We have arrived yet again at precipice of a new year – assuming you didn’t already turn the page when Advent started – and once again the editors at Dappled Things are sharing the highlights from this past year’s reading. Some of these are newish works, some are quite old, some are not yet even published. We love it all.
Here’s to another year of full of the delight of living our best lives and the delight of reading the best books.
Bernardo Aparicio – Founder and Publisher
Earth and Water (tentative title), the forthcoming debut novel by Dappled Things editor-in-chief Katy Carl, was by far the best book I read this year. I’m sorry to say you won’t be able to purchase a copy from Wiseblood Books for a few months yet, but you can start counting the days (as you should). It’s not just that, as a writer, I found her prose good to the point of being almost intimidating. Or that she achieves a depth of understanding of her characters that’s rarely seen. Or that through the story of two artists and lovers she takes us on an exhilarating, heart-wrenching emotional tour through the longings of the human heart. No, it’s more than that. It’s that by the end of the book, I was convinced I had just read not only a masterfully executed novel, but actually one of the best novels I have ever read. Katy’s a good friend and I’m worried I’m going to make her uncomfortable with this kind of praise, or worry her that I’m hyping up the book too much. I worry also that readers might figure I’m being biased in my assessment, since I can’t be exactly a disinterested party when it comes to a book by a close friend and collaborator. Fair enough. All I can say is this: I have long known Katy was an excellent writer through our more than a decade of working together and was more than prepared to like the book when I got my advanced copy, but I wasn’t prepared for what it actually was. My wife can attest that when I started reading it, I kept interrupting her with expressions of disbelief at how good it was. After a while, I began to worry that she couldn’t possibly sustain such a level, that like many other books, it would set off some neat fireworks at the beginning that would eventually peter out. There was no way she could pull it off. Well, she did. If, like me, you’ve been rooting for a Catholic literary renaissance, get yourself a copy of Earth and Water the day it comes out, because however far this renaissance goes, it’s not going to get much better than this.
Katy Carl – Editor in Chief
This year much of my reading has revolved around preparing to participate in the pilot year of the Wiseblood Books writer-in-residence program: studying classic novels like Henry James’ Roderick Hudson, Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, among others. We also covered the new edition of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Caroline Gordon’s How To Read A Novel, Douglas Bauer’s The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft, and several titles from Greywolf Press’s “The Art Of” series. In new books this year I especially appreciated Christopher Beha’s novel The Index of Self-Destructive Acts and Nick Ripatrazone’s study of Catholic influence in contemporary fiction, Longing for an Absent God. And since I’ve been invited to write an Advent-themed devotional for 2021, my spiritual reading recently has tended in that direction, including Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God, Oliver Treanor’s Seven Bells to Bethlehem, and poet Jacob Riyeff’s fascinating team translation, with co-author and spouse Mamie Riyeff, of Middle English meditations on the O Antiphons. The book, called O Shining Light, includes illustration work by liturgical artist (and friend of Dappled Things!) Daniel Mitsui–definitely seek out a copy of this beautiful Gracewing Press edition, if you can. Also under the heading of liturgical living, I highly recommend Jay W. Richards’ Eat, Fast, Feast: A Christian Guide to Fasting, which has helped me–as someone decidedly not naturally good at self-denial–to frame and understand this traditional practice in a way that has placed it more within reach for the ordinary person.
Natalie Morrill – Fiction Editor
The best book I read this year (so far) was a re-read: Middlemarch by George Eliot. It’s books like this that make you recognize the difference between “having something to read” & “having your days & mindset shaped by the marvelous thing you’re reading (& which you can’t wait to get back to).” What is there to say about Middlemarch that hasn’t already been said? Perhaps one thing I realized any time I had this in my hands was that I had trouble answering friends when they asked, “What is it about?” My attempts to sum up the subject matter always fell flat or sounded hopelessly vague: a town; bad marriages; good and bad people. The hospital comes into it. Various people need money or have too much of it. Maybe a snappier answer would have been, “It’s a big novel about a small town and the incredible weight of human souls,” though heaven knows I’m not one for snappy answers. Eliot stands alongside Austen & Dostoyevsky in my mind as being among the most psychologically astute novelists in the business. If nothing else, read this for the most accurate (& frustrating) portrayal of a narcissistic personality disorder in literature. Or join me in being an unapologetic fangirl of Caleb Garth & Mr. Farebrother (whose story I still need to know the end of!). But you’d do much better to read it because you love beautiful things & desire happiness. Read or re-read it in 2021 to make your year (& days, & hours) better.
