Today I'm happy to present my annual year-end book list. Although I did read a fair amount this year, my list is quite a bit shorter than usual -- a prime reason being my eyesight issues. I got new glasses in the summer of 2016 and struggled with them for over a year. I couldn't read well with them, and my chronic problem with double vision just got worse. Finally this fall I dumped my optometrist (who had said he couldn't do anything more for me), went to a new one who gave me lots of options, and got new lenses. They've made a huge difference in my quality of life: reading and computer work has gotten much easier. I'd been at the point where reading had become a chore rather than a pleasure, but not anymore. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if my 2018 list ends up being much longer again.
This year I tried to read more books by writers whose racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds are different from mine. This has proved very rewarding, and I hope to continue this practice in the coming year.
Oh, and just a bit about my ratings. (This is the Price-Waterhouse part of the post; feel free to go for snacks if you're not interested in this bit.) I get excellent book recommendations from other bloggers and on social media, so I always end up reading a lot of really good stuff -- therefore I rarely have many 1/5's or 2/5's in my list (none this year, in fact). And even a 3 is usually a pretty solid vote. This is how I'd describe my numbers:
5/5 "This is exceptional; I'm a better person for having read it, and I think everyone should read it."
4/5 "This is excellent; the subject matter is compelling, and the writing is strong."
3/5 "This is good; it's interesting and thought-provoking."
2/5 "This is okay; it wasn't quite for me, but others might like it (or have liked it)."
1/5 "Reading this was not, in my opinion, time well spent."
And now (at last) to my 2017 book list itself!
As usual, this category is far larger than the Fiction one. I've put my top five books at the beginning, and then the others.
1. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I read two books by Coates this year: this one and Between the World and Me. Coates is a writer for The Atlantic, and his work is considered required reading for anyone interested in learning more about racism and the black American experience. We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays Coates wrote for The Atlantic, one from each year of the Obama administration. Each essay is preceded by a new, shorter piece in which he discusses what prompted the essay and how he feels about it now. The book covers subjects from Bill Cosby, reparations, and the mass incarceration of blacks, to Obama's life and presidency and the Trump aftermath. This is an incredible, devastating book. (5/5)
2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This book is addressed to his son and tells of his fear-plagued boyhood in Baltimore, his growing realization of the vulnerability and plundering of black bodies, and his experiences as a black man in university and overseas. Coates focuses heavily on what he calls "The Dreamers": whites (or as he would put it, people who need to believe they are white) whose picket-fence American dream relies on the exploitation of blacks. Eloquent and powerful. (5/5)
3. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Father Gregory Boyle. In this followup to his wonderful first book, Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle continues sharing stories about the L.A. gang members, convicts, and addicts he works with at Homeboy Industries. As in Tattoos, each chapter focuses on a theme like humility, goodness, or awe. Boyle weaves his reflections on these themes with anecdotes about specific people and how their lives have been changed by the foundational truth that God delights in each one of us, just as we are. Boyle also writes more about how his own life has been affected by his work with the homies and about how the "original program" of Jesus is lived out in solidarity and kinship with those on the margins. (5/5)
4. Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura. This book uses Shusako Endo's novel Silence as a launching point for a complex interweaving of themes such as Endo's life and writing; Japanese art and culture; Christian faith and mission; and Fujimura's own journey as a Christian artist. (5/5)
5. Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghabosh. Ghabosh is the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to Russia. This book is addressed to his young son and explores the origins of Islam, its various forms and manifestations today, and how to be a responsible Muslim in our ethnically and religiously fractured world. It has a simple, eloquent style; I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about Islam. (5/5)
Reading People by Anne Bogel. In this book, Bogel (also well-known as blogger Modern Mrs. Darcy) discusses several of the main personality typing systems: Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, Love Languages, StrengthsFinder, and others. In a clear, accessible style, Bogel explains how each system works and gives practical examples and suggestions. A great overview book for anyone interested in exploring personality types. (4/5)
Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. This latest book by the author of Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and The Gifts of Imperfection addresses our society's crisis of belonging: we long to fit in, but our polarized culture encourages us to take sides and demonize the opposition. Brown asserts that when we are true to our deepest selves yet recognize our connection to all humanity, we can (paradoxically) belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time. (4/5)
The Life We Never Expected by Andrew and Rachel Wilson. The Wilsons, who live in the UK, are parents of (now) three children, two with autism. This book is a collection of short essays/reflections (some by Andrew, some by Rachel) about parenting special-needs children: there's one on lament, one on "a day in the life," one on suffering, and so on. Richard and I both read this and loved it. (4/5)
