As always I shall switch from “best” to “favorite” and back as my whimsy takes me.
Books (nonfiction). Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, And Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. A classic (I think?) study of the many varied practices and meanings of continence (aka no sex having from now on) in the early Church. Fantastic, fun to read, and I’m really looking forward to writing something inspired by this, on the varied practices and meanings of specifically gay lay celibacy in our own time. Extremely recommended.
Evelyn Waugh, Two Lives. A gorgeous, grim hagiography of Edmund Campion and a lovely if to me a lot less necessary bio of Fr. Ronald Knox.
Lawrence Wechsler, A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. Case studies in attempts at truth and/or reconciliation.
Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, And Other Abject Subjects. Scattershot but very interesting essay-arguments about how Christianity, far from turning shame cultures into guilt cultures, turned shame into a badge of honor. Overturning hierarchies rather than instituting equality. I am not sure how much I trust this author (e.g. she has a footnote where she talks about how John’s Gospel only refers to Mary by her relationship to Jesus, never by name, but she neglects to mention that this is also how “the disciple whom Jesus loved” refers to himself…) but I like her moxie and I’ll be re-reading this.
Karl the Barth, Deliverance to the Captives.
And a very honorable mention to Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian. Hey there’s another good book about this stuff!
Books (real books). In recent years my favorite book of the year has usually been some huge epic: Kristin Lavransdatter, Infinite Jest, Wolf Among Wolves. This year I did read two vast tomes, and they did have the features I love in epic novels. They were strange and haunting evocations of an entire way of life, filled with memorable characters. Both of them also degenerated steadily in their long back half, and included at least 200 pages which should’ve been cut. Still, I can’t really compare them to the short sharp novels I enjoyed less ambivalently this year, so I’ll stick them up here in their own paragraphs.
Alan Moore’s Jerusalem is, when it’s good, maybe the most poignant portrayal I’ve ever read of a beloved hometown sinking into despair. (And I read the Washington Post Metro section in the early ’90s!) It’s fluorescently imaginative, a rampant weird fantasia full of life and afterlife. But when it’s bad, it’s screeds about how you shouldn’t repent sex with pubescent children because free will is a lie. The pornography is mostly incomprehensible, so it has that going for it.
Jose Maria Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God is a touching, quite funny portrait of a middle-class Catholic family in a country heading toward civil war. It includes one of the sweetest and funniest portrayals of a saint you’ll ever read. It turns into a welter of Masonic conspiracy and the acronyms steadily spread until they outnumber the names. Things pick up again once the Communists start shooting nuns.
Okay, let’s rank the shorter novels, from best to… less-best.
Carmen Boullosa, They’re Cows, We’re Pigs.
Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Jim Thompson, The Grifters. Honestly this could easily switch places with the Chabon. It has some gauche and clumsy elements but the mother-son relationship is just so perfectly bruised and sleazy. What I loved in this book, I loved a lot.
Jachym Topol, The Devil’s Workshop. Czech satire of genocide tourism; review is in the new Fare Forward, which you can purchase.
Shohei Ooka, Fires on the Plain.
Also notable (in order of when I saw them): The Tenth Victim (oh hey, my very first post of 2017 had one of my year’s best headlines), #Horror (for real!), The Baby, Get Out, Blue Collar, A Cottage on Dartmoor, Confession (2005, don’t @ me, I can’t be shamed about this), Together, Ava’s Possessions, Hamlet (the Royal Shakespeare Theatreee one with David Tennant), Marshland, Ab-Normal Beauty, Passing Strange, Scarface, The Roaring Twenties.
Television: I loved BoJack Horseman season 4. I’m also really happy with how this review turned out, though it does contribute to the decadent genre of “reading theology into secular television.” Here are some extra notes as well. Also adored Miami Vice season one. Season 2 of that wonderful show had some duds but also some terrific, innovative and hot episodes. After that it settles down into a more normal procedural, although the bad conscience lingers. I’m in season 4 now.
