C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.” That’s one reason, a good one. I made many friends in 2012. My list contains the books that most impacted me during the year. None of them were published in 2012. (Maybe I’ll read the 2012 books next year.)
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011): I enjoy most of Brooks’ historical fiction. This one takes place in the context of Martha’s Vineyard in colonial America and deals with the Native American encounter with Christianity. It’s roughly based on the true story of the first indigenous graduate of Harvard University.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005): Although classified as a “children’s book,” I found this holocaust story fascinating. Death itself narrates the tale of a book-stealing little girl and her strange friends in Germany during the 1930s and 40s.
The Language of Flowers by Vanesa Diffenbaugh (2011): The heroine of this story is a surviving but damaged product of the foster care system. As an adult she has trouble relating to people, except when it comes to using her gift for knowing which flowers will connect to which person. She draws on the medieval sense that different flowers have meanings that they actually communicate (asters mean patience, honeysuckles mean devotion, etc.). Aside from the fascinating “flower language,” this is a story about redemption and transformation.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico (1974): I love whimsical detectives, and Mrs. Harris, a London charlady, is one I will now add to my collection. In other books (which I hope to read this next year) she solves mysteries in Paris, New York, and London.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2009): This novel tells the story of a noted psychologist and university professor who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The author sensitively chronicles Alice’s gradual realization that something’s wrong, her emotional struggles, the slow (but too fast) changes, and the responses of her husband, grown children, and colleagues. The reminder that with all that is happening, she’s “still Alice,” was timely as we affirm that about someone in our family.
Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found by Jennifer Lauck (2000): This moving memoir is from the point of view of the author as a child, up to the age of 9. The author shows what can happen when children in dysfunctional families fall through the cracks in the social systems set up to protect them. It ends on a note of hope as the grandparents step in. I also read Lauck’s follow-up memoirs: Still Waters, Show Me the Way, and Found, all good, but the first, Blackbird, was the strongest. Lauck lives in Portland, Oregon.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (2010): This inspiring and informative biography of a man whose example of Christian integrity in violent times seems more relevant now than ever.
Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron (2011): This well-written memoir chronicles the experience of a person whose father was not only a violent alcoholic but a secret (from his family) spy. It’s the surprising grace note (the Jesus part of the title) that gives this book its power. This was one of my two favorite books of the year.
Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Philip Yancey (2001): This collection of biographical essays deepened my acquaintance with people I had already met and loved (G.K. Chesterton, Leo Tolstoy, Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen, among others). These role models give Yancey reason to hope and to stick with the church. We all need those.
A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art, Emilie Griffin, Ed. (2008): I’ve read so many books about writing, I almost don’t expect anything new. But this one surprised me. The fact that the essays were written by some of my favorite writers (such as Luci Shaw, Virginia Stem Owens, Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson) helped.
An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life (2011): This was my other “favorite book of the year.” This memoir of a former nun of the Sisters of Charity is hard to read because of its content and I don’t recommend it to many. But it’s one of the most valuable books I read this year, revealing the humanity that challenges convent life. (It doesn’t “destroy” Mother Teresa. She’s still someone I admire tremendously, but from a more realistic perspective.)
Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver (2004): I love just about anything by Mary Oliver.
Yevtushenko: Selected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1962): Prior to a trip to Russia in May, I decided to revisit Yevtushenko after many years. I prefer his shorter poems; “Colours” and “Talk” move me as much now as they ever did. It was fun reading through my Kindle version of the book on the bullet train between Moscow and St. Petersberg.