So every year, I put together a list of my favorite books of the year, and it’s fun to look back through and remember what I’ve read. It’s… a lot. I don’t say it to brag or humblebrag or anything else. I read eighty books last year, which is a record by a long shot. I can hardly handle watching tv or video… apparently it frees up some time.
The list of books that I’d marked as “favorite” was about a quarter of those. I’ve whittled the list down to eleven. (I tried to do ten, but just couldn’t cut it any more.) The descriptions and photos are all swiped from Amazon, but I’ll add notes about why I like them, too. These are in no particular order and the inclusion of both Amazon summary and my brief thoughts on them is owed directly to Emily P Freeman, whose 2019 “books” post I read this morning.
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkein
Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely traveling any farther than his pantry or cellar. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on an adventure. They have launched a plot to raid the treasure hoard guarded by Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon. Bilbo reluctantly joins their quest, unaware that on his journey to the Lonely Mountain he will encounter both a magic ring and a frightening creature known as Gollum.
Why I liked it: This is the first Tolkein I’ve ever read. I don’t know why it took so long. I read it at the very beginning of the year, and I still find myself recalling parts of it. Masterful. Lord of the Rings is definitely on my list this year.
Prodigal God, Tim Keller
Newsweek called renowned minister Timothy Keller “a C.S. Lewis for the twenty-first century” in a feature on his first book, The Reason for God. In that book, he offered a rational explanation of why we should believe in God. Now, in The Prodigal God, Keller takes his trademark intellectual approach to understanding Christianity and uses the parable of the prodigal son to reveal an unexpected message of hope and salvation.
Why I liked it: A take on the familiar parable in which the main character (the Father) gets the focus and the needs of both older and younger brother brother are addressed. The writing is intellectual, but the concepts are soul-deep. It’s on my stack to reread in 2020.
The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan
Widely-acclaimed author Mark Buchanan states that what we’ve really lost is “the rest of God-the rest God bestows and, with it, that part of Himself we can know only through stillness.” Stillness as a virtue is a foreign concept in our society, but there is wisdom in God’s own rhythm of work and rest. Jesus practiced Sabbath among those who had turned it into a dismal thing, a day for murmuring and finger-wagging, and He reminded them of the day’s true purpose: liberation-to heal, to feed, to rescue, to celebrate, to lavish and relish life abundant.
With this book, Buchanan reminds us of this and gives practical advice for restoring the sabbath in our lives.
Why I liked it: I need rest so deeply right now. This book helped me see that, and helped me understand why.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.
But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.
Why I liked it: Eleanor is quirky and awkward and self-protective and unhealthy. It was fun to see her unfold and grow and let others in. It was hopeful for me because I share some of her neuroses.
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk
Trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. He explores innovative treatments—from neurofeedback and meditation to sports, drama, and yoga—that offer new paths to recovery by activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score exposes the tremendous power of our relationships both to hurt and to heal—and offers new hope for reclaiming lives.
Why I liked it: I didn’t This book triggered the crap out of me. BUT it was also so incredibly helpful… It creates a framework for the way my brain and body work and also made sense of the behavior of so many others I love. This is kind of an “everybody read it” important book, but also, it’s a little like eating lima beans: good for you, if not entirely pleasant.
The Bark of the Bog Owl, Jonathan Rogers
As Aidan Errol is pronounced Wilderking, a pact is signed between Corenwald and the Pyrthen Empire, but as Aiden shoulders the weight and glory of his destiny, Corenwald is double-crossed and an epic battle to save the kingdom ensues.
Why I liked it: This is a total cheat. It’s the first of a trilogy, an allegory that tells the story of young King David of Israel set in a southern swampland. I liked all three, but I didn’t feel like listing them individually and this list is plenty long as it is. Rogers’s writing is masterful and the story is engaging.
I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening), Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland
More than ever, politics seems driven by conflict and anger. People sitting together in pews every Sunday have started to feel like strangers, loved ones at the dinner table like enemies. Toxic political dialogue, hate-filled rants on social media, and agenda-driven news stories have become the new norm. It’s exhausting, and it’s too much.
In I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening), two working moms from opposite ends of the political spectrum contend that there is a better way. They believe that we can
- choose to respect the dignity of every person,
- choose to recognize that issues are nuanced and can’t be reduced to political talking points,
- choose to listen in order to understand,
- choose gentleness and patience.
