Great Reads of 2018

I love the fresh canvas of a brand new year — so full of potential! Last year I set a goal to read at least one book each month, and I’m happy to say, I checked that one off.

Reading has been my guilty pleasure since I mastered Dick and Jane, and my nightstand is rather like the Biblical widow’s jug of oil — for every book finished, a new one joins the stack, such that I will never run out! Perhaps a brief recap of my 2018 reads will prompt a few additions to your own nightstand.

Memoir/Biography

Where Rivers Change Direction
Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg

My fascination with other peoples’ lives makes me quick to reach for a memoir. Of the three I read this year, this was my favorite, hands down. Mark Spragg writes about growing up on the oldest dude ranch in America, near Cody, Wyoming. And Friends, I haven’t seen writing of this quality for a L-O-N-G time. Simply superb. Several times the lyrical beauty of the prose stopped me dead, and I went back to savor the passage again. I will definitely be reading more of Mr. Spragg’s work.

Shooting From the Lip
Shooting From the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson by Donald Loren Hardy

Continuing with a theme, 2018 was my Cody year. My mother grew up in Cody, Wyoming, and we spent a glorious week there last summer. Lifetime Cody resident, retired Senator Al Simpson, has long been one of my heroes. He and my mother went to high school together in the 1950s, and his brother dated my mom’s sister. So we’re practically family!  🙂 His ancestors and mine tromped around the same corner of Wyoming way back before statehood. Simpson served in the Senate from 1978 to 1996, during the Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. He earned a reputation for working across the aisle and tangling with the press. He gave a funny and touching eulogy for one of his dearest friends, George H.W. Bush, this fall. I admire Al Simpson for his humor, his integrity, and his pragmatism — qualities glaringly absent in our current Congress.

Becoming
Becoming by Michelle Obama

True confession: I did not support President Obama. I found many of his policies deeply concerning, but I still managed to find some respect for him. And Michelle Obama? “Meh” pretty much sums up my impression of her as First Lady. Lately, however, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by her, and I’m so glad I picked up her memoir. Her writing is fresh and vibrant, making this a delightful read. For such a public figure, I knew very little of her personal story. Nearly every page unearthed a new discovery, and politics aside, I found much to admire about this gutsy, gorgeous woman.

Faith

The Great Evangelical Recession
The Great Evangelical Recession by John S. Dickerson
Hope of Nations
Hope of Nations by John S. Dickerson

John Dickerson was a new find for me this year. As a journalist and a pastor, his writing is rooted in both data and scripture. He gives a well-reasoned assessment of what’s happening in American culture, and more importantly, how Christians should respond. While I didn’t always agree with his positions, I found both books rich in insight and encouragement.

All the Places to Go
All the Places to Go by John Ortberg

My church’s small group chose this little gem for our group study last year, and it prompted lots of discussion. Playing off of Dr. Seuss, John Ortberg explores the doors we encounter in life, and how we decide which ones to open and go through. He manages some deep insights, wrapped in a playful tone. While our group falls into the 45-65 age group, this would be an equally relevant study for a younger group or individual.

The Quest
The Quest by Beth Moore

When I saw Lifeway’s ad for an online Beth Moore Bible study last summer, I quickly signed up. My family responsibilities make it difficult for me to participate in Bible studies offered through my church, so an online study is ideal. And Beth Moore? That answer is always yes. This study differs from Beth’s earlier ones in that it doesn’t cover a single book or topic. Instead, Beth takes a deep dive into questions found in the Bible, making application to our own questions and our life quest. I’m not sure why, but this particular study deeply resonated with me. Must have been the right time, right message for where I am in life. I highly recommend it!

Politics

A Higher Loyalty
A Higher Loyalty by James Comes

Pre-retirement, I didn’t consider myself a very political person. I had no time to watch the news or read political commentary. Now, however? Well, I’m pretty much a junkie. Beyond just having more available time, I’m fascinated by the historical significance of what we are living through every day. This period of American history will be studied and debated for decades to come, and we have a front row seat.

James Comey, of course, played a central role in the 2016 election, and I was glued to every press meeting and congressional hearing. Surprisingly, only a small portion of his book covers those events. Instead, it’s a personal and professional memoir, illustrating how his early life and career shaped his thinking and values. Regardless of whether you see Jim Comey as a hero or a villain, he’s had a fascinating career, fraught with high-stakes ethical dilemmas. A great read.

