Tuesday, December 18, 2018

My year in books: 2018

It's time for my end-of-year book post listing all the books I read this year. In previous years I've sometimes left this post until the very end of December or New Year's Day, but maybe you're still doing some Christmas shopping and would like some last-minute ideas -- in which case my post may be helpful.

My nonfiction list is always much longer than my fiction list, so I've divided Nonfiction up into smaller categories: Memoir/Autobiography, History/Biography, and Other Nonfiction. In one or two cases it was a bit difficult to figure out where a book fit, but in general I find these useful distinctions. Within each category I ranked my books this way:

5/5 (Exceptional)
4/5 (Excellent)
3/5 (Good)
2/5 (Okay)
1/5 (Poor)


Virgil Wander (Leif Enger). When middle-aged bachelor Virgil, who runs a local movie theater, has a car accident that leaves him with concussion symptoms, he must slowly reorient himself to life in his little down-on-its-luck Minnesota town. I grew to love Virgil and his endearing, quirky neighbours. The characters are wonderful, and Enger is such a magnificent writer. I hated to see this book end. (5/5) 

An American Marriage (Tayari Jones). The lives of a young couple, Roy and Celestial, are thrown into turmoil when Roy is unjustly convicted of a crime and sent to jail for ten years. Jones' technique of using alternating first-person narrators as well as letters allows us to understand all the characters' perspectives. The resolution doesn't come easily, but it's satisfying. Such a good novel. (5/5)

 Medicine Walk (Richard Wagamese). Franklin Starlight, a native boy raised in seclusion by a kind non-native man, is called to the bedside of his estranged alcoholic father, who wants Franklin to take him into the wilderness so he can die like a warrior. Beautifully written, haunting book about reconciliation, family, and story. (5/5) 

Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng). The Richardsons' respectable lives are turned upside down when single mother Mia and her daughter Pearl move into their rental house. As in her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, Ng shifts smoothly among the points-of-view of many characters, revealing their motives and secrets.I liked this one a lot. (4/5)

Commonwealth (Ann Patchett). The lives of two families intersect in the first scene, leading to two divorces and two remarriages. The book then follows the six Keating and Cousins children, who've been reluctantly thrown together by their parents' actions. When one of the Keating daughters has an affair with a writer who uses their dysfunctional family story as inspiration for a novel, their complicated relationships are further threatened. Really enjoyed this. (4/5)

Fifteen Dogs (Andre Alexis). Greek gods Hermes and Apollo make a bet about whether dogs would be more or less happy if they could speak and think like humans. The gods decide to give human consciousness to fifteen dogs they spy in a veterinary clinic and then step back to see how the dogs respond, both individually and as a group. Some thought-provoking stuff here about the concept of time, the meaning of happiness, how we respond to change, etc. -- but overall it was choppy, at times confusing, and pretty bleak. We did this novel in our book study group; I found it quite interesting to discuss, but not especially enjoyable to read. (2/5)



All Things Consoled: A Daughter's Memoir (Elizabeth Hay). This was my favourite memoir this year. As Hay's strong, independent parents rapidly declined in old age and she and her siblings took on a greater role in their care and decision-making, Hay had to deal with challenging family dynamics, hurtful memories (particularly about her relationship with her angry father), and her own desire to be the good, responsible daughter. Beautifully written and so moving. (5/5)

Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship (Michelle Kuo). Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, went to teach at a school in Helena, Arkansas, where she worked with some of the country's poorest black students. When a student named Patrick was charged with murder, Kuo began to teach and mentor him one-on-one in prison -- where his self-confidence and literary skills came alive. Wonderful book about friendship, race, literature, and hope. (5/5) 

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Austin Channing Brown). As a girl, Brown discovered her parents had named her Austin so that when she was older and seeking work, prospective employers might assume she was a white man and be more likely to give her a chance. Her desire to explore and celebrate her blackness thus bumped up against her realization that it was disadvantageous to be black and female in America. Brown shares her experiences navigating the unconscious biases and open hostilities of white friends, colleagues, and strangers. So good -- particularly the final chapter, where she rejects white people's insistence that she should be more hopeful, and declares that she "dwells in the shadow of hope." (5/5)

