Hello, long-neglected blog. I may not have been writing this year, but I’ve been reading and it’s time to look back and pick my favorites.
First, here are some big-picture statistics about my reading this year:
- Total books finished: 140
- Total number of rereads: 24
- First time reads: 116
- Total pages read: 42,329
- Average rating: 3.79 stars
- Most active month: June with 18 books and 5,291 pages
- Least active month: November with 7 books and 2,729 pages
A few words about my reading habits… I’m an eccentric reader. Driven by mood, I pick up whatever book catches my fancy and usually read 6-10 at once. I have designated books for designated times or places, which helps me cover a wide variety of genres and titles without confusing them. There’s always a book for reading after breakfast before I finish my coffee. I always have an e-book on my Kindle that I’m only allowed to read at the gym. (Motivation for exercise that actually works!!). I usually have an audiobook I play while driving and washing dishes. Then, there’s book clubs. I lead two and am a member of two more. My friends poke fun at me for being over-committed in this arena. (They’re not wrong.)
On to the books! Many of the titles I’m about to talk about are worthy of critical acclaim, but they’re on this list for one main reason: I liked them. These are the books that moved me this year. They are the ones I’m still thinking about. This isn’t necessarily a list of recommendations. Maybe you’ll like these titles. Maybe you won’t. My tastes might not match yours and that’s okay.
There isn’t really an order to this book list. I don’t have them ranked from best to least–as I pulled titles from my spreadsheet, this is simply the order in which I wrote them down.
By all means, this was the best book I read this year. Morgenstern tells the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a graduate student of video game design, who checks out a book from the library and discovers within it a scene from his childhood. This sets him on a journey into the Starless Sea, a mysterious underground library on the brink of destruction. The book is basically a 500 page love letter to story. My only caveat is the book’s pacing is slow. This isn’t a page turner, plot-wise. Morgenstern makes you work, but my goodness, it pays off. The prose is gorgeous. I could only handle thirty pages at a time because the words filled me like a fine meal. To mix metaphors, this book was a labyrinth I wanted to get lost in and never escape. In the month since I finished, I find myself picking it up, flipping to a page at random, and reading aloud to myself. The words are just that good. I know I’ll be rereading this one up again and again until the day I die.
You have to love it when assigned reading makes you cry. I picked this one up for the Children’s Literature course I took over the summer. It’s the story of a hard-hearted china rabbit named Edward Tulane who is swept away on an adventure where he goes through a series of owners. From small children to an elderly couple to a hobo to a mean farmer, each one teaches him something new about life and love. Don’t let anyone tell you children’s literature is unsophisticated. DiCamillo’s writing is stunning. She perfectly captured the beauty and grief of love. This book moved me. When I read the last page, I set my copy down and wept. If ever have kids of my own, this is on my “read aloud” list.
Last winter, I went on a niche binge where I spent a couple of months reading Irish philosopher-poets. Most of them were also mystics. During this binge, I picked up Anam Cara. In this odd book, O’Donohue explores seasons of life and shares Celtic philosophy regarding friendship, love, solitude, and death. This book made me a bit uncomfortable at times, especially O’Donohue’s talk about soulmates. Despite this, I was deeply touched by this book. It helped me process emotions that had been lurking in my subconscious. Months later, I still remember the way this book made me feel. I wouldn’t be surprised if I picked it up again in 2020.
When I finished graduate school, there were a couple of months where I didn’t know what to do with my brain. Used to the stimulation of constant work and study, relaxing was hard. So I took advantage of Interlibrary Loan and binged some Harry Potter scholarship. Among the books I read, this was my favorite. This book is a collection of chapters exploring the intersection of J.K. Rowling’s work and those of the wider literary canon. I can’t help but compare it to John Granger’s Harry Potter’s Bookshelf because they have similar focus. In a contest of who did it better, Groves is the clear winner. Granger’s book points out allusions, Groves explores their wider significance. Granger’s writing is cheesy and campy, Groves’ is scholarly. This book didn’t only make me love Harry Potter. It increased my appreciation of the other primary texts and had me wanting to revisit the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Austen. It’s definitely not a book for everyone, but it made my English major heart sing. I got a copy for Christmas (thanks, Sam) and know I’ll be reading it again.
