I know you’ve been waiting breathlessly for this annual event, my Great Reads post! The wait is over, my friends. I say this every year, but wow! I kept company with some fantastic writers in 2023, so get ready to add some Great Reads to your 2024 wish list.
As you will note, I have eclectic reading tastes. Sure, I have favorite genres and topics, but my interests are broad. I often seek out writers who are different from me. So if you wonder at seeing John Stott next to Rachel Maddow, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
This year I intentionally read more self-published or small, independent press books. Nothing against the big publishers, but these works by either first-time or lesser-known authors might easily fly under the radar.
This is a long post, so feel free to use the quick links below to jump to your favorite genres. (Note: I am an Amazon Affiliate, so if you purchase through one of my links, I receive a small commission.)
My Top Picks
The toughest part of this annual review is naming my favorites. Here’s how I decide whether to include a book on my Top Picks list: 1) I highlighted the heck out of it; 2) I gave it as a gift; 3) I couldn’t stop talking about it; 4) I went back and re-read sections of it; or 5) I’m still thinking about it months after I finished it. These nine books, out of 35, made the cut, so start here if you’re creating your 2024 reading plan. (Reviews are in their respective sections.)
As much as I don’t like to pick favorites, two books stood above all the others. If you can only choose one book from my recommendations, make it either Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, The Power and The Glory or Russell Moore’s Losing Our Religion. Both are phenomenal.
You know to expect it by now, but it’s still a little embarrassing. I just love memoir. This year, so many of my books were memoir (nearly one-third!) that I had to divide them into three categories. Please, don’t judge me.
All My Knotted-Up Life by Beth Moore ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). Beth Moore is a desperate woman. The book of Luke tells a story of a scandal that happened while Jesus was dining at the home of Simon the Pharisee. While they were reclined at the table eating, a sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and her own tears, then wiped his feet with her hair. When the Pharisee expressed his outrage at this shocking behavior, Jesus responded with a story. He told the Pharisee that a certain moneylender had forgiven the debts of two people, one who owed him a large sum and one who owed him a small sum. He asked the Pharisee which of the forgiven debtors loved the moneylender more. The Pharisee responded, correctly, the one who had been forgiven the large sum. I never read that story without thinking of Beth Moore.
For all the success Beth has had in her teaching ministry, she will forever be that desperate woman, pouring out her love and grief on the feet of her Redeemer. I have loved Beth Moore for years and consider her one of my most influential mentors. But I was wholly unprepared for the impact of her memoir.
I listened to the audio version, and I recommend it IF you can tolerate the Arkansas drawl at the beginning. Honestly, it offends my ears! But she explains that, to be true to the early chapters of her life in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, she had to revert to her manner of speech at that time. Makes sense, and I do think it adds authenticity.
Here’s the thing about Beth Moore — the woman is stinkin’ hilarious! She had me laughing out loud many times. And then she made me cry. She addresses her father’s sexual abuse like a skilled filmmaker who reveals the trauma indirectly, through lighting and music and camera angles that suggest instead of assault. She conveys the trauma effectively, but not graphically. The parts about Keith and her mother hit me hard. This book defies a simple summary, but I cannot recommend it enough. Read it. Every one of us has a knotted-up life, and we are all desperate for the One who loves us through it all.
Do These Sweatpants Make Me Look Single? by Jen Carlson ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. You might wonder why a woman who’s been married since Jimmy Carter was President would pick up a book about the challenges of being single. Three reasons: I have single friends, I’m always up for learning, and I wanted to support a first-time author. Plus, the title and cover are awesome! The author and her sister embark on a 6-month dating challenge, but it’s as much about improving themselves as it is in finding Mr. Right. I loved the honesty and humility of this book, not to mention the hilarity! This book will inspire anyone who feels stuck and wants to change their life.
Spare by Prince Harry ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). I’m not normally that interested in the royals, but I admit to being a fangirl for Harry and Meaghan. While some of the personal disclosures were way too much, the inside view of the royal family dynamics was fascinating. Princess Diana died on my birthday, making that tragic event even more poignant for me. Her death overshadows everything in Harry’s life. I appreciated Harry’s frank admission of his mental health struggles. It’s cringeworthy to air your family’s dirty laundry so publicly, but I understand why he made that choice. Reconciliation feels like a long shot, but I hope it happens. Life is too short to live at odds with your family.
