top 10 books of 2022

After much delay (time spent reading books and honestly, researching books for my kids), I’ve arrived at my top 10 books read last year. You know, that year that was almost six months ago by now? That one.

Over last Christmas, my Dad grabbed a book out of one of his many book piles and handed it to me. “Have you read this? I need to read it this year.” I stared at it, then paged through it, then three minutes later remembered, YES. I read it and actually really liked it—like, five stars liked it. But somehow couldn’t remember it at all. Yeesh. (It was Deeper by Dane Ortlund, and it’s worth reading and remembering.)

So I guess the bar these 10 books had to clear was: Do I remember you? These ones I did.

10. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt
I read this and What Came From the Stars by Schmidt this year. Both moving, imaginative stories that feel so deeply real and true I didn’t even blink that the second one is kind of an alien invasion story. (It’s so good!) Lizzie Bright squeaks out the win here because of the humor, they way Schmidt writes about the ocean and the wind, and all the complex thoughts around faith, The Origin of the Species, and survival of the fittest. To say more would spoil it.

9. The Wolf Age by Tore Skeie and Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold by James Rumford
This is the year I got super into Vikings. I’m teaching literature to a group of homeschooled teens this year and I assigned Beowulf for January. I’ve never read it, so I pre-gamed with this picture book and followed it with a history chaser. The Anglo-Saxon/Viking world has always felt like fantasy to me, but The Wolf Age placed it squarely in the real world. Did you know Norwegian Vikings were the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperor? The Norsemen TRAVELED. And did a lot of other interesting but mostly brutal things. With the distance of time, it’s a fun read. And all of it was essential context as I dove into Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (Which is ALSO excellent and may feature on my 2023 list. This early reveal makes up for this whole list being late, right?)

8. Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ by Thomas F. Torrance
Not a fast read (it took me four months of determined, consistent sessions) but an essential one. The entire book points again and again to this sweet, salvific truth: “He will not let the sinner go.” (255) How He loves us! One note if you want to dive in: This was compiled and edited by Torrance’s nephew after Torrance had a stroke, so parts of it read as polished writing, parts read as…something compiled and edited by another person. Persevere! It’s rich and, as a whole, draws a beautiful landscape of this precious doctrine.

7. Little Women/Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott
Ok, ok. I know it’s sort of the thing now to caveat any love of this story with “I know it’s a sentimental novel. I know it’s moralizing. I know it’s not actually good…” But listen. If generation after generation of women read this book and see a true depiction of girlhood, and an inspiring call to a good living out of that girlhood, I’m not ashamed to say this is a good book. Reading it as an adult was eye-opening. First of all, I spent my childhood wanting to be Jo, but knowing I was probably a Meg. This time, my reading confirmed in ways that were actually profound for me: I am a Meg. Some of the similarities (like her foibles and missteps) were painful to read because reader, it me. And I LIKED Amy! But mostly I just adored this story of sisterhood and virtue and growing up and figuring it all out.

6. Persuasion by Jane Austen
Another book I re-read last year to compare my take as a young adult to mine now. This books gets better and better as I get older. It’s deeply sad, but deeply romantic. It’s also funny. It also contains the best love letter ever written. It has vaulted Captain Wentworth to the second spot on my list of Favorite Austen Heroes. (Nobody can dethrone Mr. Knightley, my long-time ideal.) I read and discussed this with a friend, and that experience was a highlight of my year.

5. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
A new-to-me author! I don’t remember how I found this title, but I’m glad I did. It’s family drama so nuanced and real, I ached. The plot follows Canadian siblings recovering from tragedy. You get the Before, the Just After, and the Much Later. It just grabbed me. The nature writing was lovely, too. This is the next book I’m going to universally recommend to everyone who asks for a good read. (I read two other titles by her and thought they were just fine, however.)

4. The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction by Justin Whitmel Earley
Spiritual disciplines, liturgy, minimalism, following the church calendar, and habits…I’ve been mulling these ideas and reading about them for a few years and wondering how to incorporate them into my life in a way that wasn’t legalistic or pointless. This book helped with that last part. It’s straightforward: Four daily habits, four weekly habits, designed to both embrace what we should embrace and resist what we should resist, all for the sake of love of God and love of neighbor. This quote is one of many that recalibrated my thinking: “But remember that resistance has a purpose: love. The habits of resistance [fasting, scripture before phone, phone off one hour a day, curate media to four hours a week] aren’t supposed to shield you from the world, but to turn you toward it. They aren’t so you can feel good about you’ve done for you. They exist so you can feel peace about what God has done for you.” I recommend this one to anyone who is diving into all the spiritual practice/recapturing wonder/eliminating hurry waters. (And I’m predicting it now: His newer book, Habits of the Household, will be on my 2023 list.)

3. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
The books you talk about are the books you wind up loving. This was my first assigned book for the high school lit class I teach. I read it twice in one month to prepare and loved it even more the second (actually third—I read it as a girl) time around. There is so much to praise: the structure, character development, similes; but the emotion of it is what vaults it to the top for me. In last year’s readings, I was anxious about the ending for the exact opposite reason as I was when I was a kid. I love a book that grows with you–and this one does.

2. Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
I’ve recommended this to virtually every reader I know by saying, “It’s Dickens but for tweens.” I stand by that. This fairy-tale-ish story follows a young Victorian chimney sweep. She meets a golem (it’s a magical protective creature) and boy, does she need him. They need each other, really. This one made me smile, cry, and take big gulps of air as the redemptive plot played itself out.

1. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
My Persuasion friend handed me the first in this young adult fantasy series, The Thief, and I was immediately hooked on the Greek-ish mythology meets adventure meets political intrigue meets extremely complicated but never cheesy or gross romance. And Turner is the master of the unexpected twist. Even as I got farther into the series (I’ve read the first four and they’re all extremely solid) and knew something was coming, the twists surprised me.

Honorable Mentions also worth reading:
The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (Officially my favorite.)
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Yes, again! Just read it already!)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Top-notch read-aloud.)
The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards (FASCINATING.)
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman (A 250-page reality check.)
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke (Tech-positive theology of how to be a person.)
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (An anti-tribal take on race and America.)
On the Horizon by Lois Lowry (Moving and astounding.)

// Top 10 plus an arbitrary number of bonus books for 2021
// Top 10 books of 2020
// Top 10 Books of 2019
// Top Ten of 2018
// Top Five for the First Half of 2015
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2015
// Top Ten of 2014
// Best Books of the Summer, 2013
// Top Five for the First Half of 2012
// Top Five for the First Half of 2011
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2011

top 10 (plus an arbitrary number of bonus) books of 2021

This was a good reading year. I’m either getting better at picking out books I’ll like, or better at abandoning ones I don’t, or both. I read a lot (for me) of theology this year. Maybe too much? I still struggle every year with how to properly think about and truly learn from everything I read. The debate about whether I’m learning or just consuming always bats around in my mind.

The upside is that I couldn’t narrow my top 10 to 10, so here’s 10, plus four more that could easily have slid into that number 10 spot, plus even more at the end because I’m a cheater.

10. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge A delightful little fairy tale and purely sentimental pick. This story, about a girl who is orphaned and goes to live in a maybe-enchanted old home with a distant relative and there’s adventure and mystery and super innocent romance, basically tracks my 9-year-old daydreams perfectly. If I had read this then, it would have lit my imagination on fire. It was fun to read something like that now.

9. Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places by Eugene H. Peterson It took me a long time to read this book, but it’s a rich feast that I’ll dip into again and again. Almost a year after I finished it, I keep thinking about his simple observation that “the Jesus way” is so surprising to us still, and it requires us to be vigilant with our hearts and with our scripture reading, because our sin-twisted selves need that refreshing water of remembrance of what He’s really like again and again and again. Now that I’m awake to it, I’ve found it’s so true. This year has been one of hard and painful looks at my heart, which is indeed so quick to forget that I’m a new creation. (This year, I hope to jump into the next volume in this series, Eat This Book. I’m already awarding that best title of my 2022 reads.)

8. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt Another one that reminded me of the books I loved as a pre-teen and teen, and got me hooked on historical fiction. Somehow I missed this Civil War title back then, but it’s on so many booklists, I wanted to tackle it. It was exceptional and so interesting to read coming off of 2020 because there are so many parallels: Family members, all with good intentions, having tough conversations where they disagree about what’s right. Watching the news and trying to interpret what’s actually happening with the understanding that someday this will be more clear in hindsight. Moral dilemmas with no good options. Ugly-cry moments. I’ll read this one again.

7. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy A clear, well-organized introduction of biblical theology that was both enriching to read on its own and began enriching my other Bible study as I progressed through the chapters. One of those books that’s more like setting the charges than it is a mind-blowing experience in itself. Now that I’ve read it, every time I study the Bible or read theology or hear a sermon, there’s a boom of greater understanding.

6. The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch One of the few books (or articles) I’ve read about managing technology’s creep and takeover of our lives that starts with a positive vision: What family is for. It builds from there, gently coaching and teaching how to put tech in its proper place and create a family culture around wisdom and courage. The immediate application Crouch draws is with tech—which he defines widely—but it’s given me a framework for many parts of parenting and our home life. Highly recommend. This is my new baby shower gift.

5. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund A necessary comfort and course correction for me, a person who believes whole-heartedly in Christ’s love for me and others but who still chafes at all the hard things His love allows. This book is a balm, a deep breath, and a good field guide to some Puritans I should read.

4. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke This isn’t a book you can summarize to someone—and I think it would be best to go in cold, so I’ll just say I have a feeling that as I think about and reread this book (because both are unavoidable), it will become a five-star book for me. It’s one of the most unusual books I’ve read. And I’ve read Clarke’s 1,200 page parallel history about what would happen if “English magic” returned to the land during the Napoleonic wars! (See below.)

3. Found in Him: The Joy of the Incarnation and our Union with Him by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick Jesus Christ is so good. This book covers His incarnation and our unity with Him. I’ve been a believer for as long as I’ve had a consciousness and still I read these truths clearly articulated and my jaw drops. Do I have a few bits to pick with a sentence or idea here or there? Sure. But I’m grateful for this book and will recommend it to many as an easy-to-read, scripture-soaked, worship-inducing outline of who Jesus is and what He’s done for me, for you.

2. All the James Herriot’s As a lover of British literature, I’ve heard about these books before (there are three biggies in the series: All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful). But I always put them off because, you know, animals. I’m not big on them. I STAND CORRECTED. I love these so much. They are absolutely delightful. So English. So wholesome. And funny! I mean, I was interested in what was happening to cow rectums for almost 500 pages. And that was just the first volume! So he’s good at this. If you, like me, cannot fathom how wildly entertaining stories from a country vet in England in the 1930s can be, start with the PBS Masterpiece series that released last year. It’s charming. I adore it. But don’t skip the books.

1. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves This book’s number one spot will surprise no one who knows me in real life, since I think I’ve said, “I read this book on the trinity, and…” about twice a day since June. I thought I had a grasp on the doctrine of the Trinity (though I fell into the erroneous “it’s a mystery!” camp), but wow. Reeves makes a compelling, winsome, and laugh-out-loud funny case for why the trinity is THE defining doctrine of Christianity and why it should bring us joy. This is my favorite type of theology book: It expands my understanding of the faith, causes me to worship, and has me rushing back to my Bible with fresh eyes to see the riches there. Highly recommend.

+ The Bonus 4

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok Meaty. So much to think about and discuss here (art’s purpose and interaction with life, faith transmission, Judaism and Christianity, parent and child relationships, calling, limits…). But that doesn’t mean it’s stiff and boring. I grew to love this family.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer This book surprised me. The first half outlines the problem of hurry (and makes it clear JMC is way cooler than I’ll ever be. I get it). This started to drag, but things picked up in the spiritual disciplines section where he argued we should try to mimic Christ’s way of living (solitude, sabbath, etc.) as His followers. While I’m not sure JMC and I would agree on every theological point, his wisdom and practical examples are helping as I try to deepen my Christian practices.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke Honestly, this probably belongs on the numbered part of the list. I’ve never read any book like this. It’s Dickensian in its detail and range of characters. It’s so satisfying and so precise and full and original. It was delightful and intriguing and sort of astonishing. I laughed, I gasped, I blew through the floppity jillion pages.

What God Has to Say About our Bodies by Sam Allberry I’m not sure there is anyone speaking or writing right now who is as obviously compassionate and shepherd-like as Sam Allberry. He just seems soaked in the goodness of God, the truth of the Scriptures, and a willingness to bring us to that same place. This volume, which is exactly what the title says it is, is solid, dignifying, clear, full of hope, and pastoral.

+ the books and authors my kids (2 and 4) and I enjoyed this year

My 4-year-old boy:
// All of the St. George/Arthurian knights/dragon-slaying medieval or older stories that Margaret Hodges brings to life. (Start with St. George and the Dragon.)
// The BFG by Roald Dahl. I laughed out loud as I read and answered so so many questions about if there are really giants who will come eat us because we are human beans.
// The Paddington series. Just delightful
// Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler. A picture book about a family who finds a tar-shack home in the woods during the Depression (or soon thereafter). A beautiful story about how family makes a home and attitude is everything, plus a look at a time in history that isn’t talked about much in children’s books.

My 2-year-old girl:
// Sandra Boynton, always and forever, amen. (She particularly likes The Belly Button Book and What’s Wrong, Little Pookie?)
// Lola Dutch by Kenneth Wright and Sarah Jane Wright. Young girl takes on her everyday life with admirable gusto. Fun to read aloud and beautiful illustrations.
// The Biggest Story ABC by Kevin DeYoung. Lovely illustrations, big letter pages that are fun for pointing out favorites like S and L and M (for Mama, obviously), and a surprisingly thorough introduction to Biblical theology.

Me (the cheating cheater who has about 25 books on my top 10 list):
// The whole 1oo Cupboards series by N.D. Wilson. Just hang in there. The world gets built out more and makes perfect sense by the end. And huge props for letting parents be heroes alongside the youngs.
// Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr. Like a Norwegian Anne of Green Gables if she were athletic. So fun.
// The Emily books by L.M. Montgomery. The older millennial female Internet was right: I did enjoy this lesser-known series with a somewhat more serious bent. (However, I read a biography of L.M. Montgomery that ranks as the most depressing thing I read all year. That woman had an imagination, because there was almost zero love and beauty in her real life.)
// Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt. That feeling that you completely trust an author to deliver a true, good, and beautiful work—I have that trust now in Gary Schmidt. This moving, hard, redemptive book didn’t disappoint. Should be in my top 5 above but I’m cheating in order to fit more books in.
// Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri. I love a book like this that helps me understand things both familiar, like family and the absurd ways we try to belong, and things not at all familiar, like Persian myths and what it feels like to be a refugee in America. The passages on faith predictably made me tear up. I’d read this again (preferably with a book club!) and will start giving it to my nieces and nephews as they hit 15/16.

// Top 10 books of 2020
// Top 10 Books of 2019
// Top Ten of 2018
// Top Five for the First Half of 2015
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2015
// Top Ten of 2014
// Best Books of the Summer, 2013
// Top Five for the First Half of 2012
// Top Five for the First Half of 2011
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2011

top 10 books of 2020

Why is this post 11 months late? I plead old age and a diminishing desire to learn how new technology works. In other words: I didn’t know how to post here anymore. But take heart! I applied myself and figured it out in a not-unembarrassing amount of time and here we are.

10. Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope by Jasmine L. Holmes
How does someone my age have so much wisdom to share? This is an exceptional testament to maternal love, to unity, to astounding grace, to boldness that looks like Christ’s boldness. I needed to hear what Holmes has to say about being a black woman, a black mother, and a black Christian. In the book, she talks about how she admires Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and wants to sit across a table from her and just talk. I want to do that with Jasmine Holmes. 

9. The River by Peter Heller
I am an indoorsy type and I was spellbound by the descriptions of nature here…along with the plot. It’s like a survivalist thriller meets friendship story. It raises big questions of morality, too, which means everyone needs to read it so we can talk about it. 

8. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Whoa. That had a last act I did not see coming. Well worth reading and now I want to get my hands on the rest of the trilogy.

7. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs
Fantastic, easy to read, worth buying to read more slowly in the hope of absorbing the lessons. This book earned Jacobs a spot on my running list of authors whose works I want to read in their entirety. Indeed, four more authors on this list are also on that list.

6. Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey
Not a “woman’s book!” Just needed to clear that up. This is, in fact, a fascinating book of applied philosophy. What does the post-modern idea of dualism (mind is better than/dominant over body) do to the major moral questions of our time? SO MUCH. Clear, accessible, enormously foot-noted–and my copy is annotated to the hilt with thoughts, questions, and all the things I learned.

5. The Land by Mildred D. Taylor
Excellent. This story of a mixed-race man’s quest for something of his own in the time directly following the Civil War does more than a dozen textbooks on the Reconstruction era and a thousand online hot takes on racial history could do. I’m eager to read this series all the way through. My library copy had a sticker on it that said, “children’s.” I wouldn’t hand this to anyone younger than 16. But I’d like to hand it to everyone older than that.

4. The Wednesday Wars (and bonus pick: Okay for Now) by Gary D. Schmidt
Am I turning into a Gary Schmidt superfan? Yep. His characters have so much voice and personality, and his themes are grounded. Plus, they’re just good stories. Can’t wait to hand these to my nephews and nieces. (In case you’re wondering, he’s on the “read the complete works” list.)

3. Fidelity: Five Stories by Wendell Berry
I thought the first story, “Pray Without Ceasing,” was the best short story I’ve ever read. Then I read “Making It Home.” Then I read “Fidelity.” (Berry is on the list, duh.)

2. Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Required reading for understanding what culture really is and how to create it. For Christians, this is an encouraging and paradigm-shifting explanation of our God-given role in culture. [Updated to add: As of this posting, I’m STILL thinking about this book and have it in my stack to re-read already. Crouch is on the list.]

1. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Stunning. A perfect book. Paton is on the list but boy, I’ve read one other book by him and it was amazing, but hard. So it will probably take me all my life to get through Paton’s canon.

Honorary mentions:
Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
How to Teach your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Bonus favorite kids’ book discovery:
The Lighthouse Family series by Cynthia Rylant (Delightful! Charming! Replete with tasty-sounding food made of flowers!)

And an unasked-for update: This year [2020] I did watch the War & Peace miniseries despite Paul Dano’s creepface and it’s a gorgeous and dramatic portrayal of the major plot points. I love it for that. But you’d need about 400 episodes to get as deep into the world as Tolstoy does. After watching the series, I started reading War & Peace AGAIN because I’m that kind of nerd and it’s that good. I might be perpetually reading it all my life. Desert island book? Just read it.

My year-end reading recaps, previously:
// Top 10 Books of 2019
// Top Ten of 2018
// Top Five for the First Half of 2015
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2015
// Top Ten of 2014
// Best Books of the Summer, 2013
// Top Five for the First Half of 2012
// Top Five for the First Half of 2011
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2011

top 10 books of 2019



 Note: I wrote this in January (!) and got distracted. I know, I know. No one blogs better than I do.

This is the year sleep, a new baby, and the care and keeping of the baby I already have pushed out any time to post. Still, I love a yearly record of my favorite reads, so I’m setting this list in the stone of the Internet one more time.

TEN // Something Old, Something New by Tamar Adler
This book contains a recipe for “Four-Day Spinach,” wherein she describes cooking down greens with 4 oz. of butter, cooling and storing, then repeating for three more days. I’m starting my batch tomorrow. It promises to be a spectacle both ridiculous and delicious. Tamar Adler is perhaps Robert Farrar Capon’s successor in literary style. She’s insightful, keenly observant, and dry. Here, she shares the history of dishes that have fallen out of style since the 1950s and presents her new take on them and never before have I wanted to eat so many things en gelée.

NINE // Little Faith by Nickolas Butler
Is this on my list because he sets his books in the small river towns of Wisconsin, which is where my parents grew up and where almost all my extended family still lives? Maybe. But Butler also lovingly handles his characters, who aren’t special in any way the world would recognize, but matter in the world of the book. I like that. (Side note: I like this small emergence of Midwest authors: Butler, J. Ryan Stradal, Leif Enger, WALLACE STEGNER SPOILER ALERT FOR THE END OF THIS LIST, and obviously, Marilynne Robinson.) This books wrestles with a lot of things, but the one I’m still thinking about is the transmission of faith to the next generation.

EIGHT // Middlemarch by George Eliot
You might be thinking, ugh, a giant classic. But if I told you this was a book about an ambitious young woman who wants to change the world and finds a partner who she thinks has the same in mind, you’d say, Are we talking about Meghan Markle? We’re not. We’re talking about Dorothea Causabon. And unlike Meghan, who I sincerely hope has a fulfilling and satisfying marriage, Dorothea, um, doesn’t. This book goes deep on marriage, expectations (romantic and otherwise), ambition, religion, and the tension between generations. The scene-setting lasts about 550 pages, but wow, those last 300 pages. I’m glad I read it and not just so I could check another classic off my list.

SEVEN // The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah MacKenzie
This marks the slow transition of my blog (that I never write on) from a reading/faith/food blog (that I never write on) to a homeschooling blog (that I’ll never write on). Sarah MacKenzie’s podcast Read-Aloud Revival is one of my favorites. She’s so buoyant and wise. Her booklists are tops. Her advice is practical. And her enthusiasm is catching. This book represents the best of her research, experience, and recommendations and I seeded Leif and Silvia’s Christmas lists with a bunch of her favorites. She never steers me wrong. Sarah MacKenzie for President 2020.

SIX // Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips
Come for the essay on the Duchess of Cambridge, stay for the witty and closely-observed takes on Star Trek, the Iditarod, and tigers. This collection fascinated and surprised me. I knew I’d enjoy reading about the Queen and the future queen, but I raced through more than 60 pages about mushing and Alaska and didn’t want them to end. Phillips is a modern writer, so expect first-person narrative, but he uses it judiciously and buffers it with research and humor. This was maybe the most fun I had reading this year.

