2017: My Year in Books
(As of 12/29/2017)
Total books: 200
Total pages: 55,318
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
God's Very Good Idea, Trillia Newbell
Standout Reads by Category
Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf probably gave me more to chew on than anything else I read this year. I was struck by how my own personal issues relating to identity (and therefore my embrace of otherness) have limited my understanding of (and testimony for) Christ. I still have a way to go in this area, but I'm thankful that this book got me started.
Though not an in-depth treatment of the subject, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien should still be required reading for every Western Christian. Because I spent a year living in Asia, I know a teeny bit about how differently the Eastern and Western worlds think; however, this little book still challenged undetected cultural assumptions. If you're going to serve at a church here in America and have even a prayer of succeeding, you need your eyes opened to how your own culture can color Scriptural interpretation (and therefore your understanding of Christianity itself). Incidentally if anyone can point to a more thorough treatment of this topic, I'd be happy to receive your recommendations.
Midway through the year, I was happy to stumble upon None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That's a Good Thing) by Jen Wilkin. On-point and engaging from start to finish, with good questions to spark prayer and meditation, this is a worthy foundational study and a good jumping off place for deeper discussion. I look forward to working through these lessons with a group of women from my church early in 2018. If you're local and would like to join us, contact me soon!
Two books in particular came to me during a difficult season of 2017 (indeed, perhaps the most difficult season of my adult spiritual life thus far): Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen and Spiritual Depression by Martin Lloyd Jones. I am so thankful to the Lord for orchestrating the timing and throwing me these lifelines.
Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God, Tim Keller
Middle Grade Fiction
Of all the books I read aloud to the Podlings this year, the one that sticks out in my memory is Paul Drowswell's True Stories of the Second World War. I chose this book specifically because it does not glorify or romanticize war; on the contrary, the author's very clear about the horrors. While heavy, the details are laid out in such a way as to be sobering for children without being emotionally overwhelming. We also very much enjoyed Linda Sue Park's The Kite Fighters. I'm such a sucker for the warmth with which she portrays family relationships, and the father-son-brother dynamics in this book were sweet and poignant.
Of the biographies we read together, two in particular stand out. First, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness by Janet and Geoff Benge provided a solid, kid-level introduction to the life of the martyred German theologian, focusing equally on his childhood, formative years of travel and study outside Germany, and then, naturally, his participation in the plot to kill Hitler. Second, Laura Baskes Litwin's Benjamin Banneker: Astronomer and Mathematician left us impressed and baffled: impressed at Banneker's sheer genius and baffled that we'd never heard of him before. Honestly, I knew nothing about Banneker prior to reading this book. Now I want to track down full biographies and learn everything I can.
I also read quite a few memorable middle grade books on my own, either because I wanted to see if they would make good read-alouds for the kids or because I was genuinely interested. I absolutely devoured The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Ada and Jamie's story is so achingly real, and the progression of their relationship with Susan Smith was sweet and sad and emotionally resonant. Then there was The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. This novel is written in verse, and Alexander displays an excellent grip on the rhythms of language. Although the story set-up didn't immediately snag me, the family relationships drew me in and kept me fully engaged until the end.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin
General Adult Fiction
The most memorable adult fiction I read this year didn't turn out to be the most enjoyable books of the year--not by a long shot.
First, after quite a bit of dithering over whether or not I'd be able to handle the intensity, I finally picked up Michael Punke's The Revenant. While I absorbed the narrative through one squinty eye, I nevertheless respect what Punke did with this book - especially the historical accuracy and attention to detail. Though I'm not a fan of flashbacks, they're used effectively here to show how Glass became the sort of man he is. Still, this book just wasn't for me. It's not the grit and the ruthlessness that turned me off but the fact that this story's more plot-driven than character-driven. I love a good story, but lately I'm all about relationship development and inner growth arcs, neither of which this book provides.
Next in the line of memorable-but-upsetting-reads comes Ha Jin's The Crazed. Ha Jin's novels always make me feel a lot of feelings - most of them conflicted - and this one proved no exception. Set amid the political turmoil and student protests of 1980s China, the novel centers on Jian Wan, a sensitive student caught between a rock and a hard place as he cares for his professor who's been both physically and mentally broken down by a stroke. Professor Yang's ravings strike chords in Jian Wan, prompting him to unexpected action. Although the pacing is slow, the characters are so finely drawn and their struggles so immediate that I felt compelled to finish.
Third, we have Mercy's Rain, by Cindy K. Sproles. This was a surprising read for me for a number of reasons, no the least of which is the fact that I hardly ever read from this genre (Christian Inspirational Fiction). But the book came highly recommended from a number of trusted sources, so I dove in. I wasn't prepared for the storyline at all, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's been a long time since anything in the Inspy world surprised me, but this book bowled me over. Some plot points are emotionally jarring and difficult to read, but the struggle is worth it. Recommended.
