My Favorite Books of 2021

Selected Poems

by Emily Dickinson

Over the last few months, I read this book off and on. Sometimes I’d read the whole thing on a Sunday afternoon; sometimes I’d scan one short poem before bed on a weeknight. There were familiar poems from high school English (or from my years teaching high school English) that I returned to like old friends (In The Garden, Hope, I’m Nobody! Who Are You?). There were also poems like The Lost Thought that resonated with my current state of life. In my day-to-day with young children, I understand the effort to patch together scrambled thoughts whose “sequence ravelled out of reach / Like balls upon a floor.”

Finding My Father

by Blair Linne

This memoir is a good story well-told and it grew my love for my Heavenly Father. The author, a spoken word poet, narrates the audiobook (which is excellent). As she walks through her life story from being a young child in Michigan to a teenager in California, Linne gives a courageous and compelling case for how God the Father is able to meet our deepest needs. Her story equipped me to see God the Father as able to supply every one of my needs. Unlike Linne’s story, my father was neither absent nor abusive for which I am thankful. Yet every earthly father is fallible and feeble and every person needs what only the Heavenly Father can provide. Linne’s writing is filled with empathy and hope without downplaying the complexity of pain and loss. I am glad I listened to her story, and I hope many others find healing through it.

Welcome Home

by Myquillyn Smith

At the start of 2021, our family moved from Michigan to Florida. I am still adjusting to a new living space, acclimating all my senses to my new habitat. One new thing outside: lizards. In March, each time I saw a lizard dart across the backyard deck, I would freeze in surprise and fear. If it sensed me, it would stop and jerkily bob its head up and down before scuttling to a dark crevice nearby. These standoffs with the lizards evolved into my only-occasional-flinching when one startled me, and then later became a glazed resignation that we will cohabit the backyard space. Now if I notice a lizard, it holds my attention no longer than a bee or a squirrel might have back in Michigan.

None of this says much about the book Welcome Home, except to say that reading it has given me new ways to think about the seasons. One of the high points of living in the Midwest is the distinct four-season rhythm: frigid, then breezy, then warm, then crisp. Here there seem to be vaguely two seasons: warmish cool, then very hot. Reading Welcome Home helped me excavate my own sense memories so I can bring each season into focus in my home, even if the weather doesn’t align with my domestic calendar. I got to thinking, what does each season sound like, taste like, look like, smell like to me? Back in October, I was sweating in a t-shirt and sunhat but still sipping hot apple cider with whole allspice berries bobbing on the surface. Earlier this month, I unboxed my faux evergreen garland even though outside I am still applying sunscreen. I am thankful to have an older sister like Myquillyn guide me as I think through these things.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

by Carl Trueman

This book was dense and incredibly thought-provoking. The author states this goal at the outset: “Understanding the times is a precondition of responding appropriately to the times. And understanding the times requires a knowledge of the history that has bed up to the present. This book is intended as a small contribution to this vital task.” I appreciated Trueman’s thorough, humble, and incisive approach. He says, “My task as a historian is first to explain an action, an idea, or an event in context. Only when that hard work has been done can the teacher move to any kind of critique.” Later he writes, “In the accounts I give of, among others, Rousseau and the Romantics, Neitzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, the New Left, surrealism, Hugh Hefner, Anthony Kennedy, Peter Singer, Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler, and LGBTQ+ activism, I have therefore tried to be as careful and dispassionate as possible.” He then states, “My hope is that I have represented the views of these groups and individuals in such a manner that, were they to read this book, they might demur to my conclusions but at least recognize themselves in my account of their thought. All historians owe that much to the subjects of their inquiries.” I think he accomplishes his goal and gives an example of how to engage with people and ideas in the past and present with charity and inquisitiveness. I underlined much in the book and plan to comb back through it as I reflect on what I’ve learned. A bonus is that I learned more new vocabulary words than any other book I read this year. (A sampling: prolegomenon, rebarbative, adumbrate, doyen, prolix, confected, bromide).

Rabbit Hill

by Robert Lawson

I picked up this book on a whim and was so moved by its tenderness, so carried along with the creatures who inhabit the story, that I could not wait to read it aloud to my boys. New people move into an abandoned house on Rabbit Hill. The animals, in their own ways, test out how life will go with these new residents: will the new people perceive the creatures to be threats? Will they be cozied up to? Maybe it hit home because I read it in the middle of a cross-country move, exposing my own sense of hesitation, and fear, and hope about what could be in a new situation. In the middle of unpacking our boxes after the move, I felt some days bursting with possibilities, like the little rabbit Georgie who heralds the arrival of the new residents with his plucky song, “New Folks Comin’ O My, New Folks Comin’ O My!” I felt other days like Georgie’s  cranky uncle Analdas who assumes the worst and braces for an attack. I recommend you read it for the wonderfully wrought characters, supported by Lawson’s sketch drawings throughout. I loved it.

