Recapping my annual reading year lets me luxuriate one last time in all the words that nourished me, challenged me, thrilled me, and stopped me in my tracks during the year. Predictably, I end the process saying, “Hoo boy, what a year!” If you’re looking for reading recommendations, I’ve got you covered.
My Top Picks
In a year of quality reads, inevitably a handful rise to the top. These are the books that stayed with me long after I turned the last page. The books I bought to give as gifts. The books I raved about to my bibliophile friends. These six books made a lasting impression this year (reviews in their respective sections):
Before I get to the reviews, let’s talk about audio books. I’ve been less than enthusiastic about audio books in the past, but I found some good ones this year. No matter how brilliant the author, a bad narrator can ruin a book, so choose wisely. Generally, the best listens are those narrated by the author himself/herself — the author can’t help but bring more passion to the project. The great advantage of audio books is the ability to leverage otherwise dead time. I love to listen while I’m walking my dog, cooking dinner or driving. We did a lot of driving this year; hence, more audio books.
Memoir & Biography
Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Way back in my English major days, I attended a conference where Joy Harjo read some of her poetry. I’ve been a fan ever since. One of the challenges of writing memoir is how to speak your truth without incriminating or denigrating other people. Harjo handles this masterfully. She doesn’t shy away from ugly elements of her story – childhood abuse, sexual assault, alcoholism, violence, job loss – but handles those scenes like a horror filmmaker who uses camera angles and lighting to allude rather than shock. She owns her mistakes with bold frankness. Throughout the book, Harjo weaves her poetry and her ancestral roots, intimately drawing the reader into her sense of self. I appreciated the way she paid homage to the writers and poets who influenced her work. Her memoir made me want to go back and read her poetry again.
No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Kate Bowler was a 35-year-old professor, wife and mother when she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Think of this book as a medical memoir. Bowler not only walks through the emotional aspects of dealing with her diagnoses, she also sheds light on the confusion of navigating the unfamiliar medical world on her treatment journey. Her writing is raw, irreverent, poignant, and even humorous. I came away with a renewed sense of the fragility and preciousness of life.
The Stories We Tell by Joanna Gaines ⭐⭐⭐⭐. (Audio) Is it even possible not to like Joanna Gaines? Not for me. So, of course, I listened to her memoir. From my vantage point a few years ahead of Joanna, I remember having a similar mid-life reassessment. In fact, I found myself nodding along and saying, “Yes, Girl!” a lot. I did not expect to have much in common with Joanna Gaines — I’m not biracial, I’m not Wonder Woman, I’m not a public figure — but it turns out we share a driven, perfectionist personality, and we both spent our early years feeling like we didn’t belong. Those two factors proved enormously influential for both of us. I deeply appreciate Joanna’s absence of ego — truly rare for such an accomplished person. She shows up in this book without makeup, and now I love her even more.
And There Was Light by Jon Meacham ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. (Audio) This may be the only time I ever recommend the audio version over the book. I mean, have you heard Jon Meacham’s buttery baritone voice? Trust me, that man can read me a story any day of the week. But I digress. Abraham Lincoln captured my imagination in fifth grade, when I read Across Five Aprils, and I’ve found him irresistible ever since. Last March, I took my 11-year-old granddaughter, Bonnie, to Washington, D.C., where visits to Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln memorial sparked my interest in Lincoln anew. Meacham exquisitely captures Lincoln’s complexity and vulnerability. He presents him not as a larger-than-life hero, but as a deeply flawed human being who met his moment in history, inexorably guided by a spiritual internal compass. A man of his time, his views on slavery evolved. He led our nation through its most fraught chapter with a shrewd combination of pragmatic compromise and unyielding determination. This book moved me to tears more than once.
Still Life by Louise Penny ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Ever since I blew through all 20 of Margaret Coel’s Wind River mysteries during the pandemic, I’ve been looking for another “cozy mystery” series. I read a lot of nonfiction, so I need some occasional brain candy for balance. I’m not ready to say Louise Penny compares to Margaret Coel, but I did find this first book of her Inspector Gamache series engaging. I loved the relatable characters, intriguing plot twists, and quaint Canadian setting. What a pleasant surprise to find the books had been brought to life in the Amazon streaming series “Three Pines.” Highly recommend!
Search by Michelle Huneven ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Based on a real event, this wry novel chronicles the author’s reluctant participation on a committee charged with recommending a new minister for her Universalist-Unitarian church. A model of politically correct diversity, the search committee comprises eight members who bring their life experience, quirky personalities, secret agendas, and assorted dysfunctions to every meeting. Anyone who’s ever served on a committee will cringe in sympathy with the author’s frustration, while laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. In spite of its light tone, some darker truths flow just under the surface — our own self-serving motivations, our unrealistic expectations for ministers, and what needs we attempt to fill with our spiritual gatherings.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This is one of a series of classics recently re-published in a beautiful linen binding with a forward and study questions by my favorite English professor, Karen Swallow Prior. I’ve had my nose in a book since age 8 and have a bachelor’s degree in English, but still somehow managed to miss many of the classics. I’m on a quest to correct that, thanks to Dr. Prior. By page 2, I was obviously in the hands of a master craftsman — rich language, a scene right out of a pastoral painting, tantalizing foreshadowing. I settled in to enjoy the journey, but quickly realized this story would not have a happy ending. Like any great tragedy, the story teases with opportunities missed, plumbs the depths of the characters minds and souls, and leaves the reader hoping against hope for a resolution that cannot be. Excruciating. I couldn’t put it down.
