Friday, January 15, 2016

My Top 10 Reads in 2015

It was a year of reading in fits and starts, but in the end I still read a lot of great books.  I'm grateful for my two reading groups to keep me going!  Here's my top 10 favorite reads in 2015. (not in any particular order)

-- 1 --

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2014. 272 pages.)

Reading challenge category*:  a book published this year

I've followed Marilynne Robinson ever since reading Gilead with the IAM Reader's Guild back in 2010. Her understanding of the characters she writes completely charms me.  I love the people.  And I love Lila the same as all the others.  Maybe even more.  I did find myself wishing for two things as I read, though: a bit more action with a bit less eavesdropping on Lila's thoughts about things and chapters.  I really struggle settling in to a book without the ebb and flow of chapter openings and closings.  

Still, I am fond of Lila.  I am glad she exists -- even though she is, technically, a fictional character.  Oh for more Lila's in the world keeping the religious on their toes, reminding us all of the simple beauty of existence.

-- 2 --

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (240 pages.)

Reading challenge category*:  a book at the bottom of your to-read pile

This book has been on my "to read" list for years -- basically ever since I first read Brennan Manning's description of the "whiskey priest."  For whatever reason, I had the hardest time tracking the book down until I helped myself to my friend Jeffrey's bookshelves.  It took me a while to get into the pace of the novel but about two chapters in I became engrossed in the story.  Maybe more than the story as the voice. 

Here's the Amazon blurb:
In a poor, remote section of Southern Mexico, the paramilitary group, the Red Shirts have taken control. God has been outlawed, and the priests have been systematically hunted down and killed. Now, the last priest is on the run. Too human for heroism, too humble for martyrdom, the nameless little worldly “whiskey priest” is nevertheless impelled toward his squalid Calvary as much by his own compassion for humanity as by the efforts of his pursuers.
Here's one of several favorite excerpts:
"A voice said, 'You are the priest, aren't you?' 
'Yes.' It was as if they had climbed out of their opposing trenches and met in No Man's Land among the wires to fraternise. He remembered stories of the European war - how during the last years men had sometimes met on an impulse between the lines. 
'Yes.' he said again, and the mule plodded on. Sometimes, instructing children in the old days, he had been asked by some black lozenge-eyed Indian child, 'What is God like?' and he would answer facilely with references to the father and the mother, or perhaps more ambitiously he would include brother and sister and try to give some idea of all loves and relationships combined in an immense and yet personal passion...But at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery - that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God's image had thought out, and God's image shook now, up and down on the mule's back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God's image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said, 'Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?' and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God's image."

-- 3 --

Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy J. Nordenson (Kalos Press, 2014.)

Reading challenge category*:  a book by a female author

I wanted this book to tell me -- artfully -- what to do when I grow up.  I am in a floundering season and this title looked promising.  Instead Nancy Nordenson validated -- artfully -- the pain of not quite knowing one's own vocation.  And, if suspecting, trudging up hill to make one's livelihood from that vocation.  Each chapter works together, but can also stand alone as an essay, tying together seemingly mundane daily observations into themes of desire, doubt and calling.  Woven throughout are the threads of Nordenson's own story with her husband, a painful struggle with unemployment and underemployment and goodhearted faithfulness.  As a writer who makes a living writing medical reports (her BA is in biology) while simultaneously pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing, Nordenson's prose manages to be both pragmatic and poetic, a tone which I thoroughly enjoyed.  If you prefer linear storytelling or bullet lists of tips, this book is not for you.

I want to write more about this book.  Hold me to it, please?

A couple of excerpts:
" 'And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.' I know this is the bottom line, the question worth the most points on the final vocational exam, yet the corollary questions remain: how, when, and where? The acting and loving and walking can't be in the abstract, but must be anchored in time and place -- moving arms and legs, fingertips and brain. And hopefully a paycheck is earned in the process."   
"I have been collecting images, lifting layers, switching between depths of field to catch glimpses of what's really going on here. How does work become more than what it is, and how do we become ourselves in the process? How do we find livelihood even as we are making it? How can an individual body of work contribute to a corporate body of work to participate in a universal, eternal, world-without-end body of work?"   
"Years ago I copied out words from a Lenten book into my journal, 'Pray to remember that upon you rest both the favor of God and the power of the Spirit.' This is how I think of God's grace coming to us. And these words, 'dedicate with faith your personal lifelong pilgrimage -- regardless of how insignificant it may seem to you -- as an important part of God's liberation of the world!' ...I have felt bread on the tongue and water on the flesh, but I crave signs of grace outside the cloister of the sanctuary and so am drawn to a teacher's recent suggestion to try living all of life as a sacrament, as a physical participation in the flow of grace from God to people and among people and back again. ...The surface view of grace isn't synonymous with the good life; history bears that out. Sometimes the favor and power of God, the share in God's liberation of the world looks like sweaty hard work, failed work even. I have to wonder about my willingness to live sacramentally, my willingness to have headaches and high blood pressure, frustration and exhaustion be visible signs of invisible grace as God works in me and through me."  
"I returned to work begin again. Breath and blood, flesh and brain, heart and bones. The weeks are holy."  

