Hello, Reverend! I recognize that 2019 was a quiet year on this blog, in large part because it was not quiet anywhere else. With my family, I moved cross-country, bought a house, started a new call at a new church, and adjusted to life with a tiny baby … who is now a not-so-tiny, joyful, rambunctious toddler. Nobody warned me that every cliché about how fast they grow up is true.
In the midst of all that chaos, I did manage to read a few books. Not nearly as many as in past years—I’ve kept a running list of every book I’ve read since 2007—but enough to keep me sane amidst the chaos of ministry and parenthood. If you need a book to do the same for you, allow me to present the following 17 micro-reviews as a small encouragement to read something non-work-related in 2020. Woman cannot live on Feasting on the Word alone.
An American Marriage (Tayari Jones)
No wonder this made President Obama’s summer reading list. It is about a trio of creative, funny, driven, desperate people whose lives are upended by a wrongful conviction. I read large swaths of this book while walking up 43rd Street, bumping into fire hydrants and telephone poles, because I couldn’t put it down.
The Bean Trees (Barbara Kingsolver)*
I loved The Bean Trees when I first read it twenty years ago, and I still love it now—Barbara Kingsolver’s novels were more spirited, and more fun, before she became known as a Serious Writer. I remembered it as a coming-of-age story about a young woman who adopts a little girl, and had sort of forgotten that it is also about the Central American refugee crisis of the 1980s, and the network of human rights advocates who risked their own lives to help asylum-seekers get to safety. I’m depressed by how timely it feels. (Note: Perhaps an even better book is the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, which follows the lives of the characters and explores the complexities of the Indian Child Welfare Act.)
Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng)
Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
I was so taken by Celeste Ng’s first novel that the moment I finished it I had to start reading her second. She is so good at articulating what it feels like to be a teenager who doesn’t fit in, and describing the ways in which racism impacts the lives of families from one generation to the next. Her books are sort of … plot-driven and character-driven at the same time? Each one begins with a cataclysmic event, and you slowly fall in love with the characters as you retrace the events leading up to the crisis.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J. K. Rowling)*
In 2018, I set myself a goal of rereading all seven Harry Potter books before my daughter was born in October. I tore through the first six but didn’t quite finish the seventh, so it became my first book of 2019 instead. Book 7 is probably my least favorite (the Horcruxes are boring, the Battle for Hogwarts drags on forever, and why didn’t an editor trim down those 150 pages where the heroes are just wandering around in the woods?), but I’m already looking forward to rereading the whole series yet another time … perhaps this time aloud to my kid.
Best State Ever: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland (Dave Barry)*
I enjoyed this book so much that I read it two years in a row. In addition to having pitch-perfect comic timing, Dave Barry is a gifted narrative journalist with an eye for a good story. This time around, though, it bugged me to notice how much he goes out of his way to talk about white people. In passing, he mentions Miami’s Little Havana (“You can spend a day here and never hear any language but Spanish”) and Florida’s Native communities (framed here as the lucky ones who were “protected” from conservation laws that forced white settlers to move out of the Everglades) … and that’s really it. I’m no expert, but I’ve been to Florida several times and there are definitely nonwhite people in it.
A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” (Rachel Held Evans)
Like so many others, I was heartbroken by Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death last spring. Every one of her books is clever, funny, and generous of spirit, and this one is no exception. She uses “literal” interpretations of Biblical instructions to women as a starting point for a thoughtful investigation of the Biblical literalism she was raised with, and an exploration of what it means to be a Christian woman. The book was published before the births of her son and daughter, who were ages 3 and almost-1 when she died. I will admit that during the passages when she discusses her hopes and fears about becoming a mother, I thought of her motherless children, dropped the book, and held my own child tight.
Fantastic Antone Grows Up: Adolescents and Adults with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Judith Kleinfeld, Barbara Morse & Siobhan Wescott)
An incredibly interesting, often heartbreaking collection of essays by people with FAS and their parents, educators, caseworkers, and clinicians. It follows up on many of the children profiled in Fantastic Antone Succeeds (a preceding book about children with FAS), suggests policy changes that would lead to better outcomes for adults with FAS, and explores some of the alcohol-related concerns particular to American Indian and Alaska Native communities (the book is published by the University of Alaska press). On the same topic, if you’re interested in criminal justice reform, I strongly recommend reading this brief piece by Canadian attorney David Boulding: Mistakes I Have Made With FAS Clients.
Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—And What You Really Need to Know (Emily Oster)
I had NO IDEA that so much standard advice about pregnancy (and probably about women’s health in general …) was rooted in superstition, folk wisdom, and junk science. Emily Oster is an economist with the sensible approach of “get as much good information as you can and use that information to make a good decision for yourself about whether you should [eat sushi, do yoga, take Advil, sleep on your back] while pregnant.” I found this book fascinating, and I wasn’t even pregnant. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Cribsheet, which applies the same principles to the conventional wisdom about raising young children.
Avenue Q: The Book (Zachary Pincus-Roth)
Avenue Q is one of my favorite musicals. If, like me, you love the musical, you will probably enjoy the book. It’s visually appealing (although covered in orange fake fur—the librarian who gave it to me was kind of grossed out by it), full of color photos and interesting trivia, and includes some songs that were cut from the final show.
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Zadie Smith)
Zadie Smith is just the best. This is a miscellaneous collection of essays on all sorts of topics—the literary criticism is the most thoughtful, the movie reviews are the funniest, and the pieces about her father are the most emotionally compelling.
NOT AS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED BUT MAYBE YOU’LL LOVE THEM MORE THAN I DID?
Future Home of the Living God (Louise Erdrich)
I forced myself to read this book and thought it was awful—slow-paced, disorganized, sloppy in its world-building, and full of characters I just couldn’t make myself care very much about one way or the other. I thought that this was probably a personal failing on my part until I read some reviews and determined that pretty much every reviewer on earth agreed with me. This book was a huge drag. I’ll try reading Love Medicine before I give up on Erdrich altogether. (And yes, I have read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. I can’t deny that it was a thoughtful exploration of gender and a beautiful meditation on the priesthood … but it was just … so … slow.)
Bad Monkey (Carl Hiaasen)
After maybe the dozenth person told me, “If you like Dave Barry, you’ll love Carl Hiaasen!”, I finally picked up one of his books. It was moderately funny, but not funny enough to distract me from Hiaasen’s description of every woman in the story as a collection of body parts, every person of color in the story as a tired stereotype (crazy voodoo woman, simple island man, sultry Latina love interest), and a child sex abuse case as one big joke. I’m not in a hurry to read another one any time soon.
China Rich Girlfriend (Kevin Kwan)
Rich People Problems (Kevin Kwan)
I read Crazy Rich Asians last year and enjoyed it fine, but not so much that I went running for the other books in the trilogy. Then, more recently, I saw the movie and got curious about what happened to the characters, so I read them after all. These books are not Pulitzer Prize material, but they are good fun, and once in a while it’s nice to read a fairy tale where good people are rewarded and bad people get what’s coming to them.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Helen Oyeyemi)
This was a strange, unsettling, beautifully written collection of short stories (not my favorite genre) about people with dark motives doing twisted things (not my favorite plot). I didn’t really like it, but I also got the sense that the author didn’t much care whether or not I liked it, and I respect that. You might love this book. I think Helen Oyeyemi is brilliant. It just wasn’t for me. A friend tipped me off that Oyeyemi’s fairy-tale-influenced novels are equally beautiful and not quite as grim, so I might still give Gingerbread a try.
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Parker Palmer)*
This book did not live up to my memory of it at all. I loved Let Your Life Speak when I first read it ten years ago, but this time it felt boring and hollow: Parker Palmer now reads to me like one more privileged white dude attributing all his success to “faithfulness to true self.” However, his chapter on surviving major depression remains worth a read.
*These are books I reread in 2019.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this long post, I’m eager for your advice on what I should read in 2020! I’m starting off the year by tearing through the Anne of Green Gables series (which I loved as a kid but haven’t revisited as an adult) and am halfway through The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai.