Here are five books that caught and kept my attention this year. I returned to all of them at some point, hunting for a sentence that resonated, rereading a strategy to try, or rereading whole chapters to catch the beauty of the writing again. I think all of them are worthwhile reads.
(A story set in 1915. A father works to build a New York subway and misses out on his family’s Christmas celebration. His wife sends him some of her traditional jam. The story hows the values of family cohesion and generosity)
If 2013 was the year I started listening to podcasts (Remember Longest Shortest Time, Stuff You Should Know, and Books on the Nightstand?), 2021 was the year of the email newsletter. I have subscribed to newsletters before this year to get ideas for recipes or book recommendations, and I still subscribe to those. But this year I started shifting more towards reading newsletters in my spare time instead of scrolling Instagram and have found it to be rewarding. I have dipped in and out of some newsletters by famous people like author George Saunders, acclaimed chef and food writer Ruth Reichl, essayist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and pastry chef living in Paris, David Lebovits, to name a few. There is a paywall for many newsletters, but many are free to the public. I think that the newsletter medium lends itself to more depth (or at least less visual noise) than other social media platforms. Online spaces are always potentially frivolous and addictive, but they can also be oases of beauty and hope and springboards for meaningful reflection. For now, I am finding newsletters to be the latter.
Here are some newsletters I have been eager to read every time they have appeared in my inbox:
Snakes and Ladders-This has been my favorite newsletter this last year. I loved author Alan Jacob’s books Breaking Bread with the Dead and How to Think, so I was happy to find his newsletter. It is sort of a mashup of his own blog posts, articles he’s written, and reflections on art and music that have moved him. It’s great.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the beginning of February, we celebrated our oldest son turning five years old. We have commemorated his birthday with this chocolate cake recipe each of the last five years (except his 3rd birthday for which he inexplicably requested lemon cake, which I made. It was tart and delicious, but we haven’t eaten it again since). It is amazing to think that our son is already and only five, seeing as he was just a newborn, his head covered with long dark hair, his eyes wide with wonder. And seeing as he is pondering all sorts of thoughts about mortality, seeing as he and I share daily side glances as though we are kindred spirits from a lifetime ago. I love him more than I can express.
I’ve been working my way through In Bibi’s Kitchen, mulling over the interviews and regional facts woven throughout the book, marking recipes to try. This week, we are making Mukimo (potatoes, onions, greens, hominy, etc). Last week, we made an Eritrean flatbread called Kicha, which was toothsome and so very tasty despite (because of?) its simplicity. We are adding it to our bread canon alongside favorite tortillas and naan. We didn’t have leftovers, but when we do, we will try Kicha Fit Fit.
Dear reader, we have spent the last four weeks unpacking from a big move. Here is a brief collection of notes that hint at settling in.
So here is something that has helped me, something to recommend, and something I have returned to.
I am adjusting to new systems in every area, including how I plan and source ingredients for dinners (this has taken a tremendous amount of energy). Two things have helped: 1. making family favorites (so, Alexandra’s pizza and Kendra’s chicken) and 2. quick pantry meals (so spaghetti with jarred marinara and Trader Joe’s potstickers). These meals have been familiar and comforting in a new place.
Something to recommend for salads. About a year ago I began eating nearly the same thing for lunch each day: salad with leftovers on top (or just beans or cheese if leftovers don’t make sense on the salad). Something different I’ve started doing however has been shaking Everything Bagel Seasoning on top. This product does not need another cheerleader, but I can’t deny that it elevates my salad every day.
Here’s a food habit I just returned to: the soft boiled egg. I used Molly’s article as my guide a few years back and loved the results. I dropped off making eggs this way in favor of scrambling them in butter, a more forgiving technique, and one my children preferred. But out of nostalgia, I think, I have returned to soft boiling eggs once or twice a week. It has taken a few tries to get the timing right and the eggs peeled in time to enjoy them in their golden yolk glory. But even with their fussiness, they are worth it. I like to sprinkle them with kosher salt and halved grape tomatoes and eat them alongside buttered toast, and sometimes these beans.
I want to share ten of the books I enjoyed reading the most this last year. I realized that my nonfiction books far outnumbered my fiction (something I think I will balance out in the coming year). All of my favorites from 2020 are nonfiction. These books moved me and stuck with me long after I finished them. In no particular order, here they are.
This is not the most profound book I have read, but its message was so timely and immediately impactful to me that it is a top book from 2020. Just before I started it, I was intensely aware of the noisiness of my everyday life. Between the sounds outside me (3 energetic children under age 5) and the sounds inside me (my mind’s constant adding or offloading of ideas/tasks/anxieties/possibilities), I felt overstimulated or, as Barton writes, “entrenched in noise and words.” In this book she shares her personal experience of learning to establish habits of silence and solitude and how she has used that knowledge to help others cultivate an inner calm so they can meet with God in a deeper way. This book encouraged me to start practicing silence — for my own well-being, to open myself up to the Lord’s sustaining Word, and to set myself up to be more present to those around me. I started this practice in the mornings before reading Scripture. It took a few months of jitters and distractedness for me to settle into stillness, but over time, I’ve been able to work up to ten minutes of silence. Even though I don’t do it every single day, on the mornings I do, I can feel how grounding it is for the rest of the day.
