reading list

They Changed My Life

You’ve often heard books praised as life-changing. And every book we read must inevitably change our lives, for good or ill. We can’t measure the impact of a book and books that outwardly have no effect may be the ones that cause internal seismic shifts, unfelt.

However there is a handful of books I’ve read in the past few years that had a very definite effect on my daily life.

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The Lost Traveller by Antonia White. Reading Antonia White’s Clara quartet was a vindicating experience: just to see emotional and situational territory I’d felt alone in expressed so precisely in printed words. But one passage from The Lost Traveller gave me insight into my daughter, rather than consolation for myself. Clara never tells her mother how much she longed for siblings, especially brothers. I’d never been able to quite kill the hope that I might have another child or more children, a sibling for my daughter. Reading this passage, I was able to fully recognize my own maternal desire, for another child, yes, but also for the blessing a sibling could still be for my firstborn. This passage silenced the inner voice that was always droning “too late.”

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The Far Cry by Emma Smith. It was a quote from dialogue on the very last pages of this book that dried up my discouragement toward the beginning of this year. I won’t quote it because it gets its full impact from everything that comes before. But I was able to accept a failure that threatened to cripple me with remorse and instead use that dead body as a stepping stone into a new pattern of life. What was this new pattern? I will say that another book that helped me into it was The Art of the Handwritten Note by Margaret Shepherd.

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A truly life-changing read from several years ago was Our Lady of Kibeho by Immaculee Ilibagiza. This book was one of the catalysts of a new founding at a point of profound personal crisis. It helped me make, with painstaking care, a new synthesis of life directed by the Virgin Mary. The Seven Sorrows rosary was key in that reconstruction. And this book made me *want* to pray it.

-Mrs. Aldertree

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Recent Reads

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

Nothing like the classic Russian novels but still very Russian, Laurus was full of spiritual anecdote, paradox, lyric moments, quirky reflections on the nature of time, on the nature of healing and medicine. This story of a love that survives both death and (more miraculously) the passage of years surprises by being very very funny, with a dark but gentle humor.

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The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter

I’d never read any of her books before but now I want to read at least A Girl of the Limberlost. If you love books and honeybees, it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t find yourself smiling over these pages. It does not meet the current literary standards for adult fiction but it has moments utterly refreshing in their freedom from today’s hypocritical taboos. Its moralism though was unsatisfying. There is something wrong with any moral vision that puts cleanliness so close to godliness. And I missed any recognition that there can be real forgiveness and redemption for real and serious sins.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

This is only the second Barbara Pym book I’ve read. Bought and read it on a whim and, this time, completely caught onto her zany, delightfully deprecating tone. A human laughs joyously at the ridiculous in being human. It is full of zest and compassion. Also, as a Catholic, I loved the way the female characters daydream and murmur about “going over to Rome.” Both this and Laurus were just *beautifully* funny.

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

It reminded me a lot of Mark Helprin, more than Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society books do. Stewart, like Helprin, puts the love between parents and children at, or close to, the heart of his fiction. Here, as in the MBS, we have a story about teamwork, which values personal independence while recognizing its limits. A real close-knit team of little people defeats a powerful, fear-controlled mafia. Read it aloud to my enthusiastic 4th grader over the course of a month.

 

-Mrs. Aldertree

Spiritual Reading for Young Children

 

The Song of Three Holy Children Illustrated by Pauline Baynes: 

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Renowned artist Pauling Baynes, Who is well known for illustrating the Narnia Books and The Hobbit also  illustrated The Song of the Three Holy Children from the book of Daniel. It is a beautiful book, thoughtful and meditative. The song, “O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord; praise him, and magnify him for ever.”rings out again and again yet each time it seems anew as the text and illuminations inform each other page after page. The illustrations are intricate and the book has a rather serious tone to it that children appreciate.

Small Rain Selected by Jesse Jones and illustrated by Elizabeth Jones 

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Small Rain is a book of traditional prayers and selected verses from The inestimable King James Bible. The verses are beautiful, the language is high yet the  illustrations are cutesy. The combination works surprisingly well.

Manner’s in God House and My First Missal

Manners in God’s House is a classic. It explains the concept of reverence and its importance in God’s house. It also gives concrete examples of reverence, rules that we should emulate when visiting Christ our King. It is a simple book  instructive but not too preachy. The illustrations are endearing and well done. My First Missal is the second part of the book. It is a Traditional Missal for the Extraordinary Form. It illustrates each stage of the Mass and explains what is happening, comparing the Mass with parts of Scripture. My children love this book and it is in their little “Church Bag” every Sunday.

-Mrs. Cooper

Sigrid Undset: Kristin Lavransdatter (Catholic Chick Lit)

I was halfway through high school when I first heard about Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. No list of Catholic “chick lit” that did not mention her would be complete. Undset wrote the Kristin trilogy in the years leading up to her 1924 conversion to Catholicism. And she won the Nobel Prize for it in 1928. I still remember the thrill when the paperback book (Archer’s translation, the only one then available) slipped into my hands from the bookstore shelf and I looked at and read the cover, front and back. It was the same excitement you feel when you know that you’ve found a friend.

