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.
Paradise Lost, by John Milton
I first read this book over a decade ago, when I was in college. I remember enjoying it, but I have to wonder how much of it I actually understood, being completely uneducated in religion and theology at the time. However, now I find it especially rich and beautiful, the story of Creation being one of my favorites in the Bible. Granted, reading epic poetry from the 17th century can take some adjustment when you start, getting used to the language and imagery used, but it is completely worth it. This book is exactly what our modern culture is lacking: a contemporary (when it was written) style and faithful portrayal of biblical stories. Milton did such a beautiful job of dramatizing the story of Creation and the Fall, with such success that it still has the power to stir the imagination.
The Plant Paradox, by Steven R. Gundry
This is not a book that I would normally have picked up on my own, but it came highly recommended by those whose medical opinions I respect. It can read like any other fad diet book, but Dr. Gundry has a lot of solid science and his own observations from years of medical practice to back him up. I didn’t always care for the strict tone that he uses, but I recognize that he is trying to reach people whose lives are at stake and need to be forced to see how their food choices affect their health. I really appreciated the first part of the book where he talks about the evolution and natural defenses of plants and why our bodies can’t tolerate some of them. Food production is an area of our world where technical advances have far out-paced reason and common sense. Everything is being genetically modified and doused in chemicals, and it is destroying our health in ways that we don’t even fully understand. And on top of that, we are constantly being told lies by companies that are just seeking to make a profit.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
I didn’t read this book for the first time until I was an adult, when one of my friends from college discovered that I had never heard of it and was properly horrified. Of course, I absolutely love it now. The message that pain and discomfort are necessary to living a full and rich life is one that I think is so very important for kids to hear these days, and grown-ups too. It would make a good introduction to dystopian fiction, but I would probably wait until kids have at least gone through puberty before having them read it, as there is talk about “stirrings” that would just be confusing for younger children. There is a strong pro-life message, as well, which is refreshing and encouraging.
The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron
While reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I came across Elaine Aron’s research on Highly Sensitive People. In fact, most of Cain’s observations about introverts seem to apply more accurately to the Highly Sensitive. However, it is interesting to note that Aron’s research shows a decent percentage of the Highly Sensitive are also extroverts. From the very first description that I read, I had no doubt that I am Highly Sensitive. One of the keys for me was understanding the physiological effects; I have been aware over the last few years that during times of extreme stress or excitement, it feels like my entire nervous system gets overwhelmed beyond coping. And apparently that is exactly what happens; my system gets overstimulated and can’t cope, having to do with a lack of serotonin and an abundance of cortisol and I’m sure all kinds of other hormones getting messed up. It’s not uncommon for me to suffer serious migraines just from having too much going on over a sustained period of time, even things that I am actually excited about and enjoying. One reason that this book was gratifying to read was that a lot of her suggestions about how to cope with high sensitivity are things that I have already learned to do intuitively over the years, but obviously there is still a lot more to learn. A very validating book for me.
The Way of the Cross, by Caryll Houselander
One of my book choices for Lent. I love Houselander’s meditations so much, because she gives such a human and down-to-earth perspective on what are still divine mysteries. I find a great deal of comfort and satisfaction in her writing; her words are something that I can just sink down into and get lost in. These meditations on the Stations of the Cross gave me so many insights and ways to relate the different Stations to aspects of my own life and the world around me. Such as when Christ falls for the first time and how that can help us reflect on our own first stumbles and falls, of adulthood or of any new area of our lives. We are all bound to fall sooner or later, but we all must still rise and continue to carry our crosses just as Christ did, if we truly wish to be united with Him. The reflection on each station is only a few pages long and ends with a short prayer, which made the book very easy to read and a wonderful addition other Lenten practices.
Phantastes, by George MacDonald
MacDonald had a significant impact on all of my favorite writers: Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Gaiman. I can easily see his influence after reading just this one book, as it is filled with the beautiful imagery and fantasy that I love so much in those other authors. Now, there is not exactly a plot to Phantastes, but it is more just a delightful trip through Fairy Land and description of what the narrator experiences there. I can see why this book would have been one of the influences in Lewis’ conversion to theism. MacDonald’s narrative is filled with warnings against vice and pride, while the true emphasis is on the importance of heroic virtue and humility. God and Christ are never overtly referenced, but it is clearly the virtues of Christianity that are being extolled; the emphasis on humility and dying to oneself to serve others out of pure love. It was such a delightful read and I feel that MacDonald is quickly going to become a new favorite.
