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.

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WORTH MENTIONING:

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

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