I have the most trouble narrowing down over 100 books into a list of the top ten, or even the top twenty. So I'm not going to. Instead, I am going to pick ten books I have something to say about. Ten books that made me think or made me dream or made me angry even. I don't know. I haven't picked them yet as I'm writing this. I'm going to pick them as I go through my reading list for 2015.
“What if living my entire life in the buckle of the Bible Belt had given me not only a narrow view of the world but also a narrow view of my faith?”
This title caught my eye on the library website and I borrowed it for Kindle. I spent Christmas reading it straight through, which is something I rarely do with nonfiction. The author is from Alabama and decided to explore Christianity in other cultures. What is it like to be a Christian growing up and living in China? Spain? Uganda? Australia? The result is a book that combines a few of my favorite things: interesting facts, travel stories, and broadening spiritual horizons. Travel always gives me new meat to chew when it comes to my faith. I cannot tell you how our Holy Land trip opened my eyes to realities about Israel and Palestine and made me dig deep into my opinions on the whole situation. I wish everyone could travel there and to other places around the world. I wish everyone had the chance to step outside of their own life and experience someone else's. Empathy. Empathy is what keeps us from being selfish and unloving. We need more of it.
“[T]he time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—”
I reread To Kill a Mockingbird over Thanksgiving so I could finally read this sequel. Only it isn't a sequel, not in the truest sense of the word. It reads, to me, like the book Harper had to write to get to Mockingbird. Most of us writers do similar. The first book we put on paper is often thinly disguised autobiography. I am no exception. I have a manuscript from ten years ago that is based on a relationship from my own high school days. The story just poured out of me, and I mistook that urgency for good writing. I had to get it out, and now it's out, so I can go on to write better things. Go Set a Watchman feels like that, like Harper returned to Alabama and had all of these big emotions and opinions and ideas, and she had to get them out, but where? She didn't live in a time where she could blog all about it and find like-minded readers.
This book made me think a lot. Since reading it, I find myself imagining my own return to the tiny town where I was born. I didn't grow up there, so it isn't exactly the same as Scout's experience, but I think my return would feel similar. I don't see myself as a "liberal" but standing next to 99% of the residents of my hometown would make me look like the biggest liberal to ever live. I love my hometown. I love Eastern Kentucky. It is a beautiful place, and I often long to be there. But I know my opinions and the way I approach my faith would make me stand out there in a way I don't here. And that's saying something, because I often feel different here in Mississippi as well.
“It’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend.”
This book was on my to-read list for a long time. I heard nothing but good about it. This year, my youngest son had to read it for school, and he was obsessed with the story. It was the first time I saw him really fall in love with a book that wasn't Diary of a Wimpy Kid or the like, if you know what I mean. He was reading and thinking and exploring deep ideas. It was a truly beautiful thing to watch. Of course, that was the nudge I needed to finally read Wonder myself. I was instantly in love. I see why this book has captured so many hearts, and I wish I could make every child read it. Heck, I wish I could make every adult read it. Like I said above, empathy matters. When we build empathy, we build peace and love and understanding, and we need all of those things in spades. If you haven't read Wonder, read it. Buy it for your kids. Buy it for your grandkids and nieces and nephews.
by Francesca Zappia
“Believing something existed and then finding out it didn't was like reaching the top of the stairs and thinking there was one more step.”
I have thought a lot about this book since finishing it. It was well-written and highly readable. I loved the characters. There was so much good in its pages. What kept me thinking about it, however, was the portrayal of "Schizophrenia." I have a friend with a child living with it, and there were so many details that did not ring true to me. Of course, every person's experience with a disorder or illness will be different. So I can't say for sure the experience portrayed in this book could never be accurate. I simply didn't know, so I did some Internet searching and found a psyche student who was asking similar questions. The student pointed out a lot of inaccuracies. Still, I don't know. I just don't know. I wish I could hear from some people living with Schizoaffective Disorder. What do they think of the portrayal of their struggles?
