It’s hard for me to capture all my thoughts and feelings about every book I read in 2019. I read too many to cover in one post and chose those that particularly stood out to me for one reason or another. I don’t necessarily agree with everything set forth in these books, but believed they were valuable in the way they made me think critically, feel deeply, or added to my knowledge and understanding. And some were just a lot of fun.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This novel was one of my favorite fiction reads of the past year. It is a delightful, charming, and intelligent story about a time and place I hadn’t given much attention to previously: Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution.
The year is 1922, and Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for the crime of being an aristocrat. If he steps a foot outside its doors, he will be killed. The Count is given only a tiny, bare room. In some ways, his room is a reflection of the tiny, bare life he’s been relegated, too. Yet, as the story unfolds within the walls of the Metropol, it becomes apparent that our lives are as big as we let them be, and love itself is its own kind of freedom.
For me, it was perfection from the beginning to the end and I will definitely read it again.
“For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”
Gilead by Marilynn Robinson
This novel does not move quickly but will carry you along like a gently moving stream. Imagine sitting with your father, a preacher, in his old age over a cup of coffee or a glass of lemonade listening to him share stories and the wisdom he’s collected over the years.
As Reverend John Ames reflects over his life, he deals with the themes of salvation and grace and the complicated beauty and struggle of living in this world and with each other. He does so with humility and a sense of humor that makes the conversation, albeit one-sided, inviting as opposed to preachy.
As Reverend Ames approaches the end of his time on earth, he recognizes that the world is changing, that it has always been changing, but that there are some things that never change such as the heart of man and the heart of God and the invitation for man to have his heart changed by God.
The fact that there are hard experiences, difficult questions, and mysteries too deep for finite minds, doesn’t stop him from recognizing God’s grace poured out all around him.
“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”
Lila: a Novel by Marilynn Robinson
Lila is the young wife of Reverend John Ames first introduced in Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead. In this novel, the reader learns her story. She has lived a hard, simple life in the midst of complicated circumstances she doesn’t fully understand herself.
Reverend John Ames is her first real encounter with the truth of God and salvation and the ideas of grace, mercy, and judgement. She struggles to fit this God she’s now coming to know with the experiences and people in her past. There are hard questions raised in this novel, and Robinson doesn’t patronize us with easy answers, yet, you aren’t left with the feeling that there aren’t answers. Like Gilead, this novel is full of wisdom and beauty and a love that is as strong as it is gentle.
(Lila: a Novel was published after Gilead, but chronologically Lila should be read first. That being said, there is no right or wrong order to enjoy these two books which are connected to each other but able to stand on their own. I read Lila first and do not regret that decision.)
“This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognised for what it is… So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.”
~Marilynn Robinson, Lila: a Novel
These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy E.Turner
Nancy Turner drops her readers into the life of young Sarah Prine just as she and her family are leaving their home in New Mexico Territory and heading toward Texas looking for a new start. The year is 1881, and life is hard and unpredictable.
I found myself quickly caught up in the adventures, dangers, losses, and successes of the Prine family and captured by the enduring love Sarah comes to know in her adult life as well as the bond she shares with her family.
As Sarah grows into a young woman and then a seasoned wife and mother, the reader grows with her. Although our experiences today differ greatly from those of the late 1800s, this story reminds us that the hopes, longings, and fears of the human heart are the same in any generation.
(By the way, this book made me cry. You may want some tissues.)
Mama told me to make a special point to remember the best times of my life. There are so many hard things to live through, and latching on to the good things will give you strength to endure, she says. So I must remember this day. It is beautiful and this seems like the best time to live and the best place.
~Nancy E. Turner, These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901
The next three books listed I recommend reading as a series starting with Suprised by Hope and following with A Different Shade of Green and Love Thy Body. We live in a culture that has stripped the physical world of its value and the physical body of its sanctity, and Christians have all too often gone along with the tide. This worldview has had vast and horrific consequences. The physical world and our physical bodies have meaning, purpose, and value. How we think about them and what we do with them matters.
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright
“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”
A Different Shade of Green: A Biblical Approach to Environmentalism and the Dominion Mandate by Dr. Gordon Wilson
I have found myself incredibly frustrated by the two extremes when it comes to caring for creation. On the one hand, there are the radical environmentalists whose ideas are often impractical, emotional, hypocritical, and even harmful. On the other hand, there are those on the other extreme who act as if no human action or endeavor should ever be questioned when it comes to the way we handle, use, and care for our world and its resources as long as there is enough immediate profit in it.