Never Unfriended by Lisa-Jo Baker. In a warm, sisterly style, Baker writes about women's need for friends, the hurts and expectations we have around friendship, and ways to befriend other women and help them flourish. For me, the key sentence in the book is this: "While we might have defined friendship our whole lives by what others do to us, in the end it's what we do for others that will define us as friends or not." (4/5)
Disaster Falls by Stephane Gerson. Gerson's eight-year-old son died tragically in a family rafting expedition in Utah. This memoir is somewhat analytical but beautiful and moving. (4/5)
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. This book weaves three strands: it's a biography of novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), an exploration of her most famous novel, Middlemarch, and a personal story of how Mead's own life as a daughter, mother, and wife was influenced by her reading of the novel. (4/5)
Emotional Agility by Susan David. In this practical book, David discusses four main steps in dealing well with change, stress, and troubling feelings: "showing up," "stepping out," "walking your why," and "moving on." If you like Brene Brown and/or Susan Cain, you'll enjoy this. (4/5)
Waiting for First Light by General Romeo Dallaire. In this memoir, Dallaire chronicles his ongoing battle with PTSD, the effects of which began after his return from commanding the ill-fated UN mission to Rwanda. It's not easy reading. Dallaire readily confesses that he has become a haunted person with deep psychological wounds -- yet we can also admire his determination to improve our country's treatment of physically and mentally injured soldiers as well as his commitment to ending the use of child soldiers worldwide. (4/5)
Night Driving by Addie Zierman. I loved Zierman's first memoir, When We Were on Fire; this one chronicles a road trip to Florida that she took with her children, ostensibly to promote her book but really to attempt to revive the feeling of God's presence in her life. I enjoy Zierman's vulnerable writing. (3/5)
Everbloom by Redbud Writers' Guild. This lovely compilation of personal essays, reflections, and poetry by members of the Guild focuses on themes of struggle, grief, and renewed faith. (3/5)
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Sandberg has been in executive roles in Google and Facebook and is the author of the bestseller Lean In. In Option B, she discusses the lessons she learned after the sudden death of her husband at age 48 -- such as helping children through grief, working through loss and change, and building more resilient families and communities. (3/5)
We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee. Interesting, practical book on how to have better conversations. (3/5)
I read only five novels this year (I know! I'm sorry!), so I'm not making a "best of" category here. They were all really good anyway.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is about a boy named Jojo growing up in Mississippi among complex family relationships: his black mother, Leonie, is a drug addict and his white father, Michael, is in the notorious Parchman prison, where Jojo's beloved grandfather/mentor, Pop, was also incarcerated as a young man. When Michael is released, Leonie drives north to pick him up, taking Jojo and his baby sister with her. On the return journey they are accompanied by a ghost (whom only Jojo can see) of a boy whom Pop befriended in Parchman and who needs to learn the circumstances of his own death so he can rest in peace. Haunting, beautiful book about race, spirituality, and family. (5/5)
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Like Strout's Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge, this book is a series of interrelated short stories about people in a small town. In this case it's the Illinois hometown of the protagonist in Strout's previous novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. As it turns out, the latter book serves as the fictional memoir of the fictional writer Lucy -- who grew up in an abusive, dysfunctional family and is the common thread between the stories in Anything is Possible, even though she appears in only one of them. Strout is such an amazing writer, conveying so much in simple scenes and conversations. I'd highly recommend this book -- but you'll get more out of it if you read My Name is Lucy Barton first. (4/5)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. If you like Elizabeth Strout and are looking for another writer somewhat in the same vein, try Haruf. Our Souls at Night is deceptively simple in style and plot: two lonely widowed neighbours in their seventies decide to spend their nights together, talking and sleeping in the same bed. The intertwining of their lives over the following months is conveyed in such a lovely and understated way. Haruf has other novels which I haven't read yet, but I was advised to read Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction in that order, so hopefully those will be on my 2018 list. (4/5)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. This novel is about a family coming to grips with the suspicious death of their 16-year-old daughter. Ng is exceptionally good at getting inside the heads of all the characters and allowing us to experience the family's grief from many perspectives. (4/5)
The Day the Angels Fell by Shawn Smucker. This is a compelling Young Adult novel about a boy named Sam; when his mother dies in a freak accident, he tries to find the Tree of Life from Genesis in hopes of bringing her back to life again. Smucker draws us into a fully-realized world that looks, smells, and feels exactly like ours -- but that is shimmering with magic, mystery, and powerful unseen forces. (4/5)
I'm really mad at myself for having read only one book of poetry this year (though actually I did read a lot of poems, mainly in the journals I subscribe to such as Ruminate and Image). But I'm pleased that the one book I did read was John Blase's The Jubilee. Blase's graceful poems focus on themes like faith, the natural world, and being a husband and father; his line "Set your mind on things below" (from the poem "Things below") seems to sum up his incarnational approach to poetry and life in general. (5/5)
Happy reading in 2018!