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