My Favorite Reads of 2021

Since I had a reading goal for the entirety of 2021, I thought it would be fun to do a round up post of the top ten books out of the 76 books I finished.  For the most part, I am excluding old favorites which I re-read from the list. The inclusion of a book on this list might mean I really enjoyed it, or it has stuck with me, or I think it is a really important book. That is to say, this is not scientific, y’all.

An Honorable Mention must go to all the Brother Cadfael books I read this year. These medieval mysteries by Ellis Peters are a joy for me to read, but I could never pick a favorite. Let’s just say I will drop anything else I am reading when one of these appears in my house (via the library, courtesy of my daughter).

Now, in no particular order, here are the top ten.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane–a Georgetown book club selection–was my favorite read in January.  This story of the intertwined lives of two families and the tragedy that tears them apart was surprisingly uplifting in the end.  And I found it deeply Catholic in its views on marriage and redemption.  Some favorite quotations: “Marriage is long. All the seams get tested,” and (of marriage) “Love isn’t enough. Not even close.

I read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate for my in-person book club at my next door neighbor’s house.  I couldn’t put it down, even though parts of it were painful to read–it’s based on a true story of poor children in Tennessee being stolen from their parents to be adopted out to well-to-do families.

This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home by Lauren Sandler was a gut-wrenching, soul-sucking read, and if you are one of those people who believe a smart, hard-working woman ought to be able to pull herself out of poverty, you need to read this. It was one of my Georgetown book club reads for April.

I read The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (duh!) via the Tea with Tolkien book club. Although I did not have time to participate in the discussions, I found the weekly podcast episodes summarizing each chapter to be super helpful. This was my second read of this book, which sat largely untouched on my shelf most of my life because it was so challenging, and I think I really have a handle on it now. It is so beautiful.

Another Georgetown selection, The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue is set during the 1918 pandemic but the author did not plan its publication to coincide with our current pandemic. It was a case of truth being stranger than fiction that she had this book about to come out before she ever heard of Covid-19. Needless to say, the coincidence adds weight to what is already a well-written and riveting story about three days is a ward for pregnant flu patients in a hospital in Ireland. It was graphic and painful but I could not stop reading.

Mary Pezzulo, the author of Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy, is one of my favorite bloggers–I share her writing on my page all the time. This is an amazing and personal explanation of the Works of Mercy, with practical and empathetic takes on how you can practice them: “I  have learned so much about what it’s like to be poor, sick, and lonely that I have something to tell other people, so that we as Christians can help one another. God didn’t want me abused, but he has used my journey to help me tell other people about what it’s like so it’s not so hard and isolating for them. I couldn’t have done that before.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune was our in-person book club choice for August and I enjoyed it very much. I found myself wanting to know about the backstory and hoping for more in this universe. I will say the tone is a little strange. It reads like YA fantasy but the protagonist is middle-aged. Also some bits are over the top–like the hilarious pronouncements of the six-year-old Antichrist, but that adds to the fun. At bottom, it’s a sweet, affirming book–though it has its own controversy. I am already thinking about reading it again.

I stumbled into an Instagram book study on The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness by Father Greg Boyle that was hosted by Alissa Molina and I am so glad I did! I had been fortunate to have heard Father Greg speak at my son’s graduation from Notre Dame so I was excited to read this book, and it did not disappoint.  Father Greg is the founder of a ministry that serves gang members, and the stories of mercy and grace and wisdom in this book will surprise and move you.

I read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter off and on for several months as my reading plan is to always be reading something either by or about Tolkien. This was just delightful–both for the insights into the writer and his creation. Catholics will especially enjoy learning more about Tolkien’s faith and its relationship to his mythology.

And finally, the book that was undoubtedly my favorite! If you don’t read a anything else on this list, read this one. I promise you will not be disappointed.

I read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke for the Fountain of Carrots book club. It’s absolutely delightful. I read it a second time for my in-person book club (they were fans), and I already am wanting to re-read it so I can unpack new layers of meaning. I loved it so much that I was unable to stick to the book club schedule and finished way ahead. Also, it’s short! A sampling: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

That was fun! I would love to know what your favorite reads from 2021 were, if you would care to comment below!

What I Read in April

Did I meet my reading goal? Yes, I did!

Tiny Hot Dogs by Mary Giulani

This is a memoir by a Georgetown alumna who wanted to be a star and ended up as caterer to the stars instead. It’s a fun read that unexpectedly turns serious near the end, and it’s interspersed with some recipes that sound tasty!

