Best Books of 2019

This year was a slower year of reading. Part of this is that my time has shifted, as it does every year with school and seasons. Partly it’s that I read longer and deeper books, which I needed. I still finished 66 total and of those, 20 were 5-star reads.

I won’t share all of those best reads here (you can check out my Goodreads page for all my reading lists and reviews) but I wanted to highlight some of my absolute favorites and am aiming for a mix of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

It’s interesting doing year-end reviews. Some books that I gave 4 stars, I remember with 5-star fondness. And some of my 5-star reads aren’t as memorable as I thought they would be when I finished reading. But I never go back and change reviews. I like to trust the process and the fact that I felt something at the time after finishing a book. So, these are the 5-star books that stuck with me and that I’d recommend to almost anyone.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
This book had been on my radar for a while but after taking an Indigenous Voices class where it was highly recommended by both our teacher and a guest speaker, I knew I needed to read it sooner. I had read The Lost City of Z by Grann and loved his style. Killers of the Flower Moon did not disappoint. Delving into the Osage murders that happened in Oklahoma at the beginning of the twentieth century, Grann combines incredible research, solid journalism, and engaging storytelling to remember the lives of those who were murdered. He also weaves in the formation of the FBI and its role in the investigation. This is a must-read for many reasons––Indigenous history, a perspective on a powerful institution’s beginnings, and a reminder that we must continue to pay attention to stories that aren’t part of mainstream history classes.

Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart by Alice Walker
I started the year reading much more poetry than I ended the year, which is something I’d like to remedy. I loved starting my morning with a mug of coffee and a poem or two as we eased into the day. Alice Walker’s most recent collection of poems were quite political but they made me think. Walker helped me look at the news through the lens of people who don’t look like me, who aren’t in my same socioeconomic bracket, and who are impacted by policies and decisions that don’t necessarily impact my own life. The format of these poems made me pause and reexamine in ways that only poetry can––opening the eyes of those who are looking.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I hadn’t read an epic generational novel for a while and Pachinko didn’t disappoint. The plot follows four generations of a Korean family who moves to Japan before World War II, and who stays through its reconstruction. Lee tells their story in a way that helped me understand a region and history I hadn’t known about before. She also wrote in a way that I could connect attitudes toward immigrants in my own country, regardless of how long they’ve lived here. Lee’s storytelling and ability to connect the past to current events makes this book feel like a timeless classic.

Voice of Witness Oral Histories by McSweeney’s
There are about ten volumes in this series, ranging from stories of those locked in solitary confinement to refugees who have settled in the United States to those who survived Burma’s military regime.

I read three this year: Palestine Speaks, edited by Cate Malek was in preparation for my trip to Israel-Palestine. The stories were powerful and mostly from the perspective of Palestinians living in the region, though Malek chose to include two narratives from Israeli perspectives, which strengthened the collection.

Underground America, edited by Peter Orner followed the stories of those who have come to the United States and have stayed without proper paperwork. Some stories highlighted how easy it can be to extend a temporary visa; others were about human trafficking; and still others were about those who make the treacherous journey across deserts for an “illegal” border crossing. All of these stories helped build empathy and made me remember that there are no easy answers when it comes to undocumented immigration.

Lastly, I read Hope Deferred, edited by Peter Orner about the lives of Zimbabweans living under the terror of Robert Mugabe. I was especially interested to read this, as we have dear friends from Zimbabwe. They would allude to stories but I never fully grasped the terror of those decades of violence and disruption. This was the hardest of the books I read in this series. Many of the governmental crimes are unimaginable and, while none were described in a gratuitous way, it became difficult to read after a while.

I’ll be returning to this series in the new year. My hope is to read a couple of these books a year, to gain perspective through the power of listening (or reading) the stories of those who have lived through what have become political stands.

On Writing by Stephen King
I try to read a couple books about the craft of writing each year and King’s had been recommended by a variety of writers and readers. This book, which is part memoir and part guide, is a reminder of just why King is such a successful author. His storytelling is incredible and his attention to detail impressive. On Writing inspired me to pick up more of King’s work and I plan to read more in the years to come. I’d recommend this to anyone, regardless of an interest in writing.

