2019: My Year in Books

Total Books: 171

This year I read fewer books than in 2018, but since I invested in some truly long and/or challenging works, I guess it mostly evens out.

Total Pages: 49,427

The longest book I read this year was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, at which point my workflow exploded and my series re-read derailed. I plan to circle back in 2020 and finish up, though.

Breakdown by Category

Please enjoy some highlights from my year in books. I’ve arranged the categories in descending order according to how much time I spent in each.

Christian Theology/Spirituality

Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack by Alia Joy is both beautiful and poignant. The author has an important message, and she communicates it so skillfully and with such grace that I wish the book were twice as long. I read it early in the year, but I continue to ponder the message and will likely do so for a long time.

Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity and Jackson Wu’s Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission paired so well together. Both books are keen and thoughtful, clearly underscoring just how deeply embedded in Western thinking my biblical understanding has been. Through these reads, I’m able to grasp now more than ever all the ways in which rather than allowing the Bible to impact my culture, I’ve allowed my cultural practice to inform my understanding (and therefore application) of the Bible. The past two years have been a journey for me in this particular area, a journey that will likely only continue in 2020.

Another great book pair I took in this year: Mary Beth Swetman Matthew’s Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars and Paul Harvey’s Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History. I could easily have listed these two books in my section accounting for historical reads; however, what I learned in their pages had such a deep impact on my understanding of how American history, ecclesiology, and theology have intertwined, that I name them here.

The contents of these books are prime examples of what I mentioned in the paragraph above: all too often, rather than letting theology impact culture, American churches have been guilty of letting cultural practice inform their understanding and practice of theology.

Honorable Mentions:

Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of our Identity in Christ, multiple authors, edited by Melissa Kruger

God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

General Adult Fiction

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha did a number on my emotions. As I read, I felt angry, sad, worried, grieved. The characters felt real to the bones, and I was totally hooked and invested in their stories from Chapter 1. Though this is a work of fiction, the facts align so closely with real events (that of the ’92 LA Riots) that it’s particularly unsettling. Recommended for those who can handle heavy themes.

I’ve been making up for lost time with Zora Neale Hurston, and this year marked the first time I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, at least as an adult. (I no longer consider the half-hearted read I gave it in high school because it’s clear to me now I must have understood next to nothing.) Janie is a powerful character, and I’ll be thinking about her for a long time. Incidentally, I’m currently living very close to the area where the latter half of the book plays out (Belle Glade), and that only intensified my enjoyment in this read. Hurston captures the essence of South Florida (and hurricanes!) quite accurately.

Honorable Mentions:

Silence by Shūsaku Endō

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

There There by Tommy Orange

Biography/Autobiography/Memoir

This year, I devoured memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies like never before. I’m not sure why, to be honest. Much like food cravings, book genre cravings come and go seemingly of their own volition. For whatever reason, it was a wonderful and fruitful year for this category.

In June of this year, I visited the Rosa Parks museum in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s when I got the first inkling that her legacy as I’d learned it in school was partially mythologized. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis confirmed it. She’s quite different from what I’d assumed. Complex, interesting, and largely misunderstood in the mainstream historical imagination.

It was on that same trip that two friends sat across from me at a breakfast cafe and delivered an impassioned defense for Tara Westover’s Educated. Now that I’ve read the book, I understand why they couldn’t stop talking about it. Westover’s experiences are so raw and painful. I ache for her trauma. There are limits to all memoirs, and the author’s limited perspective, while fully acknowledged by her, likely runs deeper than she realizes. Several comments she makes toward the end especially drive this thought home to me. But still, this has proven one of my most memorable reads of 2019.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah is another of this year’s reads that I would never have picked up on my own. Thankfully, after multiple recommendations from people whose reading taste I admire, I checked it out. I’m so glad. I knew little of Noah going in (other than that he’s a TV personality) but was instantly hooked by his engaging narrative voice and the way in which he details his relationship with his mother, whom he clearly loves deeply. The affectionate antagonism between the two was, for me, the stand-out feature of the book; but I also appreciated the depth afforded by Noah’s observations of life in South Africa, both before and after Apartheid. Compulsively readable and surprisingly poignant. I walked away wishing I could be best friends with his mom. (Also: I fail the pencil test.)

