11 Must-Read Books For 2011


The 11 books listed below (in no particular order) are a sampling of the best fiction and non-fiction I read in 2010, books I liked particularly well and would strongly recommend to Catholic singles (or to married Protestants, Buddhist monks, fallen-away Mormon feminists, Cistercian nuns and Hindu celibates, for that matter).

Some of the authors are Catholic and some even write explicitly about their faith journey, while others do not mention the church at all and their religious beliefs remain unclear.

Regardless, each of these books captured my imagination, offering insight into the presence of God in all facets of the human experience through stories that involve humor, joy, love, sorrow, hope, loneliness, war, peace, doubt, trauma, reconciliation, grace, sin and redemption.

1.) All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day
Robert Ellsberg, Editor
Hardcover; Marquette University Press, 2010

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has been called “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” This collection of her letters, made public for the first time since her death in 1980, opens a window into the complex layers of her life and relationships with family,  friends, spiritual companions, bishops and fellow radicals throughout her faith journey and almost 50 years of tireless witness for peace and service to the poor. Particularly revealing, and a unique resource for someone who is being considered for canonization, are the letters of the first section titled “Love Story,” which offer a glimpse into Day’s passionate love affair with Forster Batterham and the cost of her vocation.

2.)  Lit: A Memoir
Mary Karr
Paperback; HarperCollins, 2010

Lit follows this self proclaimed “black-belt sinner’s” descent into the hell of alcoholism and madness and to her resurrection and conversion.   Attempting to outrun her apocalyptic past, she drinks herself into the same soul-numbness that nearly devoured her charismatic but troubled mother, reaching the brink of suicide. AA meetings and a stint in “The Mental Marriott,” with an eclectic cast of misfits, sages and saviors, awakens her to the possibility of joy and leads her to an unlikely faith. “Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live; learning to live by learning to pray.  Written with Karr’s relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor,” it is a truly illuminating story of how to grow up and grow deeper.

3.) Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
Jon Krakauer
Paperback; Random House, 2010

From the best-selling author of Into Thin Air, Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven, this is a compelling account of the remarkable and complex life and death of Pat Tillman, the NFL star who enlisted in the Army after Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004 he was killed on a hillside in southeastern Afghanistan by friendly fire. Doing exhaustive field research in Afghanistan and drawing on Tillman’s own journals and letters, extensive interviews with his wife and friends and conversations with his fellow soldiers, Krakauer examines the shadowy circumstances of Tillman’s death and creates a riveting portrait of a man with deep intellectual curiosity and questions, “driven by complicated, emotionally charged, sometimes contradictory notions of duty, honor, justice, patriotism, and masculine pride.”

4.)  Little Bee: A Novel
Chris Cleave
Paperback; Simon and Schuster, 2010

Profoundly moving and troubling, Little Bee is story about the lives of two women that collide one fateful day when one of them has to make a terrible choice. They meet again two years later, which is where the book begins. Cleave alternates his narrative between the perspective of Sarah, a middle-aged magazine editor from suburban London, and a Nigerian teenager called Little Bee who has been held in a British immigration detention center for two years. Tightly weaving dark and sad threads, laced with biting humor, Cleave creates a marvelous story that is a testimony to people who survive horrific and traumatic experiences and push through barriers intact where most of us would collapse. As Little Bee says in the book, these are the stories we don’t want to tell, but we have to because “our stories are the tellers of us.”

5.)  Meditations from a Movable Chair
Andre Dubus
Paperback; Random House, 1999

“A sacrament is physical; and within it is God’s love,” says Andre Dubus at the beginning of his essay entitled “Sacraments.”  Each of the 25 essays in this collection are sacraments – Dubus’s personal testaments to God’s love and the myriad ways this love transforms us. When he became a paraplegic, with the loss of one leg and the use of another in a 1986 accident, Dubus experienced doubt, despair, patient acceptance and joy in the sacramental miracle of the most mundane of tasks. Whether writing about the relationship with his father, the rape of his dear sister, his Catholic faith, or the suicide of a gay naval officer, he cuts straight to the heart. Lingering over experiences past and present, from the everyday trials of life in a wheelchair to his thoughts on being a writer, a divorced Catholic and father, the book conjures up a cloud of witnesses so vividly that their gifts to Dubus become gifts to us all.

