The Best Books I read in 2018 & 2019

Fiction

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

  This book is a fast, easy read and oh so enchanting.  I’m partial to it for many reasons, but mostly because I love historical fiction, realistic descriptions of nature,  mysteries, touches of magic, and stories of finding joy in hardship.  The story is set in the 1920’s, when people were beginning to homestead the Alaskan frontier.  The author grew up in Alaska, so her first-hand knowledge of its dangerous enchantments suck the reader right into the story.  It’s a beautiful tale of hope, sadness, and choosing joy after loss.  It’s historical fiction mixed with a fairy-tale.  Read it.  Then consider reading it to your teens.

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

  This book is magical—in the most medieval Orthodox Russian sense of the word.  This was the book I chose to lug with me for 200 miles of the nearly 400 miles of the Camino de Santiago.  I could not have chosen a more perfect book for a pilgrimage.  It is the tale of a spiritual pilgrim named Arseny, who finds his way through an old world in which the line between faith and magic is inextricably blurred, and whose entire life is spent chasing God.  Not only is it a fantastic book that should be read, but for me, the parallel of reading it during my own spiritual pilgrimage gave it a more tangible import; so much so, I left it at one of the stops along the way, with an inscription to the next Camino pilgrim who picks it up.  Here is the crux of the book that I hope will give you a sense of its beauty. 

“And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.” [says Arseny]

“What sign do you want and what knowledge?” asked an elder standing [nearby]. “Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey — and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.”

“But were the venerable not aspiring for the harmony of repose?” asked Arseny.

“They took the route of faith,” answered the elder. “And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

This was an audiobook that I chose for the Camino.  I don’t know how many times I found myself walking up and down mountains, guffawing at the antics of the two main characters in the book (especially the Christmas pageant part). It is a well-crafted story.  There is mystery aplenty, the characters are unique, the narrator gives you just enough hints to make you wonder how you get from the beginning of the book to the end, with just enough strangeness and hilarity that you can’t stop reading.

Circe by Madeline Miller

  I think this was my favorite Fiction from 2019.  It was so beautifully written, and so creative.  After finishing Homer’s Odyssey a few years ago, I felt dissatisfied because I had a multitude of unanswered questions all pertaining to the origins and story of the ever-tantalizing Circe.  Apparently, Miller thought along those same lines and wrote herself a beautifully fleshed-out answer in book form.  If you enjoy Greek/Roman/Nordick myths, fantasy, or an appreciation for the classics, you’ll love this.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

  After reading two of his other books, “Remains of the Day” and “When We Were Orphans” (both of which I highly recommend), I felt a sufficient enough amount of faith in his story-telling abilities that I could endeavor to set aside my cynicism regarding the implausibility of the situation on which this particular sci-fi story hinges. And enjoy it, I did.  A lot. The characters and their relationships are wonderful and complex.  The exploration of psychology is enjoyable and the narration is divine.  Narration, I believe, is Ishiguro’s greatest asset.

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

  This book contains all of my favorite things: southern foods and language that always take me back home, mystery, murder, drama, and lots of nature.  The only downside for me—and maybe 1% of the population—was the romantic stuff (necessary I guess, but boring).  That being said, it’s a great book. 

Classics

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  As you might be able to tell from my comments above, I’m the least romantic person I know with a very low tolerance for emotional frittering.  So, for many years, because I knew the basic gist of the plot (an affair between Vronksy and Anna and how that affair drives Anna into desperation and madness), I kept finding reasons to avoid this book.  For some reason that escapes me now, I decided to take the plunge last year.  I’m so glad I did.  It is an amazing book and amongst my favorites now.

Here is something important that no one tells you about this book: there are 2 parallel story arcs (the Anna and Vronksy affair is only one of them), with 2 main characters, Anna Karenina, and arguably more important, Konstantine Levin, but only the former is ever talked about.  If you’ve watched the most recent cinematic iteration, Levin and his plot line are left out entirely.  I think this is the gravest disservice that one could do to the telling of this story because it robs it of its meaning and depth.  I suppose Levin and his plot is left out of retellings because his story is not as dramatic as Anna’s and Vronky’s, but at least to me, it was his story and the contrast of it against theirs that gave everything meaning. 

  I loved the depth of character of Levin.  I loved how he thought, his grappling with questions of faith, his way of thinking, his hard-working, decisive nature.  His appreciation for nature.  I identified so much with him and wondered if he was based on someone Tolstoy knew.  Much to my delight, I learned that Levin was an autobiographical portrait of Tolstoy himself!  If you read it, I’d love to know what you think.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  I get a kick out of Victorian who-dun-its.  Especially when they’re penned by Wilkie Collins.  His “sensation novels” are always slightly over-dramatic, full of fragile, fainting women, and men who speak in passionate hushed tones of the sensibilities of ladies.  And yet, Collins always manages, even within the drama, to keep it light-handed and with a touch of tongue-in-cheek.  It’s a fun and wonderful story that I imagine him writing with one arched eyebrow and a smirk on his face.

Fantasy

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

  Always fantastic.  I’ve written about his books nearly every year. Here’s the review regarding the first book in this amazing series.

The Magician’s by Lev Grossman (the series)

  I was a little iffy going into this series, but the ideas, although dark, interested me.  Many people who’ve mentioned this series compare it to a very dark version of Narnia.  That’s accurate, and I do love Narnia, but there are many creative, and rather original ideas within the books too.  A former professor of mine recommended it and knowing that she and I have similar taste in books, I had to read it. I’m very glad I did.