Runners Up (Because it’s hard to narrow down such awesome reads!)
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Calipso by David Sedaris
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Womanist Midrash by Dr. Wilda Gafney
The God Who Sees by Karen Gonzalez
Circe by Madeline Miller

For 2020, I want to read another book on writing, dive into the idea of pilgrimage in faith, literature, and poetry, and read a scholarly book on something. (I’m not yet sure of the topic!)

What about you? What books stood out for you this year? What are your reading goals for the coming year?

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

What I'm Reading This Advent

Advent started on Sunday and as I looked at my stack of current reads, I realized that they are all stories that are preparing me for this season of hopeful anticipation. I’m reading an actual Advent-focused devotional but my fiction and bedtime reads are pointing me toward reconciliation, as well. I’m in the midst of them so I can’t vouch for their endings but I thought I’d share what I’m reading right now at the start of this season.

Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro
We’re only on Day 2 but already we’ve covered loss and lament, waiting and hope. Enuma Okoro structures her daily Advent guide around Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist’s parents and Jesus’ aunt and uncle. Her reasoning is that they open the story in Luke with the all-too familiar humanness of wondering if God’s promises are true.

Each week focuses on a character or set of characters in the Nativity narrative and each day is broken into a small section of scripture around the week’s theme. So far, it’s just the length and depth I need for this season.

Beyond Our Efforts, A Celebration of Denver Peacemaking by The Center for Urban Peacemakers
This collection of essays, prayers, stories, and meditations is compiled in partnership with Mile High Ministries, whose board Frank has served on for the past year. Starting in Winter and working through the seasons, each section focuses on the radical work peacemakers are doing around our city. Even though its focus is Denver, I’d imagine this book would be encouraging for anyone engaged in the work of peace and reconciliation.

Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu
I’m just a few chapters into this journalistic memoir but I appreciate Chu’s attention to detail and efforts to truly uncover the varying sides of what it means to be LGBTQIA+ and a Christian. Chu’s background in journalism shines through in his interviews and research around the church’s recent stance on accepting and including those who identify as gay. While we have already gone through the process of inclusion as a family, we’ve recently joined a church on the cusp of these conversations and I realized I needed to refresh the whys behind my beliefs. Simply having friends who are LGBTQIA+ isn’t enough for those grappling with what they believe. Written in 2013, I wonder what has changed since Chu wrote this book but so far, it holds up to many of the opinions and questions I’ve heard recently.

I’m also (finally!) reading A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I had gotten it from the library over the summer but it got pushed to the bottom of the pile by more urgent return dates. Recommended by a variety of well-read friends, I’m looking forward to diving into this family saga.

And lastly, I’m just a couple essays away from finishing Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice, edited by Mae Elise Cannon and Andrea Smith. This is such a hopeful book, especially for those who were raised in the Evangelical church or who have ties to it. Often, it feels as though the church whose name means good news has lost the goodness of its way. And yet, so many are working toward the powerful liberative practices of justice and peacemaking. This book of essays gave me renewed hope for the church I grew up in and the denomination we now find ourselves attending. Also, the essay called “Liberating Barabbas” by Drew G.I. Hart is worth the price of the collection.

What are you reading during this season of hope and anticipation? What is renewing your sense of good news these days?

Review: Take Back Your Time by Morgan Tyree

This year was a pivotal year for my schedule. With Elle in school three mornings a week, I found myself with enough extra time to catch up on dreams and projects while also enjoying the last days of full-time stay-at-home motherhood. It took some weeks of adjustment, but I slowly found a rhythm emerging between time for writing and creativity, volunteering, and taking care of health and fitness.

Now, three months into our school year and with some awkward breaks to mix up the schedule, I’m realizing that I may need a bit more structure to my schedule. It’s one thing to think, Monday mornings are for writing! and quite another to sit down in front of my computer at the library and realize I have no idea where to start. I’m so used to squeezing life into the margins, the wealth of time was crippling!

Enter Take Back Your Time by Morgan Tyree. In this conversational but focused book, Tyree empathizes with women of all walks. From working moms to business women to stay-at-home moms, she understands the stress and struggles of time management.

I’ve read business-based books before and found them helpful – to a point. What I loved about Take Back Your Time is that Tyree acknowledges and affirms all sorts of time constraints. She writes specifically to a broad audience and I felt seen in the pages of her book.

