As reading lists for the new year and “12 books from friends challenges” abound Unleash the Gospel would be remiss if it didn’t offer its list of book recommendations. From modern to classic, memoir, to historical fiction, this list covers some of literature’s lesser-known reads that celebrate the Catholic imagination and are lauded in the mainstream. This list contains reads recommended for adults, as most of these books contain adult themes.
“Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset
“‘God will find you,’ said the priest quietly. ‘Stay calm and do not flee from Him who has been seeking you before you even existed in your mother’s womb.’”
It’s hard to believe that an 1100-page Norwegian medieval epic could be a riveting page-turner, but it is, and all thanks to its spirited and headstrong titular heroine. Readers follow deeply religious and deeply flawed Kristin from her childhood — through a broken engagement, unplanned pregnancy, tempestuous marriage and the fracturing relationship with her seven sons, and the Black Death — to the end of her life. Through the grace-filled and erroneous steps of her life, we travel the whole Christian journey of the soul to God. Winning Sigrid Undset the Nobel prize for Literature (and coinciding with her conversion to Catholicism) this spellbinding book is a shelf-worthy read.
“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
Set in the farmland of northern California in the early 1900s, this novel follows the destinies of two families that are helplessly analogous to the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.
After moving his family from the east coast to California and his wife deserts the family, Adam Trask finds himself a single father of two twins, Cal and Aaron. Sweetly dispositioned and earnest Aaron thrives, nurtured by the love of those around him, while the enigmatic Cal, broods in loneliness, and grows darker in the absence of familial love. Often touted as “one of the greatest novels of all time,” Steinbeck’s achingly beautiful retelling of Genesis is one to read again and again.
“Lit” by Mary Karr
“If you’d told me even a year before…that I’d wind up whispering my sins in the confessional or on my knees saying the rosary, I would’ve laughed myself cockeyed.”
The New York Times bestselling memoir called “a master class on the art of the memoir” follows Mary Karr as a wife and new mother working to get her MFA in Creative Writing while fighting to keep the demons of her traumatic childhood away. It chronicles her descent into alcoholism, her slow, painful recovery and the 12-step program that inspired her unlikely conversion to Catholicism. Because Mary Karr was first a poet, the prose is dense and dripping with imagery. Every sentence is a delight to read, and every chapter of her life and memoir is a vulnerable and heart-wrenching gaze at the journey to accepting grace.
“Death comes to the Archbishop” by Willa Cather
“Miracles seem to me to rest not so much upon healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.”
While Cather was not a Catholic, nearly all of her books display profound Catholic characters and themes so exquisitely that, as philosopher Ralph McInerny put it, “American Catholics would do well to count her among their number.” “Death” follows the gentle French Father Jean Marie Latour as he is sent to serve as the Apostolic Vicar of New Mexico. In the silence of the southwestern desert, Latour is sent to spread the faith to the largely Mexican and Indigenous communities amid a brutal landscape, rebellious priests, and most profoundly, his loneliness for the next 40 years.
“The Ninth Hour” by Alice McDermott
“Isn’t it funny how we all die at the same time? Always at the end of our lives. Why worry?”
McDermott’s powerfully affecting eighth novel is about the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor at the turn of the 20th century and the needy families, elderly shut-ins, disabled invalids and strapped widows they care for in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood of Brooklyn. Bouncing around narrators McDermott depicts the inner and at times desperate lives of her characters with gritty detail and boundless sympathy.
“Exiles” by Ron Hansen
“He felt in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament a tranquil, soothing God of intimacy & tolerance & unquenchable love, who knew to each jot & tittle everything about him but chose to focus on what was good, even childhood kindnesses that he’d forgotten.”
Novelist and Catholic Deacon, Ron Hansen’s latest novel tells the story of the shipwreck that inspired Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ to break years of silence and write his poem “The Wreck of Deutschland.” In 1875 a steamship, Deutschland, bound for England ran aground in the Thames and over 60 lives were lost, including those of five young nuns. Hopkins, who was a young Jesuit seminarian in Wales at the time after leaving Oxford to become a priest, was so moved by the news that he wrote a grand poem about it, finding the calling we would all know him for today. Giving readers a passionate inner search of religious life, Hansen gives readers what The New York Times calls an astonishingly deft and provocative novel.
“Paradise” by Toni Morrison
“Love is divine only and difficult always.”
Paradise takes place in the 1960s in a fictional, proud, black town — Ruby. While a seeming Black utopia without crime, drugs, death, etc. it’s far from perfect. On the outskirts of Ruby an abandoned convent acts as an unintentional boarding house for society’s outcasts including three women — Divine, Grace, and Consolata. The townspeople’s bigotry leads them to grapple with their irrational hatred for this group of women. As with all of Morrison’s books, her Catholic faith is fused into the pages of this book where her storytelling and prose, in her words, “merges vernacular with the lyric, with the standard, and with the biblical.”
“The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene
“Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don’t want it now. Take it away for a while and give it me another time.”
“This is a record of hate far more than of love,” writes the narrator Maurice Bendrix in the opening passages of “The End of the Affair,” before writing down his retrospective account of an adulterous affair with Sarah on the year anniversary of her death.
Hoping to rid himself of his preoccupation he details their relationship from the beginning to the belief that ultimately tears them apart, Sarah’s newfound belief in God. Like “Heart of the Matter,” and “The Power and Glory” Greene exposes his own experience of falling away from and returning to the faith through the journey of his ever-compelling characters.
“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro
“He may have meant to do right, but his life has been a catastrophic failure to love.”
Japanese-British writer Ishiguro writes a profoundly compelling portrait of a butler, Stevens, who after three decades of service at Darlington Hall, takes a road trip through the countryside, reminiscing on his service to Lord Darlington. As he struggles to reassure himself that he has served humanity through his service to this “great gentleman,” doubts about the true nature of his and Lord Darlington’s “greatness” begin to lurk urging readers to reflect on one big question — what are the virtues we should aspire to.
“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Civil rights defense attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson wrote this memoir documenting his career defending disadvantaged clients. Chapters alternate between documenting Stevenson’s efforts to overturn the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian and his work on other cases, including children who receive life sentences. Stevenson’s book brilliantly reminds readers of the humanity of prisoners and that behind every prisoner is a story.
“Til We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis
“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them.”
While C.S. Lewis is best known among Christians for his apologetics and spiritual writing, one of his most masterful books and his final one is this reimagination of the story of Cupid and Psyche. Told from the viewpoint of Psyche’s sister, Orual, “Till We Have Faces” is a brilliant examination of envy, betrayal, loss, blame, grief, guilt, and conversion. In this novel, Lewis reminds us of our own fallibility and the role of a higher power in our lives.
Very honorable mentions:
“Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor
“The Last Gentleman” by Walker Percy
“Diary of a Country Priest” by Georges Bernanos
“Quo Vadis” by Henryk Sienkiewicz
“The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi
“Saints for All Occasions” by J. Courtney Sullivan
“Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke