05 March 2016

2015 Books

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul.
-Joyce Carol Oates

It was a good year of reading.

I am not sure how you choose books.  I am not sure how even I choose them.  

For the most part, I pick reads that intrigue.  I hear an excellent interview on a podcast and decide their mind is one I'd like to get into.  I've read something of a particular author and look for more.  Or I look for what they reference and quote.  That's how I picked up Kathleen Norris.  Enough authors have quoted her.  In the second book I read by Carolyn Weber, I decided I'd better pick up Norris next.  And I chose Weber through a radio interview.  

Other books come across my periphery via social media or a friend whose taste is similar. 

A basic rule I keep at the forefront is that it needs to inspire or expand my mind and heart in a positive way.  Ain't no time to fuss with words that will darken and distort me, or fill my mind with stuff I've got to then try and get rid of.

So here are the books I was privileged to read this year.  I will expand on my top three and try to convince you to read them, too.

  *disclaimer--just because I read it and liked it doesn't mean I agree with everything in it.  use your own discernment and consider whether the words line up with the Bible, for that is the standard of all Truth.

1.  Surprised By Oxford by Carolyn Weber

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Clearly a twist on the title Suprised By Joy by C.S. Lewis, Weber takes us along on her spiritual journey leading to Jesus Christ.  By the title, you can tell that it includes Oxford and the haunts of C.S. Lewis, as well as a  man, also a student at Oxford, who is not afraid of her questions.  If you like academia and tea and British culture and literature (Weber is a lit. professor) and Jesus all bound up in one well-told testimony, you will love this.

2.   A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle

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The first in a trio of books, a sort of journal, really, of L'Engle's life, thoughts, and writing.  Funny, witty, and rich, I was always refreshed after reading a few pages.

One of my favorite thoughts, "You write through your hands--if you could speak it, you wouldn't need to write it."

3.  Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton  TOP 3

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A blogpost by Courtney Reissig piqued my interest on this one, and, as I look through what I read last year, I actually read quite a few from her 2014 book recommendations.

I loved this story in an achey sort of way.  Not an, I can't put this down because it's so deliciously good, but an, each time I pick this up I am arrested by complex writing and thought and I am better because I read it sort of way.

Okay, this book is in my top 3 and here's why:  it's historical (South African apartheid), it's redemptive and real (a powerful story of reconciliation, pain, sin, perseverance, and love), and the language is so different (the way Paton writes what they are speaking was novel to me) and hauntingly beautiful.  I suppose this is why it's a classic and why high schoolers have to read it in high school.  It's better when you're older, though, I would guess.

When an author (and the characters in it) can say so much  with such succinct wording, I'm hooked.  This is mostly because I have much to learn about condensing my thoughts into sentences instead of paragraphs.  As Madeleine L'Engle wrote in A Circle of Quiet

The written word
Should be clean as bone,
Clear as light,
Firm as stone.
Two words are not
as good as one.

Alan Paton's novel embodies this.

Also, shortly after I finished this book I was on a plane next to two brutish young men traveling from South Africa to Williston to be farm hands for the spring and summer months.  They were hilarious on the plane, and taught me much about the culture and the two languages, and even spoke them for me.   They had me laughing uproariously as they broke many cultural foux pas such as playing music on their laptops loudly on the plane and pushing the call button for the flight attendant multiple times for things like water.

Just so you know, reading expands your horizons so you have questions to ask South Africans when they merge paths with you.

4.  In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord (a pseudonym)  TOP 3

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A wizened friend sent this to Brian and I for Christmas.  It ended up becoming a book club read for my family, meaning my parents, siblings, and siblings' spouses.  We do a family book club together maybe once every 10 to 15 years.  The last one we read was Peace Child by Don Richardson back in the 1's.  What do you call the first decade of the 2000's anyway?  I wonder what we will read in the 2020's?

Each time I read a chapter of this book, my mind was opened to a different understanding of who Jesus is.

That said, the first chapter or two are a little hard to get into.  She writes excellently yet in a way you have to get used to.  Read it; you'll understand.  And you won't regret it.  Definitely in the top 3 I read this year.  Definitely.

This is a first hand account of an American Christian woman social worker and theologian (how's that for a lot of adjectives?) who goes and tabernacles (makes her home) in an Afghanistan village or two.

She is no ordinary person, though.  She chooses to live in a compound like them, learn the language, and spend all her spare time trying to figure out how to share the stories of Jesus with the people, particularly but not exclusively, the women.

Each chapter covers a different idea and explanation on how Islam is different from Christianity.  She shares these differences with profundity.

If you don't have time to read it, at least listen to this week long interview between Kate McCord and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.

A quote:  Who we follow really does make a difference.  Afghans look to the Prophet Mohommed to tell them who Allah is and what he wants from us.  I look to Jesus.  The lives of each couldn't be more different.

5.  Sacred Year by Mike Yankoski

Yankoski takes us through a year of experimental spiritual practices.  With guidance from a monk, he lives in a cave, stares at an apple, lives simply by purging, commits to a Christian community, and much more.  He shares what he learned with beauty and style.

