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Winter Books

NCR readers recommend...

We asked our readers to share their wealth of reading experience and tell us their favorite books from the past year, the book that most charmed, enthralled, galvanized, energized, enraged, inspired or enlightened them that was published since last year at this time. Here are some of the responses.

Mary B. Bem
Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown). What is lovely about The Lovely Bones is that it is heartbreaking, but when you finish it you wish it hadn’t ended, so you go back and read the heartbreaking parts all over again. It can be looked at as a coming-of-age story, but the narrator never lived to be the age she would have liked to be. It could be a mystery, but you know in the opening pages who did it. It could be a horror story but it doesn’t dwell on the horror so much as hope for the survivors. It could be a ghost story, but the ghost is so fresh, sometimes funny, sweet but not cloying, sometimes a typical 14-year-old, you wouldn’t mind having her hang around.

Susie, the narrator, is dead, having been kidnapped and murdered when the book starts and is looking down from a heaven not your usual view of heaven, but believable. Why shouldn’t children have a paradise filled with the things they loved on earth? I was elated at reading that when the family dog, Holiday, dies of old age, he goes bounding for Susie and knocks her down with joy. I’ve always envisioned my own private place with Sheba, our long-dead mongrel, rushing to greet me.

In a summer that has been filled with stories in the media about real-life girls kidnapped and murdered, Susie takes us behind the doors and shows what happens to the family in the aftermath. Eventually Susie’s family can get on with their lives but it is not easy. When we lose someone we love, there is hope, and Susie brings us that.

Jerry Fraser
Fort Meyers, Fla.

The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brian Moynihan (Doubleday). It’s a mammoth work, a marvel of comprehensiveness and balanced historical analysis. It should be on everyone’s shelf. It gives ample background for understanding salient events and personalities in Christianity’s history. In this time of church crisis, such understanding is imperative if we are to retain perspective and hope. In this era of ecumenism, it provides clear and fair portrayals of reformers and their place in the various Christian denominations.

Mary Jane De Voe
Champaign, Ill.

Tomorrow’s Catholic, by Michael Morwood ([Twenty-Third Publications]). After reading it the first time I promptly purchased three additional copies and gave them away, recommended the book to friends who subsequently purchased the book, and lent my copy to a Jewish friend to read. She thought it was very “Jewish.”

Tweaking my ideas of God, creation, cosmology, contemporary society and my role in it, the book challenged many of my preconceived notions. So many of the thoughts and questions I’ve struggled with all my life appeared on the pages of Morwood’s book with concrete answers.

Ron Dale
Warren, Mich.

Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Collins). A collection of 23 essays, Small Wonder is the perfect remedy for anyone struggling with the darkness, confusion and isolation brought about by this past year after Sept. 11. Kingsolver takes the reader on a hopeful journey of feeling connected to others who don’t see suspicion, vengeance, “patriotic” flag waving, violence and war as the proper response to where America finds itself today.

In the many topics ranging from genetic engineering, the toxic poison of TV viewing, letters to her daughter and mother, trips to the Grand Canyon, the rain forests of Central America, walks on the beach and around the desert of her beloved Arizona, Kingsolver awakens one to similar journeys we have all taken in the search to make sense of the messy footprints we leave on Mother Earth and to see the way our humanity is affirmed and renewed by simple things such as a backyard garden. One is compelled to an inner yes, yes, as she uncovers basic truths that speak to the soul. As the book jacket puts it: “These essays are grounded in the author’s belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth’s remotest corners as well as our own backyards and that answers may lie in these places, too. In the voice Kingsolver’s readers have come to rely on, sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious and ultimately persuasive, Small Wonder is a hopeful examination of the people we seem to be and what we might yet make of ourselves.”

Our House Church book club discussion only managed to get through the first chapter. If you read only one book this year, in my view, this ought to be it.

Marianne McGriffin
Elkhart, Ind.

Turned Corners and Juniper Berries: A Poet’s Pages For a Reader’s Pen by Martha Bartholomew (Sakura Press). It is spiral bound and may be ordered from the publisher or via junipertree170@msn.com. Martha Bartholomew not only shares her own everyday experience reflections in poetry, but she gently nudges the reader to pick up pen and write right there in the same pages, making the book a personal journal for the reader.

Sr. Mary Naab, MM
Maryknoll, N.Y.