Warning: There is quite a bit of language and some sexual content in the first book.  You may just want to skip over some of that (that’s what I did and there’s no plot-loss because of it). By book two, the series hits its stride and has less of the “bleh” and more of the “cool.”

Legion by Brandon Sanderson (series of novellas)

  I love reading something that you can tell that the author had a grand ole time writing. This was a fun, original, odd, mystery/thriller sci-fi novella.  

Parenting Books

The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis

I wrote a review of this a few years ago, when I’d only had the experience of raising traumatized siblings (which I’ve since learned most people don’t count as actual parenting) but now that I have actually parented other traumatized children for a year (which yes, is exactly the same as raising ones siblings), this is my parenting Bible.  I’ve read many, many parenting books, and I have to tell you, it doesn’t matter if your kids are traumatized or not, this is the best parenting book you will read. The loving principles within are applied every.single.day. in our home. I don’t generally re-read books, but I’ve read this one at least 20 times now.

Better Behavior for Ages 2-10: Small Miracles that Work Like Magic by Tara Egan

   This is a little-known gem and it dovetails perfectly with the parenting techniques laid out in the Connected Child (also known as TBRI). And if you are parenting traumatized children, there are only a few slight modifications that you will need to make to some of the techniques in this book (but if you read The Connected Child first, it’s obvious).  

Historical 

The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

  You may be wondering why anyone would voluntarily read an entire book about the Donner party? Well, for three reasons.  1) I read this because sometimes when my own life sucks, I need to read about people who had it WAY worse, to put my little trials into perspective.  2) Since reading Brown’s Boys on the Boat, I would read a phonebook if he wrote it, And 3) since I was mostly self-educated, there are things that I missed learning about, and knowing more than the Donner party ate each other, is one of them.  

The series of unfortunate events that led up to the horrific events is unbelievable.  And to me, the extraordinary amount of research that went into this writing, but also the empathy, his ability to connect with the people who experienced the events (through letters, other histories, journals), his sensitivity and attention to detail, is what makes Brown much more than just another bored historian retelling a well-known story.  If you can stomach it (no pun intended), you should read this.

Nonfiction

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

  I suppose that he will always make my list.  The man’s stories make me laugh out loud.  Perhaps it’s his mixture of humorously self-deprecating stories while simultaneously looking down on everyone around him and placing them in some sort of narrative box to write them into later.  This particular book was my favorite of all of his books because it’s about hiking and that is something I’m actually semi-knowledgeable about.  I laughed so much at the hilariously ignorant antics of him and his friend “Stephen Katz” as they navigated the Appalachian trail. As with all of his books, there is a perfect blend of actual information about hiking the Appalachian, exaggeration of things to fear while on the trail, his personal stories of mistakes, and the history and ecology of the trail.  You can’t go wrong.  

Historical Fiction

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

  This was a well-crafted story about a fictional family living through mostly non-fiction events.  The story revolves around a real black market baby adoption scheme in the 1920’s that kidnapped children and coerced destitute families to give up their children to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.  It was fascinating and eye-opening.  It is a good mystery, and well told.  You should read it.

Memoir

Educated by Tara Westover

  I loved this book because I could identify so much with it.  If you want to understand those from dysfunctional homes whose lives are daily affected by severe mental illness and violence, this is going to be an educational read.  The Westover family was a fringe Mormon survivalist family in Idaho.  They were self-taught, abused, and whose beliefs revolved around everything their bipolar, possibly schizophrenic, father taught them.  Tara is a survivor and her story is important because her story, although extreme, is not unlike the story of many.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

This year, I tried to read 50 books.  I only finished 45, but I wanted to tell you about my favorites—the cream of crop.

Fiction

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

During WWII, 70 different publishing companies got together to create an Armed Services Edition to send to soldiers fighting on the frontlines.  This was one of the books chosen because of its ability to inspire hope.  And that is exactly what it did more than anyone could’ve predicted.  I learned about this book from a WWII memoir that I read last year which mentioned its ability to make soldiers feel again and it made me wonder what made this book so special?  It immediately went on my reading list and I am so happy it did.  Of the all of the books read, it was my absolute favorite.  The book begins with this beautiful metaphor: “Some called it the Tree of Heaven.  No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to meet the sky.  It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree which grew out of cement.  It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.”  A good start, huh?

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman

This book will make you laugh all throughout. It’s about a fastidious and curmudgeonly old man in Sweden named Ove (pronounced: oo-vah) who, after the death of his beloved wife, decides that he has nothing left to live for.  Solution?  Suicide, of course.  Unfortunately for his plans, he has a strong sense of right and wrong tucked under several layers of sweaters (because the cost of heating a house is just too damn high).  And also, he has new neighbors who not only interrupt his well thought-out plans time and again because they have no sense of personal boundaries, but also because they (and young people in general) these days are clueless as to how to do things the “right way” and somebody’s got to set them straight.  It is not only a hilarious book, it’s quite endearing—like a grumpy old man.