The Temperament God Gave You, by Art and Laraine Bennett
I do love personality profiles and assessments. Many of the people in my social group reference the Four Temperaments quite a lot, and so naturally I had to check it out. This book is particularly helpful in learning to relate to others, especially those with very different Temperaments than yours, and in being able to explain your own natural tendencies and preferences to others. The book is really about fostering better relationships, and so there are specific sections on understanding your spouse, understanding your child, how to motivate yourself and others, and how to best practice your spiritual life based on your temperament. (For those interested, I am phlegmatic/melancholic)
The Lamb’s Supper, by Scott Hahn
I read this during Holy Week, leading up to Easter, and it was really perfect and added so much to my experience of the Easter Triduum. The mysteries of the Eucharist and the Mass are so profound, and yet it can be easy to take them for granted because God, in His boundless generosity, has made the Eucharist so readily available to us. When we truly understand what we are being given at each and every mass, we should be on our knees and weeping at God’s goodness and love for us. Scott Hahn does a wonderful job of explaining the history and biblical background of the mass, and he manages to do it in such a straightforward and easy-to-read way that is very accessible to readers. And seriously, the man loves his puns.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
This book is still heartbreaking to read, even though I’ve read it once before and seen the movie any number of times. Though I consider the book and the movie equally good, I wish I had experienced the book first. Charlie is a brilliantly written unreliable narrator and I wish I could have seen the other characters first through his eyes, rather than seeing them as the actors who portray them in the movie. Even though I believe that the book is a very accurate look (painfully so) at what high school is really like, there are so many moral issues that take place that I would not recommend it to any teenager who isn’t already mature enough to recognize the moral issues on their own. From drinking and drugs to homosexuality and abortion, not to mention pre-marital sex, there is a lot going on that would need to be carefully discussed.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee
Even though this book is technically about screenwriting, it was incredibly insightful and I think will prove very helpful in my own novel-writing. We are all so used to the storytelling structure and conventions of movies, and so it is really quite useful to study the different formats. The structure of a movie has to be much tighter, rather than allowing for page after page of unnecessary exposition, and so even to a novelist McKee’s advice can be enlightening as to how to get to the essential elements of your story. While reading, I wasn’t overly familiar with most of the movies that he referenced, but that didn’t really hinder my understanding. However, it DID give me a whole new list of movies to check it out. The book was originally published in 1997, when I was barely ten years old, so it’s no wonder that his movie list feels a bit outdated for my generation, but all of the movies he lists are still considered classics, such as Casablanca (which I watched for the first time the other night and absolutely loved).
The Book of Job
I think that Job was the first book of the Bible that I ever actually read, and it was when I was in college taking a class called Literature and Philosophy. It was one of my favorite classes that I ever took, and Job has always been very close to my heart since then. Of course, the first thing I always love to is the language and the poetry, especially starting in chapter 38 when God finally responds and starts detailing His acts of creation. But these days what I love about this book is how it clearly contradicts what is called the “prosperity gospel”; the idea that if you just do God’s will then your life will be abundantly blessed, and that if you are suffering it is because you somehow “angered” God and He is punishing you. This is the tact that all of Job’s friends take, but it is clearly and firmly refuted in the text. Hardships and suffering are not a sign of God’s disfavor. As the beginning of Job shows, God may allow tragedy to happen but He does not will it to happen.
The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
I just read this book last summer, but then it was assigned for the book club that I participate in, and I was more than happy to read it again. I was especially grateful for the opportunity to not only read it again, but read it deeper and have a chance to actually discuss it with others. I paid more attention to specific scenes and ideas portrayed in the book. The concept that “Heaven is reality itself” is one of my favorite ideas found in Lewis’ work, and is shown also in the final Narnia book The Last Battle. It’s an idea that my mind can actually grasp on to because it takes the familiar, this world, but then allows it to expand beyond our wildest hopes: satisfactions and joys that we can’t even conceive of on this side of heaven. The main message that Lewis gives us is that we must be willing to let go of the falsities of this world if we want to attain the other. As Lewis says, we cannot keep even the smallest souvenir of Hell if we want Heaven.
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