30 Important Books: No. 17, In This House of Brede

This is the novel that really made me want to be religious; it’s the novel that made me think about becoming a nun myself. Sadly, that didn’t happen, but it also lead to me discovering the Dominican Third Order, and, in turn, my parish, and my Dominican chapter there. That’s a lot for a novel to accomplish.

brede

In This House of Brede follows the formation of Mrs. Philippa Talbot, a woman in her forties who feels called to enter the Benedictine Abbey of Brede, in England. While the monastery is fictional, the way of life and the people within it are clearly not–one will find people like this in any community. Godden gives a fascinating look at life inside a Benedictine monastery through not only Philippa’s lens, but also the new Abbess, Dame Catherine Ismay, two new postulants, Cecily and Hilary, and some of the other memorable women who make up this community.

Even if you’re not religious, I promise this book will speak to you. All the human emotions are present here–jealousy, ambition, love, friendship, desire, loss, abandonment. It’s hard to explain what the unique genius of this book is. All I know is that it has a unique genius that is unmatched in any book I’ve ever read, and is well worth reading, especially as we embark on the season of Lent today. Getting to know Brede and its inhabitants is well worth it. But be careful–it can inspire dangerous desires for religious vocation. 🙂

30 Important Books: No. 16, Girl With a Pearl Earring

This book was my entry into the world of book clubs, and art, I think.

When I was in high school, we paid a visit one summer to my cousin and her family, who lives outside D.C. in the suburb of Vienna, VA. They’re a great family, their house is beautiful, and we did a lot of D.C. touring with my Uncle (my cousin’s father) who loves all manner of D.C. touring. But we also spent a good amount of time just “being” in the house and doing things around Vienna.

I noticed my cousin had this book on a sidetable, and I picked it up and began to read it. It’s a short book, so I made quick work of it. My cousin, noticing I was reading it, asked if I wanted to attend her book club that week to talk about it.

Did I? Is the Pope Catholic?

Girl With a Pearl Earring

 

I went to the book club with my cousin Cheryl, feeling very adult and sipping Perrier, since I wasn’t old enough to drink the wine everyone else was drinking. I don’t remember the particulars of the discussion, but I remember I loved being in that swanky living room and discussing a book with other people who’d liked it.

The book also opened me up to Vermeer, whom I’d never heard of, although I’d seen this painting before. My art curriculum had focused on art classes in grade school, at which I wasn’t any good. So in high school, I didn’t take any visual art classes, getting my arts credits through theater and voice. In college, I would be exposed to more art through my humanities class. But this book made me want to learn more about Vermeer, and art in general. So I began to study him. When I went to New York City, I saw his paintings in the Met. I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, and became obsessed with Michelangelo  I went more often to our art museum, which has a wonderful collection of impressionists, and began to read the exhibit catalogs. Visiting art museums became a staple of my city tours when I traveled (Houston has a great one).

I can’t draw to save my life. I can paint ceramics, but that’s about it. But I love reading about artists, and then exploring their art. Chevalier’s novel made the process of creation so vivid and immediate that I was instantly drawn in. Vermeer is still my favorite, although Renoir is a close second. Michelangelo is in my pure adoration category.

Everything I have learned about art is because I was enchanted by this slim novel. It’s a testament to the power of the written word to spark imagination and investigation. Without this book, I probably wouldn’t be reading the biography of Van Gogh, or have asked for Leonardo and the Last Supper for Christmas. But thanks to Chevalier’s gorgeous writing, I did, and I’m much happier for it. I might not be able to draw beyond a stick figure, but I love reading about those who can.

30 Important Books: No. 15, The Gargoyle

OK, this is a weird choice, probably. It’s a strange book. But it’s definitely one of my favorites, and I re-read it constantly. So it gets a spot here.

Written by Andrew Davidson, it’s the story of an unnamed man who gets into a horrific car crash on Good Friday, after a bout of drinking and drug use. He is severely burned over most of his body. While recovering in the hospital, he receives visits from the mysterious sculptress, Marianne, who insists they were married in a past life–a really past life, when they lived in Medieval Germany, and she was a nun, and he a mercenary archer.

gargoyle cover

The story combines religion, medical stuf (which I looove), Dominican stuff (which I also love, since I am a Dominican) and episodes that take place in Japan, Iceland, Victorian England, Italy, Germany, and the levels of Dante’s Inferno. There is sculpting and some incredible meals. (There’s even a dog, for those of you who like dogs in your stories)

It’s an eclectic book. You’ve probably never read anything like it, and if I hadn’t been burned during my transplant surgery, and had a skin graft, I don’t know if I would have liked it as much. But I generally love stories that have a medical element, and this combines many of my favorite elements in one gloriously rich novel. It took the author ten years to write, I heard.

You’ll learn a lot when you read this, but in a good way. (Gargoyles, by the way, are waterspouts. The things we think are Gargoyles? They’re called Grotesques.)

Trust me. It sounds really weird. But it’s an incredibly rewarding read.

 

30 Important Books: No. 14, My Sister’s Keeper

This is sort of a no brainer for me, because how often do you read a book that’s exactly your experience? Or almost exactly? I don’t have leukemia, like Kate in the novel, and my sister wasn’t genetically engineered to help me out (Mel came about the normal way), but a family living with illness that never goes away? That’s us.

mysisterskeeper cover

Like Kate, I’ve had to shop for clothes that will cover, or at least downplay, a port-a-cath. I’ve gone to work with it accessed and given myself drugs in the bathroom. I, like Sara, have read the “Dear Abby” column and thought, “this is this person’s biggest problem? Really? What sort of life do they live?!” I’ve worried that no one will love me for who I am, like Kate does.

