My Favorite Books of 2020!

I had the best of intentions to get this up on the blog within a few days of New Year’s, and then was promptly overwhelmed with some important deadlines. Well, better late than never, I suppose. Most of 2020 was spent at home, and reading was a welcome escape. As Richard Peck quipped, “When I read a good book, it’s like traveling the world without ever leaving my chair.” I was thrilled to discover many new favorite books this year, among them some that will certainly merit multiple rereads. So without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2020, in chronological order.

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

This was the first book I finished in 2020. It’s the story of a family living in Wales during the Industrial Revolution, and it addresses a lot of heavy topics, like the different ways in which people adapt to a changing society, the strikes and unionization of Welsh miners, the idealogical divides between generations, and even the environmental impacts of industrialization. Despite all this, it’s still a book filled with poignant beauty, made more precious because Llewellyn helps the reader understand its fragility.

Who Does He Say You Are? by Colleen C. Mitchell

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I chose this book as my Lenten devotional this year, and it was fantastic. Each chapter spotlights a different woman from the Gospels whose life was impacted by an encounter with Christ. The reflections are beautifully written and the book is well-organized and easy to use. This is the kind of devotional that keeps on giving, and I think I’m going to be revisiting it often over the years!

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I started this book at the beginning of quarantine–the perfect time! I found the fortitude and cheerfulness of the Dashwood sisters comforting and inspiring. Like so many of us this year, they had to deal with unexpected and difficult circumstances, and they did so with grace. Austen’s personification was masterfully done, and I appreciated her insight into the very different ways in which we face suffering: in Elinor’s case, by stuffing down her feelings and putting on a brave face, and in Marianne’s, by wallowing in self-pity. By the end of the novel, we come to realize that the best way of dealing with life’s trials is some combination of the two: like Marianne, we need to allow ourselves to process our feelings, and like Elinor, we must then move forward.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

This is the first of Montgomery’s standalone novels I’ve read, and it took me a bit to get into it, but by the end she had–of course–won me over. The plot is driven by the question, “What would you do if you only had a few months to live?” It was an enjoyable read. I really liked the unexpected romance and as always, Montgomery’s descriptions of the landscape and changing seasons were on point. I think this is a great, fun option for grown-up Montgomery fans who have already finished the Anne and Emily books.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

This classic needs no introduction, and I think everything that can be said about it has been said already. It’s an epistolary novel, composed of letters between two demons sharing advice and anecdotes about their line of work. Lewis skillfully illustrates the various strategies employed by the devil to tempt us, and also makes it painfully clear that Satan (along with all the rest of the demons) is a weak, pitiable creature who is unable to understand the concept of love. It’s absolutely phenomenal. If you’ve yet to read it, what are you waiting for?

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

You know you’ve found a true gem of an author when they appear not once, but twice, back-to-back on your list of favorites! This is the first book in Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy. I actually started reading it a few years ago but just couldn’t get into it. This year, I decided to give it a second chance, and I couldn’t put it down! It’s a fantastic story that grapples with the theological and ethical consequences of discovering extraterrestrial life. Lewis paints a vivid picture of a world without a Fall, where all things are rightly ordered. I was blown away; I would never have expected so much spiritual insight from science-fiction. I can’t wait to read the other books in the trilogy!

Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson

For me, this book was pretty much an instant favorite–it’s an ode to the adventure of reading and the power of story, and it would be perfect for hardcore bookworms and wannabe readers alike. I have since added a copy to my own personal library and am finding Sarah’s booklists invaluable. It’s an all-around lovely read that I can’t recommend highly enough. You can find my full review here.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

I’ve always had a fondness for mysteries, but they don’t usually qualify as favorites. This one took me completely by surprise: I was definitely not expecting to like it as much as I did. It’s incredibly well-written and most of the story takes place in Oxford–a winning combination which makes it almost a guaranteed success! There’s no murder, but there’s plenty of mystery, not to mention philosophical insights, intriguing characters, playful banter, and a proposal involving Latin. What more could you possibly want?

Advent Reflections

green and brown christmas wreath

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” Somehow, the first half of December seems to have been completely swallowed up in an inexplicable end-of-year time warp and we’re already more than halfway through Advent! It’s such a restorative season, and this Advent in particular has been exactly what I needed at the end of a very, VERY long year. I love the quiet waiting and hopeful expectation that Advent brings, but I can’t wait for the unbounded joy of Christmas–and after all, what better reason is there to celebrate? I hope you all have had a restful, peaceful, joyful, and hopeful Advent as well!

What I’m Reading

Devotional

For my spiritual reading this Advent, I chose Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. In the past, I’ve used devotionals created specifically for Advent (like the ones from Blessed is She), but this year I wanted something more flexible, that I could read slowly and return to in future years. The book was slimmer than I expected, but it does not disappoint–in fact, it’s completely blown my mind. Simply put, it’s an exposition and interpretation of the Scripture passages relating to Christ’s conception, birth, and early childhood, and it’s fantastic. I highly recommend.

Advent Poetry

I follow the lovely Sarah Clarkson on Instagram for literary tidbits and musings on the intellectual life, and during Advent she has been reading a poem aloud every day and saving the recordings to IGTV. It’s a genius idea, since reading poetry is the perfect way to slow down and prepare a quiet space in our hearts for Christ’s coming. (Does anyone else find that they need to read poetry slowly–and more than once–to fully absorb it’s meaning?) Anyhow, one of the poems in particular struck me deeply and I wanted to share it here.

What I’m Listening To

Music

I’m not a huge music person, but of course I make an exception for Advent and Christmas music! My favorite Advent music of all time is the album Advent at Ephesus, by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. It’s a hauntingly beautiful collection of hymns (in English and Latin) that inevitably get stuck in my head–which means my poor family has to put up with listening to me hum ALL DAY LONG. At least it’s seasonally appropriate, I guess?

Podcasts

I’ve also been listening to the Abiding Together Podcast’s Advent series, focused on Our Blessed Mother’s roles as a model of holiness and as our spiritual mother, and loving it every bit as much as I always do. You can find the all podcast episodes for Advent here.

Well, that’s it for now, friends. I wish you all a prayerful rest of Advent, and a Christmas filled with joy!

The Beauty of a Universal Church

“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” These words are from the Nicene Creed, which is recited by the faithful during Mass. The word “catholic” literally means universal, and universality is one of my favorite qualities of the Church. No matter where you are in the world, Mass is celebrated in the same way. Even if you don’t know the language, you will know what’s going on.

And there has never been a better time than the present to explore the universality of this beautiful Church of ours. Across the globe, Catholic churches are live-streaming Masses, which means we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel around the world, visiting pilgrimage sites and stunningly beautiful churches, without ever leaving our living rooms.

This is not to say that live-stream Mass is a preferable alternative to in-person Mass, if you’re able to attend. There is no substitute for the Real Presence, for worshipping Christ incarnate in the form of bread and wine, or for the sense of community we gain from being surrounded by our brothers and sisters. But if you’re stuck at home and starting to grow weary of watching Mass instead of being there in person, then this might be the perfect time to virtually “visit” a church somewhere far from home.

Oxford Oratory – Oxford, U.K.

This church in Oxford, England is breathtakingly beautiful, with statues of the saints surrounding the altar, bringing to mind our many intercessors in Heaven. The liturgy is a very reverent and traditional Novus Ordo said ad orientem and the homilies are excellent (possibly just because of the accent, but I think not). You can find live-streams and recordings here.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral – New York City, U.S.A.

You can virtually participate in Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and more at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I haven’t personally watched their live-streams yet, so I can’t give any details about the liturgy, but it’s on my list. You can find all the live-streams and recordings at St. Patrick’s YouTube channel here.