Power Politics, by Arundhati Roy (South End Press). The author, a Booker Prize winner for her novel The God of Small Things, provides a clear, passionate, well-written and documented insight into the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s restructuring of her country’s (India) loans and indebtedness, through a plan for generating and selling electrical power, by building a vast network of big, medium and small dams, that can ultimately displace up to 25 million people from their tiny plots of land. Enron, as far back as 1993, pushed for the privatization of power in an early project in India, and has been involved as the stakes grew bigger, and the projects mushroomed. The author’s purpose is to make crystal clear who gains and who loses and how, in the fever of building these thousands of dams, which will displace India’s poorest people, with no extant plan for their resettlement. I found this to be a galvanizing, can’t-put-it-down story that shines the light on the frighteningly destructive effects of unregulated globalization on human communities. The author’s clarity, humanity, passion and courage I found to be immensely inspiring.

Libbie Adams
Richlands, N.C.

Meditations for Survivors of Suicide, by Joni Woelfel (Resurrection Press). This book speaks the language of tragedy transformed. Having known tragedy myself, I look for books that offer transcendence, honest depth and hope. Joni Woelfel, the mother of a teenager who took his life three years ago, has written a powerful, poignant book for others who have suffered the loss of a loved one through suicide. The scope of Woelfel’s empathy and compassion are more than evident in these sensitive meditations, which address the painful, lingering aftermath of such a tragedy. This book is all about healing. To that end of it, Woelfel has freely shared each personal step she took, each stumbling block she faced, and each lesson learned while groping her own way to recovery and healing; and has done so courageously.

These thought-provoking meditations are taken from her own life, and from others she interviewed. She has skillfully mined the gems of her experiences, brushed them off, polished them up, and is now presenting them to others with the prayerful hope that they might shed light on someone else’s dark path. Joni understands grief. She writes of it with passion. Yet she has learned that helping others facilitates the healing of grief. In writing this book, she has given an invaluable gift to those who have survived a suicide. Yet out of her deep love and caring for those souls who still suffer, how can it be that she is not retaining the gift of healing for herself? I pray it is so.

Tony Wiggins
Wilton, Conn.

The Last Editor by Jim Bellows (Andrews McMeel). Jim Bellows is the successful editor of major U.S. newspapers. His style in this autobiography is understated and self-deprecating, giving large amounts of credit to people who worked with him. And there were many stars developed with his assistance who freely acknowledge in verbatim letters being turned on to the newspaper business by Bellows when he was their editor. These include Maureen Dowd and Jimmy Breslin.

Bellows saw the newspaper business as an instrument for helping to transform society. Though not a practicing Catholic, he had majored in philosophy at Kenyon College, and sounded like Ignatius Loyola in his questioning of prospective candidates for his newsroom, with his standard, mumbling question, “What do you want to do with rest of your life?”

Bellows takes us on an exciting and totally honest and candid journey, from his days on a small paper in Georgia, to editor of the New York Herald Tribune, Washington Star, Los Angeles Times, and on to editor of successful television news shows, never flinching in his quest to print the truth. Bellows convinced me that he loved the honest news business, and I hope some of his disciples are still active in his beloved field.

Lyn Hollis
Waterford, Mich.

Pilgrim: A Spirituality of Travel, by Leonard Biallas (Franciscan Press). I learned a lot about different religions and cultures, but especially about myself. Biallas makes me look at my travel experiences from a deeper perspective. There are chapters on nature, cities, museums, cemeteries and sacred centers. Many smaller sections -- often not more than a page or two -- are loaded with insights on the history of travel, the differences between labyrinths and mazes, arguments pro and con for graffiti in public places, photos as powerful stimuli for reawakening forgotten experiences. He shows how travel transforms us spiritually: the journey from home and back again -- whether we go as tourists, travelers, or pilgrims -- is really the process of human completion.

Elizabeth Pape Saum
Cadiz, Ky.

Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Faber and Faber). Both novels are set in India at the time of Indira Gandhi and tell a chilling story of government run amok. The first novel follows the experiences of a man attempting to raise a family without becoming enmeshed in the corruption so rampant. The second novel chronicles the struggles of a woman also facing the overwhelming problems of just being a woman in India, plus the heartbreaking attempts to survive the poverty exacerbated by governmental corruption.

I had always thought Mrs. Gandhi had followed in her father’s footsteps in trying to improve conditions in India. It goes to show we in the United States have no idea of the real conditions in other countries. n

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002 [corrected 10/18/2002]