You guys. 2014 was a YEAR. A lot happened, most of it not fit for a Facebook year in review. I went to LA, Mexico, Portland, Michigan, Maryland, and a monastery in northern MN. Life was hard. Relationships were strained and repaired. Following Christ wherever he leads in 2014 was a continual process of being wounded, a continual process of being healed. I am not a brave soul, so if I had my druthers I would not care to do it all again. But it happened, and I am so incredibly grateful.
One thing I did do a lot of this year was read. Being stressed and teensy bit desperate helped. So did the fact that I started to LOATHE television with everything within me. I just read, a bunch. Not everything was great, but I did manage to corral a nice bunch of books for y'all.
Here, in no particular order, are my favorite reads of 2014:
Works of Love Are Works of Peace: Mother Teresa and The Missionaries of Charity by Michael Collopy
The images in this large, gorgeous, black and white book are stunning--mostly of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. I don't think I can convey the power of the pictures of the Sisters and their volunteers holding people as they leave the world. Collopy's photographs are so powerful, they almost don't need words. But luckily Mother Teresa also took the time to say and write down some important treatises on what it means to love one another, and what it means to love the poor. The pictures juxtaposed with her simple beliefs about love and Christ and vocation make this into the best coffee table book ever.
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
John Wilson (of Books & Culture) asked if I would be interested in reviewing this book. After a brief look at the subject matter (vaccines) I thought nah. But I adore Graywolf Publishing and Mr. Wilson had a hunch I would be interested. And boy was I ever. This is hands-down the best book on fear and isolation and the myths we believe in regards to individualism and community. It's about a lot more than vaccines, but it does make a compelling argument for us all to lead more interconnected lives (and to live with our more vulnerable neighbors in mind). I would give this book to anyone, but especially new mothers and fathers. You can read the review in the January/February print edition of Books & Culture.
Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
What a year for essay collections! This one was lovely (although it does lag in spots). I just read a great review which mentioned that it is a bummer that it took a white woman with a veneer of intellectualism to convince us that essay collections were powerful--but hey, I will take it. I love it when people are fearlessly committed to mining the depths of their fears and questions, and this book certainly did that.
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor
I don't read a lot of fiction. In fact, part of the reason I read this was because I thought it was literary non-fiction. But nope--it's a collection of short stories that MUST be read in order (srsly). It is searing, beautiful, and reads so true and painful. Minor comes out of a fundamentalist background and is definitely chasing some demons (and forces us to face a few ourselves). I am warning you that the territory is rough, but well worth the read. If you aren't ready for a punch in the gut, maybe skip it. But I will feel sad for you.
The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
I met JWH this past summer and that guy is the real deal. I was so impressed with his character that I immediately went out and bought this book. My husband and I have been drawn towards reading about community and this is the best book I have read on the subject. It is humble, thought-provoking, and very challenging in forcing me to think through how vulnerable it is to commit yourself to being rooted in a place. I also love how he undercuts his well-thought out theology with stories from his friends and neighbors. I think Wilson-Hartgrove is one of the great listeners of our time, and we could all stand to learn from him.
Red Yellow Brown Black and White: Who's More Precious In God's Sight? by Leroy Barber
This is a challenging read. Barber exposes why there are so few people of color involved in missions and non-profit work, and it ain't pretty. As a white girl who moved into a diverse neighborhood (and who also works for a Christian non-profit) yeah, it stung a little--but in all the right ways. Some of the stuff I have been feeling in my spirit was laid bare before me, and it felt good. While it leans a bit too heavy on talking specifically about leadership, I still found this to be a valuable resource in working through my own vocation, and ways that I can do better. I urge you to read it!
The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day is my spirit animal. She is a scrappy journalistic Jesus-lover with a razor sharp tongue. I finally re-read her autobiography this year and loved it--the Catholic Worker truly is inspiring, and the history of where America was in Day's time was fascinating. That being said, I wish Day had been able to examine herself a bit more deeply (you don't get much vulnerability from her there) but it is an inspiring, flawed look at a movement which sought to love and serve the most vulnerable in our world.