How Far to the Promised Land by Esau McCaulley ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). To call Esau McCaulley’s family complicated is a vast understatement. When McCaulley gets a phone call and learns that his father has died, it takes him on a journey of self-discovery as he prepares his father’s eulogy. What will he say about the man whose abandonment shaped their lives in terrible ways? As he pieces his family narrative together, he looks with fresh eyes at each family member, recognizing how the family unit was impacted by both personal decisions and cultural systems. McCaulley faces the hard truths of what it means to grow up Black in America with honesty and compassion. Ultimately, his is a tender story of grace and hope.
Make Something Good Today by Ben and Erin Napier ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). The first time I watched the HGTV show Home Town, I was hooked. Ben and Erin Napier have made it their mission to revive and restore their beloved hometown, Laurel, Mississippi. Of course, you can’t help but make comparisons with Chip and Joanna Gaines, but Ben and Erin have carved out their own distinctive approach to home renovation. I love their emphasis on retaining the soul of the original home and preserving the stories and history of the previous owners, even as they design the home around the new owners and next generation of stories.
Both Ben and Erin narrate the audio book. It chronicles their courtship and marriage, as well as the life decisions that brought them to their current dream career. Their love for each other, their deep faith, and their enthusiasm for their community make for an inspiring read. Besides, they are just the cutest.
Memoir – Death and Dying
Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). The daughter of an American man and a Korean woman, Michelle Zauner grew up straddling two worlds and feeling awkward in both. After tumultuous teenage years, she launched into adulthood estranged from both parents. When her mother developed ovarian cancer, however, she put her career pursuits on hold and cared for her until her death. As Michelle sought to reconnect with her dying mother and resolve past hurts, she turned naturally to Korean food, learning to cook the dishes central to her identity and childhood memories. In beautiful prose, she journeys through losing her mother to find herself. If Korean doesn’t roll off your tongue, I recommend the audio version for the full cultural richness.
And, Finally by Henry Marsh ⭐⭐⭐ (audio). Henry Marsh was a British neurosurgeon, and he wrote about the doctor-to-patient role reversal he experienced when he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. I was particularly struck by Marsh’s denial and self-delusion that caused him to delay medical intervention. Doctors, of all people, should know better, right? The narrative alternates between clinical and human, and that gives the book an understated pathos. Marsh goes into great detail about the medical and biological factors in his diagnosis and treatment, then talks about the cottage he spent years refurbishing, and the dollhouses he made for his granddaughters. In other words, his narrative alternates between doctor and patient perspectives. The contrast hits with a wollop.
Marsh declared no spiritual faith, and that made his memoir all the more tragic to me. As he faced the end of his life, the best he could hope for was to be fondly remembered by his family and that someone would enjoy his little cottage after he was gone. Deeply sad, but again, in a very understated way.
Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying by Susan J. Tweit ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. “What’s with all the birds?” That question from Susan’s husband, Richard, launched them into a 2-year journey with brain cancer. There were no birds. The birds Richard thought he saw were a hallucination caused by swelling in his brain. The hallucination caused them to seek immediate help, without which Richard would likely have died within days. Glioblastoma is a particularly deadly and insidious brain cancer, morphing into different forms. Richard got two years of semi-quality life after his diagnosis, far more than most people with his diagnosis.
Both in their 50s, Susan was a plant biologist and Richard was an accomplished sculptor. Both had a deep love for the the earth and nature. She was a Quaker; he was a Buddhist. She’d been deeply marked by her own diagnosis with lupus many years earlier. As they faced the reality of his terminal illness, they determined to walk toward death in love, not denial. Shortly before his death, they embarked on a 4,000 mile roadtrip, a delayed honeymoon. Each stop on the journey gave them a new delight in spite of the daunting challenges of his disease.
