17.12.21

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2021

 

For the third year in a row (scroll down for 2020 and 2019), I am posting the ten books that I enjoyed the most in the past year.  Here they are, in the chronological order that I encountered them, with a 2021 Newbery commentary at the end.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I decided at the beginning of 2021 to read a few classic novels that, for some reason or another, I had never gotten to.  I started with Jane Eyre, which is absolutely brilliant.  The capacity of these Victorian women authors to provide such complex character sketches is so rich.  I owe it to Peter Bast who convinced me years ago to not shy away from Pride and Prejudice on the grounds that most big fans are usually women, and I'm thankful that he rid me of such...prejudice.

"The sovereign hand that created your frame, and put life into it, has provided you with other resources than your feeble self, or than creatures feeble as you."

2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

For fans of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns who recognized Hosseini's brilliance but just found those great books so hard to read, this may be the perfect novel.  The international and long-time-arc elements of Hosseini's other novels are still there, but the moments of redemption are less dark.  It was published in 2013, and it seems like it missed the level of fanfare that the prior two novels received.

3. Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

The first of two YA novels on this list, this one came to me via Rachel's recommendation.  Wolk's character and intricate plot are set in the Elizabeth Islands about a hundred years ago, off the coast of Cape Cod, a remote area that I've never really imagined before.  So it's that great blend of domestic/accessible and exotic/fascinating.  I love to read books set in areas where I travel, so I later read this book aloud to our kids when we spend a few days in Cape Cod in June.


4. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson

Peterson had a book on last year's list, and if I had to guess, I would say that he's likely to have one on next year's list.  The more I read from him, the more I want to read.  This book was recommended by Russell Moore (see below) on a blog.  It forms part of Peterson's "Spiritual Theology" series which focuses on the marriage of biblical theology to everyday practicality.  It's a decently hefty read, but very worthwhile.

"Is it not obvious by now that all through this narrative of the formation of the Jesus community the means used are unconventional, countercultural, and alien to any person who knows nothing of resurrection?  But once resurrection is introduced into the story, all the ways in which we work have to be rethought, re-imagined, and reworked.  The world's means can no longer be employed for kingdom ends."


5. Hope in Times of Fear by Timothy Keller

I was looking forward to this new book.  It wasn't what I expected, but I'm happy that it is what it is.  Keller's writing about Easter and Resurrection ended up being timed to both a worldwide pandemic as well as his own personal battle with what appears to be terminal cancer.  Far from triumphalistic, he spends a lot of time developing how a strength-in-weakness or death-before-resurrection parabola is so central to the Biblical story.  I also can't help plugging Keller's article in The Atlantic.  I'm so glad that he got to write this book.

"The Bible's teaching is that the road to the best things is not through the good things but usually through the hard things...if we remember this, we can face anything."


6. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

This book, recommended to me by Brian Beise, is a short detective novel which never says that it's about a 90-year old Sherlock Holmes pulling himself out of retirement for one final case, but it nevertheless obviously is about that.  The writing is great.  The restraint in never actually saying what is so obviously true is maybe the most worth savoring.


7. Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren

This book just picked up Christianity Today's Book of the Year Award (second time for her after Liturgy of the Ordinary).  It's a truly fantastic look at finding hope in the darkness, using a Compline prayer from the Book of Common Prayer as the skeleton for the book structure.  Friends have pointed out how much they feel this book is similar in theme to my own, and I definitely agree.  The gift of this book, for me, was getting to read the same thoughts I needed to write in a fresh voice different from my own.  I've already read two other books from her bibliography.

"Christian discipleship is a lifetime of training in how to pay attention to the right things."


8. The Storm-Tossed Family by Russell Moore

Having greatly appreciated Moore's voice on a lot of current events, I wanted to read one of his books.  I was somewhat surprised to see this one themed around family, since I had mostly encountered him talking about public policy and such.  It's absolutely brilliant and insightful, taking Family off the pedestal where many have put it, and placing it rightfully under Christ's lordship so that it can be more than what it could be as a merely disordered love.  I suppose a good part of my affinity for this work was my identification with Moore's own personality in family life, so I'm thankful that he was that personal in his writing.

