Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Goodreads and Badreads in 2011

Being a slow reader means I don’t read as many books as I would like. I love the sound English words make in my head and can’t help reading each one silently to myself. Floating off into Webster Land once or twice a paragraph doesn’t help either.

In late 2010, to help overcome this handicap, I joined Goodreads, the social networking site for book nuts, and as a result I read more books in 2011 than in any year since college. I took the Goodreads “Reading Challenge” and set myself a goal of reading 40 books during the year. I have now read 46, which amazes me, even if it does not astonish my friends.

Here are some highlights and lowlights of a year’s reading, some of it Catholic, much of it not; some of it newly published, much of it old. It includes four books by Sigrid Undset (Catholic) and two by Jonathan Safran Foer (not). Links take you either to my “Witness” posts or to my Goodreads reviews.

Best Bestseller — The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the amazing true story of an African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 and of her cancer cells, still used for research 60 years later. My Goodreads review says it “is about miracles—the kind of miracle that science is always boasting about and the far more moving miracle of a life transformed.”

Worst Bestseller (tie) — All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly; and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Shining is pop philosophy and, according to this piece I wrote about op-ed columnist David Brooks, “one of the stupidest ‘smart’ books I’ve read in recent years.” Freedom was an Oprah Book Club selection. I thought it was a mess, especially when compared with Franzen’s first hit novel, The Corrections. I continued scowling at Franzen as the year went on.

Most Disturbing Good Book — Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. You will never eat animals with quite such abandon after reading this book about factory husbandry recommended to me by my daughter Marian. Her review is here and mine is here.

Most Disturbing Bad Book — The Great Leader by Jim Harrison. I hate seeing talent wasted on a despicable character. Here’s the most positive thing I had to say in my review about the book and its main character: “If you enjoy the thought of listening to a horny old alcoholic riffing on religion, money, and sex for 288 pages, one blessed with a remarkably active penis for a 65-year-old and further blessed with Jim Harrison’s poetic abilities, you may find The Great Leader entertaining.”

Catholic Book(s) I Would Want on a Desert Island — The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset. If you’ve been reading “Witness” with even one eye open for the past few weeks, this choice will not surprise you. My summary review is here, and by searching on Undset in the left sidebar, you’ll discover more writings about the great Norwegian Catholic Nobelist (1928).

Best Classic Catholic Novel (tie) — The End of the Affair by Graham Greene and Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson. Greene is arguably the great English-language Catholic novelist, and Affair gave me far more enjoyment than I ever expected. But the surprise here was Benson’s Lord, which was recommended as a CL book of the month this summer. It is a futuristic Catholic novel. (How many of those can you count, leaving aside the not-really-Catholic space trilogy of C. S. Lewis?) And it is a powerful meditation on the enduring power of the faith, up to and including the end times. Read my Goodreads review here.

Best New Catholic Novel (I only read one. Were there others?) — A Father’s Tale by Michael O’Brien. I kicked this around sufficiently, perhaps unfairly, in my mostly positive review for “Witness.” Some readers of this blog took offense that I did not emulate the celebrity blurbers on the back of the book and call this the greatest novel in history. It’s good—a lily that doesn’t need gilding.

Best Catholic Nonfiction — The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. Published in 2003, this is a masterful combined biography of 20th-century Catholic writers Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. I deemed it the “patron book” (as opposed to saint) of this blog in my review. While Tattoos on the Heart, Jesuit Gregory Boyle’s account of his ministry to LA youth gangs, is powerful stuff, I would rate a second reading of Life over a first-time reading of Tattoo. 

Much Ado About Nothing — The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Ecchh. If this is the new best thing YA (young adult) fiction has to offer, I’ll just reread Harry Potter, thank you. The title of my review, “Rock, Paper, Scissors?,” made fun of the crude simplicity of these Games, in which teenage combatants fight to the death, though not before falling in love. 

Book I Most Wish I Had Written — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is another of Marian’s recommendations. I am still reading it but already loving it. It is the dazzling fictional story of Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old inventor and vegan tambourinist whose grandparents survived the Holocaust and whose father did not survive 9/11. Hilarious and heart-wrenching, it is one of those books I can’t wait to finish so I can start it again.

Finally, these are the six books on my Goodreads “currently reading” and “to read” lists. If I complete them by year-end, I will have read at least one book per week!

The Religious Sense by Fr. Luigi Giussani, the focus of CL School of Community for most of 2011.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiesen, in honor of Marian’s upcoming trip to the Himalayas.
The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian, book #8 in his 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, which I am currently listening to courtesy of Audible.com and the wonderful narration of Patrick Tull.

Plus three books by or about Sigrid Undset: 
Ida Elisabeth: A Novel.
The Unknown Sigrid Undset: Jenny and Other Works.
The Art of Compassion: A Biography of Sigrid Undset by Yola Miller Sigerson.


  1. WB: How does one find out the CL books of the month? It's been catch as catch can for me, hearing from friends. I can't find anything on any CL website, or in Traces. Other than word of mouth, how does one find out? Thanks!

  2. I agree, it's been inconsistent, but "The End of the Affair" is currently listed at http://www.clonline.us/home.cfm, which is the home page of CL/USA. Sometimes the book of the month is not in English, and I think you may find these on the international site, http://www.clonline.org/firstpage.htm.

  3. Sometimes the book of the month is mentioned in Carron's school of community, I recall it also being mentioned at the end of the fraternity exercises as well as beginning day during the announcements. But yeah basically as Webster says: it's inconsistent.

    Interestingly I have yet to get through Paul Elie's book somehow this combine and contrast biography format hit's me as dry and didactic and un-illuminating. But I'll take your review as a reminder to try again.

    I've probably read Doyle's book 4 or 5 times now. It was my personal blockbuster of the year. (Thanks again)

    Other books of great interest for me this year that you didn't mention are the books of John Eldredge (Wild at Heart, Walking with God etc). These are sort of gritty evangelical spirituality books with a peculiarly strong CL-esk undercurrent. They are overly specific and precise. But that's rather refreshing compared to the overly general and vague words of Giussani and Carron ;)

  4. @Vincent: My adjective for stuff that is CL-esk as you say, is "CLish" !

  5. @Allison: me too. Not sure why my brain made me write cl-esk....


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