A Year in Books (2018)

Looking back over my reading this past year, I have to say I’m pretty pleased with the results. Over 15,000 pages read, across 45 books (which is 3 more books, and 1,500 more pages, than in 2017). But it’s not just the numbers I’m pleased about — it’s the books themselves.

I read some good books this year, from excellent contemporary fiction (which is not my usual fare) to inspiring memoirs — with quite a few joy-rides thrown in. With only a few exceptions, my reading was enjoyable and thought-provoking (sometimes one or the other, but often both at once) — ranging in topic from bird-watching (A Guide to the Birds of East Africa) to writing (Word by Word) to technology (You are Not a Gadget) to depression (Noonday Demon). If I was forced to group this year’s reading by category,  however, the prevailing theme would overwhelmingly be faith. Whether rooted in contemplative tradition (Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh), Christian heritage (Anne Lamott, Emily P. Freeman, Henri Nouwen, Jan Karon, and Sigrid Undset), or elsewhere (Malala Yousafzai, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Elif Shafakmore), much of my reading this year was concerned — directly or indirectly — with the question of how one is to know and follow God. Of where the Kingdom of Heaven is to be found. Those that resonated the most strongly invited the reader to encounter the divine in the ordinary, holy moments of their lives — here, in this present moment, one inch above the ground.

I’m also proud that, of 45 books read, 20 were written by women. While this is not quite 50%, it’s closer than it could be (closer than it’s often been in the past). Flipping this ratio is one of my goals for 2019 (which is boding fairly well, given that, of the seven books I’ve either completed or begun since January 1st, six were written by women).

Best “Just Fun” Book

Shockingly, despite having read a Rainbow Rowell this year, it’s not making it on the list. Attachments was light and fun — the perfect read to buffer transition and dampen jet-lag — but it was a more forgettable version of the normal Rowell magic, and did not, ultimately, leave much of an impression.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles)The winner, therefore, is the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. By no means life-changing, this young adult series was just so unapologetically fun (with the noticeable exception of the second book of the series, Scarlet, which left something to be desired). I inhaled these, staying up reading late into the night, despite my work schedule and teaching commitments — something no book had made me do in a long, long time.

Runner up: It seems only fair to give this to another series which also kept me reading late into the night — this time the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown. Hardly faultless, it was, nonetheless, gripping — and for the days it took me to complete the series, I could barely put the books down. (Unfortunately, unlike the Lunar Chronicles, which started and ended on a high note, Red Rising took the more expected trajectory of starting strong and weakening over the course of the series.)

Best Audiobook

The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhat Hanh’s The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of MinfulnessIt would be hard to overstate the impact this audio-recording had on me. It was enlightening in the deepest sense of the word — a door swinging open onto life, and life abundant. Though I’ve listened to some Thich Nhat Hanh in the past, this (in combination with a first-hand account of his lived reality, as told by Sister Chan Kong at the end of Hanh’s novel The Novice) clicked for me in a new way, and I suddenly get what all the fuss is about.

Runners up: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — which was beautiful, powerful, life-affirming, and among the best nonfiction reads of the year — and Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malalawhich was educational and inspiring.

Best Fiction

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (The Dark Tower series)I read several amazing novels this year, but I have to give this honor to Stephen King’s The GunslingerNot a fan of horror, the only King I’d read before this year was his guide to the craft, On Writing. I’ve had several friends recommend his fantasy, however, so I finally took the plunge, shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz this fall. I’ve read the first four books of The Dark Tower series thus far (inhaling them, one after the other), and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed them all. It is the first one, however (which many cite as the most difficult of the series to enjoy), that I absolutely loved. It is terse and sparse (much like the man, and landscape, it describes), and I was blown away with how much King does with how little. A piece of art.

Runners up: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (one of the most brilliant executions of tone I have ever encountered), Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (stylistically masterful and not quite like anything else I’ve read), Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (strange and haunting, even if somewhat incomplete in narrative), and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (essentially a thousand or so pages of character study — yet every word delightful).