In this book, Reeves argues (in a joyful, self-effacing, and earnest way) the centrality of God’s nature as three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He shows how this reality is foundational to understanding God and living the Christian life. He helps by framing the Trinity in simple, insightful ways, with biblical support. For example, he says, “The Father is never without the Son but, like a lamp, it is the very nature of the Father to shine out his Son.” He notes, “The Spirit is the one through whom the Father loves, blesses, and empowers His Son.” He then supports these arguments with Scripture passages and insights from Christian theologians. Here is a lovely summary from the last pages of the book: “Jesus [is] the bright lane to knowledge of the true God. As the glorious, Spirit-anointed Son, he reveals his Father. He reveals God to be Father, Son and Spirit–and thus he reveals the only God who is love, and he shows us the true glory of that love on the cross. In him we see a God far beyond the bores and tyrants we all rush to reject. In him we see the good God.” Delighting in the Trinity moved me towards a deeper affection for God.
Here Jacobs develops an argument for reading old books. He trains readers to thoughtfully engage with worldviews of authors who have profoundly different perspectives and experiences. In an interview with The Trinity Forum, Jacobs talks about how reading books from the past can act as “training for encountering difference.” He addresses the way we live much of our life online and can feel we need to perform “informational triage” on all of the data coming at us. We are in a “frenetic standstill,” he says, in which we are both inundated with information and feel frozen in inaction. He explains that this is why we often are quick to discount something we view as offensive. But he says, “We need to be able to discern the difference between ideas that are truly offensive and ideas that only seem to be offensive because we actually haven’t understood them yet.” In this book, Jacobs (a professor of English) walks through old works from people like Henrik Ibsen, Frederick Douglass, Simone Weil, and Italo Calvino in an engaging and accessible way. He shows how to interact with texts that seem strange to our modern sensibilities. I loved engaging with the ideas he writes about and finished the book with renewed vigor to read and think about older books. Breaking Bread with the Dead seemed like an important book but also so enjoyable to read.
Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd by Thomas Chatterton Williams. This book is a memoir that includes some cultural commentary on the hip-hop culture of the 90s, a time when Williams came of age. I enjoyed Williams’ excellent storytelling and the way he takes the reader along through is own evolution in thought. Williams seems genuinely interested in understanding and empathizing with others in his community who have stayed on a trajectory he believes is limiting or harmful. Meanwhile, he is committed to taking a different path, not out of arrogance, but rather a genuine desire to live more freely. In 2019 Williams published a memoir called Self-Portrait in Black and White: Family, Fatherhood, and Rethinking Race, which further chronicles the way he has thought about race. In the beginning of that book, he writes, “We are at the same time obsessed with race and wholly confounded by it.” Williams shares personal stories and insights and offers pointed critiques. While I differ from him in some of his assumptions and solutions, he still gave me a lot to consider as I learn how to engage with various viewpoints on race and racism today.
Originally published in the 1980s, this book seems just as relevant today, while many Americans seek to understand the roots of racism, the nature of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and dignity, and how to work towards justice and peace. Ellis, an African American man, lays out a historical and cultural timeline and uses his Christian faith to understand cultural movements over time. He helps the reader understand the forces behind various movements throughout history (especially focusing on the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X). There is an extensive glossary of terms, people, and events in the back of the book to aid a student of American history or cultural studies. This book is a thoroughly researched, clearly written guide that I expect to refer to often. Learn more about the author here. Two others books I read recently that have helped me gain more understanding in this area include Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey, and Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson.
McLaughlin writes in a scholarly style, using research, Biblical text, cultural commentary, literature, and more. She makes compelling arguments for the truths of Christianity in a personal and winsome way. She encouraged me to consider several of the controversial claims of Christianity and strengthened me with research and conclusions that are thorough and intellectually honest. After reading the book, I feel emboldened to invite skeptics or those of other faiths to join me in open discussion about challenging topics rather than gloss over or avoid them. I’m looking forward to reading whatever she writes in the future.
Part memoir, part guidebook for creative artists, this book resonated with my heart. I appreciated hearing Peterson talk about his own struggles and thought processes in his career as a musician and author. His self-deprecating storytelling was disarming, and the openness about some of his fears and dreams inspired me to share my own vulnerabilities with others. I’m looking forward to reading his fantasy series with my boys when they are a little bit older. Also, I listen to Peterson’s beautiful collaborative album each Advent season.
After reading this beautiful book, I immediately gave it to a friend. Lore articulates with candor and warmth some of the pitfalls of physical touch in the church. She shares how a faith community can harmfully range from not touching at all to touching abusively. Touch is a powerful form of acceptance and affection and Wilbert shares how its loving manifestation in the church is especially important for those who do not live day-to-day with a spouse or family. She shares from her own experience and makes a case for how Jesus used touch in his ministry on earth to bring about life and healing. We can, in turn, learn to live as people who redeem the power of touch for good. Read more of Lore’s thoughtful writing here and here.
This book is compelling and eloquent. I wish I had read it in my twenties, when I was even more prone to strive to earn God’s love rather than simply rest in it. Ortlund supports his arguments for receiving Christ’s love with biblical texts and writings from early church thinkers. His tone is compassionate and inviting, pointing towards the subject of this book: Jesus Christ. You can read the first chapter here.
Vroegop’s book is both personal and pastoral. He shares his story of heartache and bewilderment when his baby dies. He offers guidance from God’s Word about how to lament–how to cry out to the Lord and find hope in Christ. I have read several books on grief and this is one of the most moving, perhaps because of the way he lays out his own struggle so plainly. His tone is humble and hopeful, and this book is a beautiful example of how to offer those who suffer ways to express sorrow and find solace in the Lord. His recent book Weep with Me about how lament and racial reconciliation connect is a thought-provoking read.