In my 60 years on this planet, no year compares to 2020 for sheer, unrelenting wretchedness. Gahhhh, so long, 2020. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. One bright spot in the year, however, was more time to read. Books have long been my refuge, and they certainly sustained me during this year of hunkering down. Here’s a recap of my great reads, organized by category: fiction, faith, politics and culture, the writing life, memoir, and Wyoming history.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I opened this book with a sense of dread, because I knew it would be sad. And it was. Although it’s fiction, it’s based on real-life events that happened in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The book follows five siblings who are abducted from their parents and adopted out to other families. My heart is sensitive to this topic, since two of my grandparents spent much of their lives in children’s homes. My granny’s experiences in a children’s home in Wyoming bore an uncanny resemblance to scenes from this book. Chilling. The writer’s skill can be measured in the hours of sleep I missed because I could not put the book down. This story will stay with me for a long time. (See Before and After in the Memoir section below for the sequel to this book.)
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd ⭐⭐. I’m torn on this one, because the writing is beautiful and Kidd weaves a captivating tale. My issue is that the main character of the book is the wife of Jesus. What, you didn’t know he was married? 🙂 I tried to suspend my inner theological critic and just go along for the ride because it is, after all, fiction. And I succeeded, to a point. Kidd is no slouch on her research, and I loved the rich detail of the historical setting. I also loved the way she depicted Jesus. She even made me sympathetic toward Judas. But her decision to focus on the humanity of Jesus and downplay his deity ultimately ruined it for me. What a missed opportunity.
A Small Earnest Question by J.F. Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐. This is the much-anticipated fourth installment in Riordan’s North of the Tension Line series, and I loved it just as much as I knew I would. She weaves an engaging story of ordinary people and small-town drama on Washington Island. By this time, her characters feel like old friends, and the book was a long-overdue coffee date to catch up. At a time when the world feels so intense, Riordan’s books are a deep breath. Read a few chapters before bed each night, and the world will look right again.
The Eagle Catcher by Margaret Coel ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms since the Netflix series Longmire ended in 2017. I tried the Craig Johnson novels on which the series was based, but they just didn’t do it for me. Now I’ve found Margaret Coel, and her series may just fill the void. Set in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming, her books have all the right ingredients — familiar places, nuanced characters, cultural conflict, historical resonance, and intriguing plot. When the world felt particularly heavy this fall, I needed a book to help me check out for awhile. Coel came through. I loved this first installment of the series and am ready to dive into the second.
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This book was not what I expected, but in a happy way. I’ve wrestled with my church’s teaching on Biblical womanhood for most of my life. My feminist chapter began in earnest when my sister and I burned our bras over the gas range at the ages of 13 and 14. Heresy! I expected a book heavy on theological interpretation. Bessey does address some of those interpretive issues, explaining the two opposing camps: complementarians and egalitarians. But she spends the bulk of her time on her main point: Jesus loved women. This book reads like a warm hug and a pep talk from your BFF. Bessey largely rejects the pressure to choose a camp. Instead, she weaves a scriptural picture of beautiful affirmation and encourages women to go forth in love, taking their unique gifts to a world that desperately needs them.
Chasing Vines by Beth Moore ⭐⭐⭐. Overall, I am a huge Beth Moore fan. Perhaps my expectations were too high or perhaps because our study got interrupted by a pandemic, this book didn’t resonate with me like Beth’s earlier studies. However, it’s never a waste of time to study God’s word with your girlfriends. I definitely learned some things and found rich insights. Lifeway marketed the book as a standalone product, with an optional study workbook. It was expensive to buy both products, and the interface between the two was confusing. I’d advise them to pick a lane next time.
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I’m somewhat stingy with stars in my reviews, but this book deserves all five. In this era of deep racial division and mistrust, I wanted to deepen my understanding of the Black experience. McCaulley walks through Biblical texts that address six defining cultural challenges facing African Americans. This is the kind of scholarly work you expect from a Ph.D., well researched and documented. Remarkably, however, McCaulley makes it very accessible to lay readers like me. In fact, I nearly used up an entire highlighter pen underlining passages that resonated with me. I will be recommending this book to complete strangers in the produce aisle at Wal-Mart. Seriously, you need to read it.
