Many who graduate with any type of degree in literature let out a knowing sigh when others share about their need to "take a break" from reading after college. I'm no exception to this rule. After graduation, I wanted to read for pleasure, but also really did not want to read for pleasure. The voices--I knew those voices would come back, whispering in my ear: "Deconstruct!" "What growth are you seeing in this character?" "What's the underlying subtext?" "Tell me your visceral reaction to this line." (I had one professor who loved the phrase "visceral reaction.")
I've had some pretty dry years of reading since then, though the stream of longing for good and nourishing words has slowly and steadily begun to grow again.
Last December, I made a goal to read my age in 2018: 34 books. I didn't make a list; I just wanted the books to come to me as they came to me. I definitely read some duds, but I also read some books and met some characters that will stay with me forever. Some I will re-read. I broke them up into categories for my own sake, but also for yours if this is your kind of thing!
Top Five Club
Books that have been seared onto my heart and that I am likely to re-read
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry -- I know. I know, I know... how had I gone 34 years as a literary Kentuckian and had not yet read Wendell Berry? Everyone was right: I love him. I love Port William. I love the membership. In mine and Andrew's second act, we will be selling everything to live on a farm and write poetry. Berry gives life and voices to what it means to live in community, to be good neighbors, and to steward well the land we've been given. It is clarifying and simple and beautiful.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry-- See above. Listen to all the voices and read Wendell Berry and stop putting it off like this fool did!
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner -- I'm suddenly realizing that all but one of my tip-top club books were recommended to me by my husband, which is both humbling and also really endearing that he knows me that well. I want so badly to be the literary tsar in our household, but I think I've been usurped! This book is beautifully haunting. In the same vein as Berry, Stegner writes about the ordinary lives of two married couples-- the wonders and mysteries of marriage and the fabric of just the everyday stuff of life. People are fascinating and this novel shines a knowing light on friendship and love and memories and loyalty. Just trust me.
You are What you Love by James K.A. Smith -- This book gave me a total perspective shift, asking me to consider the everyday habits (or liturgies) of my life and how they are shaping my heart and my desires. Also how my desires are shaping me. How can we, as Christians, engage in liturgies that will re-orient our love towards God? This book spends a great deal of time wrestling with that question... Also the audio version is really, really good.
The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald -- One of those times when a children's book is not just a children's book. There are so many beautiful lines in this story and imagery that have been seared onto my heart forever. C.S. Lewis considered George Macdonald as one of his greatest influences, and after my first time reading Macdonald, it's easy to understand Lewis's respect for him.
Books that I also really loved, and heartily recommend
The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne -- This was a re-read (read aloud to my kids), but how can you not love Pooh? Last year the humor went over Wilson's head, but this year (as an 8 year old) the jokes fell on understanding ears and it was really fun to laugh with him.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith -- This seems to be a classic, but I had never heard of it before this year! A really beautiful coming-of-age story with endearing characters. This was an easy read, a page-turner, but also had really deep waters.
The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield -- What a sharpening book. Rosaria lets you step into her life to see what it looks like for her family to love their neighbors. Though I had to keep reminding myself throughout the book that I am not called to imitate her life, there were some really good moments of realizing in what ways I hold back from sharing what we have with our neighbors.
Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L'Engle-- All of the "Crosswalk Journal" series have been really nourishing for my soul. In this particular journal, L'Engle spends time reflecting on her own marriage, and marriage in general, and walks through the painful journey of losing her husband to cancer.
The Irrational Season by Madeleine L'Engle-- In this journal, L'Engle walks through the church calendar and spends time musing on how the different seasons of the church mirror seasons of our hearts and lives. She is my soul sister and I love her.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff-- If you love bookish books, If you love anything British, if you love books written in correspondence form, if you loved Guernsey, if you love a book that makes you laugh, if you love finishing a book in ONE DAY-- this is your friend.
Really Good Books
Worthwhile reads (Because everything can't be a favorite)
Echoes of Eden by Jerram Barrs-- This was the first book I read in 2018, and it was the perfect launchpad into my year of reading. Barrs discusses how God designed us to be creators and how art and literature are a reflection of His image.
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder-- A re-read and a read-aloud with my boys. There's really not much cozier, is there? Wilson loved it. Charlie fell in asleep in every chapter. (I read it to them at bed time!)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas-- This was a really powerful read. A YA novel told from the perspective of a black teenager who watches her friend unjustly shot and killed after being pulled over by a cop. It's impossible to fully step into or understand the fear our black neighbors and friends live with, but this was a good start in putting on love and empathy.
The Road Back to You by Ian Cron-- I've gone on a fun journey this year looking at the enneagram as a personality framework (I'm a 9 with a 1 wing), and this book was really helpful to think through all the different facets of how others can move in and interpret the world around them. If nothing else, it helps to give some language to bring to the table when working through conflict and understanding others' points of view.
Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler-- This was a really moving reflection from a young woman still in the throes of a battle with cancer. She pushes back against all the niceties we offer to those in grief and asks us to consider that brokenness is really brokenness. It was a call to stop and grieve.