I don’t often cry over books, but I cried over Rachael Denhollander’s What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. The trauma inflicted on these women and girls, the amount of absolute mountain-moving strength and tenacity required to seek justice, and the world’s willingness to turn a blind eye–it’s all devastating. My respect for Rachael Denhollander has been high since first hearing her deliver her victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing; but after reading this book, it’s through the roof. I thank God for her even as I grieve that this happened to her (and to so many others). Please read this book and confront the critical question posed by the author: “What is a girl worth?”

Honorable Mentions:

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

History

My enjoyment in Michael Breen’s The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation was only heightened because I read it while preparing for (and then while on) a trip to Korea. As an English consultant and journalist who’s spent decades in Korea, Breen brings to the table a wealth of experience and insight. He also has a positively delightful turn of phrase.

Even though I’ve spent the last few years reading up on these matters, some of the details in The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby still surprised me. Tisby provides much-needed context to conversations I’ve participated in myself and watched unspooling online over the past few years. Without properly understanding history, we’re much less capable of analyzing the present. This is a great resource toward advancing the conversation by bridging that gap.

The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War by George L. Hicks is the second book I’ve read in recent years concentrating solely on the plight of the WWII Comfort Women. The other book (Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women) was published more recently, and therefore contained updated information on government responses and moves toward reparations. However, Hick’s book did a great job of showing the big picture.

Honorable Mentions:

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th-Century New York by Stacy Horn

Narrative Non-Fiction

Mitchell Zuckoff’s newest offering Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 is a clear, comprehensive, and compassionate account, both of individual stories and of the large-scale event. Zuckoff masterfully captures the chaos and confusion of that day. It’s just heartbreaking. I didn’t expect to have such visceral emotional reactions while reading, but between the grisly details, the overwhelming scope of the tragedy unspooling page by page, and the personal emotional resonance experienced as my own memories of that time came bubbling back up, I honestly had a hard time getting through it.

It is with great sadness that I discovered Spying on the South Travels with Frederick Law Olmsted in a Fractured Land is the final book we will have from Tony Horwitz. (He died while on tour promoting it.) That said, this book is so great. Literally following in the footsteps of another writer (Olmstead) who traveled the American South pre-Civil War, Horwitz revisits the locations highlighted in Olmstead’s Cotton Kingdom, providing thoughtful and timely commentary. Truly wonderful work.

Peter Hessler‘s books never disappoint. I’ve read them all and kept loose track of his career since his River Town days. He’s only grown as a storyteller and observer since then. In The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, Hessler outlines the lives of specific, ordinary Egyptians post-Arab Spring, framing his observations within the context of Egypt’s ancient historical roots. I toyed with listing this new one in my history section; but honestly, in keeping with his other books, he’s really only using Egyptian history as a jumping-off point to understand modern issues. I’m always eager to see what/who he will use as a framing device to shape his larger narrative and found his choices this time around particularly compelling.

Honorable Mentions:

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story f the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar

Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town by Bryan Mealer

Young Adult Fiction

After having my hair blown back last year by Angie Thomas‘s The Hate U Give, I made time for her second book, On the Come Up. I loved the relatable inner conflict of trying to be yourself in the face of people’s crushing expectations. I also loved the rhymes, and I liked the central character, Bri. Despite the fact that the plot is largely driven by her impulsive, teenagerish mistakes and tunnel-vision choices (or perhaps because of that), Bri comes across as very relatable. I found the secondary characters likable and well fleshed out. The overarching external story goal (will Bri make it as a rapper?) felt a bit less compelling than her inner journey (will she find a way to be true to herself?).

To date, I’ve adored every Stacey Lee book I’ve read, including The Secret of a Heart Note, which is a simply lovely story centering the most classic YA themes imaginable: friendship, first love, and finding yourself. In Lee’s hands, however, nothing feels worn or trite. It’s all big feelings, warm fuzzies, deep insecurities, and the occasional belly laugh.

Psychology/Sociology/Politics

Early in the year, a friend who’d read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion loaned me her copy and asked me to read it so we could discuss it together. And what a lively discussion it was, with each of us finding points of agreement and disagreement with Haidt. Haidt’s research uncovers some fascinating tendencies in human behavior, and he’s a clear and interesting writer, so despite the length of the book and the intellectual footwork necessary to keep up, I didn’t have much trouble making my way through the text in a couple of days. But though I fully engaged with the ideas in Part 1, my interest in successive sections waned. I’m glad to have engaged with this material, however, if only because it’s helped me understand just a bit better how (and why) people reach differing moral conclusions.

