2019 has been an amazing reading year for me. I thought some of you might find help for your Christmas shopping with some of my reading suggestions from the past year. Or if nothing else, you might glean some ideas for your 2020 reading list!
I read most of these thanks to the e-library (by the way, if you want to read some of these titles and can’t spend the cash, submit a request with your local library! They are usually very accommodating). I also got to read a handful of these in advance of their publication dates, thanks to Netgalley (if you like writing reviews in exchange for a free book, you should check it out!).
And before I launch into the booklist, please hear me from atop my book shopping soapbox: Whenever possible, try buy your books from somewhere other than Amazon, and consider supporting independent bookstores, or smaller online booksellers like Thriftbooks and Indiebound. Amazon often has the lowest prices, but their algorithms undercut most other vendors who use their site to sell books, not to mention other booksellers elsewhere. Whenever possible, I want to vote with my money for a diverse marketplace of books, and I encourage you to do this too!
To start off, here are some books related to Christianity/Christian culture:
Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy (Amy Peterson)
If you’re struggling to make peace with the contemporary American church, this book may be a balm for you. Peterson takes us through some of traditional Western Christian virtues she grew up with (one example is W.J. Bennett’s, The Book of Virtues) and re-examines them, raising questions about the status quo and offering fresh perspectives for different ways to consider Christian virtue.
In one chapter of the book, Peterson discusses the virtue of purity, critiquing the ways that purity culture has affected the church, and offering readers a profoundly interconnected lens through which to consider purity:
“Purity, the story of Ruth suggests, has less to do with keeping yourself separate from the wrong kind of people and more to do with being engulfed in the love of God, a love that invites everyone in.”
Where Goodness Still Grows releases in January. You can preorder it here. Also, if you do order the book, there’s a free discussion guide available here!
Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Robert F. Capon)
There’s so much I could say about this book (it’s actually a collection of three of Capon’s books exploring Jesus’ parables). One is that if you enjoy the conversational writing style employed by C.S. Lewis, you will enjoy Capon. The other thing I will say is that if I had a terminal illness, Capon’s The Parables of Grace would be one of those books I’d like to read on my deathbed. Capon spends this book arguing that ultimately, all Jesus wants from us is our death, and that our desire to control things and win God’s love is our real nemesis:
“…Since I’m going to die for you and with you, maybe you should stop trying to keep death at arm’s length. You have nothing to lose but your horror.”
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (Lauren F. Winner)
This was one of my favorite books of the year. I read a library ebook copy and loved it so much that I ordered a hard copy because I plan to re-read it. The chapter unpacking the metaphor of God self-describing as a woman in labor is seared into my memory forever.
Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Dr. Wilda C. Gafney)
Does the Old Testament treatment of women baffle and disturb you? Yeah, me too. I vividly remember the day back in university when I was researching OT passages for a paper, and being struck with the thought, “how can I embrace a book like this, as a woman? What do these stories tell me about God’s view of me?” I’m still asking myself that question, and even more so now as a parent (I know there are a ton of books out there on the subject that I have yet to read. Texts of Terror is another one at the top of my list). But I’m done with concocting pat answers for the horrific stories of violence toward women in the Bible. And so is Wilda C. Gafney, as it turns out. Womanist Midrash is full of ideas for reading some of these stories.
Throughout the book, Gafney was up front in stating the things she wanted from the Bible, and she was equally up front in summarizing her analyses from time to time by saying that she was disappointed and still uncomfortable with the text. It was helpful to me as a reader wanting to critique new ideas, to be given a context for the position of the author. I appreciated Gafney’s straightforward approach in starting the book by stating her own positionality as a womanist and a scholar. This is an intellectually honest approach to discussing important things like the Bible. (Full disclosure: if you enjoy airtight theological conclusions, you’ll probably find this book unsettling and not enjoyable. It raises a lot more questions than it answers.)
Books Discussing Racism
Racism kills people and it destroys lives. To be disinterested in racism and the damage it causes is to be disinterested in human flourishing. My own tendencies to racism are something I am constantly working through and repenting. According to the experts, combatting our own racism is a lifelong process, not a one-time attitude fix. Learning to repent and to change direction, I’ve found, starts with listening. So here are some folks I’ve been listening to lately.
So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)
This book is winsome and a great place to start if you want to learn more about race. If you are open to learning, Ijeoma Oluo is a great teacher. (It bears noting that Oluo has encountered a lot of hostility and threats of violence toward her and her family as a result of her work; further evidence that America is not even close to being a post-racial/post-racist society. We have a lot of work to do.)
Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)
I read this book over a year ago, and while much of it has lingered with me, one of the foremost is this: our habits of white supremacy and racism are not only important because they wound others, they are important because they also wound us as white people. Seeing racism through the lens of wounded-ness has helped me realize more fully how racism is profoundly harmful to everyone, and it has also helped me to look more compassionately at people who aren’t ready to have these discussions yet.
How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi)
“‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing…. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”
– Ibram X. Kendi (quoted from How to Be an Antiracist, Chapter 1: Definitions)
Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Jemar Tisby)
Jim and I both read this book, so I’ll include his thoughts on it, for a change of pace:
“Reading this book helped me to see more clearly how the people I’m from missed a big part of the gospel, in terms of racial issues and the way that we read the Bible. Racism is something that Jesus came do demolish. And we can choose to work with or against him. And many who call themselves his people are working against him. The book has provided a lot of good food for thought.”