Decreasing breadth increases depth.

We only have five senses, you know.  Five tiny windows through which the world around us can come crashing into the rustic cabins of our minds.

6.  Teach Us To Want by Jen Pollock Michel

This was Christianity Today's 2014 book of the year.

In Teach Us To Want, she takes us through the Lord's Prayer and develops the idea of holy want or desire.  It's rather academic in nature, so one time through is not enough for me to write a thorough review of it.

I will just say, if you see God as a being who wants to take everything good away from you because all pleasure is sinful, this might be a helpful book in growing a different understanding of God.

Michel points out over and over again that God is the author of pleasure, and it is a lifelong journey to not eradicate it from our lives, but to make it holy.  For holy pleasure is pure and allows us to experience life with more joy and real-ness than any other means.

7.  Gilead by Marilyn Robinson

A beautifully written, slow moving story exploring the depth of an old minister in a little, rundown town in the midwest called Gilead.  I found it haunting, disconcerting, and real.  It was a worthy read, though not an easy read.

There are lots of gems amongst the plotline:

I was trying to remember what birds did before there were telephone wires.  It would have been much harder for them to roost in the sunlight, which is a thing they clearly enjoy doing.

...nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.

8.  Own Your Life by Sally Clarkson

This book was God's provision to me at a particularly challenging point in my year.  I thought the title was a bit off, since Jesus calls us to lose our lives.  But her point is basically that we need to own our situations so we can see how the Lord wants us to operate and live well in them.

Here is an excerpt from chapter 1:

Lord, I will choose to find light in this darkness.  I have no guarantee about how any of this will turn out, but I am planting a flag of faith.  No matter what happens, I will be as obedient as I can to bring joy into this place, to create beauty in this wilderness, to exercise generous love, and to persevere with patience.  I will choose to believe that wherever You are my faithful companion is the place where your blessing will be upon me.
There are good reflection questions at the end of each chapter and lots of thought provoking quotes.  Clarkson hits at the heart of what it means to live a life of faith and to be content in our circumstances.

9.   Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

This one would totally be in my top 3 were it not that I personally think there are one or two too many essays on monks.

I got the book from the library but it is totally in my Amazon save for later cart.  Once I check a book out from the library more than three times, it is time to own it.

Norris made her home in northwest South Dakota and did a lot of travel teaching.  She is very familiar with the land and the people and the culture of the high plains and small towns.

The High Plains, the beginning of the desert west, often act as a crucible for those who inhabit them. (preach it, sister)  Like Jacob's angel, the region requires you to wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing.  

Honestly, I feel I'm still wrestling--some times are easier than others, and so I fully appreciate Norris' ability to find a vocabulary for the region and the spiritual potential one can find if they hang in there.

Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.

She has really helped me to see, and to pray into dwelling in this land, to really embrace where I am placed.

Dakota is a beautiful reminder of human limits, just as cities and shopping malls are attempts to deny them.  This book is an invitation to a land of little rain and few trees, dry summer winds and harsh winters.  A land rich in grass and sky and surprises.  On a crowded planet, this is a place inhabited by few, and...I am one of them.

....Like those monks, I made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste.  Like them, I had to stay in this place, like a scarecrow in a field, and hope for the brains to see its beauty.  My idea of what is beautiful had to change, and it has.

I can say that this is a process.  I don't know if I will ever look forward to winter.

But, Desert wisdom allows you to be at home, wherever you are.

10.  A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller  TOP 3

This is the last one in my top three.  Miller did an excellent job of combining theological, psychological, and practical into a picture of what a praying life can look like.

I finished the book with a clearer picture of what a life built on prayer is.  It was inspiring to read his stories of answered prayer as he faithfully wrote them out on notecards and prayed through them oftentimes for years and years.  It is a book full of grace and offering a glimpse at the potential for God to work powerfully when we pray.

This book also challenged me in my parenting.  So many of his examples included his prayers for his children.  I am realizing that my prayers for my kids (especially the teen aged ones) are more important than any other parenting technique I employ.  Only in prayer can I see God act on their behalf, and only in prayer can I parent them the way God wills me to.

If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.  You'll always be a little tired, a little too busy.  But if, like Jesus, you realize you can't do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time, you will find the time to pray.

If you prefer listening to things, this radio interview with Miller is very good.

Other books I read that I will not review right now:

Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Secret Confessions of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens  by Paul David Tripp
A Loving Life by Paul E. Miller
Home to Harmony by Phillip Gulley
Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin
Ten Fingers for God: The Life and Work of Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson
For the Love by Jen Hatmaker
Treasuring Christ When Your Hands are Full: Gospel Meditations for Busy Moms by Gloria Furman 
Teaching from Rest: A Homeschoolers Guide to Unshakable Peace by Sarah Mackenzie


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heidi said...

I just loaded our books on a bookshelf and remembered another family read from 2004 was Safely Home by Randy Alcorn ;-)
Love you and am inspired to read more!