FIVE // To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Magical realism meets survivalist fiction meets the diaries of interesting people. A coworker recommended Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, eons ago when it was first published and I ignored her. I wish I hadn’t. This second novel by Ivey follows the correspondence and journals of a husband and wife. He’s a government surveyor and explorer with a bad luck charm. She’s a young wife left at home with a crow problem. And somehow it all comes together in a powerful way. I didn’t want to leave their world. Bonus points for being named after a Tolkien character, Eowyn. When I was a teen, I thought that was cheesy but now I’ve matured enough to know it’s a sign of unparalleled sophistication.

FOUR // The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Ten or 15 pages into this book, a cloudy memory of my cousin telling me of his undying love for Annie Dillard returned to me. Or was it Anne Lamott? I couldn’t remember so I texted his wife and she confirmed that Dillard is where it’s at. And that he told me to read her nigh on 14 years ago. Would that I had heeded him! (There’s a theme to the back half of this list.) Dillard’s writing is the type that you have to read with a pencil so you can underline all the pretty sentences. And then you wonder, Why am I wasting time reading her book on writing when I’ll never be able to write again after reading her book on writing? Nobody should ever write again, just her. Still, we mortals must trod on.

THREE // War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I had a goal to finish this book before I gave birth to my daughter. I got about 25 pages from the end late one night and thought, I have to sleep. I’ll finish the rest in the morning. But when I woke up the next day, I had a baby instead. Since she was a few weeks early, I finished it before her due date and finally crossed this one off my list. But don’t read it just because it’s an accomplishment. Read it because it’s a romance. Read it because it’s a fascinating look at military history. Read it because Tolstoy writes about human psychology with precise insight. Read it because it actually goes by pretty fast and you’ll be impressed at how he does it. Some notes: The translation I read was by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The Internet says this is the best version out there right now. I haven’t read the others, so I can’t compare, but I appreciated (and needed) the extensive explanatory footnotes and historical endnotes. Those gave the cultural and historical context that give the book so much of its meaning. ALSO: There is a miniseries! I have to watch it somehow even though I’ve vowed to never watch things with Paul Dano in them because I saw him in something where he was a creep and HOO BOY he excelled in that role and now has Permanent Creep Face to me.

TWO // A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza 
What I’m about to say sounds unexciting and repetitive, but here it is: This is another book about transmitting faith to the next generation and it held my attention (and I held my breath) through the whole thing. Mirza captures family closeness—and fights, misunderstandings, complete understandings, and drive-me-crazy-but-you-alone-get-it-moments—with a precision that made me fall in love with each member. It’s a slow-burn heartbreak. Hold out for that last section. And buy a copy because you’ll want to reread it.

ONE // Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Each of the first three paragraphs of this book had a piece of writing so remarkable, I paused to read it again and say it out loud. And then I got sucked into the story: Two married couples become close friends in a flash and then we see that friendship through to their grandparenting years. Set in academia, thoughts on writing and marriage in addition to all the fodder about adult friendships, and an honestly-portrayed character with a long-term illness…this book is a 100 percent overlapping Venn diagram of my favorite literary features. It’s not just my favorite from last year, it’s in my top five of my whole wide life.

My book lists, previously:
// Top Five for the First Half of 2011
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2011
// Top Five for the First Half of 2012
// Best Books of the Summer, 2013
// Top Ten of 2014
// Top Five for the First Half of 2015
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2015
// Top Ten of 2018

not bold, not new, not loud

For the last year, our 2-year-old has been learning how to unload the dishwasher. He is most enthusiastic about hoisting the plates and bowls out of the rack into one of our hands, running the pot lids to the cupboard, and putting the Pyrex lids in their dedicated drawer, but real satisfaction comes from reaching a fistful of silverware above his head and dropping it into the divider. So noisy! And then there’s a drawer to slam shut!

I took a picture of his work because it delights me. He is mastering his task as he knows it. And I’m reminded that learning is incremental. That last summer’s silverware on the floor becomes this winter’s silverware in the drawer becomes next fall’s forks in the fork spot.

In the middle of a temper tantrum or while wiping drifts of flour off the floor after baking together, it’s easy for me to forget that faithfulness in teaching, consistency in saying, “Not that, this,” and holding Leif’s hand while we practice doing something together does add up to progress. It’s not flashy. It wouldn’t make a catchy post on social media, but if I pay attention, I realize it’s working.

Looking at the silverware drawer helps.


My mom sent me this poem soon after I had Leif. I liked it then; I like it even more now.


Now, dear, it isn’t the bold things,
Great deeds of valour and might,
That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
But it is the doing of old things,
Small acts that are just and right;
And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when you want to play—
Dear, those are the things that count.

And, dear, it isn’t the new ways
Where the wonder-seekers crowd
That lead us into the land of content, or help us to find our own.
But it is keeping to true ways,
Though the music is not so loud,
And there may be many a shadowed spot where we journey along alone;
In flinging a prayer at the face of fear, and in changing into a song a groan—
Dear, these are the things that count.

My dear, it isn’t the loud part
Of creeds that are pleasing to God,
Not the chant of a prayer, or the hum of a hymn, or a jubilant shout or song.
But it is the beautiful proud part
Of walking with feet faith-shod;
And in loving, loving, loving through all, no matter how things go wrong;
In trusting ever, though dark the day, and in keeping your hope when the way seems long—
Dear, these are the things that count.

