January 7, 2013
My Top Books for 2012
Concerning taste, there should be no disputes! St. Augustine wrote those words seventeen hundred years ago and their truth applies not just to taste in food, but also to taste in literature. Not everyone's soul is fed in the same way and we eventually gravitate towards where we are fed. So I am not sure what books are best for you. I pick up a good number of books each year and tend to finish them, even if their subject matter doesn't always measure up to their attractive cover and title. Mostly though, they feed me. What a poor world we would be if we didn't have books! Among all the books that I picked up during 2012, which do I most recommend?
Re-iterating again that taste is subjective; here are the books that most spoke to me this past year:
* Jennifer Haigh, Faith. This is a novel set in Boston during the height of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. It is insightful, fair, knowledgeable as to the lay of the ecclesial and clerical land, and a great narrative, a page turner. Few books will give you this kind of insight into the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
* Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending. Barnes won the Booker Prize for this novel. Lots of emotional intelligence here, a bit over-earthy at times, and a quick read. Amoral to the simplistic eye, but a moral book at a deeper level.
* Kate O'Brien, The Land of Spices. First published in 1941 and condemned by the Catholic censors then for a single passage which today could appear in a high school catechesis book. A look into the inner-life of a convent boarding school in Ireland, it focuses on the growth of a young student and the inner religious and emotional struggles of the Mother Superior in charge of the school. Deeply insightful, a rare piece of literature.
* Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Unlikely indeed. Set in England, a retiree sets off to mail a letter and just keeps walking. At first no one notices, then the world notices, and eventually nobody notices. Delightful and a page-turner.
* Joseph Girzone, The Homeless Bishop. Perhaps more a treatise of spirituality than a novel, and perhaps more naïve than realistic, but a wonderful idealistic vision of what the church could be if we in fact took the gospel seriously.
* Vannay Radner, Under the Shadow of the Bunyan Tree. Historical fiction, an account of one family's nightmare under the Khmer Rouge during the genocide in Cambodia. A haunting book, no doubt largely autobiographical.
* Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Known mostly as a novelist, Robinson has given us a book of essays, mostly commentary on our religious, political, and cultural situation today. Great insight and great balance. An important read vis-à-vis the tension between faith and culture today.
* Tomas Halik, Patience with God, The Story of Zacchaeus, and, The Night of the Confessor. Thomas Halik is a Czechoslovakian priest, ordained underground during the Soviet occupation, who now teaches spirituality at a University in Czechoslovakia. His books are finally available in English. I recommend both these works, particularly the first one, Patience with God, whose thesis might be summed up in the words: An atheist is just another word for someone who doesn't have enough patience with God.
* Peter Tyler, John of the Cross. The great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, is a Christian treasure. Unfortunately, because of his distance from us in time and language, his writings are best approached with the aid of a guide. Peter Tyler is such a guide and this book can be a good introduction to John of the Cross.
* Thomas Keating, Manifesting God. Thomas Keating is one of the major spiritual leaders of our time and perhaps our foremost guide in contemplative prayer. His insights are scattered within a large number of books; but if you are looking for a single book, a handbook so to speak, on Thomas Keating and his vision of contemplative prayer, this is his most synthetic book.
* Michael W. Higgins & Kevin Burns, Genius Born of Anguish, The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen. Michael Higgins is the official authorized biographer of Henri Nouwen. This book is not yet that definitive biography but an interim look at one of the most popular and influential spirituality writers of the last half-century. The book will perturb both the devotees and the critics of Henri Nouwen. It is neither hagiography nor brutal deconstruction. What Higgins and Burns do in this book is show us Nouwen as he was: A man who was almost pathologically needy, often depressed, and forever aching for more affirmation, even as he was a person of extraordinary insight, extraordinary faith, and extraordinary honesty. An anguished genius, he was an imperfect saint, but a saint nonetheless.
Not everyone's taste or needs match my own. Each of these books, for its own reasons, spoke to me. I offer them under that canopy. But ... go where you're fed!