Biography/Memoir

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

This is such a fascinating read about what many people may never have heard about: the black migration in America.  Through the author’s use of 3 main characters and the true accounts of their lives, flight and families, the author intertwines their personal histories with the larger historical narrative during those times.  The book is masterfully written, riveting, and educational.  Being from the south, I also loved the author’s naming the south’s hierarchy a caste system—as that is exactly what it was.  I also appreciated that once the characters moved to the north, the author did not stop there and imply happily-ever-after, but showed the dire hardships they faced once they got to the north and that in many ways, life was not always much better for a long time.  It’s sad, real, and a must-read.  Also, if you decide to read it, you might consider the audiobook as the narrator is one of the best I’ve ever heard with a masterful range of realistic southern accents.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi

In my work as an ESL teacher, I have met many wonderful Muslim families and I have always thought that I’d love to understand their religious beliefs and cultures better.  I’ve read portions of the Quran and have learned a few things about Middle Eastern culture, but I thought this book might give me a more personal lens through which to understand.  I was not disappointed.  The author’s love for Islam and desire to know God was inspiring. His journey to conversion to Christianity was a long one, filled with many good theological questions, but also very practical questions (how can I do this to my very devout family?).  He was able to look critically at his Islamic beliefs alongside Christianity.  This book unexpectedly inspired a greater love for God in me and a renewed appreciation for His relentless pursuit of us.

Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Me, before reading this book: “It’s a book about rowing.  Too bad I don’t care about rowing.”  *puts off reading book for a year*

Me, after reading the book: “I love rowing.  I had no idea that rowing was such a beautiful thing.”  *dries tears*

Spoiler: It’s not really a book about rowing.  It’s about the boys in the boat and their oft-times difficult lives.  It’s about how they came to trust each other, how their mentors saw the best in them and brought it out.  It’s about how they completely defied the mountainous odds set against them—and how they could not do it alone.  They had to trust and depend on each other enough to be a team.  Oh yeah, and the means by which they learned all this was through rowing.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Boundless Power of Compassion by Gregory Boyle

This is such a beautiful book about how choosing compassion, even when you’re not sure it’s the right thing to do, is a life-changing choice.  Father Boyle explains how “Homeboys Inc.” came about as a way to give gang members and ex-cons, a job, and some place to find good camaraderie and purpose, instead of ending up back on the streets.  This memoir will make you laugh, cry, cringe, and roll your eyes.  It’s raw, funny, real, and beautiful.

Sci-Fi

A Canticle For Lebowietz by Walter Miller

I won’t say too much about the plot of the book because it might give things away, but what I will say is, this book is so creative, ironic, funny, and complex.  It’s a very unique story that you might really enjoy.

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I really loved this book.  If you grew up as a woman in a legalistic cult like I did, you will find this fictional story fascinating, alternately infuriating and nauseating, and scarily plausible.  In Atwood’s world, women are told what to wear, how to act, what to say, what thoughts to think, under the guise of strict Biblical guidelines. A woman’s ability to bear children is both her curse and humanity’s salvation. Certain women (essentially breeders) are used as society’s sacrificial lambs, sacrificing freedom, choice, dignity, and sometimes their own lives all in the hope of furthering the human race. And like in cults, women are kept in check by other women who’ve been given a taste of power through their strict adherence to the rules.  Men, in this fictional world, are supposedly the ones holding all the power, but like in reality, they too are just a different kind of victim held by the unchecked shackles of their own desires and lust for power.

Nonfiction

Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.

If you read no other book on this list, read this one.  It is important and timeless. I’m a firm believer that we can learn many things from history that are applicable right now.  This book is thoughtful, moving, and Dr. King is so eloquent and his heart for all of God’s children is clear.  While reading it, I was struck by so many things but will mention just a few.

  1. Unlike many of the protests today, those who wanted to protest with Dr. King were asked to sign a pledge after a thorough examination of conscience. Signing the pledge was not to be done lightly, without prayer and spiritual preparation and thought.  The protests were to show that they were coming from hearts desiring change, not from hatred.
  1. I’ve heard many white men say things like, “The reason that there is so much crime in the black community, is because these kids grow up without fathers.  Either they’re in prison, or dead.”  What none of them admit is that white people were the ones separating black families for centuries.  First through slavery, then through low-paying jobs so that mothers had to be live-in housekeepers and father’s had to most times, travel great distances for work.  It’s a terrible cycle (“orphans giving birth to orphans”) that Dr. King identifies and calls out first thing in the book.  If we want a strong society, we MUST make decisions that strengthen families, not tear them down.
  2. Dr. King made a point of showing the similarities between the poor white and poor black in the south and although he welcomed the poor whites to be a part of the movement, he knew they would likely deny it.  It’s sad to me that white people in such similar circumstances as their black neighbors were so blinded by the color of skin that they denied their similarities.  From reading this and other books, it seems that historically, this divide was one stemming from a false sense of power, that say, a poor, white slave catcher might feel because, although he is only on society’s second lowest rung, he believes he has power over the man on society’s bottom rung.  And like bullies, reacting out of their own misery, they make the lives of those below them even harder instead of choosing to have empathy or compassion.

The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Every time I’ve recommended this book to someone, the reaction is, “Why would I want to read a book about cancer?”  Because it’s fascinating.  If you like history, medicine, or science, this is the book for you.  Yes, cancer is a scary thing for most people (myself included), but I also like to understand scary things.

