book which initially seems like a straightforward, risque romance quickly plumbs the depths of the human psyche, the incarnational power of writing both for the reader and the writer, and the relentless power and love of our heavenly Father who uses all things to pursue His lost sheep.
Exemplary Quote: “Dear God, if only you could come down from your cross for a while and let me get up there instead. If I could suffer like you, I could heal like you.”
5. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
Although I’m not as obsessed as I am with The End of the Affair, this novel is an absolute masterpiece that convicts and uplifts every soul, no matter how depraved or saintly. The book depicts an alcoholic, lustful priest’s slow Palm Sunday journey towards his imminent capture and execution by the anti-Catholic Mexican government. With stunning prose and vivid exterior and interior imagery, the novel reveals the unparalleled gift of the Sacraments and the beautiful creativity of the God who brings new life from the worst sins.
Exemplary Quote: “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”
6. Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
I haven’t read this second book in The Chronicles of Narnia for well over a decade. I read it as last-minute Advent/Christmas reading, and it was an utter delight. I continue to be amazed by all that Jack can accomplish in less than two hundred pages. Without ceasing to be a simplistic, wondrous children’s story, Prince Caspian is rife with classical allusions, theology, and social commentary, particularly in regards to education.
But perhaps the greatest gift that Narnia has to offer is the fact that at 21, I still found myself breathless in anticipation of Aslan’s appearance. I’ve spent the past year pondering the relationship between literature and the imagination; perhaps The Chronicles of Narnia, more than any literature, has the capacity to seize a child’s imagination and lead that imagination “further up and further in” towards the Lion of Judah.
Exemplary Quote: “You have listened to fears, child,” said Aslan. “Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?”
“A little, Aslan,” said Susan.
7. The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, St. Alphonsus Liguori
If you want an intense read to kickstart your new year, do I have the book for you. With some of the most beautiful, moving language, Alphonsus reveals the love burning within the Sacred Heart for each soul. But Jesus’ love for you and I is so profound and all-consuming that the only appropriate response is our profound and all-consuming love in return. Alphonsus leads us to see that for the sake of heaven and the Bridegroom of our souls, no sacrifice is too great. His burden is truly light.
I do think it’s important to read the book bearing in mind that Alphonsus suffered from scrupulosity, at one point needing to step away from public ministry for the sake of healing for his mind and soul. I don’t agree with the stoicism he espouses at certain points – I do believe Tolkien’s claim that “not all tears are an evil.” But Alphonsus is a Doctor of the Church, an incredible Saint, and a sweet friend and intercessor of mine. So read this book for yourself, learn from it, and fall in love with the One who captivated the author.
Exemplary Quote: “Let the whole world know that my heart is stricken. Sweetest love, what have you done? You have come to heal me, and you have wounded me. You have come to teach me, and you have made me like someone mad. O wisest madness, may I never live without you.”
8. Be Healed, Bob Schuchts
Psychologist Bob Schuchts’ influence has spread across the American Church, with countless lay people, seminaries, and religious orders attending his retreats and reading through his books that mingle Scripture, the Sacraments, and psychotherapy to bring about personal wholeness, integrity, and healing in Jesus Christ.
I could write a series of posts in response to Be Healed and the Church’s current understanding of healing in general. But in short: The Lord uses all things for good, and He used the chapter on the Father’s love and my primary identity as a daughter to bring about beautiful growth and strength in my soul. But while I tend to love material written and produced by Sr. Miriam James Heidland, a Schuchts devotee, I remain skeptical of Schuchts’ own ministry and writing. Therapy is so important and heaven knows we need better resources for Catholics struggling with mental health. But while one technique of therapy is not one-size-fits-all, Catholicism is for everyone. The healing within the Sacraments is for everyone. Conflating Catholicism and psychological treatment does not do justice to the complexity of the human person, nor to the all-encompassing beauty, truth, and goodness of the Catholic Faith.
Exemplary Quote: “Intimacy with Jesus, the beloved Son, leads us into an ever-growing knowledge of ourselves at the Father’s beloved.”
9. Total Surrender, Mother Teresa
When Mother Teresa started popping up everywhere in early summer, I was a little surprised. Then I had a life-changing experience nannying for a precious toddler with Down Syndrome, and I realized the gift for which Mother Teresa was preparing me through her example and writings. Through extensive explanations of their charism and constitutions, this short, but radical book delves into the spirituality of the Missionaries of Charity, a spirituality particularly relevant for the laity. Jesus thirsts for us, and He thirsts that we reverence His presence in every person we encounter.
Exemplary Quote: “We must cling to Jesus, grasp him, have a grip on him, and never let go for anything. We must fall in love with Jesus.”
10. Searching for and Maintaining Peace, Fr. Jacques Philippe
When there’s a book that literally every Catholic loves, accepts, and recommends, my inner cynic tends to be skeptical. But then I read Searching for and Maintaining Peace, and oh. my. goodness. This book is lifechanging. It was difficult to realize that so much that I considered to be a fine outlook on life is actually an offense to our Lord’s providence and compassionate goodness. But Fr. Philippe writes with such love and tenderness that I was unafraid of my weakness and eager to truly believe that “All the reasons that cause us to lose our sense of peace are bad reasons.” Have I succeeded? Conversion is gradual… But I beg you to read this book and join me in the striving.