I loved the honesty and rawness of this book. Tweit doesn’t sugarcoat the hard and messy parts of caring for someone with cancer, nor does she minimize their grief. She writes in poetic prose, and ends each chapter with a Haiku poem. The structure of the story, told through flashbacks woven into each stop of their roadtrip, is masterful.
Memoir – Marriage
It happened by accident. I read two memoirs by people dealing with marital infidelity. One marriage ends and one survives, but both writers endure collateral damage.
You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. What happens when an award-winning poet’s idyllic life suddenly comes unraveled? She writes through the pain. Written in chapters that vary from one sentence to two pages, this book reads like a diary as Smith struggles to process the end of her marriage. There are no pat answers, no five easy steps. It’s a slog. But in the hands of a poet, it’s a slog rich in metaphor and resonant with self-discovery. Any reader in the throes of a painful divorce will feel seen in these pages, but really, anyone who’s ever had their life irreparably altered without their permission will relate to Smith’s journey. I loved so many passages in this book, but this Emily Dickinson quote on the opening page is pure perfection: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” Truly, read this book.
How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told by Harrison Scott Key ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). I don’t even know where to start with this one. When a humor writer finds out his deeply religious wife, the mother of his three daughters, has been having an affair with the neighbor for years, what does he do? He writes through the trauma. And as God is my witness, it’s funny. But also gut wrenching.
Key narrates the audio book, and his dry delivery makes the pathos even sharper. He decides to fight for his marriage, through not one but two times she leaves him for the neighbor. Gotta say, he’s a better man than me. I had to work to find any sympathy for her, but I found his tenacity and devotion utterly remarkable, especially as he simultaneously fought to find his faith.
My favorite part of the book, however, was the relationships on the periphery of the marriage. The friends who came alongside, stuck with him through doubt and despair, and metaphorically held his arms up when he lacked the strength to continue. Man, we should all be so blessed to have a tribe like that. This book stayed with me for a very long time. (P.S. You should know this one has strong language.)
Poetry & Devotional
The Goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living by Leslie Anne Bustard ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I listened to Jonathan Rogers interview Leslie Anne Bustard on The Habit podcast and was intrigued enough to buy the book. In the interview, Leslie explained that she wrote these poems after being diagnosed with stage four cancer. In the face of her terminal illness, she found solace and inspiration in deeply noticing the natural world and the small graces we often miss. As the title suggests, she turned her attention toward the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, a land she would be leaving soon. The poems are little gems of joy and beauty. I kept the book on my nightstand, happy to close my eyes with her lovely visions in my mind each night.
Nothing in her voice or presentation sounded like a terminally ill person in that interview, but she died only two months later. Her poetry so touched and inspired me, I drew comfort from it when cancer claimed a family member a few months later. I wrote about it here.
Abiding Conversations by Kim McIntire ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Full disclosure, Kim is a dear friend. I first heard Kim’s heart for this book over coffee almost two years before I held the book in my hand. I know what a labor of love it represents! This devotional covers the book of John, and each chapter is Kim’s prayer response to that passage. Kim’s faith has been deeply formed by prayer, and I learned so much just by sharing the outpouring of her heart, chapter by chapter, through one of my favorite books of the Bible. I read the Bible differently after studying with Kim.
I’ve been a believer for more than 50 years, but man, I still have so much to learn. This is my largest category, so I’ve broken it into three subsections. I intentionally read books from different faith traditions than my own, and I don’t always agree with every position a writer holds. That’s okay. I can still recommend them to you, and you can make up your own mind. But what I won’t do is give a platform to a writer whose life does not reflect the fruit you should expect from a follower of Christ. There are certain popular writers that you’ll never see on my list for that reason. If you want to know more about that, ask me.
Extreme Righteousness by Tom Hovestol ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Tom Hoverstol was my mother’s pastor in Colorado, and he’s a humble, gentle, scholarly man. To be honest, I wouldn’t normally pick up a book by a Baptist pastor, but Pastor Tom doesn’t fit the type of most I’ve known. In a faith tradition often synonymous with legalism, a book about Pharisees seems deeply ironic! But that’s just the point. We don’t naturally see ourselves when we read about the Pharisees, but their blind spots are often our own.
