June 5, 2020

Jeff Dunn: My Best Books of 2017

My Best Books of 2017

I know that you have been waiting patiently to know what I consider the best books I read in 2017. I know that your fingers are itching to put these titles in your Amazon shopping cart and push “Checkout” so you can receive them in two days and begin to read like I have read. I know this because I know that somewhere deep in the bowels of your heart (so to speak), you want to be just like me.

Well, friend, your patience has paid off.

Here now, are the top five books I read in 2017. Notice I did not say books that were released in 2017. I can be a bit slow on the draw.

5. Vacation Guide To The Solar System: Science For The Savvy Space Traveler! by Olivia Koski and Jane Grcevich. Are you making vacation plans now for 2018? Why not include a visit to the moon or one of the planets in our solar system rather than boring old Disney World? This is just a very fun book that teaches you a lot about the planets in the guise of a tour guide. You won’t look at the night sky the same again.

4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  This memoir of a self-professed “hillbilly” growing up in Middletown, Ohio hit a soft target with me. I was born in Middletown. My mom’s side of the family all came from Middletown. Vance’s people, however, were what we called “briars”–transplants from Kentucky. A briar may have moved physically from Kentucky, but not in the way they lived. Vance sheds light on those he grew up with in a very honest and merciful way.

I was reminded as I read how my aunts and uncles worked so hard to be sure others knew they were not briars, and yet they acted just as hillbilly as anyone from Kentucky. Vance’s tale made me look at how I have tried through education and employment and what I own to look different than those in an economically lower class. Just today, I went to get an oil change outside of my upper-middle class neighborhood in Tulsa. In the waiting room were people who could just as well have come from Middletown, Ohio–dressed shabbily, overweight, driving beater cars. Part of me–a not very good part of me–wanted to stand up and say, “I’m not from here. I’m not like you.” Oh, Father, have mercy on me.

Reading this book made me realize I have been thinking that everyone should change to be like me. Now I pray that they don’t.

3. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God by Timothy Keller.  Ok, this is a bit of cheat. I didn’t technically “read” Keller’s book. I listened to it as I drove from Oklahoma to Ohio to celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary. But really now, read, listen … I learned from Keller’s book that I have a lot to learn about prayer. I have been walking with the Lord for going on 45 years now, and I feel like I am a beginner when it comes to prayer.

Keller gives some background of praying from different cultures and different religions before settling in on Christian prayer. He is, in typical Keller fashion, at once practical and philosophical in his subject.

I have determined that the two areas I want to focus on in my personal study in 2018 are poetry and prayer. I am a rank amateur at both. Keller’s book awakened a hunger in me for deeper intimacy with and greater awe of God. Read it, listen to it–but absorb this important book by a great teacher.

2.  The Vatican Trilogy by Morris West. The three books that make up this set are The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963), The Clowns of God (1981), and Lazarus (1990). These books follow the lives of three successive popes and how their election and and execution of their office affects the Church around the world. In the first book, the man selected to the papacy is a former actor from a Slavic country; in the second, the pope abdicates the throne of Peter; the third book features a pope who wants to make changes in the Church that anger conservative Catholics. Did you catch the dates these books were written? Do you see that West seems to have been prophetic?

The action of the plots in these stories are not as memorable as the interaction of the characters. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy these tales–but if you’re not, you just might find yourself becoming one.

1. The World, The Flesh and Father Smith by Bruce Marshall. Good luck finding this. There are only a couple available on Amazon. It was written in 1945 and has been long out-of-print. Set in Scotland in the first half of the 20th century, Marshall follows the life of the fictional Father Thomas Edmund Smith, pastor of two parishes in small, working-class towns in forgotten areas of the British Empire from the beginning of the century until the early years of World War II. We see Father Smith perform the mundane duties of priest, hear him counsel his flock, listen to sermons by other priests as they rail against the encroaching culture, watch as church politics play out–all in a well-paced, personal, intimate way.

Do you remember the spell for “the refreshment of the spirit” Lucy encountered in the magician’s book? (You have read Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Chronicles of Narnia, haven’t you?) Lucy read a story that left her soul feeling clean and refreshed. This is how I felt when I reached the end of Marshall’s book. I said to myself, “This is what it means to be a Catholic.” I know I will re-read this book often, as often as my soul needs refreshing.

(After you finish this, look for another book by Marshall: Father Malachy’s Miracle. Oh. My. Goodness.)


