We’re rounding out our year-end collection of favorite books with the recommendations of four Dappled Things editors who all spent the year reading awesome sci-fi/ fantasy books with Catholic themes. We’ve thrown in some poetry, Walker Percy, and fictional homeschooling for good measure, but now’s the time to power up your warp engines and get reading with these suggestions from associate editor Fr. Michael Rennier, managing editor Karen Ullo, editor-in-chief Katy Carl, and associate editor Rosemary Callenberg.
Fr. Michael Rennier
This was the Summer of Gene Wolfe. It has also been the Fall and Winter of Gene Wolfe. After his death, I re-read New Sun and got deeply into his stuff again. I forced all my friends to read the New Sun books too and participate in a discussion group with me. It got intense. After that, I started reading (and am still reading) the Long Sun books. If you like sci-fi, they are unbeatable.
I’ve also been working in lots of other reading. I finally read Walker Percy’s Thanatos Syndrome. It’s super weird in all the right ways. I’m hooked on the etymological deep dives that Mark Forsyth does, and his Etymologicon was a delight. If you enjoy trivia, pointless knowledge about word origins, and being able to intimidate your literary friends, give this one a read. I’ve been working back through Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative and he’s simply the best reader of the Scriptures around. I find his work far more insightful that run-of-the-mill commentaries.
It’s no secret that I love weird fiction. Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are my go-to genres, and it’s been a banner year for me for discovering gems of Catholic speculative fiction.
J.B. Toner’s Whisper Music gets off to a rollicking start with a battle between vampire Daniella Morrigan and the Blessed Virgin Mary. If that’s not enough to tempt you, just ask the question the protagonists ask: How do we weaponize the pope? My full review is winging its way toward Dappled Things subscribers in our Mary, Queen of Angels issue, but there’s no reason to wait for it before treating yourself to some to some fun.
The Innocents by Gertrude von le Fort has been newly translated into English for the first time this year. This collection of four novellas by the famous twentieth century German Catholic writer is both haunting and haunted. The four stories span the history of Europe from the Scanian War to the mistresses of King Louis XV of France to the aftermath of World War II. On the whole, the collection is an excellent Gothic romp with deeply Catholic themes.
I hesitate to recommend Somewither by John C. Wright only because I haven’t finished it yet—but I am thoroughly enjoying it. The 2016 Dragon Award winner for Best Science Fiction Novel opens with a host of quotes from G.K. Chesterton and is shortly thereafter followed by a (punchy, short, and interesting) discussion of the moral and theological implications of the Many Worlds Theory. The Knights Templar still exist, the Church has been hiding the reality of other world for centuries… and they’re the good guys.
There I was, wearing my bathrobe and moccasins, big black bulletproof vest, cool nightvision goggles, honking huge flashlight tucked through the jacket belt at one hip, ridiculously cool, expensive, antique Japanese sword no one in his right mind would ever take into a for-real battle at the other hip, and my Dad’s blessing and prayer on my head.
And I could not decide if this was the best night of my life or the last.
What’s not to love?
I also read quite a bit of poetry this year, and would especially like to recommend James Matthew Wilson’s The Hanging God. You can read the review from our print edition here. It’s far more eloquent than I could be. Also, I’m not quite sure why I decided to spend my summer with Longfellow, but I’m very glad I did. I (re)read both The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline. Beautiful, faith-filled stories told in gorgeous lyric poetry—the world needs more Longfellows.
This winter I have a mighty destroyer of a toddler: 15 months, no brakes. Lots of mothers (and fathers) at this stage say they can’t find time to read. I can’t manage not to read. This is as much a liability as it is a virtue. Without the printed word I would be nowhere. Even if it’s on a glowing screen in the dark while the toddler falls asleep, reading is breathing.