-- 4 --

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler (Scribner, NY 2011. 238 pages includes an appendix of recipes)

Reading challenge category*: a book written by an author with your same initials (or, in this case, same first name)

Oh, this book!  I carried it together with my recipe card box around the house with me for weeks. I copied recipes in their traditional form:  
1/4 cup finely chopped onion 
1/8 cup finely chopped carrot 
1 stalk celery, finely chopped and so forth
but also conversational sorts of recipes:
Cook scallions in a very hot, well-oiled pan. Once the bulbs are sweet and tender and their green tops charred, curl them under poached eggs.   
This method of cooking is so foreign to me.  The kind where you look through your cupboard and your fridge and just know what sorts of left-over drizzles and dabs will go together just so to make mouth-watering, clean, comfort food.  As I was reading, I recognized friends and family who have this skill that I do not yet possess, but gosh-darn it plan to figure out before I'm stooped over with a spoon in one hand and cane in the other.

The beauty of this book is the warm prose that combines all my favorite things:  lovely writing, simple instructions, and an expectation for thrift.  Adler tells a story about food preparation that I can imagine myself maybe, just maybe, able to imitate.  

The first chapter is titled "How to Boil Water" and that's all I needed to feel welcome to this table.

"The pot was invented 10,000 years ago, and a simmering one has been a symbol of a well-tended hearth ever since. I don't mean to suggest that now that you have been reminded of the age and gooness of a ot of water, you start boiling everything in you kitchen -- but that instead of trying to figure out what to do about dinner, you put a big pot of water on thes tove, light the burner under it, and only when it's on its way to getting good and hot start looking for things to put in it.
In that act, you will have plopped yourself smack in the middle of cooking a meal. And there you'll be, having retrieved a pot, filled it, and lit a burner, jostled by your own will a few steps farther down the path toward dinner."

-- 5 --

Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the MIssion of the Church by N.T. Wright (Harper One, 2008. 295 pages)

Reading challenge category*:  a book you started or never finished (more specifically, read but did not read deeply)

This title will end up on my "Life-Changing Books" list, next to The Challenge of Easter.  For some strange reason, in 2009 when I first purchased the book, I got stuck in it for about two years and ended up just browsing through it.  This time around, two of my sisters and my mom and I decided to read together and talk together once a week about what we were learning, wondering and feeling about what -- in some regards -- is a pretty radical re-framing of what we'd come to believe about Heaven and what it means to follow the Resurrected Christ in the here and now.

Our conversations started out a bit jittery as we got to know the former Bishop of Durham's voice, which is occasionally a bit off-putting to the newcomer. 

It takes a lot of courage to reexamine long-held, passionately-held beliefs.  I'm so encouraged by my mom and sisters for their willingness to ask questions whose answers will be mostly wrapped in mystery until the Glorious Day when we are reunited with Christ and living in a new earth where all things have been judged and made right.

Many of our conversations included variations on the question "Since we can't know for sure what it will look like for Jesus to return and what heaven will look like or where our deceased friends and family are right now, does it matter to our everyday lives?"  And with a variety of responses we decided that yes, it does matter.  Not that we can know for sure, but that we can be diligent in understanding and study so that our lives reflect well the hope found in the real-life resurrection power of Christ.  That power that is even now fueling our lives, and through our lives fueling acts of love, hope and justice around us.  To be able to hold onto hope in the tension between fact and mystery is an act of worship.  

Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Some helpful resources for walking through this book:

  • Surprised by Hope section summaries from N.T. Wright on YouTube  (We broke up our reading into 6 sessions based on the video and workbook sections.)
  • Since I'm a playlist junkie, I collected songs on Spotify that reminded me of all our reading and conversation:  Surprised by Hope

-- 6 --

Good Poems for Hard Times selected by Garrison Keillor (Penguin Books, 2006. 368 pages.)

