Sunday, October 20, 2013

a year of books.

In January, I started keeping track of the books I read and films I watch.  I wanted a better way to remember the art I was encountering through the page and the screen--partly to better make recommendations and partly to keep those ideas that inspired or challenged me more firmly in mind.  I always felt the things I wanted to recall were too slippery to hold onto unless I wrote them down.  I must think better with a pen in my hand.

My book records began last October, so I thought it would be fun to do a year round-up at the proper one-year mark.  We're just mixing up those "best of 2013" lists will inevitably appear this December and starting things a bit early.  Without further ado:

*Underlined titles are my top pick from each category.

Best Memoirs:

Still: Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis by Lauren Winner. A beautiful meditation, in the form of short essays, on the crisis surrounding God's seeming absence or silence in our lives--in the author's case, after a divorce and the death of her mother. I also loved and highly recommend Winner's memoir about her conversion to Christianity from Orthodox Judaism (although I think the title is too reminiscent of Brio magazine).

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. With no training and very little preparation, Strayed decides to hike the famous Pacific Crest Trail--alone--after her mother dies and her marriage crumbles. (While the circumstances are similar to Winner's in Still, the books are vastly different). The book encompasses an emotional odyssey played out through a literal physical journey, and it is a grueling trip in every aspect: Strayed endures hunger, lost toenails, and the trail's many dangers as she ultimately seeks healing from her mother's death.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. A coming-of-age memoir that traces the author's upbringing in an unconventional and increasingly dysfunctional family. There are moments of beauty during the early nomad years of Walls' childhood, but when the money runs out and the family moves to a West Virginia mining town, she and her siblings must increasingly rely on themselves to get by. Their survival is remarkable, but there is also real love and affection in Walls' memories of her highly dysfunctional family--remarkable in it of itself.

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris.  Pure poetry. These essays and meditations, tied together by the common thread of Norris' year spent as an oblate (or lay associate) in a Benedictine monastery, contain musings ranging from the Dakota plains to depression to spiritual disciplines, from death to monastery humor to feminist martyrs. Each essay feels self-contained, but the book in its entirety has a wonderful ebb and flow that taught me, indirectly, much about the beauty of observing a liturgical calendar. I can't seem to find a way to describe this book in way that doesn't sound dry, but it was stunningly beautiful and I plan to re-read it many times.

Best Fast, Fun Reads:

Coraline by Neil Gaiman. A children's tale in graphic novel form, this is the story of Coraline, who has just moved into an old house with her parents and finds herself regularly bored in her new surroundings. During her exploring of the old house, she discovers a door that opens into a new world--it is nearly identical to her current world, but with lots of cake and fun to be had, and parents who pay her all the attention in the world. Eventually, the fun takes on a sinister edge, and Coraline must rely on wit and courage to escape the duplicate world and rescue her real parents. Whimsical and more than a little eery.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. The premise here is fairly straightforward: a woman receives a bump on the head and wakes to find she has no memory of the last ten years. The results of this simple plot set-up are in turn funny, surprising, and strangely thought-provoking, as Alice is essentially able to re-discover the life she has created for herself through fresh eyes.  While it is a light read, I found myself thinking about it for days after--if I were to encounter my 34-year-old self now, what would I like about myself and my life, and what would I be disappointed to discover? How do we keep our dreams and priorities alive and well? How do we allow these things to organically evolve without forgetting the clarity and simplicity that can come with a youthful perspective?

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.  This social-satire-turned-mystery offers funny, spot-on commentary on the lives of Seattle's privileged and elite. Bernadette Fox, a reclusive mother married to a Microsoft big-wig, has always hated Seattle and manages to constantly offend the other private school moms. When she suddenly disappears, her daughter Bee attempts to track her down by compiling emails, bills, and official documents, which makes for a fun, multi-media method of story-telling. While Semple is scathing in her mockery, the heart of her novel lies in its affectionate look at the mother-daughter bond. I found it an especially fun read set in my hometown, with nods to familiar landmarks and Seattle culture in general.