 

Self-Help

The Connected Child:  Bring Hope and Healing to your Adoptive Family by Karyn Purvis

This is such a wonderful book.  Whether you’re kids are adopted or not, this is the most hands-on approach of how to connect with children that I’ve encountered.  For attachment-challenged children, there are some very effective strategies that are accessible, don’t require a degree in psychology to employ and understand, and much of it is intuitive.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. by Brene Brown

This is a book that I gave to every family member this year because so many of the concepts within are so important. One of the most important ones I learned was, shame and guilt are two very different things.  Shame says I’m a bad person.  Guilt says I made a bad choice.  During the time I was learning this, I was also going to my first confession where the priest asked clarifying questions and explained to me the same thing.

 

Fantasy

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

This is Sanderson’s first book.  And although the hardcore fantasy fans will tell you that Sanderson’s magic systems are comparatively sloppier than his later works, I say who cares?  This book is amazing.  I LOVED the story and the characters.  It is a story of hope beyond all odds, crazy unexplainable magic, feisty, brave, and clever women, and brave, clever, and optimistic men.  The ideas are fresh and creative.  It doesn’t need to be perfect to be amazing.

Other great reads to consider:

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (delightful)

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (hilarious)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (heart-wrenching)

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (eloquent)

The Supper of the Lamb by Scott Hahn (eye-opening)

The Fellowship by Sara Roberts Jones (cathartic)

The Best and Worst Books of 2016

As with every year, I like to reflect upon the best of the best books I read throughout the year.  This year, out of the 30+ books I read, it was very difficult to narrow down because they were all very good.  Not a single one was bad or poorly written, so those books categorized as “Worst” simply did not live up to my expectations. As always, these are my biased opinions.

Most Influential

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

If you have never read this book, you absolutely must.  Frankl masterfully weaves his own story of his time in Nazi concentration camps with his astute observations as a psychoanalyst. He observed that those who believed that they had a purpose to live for, did in fact, remain alive and in relatively better health than those who lacked purpose.  When someone succumbed to hopelessness, it was a quick descent to sickness and death.  This observation inspired what later be came to be known as logo-therapy.  A very important break-through in psychology.  I’m making it sound far more dry than it is, but it is amazing.

 

Joan Chittester: Essential Writings compiled by Mary Lou Kownacki

I’ve never read a book that expressed so fully the deepest echoes and beliefs etched in my heart. I read this book to pass the time while I sat in hospital after hospital, for hours upon hours with my brother this past month.  So perhaps my memories of the truths encompassed in this book are a bit magnified by that stressful time, but truths are still truths, nevertheless. Joan is a Benedictine nun who is not shy about her beliefs, her deep love of Christ and his church, or her criticisms of it. Her writings are many times a challenge to the church to take a leap of faith in following the example of Christ; specifically in the area of allowing women to fully be acknowledged as an equal part in Christ’s kingdom.

Worst

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

My only experience with this classic was the Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World when I was 3 or 4 years old.  I have fond memories of that particular ride because it didn’t scare the bejeezus out of me like the Snow White ride did.  So thinking fondly back to that experience, I had high hopes for a fun and frivolous tale.  Frivolous it was, but not so much fun.  The antics of Mr. Toad sounded too much like someone who struggles with Bipolar and having had way too much experience with being the responsible one trying to keep the Mr. Toad’s alive, I did not find the book enjoyable as I had hoped.

 

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

This book was recommended to me by several friends as being a terrific book, so I must’ve been expecting something different.  The first 13 chapters felt very forced, as if the older male author was having a difficult time knowing what a young woman would think and feel.  (I learned after reading it that this was Berry’s first time writing from a female character’s perspective.  It shows.)  The main character, Hannah Coulter, is extremely passive in her own life and her reactions to things that happen in her life seem rather unbelievable.  She’s alternately timid and bold, and seems to cry at the drop of a hat sometimes, but not at the times when tears seem most natural or appropriate. For instance, the first few chapters are all about her strong love for her grandmother, but when her grandmother passes away half way through the book, there is one quick passing sentence.  No grief, just a quick “oh yeah, and by the way, and she died a while back” sort of feel. The book gets significantly “truer” as she ages, because her thinking becomes less gender-driven and more universal and parental in her reflections.  There are some gold nuggets of wisdom about life and aging tucked away in there too.  So although I wanted to rip up the first half, I was glad that I held on until the end.

Best Fiction

The Power and the Glory by Graham Green

This was by far the most moving of the fictional books I read this year.  This book takes place in Mexico at a time when the Catholic Church was being persecuted.  Without giving anything away (because it is an absolute must-read), the story follows a persecuted “Whiskey Priest” who is running from the law, while still trying to minister throughout Mexico and how, even though he is completely flawed, God is still able to work through him.  It is a beautiful and redemptive picture of unmerited grace for highly imperfect people.

 

 All The Lights We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This was truly a lovely book. The story is a weaving of the lives of two characters: a blind girl and a German boy before and during WWII.  The chapters are short and lyrical and for the movement of the story, Doerr chooses to jump back and forth in time to give us enough thrilling forward glimpses to keep the reader hooked, and enough backward glances to help us love and feel connected to the characters and their disparate worlds.  He does a wonderful job making the reader “see through the eyes” of the blind girl too—how things feel, smell, taste, and sound. I can see how some readers might be annoyed at the shifting back and forth in time and perspectives, but by the end, I understood why he did it, and I found it to be essential to the story-telling.