The book was written in 1997, so some of the references are a bit dated, but it’s a well-researched look at a timeless topic. Pastor Tom’s insights on the Pharisees are no academic exercise for him. He took these lessons to heart, not just spotting self-righteousness in others, but rooting it out of his own heart. That’s why he’s a worthy mentor for humility, gentleness and faithfulness.
The Air We Breathe by Glen Scrivener ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. What I most appreciated about this book is just how readable it is. In an engaging and conversational style, Scrivener takes readers through two millennia of history to demonstrate just how Christianity came to pervade all the most cherished ideals of Western civilization. Like fish who have no concept of the water they swim in, we accept as givens our ideals of freedom, equality, compassion, consent, enlightenment, science, and progress. But Scrivener shows how radical these concepts were in Greek and Roman culture at the time of Christ. Jesus likened his kingdom to yeast working its way through a whole batch of dough, and Scrivener walks us through the Dark Ages of history to show that yeast in action. The foundations of Western culture, even for secularists, owe everything to Christianity. A compelling read!
Literarily by Kristie Anyabwile ⭐⭐⭐⭐. The book aims to enrich our study of the Bible by teaching us to pay attention to the literary genres and types of different books and passages. Our interpretive lens will be different for poetry than for prophesy, for example. Each chapter has study questions that guide the reader through a text, applying the principles in the chapter. I read the book but haven’t done the study questions yet, and I think that’s where you get the real juice of this book. Looking forward to returning to this one soon.
Run with the Horses by Eugene Peterson ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I return to Eugene Peterson time and again, for good reason. Originally published in 1983, this book does feel a bit dated, but Peterson’s wisdom is timeless. The title of the book comes from Jeremiah 12:5, where God says to the prophet Jeremiah, “If you’re worn out in this footrace with men, what makes you think you can race against horses?” Looking at Jeremiah’s example, Peterson challenges us to live intentional, faithful lives in pursuit of our most genuine selves — to run with the horses.
Tell Her Story by Nijay Gupta ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. The stories of influential women in the early church have been so neglected, that people who grow up in the church often have no idea just how important women were to the expansion of the gospel. Gupta seeks to remedy that by bringing several of these hidden women into the light, with particular emphasis on the contributions of Junia, Phoebe, Prisca and Nympha.
He also sheds light on how women lived in broader Greco-Roman culture. While the culture was certainly patriarchal, women of social standing had greater freedom and societal influence than commonly believed. Gupta also examines two of the main scriptures cited to support limits on women’s participation in the modern church, walking us through how his own understanding of those texts has changed. Gupta offers his deeply researched and well supported arguments in a style easily accessible to the lay reader. Highly recommend.
The Cross of Christ by John Stott ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Yet again, I went back to one of the old greats to balance my reading and broaden my perspective. John Stott was a prominent British theologian, rector of All Souls Church in London for many years. He was the primary drafter of the Lausanne Covenant in 1974, a global evangelical collaboration and one of the most important documents in modern church history.
In The Cross of Christ (1986), Stott mines the deep riches of that emblem most central to the Christian faith — the cross. In addition to a deep dive on atonement, the book covers centuries of church history and the implications of the cross for living the Christian life.
This is a deep book, and I feel like I just scratched the surface. The book includes a study guide. Anyone up for doing a group study? I’m in!
Faith – The Liturgical Church
Lately I’ve found myself inexplicably pining for a liturgical tradition I left at age 7. Why does my modern evangelical worship experience leave me feeling isolated from the people around me and disconnected from the broader history of Christ-followers? My discontent led me down a rich reading path.
Advent: The Season of Hope by Tish Harrison Warren; Christmas: The Season of Life and Light by Emily Hunter McGowin; and Epiphany: The Season of Glory by Fleming Rutledge ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. These marvelous little gems are the first three volumes in the Fullness of Time series exploring the different seasons of the liturgical calendar. Written by some of my favorite authors, they are beautifully crafted and chock-full of church history. A true treasure that I’ll be coming back to every year.