This family knows what my family knows; how to ask the nurses for the meds you need; how to hold back hair when your kid is vomiting in the emesis basin; what the inside of an infusion clinic looks like; how things can change at the drop of a hat, at the twist of a cell. Emergency ER runs. Waiting for a transplant that may or may not come. Like Kate, I had stopped crying at blood draws by the time I was five or six.

I saw the movie version of the book with my best friend, and she bawled her eyes out. I didn’t, because, well, one, I don’t cry in movies. And two, it was my life. I’d lived this. I didn’t cry, I gave little nods of knowing and twisted smiles. This family, and my family, were doing the same things, worrying about the same things, hoping for the same things.

Reading this book, for me, is a validation that other people do go through the same things, that “normal” for me is normal for a lot of other people; maybe not the people I know, but some people. Fortunately, I didn’t get my transplant through such complex means, as Kate does in the book. (And as a bonus, I also had epilepsy as a kid, like one of the other characters.) But Picoult wrote about the Fitzgeralds so well that I thought she could’ve been eavesdropping on us. So, it’s no wonder this book makes my list.

30 Important Books: No. 13, The Christmas Box

This is probably the shortest book on the list. But that doesn’t make it less important or well-written.

I first read it when I was in seventh grade. I ordered via the book order; man, I looooved the book order. One of the best parts of school for me. (If you didn’t have book order: It was usually from Scholastic–it was a flyer, a few pages long (like the grocery insert in the Sunday Paper), where you could order books and other things, like pencils and notebooks, for a few dollars. You filled out the form, gave the money to your teacher, and a week or so later, voila! The books arrived, rubber-banded together for you! ) Anyway, The Christmas Box , by Richard Paul Evans, was one of the choices I made that year. It was probably under $3.  (It was much simple than the pic below–paperback, with a forrest green cover and a small, embossed white snowflake under the title.)

Christmas box cover

It’s the story of a small family–dad, mom and little girl–who go to live as in-home caretakers to a wealthy, elderly widow in Salt Lake City named MaryAnne. The husband, Richard, hears music coming from the attic, and discovers a “Christmas Box” ( a box with the Nativity scene etched on the lid) full of letters to a lover. Every night, Richard hears the music and dreams of a stone angel.

As Richard delves into the mystery of the box, MaryAnne asks Richard what the first gift of Christmas was, insisting that he know. When she’s diagnosed with a brain tumor, it becomes even more important that Richard discover what the gift was–as well as the secret Mary’s hiding from them.

Like all of Richard Paul Evans’ stories, this one is about love, faith, and family. It touched me deeply as a pre-teen, and even now, when I re-read it every Christmas, I’m captivated by its charm and evocative writing. It eventually became the first book of a trilogy, with The Timepiece and The Letter following it, as well as many other best sellers. I love getting a new book of his, and yes, almost all of his adult novels have to do with Christmas.

If you haven’t read his novels, try a few of them in the New Year. I promise, all of them are excellent.

30 Important Books, No. 12: On Being Catholic

If you’ve read any of my blogs for any amount of time, you know I’m Catholic. Really Catholic. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of my important books are Catholic ones.

This one, On Being Catholic, is one that I regularly shove into people’s hands. It’s written by Professor Thomas Howard (he’s an English prof, so his writing style definitely appeals to me), who’s also a convert to Catholicism. The book covers a lot of topics, but what gets me is the awe, the wonder, the power that Howard’s writing infuses in things that can be “ordinary.”

On Being Catholic

When you’ve been in a religion your entire life, you get used to it, right? It’s like anything else. I get up in the morning and I drive to work, and very rarely do I think about the driving itself. I’m thinking about my schedule, or the words to the song I’m singing, or the weather. It’s only if I’m driving in ice or snow or something else that I think about the act of driving.

Mass used to be the same way, but this book blew that open for me. Almost every page of this book has my notes or scribbles in it, so I apologize in advance to whomever I lend it to–they’re going to have to deal with my notations. (Once an English major, always an English major. My best loved books are often quite scribbly.)

You can read the book either for information, or as meditation. Howard talks about the Mass, the sacraments, what male and female mean in Catholic life, prayer, and other topics, including the Bible and how it relates to Catholicism (yes, we do read it….!).

It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s a book I dearly love.

30 Important Books: No. 10, Catechism of the Catholic Church

This, along with the Bible, is certainly a very important book for any Catholic.

There’s a lot to Catholicism. 2000 years of history will do that. So the CCC (as it’s commonly abbreviated) is a sort of “idiot’s guide” to what we believe, and why. It’s indispensable. Every possible topic you can think of is covered here, in detail, but not in so much detail that you can’t clearly understand what’s being said. And if you want to investigate where the authors got these ideas, there are many, many footnotes which lead you to other documents. (It could become a sort of scavenger hunt through books, if you will)

My copy is trade paperback size. When the CCC first came out in the 1990s, it was actually–not kidding–on sale at the supermarket, and this was before you could buy more than a few books at the supermarket. My parents have the big, coffee-colored covered one, and we’ve marked it with various and sundry post-its and scraps of paper over the years, to indicate things we often referred to. My own is broken in a few places, thanks to some theology courses I took which relied heavily on the CCC, and is also very well marked.

One of the beauties of the CCC is how everything is clearly reasoned, cited, and organized.If you’re Catholic and you don’t have this, go get it. (It’s like $6!) With it, there is never the “oh, I don’t know what my Church believes.” Now you know.