Because this was the year of the pandemic, natural disasters and political/social turmoil, I read even more than usual. Most of it went beyond escape. Thus, my list of good books is longer than usual. It was a rich year, and I gained insight and hope to help face the multiples ways that darkness was attacking from the outside. Here’s my partial list:
Louise Penny, Still Life (2005), etc.: Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny was my biggest discovery of the year. I found her early, before the pandemic shutdowns, and I must confess that I binged on all 14 of her books in the Inspector Gammach series. (Penny has written one a year since 2005.) She is a good writer on different levels: Plot—in every book the ending surprised me, but also caused me to say, “But of course!” As a regional writer: Her descriptions of Canadian cities and natural wonders, the customs, the languages, the food are superb. In her character development: This most of all. The people are depicted as real human beings. Armand Gammach was my favorite. Not perfect, but an example of integrity and grace. In this election year, I found myself wishing that he were running for US president. Two problems with that scenario: 1) He’s Canadian. 2) He’s fictional. Oh, well. One can wish. The basic values of the book resonated: the insights into human nature and on the nature of evil, and the conviction that the kindness in the world will eventually overcome the evil. Penny doesn’t write as a Christian, but that almost sounds like gospel.
Kristin Hannah, Winter Garden (2010): I read several novels by this author. Not great, but good, with page-turning plots.
Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Honeyman Is Completely Fine (2017): One of the best novels of the year, it depicts the relationship between three marginal, socially inappropriate people. It encourages compassion and understanding for all strange and damaged people.
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987): A good “old” book that centers on the friendship between two couples, explores the interior of each marriage, and shows how all these complex relationships develop over time, helped by the courage to stand by commitments.
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989): Another excellent “old” book and another book about a marginal character. The plot centers on the long-time friendship between the narrator, John Wheelright, and the strange Owen Meaney, a little person with a loud grating voice who believed that God had given him the date of his death as a heroic rescuer of Vietnamese children. A simultaneously serious and hilarious book. Almost like Latin American magical realism in parts.
John Williams, Stoner (1965): Yet another “old” book about a marginal character. Dr. Stoner is a university literature professor who lives a life of hidden and unrecognized excellence in an institution whose inner politics frustrate him. His dedication to teaching literature and his love for his subject hold him steady. I loved this book.
Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop (2016): This translation from the German is a delightful story about the value of reading for comfort and transformation, and the need to grieve our losses.
Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (2019): Another favorite this year. The story takes place on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, and both the geography and Russian culture are key to the book. (The author appears to know and love Russia.) Two small sisters are kidnapped and disappear, and for the next year different families and characters are interwoven into the tragic mystery. A dark story, but with surprising flashes of light.
Ann Pachette, Dutch House (2019): An old ornate Dutch mansion is one of the main characters, along with the human families and complicated relationships that whirl around it. It’s about family, loss, mistakes, forgiveness, and coming home again. Intricate plot, well written.
Marilynne Robinson, Jack (2020): Robinson never disappoints. This latest book in the family saga that began with Gilead goes to the next generation as it explores the intertwining of human nature and grace as people struggle toward maturity.
Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club (2012): Memoir of Schwalbe’s time with his mother as she is dying of pancreatic cancer, a two-year process. Mother and son make a list of books to read and discuss, and this memoir chronicles their discussions. It addresses end of life issues, the importance of reading good books, and life-long relationships. Their discussions provide the cohesive thread for the life stories of Will and his mother, both remarkable people. The book list (included in the appendix) helped shape some of my reading this year.
Irina Ratushinskaya, Grey Is the Color of Hope (1988): The author’s memoir of her three years in a Soviet prison camp in the early 1980s. Her crime: being a poet. She documents the cruelty and suffering, but the book is more a documenting of the human spirit and the community of friends that formed in her prison cell group. Ratushinkaya has since immigrated to the US where she teaches in a university and continues to write poetry. I heard her read years ago in a writers conference at Calvin College.
Steve Inskeep, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War (2020): A fascinating piece of US history of which I was previously unaware. Involves the mapping and settling of Oregon and California, the California gold rush, the movement toward the abolition of slavery, and all sorts of political intrigue. The relationship of this complex couple is an important part of the story. What a strong woman.
Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church (2005): Although written over 15 years ago, this analysis seems timely and relevant in today’s political/religious atmosphere. I’ve long appreciated Boyd as a theologian.
Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019): A well-written collection of amazing facts about the human body, together with a history of medical approaches to what happens when body parts begin to betray us. All told with Bryson’s typical sense of humor. Not only a fun read but a good reference book.
Michelle Ule, Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman Behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional (2017): Very informative story of the woman responsible for collecting her late (and young) husband’s writings into My Utmost for His Highest. I hadn’t realized Chambers had died so young or how prolific a preacher/writer he was in his short life. Thank God for his wife who took such careful notes and transcribed all her husband’s sermons.
Paul Kalanti, When Breath Becomes Air (2016): A brain surgeon’s memoir, written as he knew he was dying of brain cancer. I love his metaphor for death: “when breath becomes air.”
Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (1999): This Catholic theologian focuses on the unity of beauty and simplicity in truth, whether it be scientific discoveries or a personal perception of God. The book culminates in a consideration of the glory/splendor/radiance (all aspects of beauty) of God. Inspiring and challenging.
POETRY AND PRAYERS:
Brian Doyle, A Book of Uncommon Prayer (1999): Relevant prose prayers for everyday life, using non-religious language and lots of humor.
John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (2008): A new discovery, this Irish priest writes with both depth and beauty. I found much that resonated in my spirit during this year of the pandemic.
Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace (1984): An old favorite, revisited this year. Loder seems the Protestant version of the Catholic Brian Doyle, and his prayers are equally relevant and refreshingly non-religious.
Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010): Ryan was US Poet Laureate from 2008-2010, yet she had somehow escaped my notice. No more. I love her short incisive looks at culture and language. She’s become a new favorite.
Maggie Smith, Good Bones (2019): Another new discovery, Smith writes about motherhood and family in this small volume. I especially love the title poem, “Good Bones.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850): Another re-visitation of an old favorite. Barrett Browning contrasts in style (using only the strict sonnet form in this collection) to Ryan and Smith, but she was equally a pioneer for her times, and a rebel who broke from a harsh family situation to follow her heart. The love sonnets are still beautiful.