 

Best Non-Fiction

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

If you have ever desired to be immersed in a different time in history, Larson has done the enormous amounts of research to help you do that.  It is the crazy story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the amazing amount of work and perseverance that made it possible.  Alongside the story of the building of the fair is also the story of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.  If you are disturbed by that sort of thing (and trust me, it’s disturbing), you can either skip those chapters or forego reading the book altogether.

 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

After learning about Truman Capote’s friendship to Harper Lee (the author of To Kill a Mockingbird) and the fact that she helped him do the research for this book, I felt like I might be missing out if I didn’t read it.  I was not disappointed.  This book is filled with thoughtful prose of the southern variety (to which I’m always biased), fully developed characters masterfully interwoven throughout the story, and a kind of psychological study on the what drives people to kill.  If you enjoy history or understanding the “why of people” like I do, you will really enjoy this book.

 

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimer Putin by Steven Lee Myers

I’ve been following Russian politics since I was in high school because I’m a nerd and weird, so for me, this book filled in quite a few gaps that Russian and American news reporting left at the time of many of the events mentioned in the book.  Myers did a wonderful job with his in-depth research for the book, gathering both favorable and unfavorable information. I especially enjoyed reading of Putin’s private interactions and conversations with former President George Bush.  It was interesting to get a glimpse of the private Putin—quiet, abusive, and aloof—not just be fed more state-issued propaganda of the powerful leader (as much of Russian news does). If you have any interest in international politics, it seems like now is the perfect time to get better idea of Russia’s enigmatic leader…since we might be seeing much more of him in the coming years.

Best Memoir

Helmet For My Pillow by Robert Leckie

You may be familiar with this book since the series “The Pacific” was partially based on it.  It is a beautifully written account of WWII in the Pacific Theater, replete with enough 1940’s culture references and colloquialisms, to drop you right into that time period.  Leckie is a Marine Corps grunt with the heart of a writer. The most amazing thing about this memoir in contrast to many others, is the view of nature being more brutal an enemy than the actual Japanese enemy.  And the memoir is bigger and more important than just reporting about his own time in war.  He uses the tortuous monotony of the everyday trials to bring forth the bigger questions about life and humanity in an eloquent, but unsentimental way.

 

All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

My husband (the dear, sweet man) bought me this book after he heard the author on NPR talking about his memoir.  Even though Bragg was raised in Alabama in the 1960’s and 70’s, I could not help but notice the many similarities to my own southern upbringing (probably the reason my husband thought of me).  From the foods we ate, to the common phrases, to the societal norms and pressures that neither of our family’s lived up to, it seemed all too familiar.  I really appreciated his honesty about himself and the confessional feel that ran throughout the book.

Best Fantasy

The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear (The King Killer Chronicles #1-2) by Patrick Rothfuss

These are tomes (the first being 661 pages and the second being 993 pages) and are totally worth every.single.word.  I cannot say enough good things about these books.  They are imaginative, exciting, eloquent, and just plain amazing!  If you decide to read them, know that there are two downsides to reading this series. 1) You will need a few months to reset your fantasy expectations because once you’ve tasted a fine French wine, everything else will taste like vinegar and grape juice. 2) The last book in the series is not finished yet (it’s been 5 years).

The Best, Worst, and Most Thought-Provoking Books I Read in 2015

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Best

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Beauty, depth, and hope from darkness: I believe those words best sum up this book.  I don’t want to say too much if you’ve never read it, but it is probably my favorite book of the year.  The characters are memorable, humorous, and realistically multi-dimensional.  Probably a big part of why I enjoyed this so much is because I live with a devoted Catholic, an Atheist, and an Agnostic.  Come to think of it, I suppose it sounds like the beginning of a joke.  Anyway, it’s a terrific book that you should read.  And as a friend of mine encouraged me, “…it gets bleak, but the payoff is worth it.”  He was right.

 

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I thought this would be a good ole fashioned mystery, but no, it is much more.  This book really takes the lead for memorable narration.  Throughout the book, there are several opinionated narrators, all trying to tell their part of the mystery of the missing Moonstone; essentially, a delightful play in perspectives.  The first narrator is an elderly steward for a wealthy family who is rather old fashioned in his view of women, and seems to find all of the answers to life’s perplexing problems in the pages of “Robinson Crusoe.”  The next narrator is the prudish churchwoman who has a way of always being right (at least in her mind), and  has plenty of hellfire and damnation tracts on hand to give to any sinful passersby.  Having known a handful of people like her throughout my life, it made me cringe and laugh simultaneously to think that the author must be basing her on someone he knew.  It’s really a wonderfully written book with delightful characters, oh, and a lovely little mystery.

 

I know why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I always had her book on my to-read list, but it was hearing of her passing that made me want to read it this year.  What a poignantly told story in a uniquely moving voice (both in the narrative sense and in the literal sense).  I listened to this as an audiobook so that I could hear Ms. Angelou’s rich voice telling her own story and I’m so glad I did.  There were so many well-written phrases, and unique ways of describing events.  Her story is one of struggles, of beautiful moments, of harsh realities, and childhood innocence.  If you like listening to audiobooks, this one is a must.

 

Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor by Martin Greenfield

As the title explains, the book is about a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to America to become one of the most highly-sought after tailors in the US.  Who knew that making suits could be so interesting?  I certainly did not.  Mr. Greenfield is quite the character and has an engaging way of telling his story.  It’s definitely worth a fun, fast read.