During 2017, this category offered the most enticing and engaging reads--although I don't say they were all delightful.
Take, for example, The Children's Blizzard, by David Laskin. Intricately researched, smoothly told, and absolutely heartbreaking--this is a read that will stick with you for a long time. If you can handle detailed accounts of historical disasters involving children, this is your book. (Just be sure to build an emotional blanket fort for your feelings before you pick it up.) Along similar lines is Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. I'm glad someone told this story because needs to be known; however, book chafes at the emotions. Utterly horrifying, yet compulsively readable.
The prize for the most shocking book I read this year, however, goes to Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood, by Michael D'Orso. This book went off like a hand grenade: that's how shocking I found its contents. During the first two chapters, my jaw hit the floor. The second half of the book didn't hold me like the first half did, since it focused more on legal and political maneuvering, but this book has nevertheless left an indelible impression on my psyche. It should be required reading for Floridians--especially Floridians who are convinced that Florida has never really had much of a problem with white supremacy. Everyone needs to know that things like this happened. They happened, and they left generational impacts.
Although only marginally less horrifying, I found a lot to shock me in Rich Cohen's Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams. This is a tough, gritty, and unfiltered exploration of the Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s, inspired and informed by the author's father's memories. I appreciate books like this, which lend depth to the scope of the modern Jewish experience -- an aspect Choen touches on toward the end of his book. [Warning for gentle readers: violence, language, etc.]
On a lighter note (sort of), early in the year, I sniggered my way through Jennifer Wright's completely irreverent Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. I'll be the first to admit that this book probably isn't for everyone. The author's tone often borders on flippant, and while this tendency does create a juicy irony (and I do love irony!) it would probably offend some of the more gentle, thoughtful readers. Wright and I don't see eye to eye philosophically or theologically, but I respect her deep research, enjoyed her truly engaging style, and would read another book by her. I learned a lot, and the pages just flew by.
Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, Karen L. Cox
The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, Dan Jones
Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, Thomas E. Ricks
Young Adult Fiction
This category is always hit-or-miss for me. Fortunately, this year I found some hits courtesy of Jenny Han. I very much enjoyed the first two books in her trilogy, beginning with To All the Boys I've Loved Before. The girls' voices are fresh and authentic, and the characters all feel very real (particularly the dad). What I liked least about the book, ironically, is an aspect that's actually quite well done: The main character's love interest is so *very* teenage boy (which means he's a little swoony but also selfish, obtuse, and immature). In the second installment, P.S., I Still Love You, I found the same combination of elements that made Book 1 enjoyable (especially the family relationships!), but I liked this installment just a touch less -- probably because I've never really gotten on board with the extremely flawed love interest. I'll probably read Book 3, but only if it turns up at the library. As much as I like the heroine (and her family), I'm not going out of my way for the conclusion.
Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys
The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham really affected me. I actually delayed reading the last 20% of this book because the story made me so sad. I was legitimately worried about the outcome. The plight of the entire Flores family is communicated in such stark and moving terms that I couldn't help but feel for them. In fact, I still think about this family sometimes.
I'm thankful for Wesley Lowery's They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement. I'm always skeptical of talking-head cable news reporting, and even more so of Twitter reporting (although it's hard to knock the accountability of live feeds and Periscope videos, many of which contradict carefully-constructed false narratives). With most situations, you have to wait for the books to start coming out to seek a balanced take on big issues -- which sometimes takes years. Fortunately, the books on Ferguson and the movement sparked in 2014 are packing the shelves. Although Lowery admits to mistakes he made while reporting as events unfolded, I'm sure I couldn't have done better; especially given the powder keg of emotions surrounding the events. If you're keen to enter the nuanced conversation surrounding America's ongoing issues with race, justice, and policing, this is a good place to start.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink is undeniably well-researched and well-written, and yet horribly difficult to read due to the subject matter (especially considering the fact that I started reading during the approach of Hurricane Irma - a mistake). "It is hard for any of us to know how we would act under such terrible pressure," says the author, and she's absolutely right. It's easy to stand back from the outside and think what we might have done differently from these doctors and nurses (specifically Anna Pou), but this book drove home to me the unbelievable emotional pressure these men and women must have been under. However, I appreciate that the author's obvious compassion for the hospital workers does not override her desire to hold them accountable for their actions.