The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Reading the Wolf Hall Trilogy is a significant time commitment, but oh my, what a payoff! The trilogy follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a low-born child of an abusive blacksmith who rose to power in Henry VIII’s court. Mantel weaves an intricate tapestry of Tudor life, seething with palace intrigue and treachery. Cromwell is a deeply complex character, cold and calculated when necessary to serve the king, but also a tender father, generous leader, and loyal friend. I am in awe of Mantel’s exquisite craftsmanship and lyrical prose. I offer two tips to help you enjoy this trilogy to the fullest. First, these books require sustained attention, due to the number of characters and complicated plot. Dedicate some time. Second, watch the PBS Masterpiece series before or after you read the books. The series is phenomenal.
From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Arthur Brooks is a social scientist, devout Catholic and former president of American Enterprise Institute. The target audience for this book is a mid-50s career professional contemplating when and how to transition out of the workplace. Brooks doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of cognitive decline, which begins much earlier than we like to believe. The first section of the book feels pretty pessimistic, but he offers hope that “fluid intelligence” (some might call it “wisdom”) is the coin of realm in the back half of life. The book is data heavy (as expected from a social scientist), but I was much more interested in Brooks’ personal anecdotes than in the data. Although I’ve already made this life transition, the book offered thought-provoking nuggets and confirmation that I’m on the right path.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell ⭐⭐⭐⭐. (Audio) This audio book was good company on a road trip. Through a series of seemingly unrelated stories, expertly spun, Gladwell walks us through the psychological reasons humans tend to fail so miserably at reading other humans. Short on practical solutions, but insightful and entertaining, as always.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. It took me awhile to find time for this 500+ page book, but I’m so glad I did. What came to be known as The Great Migration started as a trickle in 1915 as black families started leaving the South to escape Jim Crow oppression and find better opportunities in the North and West. Seventy years later, nearly six million people had taken the gamble, forever shifting American demography. Wilkerson chronicles the migration of three families, from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, who uprooted their lives for the chance at better opportunities in New York, Chicago and California. This book will deepen your understanding of the challenges faced by Black Americans.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Sidhartha Mukherjee ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. (Audio) I can understand if a biography of cancer doesn’t sound like an awesome beach read, but hear me out. When my daughter, a pediatric oncologist, recommended this book, I thought it would be technical and dry. I was wrong. Mukherjee is that rare doctor who can speak at a layman’s level and knows how to tell a complicated story in an engaging way. He follows the 5,000-year history of cancer, documenting the evolution of our knowledge and treatment of this dread disease. But he approaches the topic as both a compassionate doctor and a scientist. One particular quote struck me: “Statistics are humans with the tears wiped away.” That’s a pretty good synopsis of the whole book. Brave, brilliant, tenacious scientists continue their efforts to crack the cancer code. What a debt of gratitude we owe them.
Good and Beautiful and Kind by Rich Villodas ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Audio) I love that Rich Villodas took the title of this book from a Langston Hughes poem, “Tired.”
“I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two-
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.“
Rich does, indeed, take a knife to the world to see what worms are eating at the rind. But he doesn’t stop there. He offers practical advice and personal anecdotes for how we can counter the division in our culture with love and forgiveness and genuine justice. To a world weary of strife, this book offers balm for the soul and a guide to a better way.
Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans ⭐⭐⭐⭐. When Rachel Held Evans died unexpectedly at age 37, she was working on a new book. Her good friend, Jeff Chu, turned her rough manuscript into this finished product. In her brief life, Rachel left an unforgettable mark on a generation of spiritual seekers who were disillusioned with the church but still hungry for Jesus. You may not agree with all her positions, but her earnest, intimate writing leaves you longing for the same wholehearted faith she sought.
Reorganized Religion by Bob Smietana ⭐⭐⭐⭐. As a religion reporter, Bob Smietana has a front row seat to observe the American church. Statistics paint a picture of religion in decline in our culture, with the segment known as “nones” (no religious affiliation) growing every year. He examines the reasons people are leaving the church — demographic changes, political divisions, changing sexual mores, Covid-19 disruption — but also highlights how some churches are adapting and thriving in the shifting landscape. Bob maintains a reporter’s dispassionate distance for much of the book, but he breaks into personal narrative to reveal how the church saved his life. The subject is personal for him, as it is for me. He makes a compelling case for why the church matters and what the future may hold for religion in America.
Celebrities for Jesus by Katelyn Beaty ⭐⭐⭐⭐. (Audio) By this time, the problem with celebrity Christian culture has been well documented. Did we need another book about it? As it turns out, yes. Beaty doesn’t just re-hash the high-profile failures of people like Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, and Bill Hybels. Instead, she turns the camera around and examines the role churches, individuals, the publishing industry and Christian media have played in helping to create these celebrities. As a journalist and former editor at Christianity Today, Beaty provides a true insider perspective. I especially appreciated her insights on the Christian publishing industry. But for all her insight, Beaty stopped short of making this book actionable. Instead of just pointing out the problems, she was in a uniquely qualified position to suggest ways to counter the current system. I’m disappointed she opted not to take that opportunity.
Contemplating Christmas by Abby Ball ⭐⭐⭐⭐. My fellow blogger, Abby Ball, made this Christmas a little more meaningful for me with her advent devotional. Abby writes with tenderness and simplicity, in a way that resonates with those who may struggle with melancholy at the holidays. I love to spend a few minutes every day focusing my heart on the magnitude of the incarnation.
Whew! Okay, now it’s your turn. Tell me about your great reads last year, and what’s on your nightstand currently. Just for grins, I counted the books still waiting for me … would you believe there are 24 in the stack? I’d better get started! Happy reading, my friends.
P.S. If you missed my great reads from 2021, check it out. Reading was about the only highlight of 2021!