Some of you are thinking, "It's just a book," and I get that. I write stories. I love that I can make things happen and change things to suit my purposes, because I'm the author. The problem is, when I'm using a real issue that real people are facing, I'm called to a certain level of respect and authenticity. Personally, I live with chronic depression, and if someone wants to write a character living with chronic depression, I want them to do a good job of it. Because what they write will affect how their readers think about chronic depression. That's what good fiction does. It builds empathy and understanding. I don't want people getting wrong information about my illness.
The author of this book is a good writer with an awesome ability to tell a story and draw you in. I hope her book brings good things for people living with Schizoaffective Disorder. I'm glad I read this book. It gave me a lot of food for thought about my own writing and how I portray the issues facing my characters.
by Rachel Held Evans
“I am writing because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties,”
I sobbed through most of this book. If any of you have followed my posts on Middle Places, you know I have been living in a sort of faith crisis this year. I have battled with my view of the Church, and I have felt a lot of anger and bitterness. If I weren't married to a pastor, I can't promise I would not have given up at some point. I'm glad that hasn't been an option for me, because the fruit of my continued wrestling match has been worth it. At the time I picked up this book, I was feeling very alone in my struggles. I wondered if I would ever get past them. Every other page had me crying, "me too" and, well, just crying. The right book at the right time can mean the world.
by Amélie Sarn
"I don't want to be afraid of Majid or anyone else. I don't want to live in fear. I don't want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don't want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself."
As I said, I think empathy is the key to peace in our world. One of my favorite things about fiction is how fiction can build empathy. When you read a book, you step inside someone else's story. You walk in their shoes and live their life for a while. This book allowed me to step into the world of a young Muslim girl living in a land not her own, surrounded by a culture that does not understand her. You will feel fear and sorrow and anger and remorse while reading this novel. It is beautifully written and well worth reading.
"and moments when I have to pause / catch my breath / hold on to a branch / and not because I'm tired / or lost my balance / but because I'm seeing you, / Ruth, / alone / in Osgoods' orchard / setting down your pack / having chosen / your tree"
I picked up this book because one of my reading challenge categories was "A Book by an Author with my Initials." I might never have found this little gem otherwise, and I am glad I did. The book is written in verse, a format that intimidates me. As a poet, I feel like I should be able to write a novel in verse with my hands tied behind my back, but when I try, nothing comes. This one was beautiful, and the subject matter was hard but important. Bullying is a big topic right now, and this novel touches on a kind of bullying similar to what I experienced in middle school. It is often subtle but also direct and make the target feel so unworthy of breath... Well, you will just have to read it.
“There's always a story. It's all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything's got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”
This is the second in the Tiffany Aching set of books, considered to be young adult fiction. I happened to be reading this novel when Sir Terry passed away. My dad introduced me to Terry Pratchett in middle school, when he handed me Mort and then Soul Music. Since then, I get in Pratchett moods and have been slowly picking my way through Discworld. He is my dad's favorite author, and I often joke that my dad is the American version of Sir Terry. Pratchett's death was a reminder that I cannot keep people forever. Stories end. Or, perhaps stories never end, but eventually you have to quit reading. You have to close the covers.
by Ava Dellaira
“But we aren't transparent. If we want someone to know us, we have to tell them stuff.”
I got this book for Christmas last year. I asked for it because my agent mentioned that something about the feel of my manuscript reminded him of Love Letters to the Dead. Of course, that made me anxious to read. My copy has one of those really soft covers that are comforting to pet. My husband finds it odd that I pet books, especially when I pet them in public. But, what can I say, books are like babies to me. Each one is someone's baby, and they deserve to be loved.
This one? I feel like all I should have to tell you is the first line: "Dear Curt Cobain." You know you want to read it now.
by Cammie McGovern
“There isn't any one big test or way to validate ourselves in the world. There's just a long, quiet process of finding our place in it”
Often, when a main character in a book has some sort of disability or illness or disorder, the whole story is about that one issue. What I loved about this book is that it wasn't about Amy having cerebral palsy. It was about Amy. It was about Amy falling in love and making mistakes and, you know, being a teenager. I don't want to say what mistakes she makes or what crazy things she does, because learning about that is part of enjoying the story. I listened to this on audio while packing for our move to Olive Branch, and it was very very good. I will pay attention to this author.