Gentle and Lowly: the Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Sometimes a book finds you at just the right time. This one did. In a deeply unsettling year, this beautiful book took me back to the roots of my faith — the person of Jesus. Ortlund examines the writings of Puritan theologians to reveal truths about who Jesus is. Christianity is not as complicated as we sometimes make it — all we really need to know can be found in the person of Christ. This book is ultimately a scholarly work and does require careful attention (no “chicken soup for the soul”), but that attention is richly rewarded. Keep it on your nightstand and soak in a chapter before you drift off to sleep. You’ll sleep like a baby.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I confess to a deep weariness and disappointment with what I see in the American evangelical church these days. Perhaps that’s what drove me to this Christian classic. The man who gave us The Message Bible paraphrase penned this work more than 20 years ago, but its concepts are timeless. The book covers the 15 “songs of ascent” in the book of Psalms, each illustrating a character quality of the Christian life. Quiet mornings, absorbing these truths with a cup of coffee, proved just the balm my weary spirit needed.
politics and culture
A Very Stable Genius by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig ⭐⭐⭐ and Front Row at the Trump Show by Jonathan Karl ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Prior to the Trump presidency, I didn’t consider myself a very political person. My interest in these books, however, is less about Trump than about the journalists who have covered his circus from front row seats. A former college journalism major, I follow journalists like groupies follow rock stars, and these are three of the best. Their veteran perspective, having covered numerous presidents, provides the bigger picture context we miss in the frantic daily news cycle. I recommend both books, but my favorite was Jonathan Karl’s. Instead of rehashing everything from Trump’s first three years, he chose certain key events and placed them in both historical and personal context. That personal context was just what I was hoping for, and he did not disappoint.
Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From a Culture of Contempt by Arthur C. Brooks ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Arthur Brooks is a social scientist, data nerd and devout Catholic. He led the conservative American Enterprise Institute for a decade and, cool side note, he pals around with the Dalai Lama. I’m a fan. In this book, he addresses the “outrage industrial complex” of American political discourse that creates a culture of contempt. For anyone despairing that our divisions are too deep and wide to bridge, please read this book. Brooks offers a thoughtful, practical strategy for approaching our differences with empathy and humility. I needed this book. I’m still working on putting his principles into practice.
The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency by John Dickerson ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. The audio version of this book kept me company across long stretches of Wyoming highway this summer. Audiobooks are not my preferred format, but I did love hearing this one read by the author. I’m a Dickerson fan. As expected, the book is meticulously researched and it sparkles with Dickerson’s dry wit. Anyone who loves American history will enjoy this big-picture look at how various occupants of the White House responded to the demands of the job and shaped the job description for those who came after. I felt like he handled Donald Trump’s impacts on the presidency fairly, but Trump’s more ardent fans may object to some of his conclusions. In my view, Dickerson was restrained and objective. It’s not a book about Trump; he’s just one of the characters. And that was delightful.
Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior ⭐⭐⭐⭐. If I had a nickel for every time I had seen this book recommended on Twitter, I’d be making some substantial stock investments. With her deep expertise in authoritarian regimes, Kendzior saw warning signs in Trump’s presidency long before most people. Her book was published in 2019, but anyone who read it would not be surprised by how the Trump presidency is ending. Kendzior warned about the escalating assault on democratic norms, and her predictions have been uncannily accurate. When I read the book in early 2020, I thought it somewhat hyperbolic and very dark. Sadly, her dark view turned out to be warranted. I hope she’s working on the sequel.
Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Report by Andrew Weissmann ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I read a good deal of the Mueller Report and watched every live hearing during the investigation. Many times, I wished to be a fly on the wall in Mueller’s oh-so-secret world. This book granted my wish. I admire Andrew Weissmann, and I appreciated the candor of this account. Historians will be studying this chapter of American history for decades, and that motivated Weissmann to pen his inside account. Of course, spite may have played a role, too, since he lays a fair bit of the blame on one of his colleagues. So yes, there’s some gossipy palace intrigue stuff, but mostly it’s a blow-by-blow account of the legal strategy that ultimately led to criminal indictments against 34 individuals and 3 Russian businesses. While he concludes “we could have done more,” he’s clearly proud of the work they did.
Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty and Law by Jeffrey Rosen ⭐⭐⭐. My only complaint about this book is the format. Rosen recounts his conversations with RBG as they happened, which leads to some repetition and a few places where additional context would have been helpful. Still, it’s an enlightening read. I was surprised to learn the rationale behind many of her key decisions. I also enjoyed getting a glimpse behind the curtain of the court’s processes and the justices’ relationships with each other. Her delightful and unlikely friendship with Antonin Scalia has been well publicized, but I didn’t know about her deep regard and affection for William Rehnquist. While her political viewpoints are more liberal than mine, I still find her a fascinating and inspirational woman.
The Writing life
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr ⭐⭐⭐. Anyone interested in writing a memoir will come back to this book time and time again during the writing process. I am too early in this pursuit to be able to judge the true value of Karr’s instruction, but the book is an engaging read, chock full of anecdotes and wit.
On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Karen Swallow Prior is a recent, and delightful, discovery for me. She taught English at Liberty University for years, and has now moved on to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where she is one of very few female professors. In On Reading Well, Prior gives us a mini-class on several classic works of literature, highlighting the thematic virtue of each one. It’s been a long time since I read literary criticism, and this is not light reading. Prior’s writing style is engaging, but the content is rich and deep — rather like sitting in a graduate-level literature class. This book made me eager revisit some of the classics.
