Fiction, Politics and Spiritual Physics: Sparrowfare’s Most Surprising 2021 Reads

It is the people you meet and the books you read that change you most in a year.

Whoever said that forgot to include experiences, invited or not, that change our lives in a moment. But that line about books and people has stayed with me since I read it sometime in my teens. While high school friends often tell each other to never change, most of us realize soon enough that change is inevitable; the real question is whether that change will look like growth.

Reflecting on my reading year with the help of Goodreads (the simplest way I know to track reading goals) I see both surprises and familiarity. I’m doing more re-reading than ever before and C.S. Lewis will likely remain my most re-read author (this year it was Mere Christianity, Till We Have Faces and The Abolition of Man). I also returned to Middle Earth for a third read of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And I finally finished Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, appreciating it far more than my first read many years ago, thanks to this summer conversation and this book, which I’m still reading at the moment. I also delighted in a second read of Jane Eyre thanks to this podcast.

But the year held many surprises as well. The books below definitely grew me. Perhaps one or two will make it to your own New Year’s hope-to-read list for 2022. They’re the books that surprised me the most.

The Book that Made me Laugh out Loud: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces has long been on my to-read list. First there was the friend who counted it among his favorite books and could never mention it without laughing.

Then I learned that Walker Percy promoted the book after it was handed to him by the author’s mother ten years after her son had committed suicide. Percy is both a master of ironic humor and one wounded by family suicides and depression. His recommendation is weighty indeed.

So when Close Reads: a Podcast for the Incurable Reader ended the year with a series on A Confederacy of Dunces I knew it was my time to dive in.

Toole’s “dunces” make us laugh out loud even though their storylines are cringeworthy and seemingly unredemptive. He is a master of comedic construction, visual description and ironic analysis of modernity. And he’s wickedly witty.

Ignatius P. Riley, the pseudo-intellectual catalyst for the book’s unabated mayhem, bloviates his way through the chaos he causes, disclosing in narcissistic oblivion: “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.”

Forced to get a job, Ignatius finds work in a failing clothing business called Levy Pants. The story’s rollicking craziness grows from here. Rather than do the filing he’s being paid for, Ignatius takes it upon himself to make improvements of his own choosing, writing his insights about social injustice and the moral failings of those around him on the Big Chief tablets that litter his room in the house where he lives with his mother, whom he professes to love only when it benefits him.

Ignatius unwittingly tips dominoes that tumble throughout 1960’s New Orleans, rendered by Toole as a chaotic carnival encompassing the poorest strugglers and the very rich, the outwardly religious and the unabashedly decadent. None of these souls has a deep center and while our laughter is loud, in the end it is without mirth. Beneath the hilarity, we feel the jab of Toole’s diagnosis of human weakness. Even our own.

And that can lead us to ponder a better way to live, perhaps by picking up Ignatius’ favorite book, The Consolation of Philosophy. Despite the farce in which Ignatius’ copy of the medieval meditation becomes a prop in a stripper’s dance routine, we sense that if Boethius (and perhaps Toole himself) were more widely appreciated, we might discover a deeper, truer way of life, one worth a serious interior search.

The Memoir I Couldn’t Put Down: Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire by Water

This book was so gripping that I read it over a two-day camping trip (with longer-than-usual reading time) and I reviewed it here when I finished.

How’s this for a storyline? Ahmari is raised by secular intellectuals in radical Islamist Iran until the age of thirteen when his parents divorce and his mother takes him to the U.S. where they move in with her brother in Mormon-dominated Utah.

An angry outsider as his story develops, Ahmari weaves the events of his life into a thinker’s tale beginning in high school and continuing through university studies and law school. He leads us on a reflective tour of existentialism, Beat counterculturalism, Marxism and postmodernism, revealing how each attracted him and why none was ultimately satisfying.

A post-university stint with Teach for America creates suspicion that the coddling idealism of leftist politics doesn’t help the underprivileged class it claims to serve. More twists in Ahmari’s life and we find him in London, writing for the Wall Street Journal and reporting undercover on an Afghan smuggling ring.

His experiences bring him face to face with his own soul and Ahmari begins to make the changes necessary to go where is spiritual poverty and his intellectual honesty have led him.

As valuable for its lived tour of current cultural history and intellectual trends as it is for the spiritual benefit we may derive from following the story of a soul, From Fire by Water, at its heart, is the interior journey of an angry young man whose first encounter with Jesus was a surreptitious read of a Mormon roommate’s New Testament and who embraced Christ years later finally and fully in the Catholic Church.

The Novel I Couldn’t Stop Listening to: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men

While I firmly believe that reading a hard copy you own so you can mark it up is the best way to appreciate a book, I’d never be able to enjoy as many books as I do without the help of Audible. I listen while walking, driving and housekeeping. I often purchase the Kindle version or revisit the pages of a copy I already own as well.

Good narration is a must for an audiobook, and with multiple first class narrators, the Audible version of Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men is a fast-paced dramatic rendering of a book that is as gripping a listen as it is a tragically authentic pathway to compassion.

I began reading ethnic and minority literature in college and have continued to do so ever since. These books deserve a wide readership, but I wouldn’t have discovered this book (by the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman) without the help of my favorite literary podcast. Close Reads once again came through.

A Gathering of Old Men is a stunner of a novel, taking place all in one day in 1970’s rural Louisiana where a prominent white man has just been shot in a black man’s yard. The community, organized by a white plantation owner’s daughter and represented by the old black men who gather on their friend’s porch (each with a shotgun and an empty shell to match his), will be forcing the local sheriff into an impossible dilemma.