Liturgical Mission by Winfield Bevins ⭐⭐⭐⭐. While I was trying to understand my own pull toward liturgical traditions, I came across this book by Winfield Bevins and learned that I was not alone in my discontent. Bevins contrasts the liturgical traditions of mainline churches with the missional focus of “low church” evangelical denominations, and he encourages a “both/and” approach rather than an “either/or.”
Instead of seeing liturgy as dead ritual, he sees it as a vital link to Christian history and an affirmation of the tenets of faith critical to spiritual formation. But he also acknowledges that many liturgical traditions missed their calling to “go out into all the world” with the good news of the Gospel, a particular emphasis in evangelical denominations. As someone not well educated in church history, this book helped me see the big picture of how religious practices developed and diverged through the centuries. Bevins sees liturgical renewal among evangelicals as a response to the fragmentation and decline of the American church. I’m drawn to his hopeful vision of a movement that embraces the whole church, past, present and future.
Faith and Culture
It’s impossible to deny that the American church is in a period of upheaval. The segment of religious life most under scrutiny has been labeled “evangelicalism” for ease, although the label has a rather squishy definition. Moore, Prior and Alberta are influential evangelical voices, and each comes to the subject from a different vantage point — pastor, professor and journalist, respectively. Schiess is a rising voice, a surprisingly astute seminary student.
Losing Our Religion: An Alter Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. You’d be hard pressed to find a more “inside” insider in evangelicalism than Dr. Russell Moore. A Southern Baptist from the cradle, Moore is an ordained Baptist minister who previously served as dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Most recently, he was President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
What he saw behind closed doors in SBC leadership — disgraced leaders, sexual abuse cover-ups, overt racism, blatant misogyny, political idolatry — caused him to eventually leave the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore posits that people are leaving the church not because they don’t believe the claims of Christ, but because the church, through its actions, demonstrates that it doesn’t really believe them. In other words, sometimes the church doesn’t look much like Jesus.
In five sections, Moore walks through how the church is losing its credibility, authority, identity, integrity and stability. But instead of simply diagnosing the problems, Moore gives practical steps Christians can take to counter them. While Moore doesn’t paint a hopeful picture of the church as we have known it, he does offer hope for what comes next.
When Moore walked away from the SBC, he left his career, his religious tribe, his identity, his reputation, and many lifelong friendships. It’s been a painful journey. But in a sense, he had to lose his religion to find it. When all the pseudo religious scaffolding was stripped away, he still had Jesus. With a revitalized faith, he remains amazed by grace and committed to the gospel of Christ.
The Evangelical Imagination by Karen Swallow Prior ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. It took me a minute to grasp what Dr. Prior means by the “evangelical imagination.” She argues that so much of what evangelicals have held to be biblical truth comes more from our culture than from scripture. The book’s objective is to help readers think more critically about which beliefs are truly Christian as opposed to merely cultural.
She defines the “social imaginary” as “the collective pool of ideas, images, and values that have filled our books, our thoughts, our sermons, our songs, our blog posts, and our imaginations and have thereby created an evangelical culture.” The book walks us through a “deconstruction” of sorts, as if she were tearing out sheetrock and ceiling tiles to expose the framework of the evangelical house. To make her case, she draws extensively from literature (what else would you expect from an English professor), illustrating how our collective beliefs evolved through historic and religious eras.
This is a scholarly work that demands attention and careful reading. It’s deep. It took me a bit to get my groove, but once I did, I found it fascinating. Prior’s analysis is original and compelling — a must read.
The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory by Tim Alberta ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). I am deeply engaged in trying to understand what is happening with the American church in this time of incredible upheaval. Among all the analyses I have read and heard, no one comes close to Tim Alberta’s analysis in this book. Three attributes make this book stand above all the others.
First, Alberta is a well-respected journalist with a reputation for fairness, thoroughness and integrity. Because of that, people talk to him freely. I could not believe the people who were willing to speak with Alberta on the record, and the jaw-dropping candor of what they had to say. From cover to cover, this book relies on dozens of primary sources.
Second, Alberta has exceptional storytelling chops. He masterfully weaves a chorus of current voices with historical events to illustrate how we got here. In his skillful hands, seemingly disparate dots connect. He makes his case with an easy narrative that’s accessible to anyone.