And I saw A Charlie Brown Christmas for the very first time. It is charming and lovely; and a deeply-felt portrayal of Christmas as rescue. If you watch it on Amazon Video it is followed by a desultory, pointless semisequel from 1992.
Theater: The theatrical event I enjoyed most wholeheartedly was the reading of Fr Bill Cain’s Equivocation.
Best articles etc by other people: To be honest, I read a lot fewer articles this year than in past years, and kept worse track of them. So I will list a few things here but will also just say that Eleanor Parker has been an absolute all-star of Twitter. She’s a medievalist and she has filled my days with frolicsome caroling friars, beautiful Anglo-Saxon sermons, and “St Edith of Wilton: Nun, Fashionista, Artist, Zookeeper, Ruler of the Waves.” Tradical sometimes needs somebody to yank his leash (and to his credit he very obviously knows this) but his daily saint-of-the-day art devotional posts are delightful, and he posts gems like this extraordinary Christmas Mass setting.
And I really do love America‘s historical profiles. Church history is my only praxis tbh. Here are three great examples: Cornelia Augusta Peacock Connelly, Nicholas Black Elk, & Sr. Mary Antonia Ebo.
Leah Libresco Sargeant, “Losing My Child at Easter.”
Kaitlyn Greenidge, “Secrets of the South.”
Emma Hastings, “The Alphabet and the Inevitability of Death in Early Protestant America.”
And this is not an article exactly, but: “A Message to Those Who Kill Us,” a sermon from Coptic Fr. Boules George.
Best articles by me: My tribute to/critique of Desert Hearts, a movie I truly love.
“What it’s like going to church when you’re homeless.” There’s too much of my own voice in this piece–too many transitions, too much padding. But the quotes from the people I interviewed are terrific.
“Beyond religious life and marriage.” Interviews with people living in intentional community, families forged by godparenthood, celibate partnership, and more.
“How the Eucharist Helps the Lonely and Desperate.” Christ the Victim is Christ the Liberator.
“The challenges of being both gay and Catholic.” Final paragraphs are probably the best.
Best blog posts by me: “Mourning and Weeping in this Valley of Brunch.” Does Christianity exalt the body?
“Against the Weaponization of Gay Christian Witness & Other Notes from Canada“: “Mammals gonna mammal, y’all” and other words of wisdom.
lol “Judgment on the Orient Express” should’ve been in the “articles” section but my own laziness got in my way. Use every Branagh after his desert and who shall ‘scape whipping?
“Let Him Be Filthy Still: ‘Wise Blood’ & ‘Home.’” I’m including this piece even though like an idiot I straight-up forgot to talk about the actual most obvious similarity between these two books, which is that the central character’s self-destruction is driven by a belief that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross did not save him. Hazel says Christ didn’t save anybody, Jack suspects Christ didn’t save him specifically, and yet penance somehow must be paid. You can’t live with yourself, it turns out. This is what I initially wanted to talk about and lol it only ended up in the title of the post. What is wrong with me sometimes, for real.
I always stick a bonus item in this section. I did a lot of fun yapping about horror movies this year, but none of the yapping was quite good enough to make a best-of list, so instead let’s have this post about “The Two Theologies of ‘The Witch.’”
ETA: Can’t let the year end without trying to make you buy my novel. So, best compliment my novel received: a comparison to Florence King. (Although I do think King loved all the main characters in When Sisterhood Was in Flower. Even the liberal!)
Best book by me: I didn’t publish anything this year, but next year the anthology I edited will appear. Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church includes practical guidance, family history, spiritual reflections, and poetry. As far as I know it’s the only collection of its kind. If you read it you’ll find a cornucopia of crimes and cruelties–racism, embezzlement, abuse, gossip and more. That is our church. But you will also find meditations on healing, forgiveness, trust, and the communion of the saints. It has been a true privilege to edit these pieces.