 

Worst

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I need to first say, that this is not a bad book; quite the contrary, it is so well-written that I had visceral reaction.  I believe that if I were a different person who did not grow up surrounded by so much Fundamentalist hypocrisy, and did not have a family filled with wayward children, I might have liked this book.  But, I don’t and I didn’t.  In a handful of places the book was simply boring.  The characters, with the exception of two, were flat and two dimensional in some ways, and oddly deep and three dimensional in other ways, making one feel that either the whole book is the author’s sloppy attempt to shove her beliefs on the reader through an Uncle Tom-like narrator, or it is masterfully crafted to show the unreliable narrator’s own pious blindness toward himself and parts of reality.  I tend to think it is the latter.

It is a memoir written by an aged Congregationalist pastor, John Ames, to his young son before he dies.  The tale ultimately centers around a wayward young man that Pastor Ames, who speaks often of forgiveness, refuses to forgive.  In some ways, I appreciated the glaring hypocrisies of the pastor, able to judge and point out the speck in another’s eye, while glossing over the plank in his own, but it was also far too familiar, too realistic.  The only true Christ-like character in the story is the pastor’s wife, who I found to be intriguing, mysterious, and hardly in the story.  The wayward young man I also really liked.  He was, for all his many faults, honest with himself.

**SPOILER**

So when, at the end, the pastor forgives the wayward man without asking forgiveness for his own sin, it was too much for me.  I finished the book with a sour taste in my mouth. But perhaps one that was supposed to be there?

 

The Philosophy of Edith Stein by Dr. Antonio Calcagno

I was going into reading this book with little prior knowledge of the Catholic Phenomenologist (no, that is not a ghost hunter) Edith Stein.  The first few chapters devoted to explaining her life as a Jewish Atheist Phenomenologist who converted to Catholicism, and later died in a concentration camp, were good. When it came to explaining her views of Phenomenology and the importance of the Catholic feminine, I was disappointed.  Many times, the author used various words and phrases in other languages (German, Latin, French) without any explanation or clarification to their meaning or English equivalent.  I did a good bit of translation throughout and was dismayed that a majority of his foreign language word choices held no greater significance than their English counterparts, so his word choices seemed to me, pretentious.  For the most part, it was probably just my personal distaste for academic verbosity, and my inner drive for efficiency, that made me dislike the writing so much.  There were many times where the author went the most roundabout way to make his point, I lost interest, had to start over, and then was able to summarize what he’d said in four paragraphs in three short sentences (then again, a true philosopher probably appreciates the nuance that I have no patience for).  And as a book about the writings/philosophy of Edith Stein, and although referring constantly to her writings, there was a disconcerting dearth of quotes and little of her own writing included (plenty of which she did).  Some of her arguments were interesting and thought-provoking, but I think another book, perhaps a translated version of something she wrote would be more beneficial to the novice reader of Edith Stein’s philosophy.

 

Most Thought-Provoking

 

Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr

This book is an edited version of a recorded conversation with Ms. Virginia Foster Durr and I’m so glad that it is.  Many of the beautiful southern idioms and colloquialisms come through magnificently, and her southern cadence is etched all over the pages of the book.  She winds her way through the fascinating details of growing up in the impoverished and racist south, her school years, and her journey of how she turned from being a racist southerner to one of the foremost civil rights and incidentally, women’s rights activists, in the 1940-60’s.  A terrific read and interesting perspective on all sorts of historical events.

Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

This was the quintessential book to sum up my year of reading feminist literature.  This was a refreshing, yet honest look at where the church is now, its interpretation of the Bible (aka its tendency to interpret through the lens of patriarchy), and the subsequent consequences.  Overall, it is an encouraging call to men and women alike to change the church through love and grace, embracing all believers in their God-given callings, regardless of gender.

The Best, Worst, and Most Thought-Provoking Books of 2014

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BEST

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The epitome of BEAUTY.  If I had to say what kinds of stories delve deepest into my soul, it is this story: redemption through great suffering and sacrifice.  I read the unabridged version and I’m so glad that I did.  Before reading it, I had several people tell me to just skip the endless chapters of historical narrative.  Never.  Not only was I immersed in the history of the time period which in turn gave the fictional story much more depth, but Hugo’s observations were oft times interesting, cynical, and witty.  If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the battle of Waterloo, convents, or the sewer system of Paris, this is the book for you 🙂

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

What a wonderful thriller.  The writing is fabulous and the characters so real, it’s hard to put this book down.  And that’s saying something, since I grew up watching the Hitchcock movie over and over.  Honestly, I would recommend both.  Great book, great movie.  The best part was, I got this book for a dollar at a library sale. Win.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

It takes a truly talented writer to be able to tell you about his miserable Irish childhood and make you laugh and cringe all the while.  He does such a wonderful job of capturing his childhood understanding of God, school, sickness, death, and hunger and bringing you through that into his young adulthood.  His writing is sarcastic, witty, and beautiful in a dark way.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

This was my final book of the year, because I wanted to read it over Christmas break.  And boy did I save the best for last. Hillenbrand does a terrific job of weaving the bigger historical picture with the life of Zamperini.  Warning: once you begin reading this fast-paced, masterfully-written book about the crazy life of Louis Zamperini, everything else in you life will be put on hold (eating, sleeping, etc…).  You must read it.  It’s just that good.  Beware.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

When I was 16, a woman at church warned me about how horrible a book it was.  It was about a really dysfunctional family who went to Africa as missionaries and failed miserably.  With the memory of that awful review always staying at the back of my mind, I decided to read it if I ever found it.  As luck would have it, I found it at the same library sale as other books on this list.  The writing is fantastic and at times, poetic.  If you have traveled or lived in a foreign country, or especially if you are a child of a parent with a personality disorder, you will identify much with this family.  It is a wonderful book in that it is dripping with harsh, ugly and sometimes beautiful truths.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

After reading “American Gods” last year, and although not liking the story but appreciating his writing and imagination, I decided to give him another go this year.  I’m so glad that I did.  He is a masterful storyteller and oh so delightfully creative.  This book kept me enraptured, enchanted, and constantly guessing as to where this tale might be going.  I was mostly wrong.  Yay!

The Way of Kings: Book One of the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

I know that loads of people hate the fantasy genre.  I do not.  However, I do concede that there is an overwhelming amount of crappy fantasy and a dearth of good fantasy writers.  But Sanderson, is where it’s at.  This guy is it.  This series is it.  If you have never before read fantasy, don’t start with this guy and especially not this series because you will forever after be disappointed even with some of the other big names.

 

Worst

A Thousand Gifts by Anne Voskamp

In case this is your favorite book in the whole world, you may stop reading now.  I have gotten much flack from the female Evangelical Christian community about my views on this book, but I do not apologize for my opinions.

The point of the book is great.  She has some good, relevant and deep points.  But getting to those nuggets of wisdom is a trial akin to swimming through a murky lake at night with your eyes closed.  It’s almost impossible to stay on track.  Why?  Bad writing.  Lots of people argue with me that she’s being artistic or poetic.  I love poetry.  I love art.  No, this is an extended edition Hallmark card.  Let me quote you a passage (and no, I’m not picking the only one or even the worst of the bunch—I simply opened the book and pointed to a page).

“I slam upright, jolt the bed hard, hands gripping the cotton sheets wild.  There’s a halo of light by the door.  I breathe, heave breathe.  There are stars…My chest pounds hooves of a thousand stallions running on and away, the universe outside the window holds—the one stuck through with stars—and I breathe, I breathe.”

Did you like this writing?  If so, read the book and enjoy.  But here’s the thing.  No, I don’t like fluffy, lacy writing, but it’s more than that.  This book somehow rings partially false and makes me ask the question, what is the point of being a writer?  Is it not to tell truth?  It’s strikes me that she’s trying to hard to impress readers with the truths she’s discovered, but leaves some of the darker truths unexplained or ignored.  I sense an underlying depression or sadness that may be helped but not fully cured by moment-by-moment thankfulness, but is never acknowledged.  Thus, making the sincere acknowledgement of God’s graces to us, seem slightly Pollyanna tinged.  Then again, I could be completely wrong.

Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther

This is another book that rang false in a very sad way.  This is a book written by a father about the last years of his son who is dying of a rare brain tumor.  From the point of view of experimental medical practices in the 1950’s, it is fascinating (who knew that doctors experimented with mustard gas to shrink tumors?).  However, from a personal point of view of John Jr. (the son), the book is extremely lacking.  If John Sr.’s point was to simply chronicle the medical journey of his son in the most sterile, detailed way possible, then he did his job well.  As the reader, I know John Jr. was witty, very bright, and had a promising science career ahead of him, but that was all.  I could not help but wonder if the father who was writing the book, was unable to bring himself to write personal moments with his son because it was too difficult, or were they non-existent?  My theory is that either the father, the son, or both, lay somewhere on the autism spectrum and thus, had a difficult time identifying emotions in play.  The most personal moments of the book lay at the end written by the ex-wife and mother exploring the idea of loss, death, and sadness.  Overall, I came away with a hollow feeling.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

After reading her previous best seller last year (see review) and being disappointed by the story itself, I thought I would give her another chance.  Nope.  If I thought the last one was bad, this one has even more drinking, drugs, and an even more fatalistic ending than before.  So here’s the moral of the whole long story: the only thing that makes this wretched life worth living is the need and desire for beauty.  Or as Dovstoevsky so eloquently put it, “Beauty will save the world.”

 

Most Thought-Provoking

Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

This book really got me thinking about what it was like being a woman in a cult.  As I read her honest account, it brought back memories of the fear of eternal damnation, the trying to always be perfect, and the ridiculous standards for women made by men.  If you grew up in fundamentalist church or cult, you might really find this book not only interesting, but encouraging.

 

Bonheoffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

This is a wonderfully written autobiography that weaves history, faith, family, and the endless search for God, oh yeah, and Bonheoffer’s part in it all together.  It is a large book that asks large questions and delves deeply into the heart of Bonheoffer’s faith.  It is not a light read, but it is a must-read.

The Best, Worst, and Most Thought-Provoking Books of 2013

Picture by tubagooba CC Some Rights Reserved

Picture by tubagooba CC Some Rights Reserved

Have I ever told you how much I love fiction and memoirs?  I love them very much.  Why? Because fiction (as well as memoir) is like seeing reality portrayed in a stain glass window.  The story is condensed into its most poignant scenes, but the more subtle elements are there if you know how to look for them.  It’s colorful, the characters are complex and sometimes exaggerated.  But what makes this stained glass mean anything is the light of truth that shines through it.  If that truth isn’t there, then the story is useless and if it has no different color, its a plain realistic window.