Blankets by Craig Thompson.  A gorgeous, sweeping graphic novel that deals eloquently and poetically with the author's fundamentalist Christian upbringing, childhood adventures with his brother, loneliness amongst peers, and first experience with falling in love as a teenager. Technically a memoir, I read this sensitive and nostalgic book in one go, compulsively absorbed and unable to sleep until the final page was turned. The sketches and dialogue are simply gorgeous.

Best Fiction:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Set in an upscale apartment building in Paris, we are introduced to Renee, a cultured and philosophical concierge who masks her intelligence to avoid mockery from the building's pretentious tenants; and Paloma, a precocious twelve-year-old inhabitant of the building who feels unable to continue on within her rich and privileged existence. Both women are outcasts of sorts, and both hide their true selves in order to better fit what is expected of them. While there are some unusually dense chapters interspersed throughout the story--the author is a professor of philosophy outside of this first foray into fiction--it is a pleasure to witness Renee and Paloma's blossoming friendship.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. This is a compelling, page-turner of a book about a young Pakistani man once intoxicated by the American dream--the money, the social scene, and one American woman in particular--who suddenly faces deep suspicion and unease in New York after the 9/11 attacks. It is fascinating to watch the resentment toward his adopted country swell in our lead character, and the book is certainly thought-provoking as it explores the international (and internal) tensions and suspicions characteristic of our post-9/11 world. The form of the story is unique: a single monologue portrayed a conversation between Changez, our Pakistani protagonist, and an unidentified American sitting across from him at a cafe.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.  If I start out by telling you this novel is essentially about global warming, please don't tune out quite yet. Kingsolver is a master storyteller, truly one of the finest novelists I've ever encountered, and this particular book draws on both her Appalachian roots and her background in biology to weave a story that is just as passionate about its characters as it is about science. Actually, I feel like I am not doing this justice and will resort to blatant Amazon forgery here to convince you it is a worthwhile read:

"Flight Behavior is a brilliant and suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our particular chosen truths. Kingsolver's riveting story concerns a young wife and mother on a failing farm in rural Tennessee who experiences something she cannot explain, and how her discovery energizes various competing factions—religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians—trapping her in the center of the conflict and ultimately opening up her world."

Best Nonfiction:

The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan Katz. Katz was the only full-time American news correspondent in Haiti the day the earthquake struck in 2010, and as such, is uniquely equipped to guide us through the event of the quake itself, as well as the immediate aftermath. What I found most compelling about this work of investigative journalism, however, was Katz's thoughtful and balanced explanation as to why global efforts to rebuild Haiti have failed so spectacularly. Katz has produced an eye-opening, fearless piece of writing that aims to expose why, after so many rich people pledged so much money to Haiti, so little has really been accomplished on the ground. As The New York Times Magazine puts it succinctly, "The despair and love of Haiti in one earthquake story."

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.  Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for her investigative work in communities marked by poverty, spent years visiting and shadowing the inhabitants of Annawadi, a settlement-slum near the luxury hotels surrounding the Mumbai airport. In this stunning book, we encounter the hopes, dreams, and tragedies of the people of Annawadi, most of whom are working desperately hard with the hope of joining the updraft of upward mobility sweeping through modern India. At times, I was shocked by the grittiness or dysfunction of the inhabitants' daily lives, but Boo requires us, through her detailed portraits of community members, to remain constantly mindful of their humanity--the Annawadian people are never reduced to puppets of poverty in order to teach us some moral lesson.