Also worth mentioning: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (as wonderful & magical as everyone says it is) & Josef Pieper’s Guide to Thomas Aquinas (like a friend introducing a friend).
Barbara Gonzalez – Associate Editor
I will start off by saying that I watched the 1994 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch this summer and if you liked the book, I think you will enjoy looking up the series. It stars a young Rufus Sewell and was available on Amazon Prime earlier this year – maybe it still is.
My book of 2020 would be Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. It had been on my list for a while. Pope Francis said a few years ago that he thought all engaged couples should read it together. I found out there was a plague in it, so that pushed it to the top of my list. It was comforting to spend some time with this book and realize that maybe this year was not quite as “unprecedented” as the pundits said. It not only features a pandemic but also the separation and isolation of two lovers, meditations on the meaning of marriage and Providence, even some reflections on crime, corruption and justice, especially justice for the poor.
Rhonda Ortiz – Webmaster
Mere weeks before the death of George Floyd, I happened to read Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry, about the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Talk about providential.
I’m not sure if I want to say more than that. 🙂
Terence Sweeney – Associate Editor
If there is a canon of Catholic literature, this year taught me that Claude McKay should be added to it. The Jamaicain-born Harlem Renaissance writer wrote searing poems and novels from the experience of oppression. Each depicts a lived solidarity of social outcasts and yearning for a deeper justice. This year I read one of his later novels, Romance in Marseille. The novel, written before McKay’s conversion to Catholicism, depicts Lafala a crippled African trapped between American, France, and Africa. Suddenly wealthy, he seeks love in Marseille and instead finds a deeper homesickness. I recommend reading it alongside his Complete Poems which depict his poetic seeking and eventual finding of a home in the Catholic Church.
Patrick Callahan – Book Review Editor
Sing-Song, A Nursery Rhyme Book with poems by Christina Rossetti and illustrations by Arthur Hughes capped off a great reading year for myself. It can be found rather cheap, but must be found with Hughes’ companion illustrations. It can be read in a single sitting, preferably aloud as the children play in the yard. Rossetti thrives in the humble materials and plans particular to the genre with subtle craftsmanship that reminds me of the deceptive simplicity of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. It is the first work I have read that plumbs the paradox of the parent who both desires to see a colicky child sleep through the night and fears this very thing because some infants sleep never to wake again to this life. And it is a nursery rhyme book before the early 20th century invention of hermetically sealed and manufactured childhood. Some of the Victorian sweetness has been retained in modern imagery-angels and puppies; none of the Victorian gothic–fairy rings and death. All at risk of taking their adult selves too seriously and children who demand adults recognize they play for mortal stakes will profit from this slender volume.
Rosemary Callenberg – Associate Editor
My favorite work of fiction this year was Charis in the World of Wonders, by Marly Youmans. This novel was beautiful. The language was rich and poetic without ever crossing the line into “too much,” and I felt a great sense of intimacy with the main character in both her struggles and joys.
Another favorite read, this one nonfiction, was Evening in the Palace of Reason, by James R. Gaines. I read this partly because of the title, which caught my eye; partly because it’s about Bach meeting Frederick the Great, and we were studying Bach in our homeschool. It’s a weakness of mine that I often find it hard to focus on nonfiction, but this book was enjoyable and compelling enough that I read it from beginning to end without a “fiction break.” The author brought his figures to life vividly–both as individual persons and as representations of conflicting values at the beginning of the Enlightenment. And I learned a lot about Bach’s music, too–which the book often encourages the reader to pause and savor.
Ann Thomas – Managing Editor
This year I made a priority of becoming acquainted with Cluny Media’s catalogue. They publish so many magnificent titles I hardly knew where to start, but chose to begin with Paul Claudel’s Poetic Art. True to Cluny Media‘s philosophy that, “A book, from cover to cover, should be an artifact, a work of art,” this slim volume is. In it, Claudel is not exploring prosody, or the creation of poetry, but rather the poetry of creation through our experience of language. “But, whereas, our existence down here is like a barbaric and broken language, our life in God shall be like exquisitely perfect verse.” Thanks to Cluny Media’s attention to craftsmanship, this is a book that will withstand the physical demands of being my constant companion for years. While I can say I’ve read it through to the end, it’s more truthful to say I’ve begun my journey with Poetic Art than “I finished it.”