Third, this subject is personal to Alberta. As the son of an evangelical minister, Alberta approaches the subject with an insider perspective that no amount of skill or research could replicate. What I most appreciated about the book is that Alberta makes a biblical case for his conclusions. In spite of his serious disagreements with much of mainstream evangelicalism, he remains firmly rooted in his faith. That’s exactly where I find myself. I’m grateful for his voice, speaking so insightfully into our times.
The Ballot and the Bible by Kaitlyn Schiess. I haven’t finished this one, so I can’t fairly give it a rating yet. But halfway in, I can say with certainty that this is an important book for American believers in an election year. Schiess is a careful scholar. She examines how the Bible has been misused on both ends of the political spectrum to prop up partisan positions, and explores how believers can faithfully engage in the public square.
Okay, you know fiction is my weak point. I love fiction–really, I do–but it always ends up on the bottom of my stack. I vow to do better in 2024!
A Good Year by Peter Mayle ⭐⭐⭐⭐. If you’re looking for a light beach read and you love France, pack this book in your beach bag! I first read Mayle’s book A Year in Provence years ago and I laughed all the way through it. So when I stumbled on this one in a thrift store, I snatched it up. Mayle captures French charm and cultural subtleties with an accurate eye and ear. His characters ring true and the plot has some fun twists. A great palate cleanser for those with a reading diet (like mine) heavy on non-fiction.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). I needed entertainment for a solo road trip, and I’d heard good things about Ann Patchett. Then I discovered that Meryl Streep narrates the book, and I couldn’t download it fast enough. The story, told in elegant prose, is of a mother disclosing a long-ago love affair to her three adult daughters. The man later became a famous movie star, so the girls were dying for details. The book kept me entertained throughout the drive, but a scene near the end soured me on the book. No spoiler alerts, but I just could no longer relate to the main character at all. That being said, Patchett is a gifted writer, and Meryl Streep was a delight.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I try to revisit one of the classics every year, and Karen Swallow Prior makes that appealing. Her curated collection of beautifully bound classics includes an introductory guide and discussion questions for each chapter. My first impression on revisiting The Scarlet Letter was, “Ah, now I remember why seventh graders hated this literature assignment!” To modern readers, it’s a slow read through a strange world, told in lofty language. But the themes of sin, guilt, punishment, shame, love and revenge transcend time. We are not so far removed from our Puritan roots as we might imagine, and the story unfolds with dark relevance 145 years after it was published.
Frederick Douglass by David W. Blight ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). Where do I even begin? For 36 hours, spread over several weeks, I absorbed the life and times of a historical figure I thought I knew. After reading Jon Meacham’s Lincoln biography last year, it felt timely to explore that era from a black man’s perspective. As a formerly enslaved man, Douglass made the question of slavery personal and urgent. After immersing myself in the lives of these two monumental American figures back-to-back, I came away with three themes in both biographies.
First, history is complicated. We get the Cliff Notes version in school, heavily focused on key events that seem to fall into place as if scripted. But the reality on the ground was so much messier. Both Lincoln and Douglass evolved, not only in their views on slavery but in their approach to addressing it.
Second, our heroes were human. Both men struggled mightily at key points in their lives, and they didn’t always make the right decision the first time. They learned, failed, and kept trying. Their greatness arises in no small part from their sheer determination and tenacity.
Lastly, both biographies are testimony to the power of language. We rightly study Lincoln and Douglass as examples of powerful oratory. Certainly, they had natural giftedness, but more than that, they were steeped in the Bible and great literature. They met their moment in history with powerful, persuasive rhetoric because they drew from such deep wells. Might a lack of scholarship be a root cause of our impoverished political discourse today? And for those currently rewriting Black American history curriculum, maybe start by reading Frederick Douglass.
Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). Two things impressed me about this biography: 1) the amazing amount of access Mitt Romney gave to McKay Coppins, and 2) the thoroughly engaging way Coppins crafted the book. On the first point, Romney gave Coppins stacks of his journals without even looking through them. That’s how some of the juiciest tidbits about Romney’s impressions of his fellow politicians came to light.
