“Favorite? But I like too many things!”
That was the response when I asked my five-year-old daughter what her favorite book was. I often feel the same way when people ask me for my top ten books or films. I like too many things: how can I put them in order?
In that spirit, here is my list of Too Many Things of 2014 that I enjoyed. Not all are from 2014; it just happens to be the year that I encountered them:
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury might just be the best evocation of childhood that I have ever read. I wrote a review of it here.
The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton (in a new edition illustrated by Ben Hatke) is balm for the soul—or at least it was for me, after a year that saw plenty of contentious quarrelling among Catholics. Read my review here.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is an alternate history of an England where magic is practiced with the same prestige as science. Written in a sort of Austen-esque pastiche mode, it’s a lot of fun if not very deep.
I read a number of the Odd Thomas novels by Dean Koontz. They are also fun but not deep, a good choice for reading on the bus or train. Not everything needs to be a masterpiece!
The Rising by Robert Ovies was one of the most fun reads of this year. A supernatural thriller with a good Catholic subplot, it surprised me with how gripping it was!
Something Other than God by Jennifer Fulwiler. Since I designed the cover for this book I got to read it in manuscript form. It was riveting… and also gave me a serious case of anxiety as I spent hours and hours trying to figure out a cover that did the book justice. It went on to be a best-seller, which is no surprise!
Not As the World Gives by Stratford Caldecott is a marvelous collection of essays primarily on the topic of Catholic Social Teaching, but with many little discursions into varied topics. If you’ve never encountered the work of the late, great Stratford Caldecott, this would be a fine introduction.
Home Economics by Wendell Berry begins with a reminder that the original meaning of the word “economy” refers to the management of a household. The essays in this book are bent upon returning focus to the home and the local stage. In an age when “politics” and “economics” usually only refer to national presidential races and the latest news from Wall Street, it’s refreshing and inspiring to be reminded that keeping your focus on your family and local affairs is probably the best use of your time and energy.
Human Goods, Economic Evils by Edward Hadas is an admirable and sensible attempt to reorient our economic focus on humans, using Catholic teaching as a springboard. Some distributists and some free-market types may not like it, as Hadas isn’t calling for a huge overhaul of economic affairs, whether to distribute property more widely (not that he’s against it, but he doesn’t see it as a primary goal) or to call for less government involvement (he rightly points out that as societies and their economies grow larger and more complex, it stands to reason the government oversight does as well). Rather, he calls people to reject the incomplete anthropology behind standard economic thought and bring a fuller picture of who man is and what he is for to the picture. And as a bonus, it includes a foreword by Stratford Caldecott.
The Catholic Guide to Depression by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Fr. John Cihak is an essential book for any Catholic who thinks they or someone close to them might be depressed. While there is a general problem among the public of over-diagnosing psychological problems, I think the opposite can be found in the small world of orthodox Catholics, where spiritual diagnoses for serious psychological issues tend to be pushed—along with an often wholesale dismissal of psychology. This book sifts through both spiritual and psychological issues and gives a balanced perspective. Read an interview with the authors here.
And if you want another take on depression (and alienation, and being a curmudgeon, and feeling out of place), what about Lost in the Cosmos? This year I read Walker Percy’s splendidly contrarian and stubbornly out of step collection of thoughts on the human condition in the modern world. It was great, and I have a feeling it will be one of those books I reread many times.
The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher. Okay, so it came out last year and that’s actually when I read it. But now it’s in print! Also a cover design of mine. Simcha’s little sister is married to my brother, so I guess this kind of smacks of nepotism, but I think you can forgive me once you read the book. After a zillion NFP booklets that promise a sunny, perpetually fulfilling experience with natural family planning, it’s a relief to read a book that takes a more down-to-earth approach.
Books for Children
The third of the Zita books, The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, arrived this spring and was promptly devoured by my kids. Ben Hatke’s graphic novel trilogy is a delight for both kids and adults, and the three books have been worn ragged in our household by repeated readings.
Due to the wonderful animated adaptation, we discovered the Ernest and Celestine books by Gabrielle Vincent this year. All of them illustrated with beautiful watercolors, they have become a favorite in our house.
Tell Me about the Catholic Faith is one of the books Ignatius co-publishes with Magnificat. As a homeschooling family, this book has become an essential part of our religion and history classes. It includes a history of the Church, a section on Church architecture, explanations of the sacraments, little comics telling lives of the saints, an overview of the Reformation from a Catholic perspective (invaluable for teaching this subject since most history texts basically present the Protestant take), and a whole lot more.
My oldest son’s favorite book of the year was Carol Ryrie Brink’s book Andy Buckram’s Tin Men. Used copies are available for exorbitant amounts, so you’d do best getting a library loan on this one. Luckily, our pastor had a copy he lent to us. The story of a farm boy who builds a series of robots that magically come to life during a lightning storm, the book sparked an interest in robots and building things. Since reading the book, my son has constructed five or six “junk robots” and made a short stop-motion “trailer” for a movie starring them.
Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe is an unconventional saint biopic. Choosing to tell the story of Maximilian Kolbe from the perspective of various people who met him at different stages in his life allows the viewer to make up his mind about the man rather than simply being presented with a glossy holy-card version of Kolbe’s life. It stars Christoph Waltz (of Inglorious Basterds fame) as Jan, a fictional version of the man who escaped from Auschwitz and caused the Nazi reprisal that Kolbe voluntarily died in. Jan spends the rest of his life attempting to find out why Kolbe did what he did. On DVD from Ignatius Press.
Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. I am a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki, so when I heard that there was a fly-on-the-wall documentary following an entire year at Studio Ghibli, I got unreasonably excited. This was one of the most fulfilling documentaries on an artist that I’ve seen, and the reason, I think, is that it is focused on the art. Instead of spending a great deal of time going over the life of Miyazaki and his co-workers, it mostly just lets this gruff, enigmatic, eccentric man speak for himself. If you’re a fan, you’ll love it.
Ernest and Celestine is a rare treat—a traditionally animated movie. My daughter loves it, though I suspect it’s largely because she sees herself in the little artistic orphaned mouse who likes bossing around the giant bear she lives with. The English-language dub is very well cast, and includes one of the last performances by Lauren Bacall.
There are serious movies and then there are movies that are pure fun. For me, the two that were the most giddy, silly fun this year were (for adults) Guardians of the Galaxy and (for kids) Big Hero 6. We saw Big Hero 6 at a local drive-in, and our kids had a blast. Guardians, unfortunately, has a few too many off-color references for kids—which is too bad, because the movie might just be the most enjoyable space-opera movie since Star Wars arrived in 1977. It seems to know this, and has ingenious fun by using a plot gimmick to allow the movie to be set to a series of infectious pop songs of the 70s.
Honorable mentions: the newest iteration of Godzilla was fun and had everything you expect from a Godzilla flick: pseudo-philosophical ramblings, shallow human characters, and giant monsters smashing stuff. Our family also started going through various swashbuckling movies, starting with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940). They both hold up very well.
What about you? Books, films, music–if you have recommendations, add them in the comments!