The best of books are able to do this without obscuring the truth too much, but the worst books are the ones written by authors who are either unsure about how to tell the truth or not out to tell truth at all.  They are there to sell books.

So, as I’ve read quite a few in 2013, I’d like to share with you my mixed bag.  Suggestions of things to read, things to avoid.

Best Fiction

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

What can I say?  I’m not quite finished with this book and I already love it.  As with his previous books, it’s full of artistic stories with plenty of reality mixed in.  It reads like someone telling you a bedtime story, and that’s exactly how the book begins.  Warning: I was cautioned ahead of time that because there are so many intertwining stories, one needs to keep a character cheat sheet handy.  I haven’t needed one, but it might be because I knew in advance that if I didn’t pay close attention to names, I might get confused.  So since I was warned, I figured you should be too.

 

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

It took me a bit to really get into the lingo of this book, but once I did, I could not put it down.  It is a story about a very dysfunctional family.  For me, this book hit very close to home, and many times, I had to set it aside because it made me so angry at the predictability of some of the character’s choices. Warning: If you’ve lived a relatively charmed life, you will find this book terribly disturbing.  If you can relate, read it.  It might help you understand your childhood a little more.

 

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

There are three authors that I love for their writing styles: John Steinbeck, Cormack McCarthy, and Jack London.  They have the unique ability to use as few perfectly placed words as possible to tell a very powerful story.  For a long time, I avoided reading this because its…about a dog or wolf or something.  But let me tell you, this is so beautifully written, and is such a good story, you can’t not read this.  And in full disclosure, this book actually made me tear up in one part (I rarely cry, so I know it’s a moving story if I do).

 

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I enjoyed this book.  It was highly imaginative and fun.  And at several points, I kept thinking, “He must’ve done a lot research.” Warning:  If you listen to it as an audiobook as I did, make sure that you are not running a long distance in the heat of summer while listening to the part where he is thirsting to death.

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

This was a fun sci-fi/fantasy book.  It turns time travel on its head and really is just a fun, quick read.  I enjoyed how it begins with a small story, and begins to unfold into a huge story by the end of it.  It’s great for teenagers and young adults.  Warning: It is part of a series of which the second book is not as good, and the third book is not out yet.

 

Best Memoir

Night by Elie Weisel

For many schools, this book is required reading and rightly so.  It’s the brief and gripping firsthand account of one Holocaust survivor who lived to tell his story about life and death in Auschwitz.

 

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

I checked this one out of the library on audiobook, knowing nothing about it. Warning: This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  I began listening to this while at the gym and kept bursting out laughing.  I’m pretty sure that the man next to me was about to call the paddy wagon.  If you have a parent that idealizes growing up in the 50’s, this will make you laugh all the more.

 

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

This one makes me smile every time I think about it.  This is a book for which the word nostalgic was created. If you’ve never read it, you must.  It will make you laugh, smile, and wish that you too could ride in an unreliable car in jolly old England.

 

Thought Provoking

This is the category I’m using to say that although I didn’t love the book, I’m glad I read it.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

For years, I’ve seen this on the best of sci-fi lists, but since sci-fi isn’t generally my favorite, I kept putting it off.  Heinlein is creative, preachy, and highly opinionated.  Spoiler Alert: It was interesting, and the Christ-like death of the main character was predictable from midway through the book, but it was interesting.

 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This book really stuck in my head.  After being sorely disappointed by the cliched and angsty treatment of Greeks gods in The Lightning Thief, I was really looking forward to this one.  It did not disappoint.  It was not predictable, the characters were fascinating, and the story drew me in.  Warning: There are several “uncomfortable” scenes in this book, if you know what I mean. *clears throat*

 

Dune by Frank Herbert

I really don’t have too much to say about this book.  I was told that I would love it, but I didn’t–I liked it.  I found it interesting with some wonderfully creative ideas, a wonderful plot, but I think I just really disliked the authors writing style as well as all of the characters.  They all seemed completely devoid of hearts.

 

Worst

This is Our Faith by Michael Pinnock

Other than most chapters beginning with old e-mail forward jokes and stories, the book was as thrilling as staring at a blank wall.  I’ll take the wall.  I’m not ragging on this book because it’s a Catholic book, just to keep it clear.  It’s just that it’s terribly written.  It’s for those who have grown up in the Catholic church, and not for Protestants wanting to know more.  So, to really learn more about the Catholic faith, I bought the Catechism–it was much more informative.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Let me begin with the one positive thins about this book: it was very well written.  Okay, now to save you some reading time.  There are four things to say about this book: drugs, alcohol, arrogance up the wazoo, and poor choices.  The characters were all rich jerks, the narrator wanted to be one of them, and they all killed people.  The end.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riorden

This.  This was awful.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not 10 and I’ve read other books and I have an imagination.  There was so much potential, but every time that an exciting turn could be taken, nope.  Riorden had to keep it as boring as possible.  How do you make a book about a boy finding out that Greek gods are real and that he’s one of their sons, boring?  Honestly, I would think it would take more work.  And if an impressionable 10 year old did read this, they might come away with a terrible attitude problem like the main character has.

There you have it.