Considering my great love for all things Mitchell Zuckoff, you would have though I'd have made time sooner for his most widely-read book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi. Despite my high respect for Zuckoff's work, I've been putting this off for quite some time because I knew this book would upset me on a personal level. That fear proved well-founded. This was a tough read. Still, it's an important one. As always, Zuckoff is unparalleled in his field. The narrative is tight, cohesive, and never missteps. I don't know if I'm up for watching the film version of these events, but now that I've read the book, I recognize the cinematic possibilities and am glad that the story has reached a broader audience. This story needs to be known.
Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin
American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson is just heartbreaking. Not only did this woman suffer cruel indignities after her horrific lobotomy, but she also suffered a lifetime of heartless treatment at the hands of her own family. Her letters home to her parents during her formative years are especially heartbreaking! I just want to jump in a time machine and go back and give this poor girl some love and affection and also perhaps slap some sense into everyone before it's too late.
Barbara Reynolds's excellent biography Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul opened my eyes to the woman behind some of my favorite period mysteries (not to mention some of the best writing I've encountered on the Theology of Work). The secrets this woman kept and the hard-won lessons she learned no doubt lent her work a depth she wouldn't not have achieved otherwise; still, what a great cost. I finished the book aching for Sayers.
Though I tried watching the TV adaption of Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s and didn't get anywhere, the same can't be said for the first installment in Jennifer Worth's multi-volume memoir, which sucked me all the way in and didn't let me up for air. Full-hearted and bold, this book showcases simply phenomenal storytelling. I'd recommend it to anyone, and I look forward to reading the next two installments.
Cruel Harvest, Fran Elizabeth Grubb
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
Ah, Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte's problematic gothic novel is a huge sentimental favorite of mine, and it never fails to draw me in. While I'm not a fan of Jane and Rochester's toxic love story, I am a fan of the deep-down reality of the emotions, larger-than-life though they be.
Probably the read that had the greatest impact on my writing life this year was Makoto Fujimura's Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life. I came to this book weary to death of American evangelicalism's "culture war" narrative and having already read a few books focusing on art and culture care. It turns out that this is the book I've been looking for. I'm sure different aspects will strike me on successive readings, but for now, these are the questions that landed: 1) "What if artists became known for their generosity rather than only their self-expression?" 2) "What if we committed to speaking fresh creativity and vision into culture rather than denouncing and boycotting other cultural products?" 3) "What if we saw art as gift, not just as commodity?" The concept of art as gift has been especially freeing, and I'm grateful that this book found me this particular year as my own books have started releasing.
I debated where to put Pearl Buck's My Several Worlds. Part memoir, part analysis of the writing craft, and part description of what it feels like to live third culture, this book wholly shook me. I found it enlightening, inspiring, thought-provoking, and sad. Although Buck cherished friendship and deep human connections, it's clear that once she came back to live as an adult in the States, she struggled to find people with whom she could truly commune. Buck's upbringing and clear internalization of Chinese culture meant she didn't fit the mold during a time when American life was fairly standardized (1950s). To complicate matters, I'm not sure even she truly understood how fundamentally Confucian she was. In the end, her book is aptly named: Pearl Buck really did straddle two worlds, and she struggled all her life to bridge the gap. Recommended for anyone who's lived cross-culturally and struggled with the return.
Early in the year, I read two books focusing on the friendship and mutual influences of The Inklings, a group of scholars and writers loosely associated with Oxford University during the 1930s-40s. While Philip and Carol Zaleski's The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams was more detailed and informative, I found Diana Pavlac Glyer and James A. Owen's Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings much more accessible (and a good place to start for non-egghead types).
Just this week, I finished reading A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O'Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by Michael M. Bruner, and I have to say that it was one of my favorite reads of this entire year. It provides a wonderful analysis of O'Connor's theology as displayed in her work and serves as a much-needed reminder of what the author calls "the subversive nature of belief itself." While there's certainly a place for warmth and light in Christian writing, a robust theology also requires that flowery sentimentalism be stripped away in light of the gritty reality of the narrow way: "Prophets generally do not escape the wrath they preach to others...A cost is paid in any personal encounter with the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who calls his people to obedience and suffering, which is the way of joy in the divine economy." Heartily recommended, but only for those who are already on solid footing with O'Connor's work.
Most of the mysteries I read this year weren't very mysterious. One exception would be Raven Black (Shetland Island #1) by Ann Cleeves. It wasn't a total home run, but I did love the backdrop. I also liked the protagonist and respect Cleeves for crafting a complex puzzle. I need to track down the rest of the series.
While I've always been a fan of Wendell Berry's fiction, this year I dipped my toe into his other works, starting with What Are People For? I still prefer his novels to his essays (at least so far); but while my interest level in this collection varied by essay, I genuinely appreciate his thoughts on community, rootedness, connection, and home.