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley

I found this Georgetown book club selection very interesting. I also thought it was structured exceptionally well, with compelling stories to illustrate the points the author was making, that she kept circling back to and relating to one another. You would not think there was much to compare between Chicago gangs and Marin County politics and war in Columbia, but there is! And the very last part where liberal Jews and conservative Christians spend time hanging out together is gold. I could not stop reading it out loud to my husband.

Draw Near by Cameron Bellm

This is what I used for reflection/journaling during Lent and I absolutely loved it, especially the saints who were new to me.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

This was another Georgetown selection, and I enjoyed it immensely even while parts of it broke my heart. It’s the story of an undocumented Chinese immigrant and her American-born son and their tragic separation, told from both of their points of view.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo

Emily brought me this one from the library just because. The author loved detective stories and wanted to try his hand at creating a Japanese style of mystery story. Can you guess how he chose his pen name? Anyway, the stories are quite different from Western mysteries. But they are creepy! I enjoyed reading them.

Knoxville, Tennessee by Elena Irish Zimmerman

My big boys gave me this for Christmas–they saw it while shopping at the drug store and picked it up along with some similar ones that I will be reporting on later. They know I love Knoxville history! The whole book consists of old post cards with commentary on the pictures. A great number of the places depicted have since been destroyed, so this book is a real treasure.

And there you have it!  See more great reads right here!

 

A Short Manifesto on Life Issues

In June, I will be attending the Vita Institute at the University of Notre Dame, “an intensive intellectual formation program for leaders in the national and international pro-life movement.”  I had to apply for this opportunity, and I thought my readers might be interested in how I answered the questions on my application.

I believe in the sanctity of all human life from conception until natural death. I believe that procured abortion is always wrong and that unborn lives should be protected by law. I also believe that our responsibility to unborn children and their mothers extends beyond making abortion illegal. I adhere to the Church’s teaching on contraceptives and believe that their use has led to a contraceptive mentality that is linked to the acceptance of abortion. I believe that the rise of various forms of fertility assistance, in separating conception from the marital embrace, is also related to abortion. I believe that if we pro-life Catholics want to be taken seriously by the wider culture, we need to center our efforts to end abortion firmly within Catholic Social Teaching and a consistent life ethic. I further believe that we need to demonstrate our care for all lives in both charitable and systemic ways.

I take to heart Saint John Paul the Great’s words from his Gospel of Life:  “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator” (Evangelium Vitae 3).

My convictions often place me in uncomfortable situations and leave me without a political home. My critics struggle to fit me into our society’s convenient and restrictive liberal/conservative paradigm. But my convictions come straight from the teachings of the Church and that gives me strength to continue to proclaim them even when it is hard. And I believe the Church’s consistent ethic of life gives us a strong foundation from which to argue for all lives, whether they are the innocent unborn, the condemned murderer, the frozen embryo, or the terminally ill.

I was introduced to the topic of abortion accidentally as a young child when I stumbled across some pamphlets with pictures of aborted babies in a drawer in our home. I have been passionately pro-life ever since, with my activism taking different forms. I began by writing many letters to newspapers and government officials. I became a charter member and later chair of the Knoxville Diocese Respect Life Committee. I participated in Life Chains and Marches for Life for many years. I wrote a column on life issues for the East Tennessee Catholic, and later took the name of that column for my blog, where I have been writing on life issues since 2010. I have been active in the parish to which I have belonged since I was baptized as an infant, serving on the Pastoral Council as member and chair as well as on many other committees over the years. I have also served in various capacities as a volunteer at my children’s elementary school including serving as 8th grade Room Mother which involved fundraising for and planning graduation events. My husband has served as KOC Grand Knight, District Deputy, and 4th Degree Color Corps Commander, and I supported him in these endeavors as well.

Writing on my blog and elsewhere is my greatest passion and personal interest and I want to make more time for it going forward. I love to read and try to read at least six books a month, some for entertainment, but many to further educate myself. I enjoy hiking and usually walk at least three miles each day. I am a gardener and am in the process of replacing all the grass in my front yard with flowering plants.

As my nest empties, I find myself looking forward to the next stage of my life and wanting to work toward my professional goals. I want to spend more time on my writing and blogging, focusing on the intersection of faith and politics, particularly the Church’s Social Teachings. I want to create conversations among people of good will, educating Catholics and others and working to change hearts and minds on life issues.