I’m years late to the party on this book. Why did it take me so long?! I selected it for one of my book clubs in August. I started reading it in during the height of my library’s Summer Reading Program, which coincided with my final days of grad school. Amidst the paper writing, programming, and craziness that was summer, I read it in two days. This epistolary novel tells the story of a young writer named Juliet who, at the end of World War II, comes in contact with a fellow book lover who lives on the island of Gurnsey. A friendship develops and Juliet is drawn into the Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, a book club that helped the islanders survive the Nazi occupation. I don’t pick up historical fiction that often, but was sucked into this one. The quirky, lovable characters leapt off the page and into my heart. It’s a heartwarming tale of love and friendship amid difficult circumstances. It’s a book for bibliophiles, Angophiles, and history lovers. Also, the Netflix adaptation is fantastic. I watched it three times.
This book takes wins the award for most pretentious title I’ve ever seen and I love it for that. I read three books by Enns this year (see spreadsheet for titles) and any of them could be on this list. I picked his most recent because, of the ones I covered, this is the most accessible. Plus, I gave it to my brother for Christmas. (You’re welcome, Sam.) I was introduced to Enns’ work at the Evolving Faith conference in 2018 and quickly started reading as many of his published works as possible. I also began listening to his podcast, The Bible For Normal People, which quickly became a favorite. I’ve always loved the Bible and reading it daily is one of the aspects of my Evangelical heritage I’m most thankful for. Any time I’ve wanted to go deeper, though, the answers I’ve found in church and Bible studies have been lacking. Seminary isn’t in my near future, so I appreciate that people like Enns are dedicated to making biblical scholarship accessible to “normal” people. Through books like this one, I’ve been challenged, stretched, and find myself falling in love with the weird, messy Bible all over again.
I’ve been reading Dessen’s work since my teen years and spent my gym time last winter rereading nearly everything she’s ever published. (God bless e-readers for making cardio enjoyable.) While she has novels that shine, many of Dessen’s recent books are formulaic and lack heart. That being said, this was her best in years. It’s everything a contemporary YA novel should be. Dessen tells the story of Emma Saylor, a quiet, rule-following girl who unexpectedly finds herself spending her summer with the grandma she didn’t know she had. As she learns her way around her grandma’s resort and the small, vacation town, Emma discovers layers of family history, friendship, and most importantly, herself. This book was charming–Dessen at her best!
This one surprised me. I picked it up on a whim. It caught my eye in the box of library returns one day, so I brought it home. A few weeks later, when I started reading, I found I couldn’t put it down. It tells the story of the Westboro Baptist Church from the inside–its history, theology, and inner workings, from the eyes of someone who was raised in its toxic mess and managed to get out. I was impressed by how much love the Phelps family has for one another even though their lives are guided by problematic theology. This book was disturbing, but also heartwarming. It’s one of those stories that stops you in your tracks and forces you to hold the tension of good and evil that are intertwined. I found myself cheering for Megan and the welcome she received in the outside world, but also mourning for the love that she lost.
Last winter, I listened to an On Being interview with Whyte that stopped me in my tracks. His conversation with Krista Tippet lead me to several of his books, including this collection of poetry. As an Enneagram Four, I have a vast, complex inner landscape and it’s not often I feel seen and known in a work of art. In these poems, I felt both. Whyte understands how to find beauty in darkness, to embrace brokenness and see what it has to teach us. He knows the exquisite balance between loneliness and solitude. He wonderfully captures the power and importance of vulnerability and choosing courage even when it’s painful. His words have guided me through a great deal of interior work over the past year. The ending to his poem “Sweet Darkness”, in particular, has been a light for me: “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you” (p. 23).
You can’t go wrong with a Brandon Sanderson novel. In this Young Adult sci-fi series, humans are on the brink of extinction and living in an underground world in the remains of a previously-inhabited planet. Spensa is a teenage girl driven to the fringes of the militaristic society. Branded a coward by her late father’s actions in the ongoing war against alien assailants, she longs to redeem her family’s legacy by becoming a pilot. Even though the government does everything it can to set up Spensa to fail, she has a chip on her shoulder and refuses to be deterred from her dream. The first book focuses on Spensa’s flight training and the second book… well… I won’t spoil things. When you pick up a Sanderson novel, you know you’re in for a fun ride. Skwyard and Starsight are no exception. What I love most about Sanderson, though, is his ability to use fiction to engage in life’s deepest struggles. He has some powerful things to say about the destructive nature of prejudice and power of empathy. Spensa’s journey captures some important and universal truths in an accessible, enjoyable way.
Thanks for sticking with me! What were your favorite books in 2019? What are you excited to read in 2020?