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.

Favorite Fiction for Fall

My goal this year was to read more fiction. (I feel like this is a perpetual goal…) I love reading good fiction because it expands my worldview, makes me think about people and places I don’t normally interact with, and can dig into topics and issues in creative ways that is often difficult for an essay or nonfiction format.

FavoriteI just scrolled through my Goodreads shelf and tallied up 17 fiction books so far! I’m impressed with myself and would say I’m doing pretty well with this goal. With the school year underway and autumn just around the corner, I thought I’d share some fiction reads that will get you thinking about deep topics but with a compelling narrative.

(These are just five of my favorites. For a more comprehensive list, check out my Goodreads shelves or let’s connect on Instagram, where I often share my current reads.)

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward is a masterful storyteller. I read both Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing this year and they both count as favorite reads. Salvage the Bones is the story of a family in the days before Hurricane Katrina. This intense novel tackles family, poverty, and the systemic structures that impact families who are more at risk when natural disasters strike. I was drawn into Esch’s story and felt that Ward handled teen pregnancy and all its complexities well.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I found this novel to be an excellent follow-up to discussions around America’s industrial prison complex. Books like Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson have brought a lot of the injustices around incarceration to light and Jones is able to take the reality of those injustices and dive into them through this novel. The story follows Celestial and Roy, newlyweds who are separated within the early years of their marriage by a false conviction. The book dives into the reality of being separated, of how prison changes a person, and the pervasive injustice people of color experience in the court system.

Untitled designEtta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
I read this book after a string of intense reads (see the novels above!) This magical story of three childhood friends in Saskatchewan was exactly what I needed. The plot toggles between present-day and World War II. I don’t want to give too much away, but keep in mind this genre is magical realism. Hooper uses magical twists in the plot that enrich the entire story but if you’re looking for historical fiction, this will be confusing.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This book received a lot of buzz last year, and for good reason. Ng weaves a deep story of suburban life, image and identity, foster care and rights, and our own prejudices when viewed through the lens of “doing good.” I think what makes this novel worth reading is that you will find yourself or your views portrayed somehow. Each character is developed in a way that brings to light many common ideas and ideologies of success and the American Dream. The themes in Little Fires Everywhere will make you examine your own good intentions and their roots.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I had this book on my shelf for a while and Frank devoured it earlier in the summer. I knew I had to pick it up and I’m so glad I did. Saunders weaves seeds of historical truth with a swirling world of the afterlife. His political commentary is powerful because of the setting and use of character. This is a novel that takes a little getting used to, as the style is written theatrically rather than narratively. If this has been on your to-read list for a while, I’d recommend moving it up. I’m glad I did!

What genre do you have to be intentional about reading? Any other fiction recommendations?

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

Favorite Books of 2017

It’s the week of lists and favorites as we prepare for the new year. As of right now, I’ve Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 10.39.10 AMread 67 books and am hoping to hit 70 by the end of the year. I did a better job than in years past of balancing fiction and nonfiction reads. I also tracked my page goals and found that they matched up pretty well with the number of books I read. I feel like I read a lot of great books this year, probably because I’m learning to be pickier about what I choose and about dropping a book that I’m not connecting with. I thought I’d compile a list of my favorite reads of 2017, in case you were looking for a way to spend some gift cards. Most of these books have made it into other lists and references throughout the year but these are the ones worth mentioning again.

Fiction

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
This beautifully written novel follows the men of the first exploration to the interior of Alaska was well researched and thought-provoking. Ivey weaves maps, journal entries, and letters to tell the story of Alan and his new wife, Sophie, who is left behind in Washington as he leads a group of men on a harsh expedition. Ivey’s writing style is engaging and I’m thinking of starting 2018 with her earlier work, The Snow Child.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is a book everyone should read. Following two half-sisters from Ghana, one who marries an English colonist and stays in Africa, the other who is sold into slavery in America, we see the history and repercussions of colonialism and slavery as each chapter flows into the next generation. The format is powerful as Gyasi points out the direct results of actions three hundred years ago to what is happening in modern society. I’m currently reading Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which pairs well as a nonfiction account of laws and practices that have continued nearly two hundred years later.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
These powerful short stories follow Vietnamese immigrants following the American war in Vietnam. Some stories take place right after the conflict; others are reflections twenty years later. As with powerful fiction, Nguyen is able to weave facts, history, and important commentary into his stories. Frank recently took my library copy of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which seems like a good pairing.

American War by Omar El Akkad
As with most dystopian novels, this one had parts that hit a little too close to home. But Akkad’s view of the future seemed plausible and, while I didn’t connect with any of the characters, I also had trouble putting the book down. It gave me a lot to think about without being too heavy-handed.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
I will read anything written by Roxane Gay. Her subject matter is gritty and raw but these stories are important. However uncomfortable the topic, Gay reminds her readers that these stories are based on actual experiences. She doesn’t sugarcoat life and I always close her books feeling that I’ve gained empathy for the stories and struggles of others.