Best Non-fiction

Texts of Terror by Phyllis TriblePhyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativesThis is a fairly technical piece of biblical scholarship, yet it would still top my list of books I’d recommend from this past year. Even beyond the powerful treatment of its content (which grapples with violence against women in the pages of the Old Testament), I loved this book for how it engaged with scripture. For the care and respect it gave the living text — the attention it paid to the mechanics of syntax and structure. Trible is a scholar who understands that respecting a text means questioning it, wrestling with it, demanding answers of it — and then trusting it to speak for itself.

Runner up: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. A unique and powerful exploration of language, exile, and identity. And Sigrid Undset’s Stages on the RoadA fairly uneven collection of essays, yet it has stayed with me in the subsequent weeks and months.

Most Read Author

Stephen King with the first four books of his Dark Tower series and Marrisa Meyer with her Lunar Chronicles (though, in pages read, Stephen King wins out by far).

Runners up: Pierce Brown with his Red Rising trilogy and Jan Karon with the first three books of her Mitford series.

Worst Read

Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely DiscipleThough I prefer avoiding this category whenever possible, I’m afraid Roose’s book earned it. While the premise (a Brown University student spending a semester undercover at Liberty University) might be intriguing, Roose (or perhaps Liberty) does no justice to the complexities of faith or culture that such an exchange should elucidate. There are many people I deeply respect who recommend this book, but I personally found it maddening and not enlightening. And couldn’t help feeling that Roose (and perhaps Liberty) had utterly missed the point.

You can find a complete list of my year’s reading here or follow me on Goodreads for an up-to-date record of my reading, rants, and reviews.

Okay, your turn: What were the best books you read in 2018? What did you love about them? Any reading goals for 2019? 

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Everything Belongs | Words of Wednesday

One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God–
There is nothing else for Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
–Shams-ud-din Mohammed Hafiz, Muslim mystic (1320-89)

First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. But both are the mercy of God. –Julian of Norwich, Christian mystic (1342-1416)

It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. . . . If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional “threat,” you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love. . . . God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are. Only when we live and see through God can “everything belong.” All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of “purity.” The contaminating element always has to be searched out and scolded. Apart from taking up so much useless energy, this effort keeps us from the one and only task of love and union. –Fr. Richard Rohr


I started Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs today (and all the above quotes come from its pages).

Father Richard Rohr (a Franciscan friar) is one of my father’s favorite authors, and someone I’ve been intending to read for a long time. Winning Rohr’s book in our extended family’s Christmas book exchange seemed like a good reason to stop putting it off. I’m only one chapter in, but there’s already a lot to wrestle with and meditate on. There’s certainly a lot here that resonates with my recent exploration of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. The mystics in every tradition seem to echo the same message — a message that often leaves the rest of us feeling rather unsteady on our feet, desperately trying to redraw the lines.

Probably the most challenging statement in Rohr’s book thus far is this one: 

We do not know what it means to be human unless we know God. And, in turn, we do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus’ most common and almost exclusive self-name is “The Human One,” or “Son of Humanity.” He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus’ reality, his cross, is to say a free “yes” to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all.

This is a message I can imagine Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, embracing. But a Catholic priest? No matter what our dogma (“fully God and fully human”) we are so wary of Jesus’ humanity. So uncertain of what it means to reconcile those truths, that paradox. Surely, Jesus’ incarnation can’t mean that we, too, are meant to embrace our humanity, are meant to find our salvation there. 

Can it?

Will “liv[ing] and fully accept[ing] our reality” really bring us into the presence of God, as Rohr suggests? Will “the edges of our lives — fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed — lead us back to the center and the essence”? 

The saints say, yes, and I’m inclined to believe them.

So may this year, 2019, be a year of “bearing the mystery of God’s suffering and joy” in the midst of our holy, ordinary moments. May we be fully human, as Christ was, embracing this life we have been given, even as we submit it to the One who made it, and us, and called it good.  

May we find God right where we are.

Knowing We Are Alive | Words of Wednesday

To know that we are alive, that we can be in contact with all the wonders within us and around us, is truly a miracle.

–Plum Village Meditations (with Sister Jina)


Enjoying the gift of Christmas with family (in the Minnesotan homeland, complete with cousin-dominated Saturday broomball). This quote is from a series of meditations recorded at Thich Nhat Hanh’s former monastery. If you aren’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s life or teaching, I strongly recommend you become so. (Fifty-one years ago, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr, if that helps put his work in perspective — he’s currently 92 years old.)