—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

to my friend with the scary diagnosis

The Japanese have an art form called kintsugi. When a vessel breaks, the broken parts are joined again with a seam of gold. I looked at small kintsugi bowls online the other day, tracing where the scrollwork of a porcelain bowl met the bright metal artery.

Of course it’s beautiful. After all, gold goes with everything.


You asked me the other day—

No. Let me recount it accurately: You lay in your bed with the pillows like tender hands holding your hurting parts, your tears matting your dark hair to your cheeks as you sobbed at me, “How do you not hate God for letting this happen?”

This is Brad’s pain, his daily suffering. And now it’s your pain, your daily suffering.

Your question stunned me because it is THE question. It’s the one that underpins my entire faith. How can I know that God doesn’t hate me, because then I don’t have to hate Him? How do I see and feel and touch and know love so I can turn around and give it?

“My husband had to help dry me off after my shower today.” How do I not hate Him?

I’ve had to help pull off Brad’s socks, my nails nicking his engorged ankles, flesh where flesh isn’t meant to be. How do I not hate Him?

“I can’t carry my baby.” How do I not hate Him?

I’ve carried my baby when Brad couldn’t, heaving him in and out of the crib, the car seat, into his daddy’s lap. How do I not hate Him?

I’ve been weeks with this question and the work of articulating the answer. Do I hate God?


But why not? If God is loving and I am His, why this pain? Isn’t it my right to hate him? Don’t I have every reason?

When I think back, I remember what staves off hate. It’s hope. It’s one sentence I found one day while reading one book that has reverberated in my mind since:

I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

David wrote that. You probably know the story better than I do. Saul, Israel’s diminished and raging king is out to get David. David is a young man. He’s an almost-forgotten youngest child sent out to do the dirty shepherding work his older brothers didn’t want to do. But the prophet Samuel finds him and, at God’s direction, anoints him as Israel’s king. Saul is jealous and hunts David through the wilderness and hills of Judah. Starving, running to save his life, battling the Philistines, drinking down the betrayal of his father-in-law, and hustling to keep his family hidden: It was likely in these hard times that David recorded those words.

I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Those words have been on my lips the way “Mama” is on your son’s: All the time–as a prayer, as a request, as a defiant battle cry, as a bracing reminder to my heartsick self. The thing is, as I said the words, I started looking. As I started looking, I started finding. Not in explosive ways that no one could miss (you know that, you know us), but in the quiet moments. In the way the sunlight fell on my desk. In the smile egged on by a dumb YouTube video. In a good day. In the way you hugged me when I told you.

With eyes full like this, hate becomes the unimaginable feeling.

It might be too hard for you to believe those words yourself right now. My dear, my darling, I believe them for you.

As you wake up with the new reality of illness as your companion, I believe you will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I believe this grim night will dawn bright. I believe you’ll see this moment in your story as a refining fire, a lens that sharpens forever your vision, the pouring out of tributaries of gold through your broken body. I believe your heart, already scandalously huge, will grow and enfold others who walk a similar path.

The brokenness might never leave. But neither will the gold.

top 12 books of 2018

The books I wrote in, cried over, lent out, and learned from this year.

12 // New Minimalism by Cary Telander Fortin and Kyle Louise Quilici
This is all the wisdom of paring down possessions minus the legalistic quotas for how much to toss and the New Age-y flimflam that puts more mental energy into your belongings than they deserve. Instead, Cary and Kyle offer concrete helps like “redefine full,” and “dramatically increase your standards.” I read this book and tackled my wardrobe (again), my cookbooks (with new clarity), and even tackled the years of paperwork in our filing cabinet. It’s that doable. Beyond that, this book started a good ponder about our possessions and how a gospel-centered life includes them (or doesn’t).

11 // Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
“Watching this family grabs me inside, twists, and pulls tight. It hurts so much I can’t look at it, so I don’t.” One of the characters in this novel voiced my thoughts perfectly. I fought the urge to put this book down the entire time I read it. It’s hard to look this story straight in the face. There is racism (past and present), class inequality, and child neglect and abuse. It’s often horrifying. But it’s also very important. It shows how the past haunts us now. It shows how it’s hard to put ghosts to sleep.

10 // The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright
This book is meant to explain why the night of Jesus’ crucifixion was dramatically different from the morning–and it does–but along the way, Wright also clarifies Christian vocation and mission, the role of suffering in the Christian life, and how the cross was motivated by God’s covenantal love for his people. The whole Bible is swept up in the doctrine of the cross, and Wright shows it.

9 // The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
A fascinating premise boosted by thoughtful writing. In this one, the world wakes up to the news that the earth’s rotation is slowing. Throughout the novel, she plots the subtle (and then swift) changes this brings about, which is neatly mirrored in her protagonist’s own subtle (and then swift) changes as she goes through a year of middle school. Every time I put this book down, I had something to chew on. Her next book comes out in early 2019 and I can’t wait.

8 // Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
My first Stegner! I kept hearing his name grouped with other writers whose works I love like Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry, so I gave this giant book a shot. It might be one of the most complete portrayals of marriage I’ve read. Part of that is because it follows a couple through their courtship to their gray years (and then beyond through the narrator, their grandson). So much life is lived and each look, each decision, each word spoken or not is expertly layered upon the next. Sidebar: This book is set in the frontier days and wowzers. The people who settled the West had grit.

7 // Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
This makes the list purely for his use of the word “beeves” early on in the book. That’s part of what makes reading Enger’s work so delightful. His vocabulary is wide and creative but his sentences never feel unnatural or stuffed. This is the story of a Minnesota man who survives a traumatic injury but has a concussion. As he goes about his small-town life, he has to get to know it and himself again. Yes, it takes a turn at the end and I’m not sure if it needed it, but his style is so gorgeous, I didn’t care where he took me.