Every politician has an outsized ego, and Romney is no exception. Still, he kept it largely in check and gave Coppins full rein to tell the story as he saw it. In turn, I think Coppins’ narrative reflects genuine good faith and an honest assessment.
Romney has intrigued me for a long time, but especially after he delivered an emotional speech to an almost empty Senate chamber explaining how he had come to the decision to vote “yes” on Trump’s impeachment. He was the lone voice of conscience in the GOP, and I don’t care how old and experienced you are, it is never easy to buck your own tribe. Mad respect. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I admire his integrity, and I think the senate will be diminished by his absence.
Poems from the Asylum by Martha H. Nasch, edited and arranged by Janelle Molony ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I met Janelle Molony in connection with a project for the Wyoming Historical Society called Women of the West. I shared my great-grandmother’s story for this project, including her struggle with mental illness. She was institutionalized for most of her adult life. While she was institutionalized, she kept a notebook of poems and stories she wrote, and it was passed down to me.
Janelle has an eerily similar story — a great grandmother who spent seven years in a mental asylum and wrote poetry during her incarceration. Families like ours have so many questions, many of which will never be answered because families didn’t talk about mental illness and records are guarded like Fort Knox. Nonetheless, Janelle’s research yields insights into possible reasons for her grandmother’s incarceration and what she experienced during those seven years. As a fellow family historian, I appreciate the tenacity of Janelle’s research and her clear, well-organized presentation of her findings. It’s a fascinating read!
Tell Me, Grandmother: Traditions, Stories and Cultures of the Arapaho People by Virginia Sutter ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I love the format of this family history narrative. As if they were chatting over coffee, Virginia Sutter and her long-dead great grandmother, Goes In Lodge, wife of Chief Sharp Nose, share stories from their lives as Arapaho women. The one-hundred year gap in their stories highlights the cultural upheaval experienced by the Arapaho people, while also illustrating the enduring thread of Arapaho culture, unbroken in spite of that upheaval. Sutter deftly weaves historical facts and context into the personal narratives, yielding a rich and detailed tapestry. The retreat I attended with author Margaret Coel on the Wind River Indian Reservation this summer sparked my interest in Arapaho culture. I remain intrigued!
Prequel by Rachel Maddow ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). Yes, Rachel Maddow is a liberal, but she’s also whip-smart, a dogged researcher, and a fantastic storyteller. I was first introduced to this topic when I listened to Maddow’s podcast, Ultra. The book expands on the podcast, detailing a 1930s-era plot by the Germans to infiltrate U.S. politics with Nazi propaganda. The Germans succeeded by enlisting the help of a certain Congressman, who ended up piping a torrent of fascist propaganda directly into the mailboxes of U.S. citizens, at tax-payers expense. The German effort was so successful, that ultimately several Congressmen were fully sympathetic to the Nazi cause. It’s an absolutely wild story, with unmistakable parallels to current events.
If you’re shocked by news reports of violent anti-semitism in our country, remember that our political far-right fringes have flirted with authoritarianism for 100 years. The disinformation techniques are largely the same, just easier thanks to social media. We’ve been here before. That’s why we study history.
What I most enjoyed about this story, however, was the tenacity of the few activists and journalists who knew what was going on and wouldn’t let it go. Three cheers for the people who stand up to evil!
Win Every Argument by Mehdi Hasan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (audio). Broadcast journalist Mehdi Hasan has a well-deserved reputation as a tough interviewer. If you face him on live television, you best come prepared. But you don’t have to be a tough-as-nails journalist to benefit from Hasan’s tips and techniques for presenting a powerful case. Everyone engages in persuasion or debate or public speaking occasionally, and these skills can be learned and improved with practice. Because Hasan uses interview clips to illustrate his points, I highly recommend the audio version.
Whew! I know that was a lot, so thanks for hanging with me to the end. Now it’s your turn. What great reads kept you company in 2023? What’s on your nightstand or your Audible queue for 2024? Judging from my reading stack, 2024 is going to be lit! 🙂