"What is meant for [something] to be good...would be for it to go according to my own plan.  I was deeply and profoundly stupid."


9. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Rachel's family had a family reunion in Charleston, where I had never been, and this was a read to accompany that new place.  It's an epic tale following the stories of a budding woman abolitionist and a young slave girl in South Carolina in the first half of the 19th century.


10. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Maggie was so taken with this one, that I wanted to read it myself.  I've loved Spinelli ever since reading Maniac Magee in 4th grade.  The storytelling is good, but ultimately this book rises on the main character of Stargirl.  It's a story of non-conformity, but unlike a lot of such stories (e.g. Timmy Failure), the non-conformity is ultimately self-giving love, and it's beautiful and sad as such stories probably always are.

There is a sequel, which is pretty good, but Rachel proposed a better idea for a sequel.  There is also a Disney+ movie, and I don't think I want to see it.

BONUS: 2021 NEWBERY REFLECTION
(our Newbery Rank list here)

The 100th Newbery Medal was award to Tae Keller for How to Trap a Tiger, which is a story of a young Korean-American girl (and her sister) coping with the pending death of their grandmother, who adheres to a number of traditional Korean beliefs.  The writing is quite good, and probably the best plot achievement is how the reader is suspended for quite a long time about how much magic is really going on in the story. Not a home run in my book (still waiting for a year when the Newbery is a top 10 read for me), but a great book.

*At the end of the book, there is a very brief mention of the teenage sister being in a same-sex relationship.  It seems completely extraneous to the story, but the casual normality of it was likely the author's point.  I leave it to the reader to decide.

1.2.21

Maggie Writes!

Maggie has taken to writing fan fiction novellas.  You can find them here.


(I'm linking this because FB is disallowing me to link directly to her page.  Which is really weird.)

30.12.20

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020

 


For the second year in a row, I kept a list of all the books I read in 2020.  Just like last year, this affords me the opportunity here at the end of the year to look back and recognize my ten favorites.  


1. A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
This was actually the first book I read in 2020.  It was recommended by a guy at MTI in 2018 as an incredible book on suffering, and it is indeed that.  Jerry Sittser lost his mother, wife, and daughter in the same accident with a drunk driver.  His reflections on suffering are profound.  I keep coming back to this quote I've already used multiple times in 2020 (here and here): "Sorrow is noble and gracious.  It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world's pain and hoping for the world's healing at the same time."  I can't think of many ideas more important for the world of 2020.


2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Like everyone else, I read (and enjoyed) this in high school, but that was a long time ago.  Harper Lee nailed it.  Beautiful story, characters, and style.


3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
There is a bit of irony with me placing this one after Harper Lee, but for me, it's just a chronological coincidence.  Stevenson's story about getting an innocent man off death row, along with his general overview of the injustices (racial and otherwise) of the American legal system, is incredibly compelling.  The stories and his descriptions of the issues are engaging.  Stevenson's voice is distinctively and richly Christian.  It's a voice that the church and the world both need, and I'm so glad he's out there testifying.


4. The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
This book was the 2008 Newbery runner-up to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, which was actually also a great book.  So, I'm not debating the difficult choice there, but The Wednesday Wars was certainly Newbery Medal-worthy.  The book moves from one vignette to another, any of which would have been worthy of a climax.


5. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Ever since falling in love with the darkly-redemptive The Power and the Glory about twenty years ago, I've been searching for another Greene novel that captures the same beauty.  This is a very close second.  Greene's psychological dissection of how a modern heart AND mind encounters Christianity from the outside as well as the inside often plays a peripheral role in his story, but it comes into center focus here.


6. Plaidoyer Pour La Vie by Denis Mukwege
Dommage that this book doesn't yet have an English translation.  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege has been working tirelessly for women who are victims of sexual violence in nearby Bukavu, DR Congo.  He is also a graduate of the University of Burundi.  His heroic efforts have put his life under constant threat.  As an autobiography, Plaidoyer Pour la Vie gives Dr. Mukwege a chance to talk openly about his faith and his life growing up among medical missionaries.  Incredible story.