Sarah from the left and Beth from the right invite those looking for something better than the status quo to pull up a chair and listen to the principles, insights, and practical tools they have learned hosting their fast-growing podcast Pantsuit Politics. As impossible as it might seem, people from opposing political perspectives truly can have calm, grace-filled conversations with one another—by putting relationship before policy and understanding before argument.
Why I like it: The political party I’ve identified with for my entire life has worked its way farther and farther from my actual values, but it’s taken with it a lot of people I love. This offers a blueprint for discussions about tough topics with a goal of connection rather than winning.
Tattoos on the Heart, Father Gregory Boyle
For twenty years, Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. In Tattoos on the Heart, he distills his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of parables inspired by faith.
Arranged by theme and filled with sparkling humor and glowing generosity, these essays offer a stirring look at how full our lives could be if we could find the joy in loving others and in being loved unconditionally. From giant, tattooed Cesar, shopping at JCPenney fresh out of prison, we learn how to feel worthy of God’s love. From ten-year-old Lula we learn the importance of being known and acknowledged. From Pedro we understand the kind of patience necessary to rescue someone from the darkness. In each chapter we benefit from Boyle’s gentle, hard-earned wisdom.
These essays about universal kinship and redemption are moving examples of the power of unconditional love and the importance of fighting despair. Gorgeous and uplifting, Tattoos on the Heart reminds us that no life is less valuable than another.
Why I liked it: Father Gregory Boyle is warm and endearing and tells stories that had me alternately laughing and tearing up (often in the same paragraph). He lives in a world I have never experienced but removes the us/them barriers.
I’m Still Here, Austin Channing Brown
(Christian social issues)
Austin Channing Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age 7, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools, organizations, and churches, Austin writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness,” a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker and expert who helps organizations practice genuine inclusion.
In a time when nearly all institutions (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claim to value “diversity” in their mission statements, I’m Still Here is a powerful account of how and why our actions so often fall short of our words. Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice, in stories that bear witness to the complexity of America’s social fabric–from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.
For readers who have engaged with America’s legacy on race through the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, I’m Still Here is an illuminating look at how white, middle-class, Evangelicalism has participated in an era of rising racial hostility, inviting the reader to confront apathy, recognize God’s ongoing work in the world, and discover how blackness–if we let it–can save us all.
Why I liked it: This challenged my worldview in important, necessary ways. I thought I was going to have all the words to say about it, but months after finishing, there’s just a strong desire to listen.
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.
Why I liked it: Y’all, the buzz is REAL. I’d heard so much “ohmygosh this book is so good” since it published mid-2018 but actually knew almost nothing about it going in. If you read the summary above, you know far more than I did at the outset. I’m going to let that be and just say it’s an amazing story, well-told.
Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson
(Christian/creative living) (I made that genre up.)
Making something beautiful in a broken world can be harrowing work, and it can’t be done alone.
Over the last twenty years, Andrew Peterson has performed thousands of concerts, published four novels, released ten albums, taught college and seminary classes on writing, founded a nonprofit ministry for Christians in the arts, and executive-produced a film—all in a belief that God calls us to proclaim the gospel and the coming kingdom using whatever gifts are at our disposal. He’s stumbled along the way, made mistake after mistake, and yet has continually encountered the grace of God through an encouraging family, a Christ-centered community of artists in the church, and the power of truth, beauty, and goodness in Scripture and the arts.
While there are many books about writing, none deal first-hand with the intersection of songwriting, storytelling, and vocation, along with nuts-and-bolts exploration of the great mystery of creativity. In Adorning the Dark, Andrew describes six principles for the writing life:
- serving the work
- serving the audience
- and community
Through stories from his own journey, Andrew shows how these principles are not merely helpful for writers and artists, but for anyone interested in imitating the way the Creator interacts with his creation.
This book is both a memoir of Andrew’s journey and a handbook for artists, written in the hope that his story will provide encouragement to others stumbling along in pursuit of a calling to adorn the dark with the light of Christ.
Why I liked it: Um, duh, it’s Andrew Peterson. Also, he’s talking about creating and the spiritual import of doing so. Somehow he managed to make a work of art out of a book about making art. I don’t understand, but I’m also not surprised.
There it is. If, for some reason, this list leaves you needing still more books to read, here’s 2018 and 2017.