Please note: I have intentionally decided not to include Amazon links (unless something is available exclusively on Amazon). Instead, if you are interested in reading any of the books I mention, I encourage you to check out your local library or independent bookstore. These places (and the communities around them) need your support, and they are generally quite willing to order any book if they don’t currently have it in stock. However, if Amazon is still the more practical choice for you, it is easy enough to search and find any of the titles that I mention.
A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote (short story)
This was a book club read (we were also supposed to read another of his holiday short stories, but I never got to the second one). I love the sense of equality between the narrator, a seven-year-old boy, and the old lady, she is described as sixty-something, who is his friend/living companion/some sort of relative. She is shown as very simple and child-like, but not necessarily dumb or challenged in any way, and I love how the narrator always refers to her as “my friend.” The story is a beautiful look at philia-type love; the true love between friends, which C.S. Lewis describes in his book The Four Loves, as “the least biological, organic, instinctive, gregarious and necessary…the least natural of loves”. The more that I have reflected on this story, the more that I really love it and the way that it portrays love, friendship, and humble simplicity.
Parker’s Back, by Flannery O’Connor (short story)
O’Connor’s short stories are so dense that it is sometimes difficult for me to try and unpack them on my first read through, but I do find myself enjoying them more and more. The relationship between Parker and his wife, Sarah Ruth, is fascinating in this one, because he seems to mainly be attracted by her seeming-indifference to him. It’s hard to say whether he actually loves her, but he certainly wants her to love him, even though he doesn’t really understand her. He is also searching so hard for God, though he doesn’t realize it, by obsessively tattooing his body as a way to find beauty and meaning. He thinks he will find solace in his tattoos, but it is only temporary and then he becomes dissatisfied once again, because he doesn’t really understand what it is he is looking for.
Joseph of Nazareth, by Federico Suarez
I really Suarez’s writing, having previously read his book on Our Lady, Mary of Nazareth. This was similarly a lovely book on the life of St. Joseph, perfect for contemplation and reflection. St. Joseph is such a wonderful example to us all, if we would only take the time to study him. His marked silence in the midst of all of the mystery of the Incarnation, his humility, his obedience, his love for Our Lady and the Child Jesus, his dedication to honest work. There is so much to admire about him and attempt to model in our own lives. One of the things that I appreciate so much about Suarez’s books is the new perspectives that he gives me to contemplate with the Mysteries of the Rosary. In his book on Our Lady, he gave me a new way to look at the mystery of the Visitation. In this book, he gave me new insights that better illuminated the Presentation and the Finding in the Temple, which I had never had good contexts for before. I will definitely end up reading this book multiple times, as I do the book on Our Lady.
A Cook’s Tour, by Anthony Bourdain
I am in love with this book and with Anthony Bourdain, and am even more broken-hearted over his death this past year. For this book, Bourdain traveled all over the world and ate the weirdest but most traditional food that he could find, including lamb testicles and a live cobra heart, in search of the “perfect meal.” The man did not shy away from anything. But what I love is the respect and admiration that he had for the different cultures that he visited, from Russia to Japan to Vietnam to Portugal to the Scottish Highlands. He even subjected himself to yuppie vegans in California (the admiration failed there, but he was still respectful). He respected tradition and the rituals and fellowship that go along with preparing and eating a meal. Bourdain did not often have a lot of pleasant things to say about most celebrity chefs, but he practically gushed with respect for Gordan Ramsey, to the point where I finally bought my first Gordan Ramsey cookbook out of respect. And besides being an excellent and knowledgeable chef, Bourdain was a fabulous writer. His descriptions and imagery are worth the price of the book even if you don’t care about food.
The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis
This is the one Narnia book that I’ve never really known what to do with in the past. I’ve only read it once before and it didn’t really appeal to me at that time, I think mostly because I’m never really going to enjoy stories set in desert locations. However, I do enjoy the characters of Shasta and Aravis more than I did Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair. Even though both pairs of children spend most of their time arguing, Shasta at least is sweet and kind enough that he and Aravis aren’t as bothersome to me. The message that I took away from this book the most is Aslan’s insistence that he can only tell each person their own story, not anyone else’s. In this age of social media, I think that we get far too caught up in the lives of others, lives that don’t even actually touch our own, so I think that we could all use the reminder to focus a little more on our own story and the lessons that we can learn from it. I feel that this book also has many good lessons on humility and the repercussions of one’s own actions, such as when Aravis is clawed in atonement for the punishment that she caused to another.
The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis
I stand by my belief that this book should not be read as the first in the series, at least on someone’s first time through the books. It’s a beautiful story and a wonderful look at the establishment of Narnia, but I think the story is more enjoyable if you already know what Narnia is. Details like the lamppost and the wardrobe are better enjoyed with context; where their placement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is easily enjoyed without it. I like Digory and Polly the best of all the children in the series, though Voyage of the Dawn Treader is still my favorite book. Though they bicker, as all children are going to do, they are still sweet and genuinely try to look out for each other and do the right thing (though they naturally don’t always succeed). I also appreciate the explanation of why the Talking Beasts of Narnia are different from the dumb beasts of Narnia, which brings context to why Narnians can hunt and eat things like deer as long as they are not talking deer. This point is hinted at in The Silver Chair as well, when Eustace and Jill are horrified to learn that their hosts, giants, have knowingly killed and served them a Talking Stag. In this book, I also love the concept of the Wood between the Worlds and would love to study that more on a theological level, because I am sure Lewis was doing something that I don’t entirely understand.
The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
This is definitely the most intense of all the Narnia books and a fitting end to the series. The violence and death are hard to handle at times but are fittingly tragic for a story that is supposed to represent end times. I love how Lewis represents the afterlife/eternity; how it is like our world but more real. Richer, fuller, more vibrant, but still familiar. And what an especially beautiful way of introducing young children to the concept of what heaven is like. Lewis intentionally echoes Plato’s shadows in the Allegory of the Cave, explaining that our world is just the Shadow-lands and when we go to Heaven that is when we will go into the sunlight and see the world as it truly is.
How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
This book was massively helpful, not only as someone who wants to be able to read critically, but as a writer as well. It defines the foundations of good writing and what all good readers should be looking for and what they do look for even if they aren’t aware of it. I was pleased at how many of their strategies I already employ in my own reading, such as underlining and trying to really engage with what I am reading, but there were still a load of suggestions that I had never really thought about before. This book can be quite dense and a struggle to get through at times, but I also think that it is well worth it. Anyone who is a serious reader and wants to get the most out of their books, and especially anyone who wants to do well academically, should read this one. I found their last chapter to be especially poignant, where they talk about the importance of books and the growth of the mind. We need entertainment that does more than just entertain; we need entertainment that engages us and forces our minds to work and stay active, otherwise our minds start atrophy because we aren’t actually using them.