The best album from 2017: Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens.

Giddens is one of the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an extremely talented musician and singer who is the ultimate definition of “soul music.” Freedom Highway will take you on a ride through the days of slavery, repression of civil rights, and ordinary, everyday struggles each of us must face, but do it in a way that does not load you with guilt but, strangely, with hope. Prime cut: Birmingham, Alabama. Get this, listen, weep, pray, enjoy.

You may have heard that I am now helping with the St. Paul Evangelization Society, a Catholic apostolate (a parachurch ministry in Protestant terms) that serves the bishops in the United States as “fishers of men.” A big part of this service is our web site, www.spesinchrist.com. I am looking for a few “reporters” and writers who can share thoughts and experiences of evangelism. Things that work, things that don’t work. You don’t have to be a Catholic to be considered. If you think you would like to help, please email me at imonkpub@gmail.com. The pay? You will be richly rewarded in heaven, I’m sure! (Hey, this is a ministry after all.)

Now, get on Amazon and start reading so you can be like me.



  1. Heather Angus says

    Thank you so much for these book references!

    I guess I’m about 20% of the way of being like you, Jeff, because I’ve read Hillbilly Elegy. I’m from southern Ohio too, and I know many “briars/ briers,” but none as astonishingly violent as Vance’s family. I was fascinated by his autobiographical story, but I also think his nearest and dearest were atypical in their extremes of alcoholism and mental illness (I guess that’s what I’d call his mom’s trying very seriously to kill him!) Thank heavens for his tough, foul-mouthed, devoted grandmother who pulled him through.

    I’ve also read the first two books of Morris West’s trilogy. The Shoes of the Fisherman seemed to be a tribute to Pope John XXIII, whose short tenure encompassed “Vatican II” which opened so many doors to and from the Roman Catholic Church. (Unfortunately, IMO, since then till very recently (Francis), it seems that every subsequent pope has been trying hard to push those doors shut again.)

    I thought The Clowns of God really went about as far as a writer could go in exploring the idea of God on Earth. But I guess not, because apparently there’s Lazarus, which I’ll have to tackle soon to see what became of West’s startling concluding scenes in Clowns.

    I don’t do very well with devotional material, so I probably won’t be diving in to Prayer.

    FWIW, my own favorite book about Christian ministry is the non-fiction A Dresser of Sycamore Trees by Garret Keizer. Since Amos is one of my favorite OT books, I am sort of ashamed to admit I didn’t recognize the phrase in the title, and I spent some time wondering how a dresser (which in my world holds clothing) could logically be made out of whole trees. (“Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.”) The book is a very modest, interesting story of a man who came to “help out” an Episcopal priest at a remote New England church.

    I read way too much, but I’m still always interested to get recommendations like yours. Yes, I believe that aside from gender, age, education, upbringing, and professional considerations, I *am* just like you!

  2. Jeff, thanks for the recommendation!

    I like the sound of Freedom Highway.

  3. Burro [Mule] says

    Jeff –

    I hadn’t heard you’d swum the Tiber. I’m sure there’s a story there many would like to hear.

    Freedom Highway reminds me a lot of Arcadie and For The Love Of Wynonna by Daniel Lanois from about thirty years ago. It’s good that someone is still making this kind of music.

  4. Randy Thompson says

    “Hillbilly Elegy” is must reading.

    I’m currently reading Keller’s book on prayer, which is good, I think, but not great (at leaat so far). As far as I’m concerned, if you were to read one book on prayer in your whole life, I would urge you to read Richard Foster’s “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.” The book not only describes many different ways of praying, it makes you want to pray. For me, it is a perfect blend of information and personal experience. Besides, the book is worth owning for the footnotes, which will give you a life time of further exploration.

  5. I suppose it’s possible to read too much if it causes you to neglect your family or your health but what’s the point of family support or being healthy if not to read more books?

    Best literary discovery of the year for me was the independent publisher WAKEFIELD PRESS who self-describe as “an independent American publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities in small, affordable, yet elegant paperback editions.” It’s astonishing that Americans are doing this given the generally low regard books in translation have over here.

    Lots of good stuff. My best reading experience of 2017 was Belgian Paul Willems’ THE CATHEDRAL OF MIST. I suppose you would describe these stories as magical realism. The title story is about an architect who wearies of working in stone and decides to build a cathedral of mist in the middle of an ancient forest. How he does this and what becomes of it is surely magical indeed.