It was the perfect time for me to find this book. I still had many of my childhood reading habits and after I read the trilogy through once, I read it again and again. On a free afternoon, I’d find myself picking up one of the volumes, either looking for a specific passage or opening it at random, and then reading from wherever I’d opened the book all the way to the end again. It was that kind of love. It may have been the last book that I re-read so frequently, so absorbedly.

Men can certainly love this book as women can love the classics written by men. But this a women’s book written by a woman. I believe I’ve seen it called a saga; it is written with a completely different mindset from a Medieval saga. It is a novel, bristling with the particular genius of a novelist. Relationships, conversations, domestic details, descriptions, drama, the ambiguous touch of magic: the story of a woman’s life in Medieval Norway from her early childhood to her death as an old woman. (One particularly powerful scene brings to life a spring night when the ice breaks and the waters flow. Kristin and her father have been in a deadlock about an important decision concerning her future. On this night, neither of them can sleep and her father at last gives in, releasing her into adulthood.) It is a book about “sinful love” (Undset’s declared specialty) that takes both sin and penance seriously. It is a book, maybe most of all, about marriage. And though the trilogy could (like the Odyssey more than the Iliad) be called epic, Kristin and Erlend fail tragically in their marriage. It is mysterious that nonetheless the book ends in such uplift, bittersweet but definite uplift. That “strange upward draft of the novel”!

This is the book that finally ruined me for most historical fiction. Though she writes with the best technique of a “modern” novelist, Undset gives us characters with the inner life of Medievals, very like us in their deep complex humanity, very different from us in the forms of their lives and thoughts. These are people a mere generation from the pagan past, slowly, painfully, imperfectly assimilating Catholicism. Some of the priests have children, still lacking the dispositions for the grace of celibacy. Others are lonely, having a light they long to share with people who have varying degrees of readiness to accept it. Undset studied Medieval Norway consumingly and the research and understanding behind this book give it a “thick beauty.” It goes down layer after layer.

Undset also wrote two earlier shorter novels that I’ve read: Jenny (begins with art students in Rome) and Gunnar’s Daughter (pre-Christian Norway this time). I could not get through her Master of Hestviken series; it was too unremittingly grim. (Kristin Lavransdatter interleaves sorrow and trials with joy and glows with beauty — from the glory of a cathedral at the end of a penitential pilgrimage to the delight of feeding berries to a toddler.) Her biography of St. Catherine of Siena is also truly excellent!

-Mrs. Aldertree

 

A Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago Authorized Abridged Edition

It is incredible what Solzhenitsyn has done! Compiling this book bits and pieces at a time, in secret, never actually seeing his work as a whole. This is the first of its kind! It is not just a history or a catalog of crimes against humanity it is a mediation on the human soul its light and darkness. Solzhenitsyn is a purist and his writing has forever changed my own style. His words his stories will forever be with me. Please read!:

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn is like no other book. He is right when he claims this to be the first of its kind an experiment in literary investigation.  What did I expect when beginning this book? A list of crimes against humanity, a memoir of suffering and trials, a catalog of pains for posterity’s sake. Yes, this is what I expected, as opened the book: a grim work of non-fiction one should read to be ready, forewarned, prepared – it could happen to you! 

The book is all of that but it is also much more. It is grim, at parts unthinkable but it is not unrelenting. It delves into man’s heart and faces it in all its light and darkness. It condemns evil yet it rejoices in the refining fires of suffering, of prison itself! It reads like a story, but it is also a history, a documentation and tribute to those who suffered under the Soviet Regime, certainly it is an exploration in journalism.

Solzhenitsyn’s writings reveals the power of memory, literature, poetry and Rosary beads made from dried bread.  I will never look at a book in the same way after reading about the joy one  prisoner had when given a book to read. How he proceeded to memorize as much as he could before the treasure was taken away. The prisoner later attributed his sanity to that book! I will l never look at a poem in the same way either. For imprisoned men became imprisoned poets, composing and memorizing their compositions meticulously, methodically line by line for lack of pen and paper. How many poets died there? How many died with unheard beauty metered in memory ? And humbled, I finger my glass rosary beads with greater love and tuck it into my pocket with greater care.

It is incredible what Solzhenitsyn has done, writing this book in secret, never actually seeing his work in one place. Its publication is a literary miracle! Horrors fill these pages, but not despair. Solzhenitsyn shares the stories of thousands of humans in hope that they will live on somehow. And they will. These stories will forever be with me.

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

My Wolfish Eyes Constantly Crave New Titles

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Narrow-Minded

My knowledge is limited, my mind puny. I tried hard, I studied, I read many books. And nothing. In my home books spill from the shelves, they lie in piles on furniture, on the floor, barring the passage from room to room. I cannot, of course, read them all, yet my wolfish eyes constantly crave new titles. In truth, my feeling of limitation is not permanent. Only from time to time an awareness flares of how narrow our imagination is, as if the bones of our skull were too thick and did not allow the mind to get hold of what should be its domain. I should know everything that’s happening at this moment, at every point on the earth. I should be able to penetrate the thoughts of my contemporaries and of people who lived a few generations ago, and two thousand and eight thousand years ago. I should, so what?

-Milosz