In order to do this I want to be thoroughly grounded in these teachings, because it is very important to me to always be absolutely orthodox in anything I write. I want to learn from the kind of faculty the Vita Institute provides. My son is a Notre Dame graduate, so I am familiar with the ethos of the school and know I can expect excellence from any program it sponsors.  I have been very intentional over the last year about educating myself on issues of importance. I read books and articles every day from reputable sources, including both secular and spiritual books. Attending the Vita Institute is a natural next step in my self-education.

I believe I should be selected because I am a natural student and someone with her own reputation for excellence. My readers have told me they come to my page when they are looking for accurate information about Church teachings on the issues of the day, and I am very proud of that and take the responsibility seriously. The education I would receive via the Vita Institute would be shared with my audience, which includes both faithful Catholics and those of other or no faith traditions. And I look forward to the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with other like-minded attendees.

In 2012, the USCCB put out a statement on religious liberty which included the following statement: “Catechesis on religious liberty is not the work of priests alone. The Catholic Church in America is blessed with an immense number of writers, producers, artists, publishers, filmmakers, and bloggers employing all the means of communications—both old and new media—to expound and teach the faith. They too have a critical role in this great struggle for religious liberty. We call upon them to use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom.” I was thrilled to see the importance of the work of Catholic bloggers lifted up by our bishops, and I want to live up to that trust by doing everything I can to make sure I represent Church teachings on life issues faithfully.

And there you have it! I look forward to sharing what I learn at the Vita Institute with you all.

2021 in Review: Your Favorites, My Favorites

So here I am with a yearly ritual, which is usually a beginning of the year ritual, but better late than never, am I right?  The first five posts were the most popular with readers last year, and the second five are my own favorites. Readers’ favorites can be from any time (and some of them are super old, y’all!) but obviously mine are all posts I wrote in 2021.

Your Favorites

Things I Never Thought I’d Cry about: Losing a Dentist

There is really nothing special about this post and I am not sure why it is making another appearance on this list. I think it must have something to do with the photo which is not even mine. My dentist, as I recall, had a pink chair!

St. Joseph Was a Just Man

Another one that has appeared before. St. Joseph will always have a special place in my heart, due to my fond feelings for my alma mater, St. Joseph Elementary School.

Hidden Mothers

This was one of my earliest posts to get a lot of attention, being featured on Blog Her back in the day when that was still a thing. If you are a mother, I suspect it will resonate with you.

Mary, My Mother: Quotations and Images

Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Go

I used to spend a lot of time making quotation pictures with my own photographs, something I have not found time to do lately. This is a collection of all the ones I made in honor of Our Blessed Mother.

Bookwalter Cemetery: Pretty but Not Peaceful

I suspect this particular cemetery story is included for a sad reason: it has a scandal attached to it and is therefore probably being searched for by folks whose relatives are buried there. Because I write about cemeteries, people often assume I know the answers to their questions, but I don’t know anything more than anyone else could find out via Google and Find a Grave.

My Favorites

Religious Freedom: More Than Freedom to Worship

It should be clear, then, that religious freedom is about more than freedom of worship.  Yes, in America we are blessed to be able to gather to pray with fellow believers without fear—something we would do well to remember is denied to many people in the world. But true faith demands more from us. We must also be free to exercise this faith in the public square. Our faith is supposed to animate everything we do.

My Pandemic Year

Honestly, I have grown very comfortable with my new way of life and am now feeling a little scared about how things may change for me as we emerge from the pandemic.  As an introvert having all this time to myself has been nourishing to me–while my extroverted husband has become drained of all energy!

They Like Me! (Or Maybe Not. And I Still Don’t Care.)

I am no longer going to worry about my niche or my stats or my marketability. The few folks who pop into my inbox to tell me that they are grateful for what I write, that it makes them feel less alone, or that they look to me for insight on certain topics, are enough to assure me of what I feel in my bones already: that I am writing and posting about the things God wants me to write and post about.

A Third Trip to San Francisco

Trip to San Francisco

Not only was it the last trip we took before the pandemic dramatically shrank our world, but unbeknownst to me at the time, it was likely my last trip to San Francisco for years–because my son switched jobs and cities and likely the next trip we take will be to Boulder, Colorado, whenever it is safe to do so. And while I am excited to go somewhere I have never been, and to have the chance to fall in love with a new city, I love San Francisco and at the moment have almost a visceral feeling of wrongness as I sit here in cold and dreary Knoxville. 