6 // The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Inspirational is too obvious a word for this one, even though it’s true. Formidable might be a better one. The author puts the story of eight young guys training for the Olympic gold in crew side by side with the story of Hitler’s rise (and how the Olympics in Berlin fed the world the story he wanted them to see). It’s astonishing. I, who am so not sporty that I once ran into a wall while in pursuit of a racquetball, gripped my book with white knuckles during the passages that describe the crew races. I started sweating, I gasped, I pumped my fist. This is good writing.

5 // The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
This is solidly in the middle of what might be my favorite three-way Venn diagram: contemplation about food and cooking’s place in our lives, theology, and oversized opinions about absurd matters like the demise of pocket knives and how to take your sherry. His description of dicing a shallot versus an onion made me laugh/cry so hard, my toddler wandered over to check on me, concerned. I adored this.

4 // Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that can Radically Change Your Family by Paul David Tripp
I needed this book. It clearly lays out the mission and heart of parenting by laying out the mission and heart of God. So many parenting books make me anxious. This one made me worship. God’s character and his promises to not leave us the way we are but transform us are so dear and so encouraging. Read this to understand this intimidating, scary, awesome, delightful task parents are given, but also to remember why the gospel is so good.

3 // Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
It’s brilliant, original, exciting. The chorus of narrators (I think there are about 170, which is less confusing than it sounds) witness and tell of Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son in a way that’s surprisingly intimate. I started weeping on page 58. But my endorsement isn’t whole-hearted. Let’s talk about the humor in this book. Much of it was funny–absurd wit at the perfect moment. But at least the same amount of them were lewd in the way that authors sometimes use lewdness as a cheap stand-in for something that could have been more powerful. Without that, this would have been a five-star read for me. With it, I’m not sure I’ll read it again even though it stood out as one of my best reads this year. (I’m sure George Saunders is heartbroken.)

2 // Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
This was my second time through this one and it’s still one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read. It moves me to tears with the simplest words.  It’s a book filled with quiet comforts and truths. I’ll read this again and again my whole life, if I’m lucky. (P.S. Have you heard about the new Wendell Berry-focused podcast The Membership? They’re discussing his works in chronological order and it is rich.)

1 // The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The most powerful, beautiful book I don’t know if I’ll have the guts to read ever again. This book follows the journey of a father and son as they seek safety after a vaguely-described apocalyptic event. The story is searing and spare; the writing even more so. Like Sing, Unburied, Sing, I had to read this book in small doses. Parts of it were horrifying. Even so, I’m glad I made it to the end. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.



The book that taught me what patience actually is: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

The mystery series that describes so many amazing meals, I’m basing my menus for winter on them: The Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny

“I commit the cause of all my suffering unto Thee”

Suffering is still our close companion. Maybe it is for you, too. And after years of praying, the words I have about it are often flattened, the meaning smoothed away. So these words, put down more than 150 years ago by a Lutheran pastor, are like fresh water to my soul. I read them the first time to myself, whispering, yes. Yes. Yes. You know what it’s like. You know what we need. Since then, I’ve read them aloud as prayer, in a whisper as comfort, and to myself as a hope too quiet to voice.

Prayer of a Troubled One Who Knoweth Not Whether His Trouble Cometh from the Devil or From His Own Body

O Lord, since I know not whence cometh this grievous anguish and pain that oppresses and troubles my body and soul, whether from the devil or from mine own weak and diseased body, I commit the cause of all my suffering unto Thee and seek my help from Thee alone, O Lord, God of peace that passeth understanding.

Take away, for the sake of Him, Who in Gethsemane and on the cross did suffer all human pain and anguish; take away, for the sake of Christ my only Savior, Who is the eternal covenant between Thee and me; take away my fear-filled heart, for His dear sake, and so bring quiet unto my body and soul.

If it be Thy will, however, O God, that I continue in pain and anguish, grant unto me a sure haven of rest within, from whence I may overcome all things. Grant me Thy peace and the surety of Thy grace in Jesus Christ; and, when it shall seem to me that I am not able to suffer more nor overcome my sorrow, then uphold Thou me and cause me to stand. Suffer me not to be tempted above what I am able; but with the temptation also make a way to escape that I may be able to bear it.

O Thou, Who after the darkness and noonday heat of Good Friday gavest an evening of rest and peace, Thou wilt grant a morn of peace after a night of tears; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Bear Thou me up; for I will not leave Thee. Uphold me, O my Light and my Consolation, for I will not leave Thee.

Ever quiet and more quiet let me grow, O peaceful Lamb, content under trial and content in peace, content until my days shall end. Amen.

From Loehe’s Seed-Grains of Prayer, translated by Weller

my read-less challenge

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nursing a milk-addicted toddler gives you ample time to read. (Related: Send weaning instructions, please.) I took advantage this year. Maybe too much. Somewhere around book 70 (number 3 in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series–this year’s obsession) I realized I was consuming the written word rather than considering it.

Is this good or bad? I don’t really want to delve into that because I suspect it’s not one or the other. But I do know that some days my head was swimming with voices and ideas that, in the end, didn’t nourish my soul or my taste for beauty and excellence. Or to put it less high-mindedly: I’m not sure I chose wisely.

Also, read slowly. Just as a fine meal should be savored, so, too, good books are to be luxuriated in, not rushed through. —Karen Swallow Prior in On Reading Well

In 2019, I’m choosing luxury reading.