Palestine Speaks: Voices from the West Bank and Gaza (Voice of the Witness)
I wrote about this book for the upcoming issue of the Englewood Review of Books. I stand by my claim that the Voice of the Witness series of first-person narratives are some of the most important works being published today. Oral histories are not sexy in a bloggy world, one where we listen to the loud and the brash and the (often) white and male. This book takes a look at what life is like in occupied Palestine through the varied eyes of many residents (including a few Israelis). I am a firm believer that our lives are enriched by getting to know people different from us, and reading first-person narratives is a smashing good step in that direction. Plus, this volume is smashingly edited. Go read it right now.
Women In Clothes edited by Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and Sheila Heti
This was my weird book of the year. This is a compilation of surveys that the editors asked over 600+ women to complete on the subject of clothes. It sounds incredibly boring except it turns out that how we present ourselves to the world says a lot about our inner lives. This book actually forced me to think through a great many of my life choices and attitudes, just by asking me about the clothes I wear (for the record, I dress to protect myself and be invisible and be culturally appropriate). This book is long, bizarre (one page will be about a fashionista paying $500 for a purse and the next will be interviews with garment workers in Bangladesh), and totally stretched my mind. I recommend it, especially if you (like myself) think that you don't care too much about clothes.
My Name is Child of God, Not "Those People": A First-Person Look at Poverty by Julia Dinsmore
Here's a thought: what if people who grew up in generational poverty wrote books on what it was like to be poor in America? It seems common sense, but there is a serious lack of these kind of books to be found. Julia Dinsmore (who I had the pleasure of meeting this summer) wrote a beautiful, hard, lyrical book about her life (and the lives of so many others). Seriously, the woman is a poet who is not afraid to say the harsh truths. She makes me uncomfortable in all the best ways, and she is truly someone who is listening to the Spirit of God. This book is a treasure. Read it, then give it to all of your friends.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Probably my favorite straight-up novel of the year. Adichie is so fast and smart and witty. The beginning of the book sucks you right in, and immediately you are engulfed in a book that is more about race relations in America than it is about the cross-cultural experience of being an immigrant. It is eye-opening, relentless, so readable. I hated the ending, but besides that this was the perfect blend of being engrossing while stabbing your heart with truth. I wrote an extensive review over at SheLoves (which you can read here).
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz
Ok technically I may have read this at the very end of 2013. It's the story of a journalist following two boys around one of Chicago's infamous low-income high rise apartments, chronicling an entire year with them will simultaneously getting hopelessly attached.. The writing is stunning, and achieves that rare feat of creating empathy and humanity while still exposing great dysfunction and chaos. There is a sense of dread as the pages build, as you watch the little boys start to build up the armour they need in order to survive. This book will wreck you, in the best way possible. And don't be fooled--although this book was written in the 1990s I am here to tell you that this other America is alive and well. I know this because I see it every day.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Here is my YA pick of the year. I went on a John Green bender where I read his entire oeuvre during my hard and dramatic summer and it honestly left me feeling a little ill (enough with the manic pixie dream girl tropes, John!). This book, however, sticks like meat to your bones. A love story between two teenagers becomes something much more--a book on acceptance and grief and poverty. I thought it was just lovely, and a super quick read.
Children of Crisis by Robert Coles
I have talked about this book before, but I have to mention it again. This wasn't the first year I read it, but I found myself cracking open the (huge) book and poring over the pages again this year. This is a pulitzer-prize winning feat of radical compassion disguised as journalism. In the 1960s Robert Coles toured the country and lived with the most vulnerable in America--the poor, migrant workers, native Americans, kids in the south--and he listened to them and recorded what they thought in their own words. He had them draw pictures and talked about what they meant. He wites eloquent treatises on the resilience and emotional bounty of people who have been left to dissapear by the rest of America. The New York Times called it the most important book of the century, and I don't dare disagree. This is a book to buy and spend the rest of your life reading and re-reading.
Honorable Mentions (books that were lovely, but I couldn't be bothered to type out any more paragraphs):
Free by Mark Scandrette
I am the Beggar of the World by Eliza Griswold
The Sacred Year by Mike Yankoski
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
The Intentional Christian Community Handbook
Also, to keep it real:
Books I started but Didn't finish (the fiction because I lost interest, the non-fiction because it was too much/too good):
The Goldfinch The Circle Let Us Now Praise Famous Men The Magicians A People's History of the United States Sabbath as Resistance in a Culture of Now With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
Do me a favor and check some of these out, ok? Oh, and please feel free to comment/point me to a list of your favorite reads of the past year.
And here's to finding ourselves in the words of another in 2015.