So, where is the balance? A Different Shade of Green seeks to bridge the gap between the two extremes by grounding the conversation in the Word of God and His character. I found it a good place for Christians to begin to consider what it looks like to honor God by valuing and caring for the world He’s given us. I say this book is a good place to begin because it is not comprehensive and doesn’t answer every question, but it is approachable and not overwhelming for those wanting to start down the path of thinking biblically about this issue.
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1, KJV). Environmentalists didn’t create the earth or the life on it and they certainly don’t own it. I want God’s people to reflect on how He views His own creation and how the dominion mandate should be carried out in these modern times where our technological power can be used for great good or great evil towards the living creation. This is a daunting task, but it can be accomplished if we are humble and eager to learn.
~Gordon Wilson, A Different Shade of Green
Love Thy Body by Nancy R. Pearcy
This book is brilliant and a must-read for every Christian wrestling with the moral issues of our day. Her explanation of personhood theory, a two-tiered view of human beings where all value is placed in the mind or consciousness while very little or no value is given to the living human body (page 20), feels like finding a key to open a lock. You can hear the click as you begin to understand the philosophy behind the issues of our day as well as it’s opposition to biblical truth.
If we are to live in our culture with compassion and honesty, or as Jesus said…as salt and light…, we will need to master a biblical view of human beings and the sanctity of human life which includes the dignity of the physical body. Otherwise, we will fall into error either in lacking compassion or in rejecting truth.
There are real people struggling and real victims of this dehumanizing worldview, some of whom sit with us in church every Sunday. God’s Word is a lighthouse for those battered against the rocks. It points the way to Jesus and true abundant life. If we would live authentic lives of faith and love our neighbors well, we need to understand the moral crisis happening around us and what God has to say about human dignity and value.
The main reason to address moral issues is that they bave become a barrier to even hearing the message of salvation. People are inundated with rhetoric telling them that the Bible is hateful and hurtful, narrow and negative. While it’s crucial to be clear about the biblcial teaching on sin, the context must be an overall positive message: that Christianity alone gives the basis for a high view of the value and meaning of the body as a good gift from God. In our communicaion with people struggling with moral issues, we need to reach out with a life-giving, life-affirming message. We should work to draw people in by the beauty of the biblical vision of life.
As one Christian psychologist puts it, the goal is “more rescue mission than culture war.”
~Nancy R. Pearcy, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Modern medicine and its capabilities have raised all kinds of ethical dilemmas. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. The difficult question for the physician is where to draw that line. When does prolonging death move into merely increasing suffering? If we always fight to the bitter end, can we unintentionally make the end more bitter? These are hard questions and Gawande emphasizes the importance of knowing the patient. What is important to them? What qualities of life are they willing to exchange for a greater quantity of life, and what are the non-negotiables?
He also points out our failures as a society to provide the aging with dignity by maintaining a meaningful and purposeful existence for them. We often resort to treating them as children, removing all risk and all choice in pursuit of their ultimate safety, but in denying them risk and choice, we deny them the very things that make our lives our own.
When I first started this book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought it might contain a treatise for euthanasia and assisted suicide as an approach to aging and suffering, but that wasn’t the case. He gives one section to this topic, and although Gawande says he would support laws to provide these kinds of prescriptions to people, he acknowledges that we damage entire societies if we let providing this capability divert us from improving the lives of the ill. Assisted living is far harder than assisted death, but its possibilities are far greater, as well. In the throes of suffering, this can be difficult to see. (Gawande, Being Mortal)
Instead, Gawande encourages a greater understanding of the dying role (or the process of dying) and advocates for hospice and palliative care.
This book is approachable and compassionate and made me think and rethink about the issues it raises. Aging, death, vulnerability…these are topics our society finds uncomfortable to discuss or even consider until absolutely necessary, yet, they are a part of every human experience. Consideration of how we handle these processes is important in a world where the capability to do much good can easily slip into the capability to do much harm.