Reading challenge category*:  a book that made you cry

My daughter bought me this book at a library book sale while she was with my mother in New York this summer.  She chose a used book that suited the personality of each person in her family.   For me she chose this book of poetry.  She handed it to me as I was headed for the airport, and it was the perfect book for my trip (and for severalsleepless nights). 

Poets included in the anthology are from my all-time favorites: Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Bishop, Billy Collins, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Robert Frost, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman and more.  That's just a fraction of the list!

Here's one of my favorites (and the one that made me cry): 
Ice Storm
Jane Kenyon

For the hemlocks and broad-leafed evergreens

a beautiful and precarious state of being. . . .
Here in the suburbs of New Haven
nature, unrestrained, lops the weaker limbs
of shrubs and trees with a sense of aesthetics
that is practical and sinister. . . .

I am the guest in this house.

On the bedside table Good Housekeeping, and
A Nietzsche Reader. . . . The others are still asleep.
The most painful longing comes over me.
A longing not of the body. . . .

It could be for beauty-

I mean what Keats was panting after,
for which I love and honor him;
it could be for the promises of God,
or for oblivion, nada; or some condition even more
extreme, which I intuit, but can't quite name.

-- 7 --

The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2003. 352 pages.)

Reading challenge category*:  a book a friend recommended

I read this book of rich and challenging essays with my Liturgy of Life Reading Group. I posted a giant dose of my overall response here: Thoughts on the Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry & Our Attempt to Love Texas

-- 8 --

A Walk In the Woods: Rediscovering America On the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson (Anchor, 2006. 397 pages)

Reading challenge category*:  a book with nonhuman characters (particularly, a large, impassive moose)

I've learned that a lot of people love Bill Bryson, but somehow I'd never heard of him before.  My mother -- who kindly and perpetually keeps me stocked with good reads -- gave me this book when I visited in New York this summer.  Delightful, easy, occasionally suspenseful reading.  I especially appreciated how Bryson included humor, history and relational warmth in the story of his attempts at trekking the Appalachian Trail.

Did anyone see the movie with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte?

-- 9 --

Animal Dreams: a novel  by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper-Collins, NY, 1990.  352 pages)

Reading challenge category*:  a book set in high school (the main character takes a job as a high school teacher to be close to her ailing father)

Don't tell anyone, but this is my first Barbara Kingsolver read. I've been meaning to for ages but it took my office friend to bring in her own copy to loan me before I finally dove in.  I thoroughly enjoyed every page.  I loved the main character, Codi Noline, and hoped for her to find the memories of love and family she'd lost to time and neglect.  I also appreciated Kingsolver's telling of the Native American communities settled deep into the old geology of Arizona.  I feel like this is the best, most winsome invitation into the contemporary Native American culture that I've ever read.  The subcontexts of environmental crisis in the mining town and the beautiful, intergenerational friendships of women put this book toward the top of my favorites this year. 
"The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I'm living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides." 
-- 10 --

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Vintage Books, NY 2005. 227 pages)

Reading challenge category*:  a book that scares you

Didion tells in her iconic way the details surrounding her husband's sudden (and, yet, in hindsight, predicted) death from cardiac arrest.  

"Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file ("Notes on change.doc") reads "May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.," but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.
For a long time I wrote nothing else.
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant."
I'd first read the account of her husband's "sit down to dinner" death in a NY Times essay, but didn't realize that The Year of Magical Thinking was about the same story.  I picked up the book in a stack of wonderful titles I found at an estate sale.  Only after I started reading did I realize the two were the same.

The "magical thinking" Ms. Didion includes in the title is the surreal experience of the death of an intimate loved one,  the sort of thinking that makes you think they might come back at any moment.  She turns to the grieving C.S. Lewis for empathy:
"I could not count count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response, I read something in the paper that I would normally have read to him. I notice some change in the neighborhood that would interest him: [...] I recall coming in from Central Park one morning in mid-August with urgent news to report: the deep summer green has faded overnight from the trees, the season is already changing. We need to make a plan for the fall, I remember thinking. We need to decide where we want to be at Thanksgiving, Christmas, the end of the year. 
I am dropping my keys on the table inside the door before I fully remember. There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back. "I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense," C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife. "It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there's an impassable frontier post across it. So many roads once; now so many cul de sacs."
I wish that Ms. Didion had been able to draw on a more substantive grasp of the reality of resurrection hope in some of her conclusions.  The sort of deep magic that grounds us all -- doomed for the sitting down to death in an ordinary instant -- to the most real thinking of all.


*Go to my Book Pile page to see my reading lists from 2015 and previous years.*

What are you reading right now?

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