There is something magical about opening a new book. The promise. The anticipation. New worlds I have never yet seen. The story of a life very like, or unlike, my own. Ideas, thoughts, words that will rankle, discomfit, expand, illumine. This year I opened the pages of 36 books. Some new. Some old and much beloved. As I looked back over them in preparation for this post, I was filled with gratitude for every writer who sat down and penned the beautiful words that have nourished and delighted me this year.
Here are a few of the more memorable encounters…
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Christian Wiman
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this…
And so begins the most important book I read this year. Christian Wiman grew up in a west Texas town where faith was a presumption. Unquestioned. When, as a college student, he discovered that there were people who did not believe in God, he shrugged off his inherited “faith” like a jacket that has grown too warm for the afternoon. For two decades he lived comfortably with the absence of God until two cataclysmic events shook his life. He fell in love…
…when I met Danielle, not only was that gray veil between me and the world ripped aside, colors aching back into things, but all the particulars of the world suddenly seemed in excess of themselves, and thus more truly themselves. We, too, were part of this enlargement: it was as if our love demanded some expression beyond the blissful intensity our two lives made.
…and he learned he had a rare and incurable form of cancer.
The book chronicles the several years between then and now. Years that have included unimaginable pain, bones dying, locked joints, bowel failure, and isolation. And in the midst of this, a wrestling with God, with faith, with poetry and art. A raw, authentic quest to penetrate to deep things. To drink hungrily of the beautiful. To weave together moments of exquisite clarity with moments of excruciating loneliness and pain into a tapestry of life that is rich and expansive and true.
His writing style is evocative and lovely and threaded throughout are delicious lines of borrowed poetry and prose that nourished and challenged him along the way. I am grateful to Makoto Fujimura for whetting my appetite for this one. I give it my highest recommendation.
What a relief it can be…to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, Billy Collins
I had the distinct privilege of hearing Billy Collins at the Porter’s Call Evening of Stories last year. I was already a fan, but to hear him articulate the poems–his cadence, the pregnant pauses–was remarkable. Mike gifted me with this new collection of old and new poems for Christmas. On AUDIO. In the poet’s own voice! I have listened to it over and over. It is a spectacular collection of Collins’ work anyway–funny, poignant, clever–but completely irresistible when he reads them to me. If you are unsure of poetry, start here.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg
This book has been on my list of candidates for a while, but this year my friend Nina put it in my hand. Thank you, Nina!! Clean, concise, and chock full of brilliance. If you are a writer or you want to be, you need this book. One of the best I have read on the craft.
I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brene Brown
It is difficult for me to imagine any human alive who will not find herself in this book. Brene Brown has done years of research on shame and she uses her discoveries to help us build “shame resilience.” She understands that as long as we are alive, we will encounter experiences that shame us. It is what we do with that shame that determines whether we become captive to it or move past it. I read this one with bosom friends, and we laughed and cried our way through it with lots of “oh no!”s and “me too”s. You can get a taste with her Ted talk which has over 12 million views to date. Yep, it’s that good.
Tuesday’s With Morrie, Mitch Album
It took me a while to get around to reading the bestselling memoir of all time. I think I was suspicious of the fact that so many people liked it. :/ But when my friend Julie recommended it, I decided to check it out. Thank you, Julie!! Mitch Album spends several months of Tuesdays with his old college professor, Morrie, who is dying. Morrie has always been wise man. A man of examination and thought. But death sharpens that vision and helps him see with even keener perception. This is, in some ways, a book about dying. But it is much more a book about really living.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I read several books this year by Marilynne Robinson after Christian Wiman tempted me with excerpts in his book. They were all very good, but this was my favorite. Apparently the Pulitzer committee and I are in agreement. John Ames is 76 and knows he will not live to see his 7 year old son reach adulthood–a beloved, unexpected son of a sweet, unexpected second marriage–so he writes a book for his son telling of the life he has lived, the people that have mattered to him, and what all means in so far as he understands it. This narrative is woven in and out of these precious last days he is living with his beloveds. It is a tender, beautiful story told in clean, spare prose.
Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry
“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
The characters of Port William have become dear to me. Jayber might be my favorite. The life questions which were not answered in seminary work themselves out in front of him in the confessional of his barber chair, and in the community of characters to which he belongs, and does not belong, as a lifelong bachelor. An unlikely instructor in philosophy, perhaps, but instructor he is. Alternately ponderous, humorous, and sweet.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
This was my year to read ghost stories. Not necessarily by design. I already knew this story from Hitchcock, of course, but when my friend Chelsea told me it was one of her favorite BOOKS, I checked it out. Naturally, the book takes you further into the subconscious of the characters, subtly weaving a web that begins to press against the chest. Artful storytelling, well developed characters, and a host of plot twists make this a terrifically engaging read.
Silence, Shusaku Endo
This book was one of the reasons I chose to use the word “memorable” rather than “favorite” in the title of this post. This was a difficult read. Though there are shifts in perspective, much of the story is told in the voice of Rodrigues, a Portugese priest filled with love for the Japanese people who travels to Japan to encourage persecuted believers and find news of a lost priest. He is almost immediately captured. As he observes the cruel torture and relentless persecution of the remnant church, he wrestles with a God who is “silent”. Can his fragile faith withstand the anguish, the futility, the silence?
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
Lily Owens wants desperately to be loved. He father is cruel and her only memory of her mother is of the afternoon she died. She sat in a closet while her mother and father fought. There was a gun. Lily picked up the gun. There was a loud noise. Her mother was dead.
Lily runs away from home seeking answers and follows her mother’s picture of a Black Madonna to Tiburon, South Carolina. Here she will live with the “Calendar sisters” and learn the art of bee-keeping. But she will learn much more than that. A complex, poignant coming of age story.
p.s. Jenna Lamia who reads the audio book is fantastic! I highly recommend listening if that is an option.
p.s.s. The movie is good, but you miss so much of the story. Read, then watch.
Davita’s Harp, Chaim Potok
Chaim Potok writes brilliantly of the liminal spaces in life. Of paradox. In this book, Davita’s parents have rejected the faith of their childhoods, Jewish and Christian, and are staking everything on socialism. There are frequent, hushed night time meetings at their home, which force them to move repeatedly, and always an undercurrent of impending danger. Davita has to string truth together for herself from many disparate influences; her Christian aunt who sweeps in like an angel in times of trouble, her devout Jewish cousin whose home radiates peace and warmth, and her radical parents who are risking everything to make the world better for her.
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
Another ghost story. Or is it? A haunting tale set down by a governess some years after it happens. Perplexing, nuanced, mysterious, spine-tingling, it leaves one with more questions than answers. Positively delicious.
Your turn. Best books you read this year? Go!
p.s. Thanks to Kari for recommending “I Thought it was….”, to Ian and Anne for “Jayber…”, to Giorgio for “Silence”, to Karissa and Jen for “Secret Life…”, and to David for “Davita…”. I am profoundly grateful for my bookish friends.