Luxury reading takes time and needs a lot of mental rambling room. Luxury reading means reading intentionally to shape ideas. Luxury reading means choosing works that merit the close attention. Each month is devoted to a category that will hopefully lead me to form ideas about a genre, about an author’s work, about what draws me back to old favorites–and be fun to choose titles for, of course.

Here’s my month-to-month plan and yikes. I’m already gulping at the titles I know I’ll miss doing it this way. But one of the beautiful things about books is that they don’t go away. There’s always 2020.

January // A Month of Mystery
I’ll probably focus on G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series here, but I can’t help myself: I’ll dip back into Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and The Moonstone, too.

February // Childhood Favorites
The books that made me fall in love with reading in the first place will be my companions through this cold and gray month.

March // Middlemarch

April // Only Books I Own
Is this an excuse to buy more books? Probably.

May // Nonfiction
My most wide-open category. Maybe I’ll pick up some of Wendell Berry’s essays, a memoir, a narrative history or just plain history. We’ll see.

June // One Author Only
But who? I’ll take recommendations of who is worthy of 30 days of attention. Speaking of recommendations…

July // Books Recommended to Me
Nominate your favorite now!

August // Short Stories
This will require some research, but I’m hoping to hit both the classics (like Chekhov) and new favorites (like Simon Van Booy, BJ Novak, and Katherine Heiny).

September // All Rereads
Comfort reads for the start of fall.

October // Faith-Building
We’ll see what this means when I get there.

November // One Book at at Time
A practice in restraint.

December // Poetry
Hopkins, Berry, who else? I’m not very good at poetry.

the good list (august 17)

Erin Loechner of Design for Mankind posts almost daily “good lists” on her instagram account chronicling little everyday graces. I love that idea. So here’s my good list for today, which turned into a convenient little snapshot of my life right now.

// NPR News Now
When I worked full-time, my radio dial was always on NPR. (I introduced Brad to both NPR and libraries, by the way. #soproud) Now that I’m at h0me with le bébé, my news intake dropped to skimming headlines on Twitter. Well. That’s a good way to be outraged and constantly wondering, What is even happening??? So I was delighted to find the NPR News Now podcast. It’s simply the five-minute news update NPR gives at the top of the hour, updated every time they air it. I listen to it morning and night and at least I’m not bewildered when my pastor addresses “the terrible events in Charlottesville” now. (Oy.)

// Cabernet Franc
*New Favorite Wine Varietal Alert* I brought three bottles of Cabernet Franc with me from California. Last week, I broke into them. I opened the second this week. EVERYONE. Why is this not as popular as Pinot Noir? The two I’ve had smelled of juicy stone fruits (prunes and cherry, respectively) and had full-bodied flavor with some spice. I poured a glass tonight while making dinner (see below) and this wine + pecorino? DONE. So good. I’m going to hang out here for a while even if it’s rosé all day weather.

// Running on the trail near our house
I flirted with running again about two or three months after Leif was born and it was a struggle. I gave it up. On my daily walk with Leif a few weeks ago, I suddenly felt like jogging. So I did. It felt great. Since then, I’ve been running once or twice a week, especially on the very smooth paved trails near our house. I don’t know if it’s Leif’s smiling face looking up at me from his stroller or the thrill of stretching out my tired muscles, but for the first time in my life I am in LOVE with running. I want to do it every day. I think about it when I’m not doing it. This is major news.

// Burr by Gore Vidal
Hi, I’m Joanna Linberg and I am a library dork. My TBR (to be read) list just topped 1,000 titles this week. In an effort to chip away at that, I initiated a new library strategy a few months ago. I’ve been working methodically through my list by letter of the alphabet. If it’s on my list and on the shelf at my local branch, I check it out and give it a shot. And for whatever reason, I started with Z and am working backward. I’m in the Vs now and picked up Burr by Gore Vidal. Y’all (I can say that after a year in the South, right?), it’s great. It’s witty and sharp and sort of an alt history of the Revolutionary War and our nation’s founding. I’m assuming an alt fictional history, but I haven’t finished it, so I haven’t done any research about its contents yet. One of my rules for this strategy is that if I find an author I like, I can go back and check out their other titles if I want, and I’ll definitely do that for him.

// This tomato sauce recipe (The. Best.)
Simply the best way to make that ol’ standard, spaghetti, taste luxurious. I don’t even add meat usually. Somehow a floppityjillion onions and garlic make canned tomatoes taste incredible.

// Parmesan Celery Salad
Dinner tonight, and another standby for us. I realized tonight that if we’ve been making it for five years and aren’t sick of it yet, it’s a real winner and everyone should know about it.

// Not looking at Instagram and Twitter
Recently, I deleted Instagram and Twitter off my phone for all the reasons one does such a thing. Specifically, wanted to model less screen time to Leif and find a little more margin to write. It’s been almost two weeks and again, unsurprisingly, I don’t really miss them. I thought I missed Twitter, but then I signed on from my laptop and it was all hot takes and outrage and one liners and “if you’re not reading this, then hmmm…” I signed back off. I actually enjoy hot takes and outrage and one liners and links to great things to read, but I just don’t have room for that in my priorities right now. So I’m out for now.

// Flax seed
After reading this book, I worried I wasn’t getting enough DHA in my diet to help Leif’s brain be ENORMOUS. Brad did a little research for me and we realized flax seeds, which I have several times a week, are a good source, so WHEW. Thank you, sweet little seeds, for taking one item off my “I Might Be a Bad Mom” list this week.

photo: On the top of Leif’s good list: staring outside at the wind moving the leaves in the trees. It’s been a favorite of his since he was only a month or so old.