Some of my favorite gifts to give for Christmas every year are BOOKS (and bottles of bourbon.) I called up my friend Claire who recently finished her Ph.D. in English (*hairflip*) to get her insight. Some of these I have read and some I can't wait to read! As a great scholar once said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read (Groucho Marx)." I hope you enjoy this special Friendsday Friday Gift-giving Edition featuring our friend, Dr. Claire Bordelon Masterson.
We all know that Christmas is the time for two things: joyful anticipation of our Savior’s birth and paralyzing anxiety over gift-giving. To encourage the former and avoid the latter, I’ve compiled a list of ten books that I think are stocking-worthy for either giving or receiving. So, add these to your Christmas list and remember, at the very least, these wise words: “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” (P.J. O’Rourke)
(1) Letters to a Young Catholic – George Weigel
Letters to a Young Catholic is George Weigel’s tour of the Catholic World, a tour which helps us understand how Catholicism fosters what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of being.” Weigel embarks on a journey to Catholic landmarks as diverse as Chartres Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina, offering reflections on the interior life and the practical difficulties (and rewards!) of living a life united to Christ and His Church.
(2) Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
Inman is a disillusioned Confederate soldier who has failed to die after being seriously wounded during the last days of the Civil War. Longing to be reunited with his beloved, Ada, Inman embarks on an odyssey through the ruined South he once knew. This is a Hero’s Journey story for the Civil War buff, and represents a beautiful addition to the American canon.
(3) All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
This book has been everywhere over the past couple of years, but I left it on this list for the sake of those of you who haven’t managed to pick it up yet. If you fall into this category, Get. It. Together. This book won the Pulitzer in 2015, but don’t hold that against it. The story follows a blind French girl and a German boy, both of whom are trying to survive World War II. Doerr provides incredible detail without becoming too tedious, resulting in a beautiful text about encounter, service, and fortitude.
(4) The End of the Affair – Graham Green
A moving recounting of the affair and aftermath between Sarah Miles and narrator Maurice Bendrix, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene is as unexpected as it is painfully beautiful. The intimacy of the narrative voice paired with the enigmatic movement of the plot follow Bendrix as he chronicles his journey from obsessive love to hatred for Sarah, her husband Henry, and finally to the God whom he is forced to recognize, even amid his darkness and a side note, the last forty pages are some of the most heart-wrenching and beautifully written passages I’ve read in a long time.
(5) Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson
I debated for an embarrassingly long time between these two books, both of which will appeal to anyone interested in history. Eric Larson’s skill in the growing genre of creative nonfiction means that both of these histories read like narratives. Devil in the White City parallels the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the rise of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair as his hunting ground. Combining the brilliance and American innovation that accompanied the World’s Fair with the darkness and suspense of Holmes’ story, Devil in the White City is not to be missed. A second, equally engaging portrait is In the Garden of Beasts, which documents William E. Dodd’s experience as America’s first Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in 1933. It’s a tense piece that presents well-known characters in surprisingly human forms (Goebbels is particularly disturbing). NB: Larson also has a similar novel out about the Lusitania called Dead Wake, which I can only assume is masterful, but is next on my list to read. NB part two: The audiobook for Devil in the White City is excellent!
(6) Biteback Dictionary of Humorous Literary Quotations
If you’re looking for a break from strict narrative or just trying to up your verbal repartee to Churchillian standards, take a look at this collection of hilarious quotes from literary titans. One of my favorites from the first few pages is by Gore Vidal about Truman Capote: “He’s a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.” If nothing else, it will make your holiday conversation a bit more sparkling.
(7) How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization – Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
For a unique history lesson, a sprawling take on human innovation, and a righteous sense of Catholic pride, try this survey by Thomas Woods which outlines the integral and defining role the Catholic Church has played in the development of Western Civilization.
(8) Father Elijah – Michael D. O’Brien
If you’ve been looking for a Catholic answer to the rise of dystopian fiction that has happened over the past decade or so, Father Elijah is for you. The book follows Father Elijah Schafer, a Carmelite priest on a secret mission from the Vatican to find and penetrate the inner circle of a man believed to be the Antichrist. Father Elijah’s task requires him to encounter a man possessed by great evil and to call him to repentance, allowing the Gospel to be preached to the whole world. It’s a hefty read (clocking in at 597 pages), but infinitely engaging and suspenseful.
(9) Not God’s Type – Dr. Holly Ordway
Secularized by both society and her own education in English Literature (she has a PhD in the subject from University of Massachusetts Amherst), Dr. Holly Ordway was an inveterate atheist. In Dr. Ordway’s own words: “At thirty-one years old, I was an atheist college professor – and I delighted in thinking of myself that way. I got a kick out of being an unbeliever; it was fun to consider myself superior to the unenlightened, superstitious masses, and to make snide comments about Christians.” However, through her love of literature and recounted dialogues with her fencing coach, Holly reconstructs the arguments and experiences that brought her into the Church. The book is written in an unassuming yet artistically strong style, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for an introduction to the realm of Atheist-Christian dialogue.
(10) Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength (The Space Trilogy) – C.S. Lewis
This is another must-read for fantasy and sci-fi fans. Lewis’ trilogy follows Dr. Ransom, a Cambridge academic who is abducted and taken to the planet Malacandra and the various adventures and discoveries he makes not only about this new world, but also his own “silent planet.” Tinged with Lewis’ philosophical touches and brilliant manipulation of language and world-building, this trilogy will appeal to anyone looking for another side to the Lewis they loved from Narnia. And if you know someone who’s a Lewis novice, give the gift of a Christmas miracle and start them off on a literary relationship for which they’ll be eternally grateful.
So there you have it. Buy one, buy all, buy me one, buy me all, you get the idea. With prayers for a blessed Advent and Christmas season, happy reading!
Claire Masterson is a teacher (some days more than others). When she's not inspiring high schoolers to give literature a shot, or gracefully figuring out newlywed life with her husband JP, you can find her at home in Breaux Bridge calligraphing--is that a word? I don't know I'm not the one with the Ph.D. in English. (Stay tuned--her Etsy shop is in the works!) You can follow Claire @cebmasterson on Insta & Twitter or reach her via email firstname.lastname@example.org.