Fire and Fury
Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff
Fear
Fear by Bob Woodward

As the chaos of the early days in the Trump White House played out day after day, it was hard not to wonder what it would be like to be a fly on the wall. Wolff and Woodward’s books gave us that opportunity. While Wolff’s journalistic chops might be called into question, few would question Woodward’s stellar credentials. Curiously, I found Wolff’s book a better read. Woodword’s book was disjointed and hard to follow. It’s as if he took a “just the facts, Ma’am” approach to the events, without providing sufficient context and linkage. My biggest take-away after reading both books was the high degree of corroboration in their jaw-dropping behind-the-scenes accounts of White House events.  Holy moly. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Them
Them by Ben Sasse

Arguably, Ben Sasse’s book doesn’t really fit in the Politics category. Instead of expounding on our political division, he launches a larger discussion about American culture. According to Ben, our political divisiveness is a symptom of a deeper root problem — loneliness. His perspective draws from his experience as a historian, an academic, a politician, and a coach’s son from a small Nebraska town. Many of his points resonated with me, particularly our need to be present and invested in our local communities.

 

History

Wyoming Cattle Trails
Wyoming Cattle Trails by John K. Rollinson
Cody
Cody by Lynn Johnson Houze
Trial Creek Ranch
Trail Creek Ranch by Dorothea A. Sanzenbacher
Life Among the Ladies by the Lake
Life Among the Ladies by the Lake by Gladys Andren
A History of the North Fork of the Shoshone River
A History of the North Fork of the Shoshone River by Ester Johansson Murray

Researching my great grandfather’s story took me into a deep dive on Cody history. I learned a great deal by talking with local historians, and found a wealth of published material you’ll never stumble across on Amazon. These little tomes compile first person accounts, oral histories, and family archives to take us back in time. I’m forever indebted to the local folks who cared enough about their history to document and preserve it for later generations. I’ve barely scratched the surface and look forward to a deeper dive this year.

Fiction

The Nightingale

I don’t read a lot of fiction these days, but every now and then, a good book takes me away. This was my first introduction to Kristin Hannah, and I would eagerly pick up another of hers any time. The Nightingale is historical fiction, set in France during the German occupation of World War II. The historical setting felt authentic and accurate to me (although I probably wouldn’t recognize if it wasn’t!) and the characters drew me in from the start. A little too intense for bedtime reading, I felt like I’d lived through World War II by the time I finished the book!

I stumbled across J.F. Riordan quite by accident on Twitter one day, and what a lucky find! Not just one glorious novel, but a series of three with a fourth in the works! I like to read at bedtime, and these are just the stories you can savor for 30 minutes each evening. The story follows the lives of several ordinary folks who live on Washington Island, in northern Lake Michigan. The characters develop at a leisurely pace, with just enough mystery and drama to build anticipation. I was sorry to finish the last one, knowing I’ll have to wait until 2020 for the next installment. Fortunately, J.F. Riordan has a book of essays, Reflections on a Life in Exile, coming out in May.

Home

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

I’ve been engaged in Swedish Death Cleaning for a couple years now, without the benefit of knowing it by that name! This quirky little gem is an easy read, full of practical tips and unexpected chuckles. I read Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, two years ago — another quirky book. What is it about these cleaning people? Anyway, I’ll be blogging soon about my adventures in Swedish Death Cleaning, so stay tuned!

Magnolia Table
Home Body

I am a hopeless Joanna Gaines fan, and I’m hoping someday we’ll be BFFs. I read Magnolia Table cover to cover, and I’ve been steadily sampling the recipes. So far, my family loves her Bowtie Pasta, Tortilla Soup, and Arugula Salad. Home Body was a Christmas gift for my sister, but I read the whole thing before I wrapped it. Shhhh….  I hope Joanna will feel right at home when she comes to visit her new BFF, notwithstanding my appalling lack of shiplap.

Podcasts

Bag Man
Bag Man by Rachel Maddow

Okay, so technically not a “read”, but I couldn’t wrap this up without telling you how much Rachel Maddow’s podcast Bag Man will complete your life. Seriously. Okay, maybe not, but it’s really, really good. Some of my friends were aghast at this recommendation, having no particular love for Rachel Maddow or her political views. But I’m telling you, she’s a fabulous storyteller and this is a fascinating piece of forgotten history. So, just do it, and be sure to tell me how you like it!

Here’s to another year of happy reading. I’d love to hear about your great reads!

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