I read in two homes, across a move. I read mostly library books, across three different states where I have borrowing privileges. I read very very little on planes, between covid and a toddler who spent most of a flight trying to steal my mask off my face. I read aloud, and I do a very good voice for The Bear Snores On.
These books, in roughly chronological order, were my favorites.
The Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson
My husband and I pick out a readaloud book for our Sunday spirtual reading, and we began the book with this new edition from Oak and Linden Press. The book was simply written and moving—we incorporated it into our chaplaincy work with Catholic students. And there is something refreshing about reading a spiritual book from over 100 years ago and seeing how un-novel your questions are.
Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian by Sarah C. Williams
Williams tells the story of her daughter Cerian’s short life. Early on in her pregnancy, they learn that Cerian has a congenital condition that means she will be stillborn. Williams and her husband and their children have to figure out what different shape their love for their daughter will take. This meant a lot to me as a mother who has lost children before birth.
Here is an excerpt from an essay Williams wrote for Plough on prenatal screening:
As a practice, prenatal scanning both teaches and reinforces particular ways of thinking about the human person. It teaches the pregnant couple to ask: Is this child physically normal? This question is asked as if it were of primary importance. Whether or not the scan results reveal fetal abnormality, irrespective of whether a parent chooses to act in certain ways as a result of the information given, the practice makes everyone ask this question at a relatively early stage in the pregnancy.
What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics by O. Carter Snead
This was my favorite book of the year, especially if you’re judging by how many of my own pieces I tried to sneak citations of Snead into. Like Williams’s memoir, Snead’s book is about our culture of “expressive individualism” and how an emphasis on choice diminishes the humanity of those who aren’t able to choose. I shared an interview I did with Snead on my substack, Other Feminisms. And here’s one of the quotes that I kept coming back to:
Law and policy, animated by an anthropology of embodiment would view the mother as a vulnerable, dependent member of society, who is entitled to the protections and support of the network of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving that must exist for any human being to survive and flourish.
Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger
And now we’re into the “ripping good yarn” section of the list. This early history of SpaceX was thrilling to read. (There’s one scene in particular, when an engineer has to crawl into an imploding rocket body being transported by cargo plane, that is clearly awaiting film adaptation). The book is a real mix of joyful and stomach-turning moments. People get to do things right instead of “the way we’ve always done them.” But then you start hitting the list of SpaceX divorces and feeling sick about what a culture of total commitment means for families. It’s a fascinating story, well told.
Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman
Also a ripping good yarn (no no, hear me out). Here, one of the most thrilling scenes is when an inspector realizes that the Statue of Liberty is rusting through and is in danger of total structural collapse. Engineering and chemistry to the rescue! Almost everything we rely on is build with rust in mind (or else, we can’t rely on it for long). I loved learning about the design choices and work of maintenance that keeps buildings standing and pipes running.
Chosen Country by James Pogue
Pogue found a space for himself at the Bundy standoff and has a sharply observed, thoughtful book. There’s nothing pat about his portraits of the militiamen he meets or their politics. It’s not a book you can wave as an answer to what is dividing the country. I liked it because it reminded me how dense the lives behind any news story are.
The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought by Mara H. Benjamin
This is a book I plan to return to for Other Feminisms, and one that fits nicely into conversation with Snead. Benjamin is offering an understanding of what it means to be human that doesn’t start with negative freedom, but positive duties. While Jewish men have their days and their bodies shaped by their halachic obligations, women’s work carries a different weight. Instead of binding their arms with tefillin, women jut out a hip to carry a child. But in both cases, Benjamin sees who we are defined by whom and what we are burdened by. It was a moving book and very alien to mainstream individualism.
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
I always close the year with less fiction on the list than I would wish. Vespertine and The Mirror Season also stood out to me (though the latter has a sexual assault that is handled well but is tough to read, so I feel like it needs a note when I recommend it).
But Perilous Gard is the one I’m most excited to share with others. I am a tremendous fan of 1) Tam Lin retellings with 2) genuinely inhumane fey and 3) a world that rewards both gentleness and stubbornness. I loved it and I believed it. (I also enjoyed Pope’s The Sherwood Ring).
Finally, I want to mention three books I got to cover in more detail through book reviews. I reviewed The Deep Places, Ross Douthat’s Lyme memoir, for National Review (“Becoming Literate in Suffering”) and I reviewed two books on disability and design (What Can a Body Do? and Making Disability Modern) for Plough (“Spaces for Every Body”). All three books were excellent.
And if you’re interested, my favorite books from last year are listed here.
That Mara Benjamin book sounds like one I should pick up.
My favorites list:
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Not exactly fast-paced, but that’s kind of the point: a quiet, well-observed life in a quiet, small place, that matters precisely because it is small, but wholly itself.
Dracula by Bram Stoker. Boy, there is a reason this is a classic. This was the book my sister was reading on retreat before her final vows, which sounded odd until I read it.
Less Than Words Can Say by Richard Mitchell (aka The Underground Grammarian). His tone is so acid, you have to be careful where you set it down lest it burn a hole in your coffee table, but really great writing about clear thinking.
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy. Needle-sharp humor with brutal social commentary; Evelyn Waugh for American culture. This book is the polar opposite to Jayber Crow.
Merton and Waugh. This is a collection of the letters exchanged between the two writers; maybe I just like reading other people’s mail, but it was a good window into both men.
Have to give a shout-out to Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night (good mystery story, along with much food for thought about responsibility to persons and to truth and how to resolve what seems a conflict between those two) and to Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser (I like a lot of his writing though it’s sometimes a bit frenetic, mostly in the later Thursday Next books.)
Also, I have to ask if you already have Holy Heroes’ “Man to Mangia” CD. Years ago when my oldest (now 15) was super-into that story, I thought I needed to get it for you as a baby gift someday (this being back when you were still at Unequally Yoked and I think not even dating Alexei). My 4-y-o is all about it now and brought it back to mind, so if you don’t have it, I’ll send it to you!
Oh lovely! I’m a big fan of Gaudy Night, and I enjoyed rereading Berry’s Hannah Coulter as part of a book club this year. I’ve never heard of “Man to Mangia” before, what is it?
Man to Mangia is about the Eucharist via a Man of La Mancha parody. Makes me think of you every time I hear it. 🙂
I read Hannah Coulter after I finished Jayber Crow; I like Jayber better (though I liked Hannah a lot too), but they interweave as they are both Port William fellowship books.
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