Archives for December 2017

My Favorite Books of 2017

I love best of the year lists, and what’s better than a best of the year list of books? I typically read an eclectic mix of modern fiction, classic works, memoir, and christian living books, and this year was no exception.

I re-read more books than I usually do, and I also read an enormous amount of smaller pieces (essays, articles, extracts) in preparation for the freshman writing course I teach. This led me to read even more widely than usual , which gave me a wonderful variety of stories, viewpoints, and writing styles.

However: a note on diversity. This list is sorely lacking in writers of color, and for that I apologize. While I did read books and quite a few shorter pieces by writers of color (my favorites: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and ONE:Unity in a Divided World by Deidra Riggs), this is an area of my reading life I hope to intentionally improve upon in the coming year.

On to the books!

Favorite Fiction:

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

“Set in London during the years of 1939–1942, when citizens had slim hope of survival, much less victory; and on the strategic island of Malta, which was daily devastated by the Axis barrage, Everyone Brave is Forgiven features little-known history and a perfect wartime love story inspired by the real-life love letters between Chris Cleave’s grandparents…”

Both heartbreaking and redemptive. A fantastic read for lovers of historical fiction set in WWII.

Howard’s End by EM Forster

“The self-interested disregard of a dying woman’s bequest, an impulsive girl’s attempt to help an impoverished clerk, and the marriage between an idealist and a materialist — all intersect at a Hertfordshire estate called Howards End. The fate of this beloved country home symbolizes the future of England itself in E. M. Forster’s exploration of social, economic, and philosophical trends, as exemplified by three families…”

I wish I’d read this sooner, but I did find it oddly relevant today, in the current climate of social, economic, and gender divides. Worth reading for the language and craft alone.

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

“Laurie Frankel’s This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.”

I had no idea what to expect with this novel, and I found it profoundly moving and thought-provoking as it explores sensitive issues of gender and sexuality. Of all the books I read this year, this is the one that has stayed with me more than any other.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

“Betty Smith has, in the pages of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, captured the joys of humble Williamsburg life-from “junk day” on Saturdays, when the children of Francie’s neighborhood traded their weekly take for pennies, to the special excitement of holidays, bringing cause for celebration and revelry. Betty Smith has artfully caught this sense of exciting life in a novel of childhood, replete with incredibly rich moments of universal experiences–a truly remarkable achievement for any writer.”

Oh, this is such a fantastic, timeless novel. I followed my reading of it with a visit to the Tenement Museum in NYC, and it was the perfect complement, causing the book to come alive in a tangible way.

 

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

“The characters we meet, from Sally, the unborn baby at the beginning of the novel, who becomes the center of the story to the nuns whose personalities we come to know and love to the neighborhood families with whose lives they are entwined, are all rendered with extraordinary sympathy and McDermott’s trademark lucidity and intelligence.”

This was my final book of fiction this year, and it was stunning. This is not a lighthearted read by any stretch, but it is honest and effortlessly told, which is always the sign of good writing. I highly recommend this one if you’re in the mood for a novel that asks hard questions about life, death, sin, and faith.

Favorite Non-Fiction:

Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren

“Framed around one ordinary day, this book explores daily life through the lens of liturgy, small practices, and habits that form us. Each chapter looks at something―making the bed, brushing her teeth, losing her keys―that the author does every day. Drawing from the diversity of her life as a campus minister, Anglican priest, friend, wife, and mother, Tish Harrison Warren opens up a practical theology of the everyday.”

What more can I add? This book is perfect for those of us who live out our faith in ordinary, everyday suburban lives as we work and raise families. Warren helps us see how small practices can guide us into a richer expression in the life of faith.

 

Rhythms of Rest by Shelley Miller

“In this warm and helpful book, Shelly Miller dispels legalistic ideas about Sabbath and shows how even busy people can implement a rhythm of rest into their lives–whether for an hour, a morning, or a whole day. With encouraging stories from people in different stages in life, Miller shares practical advice for having peaceful, close times with God.”

This book came at just the right time when I needed encouragement to pursue a regular Sabbath in my life. No condemnation, no judgement, only gentle nudges in the right direction. A lovely book.