As the old men’s backstories are revealed, the indignities each has suffered come to light in a masterfully drawn tale of racial injustice and stubborn circumstance. Given the ongoing conversation about race in American culture, this book is a must for everyone desiring a greater understanding of the recent past.

The Nonfiction Book that Called out my Inconsistent Choices: Charles Camosy’s Resisting Throwaway Culture

Charles Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, refuses to play according to the rules of left/right division that have turned American politics into nothing more than the dictates of a sorting hat. In Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, Camosy proposes that people of good will resist every unethical policy (not simply the ones proposed by our political opponents) by applying a Consistent Life Ethic (CLE) to each issue we face.

“Anyone who prizes critical thinking or authenticity,” Camosy writes in the book’s introduction, “should be skeptical of views that line up neatly with those of a particular political team, but in this regard Christians ought to be particularly sensitive.”

Who hasn’t noticed the tendency to express outrage at an opposing candidate’s moral failings yet excuse similar failings when the candidate in question is of our preferred party? Who hasn’t noticed our tendency to rage against some violations of human rights but offer tepid opposition to others? The difference? A breakdown along party lines and socially acceptable virtue signals.

Much discomfort lies ahead for anyone wishing to take every issue in the culture as an examination of conscience. Perfection, whether at the supermarket or the mail-in ballot, is impossible. But Camosy, in this richly footnoted manifesto, has carved out an important beginning. Our faith may be stretched and our relationships tried. But what kind of faith closes its eyes and ears to those whose plight is ignored by one or the other side of a political divide? This book can help us prayerfully engage the realities of our fractured culture and speak the truth in love.

Resisting Throwaway Culture courageously forges a way forward and if there’s one book I wish every thoughtful Christian would read this year, this is it. Camosy’s lastest release, Losing our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine Is Undermining Human Equality, is on my reading list for 2022.

The Spiritual Read that Connects the Quest for Holiness to the Findings of Quantum Physics: Sonja Corbitt’s Just Rest

On nights when racing thoughts or outside sounds keep me awake, I’ve taken to popping in my earbuds and turning on my podcast app. It doesn’t always work (the sound effects at the end of Pints with Jack tend to jolt me out of sleep, for instance) but with the volume low and the voices warm, I often drift off with a comforting spiritual thought.

One night while the Apple Podcast app cycled through a series of gentle offerings from Discerning Hearts, I awoke to the voice of a southern belle perceptively connecting the Israelites’ desert wanderings in the book of Exodus with our own fears, addictions and the findings of quantum mechanics. I’d stumbled on the podcast series Sonja Corbitt (the Bible Study Evangelista) based on her new book, Just Rest: Receiving God’s Renewing Presence in the Deserts of Your Life. I hoped I’d remember to listen to the full episode and slipped back into sleep.

I did remember. Physics fascinates me even though I only understand a sliver of what I read. My interest in physics increased years ago when I was in my counseling program and one of my professors raved about the way science was “proving” her preference for Eastern mysticism.

My curiosity piqued, I read a best-selling book many were recommending at the time. When I’d finished, I wondered why I hadn’t heard Christians discussing the findings of physicists with equal enthusiasm. Later I dipped into Dr. Stephen J. Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy. They helped (though not without struggle).

But growth is why we keep reading, right? Little by little our fluency grows. Folded into her Bible study on Exodus, Corbitt made the science I’d read before even more accessible, showing how the quantum phenomena known as the Observer Effect relates to God’s relationship with us and our relationship to him in prayer. And thanks to her, I’ve just added Dr. Robert Kurland’s Mysteries: Quantum & Theological: The Intersection of Quantum and Theological Mysteries to my 2022 hope-to-read list.

Quantum mechanics is not the emphasis of Just Rest. But Corbitt has produced a remarkable book that blends scientific insights from the quantum realm, the story of Israel in the book of Exodus and her own spiritual journey from Protestant Christianity into the Catholic Church. This unique interweaving (footnoted for those who want to know more) makes for a fascinating spiritual read, especially for anyone serious about growth in prayer and holiness.

As a counselor, I recognize the validity of Corbitt’s approach to disfunction and addiction. As a devoted Bible reader, I see the truth in her take on the Hebrew people’s wilderness wanderings. As a Christian struggler, I smile with recognition when she writes about God’s “pop quizzes,” the trials in our lives that repeat themselves, giving us a chance to grow in grace and practice what God’s been teaching us.

Just Rest is an immensely practical devotional book, and I’m working its insights on prayer, holiness and Sabbath rest into my New Year’s resolutions. But that little splash of physics sure surprised me and delighted my heart.

It made me excited to keep on reading in anticipation of the growth and the surprises that await. Because people and books (and unexpected experiences) are indeed things that change us most in a year.

What were your favorite reads of 2021? What do you hope to read in 2022? I’d love to hear from you!

Know someone who would enjoy this post? Please share Sparrowfare!

Subscribe here to join Sparrowfare’s email list and receive notice of new content, regular installments of “Three Good Things” – links to discoveries that delight, PLUS Reads that Feed: a Booklover’s Planner and Flight Fuel: An Eclectic Playlist of Hope.

You might also enjoy Sparrowfare’s Begin Your Reading Year with this Book (and Live Your own Story Well) and  Boost Your Reading Life this Year with these Five Tips.

Happy reading!

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash.