It’s been a weird, long year. Fortunately, it hasn’t been devoid of simple pleasures, as I’m reminded while perusing my reading list for 2016. A great many of the books I read this year were delightful. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith tops that list. The Justice Calling by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson is another, as is Rich Mouw’s timely new intellectual memoir. I was also floored by Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, though I was admittedly late to the snake-handling party on that one.
In retrospect, it was an especially memorable year for music books, which had a lot to do with months of eager anticipation for Oldchella. In preparation for the “catch ‘em before they croak” festival, I read John McMillian’s Beatles vs. Stones, which had grabbed my attention during a visit to Posman Books in Chelsea last December. At the recommendation of my uncle Larry, I deepened my Bob Dylan nerdom by reading the wonderful Dylan Goes Electric!, which happens to be about much more than the fateful night of July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival. And while it wasn’t exactly a literary highlight, I read the weird and rambling Waging Heavy Peace, which I reviewed on Goodreads thusly: “Neil Young is a masterful songwriter. Unfortunately, he’s a very bad book writer, and it took a great deal of perseverance to get through this one.”
Unrelated to Oldchella, I devoured Robert Hilburn’s magisterial Johnny Cash: The Life, followed by Forever Words, the newly released collection of Cash’s poetry. And let’s not forget the first volume of Nothing But Love in God’s Water by Robert Darden, which traces the history of old African-American spirituals up to the role of sacred music in the civil rights movement. So, so good.
Switching gears, I received further confirmation that I’d married well when Katie gave me two baseball books for Valentine’s Day. One of them in particular, The Glory of Their Times, was a real treat for this baseball history buff, just in time for the start of Spring Training. Soon afterward, thanks to a tip from my architect friend Nick, I read an obscure, out-of-print book called City Baseball Magic. It was written in 1989 by Philip Bess, who teaches architecture and urban design theory at Notre Dame, and who also happens to be a baseball fan. I loved everything about the book except its length – 64 pages went way too fast! While we’re still on the subject of baseball (thanks for bearing with me), I’d be remiss not to mention the late relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry’s appropriately quirky book of poems, as well as Shipwrecked, a “peoples’ history” of my beloved, but generally terrible, Seattle Mariners.
In an effort to better understand the little corner of the world where I live, work, and play, I picked up How to Read the American West, a coffee table-like book all about the different layers – geographic, cultural, historical, you name it – of this vast, wildly diverse part of the country we inhabit. It taught me to see the desert with new eyes. I also read two books seeking to make sense of the past, present, and future of Phoenix – Grady Gammage’s The Future of the Suburban City and Jon Talton’s A Brief History of Phoenix. Talton and Gammage come at the topic from different vantage points, and I commend the careful reading of both.
Turning my attention to the south, I also read some memorable, important books about and by our Latin American neighbors. The sociologist Christian Smith is probably best known for his later work on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but it turns out that earlier in his career, his research focused on Latin American social movements. Smith’s 1996 book Resisting Reagan is about three responses to the suffering and dispersion of Central Americans during the tumultuous 1980s. It’s long and academic, but I found it fascinating through and through, and it triggered my imagination as I think about a Christian response to the needs of those fleeing poverty and violence today. I also read A History of Violence by the Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez, which is brutal but essential reading for anyone interested in understanding what now ails the “northern triangle” of Central America. Late in the year, on a visit to our beloved Changing Hands bookstore, I picked up How to Travel Without Seeing on a whim, and it turned out to be a surprisingly fun book to read on the plane back to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving.
Last but not least, I read something like 15 works of fiction, a healthy dose amidst all the other, well, nonfiction books. Pax, a children’s book by Sara Pennypacker, was hauntingly beautiful and I haven’t been able to shake it. Another memorable novel was Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa. It takes place during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, and I read it while visiting the Emerald City over the summer, which certainly added to the emotional effect it had on me. This was also a year in which I re-read a pair of arresting novels by twentieth-century Catholic authors – The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene and Silence by Shūsaku Endō. Both feature flawed protagonists who wrestle with faith and doubt, sin and faithfulness, suffering and hope. In a year as weird and woeful as this one has been in so many ways, both novels rang especially true.