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (Trevor Noah). This book by the comedian and TV host chronicles his experiences as a boy born to a black mother and white father (hence his very existence was "a crime") as South Africa was emerging from apartheid. Equal parts hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking. (4/5)

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home (Amy Dickinson). I enjoyed this memoir by the "Ask Amy" advice columnist; it chronicles her mid-life move back to her small hometown in New York State and her unexpected romance with a local building contractor. (4/5) 

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (Barbara Brown Taylor). When Taylor was an Episcopal priest in a small-town church in Georgia, the joys and demands of pastoral ministry changed her and exposed her own brokenness and need. Although she left her church and pastoral ministry to become a college professor, she gained new appreciation for the reasons people do or don't gather in Christian community and for God's presence in unexpected places. Beautifully written like all of Taylor's books; hopeful but with a sad poignancy too. (4/5) 

Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved (Kate Bowler). Bowler, a scholar who (ironically) studies the prosperity gospel, was forced to confront her own assumptions about success and entitlement when she got colon cancer at age 35. In this book she reflects with candour and humour on facing her diagnosis, the prospect of dying and leaving her husband and small son behind, the things people do and say that do/don't help, and the need to face suffering without resorting to platitudes. (4/5) 

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Michael Wear). Wear was was part of President Obama's faith-based initiatives team during Obama's first term in office and worked on his 2012 reelection campaign. Very interesting behind-the-scenes look at Obama's relationship with Christian leaders, the faith-based office's efforts in disaster relief and anti-trafficking work, and controversies over abortion and gay marriage. Calls on Christians not to place their hope in politics, but to bring their faith to bear on all aspects of public life. (4/5) 

Aching Joy: Following God Through the Land of Unanswered Prayer (Jason Hague). I thoroughly enjoyed this very real, relatable book about how Hague is walking out the journey of being a father to his autistic son, Jack. (Go HERE to read my full review from earlier this year.) (4/5) 

Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Charles Blow). Journalist Blow tells of growing up in Louisiana with a hardworking mother and philandering father and of always feeling isolated and different. Sexual "betrayals" (his word) by older relatives marked him and spurred his lifelong exploration of his sexual identity and his identity as a black man. (4/5) 

A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging (Kate Motaung). Touching memoir of the author's life growing up in Michigan, her move to South Africa and marriage to a South African man, and her mother's devastating cancer diagnosis. I particularly related to Motaung's efforts to support and grieve for her mother from a distance. (3/5) 

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say (Kelly Corrigan). Corrigan shares stories from her own life and relationships, focusing on hard-to-say phrases like "I don't know" and "Tell me more." Quick, enjoyable read with some profound messages. (3/5) 


Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Caroline Fraser). This Pulitzer-winning book looks in-depth at the true life story behind the Little House on the Prairie books -- a story that in many ways is quite different from the tale of pioneer triumph and self-sufficiency that Wilder told. We also get a firsthand look at Wilder's problematic relationship with her daughter Rose and the strange collaborative process by which they composed the Little House books. A thoroughly fascinating exploration of one of our most beloved writers and her books. (5/5) 

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle (Sarah Arthur). This reflection on the life and work of the author of A Wrinkle in Time (and dozens of other books) is structured according to interesting paired concepts like Fact and Fiction, Sacred and Secular, etc. It reveals some of the contradictions of L'Engle's life yet reinforces her status as an influential writer of faith and imagination. (4/5) 

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart (Claire Harman). This was fairly interesting -- but having already read Margot Peters' much more engrossing Bronte biography An Unquiet Soul (published in the 70's) a few years ago, I didn't feel I got anything really new from this 2015 book. Even the title sounds too much like Peters'. (2/5) 

Other Nonfiction: 

So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo). A fantastic book for anyone who wants to engage in conversations about race but doesn't know how, is afraid to offend or be offended, or just isn't familiar with the issues. Oluo discusses white privilege, intersectionality, cultural appropriation, the school-to-prison pipeline, and many other topics. Informative, challenging, and a little uncomfortable. (5/5) 

Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work (Alison Green). I like reading Green's online "Ask a Manager" column, so when I saw this at the library I picked it up. I enjoyed the straightforward advice (useful in many areas of life, not just work) and the odd-but-true stories about people's workplace experiences. (4/5) 

The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Chris Heuertz). This book on the Enneagram system of personality focuses on the Enneagram's role in helping us engage in contemplative practices of solitude, silence, and stillness. Thoughtful, pastoral, and visually appealing.  (4/5) 

The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships (Suzanne Stabile). This book by the co-writer (with Ian Cron) of The Road Back to You focuses on how the nine different Enneagram types behave in relationships and how to understand and relate to types that are different from our own. Really enjoyed this. (4/5) 

Self to Lose, Self to Find (Marilyn Vancil). This clear, accessible book on the Enneagram, written from a Christian perspective, explores the nine types, the three centers of intelligence, the authentic vs. adapted self, and Jesus' invitation to disown ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. (3/5) 

Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse (James Breakwell). I enjoy Breakwell's tweets (@XplodingUnicorn) about his life with his wife, four young daughters, and pet pig, so I thought it would be fun to read his book -- and it was. If you want to "raise happy, healthy children in a world overrun by the undead," this book is for you. (3/5) 

I'd Rather be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life (Anne Bogel). This small book by the "Modern Mrs. Darcy" blogger consists of short essays about various aspects of a reader's life: waiting for your library reservations, reading the right book at the right time, living next door to a library, etc. Bogel's previous book, Reading People (an informative primer on the most popular personality-typing systems) was excellent, so I expected more substance than this book provided. It's a pleasant light read for an afternoon, though. (2/5) 

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Jordan Peterson). I made my way through this at-times unreadable 400-page book so you don't have to. Peterson's twelve "rules" -- bits of folksy advice encapsulated in profound-sounding chapter titles like "Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today" -- are buried in overwritten, pompous, at times creepy prose. If the book's self-aggrandizing introduction (oops, "Overture") doesn't put you off, his first chapter, about standing up straight like a lobster (huh?) might. It's disturbing but really not surprising that Peterson has been so warmly embraced by the Incel crowd, considering that his book's central polarity is order (masculine) vs. chaos (feminine). He comes across as obnoxious and sexist. I would not recommend this book at all. (1/5)

WHEW. Where was I? Well, I guess I've come to the end of my list. Thanks for sticking with me right to the end! I hope you've found some interesting things to add to your gift list or your own to-read list. 

And if you've read any of the above books and want to share your own opinions -- whether in sync with mine or not -- please do so in the comments.

Hope you have a great reading year in 2019!


  1. Jeannie, I love these end of the year favorite book lists! You've shared a number of reads that are new to me ... and have a few beloveds like Barbara Taylor Brown and Kate Bowler and Anne Bogel.

    Let's hear it for many good book conversations in the year to come!

    1. I second that, Linda! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. You've read much more deeply and widely than I have this year, Jeannie. Well done, and now I feel like a slacker.

    1. Not a slacker, Tim: maybe it was just a year where other things took priority, or maybe you just have a different reading pace and style.

  3. Whew! You read a LOT, Jeannie! Well done! I loved perusing your list. Thanks for sharing!

  4. What a great list. Many look thought provoking and worthy of discussing with a friend. I jotted a few down for 2019.

    1. Thanks so much for checking out my list, and happy reading!

  5. You read some awesome books. I am working my way through Brown's book and appreciate her honesty so much. I also read Everything Happens by Kate Bowler. A couple of your other books might have to be added to my to read pile.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Tara. Always nice to have you stop by!


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