Do you love to read, but most of your reading takes place in ten-minute snippets or at a time of night when you really ought to be sleeping?
I understand. I’m a parent, too.
Somehow, however, I managed this year to fit in some really interesting and restorative reading on the edges of my daily life. Here are my top reads of 2023, an eclectic, personal, and incomplete list that shows just how much I no longer care about people judging me for my wide-ranging tastes.
(Also, please don’t judge me.)
The Dean’s Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge.
I have read and enjoyed several Goudge novels, most notably Green Dolphin Street and Pilgrim’s Inn, and I periodically search her name in my local public library’s catalog to see if the library has bought any more of her titles. This is how I came across The Dean’s Watch earlier this year, to my great good fortune. The novel, set during Advent, expands on some of Goudge’s favorite themes, including misfit child prodigies, unhappy marriages, and generally the ways that accepting the pruning that comes from suffering can ultimately lead us to holiness and joy. Sometimes I get a little tired of the occasional sappy bits in Goudge’s writing, but The Dean’s Watch was both tight and beautiful, with no sappy meandering to be found anywhere. The Dean’s Watch is the best Goudge book I have read yet.
The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth.
Since I am writing this with the expectation of no one judging me (that means you, Reader!), I’ll admit that although I have known Paul Kingsnorth’s name for some time, I was basically ignorant of his writing until I heard him speak at the Front Porch Republic conference in Madison early this autumn. I dove into this first book of his Buccmaster trilogy with gusto upon returning home from Wisconsin. At first, I was apprehensive about the strange language used, but upon reading the explanatory note I decided to trust Kingsnorth and give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. I felt wrapped in an entire foreign-yet-familiar culture through the language of the novel, and I was blown away by the ending.
The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson.
I read this popular children’s series before my children did. Despite the odd little affectations of made-up vegetables and footnotes, I really fell in love with the characters and the ways they struggled and triumphed throughout the four-book series. My younger kids found the books a bit scary for a read-aloud, but these novels have wedged their way into my own mind nonetheless, as I contemplate my childhood and my affinity for the main character.
My children love to listen to books and stories on CD while they play or draw. This year we discovered Adventures in Odyssey, the decades-long series of creative, not-annoying Christian morality stories with which many readers will be familiar. My favorite story so far is “The Tangled Web,” which handles the question of dishonesty in a surprising and, I think, especially realistic and effective way.
It’s worth noting that although Odyssey is geared toward Protestants, the vast majority of the stories are appropriate for all Christians, including Catholics like me. I’ve only had to censor or explain things for my Catholic children a couple of times.
Life Among the Savages, by Shirley Jackson.
Yes, that Shirley Jackson. You wouldn’t believe how funny this memoir is. Suffice it to say that it begins with this urban family headed by two serious writers moving to Vermont and buying a gracious but very-much-not-renovated old home. Antics ensue. You will laugh and laugh!!
Ida Elisabeth, by Sigrid Undset.
Like Goudge’s Green Dolphin Street and to some degree Undset’s own Kristin Lavransdatter, Ida Elisabeth takes on the question of what a person ought to do if they find themselves in an ill-suited but clearly valid marriage. Ida Elisabeth takes place in the early twentieth century and explores the relationship between one’s vocation and being true to oneself and one’s children. A very thought-provoking read.
“Neighbor Rosicky,” by Willa Cather.
This, my favorite Cather short story, is my ultimate comfort read. Rosicky and his wife Mary have a humble understanding of what actually constitutes the good life that inspires me and has sometimes even moved me to tears. My favorite part is when Mary refuses to sell the cream from her cows to a milk company, saying that she’d rather see rosy cheeks on her children (from drinking whole-fat milk) than see a check show up in the mail. Lord, make me more like Mary Rosicky, and like Neighbor Rosicky, too.
Favorite Book Gift:
Cultural Christians in the Early Church, by Nadya Williams
I can’t let the opportunity go by to recommend my top gift-giving pick for thoughtful Christians this year: the Arena’s own Nadya Williams’ outstanding study of the perennial nature of culturally-sanctioned sin in Christian experience. Williams’ ancient sinners cannot seem to divorce themselves from the popular sins of the wider Greco-Roman culture; they were cultural sinners and cultural Christians, as, so often, are we. A great book for self-examination (without being dull or too negative – there are psychic chickens and things!) as we approach the new year.