Exemplary Quote: “The heart does not awaken to confidence until it awakens to love; we need to feel the gentleness and the tenderness of the Heart of Jesus.”
11. Interior Freedom, Fr. Jacques Philippe
I didn’t love this one as much as Searching for and Maintaining Peace, but it is still a beautiful read! I remain skeptical of the stoicism that remains completely immune from the suffering of others, and there were other statements within the book that reminded me that no human author is free from all error. Nevertheless, this book reminds man of his profound dignity as a rational animal. Not only do we have freedom to choose the good, but we have the freedom to joyfully accept and receive everything from the Father, even the crosses we would not have chosen for ourselves. The book explores the interplay between the theological virtues, demonstrating that it is only in the cultivation of these virtues that the soul encounters true joy and fulfillment.
Exemplary Quote: “Love transfigures everything and touches the most banal realities with a note of infinity.”
13. The Passion of Therese of Lisieux, Guy Gaucher
This heartrending, powerful book scrupulously chronicles the final months in the life of St. Therese. After reading this, it is impossible to see her as the rosy-cheeked, saccharine caricature we often paint her to be. As a long-time friend of Therese, this book, filled with various diary entries and letters, felt like I was accompanying my friend through her suffering. But like the true Saint she is, Therese caused me to leave this account of her martyrdom of love with a focus on Christ’s love. May my greatest ambition be to die from loving.
Exemplary Quote: “Saints do not need any embellishment.”
12. Authenticity, Thomas Dubay
If you want to know my thoughts on Dubay, just check out my bio and you’ll get the picture (TLDR: I’m obsessed). Honestly, this “Biblical Theology of Discernment” was my least favorite of his works that I’ve read so far – but that’s also like saying Kit-Kats are my least favorite chocolate. I’ll take one any day.
Like Be Healed, I could write extensively on this book and in particular, its relationship to the Catholic charismatic renewal. Relying heavily on the authority of St. John of the Cross, the paradigmatic mystical doctor, Dubay cautions that more often than not, the personal promptings, images, and words that we believe come from the Holy Spirit merely come from our imperfect human minds. But his criteria for signs that the Holy Spirit is at work in individuals and communities can’t help but lead one to greater openness toward certain Catholic charismatic groups today. In short, this book reminds the soul that nothing is more important than prayer, and leads one to deeper gratitude for the Magisterium of the Church, a safeguard for discerning the way that the Lord works through the diversity inherent to His Universal Church.
Exemplary Quote: “This book is necessarily radical. It is radical for the simple reason that God is the Primordial Radical, the Unexpected. We tend to utter truisms about discernment. He will shake us to our roots.”
Bonus Exemplary Quote: “We can no more deduce the divine plan for us by an intensive scrutiny of our own nature and/or circumstances, by a careful scrutiny of our own nature and/or circumstances, by a careful looking within or without, than a duck could imagine Mozart or Shakespeare by turning its attention (if it could) to its own duckiness.”2
13. What the Anti-Federalists Were For, Herbert Storing
Before reading this book, I had given up my Anti-Federalist, pro-Articles position. But while I’ve become sympathetic to the U.S. Constitution, and love geeking out about its genius, I certainly still have sympathies for the decentralized, antifederalist position. This book explores why the antifederalists, although they argued for noble political qualities and continue to impact American political thought, ultimately failed.
Exemplary Quote: “But [the Constitution] did not settle everything; it did not finish the task of making the American polity. The political life of the community continues to be a dialogue, in which the Anti-Federalist concerns and principles still play an important part. The Anti-Federalists are entitled, then, to be counted among the Founding Fathers, in what is admittedly a somewhat paradoxical sense, and to share in the honor and the study devoted to the founding.”
14. Worthy of Wearing, Nicole Caruso
Thomas Dubay’s Happy are You Poor is too persuasive about the universal call to Gospel poverty for me to be on board with everything in this book about the relationship between fashion and the New Evangelization. However, I am deeply grateful that I read it. Not only is its layout absolutely stunning, but it further opened my eyes to the gift that we have as women to elevate an environment through our attention to beauty. It is not vain to convey the dignity of the human person through dressing with an eye towards authentic style. I believe that it is possible to integrate much of this book with a pilgrim wardrobe. I’m not there yet, but here’s to another year of striving to conform my entire being to the One my soul loves.
Exemplary Quote: “Our fulfillment as women of faith and women living in the world comes from God alone. It is in the expression of our dignity and our vocation that we intertwine the eternal with the material. How we live our life, how we dress, how we serve in our mission, how we treat others – all are ways of bringing God into the world.”
And that’s a wrap on 2022 with Living Full Throttle! How good He is to us.
(From a photoshoot gone wild when I found these crunchy dead leaves and was way too excited about their Memento Mori reminder. Seems like an appropriate way to ring in the new year)
1 – Yes, I know that “the kids” on Tumblr are about five years my elder and are now getting married and having babies. Ah, nostalgia for the early 2010s… Never mind, I’m not feeling it.
2 – “Duckiness” just might have to be my Word of the Year for 2023.