Once again I sat down to select my top 10 books of the year, of the 78 I logged on Goodreads. Even after 10 years of practicing this discipline of reflection, I am still rather unclear on the criteria I should be using determine a top ten list.
What is a favorite book anyway? A book beautifully written? A book that made you think critically? A book that affirmed your way of thinking? A book that met you in a special way?
As a full-blown enneagram nerd, I appreciated how Dr. Drew Moser shares both comfort and growth Christmas gift ideas for each enneagram number on this podcast episode. These kinds of top read lists are also full of both comfort and growth books. The ones that resonated deeply with my personality and passions, and those that challenged and stretched me in good and necessary ways. There are plenty of books that I could strongly recommend for someone looking for a guide, a tool, or an answer. And they might not end up on this 2020 list and yet were crucially part of both comfort and growth in this strange year of a global pandemic, racial injustice, elections, and absolute disruption to any sense of normal.
So, in no particular order:
Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for Christian Year, Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite was a trusted guide through the liturgical seasons this year. His sonnets never ceased to blow me away as they enlightened lectionary readings throughout the church calendar in a meditative, worshipful, and beautiful way. This year we celebrated the sixth anniversary of our confirmation into the Anglican communion. While we loosely followed the church calendar and lectionary prior to that, we have been excessively grateful for the sturdy pillars that support us through the whole narrative of Scripture each year. Whether you are a cradle Episcopalian or a total newbie, I trust this book will be a friend to you.
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise of Hope, Esau McCaulley
Rev. Canon Esau McCaulley is a fellow Anglican, a New Testament scholar, and a professor at Wheaton College. His incredible book is an invitation into the history, testimony, and biblical lens of the Black church. It is a gracious and mighty argument for how our Black brothers and sisters bring an essential lens to a full reading of Scripture – a history of hard-won hope and a testimony to the vibrant truth of Scripture that is so powerful it can even be disentangled by slaves from the manipulation of slaveholders for the kind of joy and flourishing that goes beyond our often limited, culturally conditioned reading. Tim and I had the joy of leading a Zoom reading group from our church through these chapters and continue to follow Fr. Esau’s essential leadership through his podcast and ongoing publications.
Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, W. David O. Taylor
This book about the Psalms should be required reading for every Christian. While it would be sturdy for any year, Tim and I were especially grateful for this guide through the rollercoaster of the year of our Lord 2020. We have been given this incredible gift of the Psalms, a handbook for navigating ourselves, our relationships, and our lives in the tension between the already and the not yet. Taylor quotes N.T. Wright, “The Psalms express all the emotions we are ever likely to feel, and they lay them, raw and open, in the presence of God.” Each chapter ends with questions for reflection and exercises that were meaty and truly helpful in allowing honest, sad, angry, joyful, justice psalms and beyond to dig themselves into your bones.
All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way, Patrice Gopo
This is one of the most poetic, unique, and beautifully written memoirs I’ve ever read. Patrice Gopo grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, the child of Jamaican immigrants. She spent the early days of marriage in South Africa before moving to South Carolina. For every TCK (third culture kid), child of an immigrant, expat, or human who has wrestled with identity, belonging, brokenness, or race in America – you will find an invitation into Patrice’s interesting and faith-filled story. I dare you to read this and not come away with deeper empathy for anyone in your community who is not the main “target audience.”
Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Carmen Joy Imes
An Old Testament scholar and professor, Carmen Joy Imes has an incredible gift for making high-level academic theology accessible and engaging. She argues that the command about “taking the Lord’s name in vain” is better understood as “bearing God’s name.” What a theme to consider throughout Scripture. Her chapter on the liminal space the Israelites found themselves between post-slavery in Egypt and pre-promised land could not have been more appropriate and applicable to this strange year of 2020. “God has things to teach that can only be learned in a state of dislocation.” I read this book so fast because it met me so hard, but I do hope to return to it with a group of people sometime soon.
Given: The Forgotten Meaning and Practice of Blessing, Tina Boesch
This is a book I really wanted to exist. Then I discovered it did. And to my great delight, its existence exceeded all my expectations. Our culture loves to use “blessed” as a house decoration or as a hashtag slapped onto a post about a new minivan. Tina explores the human ache to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to others by allowing the Bible to define and inform how we view this deep desire. Tina was propelled into learning the biblical language of blessing during her time living in Turkey. Likewise, I was impacted by the many faithful believers I met in the slums of Guatemala City who were experiencing mind bending suffering and would raise their hands in praise for the God who was blessing them. My prayer journal and I were stretched and expanded by this treasure of a book.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo: A Novel, Christy Lefteri
This is an incredible piece of fiction based on the very real stories of Syrians who chose the uncertainty of the refugee journey over certain death at home. After losing their only son, beloved beehives, livelihood, and all sense of safety in their home, this couple leaves everything they know in Aleppo for the long journey to the UK where they can be reunited with their extended family. This compassionate storytelling invites deep empathy, with all who have experienced loss, grief, and trauma beyond imagination. There are really hard parts to read. It is even harder to know this is the reality for so many precious image-bearing friends. My prayers were energized for those running for their lives.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick
This was the year I obsessed about all things Korea. I pounded a large quantity of Korean television on Netflix (with subtitles), made bulgogi and Kimchi fried rice, drank Soju, re-read my great-aunt’s account of the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy from Seoul to Fukoka, Japan, when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, discovered from one of my favorite leaders to fangirl over that the Korean War has no official ending, and watched a documentary about the Korean War. One of the shows I watched is “Crash Landing On You,” about a South Korean woman who ends up stranded in North Korea. Seeing her encounter a culture so foreign to her own, I had to pick this book up and learn more about what is known about life in this closed half of Korea. This book follows the lives of six North Koreans who were once wholeheartedly devoted to Kim Il and eventually escaped to South Korea because of hunger, desperation, and disillusionment.
From Barefoot to Bishop: A Rwandan Refugee’s Journey, Laurent Mbanba
Tim and I first met Bp. Mbanba at a small dinner with parishioners and the priest from the Anglican church we had recently joined. After connecting over our shared way of being Christian, we gave him a ride to the house of a former colleague of mine at Food for the Hungry, where he was staying while joining meetings there. Sharing a love of Anglicanism and international development in Africa seemed like two wonderful worlds to share. But then I picked up this lovely memoir of surviving genocide, hunger, poverty, and the twists and turns of a life lived for Christ. I was delighted to discover we had one more connection. Bp. Mbanba shares about a friend and pastor in Mesa, Arizona who contributed to his seminary education and celebrated his new marriage. Pastor Strigas also pastored my parents during their early years of faith and marriage! I grew up hearing many stories of their Redeemer church days.
This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers, K.J. Ramsey
This is equal parts memoir, therapy session, and theological treatise. I wrote a full blog post about the significance and impact this book has on me personally back in May. But, I would say the challenges, loss, and disorientation of the year 2020 made a book like this all the more helpful. In this much-needed book, Ramsey invites us into a better way to make sense of chronic suffering: “In Christ the suffering we want to escape becomes the place of more fully participating in the reality of the kingdom of God. Our union with Christ does not rescue us from our earthy existence. Rather it plants our feet on the arid soil of suffering and makes it fertile ground.”
Last year, a friend pointed out how few pieces of fiction land on my top 10 lists. I do love fiction and believe it is essential to the reading life. 10 novels I thoroughly enjoyed this year are Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
What were your favorites? I’d love to hear your recommendations!