Knock Shrine – Knock, Ireland

In August 1879, Our Lady appeared in Knock, Ireland, along with St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. The apparition was confirmed and Ireland’s National Marian Shrine was built at the site. It soon became a popular pilgrimage destination. You can watch live and recorded Mass from the Knock Parish Church here.

National Shrine of the Divine Mercy – Stockbridge, MA, U.S.A.

The National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts is a beautiful and architecturally interesting church. The Shrine is a ministry of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate conception, whose mission is to spread the Divine Mercy message. You can find daily Mass here, and they also live-stream a daily Rosary as well as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

Shrine of Fatima – Fatima, Portugal

In 1917, Our Lady appeared to three young children in Fatima, Portugal. The site of the apparitions has become “one of most visited Marian pilgrimage sites in the world,” according to the World Youth Day website. The 2023 World Youth Day is now being planned, and will take place in Lisbon, not far from Fatima. You can find live-streams from the Shrine here.

From My Commonplace: Autumn Vibes

Autumn is here! I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated all the joys of the season until this year. The beautiful colors, chilly breezes, coziness and comfort–oh, and SWEATERS. Did I mention I love sweaters? As someone who’s perpetually cold, I am thrilled to be back in a season where bundling up is once again sartorially acceptable. But mostly I love fall because it’s nature’s last hurrah before the winter hibernation. And no one writes better nature descriptions than L.M. Montgomery. Don’t even try to argue with me. She describes the stunning Canadian scenery in almost every chapter of every one of her novels, and she does it both deftly and lavishly, transporting you to the very spot she describes. Today I’m sharing one of my favorite Montgomery “word-pictures,” of Prince Edward Island in autumn.

But everything in the landscape around them spoke of autumn. The sea was roaring hollowly in the distance, and the fields were bare and sere, scarfed with golden rod, the brook valley below Green Gables overflowed with asters of ethereal purple, and the Lake of Shining Waters was blue-blue-blue; not the changeful blue of spring, nor the pale azure of summer, but a clear, steadfast, serene blue, as if the water were past all moods and tenses of emotion and had settled down to a tranquility unbroken by fickle dreams.

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

Reveling in the Reading Life: A Book Review

Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a  Reading Life: Clarkson, Sarah, Clarkson, Sally: 9781496425805: Amazon.com:  Books

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Sarah Clarkson’s Book Girl, an exploration of what it means to be, as Sarah terms it, “a woman who reads,” to delight in the world of books. This was one of those books that you force yourself to read slowly so that you can savor every word, and it became an instant favorite. Sarah somehow articulated so much of what I feel as a reader and wove a narrative that was at once personal and universal. It’s safe to say she’s a kindred spirit–and as Anne Shirley says, “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

Aside from the beautiful writing (which alone would be reason enough to read this book), the booklists that Sarah has compiled are fantastic. They include some of my personal favorites as well as books that I hope to read one day, and many more. It’s a literary treasure trove! Even if you’re not a huge reader, I would still recommend checking out this book. It’s not preachy, and you just might find yourself inspired to delve into the magical world of books.

More than anything else, this book made me incredibly proud and grateful to be part of the sisterhood of women who have found solace and inspiration in the written word. Like Sarah, my life has been shaped by stories, and my identity has been largely formed by the characters in my favorite books, who demonstrate the virtues to which I aspire and help me to better understand myself, my place in the world, and the struggles I face.

I’m talking about books like L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, whose heroine taught me to be fully alive to the wonder and beauty of the world and to put the best of myself into whatever I do.

Books like Jane Austen’s literary masterpieces, enthralling and yet completely human, filled with rich insights into the workings of society and the vicissitudes of love.

Books like, well, everything by C.S. Lewis, which help me to know and love God better and artfully reveal the relationship between the Divine and the ordinary.

Books like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which I am still reading, slowly but surely, and in which I can already begin to see taking shape a story about how grace works over the course of a lifetime.

Books like George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic, which made me fall in love with this beautiful, universal Church and inspired me to delve deeper into the treasures of my faith.

