The world of literature is at an interesting juncture; traditional publishers are becoming ever larger and less interesting, and in response, small presses are blooming. For the Catholic seeking engaging contemporary writing that resonates with the faith and speaks to our times, we are living in a time of riches—if you know where to look.
Here, I offer four of the best books of 2023: a memoir, a novel, a narrative poem and a book of poems. But I offer these books with three caveats. First, each of these books is literary. That means it pays attention to language—it’s not primarily concerned with moving a plot along or with recounting a memory. Second, each comes from a small press. Finally, that press’s catalog as a whole delves into the so-called “first things:” namely, God, humanity and the relationship between the two.
These are not necessarily Catholic books, and the authors are not necessarily Catholic. But each of these books offers an insight into the human condition, the necessity and source of grace, and the miraculous intervention of the divine in our lives. Each of these books can act as a gateway to the vibrant world of small publishing; these authors are just a few among many who are pursuing the truth through literature.
Ohio-based Hindu writer Amit Majmudar’s memoir Twin A might seem like an odd choice to top a Catholic list of recommended books but read just a few pages, and you’ll see why it is here. Majmudar is a prolific writer in many genres, from screenplays to extended prose poems, and he is obsessed with myths, history, the divine, and how it all fits together in each individual life. In Twin A, he turns his wild imagination on a deeply personal issue: a genetic defect that affects his son’s heart and threatens, from the womb, to claim his life.
Majmudar, a radiologist by training, swings between keen clinical attention to his twin children’s development in the womb and passionate poems written to his wife and children. In theory, the book is an irreconcilable mess: how can a memoir contain scientific analysis, myth, poems (both verse and prose), and the kind of first-person narrative we expect from the genre? But as we read through Twin A, we find ourselves immersed in the stuff of life itself. What life, after all, doesn’t refer back to some mythology to make sense of things? In a crisis, who doesn’t waffle between emotional explosion and clinical analysis? None of us are one thing; why should we expect the story of a human life—of a family, of many human lives—to be one thing?
But Majmudar’s book offers more than just this. He offers a vision of how to exist as a profoundly religious person with a powerful religious imagination in a secular world, a world that laughs at myths and mocks religion. The section where he recounts the way doctors urged him and his wife to pursue genetic testing for their unborn son, with the implication that the couple should have an abortion if the tests show abnormalities, is particularly moving. Majmudar and his wife are adamant that their child, no matter what his condition, deserves life and love; the rest of the book unfolds from that conviction, and it is truly a story worth reading.
2) Seren of the Wildwood, Marly Youmans
Seren of the Wildwood, by the ever-original Marly Youmans, is a strange little thing: a book-length narrative poem about a girl whose life comes about through death. It reminds me of nothing so much as one of George MacDonald’s great “fairy tales for grown-ups,” Phantastes (which C.S. Lewis credited with “baptizing [his] imagination” and converting him to Christianity). Youmans follows the great Christian tradition of grappling with theological questions through fantasy and fairy stories.
Readers of Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Tolkien will delight in Seren’s setting: right on the border of a great fey wood, mysterious and strange, the house of wonder and of terror. For readers who are less familiar with poetry, Youman’s book can serve as a gateway to the splendid narrative poems of Christendom that shaped the imaginations of the creators of Narnia and Middle Earth: Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, The Canterbury Tales, The Song of Roland, The Divine Comedy, and many more.
Youman’s Seren of the Wildwood is a stirring adventure, a heart-wrenching study of suffering and grace, and a beautiful vision of the Christian imagination at work in literature today.
3) A History of the Island, by Eugene Vodolazkin
Russian literature has a reputation: Dostoyevsky’s dizzying psychological dramas, Tolstoy’s vast social and political epics, and Chekhov’s piercing short stories. But Eugene Vodolazkin, one of the finest living Russian writers, continually illuminates another element of Russian literature—and of the Christian life: laughter.
Vodolazkin is a scholar of medieval literature, and his fiction performs the miraculous alchemy of bringing the psychological insights of Christendom into the modern world, stark and ferocious and shocking as they truly are. His books grapple with tragic themes—plague, war, totalitarianism, disease—but with a constant holy foolishness that makes us burst out laughing at the startling presence of grace where we least expect it.
A History of the Island recounts the story of a tiny island nation, a story told through many different voices so that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is the truth. It is a beautiful and moving book, and readers who enjoy it should read Vodolazkin’s Laurus, a significant novel in the Russian tradition, next.
4) The Spring that Feeds the Torrent, by St. John of the Cross (translated by Rhina Espaillat)
The 16th-century friar, St. John of the Cross, represents the pinnacle of the Catholic mystical poetic tradition, a curious genre that combines theological rigor with ecstatic poetic language. His verses have been translated countless times, but this translation by Dominican-American poet Rhina Espaillat is a remarkable contribution. Espaillat is truly bilingual; she grew up speaking English and Spanish with equal facility, and her translation of the Mystical Doctor’s words manages to be easy to read while retaining the theological and linguistic subtleties of the original Spanish.
Espaillat, intriguingly, identifies as an agnostic; her translations of St. John’s poems first appeared in the Catholic periodical First Things and are published here by Wiseblood Books, helmed by Catholic novelist Joshua Hren. This confluence of belief and uncertainty actually clarifies the voice of the poems, for these are poems about what lies beyond the scope of the rational mind; St. John takes to the limits of our intellect and then asks us to step outside it to encounter God as he is, not as we imagine him to be. These poems are a strange, often troubling corner of the literature of Christendom, and Espaillat’s luminous translation allows modern readers to explore that corner’s grand mysteries anew.
A word on the presses: these four books are published by three dynamic small presses: Wiseblood Books (full disclosure: this is the author’s publisher), Slant and Plough Books. Catholic readers would do well to browse each of these catalogs and see the wonderful work on offer.