A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland by Sydney Nathans ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Technically, I suppose this is not a memoir, but it reads like one. Sydney Nathans follows the lives of enslaved black families from a single plantation for more than 150 years. Instead of following the Great Migration north during reconstruction, some chose to stay and eventually owned the land they once worked as slaves. Nathans skillfully weaves the stories, relying heavily on letters and first person accounts, to give us a glimpse into the motivations of each generation, particularly the critical importance of owning land. Well researched and expertly told, this book was a compelling read.
North of Crazy by Neltje ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Okay, so by now you know I love memoirs! Neltje is an abstract impressionist artist. She is also the daughter of Nelson Doubleday, and an heir to the Doubleday publishing fortune. Neltje grew up with wealth and privilege, traveled the world, hobnobbed with many famous people, survived two failed marriages, and finally landed on a ranch in Wyoming, just north of Crazy Woman Canyon. I know and love that area! I was struck by the authenticity and humility of her perspective on her own life. Through a lifetime of complicated relationships — her parents, her husbands, her siblings — she finally finds her own voice and expresses it largely through her art. What a fascinating woman. Now in her 80s, Neltje has bequeathed her ranch to the University of Wyoming to be used as an artist retreat after her death.
Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I had barely recovered from reading the novel Before We Were Yours, when along came this follow-up of real-life stories and I was a mess all over again. These stories hit me hard because of my own family history and the research we’ve done to solve our own mysteries. Grab a box of tissues and let the tears flow. Ultimately, these are stories of hope and resilience and the triumph of good over evil. I’m here for that all day long.
Beckoning Frontiers: The Memoir of a Wyoming Entrepreneur edited by Lynn J. Houze and Jermey M. Johnston ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. What a fascinating personal account of a man who made significant contributions to the early development of two Wyoming communities, Sheridan and Cody. He was a contemporary of my great grandfather, who homesteaded near both of those communities. The son of a United States Senator, Beck came from a prominent family with considerable social and political capital. Instead of leading a refined and cultured life in the east, he used his education, wealth and connections to live the life he loved in Wyoming. A true visionary, his stories ring with humor and authenticity.
Eighty Miles from a Doctor by Esther Mockler ⭐⭐⭐⭐. My in laws lived in Dubois, Wyoming for more than 30 years, and I grew to love the place. We still spend part of every summer in this wild and quaint mountain town even though my in laws passed several years ago. My mother-in-law was an avid reader, and I’ve been slowly making my way through her collection of local history books. Esther Mockler tells the story of how she and her husband bought a Dubois ranch in the Depression and raised their family there. This book was a delightful time machine, filled with places I know well and people who embody the culture of my roots.
The Truth About Sacajawea by Kenneth Thomasma ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Another choice from my mother-in-law’s collection, this book is an easy read on a topic that has long intrigued me. Much as been written about the role Sacajewea played in the Lewis & Clark expedition, but it’s difficult to sort fact from legend. This book relies solely on entries from Lewis & Clark’s journals, with explanatory narrative. The author departs from the journals just once, to address the unresolved controversy about what happened to Sacajawea after the expedition. It was my understanding that she lived to a very old age and is buried at Ft. Washakie, Wyoming. The author sides with the alternate account — that she died at the age of 25 in South Dakota. There is historical support for both accounts, and memorials to her in both locations. So, pick your version of history. I’m sticking with Ft. Washakie!
Staking Her Claim by Marcia Meredith Hensley ⭐⭐⭐⭐. This is another volume from my mother-in-law’s library, autographed by the author. Painstakingly researched, the book tells the stories of 21 single women who filed homestead claims in western states in the early 1900s and successfully “proved up” their claims, gaining patents on their land. I had no idea that from 10-20% of homesteaders were single women! Lured by adventure and a desire for independence, these plucky gals endured extreme hardship for the chance to own land in their own names. Hats off to these early feminists!
Goodbye, Judge Lynch: The End of the Lawless Era in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin by John W. Davis ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Davis writes with a lawyer’s precision about how the wild west slowly evolved from vigilante justice to law and order. Using several infamous cases as examples, he highlights the challenges of establishing legal processes such as jury selection. I’m neck-deep in research on my great grandfather’s trial, which occurred in the same courthouse and the same timeframe as many of cases he discusses, so it was particularly instructive for me. But it’s a great read for anyone who loves western history.
Keeping the Promise: Cathedral Home for Children by Sally Y. Biegert and Robin Haas ⭐⭐⭐⭐. This book chronicles the story of Wyoming’s first children’s home, in celebration of its 110th anniversary. Well-organized, well-researched, and chock full of photos, the book is clearly a labor of love by two people deeply invested in its mission. My interest was personal on two fronts: my grandmother was one of the early residents of the home, and I have a continuing investment in another children’s home, Cookson Hills Christian Ministries. Fascinating insights on both fronts.
That’s a wrap for 2020. I have a hefty pile of books waiting for me, with another pile waiting in my Amazon cart. Happy reading, Friends!