Let’s Talk about Free Speech

I’m seeing a lot of people online whining, frankly, about free speech and censorship and living in a communist country because President Trump got kicked off Twitter and Parler got shut down and now we’ll be next and no doubt they are coming for our guns too. So I just thought I’d use MY free speech (because I DO have free speech here on this blog WHICH I PAY FOR, unless of course I start trying to plan to an insurrection, in which case WordPress would kick me off their platform, and rightly so) to explain how so many people are getting it wrong.

If you’d like to read highlights from previous years (which is a great way to see what this blog is all about), see below:

2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

 

Imagine You Walked with Jesus: Book Review

 

I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

As the graduate of a Jesuit university, I love all things Ignatian. Pray As You Go, one of my favorite Catholic apps, often asks listeners to engage in the what the Jesuits call contemplative prayer, and I always find it fruitful. In Imagine You Walked with Jesus: a Guide to Ignatian Contemplative Prayer author Jerry Windley-Daost rebrands this practice as “Imaginative Prayer,” and does a superlative job of explaining how it is done.

Jerry begins the book with a little background on the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, writing that he believed that “all created things, including human emotions and imagination, have the potential to make us holy.” When he designed his famous Spiritual Exercises, he included this practice of imaginative prayer as a central element.

Imaginative prayer requires you to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by using your imagination to insert yourself into a scene from Scripture. Jerry breaks down this process into six steps, including time to reflect on the experience afterwards. After this brief explanation, the rest of the book provides tools to make walking with Jesus in this way extremely accessible.

I love the chapter in which Jerry provides background on the world in which Jesus walked. He describes the clothes, the locations, the food, and more. All this helps to get you in the mood and sets the scene for your journeys with Jesus. And Jerry does not abandon you to your own resources! Instead, he provides suggested readings that span the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry. Each includes an opening prayer, the reading, more background information, prompts to get you started, and suggestions for reflection.

Later in the book you can find instructions for using the book in small groups, with either adults or young people. There are suggested reading plans based on the liturgical year and more. And there is even a list of other passages you can dive into on your own if you are hungry for more.

I was supposed to review this book a long time ago. The reason I didn’t is because I wanted to savor it. And I hope after you read this you will be inspired to buy it and try this form of prayer for yourself.

Imagine You Walked with Jesus is available from the publisher as well as on Amazon.

 

Printique Canvas Review: Honoring a Furry Friend (SPONSORED)

This is a sponsored post. I received the product in exchange for my honest review.

I have mentioned before that the Shollys are Cat People. When our house burned down over ten years ago, our two cats disappeared (into the surrounding woods, we hoped). That a mother cat and her three kittens appeared at our new house just days after we moved in was a blessing indeed.

Mace became William’s special cat and their bond was undeniable. He was a very special boy who enjoyed the freedom of coming and going as he wished. He was a mighty hunter with the tiniest meow, and he loved William very much.

When he disappeared a few months ago, we were all devastated. Recently I was offered the opportunity to partner with Printique (who I have worked with before) and I knew almost immediately what I wanted to do.

I uploaded a favorite photo of Mace, and in just a few days it was returned to me as an 8×10 canvas print that William can hang in his room.

We were super impressed by the quality of the print, especially since the picture was taken with an older iPhone. You can see above how nicely finished the back is, and how simple it will be to hang.

Printique has asked me to share the following with you:

When moments matter, print them. Printique is an online photo boutique that specializes in printing memories on photo books, prints and wall decor. Take the time to print your life for you and your little ones. Save 15% on your first order with code: WELCOME15

Or click here to use my coupon!

 

 

What I Read in March

Well, this will be a short post!  I completed only four books in March, and if Emily hadn’t made a trip to the library the last week of the month, it would have been two.  We visited Boulder this month, which meant four days in the car, but that does not really seem like enough of an explanation, does it?

First up is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which I read for the Fountains of Carrots book club.

Have you ever read a book in high school or college, did not think much of it, and then read it later and were blown away? That was my experience with this book. I barely remembered it from my 20th Century Catholic Fiction class, which I took in my very last semester at Georgetown in 1989. Now I found parts of it to be some of the best pages I have ever read. Some books you really have to have some experience under your belt to understand, in my opinion. I copied some quotations into a notebook I keep and when I re-read them I get chills.  Seriously, this book’s exploration of the effect of having been raised Catholic is not to be missed if you are interested in such things.

Next we have A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler, this month’s read for my in-person book club at my next door neighbor’s house.

We all HATED this book. Not that it was not interesting. Not that some parts of it are well-written. Not that we did not care about at least some of the characters. But the ending. It was just wrong. Unless you want to be wrecked and in tears, don’t read it. It is not worth it.