Books with insights on Parenting/Motherhood:
Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue (Christia Spears Brown)
The Whole Brain Child: !2 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind (Daniel J. Siegel)
Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy (Angela Garbes)
Garbes wrote this essay on breastfeeding just three weeks after Lena was born. I was still getting used to breastfeeding at the time, and not completely loving it. Garbes’ words were encouraging and life-giving to me at the time. Much of Like a Mother follows in the same path: inclined to curiosity and willing to critique the harmful aspects of the status quo. In becoming a parent, I’ve had to confront a lot of things, including some of the cultural norms surrounding motherhood in America. Like a Mother confronts some of those cultural norms and the ways that they serve to devalue motherhood, the postpartum period, and the demands of child rearing. A good read.
Memoirs I Enjoyed:
All the Colors We will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding our Way (Patrice Gopo)
A memoir about time, place, culture, ethnicity, and the search for home. I hope Patrice Gopo writes more books—this one was beautiful, and her descriptive writing is vivid and full of color and texture.
Garlic and Sapphires (Ruth Reichl)
My first foray into a Ruth Reichl book, and certainly not my last! She is delightful and is a thoughtful writer. It was fascinating to consider the politics, strategy, and matters of anonymity that factor into the work of a restaurant critic.
Deconstructed Do-Gooder (Britney Winn Lee)
Brown Girl Dreaming (Jaqueline Woodson)
All you Can Ever Know (Nicole Chung)
One Korean-American woman’s perspective on being a transracial adoptee. When we focus the adoption conversation entirely on adoptive parents, we are doing another party a grave injustice. It’s important to read books like this and to take time to listen to the experiences of an adoptee. Chung tells her story with tenderness toward both her adoptive parents and her birth parents, which is no small feat.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Kate Bowler)
Another point of view we could all do well to hear more of is that of the perspective from the sickbed, of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of kindly-meant (but nonetheless thoughtless) well-wishing. Kate Bowler offers an unhesitating critique of some of America’s most common platitudes for the suffering, based on her own experience living through cancer diagnosis and treatment.
May it Be So (Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson)
Breath-giving, nuanced, and filled with hope. Lots of prayer and devotional books leave me feeling stressed and full of “to-do’s”. This one left me feeling safe, beloved, and with a fresh perspective on prayer. The illustrations by Scott Erickson are incredible and filled with meditative insight.
Invited (Leslie Verner)
This book is written more as a memoir, a confessional, and a reflection on the ways hospitality can change our lives. Through her own experiences trying to find community in church, Verner offers a gentle critique of the ways we Western Christians tend to keep to ourselves instead of inviting. (She quotes a few examples of this, such as a statistic that 75% of international students will never enter an American home during their studies in the U.S.)
Invited encourages us to think of ways we can live spaciously and graciously in the places where we already live.“Strangers are never strange to God. And they are only strange because we don’t know them yet.”
Kids’ book: The Boy with the Big, Big Feelings (Britney Winn Lee)
If you want to talk about feelings with your kids, this is a great book for doing just that. I’m a firm believer in the wisdom a therapist shared with me once: our feelings are not always true, but they are certainly real. Helping our kids sort through their feelings requires a willingness to acknowledge that their feelings are real (even when we in the throes of parenting fatigue, would rather that they were not real). To force kids to stuff or deny the realities of their emotional lives is to force them to develop unhealthy callouses that should never exist. If we want our children to be emotionally mature, and tender toward themselves and to others, fearless conversations about feelings is a must. The Boy with the Big, Big Feelings is a great opener for those sorts of conversations.
Beautiful historical fiction:
Another Brooklyn (Jaqueline Woodson)
Pachinko (Min Jin Lee)
Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie)
Essential discussions about humanitarian aid, America abroad, and American history:
Letters Left Unsent (J.)
Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (Suzy Hansen)
Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Mark Charles and Soong Chan Rah)
and finally, one of my favorite books from 2019:
The Ungrateful Refugee (Dina Nayeri)
“There are things we crave from each other whose value we diminish by asking for them: love, gratitude, understanding. To have these things, we must first offer something of ourselves.”
I wrote this post back in June, highlighting some favorite books about refugees. When I wrote it, I was waiting to crack open Dina Nayeri’s the Ungrateful Refugee, which released in September. Now that I’ve read it, The Ungrateful Refugee is at the top of my list of favorite books on the subject. The Ungrateful Refugee is also up for several well-deserved awards. The writing is frank, the topic is approached in all its complexity, and it is refreshingly free of clichés. You can check out an interview with Nayeri here to get a feel for her work.
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Here’s one final quote to end things. I think these lines from the end of The Ungrateful Refugee are poignant because of my own experiences learning to assimilate in an unfamiliar place, but they also ring true because this is what we do when we read books with eyes of love and curiosity:
“We are constantly assimilating to each other, all of us, because we want to love and be loved. We find redemption and kinship in the superficial, these small nothings that contain our shared joy—dancing brides, letters from fathers, a first taste of kale. These small moments remake us in each other’s image.”
I wish you good reading in this coming winter, and in the new year! May you find books filled with wonder, love, critique of the harmful, and, most importantly books infused with an insatiable thirst for reminders of our shared humanity. My reading year has looked a lot like this, and I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2020.