 

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

“Carolyn Weber arrives at Oxford a feminist from a loving but broken family, suspicious of men and intellectually hostile to all things religious. As she grapples with her God-shaped void alongside the friends, classmates, and professors she meets, she tackles big questions in search of Truth, love, and a life that matters.”

A well-written memoir following Weber’s journey to faith as she studied for her PhD in Oxford, England. I thoroughly enjoyed this insider’s view into the world of academia set in the city of dreaming spires.

 

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

“This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage takes us into the very real world of Ann Patchett’s life. Stretching from her childhood to the present day, from a disastrous early marriage to a later happy one, it covers a multitude of topics, including relationships with family and friends, and charts the hard work and joy of writing, and the unexpected thrill of opening a bookstore.”

I loved this collection of essays. Wise, funny, and written with incredible precision. Perfect reading for a writer who wants to learn the art of writing from one of the best.

 

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

“This intimate and revelatory book is a celebration of Rome, a wondrous look at new parenthood, and a fascinating story of a writer’s craft—the process by which he transforms what he sees and experiences into sentences.”

Doerr’s writing is exquisite. As a parent, former ex-pat, and fellow writer, I fell in love with Doerr’s memoir of life in Rome as a new parent to twins while struggling to write his novel All the Light We Cannot See (another must read.)

……

Care to share your favorites of the year? Leave a comment or hit reply from your in-box if you’re a subscriber. For more of my favorites visit me on goodreads, or read last year’s list of my favorites here.

*All blurbs taken from amazon and all photos taken from goodreads

**Some of these books contain adult language and adult situations, which I’m down with because–I’m an adult;) If you’re sensitive to either, you might want to research further before purchasing.

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The Hope of Christmas

Years ago, during our Zurich years, my kids’ international school introduced Swiss customs to the students to help them understand the local culture. One such custom was the arrival of Samichlaus, with his sack full of chocolate and clementines, who roamed the halls and burst into classrooms unannounced just before winter break. Unlike Santa, Samichlaus, the Swiss version of Father Christmas, never arrived alone. He was accompanied by a strange, sinister companion called Schmutzli.

Schmutzli (usually one of the put-upon elementary teachers, hunched over and hidden) concealed his face behind a dark cloak. Rather than a sack filled with treats, he carried an empty sack and a broomstick, with which he terrorized small children with threats of a broom-smacking or being placed in the sack and taken away for bad behavior.

It was one of the strangest customs we encountered there, and my kids came home utterly bewildered, as they watched classmates cry only to be consoled by Samichlaus with a tiny square of chocolate and a smushed orange cutie. Then we learned about the latest Elf on the Shelf fad in the US, and I realized weirdness is relative. Parents will go to great lengths to keep their kids in line at Christmastime.

This year, I’ve read a bit about various Christmas customs around the world, very few related to celebrating Christ, and found a common thread among most of them. There’s often a distinct contrast between dark and light, good and evil. Schmutzli comes from the dark places of the hidden world to threaten and cajole children into obedience, while scarlet-coated Samichlaus brings small favors to reward the good ones.

It is strange and a little cruel and an unfortunate introduction to the ways of the world. The children learn that darkness often accompanies light, and punishment often comes when we most need the kiss of grace.

I’ve been thinking of this custom lately, of the look of confusion on the little kids’ faces and the bemusement of teachers and parents. I’m thinking of the threats and the shaking of the broomstick and the inspiration of fear in the hearts of the most tender and vulnerable. It stands in such stark contrast to everything I believe about Christmas, everything I believe about redemption and light and grace.

What a difference it would make for the kids to enter into the wonder and awe of Christmas through the cradle of Christ rather than Samichlaus and Schmutzli, Santa’s naughty and nice lists, or an ever watchful Elf. These traditions cause the cradle of Christ to stand out in full relief. In the stable there is fear, yes, but a holy fear. The Light of the World entered to scatter darkness, not to soothe it with tokens and promises of a reward for good behavior.

Jesus came to bring light and life to the world. What joy! What celebration! How easily we are consoled and comforted by less.

I love traditions and myth and imaginative mysteries as much as the next person. I confess to laughing when my kids told me about their Shmutzli experience. Heaps of presents dressed in glitter and gold bows wait under the boughs of our tree. And our favorite Christmas films: Elf, Rudolph, The Nutcracker, are old friends we welcome with a bowl of popcorn on the sofa.