These are just some of the books whose sharp, poignant beauty has made me catch my breath, whose truth has thrilled my heart, who have made me laugh or cry (and often both). Without them, I would not be the person I am. Book Girl is a book for both book lovers and would-be book lovers. Although Sarah wrote primarily about her own life, so much of what she had to say resonated deeply with me. If you are a bibliophile or even if you wish you liked reading more, this book is for you.

Monday Miscellany: September Feast Days

Happy Monday, everyone! I hope you are all safe, healthy, and finding joy in the little things today. September has been… an interesting month. It’s been really lovely to get back into the routine of the school year, and I can’t believe that 2020 is almost over. (Just a few more months to go!) The many weeks since March have passed in a flash, and yet while we were living them they seemed to drag on forever. The month of September is dedicated to the Seven Sorrows of Mary on the liturgical calendar, and there are a few important feast days coming up, so I’m going to share some resources to help you celebrate those as well as a few other things I’ve been enjoying.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today, September 14, is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This feast day commemorates the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, who was the mother of the Emperor Constantine. You can find the story of how St. Helena discovered the True Cross, as well as a breakdown of the historical evidence, here. Kendra at Catholic All Year has written a great blog post with ideas for celebrating the feast day.

New Season of the Abiding Together Podcast!

Season 8 of the Abiding Together Podcast goes live today! It’s probably my favorite podcast of all time and I recommend it to everyone. Yes, I really do mean EVERYONE. I’m not a huge podcast person, and this is the only one I listen to on a regular basis. They do amazing book study series too, which are all archived on this page, in case you want to go back and read along–I particularly recommend their studies of Gaudete et Exsultate, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but you really can’t go wrong.

Praying the Seven Sorrows Devotion

Tomorrow, September 15, is the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. They are: the prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, the loss of Jesus in Jerusalem, Mary’s meeting with her Son on His way to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the taking down of Christ’s body from the Cross, and the burial of Jesus. This devotion to the Seven Sorrows was entrusted by Our Lady to St. Bridget of Sweden. There are specific graces promised to those who pray through the Seven Sorrows every day, but a good, doable place to start would be praying the devotion on the Feast of the Seven Sorrows, on Fridays, or every day during the month of September.

Period Drama Fans, Rejoice!

I recently discovered the blog Willow and Thatch, devoted to all things period drama, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. There are a lot of great in-depth posts covering historical accuracy, the faithfulness of various film adaptations to the literary versions, and–my favorite–the authenticity of the costumes. I particularly liked this post about the costumes in the new Emma movie as well as this one covering every version of Pride & Prejudice (including some that I’ve never even heard of!).

From My Commonplace: Stranger Than Fiction

Happy Tuesday! For this edition of From My Commonplace, I submit this quote, a gem from Chesterton’s delightful book The Club of Queer Trades (which you can read for free online here!), for your consideration. I think that what Chesterton calls the “congeniality” of fiction is perhaps one explanation for mankind’s long-enduring fascination with stories–especially stories that spring entirely from the imagination of their authors–and our sometimes mulish unwillingness to accept hard truths.

“So far from paradox,” said his brother, with something rather like a sneer, “you seem to be going in for journalese proverbs. Do you believe that truth is stranger than fiction?”

“Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Basil placidly. “For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it.”

The Club of Queer Trades, by G.K. Chesterton

Panis Angelicus: Why a Beautiful Liturgy is Important

I’ve heard this point made time and time again in homilies: “You shouldn’t be coming to Mass just because of the choir or the church architecture, because those things aren’t really important.” This statement isn’t necessarily untrue. The most important part of a Catholic Mass–the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ–occurs no matter where Mass takes place or what kind of music is playing in the background. A deficiency of beautiful churches and skilled choirs should not keep the faithful from participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. With that being said, the intent of this post is to make an argument for why Mass should be beautiful.

Continue reading “Panis Angelicus: Why a Beautiful Liturgy is Important”