7. Silence by Shusaku Endo
This book was surprisingly hard for me to find (there appears to be no Kindle version?), and I haven't seen the Scorsese film with Liam Neeson.  It is a story of deep struggle and seemingly lost faith in the era of Catholic missionaries to Japan.  The characterization is made in the intro that Shusaku Endo is a kind of Graham Greene for Japan, and I can see that.  The story is as beautiful and deep as it is heartbreaking.  I will be reading more by Endo.  "Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be... Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.  And then for the first time a real prayer rose up in his heart."


8. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
This is simply a practical gem.  Peterson talks about how contemplative living is necessary for good living, but we treat is as peripheral.  Which is true for pastors and everyone.  Thus, this is a book about getting life and work right.  His image of the pastor as the Melville "man with the harpoon" while everyone else in the boat is rowing, so that he can strike well in the opportune moment, is a durable metaphor.  "...the faithful endurance that is respectful of the complexities of living a moral, spiritual, and liturgical life before the mysteries of God in the mess of history."  I know that's a sentence fragment, but what a fragment.


9. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Rabbit
I'm surprised I never read this as a kid.  The story of the immortal Tucks and all its implications is married perfectly with Babbit's style.


10. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
Enger's prior novel made my list last year, so that tells you something of my evolving opinion of him as a novelist.  Virgil Wander is the wonderfully quirky story of a small town on the north shore of Lake Superior, MN.  It feels magical, but it's really not.  It feels redemptive, but also ordinary.  Which is great.

BONUS: Newbery 2020 Reflection:  We continue to read and rank the Newbery Medal winners every year.  Now our kids are getting into it, which is fun.  Next year will be the 100th year, so we're looking forward to that.


2020 Newbery Medal: New Kid by Jerry Craft.
This is a great graphic novel about a black kid who starts at a new elite school where he struggles with being a person of color in a very white world.  The story and the illustrations both work really well, and all our kids enjoyed the book.  It's funny and nuanced.  The odd thing is that it's a graphic novel.  Our impression is that the Newbery Medal went to a story that could stand alone without its illustrations (thus having excluded past greats from Brian Selznick like Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck).  Apparently not.

25.4.20

A Bunch of Great Quotes

If I'm wanting to archive the great words of someone else, why not do it in a public place.  We'll tack the following on to the old list of "Quotables" on the right sidebar link:


"Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.  We do not." - Gandalf (JRR Tolkien)

"A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor.  He will always reckon with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage and damage, danger and loss.  No neighbor can live alongside another without risk to his safety, property, wife, or child."  - Martin Luther

"The whole Church is needed to receive God's whole revelation in all its beauty and richness." - The Lausanne Covenant

"We must not equate salvation with political liberation, yet the message of salvation implies judgment upon alienation, oppression and discrimination.  Salvation is deliverance from evil; implicit in God's desire to save people from evil is his judgment on the evil from which he saves them.  God hates evil and injustice." - The Lausanne Covenant

"[But] he's as God made him," said the marquis.  "He's not as God will make him," returned Malcolm.  - George MacDonald

Life is to be measured by the amount of interest and not the amount of ease it it, for the more ease the more unrest.  - George MacDonald

Sorrow is noble and gracious.  It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world's pain and hoping for the world's healing at the same time.  - Jerry Sittser

Better to give up my quest for control and live in hope.  - Jerry Sittser

I am in the throes of being born again.  - Ignatius of Antioch

In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away.  - TS Eliot

The church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world's own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise.  - Karl Barth

This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet finished but it is going on; this is not the end but it is the road.  All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.  - Martin Luther

Doubt seems more like forgetfulness than unbelief.  - Philip Yancey

Any redemption that fails to take such evil into account is no redemption at all.  - Diane Langberg

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.  - Martin Luther King Jr.