But, when I think of the ever-growing holiday preparations, I worry we’re collectively losing our children to a construct of Christmas that has nothing to do with Christ. When I imagine my kids preparing for Christmas in their own homes in the not-to-distant future, I pray they will come to the cradle with hearts wrecked for anything but Jesus.

As I’ve thought about the complexities we’ve created around Christmas, these words by Brennan Manning have helped set things right in my heart this year. He writes,

“The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less.”

Let the world parade its Samichlaus and Schmutzli. Its Santa and Elves. We are the shipwrecked, and Mary birthed the anchor that tethers us to grace alone.

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Keep it Simple: An Advent Resource Guide

Many of you arrived here by signing up for my Advent audio guide, Journeying to Bethlehem Together, and for that I’m grateful. It’s a joy to have you here as we hold longing together.

I still consider myself a newbie when it comes to observing Advent, and if not a total newbie, at the very least I’m a lazy observer. I like to keep it as simple as possible. None of us need more expectations during a time of year already fraught with unruly lists, disappearing money, and social obligations.

In order to help you observe Advent the lazy way alongside me, I thought I’d offer a few resources. May I make a suggestion? Choose one thing off this list, just one, that might lead you closer to Jesus this season.

Books:

Light upon Light: A Literary Guide

Compiled by writer Sarah Arthur, this collection of prayers, poetry, readings, and scripture is the perfect companion for the season. I’ve used it for a number of years, and it is by far my favorite resource.

Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation

This slim volume of poems by Luci Shaw is a lovely way to begin or end the day. Her poetry is accessible and written with such care and precision. A great starter for those who don’t typically read poetry.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas

I bought this book recently, and I’ve enjoyed the perspectives from the numerous authors featured in this compilation (Aquinas, Bonhoeffer, Donne, Eliot, L’Engle, Lewis, etc.) It’s dense, and often I re-read each entry to fully grasp the depth and richness of it, but don’t let that deter you. I highly recommend it.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas

This gorgeous children’s book by Ann Voskamp is a must if you have children. I use it with my kids every year, even though they’ve outgrown it  (and they would happily tell you so!), because I love the language and the structure of the stories. A must for families.

The Wonder of the Greatest Gift: An Interactive Family Celebration of Advent

This is Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift for littles. I bought it for all of my nieces and nephews this year, and they love it. It’s a beautiful book with an Advent activity, and I could see it becoming an heirloom to pass down to the next generation.

Music:

At Christmas, I typically listen to classic holiday music on whatever radio channel I can find. However, this year, I wanted to be more intentional about my listening for Advent, and it’s made a big difference in the tenor of my heart and home when I choose music that prepares my heart for Jesus rather than preparing me for a visit from Santa.

Melanie Penn’s Immanuel is the perfect antidote to an overdose of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. It’s a gorgeous concept album, and her voice is angelic.

Songs for Christmas Time by Lowland Hum is a folksy-acoustic take on classic hymns and Christmas songs. I just discovered this album recently, and I think it would be great to choose a few songs from the album for a different kind of playlist.

Speaking of playlists, I love the playlists Tsh Oxenreider creates on Spotify. She has superb taste in music, and has compiled two separate lists specifically for Advent. Brilliant.

Other Resources:

A Simple Advent Guide:

Again, I’ll refer you to Tsh Oxenreider. She offers a simple guide for advent with a number of suggestions for the season on her blog. I’m not sure I’m going to hand-roll my own beeswax candles, but most of her resources are incredibly do-able and simple.

Printable December Calendar:

Shelly Miller offers the loveliest (free) printable calendars all year long based on her (excellent) book Rhythms of Rest. December’s calendar offers us exactly what we need: space to breathe and space to worship. I print mine and tape it to the pantry door. Every time I reach for a box of cereal, I read the prompt and it reminds me rest is a commandment. Even at Advent.

It’s not too late to begin a simple practice of celebrating Advent. I hope you find something here that helps you move towards a spirit of anticipatory waiting rather than overwhelm and frustration. Happy reading, listening, and observing!