“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”
~Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers by Harry Bernstein
Harry Bernstein wrote The Invisible Wall when he was 93 years old. In it, he records what it was like growing up poor and Jewish in an English mill town during the early 1900s. On the street where he lived, the Jews resided on one side and the Christians on the other with an invisible wall separating the two.
Bernstein’s sister does the unthinkable and, supposedly, the unforgivable. She falls in love with a Christian boy from the other side, and he falls in love with her. Will their love be a bridge over the wall, or will it create new walls and greater separation?
Bernstein is a compelling writer, and you will quickly become invested in the lives of this Jewish family struggling under the weight of poverty, addiction, and prejudice. You will feel deeply for his mother who fights unflinchingly to save her family from the intense poverty and the abusive father constantly threatening them, and you will long for an answer that exists outside the pages of this book and outside the brokenness of this world.
The experiences of young Harry Bernstein expose the futility of religion and man-made systems to answer man’s greatest need: to be reconciled to God and to each other in love.
For all our religions and all our systems, we (and the world we continue to make and re-make) remain desperately broken. Is that not the very reason Jesus came? To destroy the invisible walls separating us from God and each other? These are the questions I asked myself while reading this book.
Although the story Bernstein shares is a hard one, he writes with a warmth that will invite you to draw closer to the light of his tale. You will likely have a hard time putting this book down once you start it.
“We’re not very different from one another, not different at all in fact. We’re all just people with the same needs, the same desires, the same feelings. It’s a lie about us being different.”
~Harry Bernstein, The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers
Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
Carolyn Weber arrived at Oxford University as an agnostic feminist in pursuit of her dreams. She thought she knew herself and the path she was on, at least generally. Don’t we all? But her entire life was about to change. The one thing Weber had not counted on discovering at Oxford was God.
This memoir of coming to faith is moving, beautiful, challenging, and smart. My heart swelled at times with the power of her words and I would have to set the book down and process it for a while before continuing on. I will read this one again. It deserves and even requires a second pass.
There is nothing more powerful, more radical, more transformational than love. No other substance or force. And do not be deceived, for it is all of these things, and then far more than that. It can’t be circumscribed by our desires or dictated by the whim of our moods. Not the Great Love of the Universe, as I like to call it. Not the Love that set everything in motion, keeps it in motion, which moves through all things and yet bulldozes nothing, not even our will. Try it. Just try it and you’ll see. If you love that Great Love first, because It loved you first, and then love yourself as you have been loved, and love others from that love…WOW! BAM! Life without that kind of faith-that’s death. Therein lies the great metaphor…Life without faith IS death. For life, as it was intended to be, is love. Start loving and you’ll really start living. There is no other force in the universe comparable to that.
Flavia de Luce Novels by Alan Bradley
I grew up devouring Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Sherlock Holmes and love a good mystery. Alan Bradley has created one of the most delightful and memorable sleuths in young Flavia de Luce, an eleven-year-old with a love for chemistry and a penchant for solving murders, and has also gifted us with a small English town set in the 1950s, rich in history, and inhabited by so many wonderful and interesting people you will want to pack your bags and visit immediately. Or at least I do.
I found myself torn between gorging myself on its pages and, yet, wanting to chew on every word slowly so it didn’t come to an end.
Fun, exciting, endearing, and unforgettable. Need I say more?
( I highly recommend you read it in order, so I’ve linked the first book in the title. Also, this series is narrated marvelously by Jayne Entwistle on Audible. It’s one that I am tempted to recommend listening to over reading yourself. The narration is that good.)
“I found a dead body in the cucumber patch”, I told them.
“How very like you,” Ophelia said, and went on preening her eyebrows.
~Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie and would recommend anything by her. This mystery, though, is one of my favorites. It had been so long since I read it the first time that I greatly enjoyed reading it again.
If you’ve never read it yourself, it’s a good one to add to your list for 2020.
Trapped on an island, ten strangers (each with a dark secret) are staying in a mysterious mansion at the request of an unknown and absent host when they begin to die one by one.
Who is the murderer? Is it one of them? Is there someone else on the island? And why were they invited to the island to begin with? Will anyone survive? All good questions with which Christie does a brilliant job of entangling her reader. You will be caught in the suspense until the end.
(Christie isn’t called the Queen of Mystery for nothing.)
There was something magical about an island—the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world—an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps, from which you might never return.
~Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None