The sun pours down on the east, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy.  He knows only the fear of his heart.  - Alan Paton

The good are vulnerable
As any bird in flight...
The good incline to praise,
To have the knack of seeing that
The best is not destroyed
Although forever threatened.
- Brendan Kennelly

Lord, send us forth into the day to rejoice in all things, to trust you in all circumstances, and to proclaim your coming kingdom to all people.  Amen.  - Common Prayer (June 8)

Beware of world changers - they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin.  - Andy Crouch

Joy is the echo of God's life in us.  - Columba of Iona

What is most needed in our time are Christians who are deeply serious about cultivating and creating but who wear that seriousness lightly - who are not desperately trying to change the world but who also wake up every morning eager to create.  The worst thing we could do is follow that familiar advice to "pray as if it all depended on God, and work as if it all depended on you."  Rather, we need to become people who work as if it all depends of God - because it dose, and because that is the best possible news.  - Andy Crouch

No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is might to save.  - James Denney

The final secret, I think, is this: that the words "you shall love the Lord your God" become in the end less of a command than a promise.  - Frederick Buechner

Keep our frailty before us, Lord: that we might set our hearts on you.  - Common Prayer (Jan 17)

Lord, this is the day that you have made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it, even as we know it will bring more than we can do.  Amen.  - Common Prayer (Jan 19)

Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?  - Isaiah 2:22

Hound us Lord with affection and conviction until we renounce all lesser things to follow you.  - Common Prayer

If even our exile be so full, what must our fullness be?  - Robert Farrar Capon

It is the ordinary that groans with the unutterable weight of glory.  - Robert Farrar Capon

One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.  - Robert Farrar Capon

Oneness is not unity.  It is what we do in the face of our differences.  - Paul Tripp

Unless we sit in adoration of you, we will forget whom we serve and for what purpose.  - Common Prayer (Jan 24)

Nor should we look at earlier times of spiritual ministry in our lives that we'll never be capable of that again.  You weren't capable of it the first time.  It was God.  And he is still there.  - Timothy Keller

It is a sin to be less than joyful at what God has done in our lives.  - Timothy Keller

Make my words honest, few, wise, and kind.  - Timothy Keller

We are to be characterized by patience and longing.  Hope in God and in his promise means being able to wait patiently, trusting that fallow ground is never dormant.  - Tish Harrison Warren

As we get to know Jesus, we learn to expect what we cannot yet see.  - Bethany Ferguson

We must know, then, what we are, and that it is not of ourselves that we are what we are.  Unless we know this thoroughly, either we shall not glory at all, or our glorying will be vain.  - Bernard of Clairvaux

2.1.20

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2019


This year, I decided to keep a list of the books that I read.  The primary advantage of this was not knowing how many books I read (which I imagine would just encourage the reading of short books, thus missing out on some great long reads), but rather a chance to look back and consider the best books that I encountered.  So, because sharing a good read is always a worthy task, I give you the 10 best books I read in 2019 (in the order that I read them, not as a ranking).

1. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.  
Trevor's storytelling is not only hilarious, but incredibly valuable as a way to see race relations up close and personal, but (since he's mostly talking about South Africa) not so personal that you can't hear what he's saying.
 

2. The Sacrifice of Africa by Emmanuel Katangole.  
I love reading Africans who are way smarter than me, and Katangole is a joy in that regard.  This Ugandan priest tackles the question of why the Christianization of Africa hasn't transformed African societies like it seems that it should have.  The positive examples that he gives are tremendous, and his treatment of the subject is brilliant.

3. So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger.  
Though the title rings of a paperback romance, this beautiful novel is simply a great, American adventure story.

4. Culture Making by Andy Crouch.  
My favorite quote from this one: "What is most needed in our time are Christians who are deeply serious about cultivating and creating but who wear that seriousness lightly - who are not desperately trying to change the world but who also wake up every morning eager to create.  The worst thing we could do is follow that familiar advice to "pray as if it all depended on God, and work as if it all depended on you."  Rather, we need to become people who work as if it all depends on God - because it does, and because that is the best possible news."

5. On Loving God by Bernard of Clairvaux.  
I love being able to read words from 900 years ago, and find them so relatable even today.  A short book that anyone can download for free.  "We must know, then, what we are, and that it is not of ourselves that we are what we are.  Unless we know this thoroughly, either we shall not glory at all, or our glorying will be vain."

6. Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.  
This is the only book here that was a re-read for me.  I loved it the first time, but wanted to re-read it prior to heading to South Africa this summer.  There is simply a beautiful mix of poetry, story, and social concern woven throughout that is hard to find replicated elsewhere.


7. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.  
I loved Ivey's At the Bright Edge of the World last year, and so I thought I would read Ivey's first book, which had been a finalist for the Pulitzer.  They are both Alaskan novels (which makes it a bit special for me, I suppose), and they both have a wonderful magical realism.


8. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  This one is thanks to Rachel.  I hear there is a movie, but haven't seen it.  The novel, at any rate, is about as fun as dystopia can get.


9. The Golden Key by George MacDonald, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson.  Diane Telian gave us this one.  The story is a typically beautiful fairy tale from MacDonald.  The illustrations from Sanderson are gorgeous and worth hanging on a wall to ponder.  The whole story can be read in a couple hours, preferably on a lazy Sunday afternoon, where it's beauty can be properly and leisurely enjoyed.


10. Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson.  I've been trying to decide whether this book would have the same appeal for someone who is not a long-time Andrew Peterson fan like myself.  I'm still not sure, but the book is certainly more than a fan read.  Peterson has fantastic wisdom for the creative process in the world, which it turns out, touches most of our relationships.


BONUS:  Given Rachel and I's longtime goal of reading all the Newbery medal winners and ranking them, we can say a word here at the 2019 winner Mercy Suarez Changes Gear.  Nice story, fairly typical coming of age tale, this time set in a fun Cuban-American family in Florida.  Though it beats Hello Universe from the year prior, it's hard to see what made it stand out to win the medal.  Hoping for something great in 2020.

18.6.17

2016 & 2017 Newbery Thoughts

As longtime readers know, we have made it a hobby to read all the 90+ Newbery medal winners and give our unsolicited opinion.  Click here for our ranking.  The books keep coming, so we keep giving our thoughts.

2016:  January 2016, Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery Medal.  It was a shock.  It's a read-aloud picture book, utterly unable to be compared to other books.  Sometimes, Newberys have been short (e.g. Sarah, Plain and Tall), but a total read-aloud is a new precedent.  As you can see on the cover here, it not only won the Newbery for best story, but also a honor for the Caldecott for its illustrations (which are fantastic).  Was it good enough for the Newbery?  It's good, but it's not great, and so it was a very confusing choice.
One reason for the confusing choice could have been a lack of competition.  We also happened upon one of the 2016 Newbery Honor books, The War That Saved My Life.  It's a World War II story about a young handicapped girl that is sent out of London during the blitz, and it's fantastic.  Absolutely on par with some of the better medal winners throughout the year.

Thus we have the Newbery motto for 2016:  "What in the world is going on?"

***

As an aside, roughly twice a decade, the Newbery medal departs from a standard novel to honor a book written in some other literary style, poetry, free verse, hip-hop rap, or the occasional non-fiction work.  Last Stop on Market Place seems to be one of these times.  Though we are generally fans of a fantastic tale more than anything else, these occasional departures have usually impressed us.  The Crossover, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices are some examples.

***

2017:  Because of our 2016 experience, we were eager to see the follow-up.  We procured a copy of the winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon as well as the most-appealing Honor book The Inquisitor's Tale.  


Verdict:  Both Awesome.  The Girl Who Drank the Moon is 100% fantasy with truly original characters and a compelling style.  The Inquisitor's Tale is an imaginative yarn out of the Middle Ages that is sometimes silly, sometimes serious, always fun and always wonderfully illustrated.  Very difficult to know which of these two deserved the Medal.  They are both Medal quality.

Newbery Motto for 2017:  Back on Track.

13.6.17

Cape Town Vacation!

The beach 3 houses down from where we stayed

Slangkop lighthouse

Aquarium!











V&A waterfront

Table Rock

Hike up Table Mountain (Platteklip Gorge)



Made it to the top! (after only 3 hrs of hiking)


Spot the dassie



Took the cable car down



Long Beach



Cape Point (national park)

Whale rib cage

Spot the eland



Cape Point lighthouse



Ostriches!





Baboons

Tide pools in False Bay





Penguins at Boulders Beach





Boat trip to Duiker Island....

...home to a colony of fur seals!