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We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph about the most memorable books they read this year.

John Duggan

This year I decided to finally enter the fictional world of the hugely successful Irish novelist Sally Rooney—and came away reeling. I expected depictions of the struggles of bookish, left-wing young adults to maintain their sanity and integrity under the conditions of late-stage capitalism, but not intimations that the Catholic faith might offer a route out. At the beginning of Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World Where Are You, one of the four main characters is a sincere, practicing Catholic (though this doesn’t lead him to live a remotely chaste life). By the end, three of the four are Catholic or Catholic-adjacent, a direction of travel entirely counter to what we might expect of Millennial Ireland. It is also no exaggeration to say that, by the novel’s conclusion, a fifth character, spoken about frequently and at length, has become the most influential: Christ. 

Intrigued, I began to look more widely. We Were Young by Rooney’s contemporary Niamh Campbell provides another portrait of the generation that emerged out of the dog days of Catholic Ireland into—what? More varied sex lives, certainly; more impermanent unions; widely available narcotic thrills (which caused the death of the protagonist’s brother); a greater range of art venues; fewer moral guardrails; and many more ways to end up bored and suicidal. Dublin appears increasingly materialistic, stoned, and violent, a place of liquid loneliness, on course—even in its relative smallness—to achieving an interchangeability with London, Berlin, Bucharest.

We Were Young is loosely braided with rueful allusions to the old, regrettable, but unforgettable religion, and concludes with one stoned character being called “a little gift from God” for singing “Panis Angelicus” to another stoned character. Curiously, like Beautiful World, Campbell’s novel contains a female character articulating a personal (not political) renunciation of abortion.

Claire Giuntini

I began the year with C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, could be a stand-alone adventure novel. It’s fascinating to contemplate rational aliens who are unstained by original sin. The hrossa, séroni, and pfifltriggi fit neither of the contemporary alien stereotypes (hungry and evil, or misunderstood and marginalized). In the two consecutive books (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength), the stakes are higher than ever. All of rationally endowed existence is on the line. Thankfully, C. S. Lewis likes pleasant endings, so it all turns out well. I won’t say how—read the books.

After taking leave of Ransom and Co., I ended up in Yorkshire with veterinarian-author James Herriot’s tetralogy. I wrote about the first book, All Creatures Great and Small, earlier this year, and everything said about the first could be equally applied to the following three. Unlike the Star Wars movies, each additional book in the All Creatures series maintains the same excellence as its forebears. 

At some point during the summer, I visited the Karamazovs, but they were in the middle of some intense family feuds and the noise was giving me a headache. I intend to visit again, but not quite yet.

Instead, I took a train to Shropshire, and indulged in A Bounty of Blandings, a P. G. Wodehouse collection as rotund and jolly as one of its key figures, Lord Emsworth’s prizewinning sow, the Empress of Blandings. Needless to say, one does not read Wodehouse to contemplate soul-searching anthropological philosophical questions. His books are chiefly composed of the epic failures of ordinary people, and he has a way of describing them that is acutely hysterical. The characters are overwhelmingly self-serving, and they have an irksome proclivity to fashion the most outrageous lies, which dig them into deeper and deeper holes, until the novel climaxes and everything is satisfyingly and soothingly smoothed out. 

Wodehouse reminds us that humor is a good vessel to pilot a soul toward genuine contrition. For, every now and then, we realize that the measurement we made of our own importance is off by a billion or so miles. 

Samira Kawash

2023 was a year of turmoil for me, as I grappled with the aftermath of a variety of domestic crises ranging from catastrophic flooding to a deep breach of trust affecting my extended family. When I sat down to “write something,” all too often I came up dry. My practical sensibilities rose to the demands of the cascading emergencies, but at a cost: The freedom and exuberance of creativity were overwhelmed by anxiety and distress.  

Into this desert fell a book that invited me to reframe my identity as a writer as well as my sense of creativity (or its lack). In The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life, author Vinita Hampton Wright begins from the premise that “the creative process is a spiritual one, and when we receive it as such, it deepens our gifts and edifies us in general.” For Wright, a Christian writer and editor who identifies herself as a practitioner of Ignatian spirituality, creativity is a way of living, not a special quality that inheres only in certain people or activities. 

I especially like Wright’s definition of creative activity: “when you take the stuff of life and rearrange it so that it matters, so that it does good things.” I find, when I put this idea to work, that I am constantly in a state of creative activity. Loading the dishwasher, paying the bills, pumping gas—even these minutia matter, as they rearrange the “stuff” to create my life as ordered and meaningful, as suffused with grace and in harmony with God’s goodness. 

The difference is not in the doing, but in the intention and the attention. The potential for creativity is always there. The Soul Tells a Story reminds me of my essentially creative nature—that is, the essentially creative nature of all human beings as God’s divinely-imaged creatures—and encourages me to approach the work of writing as but one of many ways of participating in the work of creation. 

John Byron Kuhner 

The bookshop my wife and I own has a large Classics collection, and the 2023 story in Classics was Emily Wilson’s Iliad. Wilson has become a cult figure, and with reason. She hasn’t supplanted all other translators, as her partisans suggest, but she has brought Homer—and long poems in iambic pentameter—back onto the bestseller lists. Her Iliad is a marvelous read to boot—the perfect way to return to a poem that remains as beautiful and disturbing as ever.

Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Faith represents the current scholarly movement treating J. R. R. Tolkien as both a serious writer and a serious Catholic. It is also a moving portrait of Tolkien’s faithful quest to be a decent man and a good Catholic. Ordway’s contentions about how he was shaped by the Oratorian spirituality of St. Philip Neri are intellectually convincing and personally inspiring. As blunt as she is brilliant, Ordway’s visit to our bookshop was the year’s highlight.

Bill Steigerwald’s Dogging Steinbeck is a delightful romp across America revealing that Steinbeck falsified most of his book Travels With Charley. Steigerwald describes how Steinbeck’s breakneck trip from luxury hotel to luxury hotel with his wife got repackaged as a solitary slow journey getting the pulse of the common man. A fascinating book with larger implications.

Last, I recommend Winter Fire, a superb new collection of Chesterton’s writings about Christmas with commentary by Ryan Whitaker Smith. Delightfully Chestertonian, the chapter headings are immortal—“Christmas as a Litmus Test for Spiritual Buoyancy,” “In Defense of the Material Substance of Christmas Presents,” “Concerning Hearty Breakfasts and the Pleasures of Being Flung Headlong Into the Sea.” There’s even a chapter on boomerangs and their relationship to Christmas. The excerpts are too short for my taste, but for most, brevity improves Chesterton’s flavor considerably.

Valerie Stivers

Grace granted and grace withheld were themes I found in the two books that most moved me this year, both memoirs. The first, White Out by Michael Clune, was originally published in 2013 and re-released this year by McNally Editions, a new project that more people should know about. McNally unearths and republishes “hidden treasures” that have unjustly fallen out of print, and has an exquisite eye for a literary page-turner. Clune’s book is—bear with me—a heroin memoir, but one that explores the mental layers of addiction, getting at the blind spots and closures by which the soul shuts out God. Clune was lucky and survived, and I saw the action of grace in his story.

The second book, Molly, is a memoir by experimental novelist Blake Butler about the suicide of his wife. Butler and Molly are everymen of a certain type: educated, urban, artsy, hard-partying, idealistic, drowning in despair. Molly’s articulation of the reasons to end her life are ferociously purist and compelling. (“And there is nothing beyond this that I can find—no god in the sky, no love among humans . . .”) Her story spoke to me of the modern secular malaise more than of mental illness, and I wished she had found better. 

Both of these books are about writer-academics, so I should mention the year’s other best book, Irish writer Louise Kennedy’s debut collection of short stories The End of the World is a Cul de Sac. Kennedy worked in restaurant kitchens until her late forties and has a brilliant ability to get the meat of a human life down in a few pages. Her stories are unabashedly about men, women, sex, relationships, and reproduction, and feel quietly corrective to our times.  

Julia Yost

This fall I revisited the novels of Jane Austen. Asked to write on Jane Austen’s Darkness for the monograph series published by Wiseblood Books, I have been noting what varied tonalities are comprehended by the genre of the “courtship novel.” The spectrum:

Mansfield Park: Dark! Famously presents a “virtuous heroine” in Fanny Price, but Fanny’s virtue is hard to distinguish from self-abnegating masochism. The hero doesn’t help us, as Fanny’s heart’s desire is to marry her milksop cousin, who exhorts her to deny every desire of her heart. “You find Fanny Price unlikable?” I do indeed.

Sense and Sensibility: Dark! Satirizes a social order that elevates mediocrity and conspires against merit, but again the heroine is her own worst enemy. Elinor Dashwood grossly overvalues Edward Ferrars, a gentleman of neither professional ambition nor romantic fortitude. Rather than repair the social fabric, this marriage replicates its defects. Elsewhere, in the tribulations of Marianne—ostensibly a period-specific paragon of Romantic “sensibility”—we observe brutal and perennial truths about what it’s like to be a young person in love.

Emma: Darker than advertised, with a bitter aftertaste. The clear-eyed Mr. Knightley scolds Emma into recognizing the lot of her downwardly mobile neighbors, but even he underestimates the malignity of Frank Churchill, who has elevated Jane Fairfax from destitution to certain misery (trust me on this). Emma’s late sigh—“I seem to have been doomed to blindness”—does not dispel the fog in this novel concerned with illumination and illusion.

Northanger Abbey: A juvenile production Austen brushed up before her death but never judged ready for publication. Its parody of gothic convention propounds the thesis enacted by her mature novels: Beneath English propriety lurks a darkness! The stolid patriarch may be as cruel in his way as the outré villains of Mrs. Radcliffe! Noted.

Sanditon: A pungent, punchy fragment, abandoned three months before Austen’s death. The mortally ill authoress satirizes wealthy hypochondriacs.

Persuasion: Lighter than advertised. Presents a heroine who, at the ripe age of twenty-seven, has “lost her bloom” along with her lover. Anne Elliot’s losses are real, but they are compensated. Austen’s final finished novel, Persuasion is called “autumnal,” which is fair enough if autumn is the season of mellow fruitfulness.

Pride and Prejudice: “Light, and bright, and sparkling,” with a floral bouquet. By far the funniest and the sexiest of Austen’s novels. (I spend much of the first third thinking, And she doesn’t realize she’s flirting with him!) Mr. Darcy, a patrician erotically compelled to elevate a meritorious woman of lower rank, is pure fantasy. His Pemberley is not offered as a model or justification of great-house Toryism; nothing about its final arrangement—in which lofty family and friends are welcome to the degree that they demonstrate their merit by appreciating Elizabeth’s—is even potentially normal. It is merely fun to think about, which of course more than suffices.

Image by Nannette Turner licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

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