6.)  The Help
Kathryn Stockett
Hardcover; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009

Skeeter Phelan has returned home to Jackson, Miss., in 1962 having graduated from college with a deep desire to become a writer that is competing with her mother’s insistence that she “get a ring on her finger.” Given sage advice to “write about what disturbs you,” she surreptitiously begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom her family and many others simultaneously rely on and disdain. She enlists the help of Aibileen, a black maid who is the picture of perseverance having raised 17 white children, and Aibileen’s sassy best friend Minny, fired many times after mouthing off to her white employers.  “Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step…” that will propel each of them out of their tacit acceptances of the status quo, suffocating expectations, and injustices that were the realities of both black and white women –mothers, daughters and caregivers alike.

7.)  The Good Soldiers
David Finkel
Paperback; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009

Personal, emotional and powerful, David Finkel tells the stories of the army infantry soldiers of the 2-16, the battalion nicknamed the Rangers in his book The Good Soldiers. He was with them from their arrival as part of President Bush’s “Surge” of troops in 2007 and for much of the subsequent 15 months they spent in Iraq.  Neither a raging anti-war polemic nor unabashed pro-war propaganda, or really anything identifiable in between, this book is not easy to read. The horror and anguish are continuous, punctuated by humor and more light-hearted moments, offering a straightforward glimpse into the lives of the soldiers of the 2-16 and their families.

8.)  Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust
Immaculée Ilibagiza (with Steve Erwin)
Paperback; Hay House, 2007

In 1994 at the age of 22, Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Rwandan native and ethnic Tutsi, was home from college to celebrate Easter with her devout Catholic family, when the death of Rwanda’s Hutu president sparked a three-month slaughter of one million Tutsis. Hidden from hundreds of machete-wielding killers in a Hutu pastor’s cramped bathroom with seven other starving women for 91 harrowing days, she survived and was “left to tell” her story. Everywhere in her tale evil is palpable and soul-numbing, including in the brutal murders of her family members. However, the unquenchable fire of Immaculée’s faith, seen through her accounts of the simple miracles that protected her, her talks with God and the remarkable path to forgiving the perpetrators and letting go of her anger, is a true light of hope to anyone who has suffered doubt, injustice or loss.

9.)  Adultery and Other Choices
Andre Dubus
Paperback; David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1999

In his second collection of short stories, Dubus delivers with poignant detail, compassion and gut-wrenching emotion a “warts and all” portrait of humanity, through father-son relationships, Catholicism, working class New England, obesity, the military, marriage and adultery. The title story alone (Adultery) will make it more than worth your while to go and get this book. Henry Allison and his wife Edith are both carrying on affairs, but the focus  is on Edith who is seeing an ex-priest. In this story and others Dubus takes us to the dark places of real fear and doubt – pushing us through the fragile humanity of his characters to discover what it is that they/we we are truly afraid of and the choices which will deny or welcome redemption.

10.)  The Millenium Trilogy
Stieg Larsson (Reg Keeland, Translator)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Paperback; Random House, 2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (Paperback; Random House, 2010)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Hardcover; Random House, 2010)

An international sensation, these three books are much more than a crime novel series, tackling big ideas such as power, corruption, justice, violence, innocence and morality. Larsson’s cast of characters are forced to face the darker aspects of their world and the intimate parts of their own lives, drawing the reader into a “spellbinding amalgam” of murder mystery, family saga, love story, financial intrigue and feminist manifesto that delves into the reality of evil in the world as exemplified by the international sex trade, Fascism, political corruption and sexual violence. Lisbeth Salander — the heart of the three novels — is one of the most original, imaginative and complex heroines in recent fiction.

11.)  Sinners Welcome: Poems
Mary Karr
Paperback; Harper Collins, 2009

Regretfully, I stopped writing my own poetry at the end of third grade, which was about the time I remember becoming self-conscious. I spent the next 25 years admiring other people’s poems from a safe distance, until now. Mary Karr’s truthfulness, whit, acerbic humor and literary skill birth poems about things such as sending a son off to college, First Communion at 40, the death of a tomcat, Resurrection, Nativity,  a football player serial killer and eulogies to friends. If we really take seriously St. Therese of Lisieux’s dying words that “grace is everywhere,” then we will start to see God’s grace in all things and we will be unable to keep God at a safe distance. God will be discovered in beauty and in ugliness, and we will hang banners on our parishes that proclaim what should be obvious and is often not, that “Sinners Are Welcome!”  This includes all of us. Reading Karr’s poems is an invitation for you and I to join her in becoming less self-conscious and more God- and grace-conscious.

Author’s note

If you like to read actual books while supporting a good organization, I would encourage you to visit the website for Better World Books, “the online bookstore with a soul,” for your book purchases. With more than 6 million new and used titles in stock, Better World Books collects and sells books online to fund literacy initiatives worldwide. 


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