Emily brought me The Confession of Brother Haluin by Ellis Peters, and I read it in two days.

Y’all already know how much I love the Brother Cadfael series. This one kept me guessing almost to the end.

Then I moved on to Scandal in Spring by Lisa Kleypas, which I devoured in one afternoon.

This was the last of the Wallflowers series, the story of four girls who make a pact to help each other find husbands. If you’ve never liked romance novels, you won’t like these. If you used to like them, but kind of grew out of them (as I have), you probably will enjoy them for an afternoon or two of diversion.

This month is going to be better. I should finish three Georgetown book club choices for one thing, and a couple of other books I was reading last month as well. Will I make the six book goal? That remains to be seen!

Don’t forget to click below for other great reads at An Open Book!

 

Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network – April Reflection

I was honored to be given the opportunity to write a prayer and reflection for the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, an “Apostleship of Prayer [that] addresses the challenges facing humanity and assists the mission of the Church [by praying and working] to meet the challenges of the world identified by the Pope in his monthly intentions . . .

Please click below to read my reflection on health care workers, for whom our Holy Father has asked us to pray this month.

For health care workers – April Reflection

 

What I Read in February

So, I just barely made my six book goal this month, and that’s only because the first book I read was a picture book!

But John Ronald’s Dragons by Carolyn McAlister is truly a superior picture book. It’s a great introduction to Tolkien for pre-readers but there’s also a lot to enjoy for Tolkien lovers of all ages, especially the visual depiction of the eras of Tolkien’s life.

There were only two Georgetown selections for the first quarter of this year, and I quickly finished this one:

While I enjoyed Mine! by Michael Heller and James Salzman, I find I have already forgotten most of it!

Next I made the mistake of letting my sister talk me into reading this one:

I say it was a mistake not because Mother, May I? by Joshilyn Jackson  was not good–it was! Rather, it was a mistake because I could not put it down and ignored all my priorities that day. It’s a thriller involving a kidnapping, identity, love and its complications, and even topical issues. I have not forgotten this one and I doubt I will.

I’ve had this one on my list of spiritual books for awhile:

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Laurence is a very simple little book that was written a long time ago, but it has a modern feeling to it. The premise is that of learning to walk with God in every moment rather than just calling on Him occasionally. I want to read this again and again so I can internalize its message.

This was another one from my sister:

It took me a minute to get into Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, since it starts in medias res and lets the reader catch up gradually, but once I did I was hooked. This is an all-too-plausible story about where our many virtual connections and lack of concern for privacy might lead us–and it’s not good!

I have had this one on my non-fiction list for some time, and was happy to get it for Christmas:

As someone who first got the message that my body was not good enough when a doctor put me on a diet at the age of four, the message of radical self-love described in The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor resonated deeply with me.  I wish everyone who hates their body and all people who continue to shame them could read this.

OK, so this is the book that was responsible for my almost not reading six:

I wanted to like Franchise by Marcia Chatelain. It’s obviously a meticulously researched book and its story and implications are important. But it is so dense that I could not get through it. I rarely fail to finish something I start reading but I made an exception for this one. It was a Georgetown choice and someone in the club commented that it read more like a sociology dissertation than a book for popular consumption. It’s a good book but not for me.

Finally, I am going to share another one I have not finished:

The reason I have not finished Imagine You Walked with Jesus by Jerry Windley-Daoust is not because I don’t want to read it, but because I want to savor it. And the reason I am telling you about it now instead of when I do finish is because I was supposed to review it and it just is not fair of me to wait to tell people about it for that long! Plus I think it would be an awesome read for Lent if any of you are still looking for something special to do. It’s an introduction to Ignatian Contemplative Prayer, or Imaginative Prayer, where you put yourself into the story and use all your senses to experience the scenes right along with Jesus and his disciples. This is a super-accessible book for anyone who has no experience with this form of prayer, even kids. It can be used for solitary prayer or in a group. Not only does the book provide instruction in this way of praying, it also offers background information to enrich your imagination and many suggested readings to pray with. I recommend it very highly and I am not just saying that because I received a free advance copy.

That’s it for February! Find more great reads below via An Open Book linkup.

Heavenly Treasures

Basil the Great once said: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

We are not rich by any means, but like most Americans we have more than we need. How many coats do you have? I am embarrassed to say how many pairs of shoes I have. Does your bread get moldy because you do not finish it in time? Are we any better than the rich young man [in the Gospel]?

Read the rest of my latest reflection for Inspire Daily at the link below.

Heavenly Treasures