Spring is officially here, and so are some of our picks for what to read this season. Check out our recommendations below and tell us in the comments what you’ve been reading!
The Confessions of X, Suzanne Wolfe (2016)
The novel is narrated by St. Augustine’s eponymous concubine, whose historical name remains unknown. Wolfe approaches her source material—Augustine’s own sparing account in his Confessions—with a generous and optimistic eye. She imagines X as a gifted, competent, and insightful woman, instrumental in Augustine’s development: an equal for the great saint-to-be, despite their radical differences in class, education, and upbringing.
This depiction, like any worthwhile art, raises questions: Can we believe that history could have ended as well for X as the novel does? Would we have found the characters as recognizable, their motivations as lucid, as we find Wolfe’s well-drawn and surprisingly contemporary men and women? In such an experience as that portrayed, where does X find the strength to practice the agency she displays? Wolfe’s responses—implicit in the text—persuaded me, but you’ll want to make up your own mind: and the winsome, rich prose will make the endeavor a pleasure.
Saint Dominic, Georges Bernanos (1939, trans. Anthony Giambrone, O.P.)
Georges Bernanos once tried his hand at the difficult art of hagiography, an art lost to his time as it is to ours, and in his short vita of St. Dominic one can see him wrestling with the task. How does one capture a life of sanctity? It is not in our powers to cast a pure and simple glance upon the works of God, Bernanos claims, and the deterministic logic of our modern historical methods “have not finished disappointing us.” The author describes a unique blossoming of grace in a prose almost as energetic and moving as the mendicant life of its subject, occasionally distinguishing the founder of the Order of Preachers from the man of genius or the man of action (even from other great saints), all to help fix our sight on the exact character of his sanctity. Fr. Anthony Giambrone, himself a son of Dominic, captures that artful energy in his translation. Though this isn’t historical fiction, I can’t help but put this on my shelf next to Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock and Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, other perceptive, if unordinary attempts, by mid-twentieth century novelists to capture the historical realities of holy lives.
Bernardo Aparicio García:
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
If you haven’t read Ender’s Game, it’s about time. “But I’m not a fan of science fiction!” you say. Read it anyway. My wife has never cared for the genre and loved it, and kept coming to me after reading it with different thoughts the novel provoked in her mind. Not only is it a truly gripping read with a fantastic climax, but a very imaginative book that explores interesting questions.
Yes, it rests on a basic premise of humans vs. aliens, but that’s just the excuse for the story, characters, and ideas that Card brings to life in the book. In particular, I loved the way the aliens are imagined; not, for once, as a superior intelligence against which humanity is desperately outmatched, but as a different kind of intelligence, a different kind of personal being, with its own strengths and weaknesses. I found that concept fascinating.
Also, without giving too much away, the way the ending brings new light into the countless, seemingly arbitrary, hardships that the main character, Ender, had endured throughout the book, is extremely satisfying. I won’t go so far as to say that it is an allegory for human life and the roles we play in God’s plan, as I think the strict analogy breaks down when one considers how flawed (even cruel and manipulative) Ender’s superiors are, but let’s say (to steal from Tolkien) that there’s a good deal of applicability. I’ll add that if, by chance, you were unfortunate enough to watch the 2013 film based on the novel, please forget what you saw and give the original a chance.
Dymer, C.S. Lewis (1926)
From a young age the future Professor Lewis was writing narrative verse based on a variety of fantastic subjects. The eponymous hero of Dymer might have stepped out of the later Brave New World or even Logan’s Run, but the main thrust of this utopian escapee’s story is his tumultuous love affair with nature and romanticism. The poem is often strange and dreamlike, and offers criticisms of many then-modern philosophical and literary movements. It can be found collected in Harcourt’s edition of Narrative Poems by Lewis.
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992)
I recommended Jesus’ Son to a friend recently and, though I think of it as this universally-recommended short story collection, it’s probably not as well-known as I imagine (at least not in all circles). I first encountered it during my MFA. My fiction prof, in a one-on-one meeting, suggested it based on the writing I’d been attempting in her workshop. The title did initially sketch me out a bit. (It’s a Lou Reed lyric, for the record.) That these were short stories about drug addicts narrated by a character only ever ID’d as “F*ckhead” left me concerned about my prof’s impression of me. Still, I read it.
“Transcendent” is likely a threadbare blurb word at this point. But it’s no exaggeration to say Jesus’ Son is the most magnificent short story collection I can remember reading. It’s both the language (electric) and the treatment of the subject (brutal, tender) that keep me coming back to it. They’re by no means the same on all counts, but I’d shelve Johnson alongside David Foster Wallace in terms of clear-eyed, compassionate literary treatment of addiction and of those bottoming out in American society generally – while also capturing, in some oblique sense, the ways a soul can reach towards the divine in the midst of that. It’s also a helpful comparison in the sense that I know this isn’t a book for all readers (or even for all readers of Dappled Things). That being said, in every case of someone I know who’s read it, we’ve only ever connected over it with expressions like I still can’t believe how good it is.
Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett (2006)
I’m actually in the midst of a Pratchett reading frenzy and I’m only singling out Wintersmith because it’s one of the most recent I’ve read. His work is remarkably consistent and Pratchett is a vastly under-rated comic genius whose writings loosely surround a shared world called Discworld, meaning once you start reading them you can’t stop. This one has it all – witches, relentless satire of teenagers, relentless satire of intellectuals, relentless satire of Scotland, a nod to Orpheus, and ultimately, a happy ending. Read any and all Pratchett, and if you get to Wintersmith he’ll melt the god of winter away.
Master of Hestvikin, Sigrid Undset (1926)
I became a Sigrid Undset fan at 72, at a far older age than most of her admirers. First I read the Master of Hestvikin. I’d read she published it in 1926 after she converted to Catholicism and its Catholic characters are portrayed positively. Then I read Kristin Lavransdatter, which was published starting in 1920.
Undset actually wrote that researching the beliefs of her characters in medieval times exposed her to the saints, and the saints led to her conversion to Catholicism, which occurred between the publication of Kristin Lavransdatter and Master of Hestvikin. In both, Catholics characters are complex and real. But her novels are never “about” Catholicism.
Undset is a master storyteller, I’ve never read anyone with her deep understanding of how people love each other. I also relish the way she lavishes us with the fascinating details of people’s lives.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
This’s been a classic I’ve been meaning to get around to for quite a while now, not to mention the latest recipient of Nobel laurels, and being able to sit with it has mostly been a dream. If I were limited to a single word to describe it, I’d probably have to say layered. On the surface it’s the story of an aging butler driving off for a few days into the English countryside, but the narrative takes a few nosedives into a past that, instead of presenting a protagonist coming to terms with what his life has meant, reveal a man whose desires hopelessly, yet always humanely, remain a mystery to himself.
Ishiguro takes the lives of English servants, shot through with the tension of being consummate (perhaps obsessive) professionals in possession of somewhat-inconvenient heartbeats, and opens them wide to his readers with a quality that can only be described as generosity. Then he weaves in the changing nature of England, the passage of time, the legacy of fathers, the shock of the wars, the embrace of and running from the past, the yearning and resignation of affection, as well as what it means to grow into a life of dignity.
To say much more would be missing the point – this’s a book to be sat with, listened to with delicacy and a patience drawn out of you like a decoy. A perfect spring book for me as it, more than anything else, feels like an intimate sign of a thaw you haven’t known you’ve been waiting for.