Filled with easy-to-implement strategies and structures, Tyree gives her readers tools and resources to start their time management revolution right away. None of her ideas were so complex that I put them off for another day. They were all simple enough to start right away. She also reminds her readers that, like any habits, new structures will take time and tweaking. I loved that she recognizes that these aren’t systems that will be perfect right away – this is an ongoing practice.

If you’re in a place in life where you see spaces of time where you know its being wasted or misused, this is the perfect book for you. Tyree will help you hone your hours and emerge with more space in your days.

What are tools you use for time management? How do you prioritize moments in your schedule?

I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion,

Review: Nice by Sharon Hodde Miller

I had an experience recently where I tried to politely decline a request. I thought I had been clear, firm, and still nice the first time I said, “No, not right now.” The person asking kept asking… and asking… and asking. And each time I said no in a new and still polite way, it became harder. Finally after months, I found myself in a volunteer role I didn’t want and feeling quite resentful toward the whole experience.

In her book, Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More, Sharon Hodde Miller describes my experience. She says that niceness for the sake of placating and being polite can often lead to disillusionment and cynicism. Miller isn’t calling for people to be rude or inconsiderate but she does take the stance that we need to be firm, honest, and unwavering.

This starts with responses to requests but is rooted in our faith. In the context of White Churches who stayed quiet during the Civil Rights Movement, Miller reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s words from Birmingham Jail,

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail

Miller expands on King’s statement by saying that in pursuit of niceness, good Christians were, “…committed to the status quo than they were to justice. They were more committed to comfort than they were to courage. They had good intentions – great intentions! – but they weren’t willing to count the cost of them” (pg 77).

Throughout the book, Miller reminds her readers that the fruits of niceness can often be unhealthy and rotten. God calls us to a faith that steps out into the world of justice and pushing against the status quo. It is a faith that is uncomfortable and deep. This can make those around us feel uneasy but by sugarcoating injustices with the excuse of keeping the peace or being polite, we are failing the call of the message of good news.

I appreciate that Miller doesn’t call for unkind confrontation but rather thoughtful subversion and intentional pushback. She warns that niceness can lean to bigger divides than we realize while sacrificing the very character of Jesus.

This book came at the right time for me. It was a reminder to stand firm, not only in my boundaries with others but also in what I’ve learned about my faith itself. How do I engage in thoughtful conversation without ignoring my own convictions?

If you’ve ever been caught in an uncomfortable place because you tried to be too nice, this book is an encouraging reminder that we can be in community while also standing true to our beliefs.

Has being too nice ever gotten you in trouble? How do you balance politeness with conviction?

I received this book free from the publisher via Baker Books Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Balancing Environmental Disturbances

The more I learn, the more I unravel. Favorite childhood books are coming under scrutiny and it’s hard to balance nostalgia with a sense of doing better. Last week, I grappled with the idea of Intermediate Disturbance Hypothosis, the idea that too much disturbance is just as harmful as too little diversity. Here’s an excerpt––head over to SheLoves to read the whole essay!

My seven-year-old daughter and I just finished reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It took us all summer with stops and starts because of camping trips and visits with family. I was amazed at how engaged Bea was in the story since this was the first “capital L” piece of literature we tried.

About halfway through the story, Bea stopped me and declared, “There are no girls in this story! Why not?!”

I turned to the copyright page to check the publication date: 1937. We talked a bit about the time period in which Tolkien was writing—that fantasy wasn’t a “girl’s audience.” Bea wasn’t convinced.

When we finished the book, I asked her how she liked it. She decided it was good but added, “I’m writing two more versions. One with only girls and one with both boys and girls so that they’re even.”

I was recently talking with a friend about the books we read with our children. Should I get rid of all the Dr. Seuss books in our house because of his racist artwork? What about Ma’s fear of the Osage Nation as they built a cabin on occupied land? Should all our books pass the Bechdel test, requiring two named female characters to have a conversation with each other?

Our answer is no… not yet.

My husband read the entire Little House series with Bea. I’ve read The Hobbit with her. Our bookshelves still have well-loved copies of Hop on Pop and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? Our answer, as with most of our parenting choices, is really, let’s talk about it. Let’s think critically about our choices. But let’s not ban anything just yet.