The Reading Life

by C.S. Lewis

I loved hearing some insight into Lewis’ reading life as a child and appreciated his good humor and humility when considering how he thinks of reading and rereading great books. Though an intellectual giant, his personal sharing is refreshingly humble. Reading this collection of Lewis’ quotes about reading reminded me that I would like to read and reread all of his works (I have a long way to go). I plan to read God in the Dock next. Also last year I listened to the audiobook of The Great Divorce, but I think I’ll reread that one more closely with a book in hand.

Steeped in Stories

by Mitali Perkins

In this book, Perkins, who has written over 14 novels, mostly for young readers, writes about novels that were formative in her upbringing as well as ones she read with her now-grown children. She walks through novels by Louisa May Alcott, C. S. Lewis, L. M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and others. She doesn’t shy away from examining the sometimes-harmful ways the authors present people in their stories, but she doesn’t dismiss the titles altogether either. She makes a case for discernment and honesty, generosity, and critique. In a time when people choose extreme positions such as: any whiff of racism or abuse of power is cause for a book’s banishment; or conversely: any critique of an author’s handling of racism or imperialism, etc. should be scoffed at, Perkins offers a refreshingly thoughtful and gracious perspective.

Pachinko

by Min Jin Lee

This book is a sweeping story of one Korean family through multiple generations as they emigrate to Japan in the early twentieth century. At times the story saddened, shocked and disturbed me. However, I always wanted to know what would happen next, how each person in the long tale would fare, and who would see the fruit of their actions. The writing is beautiful. It led me to other works by Lee, including her thoughtful essays. In an Atlantic interview, she writes, “When I make art, my job is to create drama with dynamic characters who change convincingly over time. If I do my job well, the reader changes, too.” I think she succeeds.

Prayer in the Night

by Tish Harrison Warren

When Warren wrote about miscarrying her son back in 2017, it came just as I was still fumbling to find expressions for my own miscarriage griefs. In her most recent book, Prayer in the Night, she talks about learning from the prayers of saints who have gone before her as she grapples with her own grief. In the beginning of the book, Warren explains how the prayers she learned in her church buoyed her in times of suffering: “When we pray the prayers we’ve been given by the church–the prayers the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office–we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves. ‘Other people’s prayers’ discipled me; they taught me how to believe again. The sweep of church history explains lex orandi, lex credendi, that the law of prayer is the law of belief. We come to God with little belief, however fleeting and feeble, and in prayer we are taught to talk more deeply into truth. When my strength waned and my words ran dry, I needed to fall into a way of belief that carried me. I needed other people’s prayers.” 

Prayer in the Night is the sort of book that holds the hand of the sorrowful.  Having read it, I feel more equipped to be present with others in their suffering, not to rush them to resolution but rather to seek God together in the dark. Her argument for learning from the prayers of the family of God through the ages offers a needed corrective to advice that promotes navel gazing (i.e., being stuck then disillusioned) or pushing through the pain (i.e., relying on self and then burning out) as a means to healing. Her writing is clear and eloquent, and her message is much needed.

Lament for a Father

by Marvin Olasky

I have read book reviews and followed reading recommendations from Marvin Olasky for several years now (Pachinko being one). He is like a professor-ly uncle to me. I was glad to read his latest book, a slim memoir on his upbringing. As he uncharacteristically focuses the spotlight on his own story, he offers a picture of his often lonely and fraught childhood. He writes this book in the second person, a point of view I don’t come across often (and can sometimes feel distracting). But I think that it works well with the investigative nature of the book, and it also lets the reader feel a part of the action. The writing is tight and lyrical. He extends charity to his father, a man who led a mostly insular, desultory life. It makes me consider how blessed I have been with a father who lavished me with love and encouragement as a child. It makes me desire to be forgiving and compassionate towards those who have wronged me. In the book, Olasky models how we can extend grace to others by considering the ways they have been hurt and the experiences that have shaped them, then he points to his relationship with Jesus Christ as making a way for forgiveness and healing.

A Crazy, Holy Grace

by Frederick Beuchner

In A Crazy, Holy Grace Buechner meditates on pain, memory and what it means to be human. His book centers on his own father’s suicide and that event’s aftermath in Beuchner’s life. In the introduction, he sums up his purpose beautifully, “When I woke up this morning, before I’d gotten out of bed, I was looking around to see what was going on in my room. Not much was going on, I’m happy to say. But there was a cricket on the glazed stone floor. He didn’t belong in the room. Crickets don’t belong in rooms. I looked at him and decided to give him a helping hand, so I picked him up as gently as I could so as not to either alarm him or hurt him, and I carried him out into the sunshine. And he hopped away to do whatever crickets do, where they belong. And I thought to myself, that’s what it’s all about: to be lifted up carefully and in a way not to frighten us, to be taken out of the confinement of the room where we’re locked up away from where we belong, and to be carried out into the fresh air. And that’s, in a way I guess, what this book is about, how to get out of that room or what to do when you’re in that room.” Beuchner makes room for people who feel stuck to take steps to “steward their pain,” as he says. I commend his gentle help to you.

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