These High Green Hills by Jan Karon-- After some really heavy and somber reads, I picked up the third book in the Mitford series, and there's just nothing like it. Light, easy reading that is NOT fluffy and NOT shallow and feels like it has a proverb on every page, but is also so beautifully written. Excuse me while I pack my bags for Mitford...
Imagining the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith-- This is the more scholarly companion of You are What You Love, and I have to admit that I maybe understood 30% of it. It was really helpful to read them both at the same time so that one served to interpret the other. I am really glad I read this one in addition to YAWYL because it sharpened the picture for me, but if you needed to choose between the two and would rather read in layperson terms- I would say go with You are What You Love.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd-- I had completely forgotten about this author (I loved Secret Life of Bees and Mermaid Chair in high school), but a friend and I read this book together and I remembered why I loved this author so much: really rich and deep writing, powerful story telling, believable characters, and great wit, too. The subject matter (slavery and how it broke apart families) was heavy and hard, but the redemption was beautiful.
Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor-- This was a collection of essays on prose by O'Connor. She is so frank and witty and clear in her writing... I loved hearing her thoughts and musings on what makes a good story.
Good Books I'm Glad I Read
Not bad, but maybe not terribly memorable either
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon-- I think a lot of people may really like this book. The storyline was intriguing (and nearly inexplainable) and the language was beautiful, but it was a little too creepy for me... and at times too graphic. But I can totally see why others consider it a favorite.
The Story of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting-- This was a read-aloud with Wilson and it was really fun. I read this as a child and it was one of my favorites, so it was nostalgic to re-visit with him. Just a warning-- the older version is pretty insensitive to race and really derogative in its language about the African natives that Doolittle and friends meet. I think some editors may have patched things up (or over) in later versions.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle-- I'm sure I would have enjoyed this more if I read it as a 12 year old first! It was a sweet story and of course I can see the gospel links, but I think the hype was too big for me. I prefer her non-fiction.
Reading People by Anne Bogel-- Another fun visit into personality frameworks, which is so interesting to me! I love listening to Bogel's What Should I Read Next podcast, so I enjoyed reading something she had written.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris-- This read as a collection of memoirs, and some of them had me quite literally laughing out loud (I even read a couple of passages to Andrew, which is rare for me.) Sedaris is a funny, funny dude. This may be something I revisit if I need a light read and a good laugh.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner-- This is a doozy at 569 pages. I loved Crossing to Safety so much that I picked this up immediately after. This was probably a bad idea, because they were so different and I ended up disappointed--in both the character choices and the plot turns. It was definitely an interesting read and a good study of marriage and place/home. I'm glad I read it, but it won't be a re-read for me.
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder-- This was another read-aloud with the boys, but Wilson decided half-way through that he didn't want to finish. (So I finished on my own, because I can be a perfectionist in that way!) It was a little bland compared to Little House (We missed Pa's stories!), but still a good read.
The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala-- If you happen to be both an INFJ and a writer (or creative of any kind), this was a really interesting read. Definitely, definitely some things to filter out and throw aside but it was good to think through why I may have more trouble with writing blocks than other people and what advantages I may have in writing with the way my brain processes information.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie-- NOT THE DISNEY VERSION. Oh my word-- some surprises here in Tink's language and recreation! The writing was super witty and also a little dark. Just some really interesting thoughts and musings about growing up and motherhood played out in a fairy land. Thankfully, I did not read aloud to my kids-- but I do think it's possible with some edits beforehand.
Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser-- This was a biography on Laura Ingalls Wilder and the second half became more of study on her relationship with her daughter, Rose. At 640 pages, this got a little too long for me and I began to get bored (and skimmed and jumped ahead). But the first half about how her life really looked (as opposed to how she recorded in the books, which turns out to be a little bit of altered reality) was very interesting. This was especially true having just finished Little House in the Big Woods.
Not Good for me
Maybe good for you? (This list is short because I made myself put down a lot of books that I started and I didn't like... This is a new and freeing grace I've allowed myself! Too many good books and too little time.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel-- This is heart-wrenching because Anne Bogel PERSONALLY recommended this to me, and I am such a big fan of her's. I told her I liked Stegner and Marilynne Robinson and she told me to read Wendell Berry. I said, "Give me something else because my husband already told me that!" So she told me to read this book. I felt that the characters were super dry, none of them were memorable or even likable to me. The setting is post-apocalyptic, and maybe I could have gotten into that if the characters were good but everything fell short for me in this one. Sorry, Anne!!
Holy is the Day by Carolyn Weber-- I think maybe there were some good moments in this one, but on the whole it felt too stream-of-consciousness for me... which can sometimes be okay, but this was way too jumpy.
I was Anastasia by Ariel Lahon-- I learned a lot of information in this book about the Romanov family. However, the subject matter was too grueling and heavy for me and it put images in my head that I wished were not there afterwards.
The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan-- This was an uplifting and easy read, but I felt that there was a lot of plot solely for plot's sake and the dialogue felt forced to me.