As someone who values history and context, I want to raise my girls with a sense of place in time. We are not making decisions in a vacuum—the stories we hear, the politics we support, the ways we think about God are all products of hundreds of years of stories, literature, and collective behaviors. Some of these behaviors are unhealthy, both to us individually and to society as a whole. Most of our western nations have been built on the foundation of colonialism and slavery of some sort. We can’t escape it.

So how do we raise kids who are aware and knowledgeable? How do we start to repair the sins of the past? Head over to SheLoves to read the rest and join the conversation!

What foundational book do you find yourself questioning today? How do you hold the tension between growth and appreciation for the journey?

The Ten Blessings in “No Other Gods”

I’m over at SheLoves Magazine today introducing our Red Couch Book Club September read, No Other Gods by Ana Levy-Lyons. It’s a book about the Ten Commandments and shifting our view to that of Ten Blessings. Levy-Lyons helped me bring these ancient guidelines into my own daily practices. Here’s an excerpt. I hope you’ll head over to SheLoves to join the conversation!

This summer, my seven-year-old asked why we need speed limits. I thought a moment before replying, “Well, I think it’s because we have trouble loving our neighbors without rules. In a perfect world, every driver would be thinking about kids playing and other people on the road but sometimes we need laws to help us be safe.” We then went on to talk about other laws that would be solved by remembering to love our neighbor.

This is the crux of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments by Ana Levy-Lyons. She takes what can often feel like an obvious and antiquated set of rules and brings them into modernity. What do these practices show us about loving God and loving our neighbors?

I find it interesting that it took centuries of human existence before God had to explicitly spell out how we need to interact with each other. Maybe God held out hope that we’d figure it out through natural consequence? Regardless, after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus narrative, the people had trouble blending their routines and expectations. They needed guidelines and a set of non-negotiable boundaries and so the Ten Commandments were given.

I think most of us can map out these ten ways to live: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, honor your parents. These are guidelines that make any community run well. I mean, when’s the last time you really struggled with not stealing something or with murderous thoughts?

Levy-Lyons brings these commandments into a “Ten Blessings” type of practice. What does it really mean for us in the twenty-first century to not covet our neighbor’s property? What does it mean for people to honor their parents when they come from an abusive home? I think we’ve all seen how these rules have been distorted to benefit those in power but how do we live them out in our daily lives?

Through the lens of liberation justice, Levy-Lyons breathes new life into this text. Head over to SheLoves to read the rest and join the discussion!

Have you read No Other Gods? How do you incorporate the Ten Commandments into your life?

Review: A Standard of Grace by Emily Ley

Even as an avid journaler, I love the idea of a guided journal. I use journals to mark my days, make lists, sketch out ideas, and keep track of our rhythms but having something to stretch my thinking or turn my ideas in a different direction is appealing. I’ve browsed question-a-day journals and idea books in the aisles of Target and at stationary stores but nothing had ever jumped out.

When I saw A Standard of Grace Guided Journal by Emily Ley, my curiosity was sparked. I love Ley’s clean layouts and planner designs (though have never used one myself.) I decided to give it a try and have enjoyed her prompts.

The journal is divided into fifty-two sections with two questions per section. Because of my perfectionist tendencies, I decided to start the journal mid-April and complete two questions every week and a half or so. I knew that if I boxed myself into finishing it in a year, it would become a chore. For others, that sort of structure may be just what you need to cement a practice of journaling.

The prompts are geared for people who find themselves in the trap of perfectionism over grace. The themes and questions all revolve around letting go, leaning into the mess, and giving up the idea that life can be controlled. As someone who fits all those personality types, the questions are easy for me to think about and respond to. For those who don’t struggle with ordered tendencies, I’m not sure the journal would be as helpful.

My other caveat is that Ley’s audience is narrowed to married women of a certain economic bracket. The photographs scattered through the journal are all of families in environments that evoke middle and upper-middle class spaces. There are questions about spouses and children and an assumption that your home is large enough for hosting and entertaining. While the questions themselves are helpful, I wouldn’t gift this to any of my single friends or friends who may be struggling with dreams about children.

I’ve enjoyed responding to Ley’s prompts and will most likely finish this journal in the coming year. If you are someone who seeks the balance of perfectionism and grace, this would be a handy tool. I do wish the questions and structure were inclusive of a wider audience.

I received this book free from the publisher via BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.