Best Books on Spirituality:

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker. The author's goal: simplification of life in the face of ever-creeping materialism and consumerism. Hatmaker identifies seven areas of of excess (food, clothing, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress) and spends a month on each, making intentional and educated choices to reduce, slow down, and simplify. It's a funny, often self-deprecating book that manages to avoid guilt-trips even as it provokes the reader to take a hard look at her own choices and habits (although there are times when Jen gets a tad over the top for me, joke-wise--she really loves the ole hyperbole). Increasingly, my belief is that many evangelicals are overly focused on their eschatology and obtaining a "ticket to heaven"; we desperately need more teachers and books within the evangelical sphere that connect Christian discipleship with *gasp* our choices here on earth, as Hatmaker does here.  Side note: I have a soft spot for this book because it has inspired a real-life 7 challenge for Chris and I with a few friends (more on that another time).

How God Became King by N.T. Wright. Wright is one of the leading New Testament scholars of our age, who, as the Englewood Review of Books puts it, "writes as if the material he engages actually matters for the church and the world it lives in." This is an accessible, challenging examination of the four gospels that invites readers to rethink and rediscover what those four famous books are really about. Hint: it's not all about getting into heaven. This is one of the most compelling, eloquent cases I've read for understanding how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus began an inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the here and now--and how this understanding can radically transform the way we follow Jesus in our lives.

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. I already waxed poetic about this book, albeit briefly, but wanted to include it again on the round-up. McKnight tackles the very controversial and slippery problem of how we read our Bibles (and asks us to acknowledge that Christians who claim to love and respect the authority of the Bible may still come to very different conclusions). He is particularly critical of the tendency within mainstream American evangelicalism to gloss over or explain away passages of Scripture that seem at odds with the broader interpretative framework of the reader. As I skimmed Amazon to refresh my memory on this book (I read it quite a few months ago), one astute reviewer captured the approach nicely: "(McKnight joins those) who argue persuasively for a narrative approach to Scripture. In this view, the Scriptures are not a static, prescriptive account of how religious lives ought to be ordered; they are an ongoing, ever-developing record of how people throughout (Middle Eastern and European) history have worked out their relationship to God, their place in the world, and their understanding of how best to live."

In a nutshell: any book that discusses hermeneutics in an approachable way for the common public is a winner in my book (or my blog about books).

A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. I discovered Brian McLaren earlier this year and have since not stopped devouring his books. As a leader in the emergent church community, he speaks to my post-fundamentalist evangelical soul, and I consider him an important guide and resource as I continue with my deconstruction and reconstruction of the Christian story. A Generous Orthodoxy was my first McLaren book, and while it isn't my absolute favorite, it's a great introduction to his writing, which focuses on the church in a new post-modern, post-evangelical age. I deeply appreciated his exploration of various labels and categories within the Christian faith, with an intention to show that even among the many traditions of Christianity, a common ground in Christ can be found. McLaren urges us to aim for an orthodoxy driven always by love, as revealed by the subversive, generous, shockingly beautiful life of Jesus. If you, too, have grown weary of an"us vs. them" mentality and a fiercely polarized church, McLaren will be a breath of post-modern air as he reminds us of the essentials.


  1. This makes me want to read lots of books. Unfortunately school is keeping me far too busy to get much reading done, but one of these days...

    1. One of these days...

      You want to read books, and I want to make more music.

      PS When I saw your comment, I realized there was a bunch of paragraphs out of order, like the computer had randomly moved things around. The post probably makes a little more cohesive sense now...

    2. I was wondering about that. I frequently employ the preview feature to guard against such technological anarchy.

  2. Um. the sibling banter above gave me mirth.

    printing out this list to have on hand when book searching. Cloister Walk caught my eye and what you said about living by the liturgical calendar. Since I've been living on the Plains and not by an academic calendar, I've found so much comfort and beauty in the rhythms of living liturgically. It's funny because I've been around this way of life my whole life, but feel that I'm discovering it for the first time in many ways! Would love to hear more deets about what you thought.

  3. I went to Powell's to try to find the books you recommended, and no luck. I think I will journey to the library and possible order on line if needed. Thank you for the recommendations.

    1. I hope you find some of your picks at the library! That is where the majority of these came from for me.