Could it be that my obsession with mountaineering disasters, doomed Polar expeditions, and cold-weather survival stories is finally winding down? (Or could it be that I've just read everything in the genre?) Either way, the Podlings are now reaping the doubtful rewards of my obsession. I spent half the summer reading them Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. The slow, detailed, and almost tedious development only heightened the drawn-out feeling of expectancy that the men experienced -- although in our case there was no actual pain and suffering involved. In fact, the kids were often eating lunch while I read to them, lending a tinge of irony to the whole experience. I've read multiple retellings of this story (including Shakleton's first-hand account), but I will never stop being amazed by it. Endurance, indeed.
Something about T.S. Eliot's poems soothe me, even when I don't understand them all the way. That sentiment held true through a fresh reading of The Waste Land and Other Poems, a volume which includes some of my favorites: the title poem "The Waste Land"; "Whispers of Immortality"; "The Hollow Men"; "Ash Wednesday"; and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." (One downside: my old paperback copy has a bunch of pretentious notes scribbled in the margins by Twenty-Year-Old Ruth. Cringey in the extreme.)
I've been following Gail Carriger's work almost since the beginning (Finishing School being my favorite series), and this year I picked up Imprudence (The Custard Protocol, #2). I know Prudence ("Rue") is twenty-one years old now, and I know this book was shelved in the adult section of the library; however, the fact that I met these characters when they were kids left me unprepared to read details of Rue's sexual awakening. Everything else that I generally love about Carriger's Steampunk is on full display (from solid action sequences to irrepressible silliness), but the overt sensuality of the book threw me a curve.
If you know my reading habits, you're probably surprised to see this category so low on the list this year. Yes, this used to be one of my most-read genres. That's changing for a lot of reasons (which I won't detail here, since I've already written many thousands of words today and I'm not sure how many people will actually make it down this far). It's fitting that my lone True Crime read for 2017 came from none other than Ann Rule herself. I picked up Lying in Wait: And Other True Cases from the library last week and read it on Christmas Eve. I'm not even sorry.
Books by Friends!
(Second year in a row featuring this category. So proud. Keep crushing it, guys!)
(Second year in a row featuring this category. So proud. Keep crushing it, guys!)
- Polycentric Missiology: 21st-Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere, Allen Yeh. This book skews more toward the academy than toward lay leaders and pedestrian readers. That being said, I'm part of the latter group and had no trouble engaging with the text. The book held my interest, did not fly over my head, and introduced some new ideas and opened avenues of thought I'd not previously pursued. I'm thankful for Allen and value his perspective on life, mission, and ministry.
- Fire in Your Pulpit, Robert G. Delnay. I studied homiletics under Dr. Delnay in the late 1990s but for some reason didn't read his book on preaching until just now. While some of the material shows wear (cassette tapes!) the principles hold sound. One line of text I can hear him saying in his soft, intense way: "Preach to the whites of their eyes." I'm thankful for his early investment in my teaching gift.
- The ABC's of Who God Says I Am, Kolleen Lucariello. As the title indicates, each chapter corresponds to a different aspect of our identity in Christ. The style is light and readable, the anecdotes totally relatable, and the questions at the end of each chapter helpful for application and/or group discussion. Best of all, Kolleen's warm personality shines through.
- The Revisionary (The Rogues, #1), Kristen Hogrefe. This is a quick, engaging read with a great pace. I like that the dystonian future delves so deeply into our current past, an aspect of the story that I really hadn't been expecting. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Kristen's series. I'd love to know what she has planned, but she won't tell me.
- Suburban Dangers, Megan Whitson Lee. I read this book in three sittings. I just had to know how it ended (although I also dreaded knowing how it ended, if you know what I mean). At some points in the story, it was hard to envision a way out for these characters, but I wanted them to find redemption. For those unfamiliar with the dark side of the American teen subculture (and sex trafficking), this will prove an eye-opening read. On a personal note, Megan's editorial guidance this past year has been absolutely indispensable. I'm thankful for her and her investment in my writing.
- Soul Rest: A Journey with Jesus, Amy R. Dunham. Short, digestible lessons aimed to help believers find rest in Jesus. I appreciate the distinction made between physical and spiritual rest, and I walked away with a fresh perspective. This book is perfect for small-group study, especially for newer believers. I hope Amy keeps writing. She has much to offer.
Amidst all this reading, I also released some books this year myself. Remember to check them out and let me know what you think. As you can tell, I'm a fan of honest reader evaluations. I'd love to hear from you!
Also, I'm always on the prowl for my next good read. If you have a book to recommend, or if you want to chime in with your own opinions on any of the books mentioned in this post, feel free to use the comment section below or contact me through whatever channels we generally interact (Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, texts, telepathy, etc).
Happy reading, friends!
"My Year in Books" from previous years.
Ivan Kramskoi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ivan Kramskoi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons