Welcome, friends, to my favorite blog post of the year! It’s a bit later than usual but no less exciting. I’ve linked to last year’s reading recap below, and in it you can find links to all the previous ones in that post (I was too lazy to link to them all again here, what can I say).
As I compiled this, I noticed that I rated a lot of these four stars instead of five, despite being my favorites for the year. Perhaps I’m becoming more judicious in handing out five stars (hopefully—I used to hand them out with the gusto of Fred and George selling their magical candies). Or perhaps it was just a bit of a drier year, although looking at this list I’m having trouble believing that. I read even more books than I did last year, which I’m pleased with— although please note, I firmly believe quality far outweighs quantity.
As always, this list does not include rereads and the books are arranged in no particular order. They are split up into six fiction (including fantasy) and six nonfiction. The reviews are pretty short because each one is linked to my more in-depth goodreads review.
After I assembled the list, I realized that each section included three female and three male authors, totally unintentionally. I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, mostly because of some connotations that label currently carries, but I consider it a great gift that I live in an age when there are more female authors (especially theologians!) available and when I as a woman feel free to write about any number of topics.
Okay, let’s get into it! Please let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these and what your thoughts on them are—and what your favorite reads of the year were. And if you happen to share one of your favorite quotes, well, it’ll make my week.
Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson
the pacing? not the best. but the character arcs and world-building? they’re typical Sanderson and that’s praise enough. Oathbringer is still my favorite of the series but this one left me super hyped (and super terrified) for book 5, and it included some scenes that I still think about, over a year later.
“This is life, and I will not lie by saying every day will be sunshine. But there will be sunshine again, and that is a very different thing to say. That is truth.”
“Honor is not dead so long as he lives in the hearts of men!”
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
the setting is the highlight of this book, but the characters were lovely too, which I often don’t say about YA books. it’s one of those stories where its most distinctive quality was the ineffable, aching, wondrous feeling it produced in me.
Because Sean Kendrick, looking like that, is the races, even if no race was ever run. A reminder of what the horses mean to the island—a bridge between what we are and that thing about Thisby that we all want but can’t seem to touch.
Salt coats my lips, crusts my eyelashes. I feel the cold press against my body. The sand shifts and sucks out from under my feet in the tide. I’m perfectly still. The sun is red behind my eyelids. The ocean will not shift me and the cold will not take me.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
speaking of setting and the feeling it produces in the reader!! if I had to pick a 2021 fiction favorite, this would be the easy choice (and favorites usually aren’t easy for me). everything in this book is perfection: the writing, characters, setting, plot, and, most of all for me, the themes. I will be coming back to this one forever.
Several times Waves passed over our heads, but they fell back the next instant. We were drenched, we were blinded, we were deafened; but always we were saved.
The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson does it again. this didn’t capture my heart the way Gilead did but I also can’t stop thinking about it. her prose and insight into human nature are unalterably phenomenal. may Jack and Della receive in the end many blessings.
If they asked him why he had done them, he could not say, “I am at the center of a certain turbulence.”
“I think most people feel a difference between their souls and the lives they have in the world. But they ignore their souls, or hide them, so they can keep things together, keep an ordinary life together. You don’t do that. In your own way, you’re kind of—pure.”
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
oof. another piercing exploration of human nature. I almost didn’t get through the book at times but it’s so worth it. I could feel the California sun and the tumult in the characters’ hearts. it has that combination of raw honesty about evil and almost foolish, transcendent hope that makes a classic.
“It was your two-word translation, Lee—’Thou mayest.’ It took me by the throat and shook me. And when the dizziness was over, a path was open, new and bright. And my life which is ending seems to be going on to an ending wonderful. And my music has a new last melody like a bird song in the night.”
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
ah, this one. a futuristic book of Job. I can’t recommend it to everyone because it’s so intense but if you can make it through, you will come out changed. McCarthy’s prose takes a few pages to get used to and then you are completely immersed.
No list of things to be done. The day is providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Honorable mentions: I finally dove into Neil Gaiman this year and what an ocean of wit and wonder his books are! I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere and thoroughly enjoyed them. I look forward to exploring more. (His MasterClass is great too).
To Change the World by James Davison Hunter
the best book I’ve read yet on Christianity and culture. his conclusion is not what I expected but Hunter has such a masterful way of bringing you alongside his thinking that when you get to the end, even if you don’t agree, you have to wrestle with it. (and now that I have, I do agree.)
…by misreading the nature of the times and by focusing so much energy and resources on politics, those who have claimed the mantle of leadership have fixed attention on secondary and tertiary problems and false solutions.
In this world, the church can never be in repose.…The only way to reach that integrity is to recognize the tension and to reside within it knowing that failure is inevitable, forgiveness is ever available, and the work of the Holy Spirit to transform and sanctify our efforts is always inscrutably at work.
Deep Work by Cal Newport
wowzers, this one is a wake-up call. really important for anyone who is involved in creative or academic pursuits—but also for anybody who wants to live well and savor the important things. you can take productivity too far, of course, but if you have a solid why, his ideas could change your life. I’m planning to implement some this spring.
Throughout most of human history, to be a blacksmith or a wheelwright wasn’t glamorous. But this doesn’t matter, as the specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcome of their work. Put another way, a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be.
To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.…For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
another wake-up call, just in memoir form. painful and poignant, and while I grieve that the world has lost such a doctor, such a soul, I am moved to tears by what beauty and inspiration he wrought with his life—and death.
Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.
After so many years of living with death, I’ve come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best. We talked it over. Our families gave their blessing. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living, instead of dying.
To Love as God Loves by Roberta Bondi
this book, with its terrible cover and foreign content (desert fathers? ancient monastics? not people most Protestants talk about), is shaping up to be one of the most transformative books for my faith. if you’ve ever wondered in despair, exhaustion, or apathy what this Christian life is supposed to be about, give this book a try.
Perhaps it is true that only the great lovers of God and other people can look steadily on real human sin and not despair.
The goal of the Christian life is love; it is not to acquire a set of personal qualities, such as truthfulness. Humility makes it possible to distinguish between legalism and love. It makes us flexible. It puts heart into truthfulness. It makes our forgiveness of ourselves and others possible.
The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge
Rutledge is my new hero. she writes with a pastor’s heart and a language colored by the urban landscape she served in. she helped me see the cross as the multifaceted diamond it is, making a concept stale with overfamiliarity come alive for me. scholarship at its best—awakening both mind and heart.
The last thing anyone would have ever have imagined, even with Isaiah 53 right in front of them, was a crucified Son of God.
One reason for the reaction against the sacrificial motif is surely the literal-mindedness of a culture unaccustomed to reading poetry. It is one of the peculiarities of our time that we support a vast entertainment industry specializing in ever more explicitly gory movies and video games while at the same time covering ourselves with a “politically correct” cloak of fastidious high-mindedness.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
I love nature writing. this is not only good nature writing but some of the best writing of any genre I’ve ever read, period. science + anthropology, grief + healing, wildness + humanity… Macdonald is a master wordsmith, academic, and storyteller.
In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.
Honorable mentions: The Space Between by Erik Jacobsen (a much-needed & fascinating Christian perspective on the built environment); This Beautiful Truth by Sarah Clarkson (a lovely memoir about suffering: “Beauty is God’s theodicy”).
Leave a Reply