Out of a truly excellent field, one of the best novels I read this year (possibly in years) is Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Friends, I did not expect a book with this title to be about homeschooling. It is about homeschooling. It is also about human identity and community and culture and language and so many good things. Despite her characters’ grim situation, DeWitt finds a splendid balance between loss and a rich vein of comedy. You will be laugh-crying over how well the experience of having (and of being) a bright, difficult child—or a parent trying to square the circle when being human and being family feel incompatible with each other–is seen and transliterated. Do beware of the twist at the very end, which drops a sudden intense emotional and moral weight into what had been a relatively lighthearted caper through the end of civilization, but don’t assume that the narrative is implicitly placing praise or blame on its characters. If there is a didactic message here, it’s Sondheim’s from Into the Woods: “careful the things you say; children will listen.”
I’m grateful to the pages of First Things for pointing me toward Laurus and The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin. Both novels are stunning — at the line level, in their dramatic arcs, and in their unified artistic and moral vision of the human condition.
Following up on Dana Gioia’s recommendation in a casual conversation at the CIC, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. As promised, I found it finer in form and composition than most things filed under the “genre” label — even finer, imo, than Le Guin’s own Hugo- and Nebula-winning The Left Hand of Darkness — while it also checks all the boxes for exciting sci-fi. Recommended if you’re at all into that genre (hey Karen; hey Fr. Michael). An unexpected gift: the novel digs deep into the triumph and pain of struggling to create something that will outlive you while also working to live a compassionate, engaged human life here, now.
I finally also put Gioia’s 99 Poems, a strong fortress in the renewal of the Catholic literary neighborhood–and beyond that, of American formal poetry — on my shelf. I want to say more, but you should go get your copy first, and then let’s talk about it.
Still another marvelous discovery through the CIC, in particular through the influence of scholar Cynthia Haven, was Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel — a book I wish I had found a decade ago. Any synopsis I could give here would risk seeming reductive, so instead please check out T.C. Merrill’s essay in the most recent Dappled Things for a taste of what’s going on. Girard takes a seemingly simple insight about human nature and develops it into a cathedral of perspective on why we want what we want (or what we think we want) as social creatures. You’ll never look at human community and human endeavor quite the same way again.
I also loved our own Natalie Morrill’s The Ghost Keeper (check out Simcha Fisher’s review of the novel here), Abigail Rine Favale’s Into the Deep, Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy and The Ninth Hour, Randy Boyagoda’s Original Prin and Beggar’s Feast — all splendid. If 2020 brings in a reading year half so substantive, elegant, complex, and engaging, that will be marvelous good fortune.
This year’s reading has been rich and varied. Goodreads tells me I’ve completed 57 books, and I’m sure a few fell through the cracks somewhere.
Most recently I finished Night’s Bright Darkness by Sally Read, and it was one of my favorites. The memoir of her conversion from staunch atheist to Catholic is not just an intellectual journey, but a story of encounter with God, of a burning love for Christ being awoken in her soul when she least expected it. It was a beautiful example of how knowing Christ changes everything—including, for Read, her relationship to family, to writing, to the world around her—and brings us more fully into being.
I also reread the entire Chronicles of Narnia this year with my boys. (I might add, at the risk of stirring up controversy, that we read them in the proper order, i.e., that in which they were published.) Sharing these stories with them for the first time was a joy, and I was surprised by how often I found myself thinking about these books rather than my “own” reading. For me they offered both the comfort of the familiar and the delight of newly discovered layers of meaning.
My Schole Sisters group read The Dream of Gerontius by Cardinal Newman in October, to celebrate his canonization. I thought I would read a bit of this book-length poem every evening; instead I found that once I started, I couldn’t put it down, so compelling was this saint’s vision of a soul’s journey after death to meet God.
Finally, no reading list of mine would be complete without a post-apocalyptic novel, so I will mention my favorite of the year: When the English Fall by David Williams. This novel can be described as “post-apocalyptic Amish fiction.” Who can resist such a description? Not me! As the author points out in an essay at the end of the novel, apocalypse means not destruction, but an unveiling or making clear: “Apocalypses, as a genre, are about stripping away all of the fluff and pretense and getting down to what matters.” This book certainly does that.