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.
The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher
This book is a very honest look at the realities of current Western Christian Culture, which is rather depressing, but Dreher also provides very good advice and recommendations on how to save and preserve that culture. It all comes back to the fundamentals of tradition and orthodoxy. Dreher uses the Rule of St. Benedict and monastic practices as his guideposts, but really it is all about getting back to traditional values. He has some wonderful points about the importance of traditional liturgy and worship, which goes along with making God the center of our lives. Dreher also has excellent perspectives on education, work, and technology. The thing that stuck with me the most after this reading is the importance of community, but especially having a close physical proximity to where you worship. Personally, I know I can be somewhat of a recluse and I honestly aspire to be a hermit and live on a little farm in the middle of nowhere, but I also see the value of living somewhere close enough to be able to walk or take just a short drive to daily mass or adoration on a regular basis. When you start to really focus on making God your priority in all things, it changes your perspective on so much.
In the Beginning…, by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
I love the topic of Creation and the Book of Genesis and this book is exactly what I had been looking for. Comprised of four homilies that Pope Benedict gave when he was the Bishop of Munich, I could easily write whole essays on each different talk. The belief that God created the universe and everything in it, including us, is so essential to how we view everything else around us that I don’t understand why we don’t discuss it more often. Pope Benedict makes the excellent point that if you believe truly that God is the Creator of all and that we are made in His Image, then racism and discrimination of any kind should be impossible. “The Bible says a decisive ‘no’ to all racism and to every human division.” Pope Benedict also points out that Genesis is not meant to be a Natural Sciences textbook; it is a religious book and that determines how we are meant to read it. We shouldn’t expect answers to cold science questions. This is a short little book, but well worth the read.
The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton
This was a weird one and, though I enjoyed it, I think I will need to read it a few more times in order to really appreciate it. GKC is such a delightful writer that I can easily read his books even if I don’t fully understand what is going on in them, but I think that the main issue with this novel was just my own defects as a reader. It’s very much a spy and espionage story, but I am not very perceptive when it comes to things like that and I never pick up enough clues to figure out what is going on until it is all spelled out for me. Luckily, I enjoy revisiting stories like this and noticing all of the clues and clever devices that I missed the first time through.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte
This book was a great look at the overall story of the dinosaurs, from their humble beginnings at the end of the Permian era to their dominance and then tragic end in the Cretaceous. Brusatte does a great job of creating a narrative that is enjoyable to read and incorporating information from many different sciences that inform our knowledge about how dinosaurs developed and lived. From geology to biology, there is so much that goes into the study of dinosaurs and it takes a very broad understanding of many different disciplines to put all of the pieces together sometimes. Brusatte’s descriptions of the different scientists that he references are delightful and give a very human touch to the narrative; to think of these very real people who have dedicated their lives to the study of these ancient creatures. This book does a great job of making you feel like you are part of the paleontology world, introducing you to all of the prominent characters and most recent research.
Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari
I have such mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it has some great research in it and I feel like I learned a great deal about relationships and communication in particular. On the other hand, Ansari’s conclusions and lack of moral grounding are horrifying to me at times. His entire world view is that of self-centered self-gratification, and it’s hard to stomach at times. But still, there is some very good research and insights that make the book worth reading if you have the time. The most worthwhile topics, in my opinion, were the sections on how texting has changed communication and then the realities of online dating. Dating and relationships have changed so dramatically just in the last few generations, not just because of technology but also because of contraception and the sexual revolution, and so for most people there are no clear sign posts about how to proceed anymore. It’s great to think that now we can marry for love instead of just economic stability, but how many of us even understand what love is? We mistake it for passion, which is shown scientifically not to last, and perhaps that is why so many relationships fail these days. This entire book makes it seem that if you are at all interested in a romantic relationship then it has to be an all-consuming pursuit of your life, and the end-goal is really just about your own gratification and pleasure. The idea of self-sacrificial love is probably incomprehensible to Ansari and those of his mindset, and I feel genuinely sorry for him because of that. So, if you are inclined to check out this book, read it for the actual research and science that Ansari presents, and then read a decent book about what relationships should really look like.
Hard Times, by Charles Dickens
This is still the only Dickens novel that I have read, having also read it once before in college. Then, as now, I was actually surprised at how much I enjoyed it, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Classics are usually classics for a reason, after all. Dickens has a dry sense of humor to his narrative that I enjoy so much, and which reminds me of so many of my favorite authors. My only complaint is his use of phonetic dialects in the dialogue, which are incredibly distracting and tedious to read. But I greatly appreciated his treatment of the character of Louisa; she is intelligent and kind, though emotionally stunted from the child-rearing experiments of her father, and even though you expect her to fall to the charms of the seducer James she proves much more formidable than anyone would expect. The redemption and repentance of Gradgrind, Louisa’s father, and his obvious love for his children are also very well done, and important, and made more poignant by the fact that many of the characters are not redeemed or changed in the end. I guess it is time to add more Dickens to my reading list.
Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott
What a strange book. For a story that is based entirely in mathematical concepts, it was surprisingly compelling and easy to understand. However, Abbott’s treatment of women in his story makes it a little hard to stomach at times, as they are characterized as inferior and barely rational creatures compared to men. There is a strong likeness of this story to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; that concept of an individual being shown the true world that is above and beyond his own, and yet when he comes back and tries to enlighten others he is condemned as insane and dangerous. This is the strongest thing to recommend the book in my opinion, but I suppose that those who are more mathematically inclined would also enjoy it for other reasons.
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
I think this is one of the few examples where the book is actually simpler than the movie version, though both are wonderful. I think the book is actually scarier than the movie, too. Though I’ve heard in interviews how Gaiman talks about the fact that kids don’t really find the book frightening, but it’s the adults that are usually scared during it. Gaiman is such a good storyteller, and I especially admire his ability to stay on-theme. Coraline is very clearly about being brave even when you are very, very scared, but that theme seems to flow effortlessly through the story without distracting from the plot at all. Though it can certainly be very tense at times, I think this is an important story for kids to read, and in fact I just gave a copy of it to my nephew for his tenth birthday. It teaches kids that real bravery is doing the right thing even though it is scary and that even the scariest monsters can be defeated.
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