Top 3 Reads – 2020

Last week was my birthday! If you noticed there was no post last Sunday, that’s exactly why. Not only was I busy all week celebrating with family and loved ones, but I also decided I deserved a week of rest. Writing, as much as I love it, requires mental work and time of course, and I simply didn’t have enough of these things to compose a quality literary reflection.

The entire month of August, in fact, I’ve been busy traveling. Every week, I’ve gone somewhere different: around my home state to Muskegon, South Haven, and Houghton Lake, and once out of state to Cave City and Louisville, Kentucky. As enriching and exciting as traveling is, it can also be exhausting, especially since I was working my day job nearly every day in between. Needless to say, I needed a rest last week.

So, now for the whole purpose of this post: my top three reads of 2020. This was a tough year, to say the least. We witnessed the start of a global pandemic, the bitter end of an impeachment trial, forest fires of seeming apocalyptic proportions, worldwide protests and riots in the ongoing fight for Civil Rights, and numerous other significant historical events. On top of all that, I was going through many changes and tremendous challenges of my own.

As a result of this and the emotional toll it all took on me, I spent less time reading than I would have liked. I binge-watched and played more video games in 2020 than ever. I did, however, indulge in as many short and quick reads as I could, still managing to finish more books than the year before. Because of the kind of year 2020 was, the books that impacted me most ended up being largely inspirational, those centered on emotional, self-reflective topics. Only one fiction book made the list this year.

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

This is the second book I’ve read by the author, and I can honestly say Chris Cleave is a remarkable writer. Not a single word is wasted in his prose; each sentence packs a punch. This book in particular interested me, because it takes place during World War II, the study of which I’ve always been drawn to.

The story is told between 1939 and 1942, just before, during, and after the Blitz, the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom during WWII. In the novel, some characters are living in London and others on a British Army base in Malta, just off the coast of Italy. The novel explores the various ways people at home and overseas suffered and subsequently coped during the war, emphasizing that bravery was required of them all.

The author’s own grandfather served as a British Army officer during WWII at the same base depicted in the novel. Cleave drew much of his inspiration for character development from the content of letters written between his grandparents during the war. The letters, much like Cleave’s novel, illustrate the differing experiences of those at home and overseas, ultimately making it clear that none was left unaffected.

This novel paints a beautiful and heart-wrenching picture of human survival and bravery in times of terror. It illustrates, through complex and flawed characters, that we all have our breaking points. Yet, at the same time, we are capable of withstanding far more than we think, especially when we allow ourselves to be supported by those we hold dear.

2. Untamed by Glennon Doyle

To say this book changed my life is not an understatement. I devoured all 352 pages in a day and a half at a time when my life was brimming with record-breaking levels of anxiety, uncertainty, and unhappiness. This book reminds us that We Can Do Hard Things, and it’s okay too if we can’t. We’re human; we need grace, patience, love, and even more grace. At the same time, however, we humans are resilient, often more capable than we give ourselves credit for.

This book offers tremendous insight on living our lives fully and authentically. Each of us imagines differently the most ideal circumstances, and therefore, the vision of our perfect life will differ from others’. We won’t always live the lives our parents imagine for us or would want for themselves. We won’t always want the same things as our friends or even our siblings. What’s important is getting to know ourselves well enough to recognize what the truest, most beautiful life looks like for us.

Doyle stresses how important this is, to know ourselves and be brave enough to do what makes us happy, even if it’s not what others want us to do. This is especially critical for women, who are taught from the beginning of their lives to follow the rules and not make waves. Doyle writes honestly about her own life, the ways in which she has upset and disappointed people, failing to meet their expectations of her. But she never wavers in her belief that we still deserve and owe it to ourselves to live the truest, most beautiful life we can imagine.

This book is inspiring and motivating, a stunning reminder that we are capable of doing great things, hard things, even those that feel impossible, even things that might disappoint people we love. Every page bears wisdom and encouragement for brave living. This is a book, not only for women, but for all people who desire to lead their lives with bold authenticity.

3. Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet

This next section is going to be a bit more personal than I’m typically comfortable with, but I can’t deny that this book stood out to me almost more than any other in 2020. While reading it, I heard (or read) for the first time in my life that it’s possible to be gay and Catholic at the same time. As a queer, Catholic person with the desire to practice my faith and live my life authentically at once, this was a freeing revelation.

This book taught me, through memoir paired with Church teaching, that gay people belong in the Catholic Church just as much as the next person, if that’s where they want to be. Many Catholics, I know, might hate this idea, couldn’t begin to understand how it’s possible, find it blasphemous and confusing. That, in my opinion, is all the more reason we need gay Catholics. We need to push back on the notion that these are always mutually exclusive facets of an individual, that it’s impossible to be fully queer and fully Catholic at the same time, because that simply isn’t true.

In fact, the “Universal Church” is supposed to be just that: universal, applicable to all people, open to anyone who desires to be there. Gay Catholics should be welcomed lovingly, not shunned or shamed or burdened with others’ refusal to accept them. This harms Catholics in that they are allowing their preconceived notions and assumptions about the queer community to prevent them from loving and living in the way that Catholics are called to, but especially and more critically, this is harmful to queer people. Perhaps it may be helpful to remind such unaccepting Catholics that Romans 15:7 says, “Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

In other words, this book changed my life and transformed my perspective on religion and faith. It guided me lovingly in the direction of the truest, most life-giving peace I’ve yet experienced. There’s something powerful and moving about this book being written by a woman, someone who is actually gay and Catholic and writing from firsthand wisdom, rather than mere textbook theology. The author’s approach is gentle, empathetic, and filled with an understanding only possible in someone who has the lived experience of a gay Catholic. This book is for anyone who desires to know more about how one can be faithfully Catholic and shamelessly queer at the very same time. And for those Catholics who can’t begin to understand it, I reverently urge you to read this book with an open mind and a prayer-softened heart.

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