Happy twelfth day of Christmas! In lieu of twelve drummers drumming, I give you something even better: my twelve favorite books of 2018, listed by author’s last name in alphabetical order.
Everything Happens for a Reason (Random House) by Kate Bowler. The author, a divinity school professor who has studied the prosperity gospel, grapples with mortality in the face of a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis. This memoirish book is honest and raw, but it’s also hopeful. And really funny. Like this: “I read an article about how people in grief swear because they feel the English language has reached its limit in a time of inarticulate sorrow. Or at least that is what I tell people when I am casually dropping f-bombs over lunch as I explain the mysteries of Lent.”
All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner) by Anthony Doerr. I was several years late to this award-winning and mega-bestselling novel, but it lived up to the seemingly impossible hype. Having visited the St. Malo neighborhood in Oceanside, California – a community with architecture made to resemble the port city of Saint-Malo, France – I found myself caught up in Doerr’s immersive, imaginative writing.
Delta Blues (W.W. Norton) by Ted Gioia. As I noted in my books newsletter early last year, Gioia is a first-rate music historian (and musician!) who has written extensively on the intricacies of jazz. Having been on a bit of a blues kick myself for the past few years, this one came highly recommended and it didn’t disappoint. I’m especially grateful for the introduction to a couple of dazzling blues harmonica players whose music I continue to enjoy: Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Thirst (Currency) by Scott Harrison. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. But I’ve long appreciated Harrison’s storytelling ability as well as charity: water’s innovations in the nonprofit sector, both things of professional interest to me. Needless to say, I loved this one from start to finish. You don’t need to be a communicator at a community development organization to appreciate the warmth and good humor of this winsome, inspiring book.
The Monk’s Record Player (Eerdmans) by Robert Hudson. From my review of this genre-bending book last May: “Dylan and Merton never met, and it’s unclear how familiar the onetime self-described ‘song and dance man’ was with Merton’s work. And that’s precisely why this book, which weaves their stories together, is such an imaginative delight. Hudson, a Bob Dylan scholar who is also a member of the International Thomas Merton Society, writes from the heart about two figures that have meant a lot to him over the years – and it’s infectious.”
The Gospel of Trees (Simon & Schuster) by Apricot Irving. From my review of this MK memoir in July: “Irving is at her best when she reckons with the peculiar set of joys and sorrows known only to missionary kids. Recognizable to our entire cohort, there’s the experience of belonging to multiple cultures and yet truly belonging to none. Or of learning to find joy in simple things like climbing fruit trees and improvising rudimentary toys; meanwhile, feeling guilty for having access to ‘luxuries’ like electricity and running water and a navy blue passport – all of which lie well beyond the reach of our neighbors.”
Making Sense of the Troubles (Penguin) by David McKittrick and David McVea. It would seem nearly impossible to write about the Northern Ireland conflict from a place of impartiality, but this reporter and historian duo – both Protestants married to Catholics – appear to have done just that. While this approach yields a strange level of detachment, it also enables them to chronicle, from 30,000 feet, how and why Christian neighbors turned on Christian neighbors. And then, miraculously and somewhat anticlimactically, how the key players in the decades-long troubles finally decided to get along.
Hamilton: The Revolution (Grand Central) by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. When Hamilton came to Tempe early last year, tickets were $300 and up, so I knew this book would be the closest I’d get to the action – at least for a while. I read part of the hardcover book and listened to the rest of it as an audiobook. I also listened through the cast album while reading the lyrics and annotations in the book. All of it was a delight.
Paul McCartney: The Life (Little, Brown) by Philip Norman. Ever since seeing Macca perform at Desert Trip in the fall of 2016 – with a set list of 36 (!) songs and a spectacular show that ran into the wee hours of the morning – I knew I’d need to read this definitive biography, if only to understand how the beloved Liverpudlian who gave us such iconic songs as “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” could have also come up with such drivel as “Jet.” This was the longest book I read all year, and easily one of the most gratifying.
Advent (Eerdmans) by Fleming Rutledge. If you would have told me, at the beginning of 2018, that my very favorite book of the year would turn out to be a 400-page collection of sermons by an octogenarian Episcopal priest, well, I’d have been surprised. But here we are. I read this one throughout the month of December and was riveted and challenged, edified and encouraged. It’s a little repetitive in places, but it was exactly what I needed for Advent this year. If you’re interested, I shared a bunch of savory morsels on Twitter.
East of Eden (Penguin) by John Steinbeck. I’m not sure I enjoy Steinbeck’s books, exactly, but I appreciate why this one – like The Grapes of Wrath – has become a modern American classic. It is a story with staying power.
Sabers and Utopias (Picador) by Mario Vargas Llosa. At a time when political principles are an endangered species and essential institutions seem on the verge of crumbling, this collection of essays reveals a Nobel laureate with a durable, inescapable commitment to democracy, freedom, and human rights. It is a commitment that transcends parties and labels – even if it also, at times, leads to apparent contradictions (both publicly and in the author’s personal life). In this book, Vargas Llosa engages specifically with Latin American politics and culture in the second half of the twentieth century, but I find it instructive for our time and place as well, given the anti-democratic spirit of the age.