Nonfiction

Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein
This book (and Orenstein’s TED Talk) has started a necessary conversation about how we’ll model and present healthy views of sex to our girls. It’s no shock that our culture needs an overhaul in how we treat women and deal with sexual misconduct. I don’t know the big answers to that, but I do know that I want to raise strong girls who have a healthy view of themselves and their sexual experiences. Girls and Sex was the starting point I needed.

Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour
My year has been marked by learning more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Blood Brothers was a good starting point. Written by a Melkite priest, Chacour’s family has lived in Galilee for centuries. This book reframed the conflict for me and added depth that is so often lost in the media’s portrayal of this seemingly two-sided issue. Paired with The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan, I’d recommend either book as a place to dig deeper into the stories of this region.

Adopted by Kelley Nikondeha
I had the honor of being on the launch team for Kelley’s powerful book but it’s one that has stayed with me. As an adoptee and mother of adopted children, Kelley brings her experience of adoption into her theological readings. Kelley digs into the sacrament of belonging – that Christianity is built on the idea of adoption and what that means in our relationships with God and one another.

Mending the Divides by Jon Huckins and Jer Swigart
Another book centered around Israel and Palestine, Huckins & Swigart dissect the story of the Good Samaritan in asking, Who is my neighbor? As they ask this question and center their search around peacemaking, they also give practical advice and help in creating peace from a grassroots level. They helped me look into my own family as a place to start working toward global peace.

Slow Reads

I’ve been reading the following three books all fall and they are ones worth taking slow. I’ll read a chapter or two a day, sometimes leaving the book for a few days before picking it up again. This is not normally how I read and I’ve found it so rich and satisfying. As I look toward 2018, I want to be sure to keep some of these slow reads by my side.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
This memoir is one I’d recommend everyone read. When I read the news and wonder how we have created systemic injustice, Douglass answers those questions. His own story of life as a slave is powerful on its own but Douglass includes societal commentary that helps me understand how certain policies and practices were put in place and are still considered normal.

In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan L. Richardson
This book is worth reading just for Richardson’s reframing of the “sin of Eve.” Leading us through powerful women in church history, Richardson gives insight and blessings to help us on the way. Reading about the church mothers is a reminder to reach back in history and immerse my own experiences in the stories of those who have gone before.

This is Not a Border, edited by Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton
These reflections and essays from the annual Palestinian Festival of Literature have been powerful and heartbreaking. Included are insights from Palestinians, Jewish authors, British and American artists, and other creatives who have participated in PalFest. Their insights and reporting into what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank have given faces and stories to an underrepresented people.

Of course, I have so many more favorite reads of this year – it was hard to narrow down! Check out my Goodreads shelves if you’re looking for other recommendations. In the past, I’ve set goals and made lists for my reading. This year, in taking over the Red Couch Book Club as well as some other projects and focuses, I’m not really sure how I’ll set and track my reading goals in 2018. I do know I want to read more women of color and will be more aware of how I choose the books I read.

What were your favorite books of 2017? How do you track your reading? Anything you’re looking forward to reading in the new year?

What are You Listening To? #trypod

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image source: NPR

NPR has declared March the month to Try a Podcast, or #trypod. I’m pretty new to the world of podcasts – most of our car music is geared to my preschool passengers and I just can’t seem to focus on talking while I’m doing chores.

But there are three and a half podcasts I listen to constantly. If not every episode, then most. Because (according to NPR) people listen to podcasts based mostly on recommendations, I thought I’d share and I hope you share yours, too!

Smartest Person in the Room
This is my “half” listen. Laura Tremaine tackles topics such as Hollywood and Religion. I find if I’m interested in the series, I’ll listen to the whole thing. But if I’m not, I just skip it. The nice thing is that the seasons are set up to do just that and as she creates more episodes, there will be more to draw from.

Sorta Awesome
I’ve been listening to Sorta Awesome for almost a year. It’s a fun, breezy, girlfriendy sort of show. I think it satisfies the voyeur in me – I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a fun conversation. Some topics totally resonate, others don’t. I’ve learned that abandoning an episode is ok. But I still look forward to their new ones each Friday.

Popcast
This is another one I’ve learned to abandon if I just don’t connect. I’m not hugely into pop culture, so a lot of the references are lost on me. But the dynamic between Knox and Jamie is wonderful and this is the podcast that, if I need to laugh until I get teary, I’ll turn to. They manage to find the balance between teasing and making fun of people that makes life a little lighter.

Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
Now that I’ve finally read (and loved!) the Harry Potter series, I’m also loving all things Potter-realated. This is a beautiful discussion on how to look at a fantasy series aimed at young readers as a sacred text. Each episode focuses on one chapter, so I’m still in the first season. But I savor each episode and always walk away with a new perspective. Caspar and Vanessa make incredible connections and dive deeper into the text and our current culture. I can’t recommend this one highly enough!

Are you into podcasts? What are your favorites?

Favorite Museums

I mentioned earlier that the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum are doing a joint exhibit of works from the Albright-Knox Gallery (DAM) and a reimagining of Clyfford Still’s 1959 show at the Gallery (CSM). I’m excited about these exhibits: Modern art is one of my favorite periods (along with Spanish Baroque) and I feel many people have a misunderstanding of the process and method behind modern painting. These exhibits are accessible to the entire spectrum of art inquirer to enthusiast, and I hope you’ll take advantage of this incredible collection if you live in the area.

Intersection of Clyfford Still & Denver Art Museums
Intersection of Clyfford Still & Denver Art Museums

When Frank and I were dating and sharing travel stories, I was shocked that he went to Europe, to Rome and Paris and London, and had not gone to any museums. How on earth could he experience the culture without seeing the art?! He pointed out that I may overestimate the number of travelers who seek out museums in new cities.

As an Art History student in Paris, we would spend our lectures in museums. I went to the Louvre and the Orsay on a weekly basis. We would visit the Picasso Museum and the Rodin as a class. Once a semester, each class would go on a study trip to another city to look at the collections and museums there. I experienced London, Rome, Bruges, Ghent, Munich, Basel, all through the eyes of my professors and the time period we were exploring. While I certainly haven’t been to most museums (Art Institute of Chicago…), I thought I would share my Top 5 favorites (so far!) in no particular order:

1. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA
Frank and I first went to the Barnes when it was still located in Marion, outside of Philadelphia. The original house still functions for classrooms and gardens, but the art collection has moved into the city. I’m so glad our first experience was at Dr. Barnes’ house. The intention behind each placement and attention to detail is incredible. Because everything from the Manet to the molding is carefully thought through, I would highly recommend getting the audio-guide. After much controversy, the Barnes was moved into the city, just a couple blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was skeptical of the recreation and we put off visiting the new space. We decided to go last Christmas, and I was amazed: The museum looks exactly like the house but better suited for more visitors and much more accessible. If I could only visit one museum again, I think it would be the Barnes. The diversity of the collection and the attention to education make each visit dynamic and the collection itself is incredibly accessible to the most novice of art lovers.

2. Foundation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland
I first went to the Beyeler in college as part of a modern art class. We spent the weekend in Munich and Basel, studying the work of pre-World War II artists. I loved the Beyeler in the same way I do the Barnes and the Getty: It’s always interesting to see the types of pieces an individual will collect and equally interesting to see how the collection is presented to the public. My favorite pieces in the Beyeler were the Rothko paintings and the Giacometti sculptures. I remember sitting on a bench, surrounded by the deep colors of Mark Rothko and feeling at peace.

3. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY
I think I’ve been to the MoMA every time I’ve visited New York. It’s an amazing collection and easy to navigate. They also have a whole (small) room of Italian Futurists, one of my favorite movements. I love Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, and it’s always fun to spend some time with it. My last visit was especially memorable, as it was the day Frank proposed. I had wanted to see their special exhibit of Van Gogh’s night scenes. It was the first time I had traveled to a city specifically for an exhibition. Frank suggested I fly into Philadelphia and we drive up to the city together. The Van Gogh exhibit was amazing – such a unique way to look at many of his famous paintings (Starry Night, The Potato Eaters) next to lesser-known works to create a story. Frank intended on proposing at the exhibit, but it was so crowded, he switched plans to Central Park. I look forward to when Bea is old enough to visit.

4. Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy
I was first introduced to this gallery on a visit to Rome with a class about collecting called Princes and Patrons. We visited various personal collections around Rome and learned about the importance of the taste of collectors to the history of art. I went back by myself on a spring break trip to Italy and loved it even more. Bernini is one of my favorite sculptors, and this gallery is worth visiting just to see his David and Apollo and Daphne. Another private collection, the paintings and sculpture are diverse and span the centuries. The surrounding park is equally amazing and worth a picnic lunch, if you’re ever in Rome.

The park at the Villa Borghese
The park at the Villa Borghese

5. Musée Rodin, Paris, France
Located about a five minute walk from my college, I used to take my books and a lunch and study in the gardens. I love house museums, as you get such a feel for the artist beyond the works he produced. This one is crammed with sculpture and sketches and is so amazing to think of Rodin creating molds and casts in the middle of Paris. The gardens are perhaps my favorite, just to wander around. I would sit under a tree by the Gates of Hell, reading about the very artist who created it. Some days, when living in a city seemed overwhelming, I would bring a novel, journal, and sit in the peace of the garden.

As I began thinking about this list, I realized I have so many “favorite” museums for a variety of reasons. I decided to stick with 5, so as not to overwhelm, but had to include these Close Runners-Up: Tate Modern in London, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Musée Picasso in Paris, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

Do you visit museums when you travel? What are some must-see museums you’ve been to?