I wish I could make The Problem of Slavery in Christian America by Joel McDurmon required reading. I read this whole book slowly and carefully (including the appendices!) and found it incredibly helpful in informing my understanding of what went on theologically in America down through various historical periods. This is a nation that purported itself “Christian” and in favor of liberty and justice for all–yet cherished chattel slavery. How did people like Whitfield and Edwards (and so many others) justify their behavior? There’s much here to lament, as well as eye-opening parallels to how the generational repercussions of slavery are being addressed (or not) by Christians today.

Honorable Mention:

“Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum

LitCrit/Language/Writing

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch was so, so enjoyable. Informative, witty, and observational, it’s one of the few books I read this year that actually made me SAD when I realized it was ending and the rest of the pages were notes and citations rather than more material. If you’re into analyzing language and culture, don’t let this one pass you by.

I’m rarely one to turn down a book about books, which is why Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books has been on my radar since it launched. I finally got my beady eyes on a copy and was delighted. Even the essays focusing on books and short stories I haven’t yet read were enjoyable.

In Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, the author connects key events in Orwell’s life to the development of his best-known work. I found the final chapter the most enlightening, in which Lynskey underscores Orwellian thought and processes alive today; and since this is a new release, the social and political implications all feel very fresh.

Honorable Mentions:

Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life by Thomas J. Terry and J. Ryan Lister

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

Fantasy/SciFi/Steampunk/Dystopia

Most of this year was absorbed in re-reading the full Narnia series, plus restarting Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Honestly, I have no idea what prompted this, but I’m enjoying revisiting these worlds and plan to complete the latter two series in 2020.

Other than those gems, the only thing that stood out for me in this category was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which read as fun, geeky wish fulfillment. The story took a while to get rolling, and some of the 80s cultural references were lost on me (I’ve never been a gamer), but the overall plot kept me invested. Would have gladly traded some of the lengthy descriptions of in-game shenanigans for more character development, though.

Essays/Short Stories

I don’t read a lot of short stories, but I make an exception for Ha Jin. The stories in The Bridegroom are set in China post-Cultural Revolution, but it was hard to narrow down a more exact time frame. (No specific years are noted, but the book first released in 2000, and there’s mention of Deng Xiaoping.) As always, I find his writing beautiful but unsettling. I always want happier endings for his characters than what they get, though what they get usually feels realistic. Sometimes depressingly so.

Honorable Mentions:

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Books by Friends

This is a catchall category for actual close friends and friendly internet connections I technically haven’t met “in real life” just yet. Sort yourselves into categories: you know who you are!

If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have noticed that sometimes when I read books by friends, I forego giving star ratings. That’s because I have very complicated feelings about awarding stars to people I know in person. Hopefully in 2020, I’ll sort myself out emotionally and figure out how to do this without breaking out in hives.

Dangerous to Know by Megan Whitson Lee – One thing I love about Megan is her consistent willingness to tackle complicated topics. In Dangerous to Know, she gives us a fictionalized retelling of Lord Byron’s marriage to Annabella Milbanke. It’s difficult to watch central character Isabella Bankmill deal with her marriage to Lord Bromby, but it’s also relatable. Who among us doesn’t have at least one friend or loved one dealing with a complex relationship to a challenging spouse? I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I’m satisfied with it from a storytelling perspective because I think it’s the most realistic scenario that could have played out under such circumstances.

The Reactionary (The Rogues #3) by Kristen Hogrefe – Book 3 had some surprises in store along with satisfying developments to wrap up the trilogy nicely. I was a bit thrown by the viewpoint shifts (a change in this installment from the first two books); but honestly, that didn’t mar my enjoyment of the trilogy as a whole. I’ve enjoyed watching Kristen’s career develop over the last few years and look forward to what she has in store for us next.

Desolate Paths by Erin Unger – As someone who doesn’t typically read romantic suspense, this read was outside the norm for me, but I did enjoy it. I especially loved the uniqueness of the concept. What a fresh setup!

Flowers from Afghanistan by Suzy Parish – This is definitely a tear-jerker, but a bittersweet story leads to a satisfying end. Aside: All the mentions of treats and coffee drinks gave me serious snack attacks. Even now as I’m typing this, I think about how this book gave me coffee cravings the entire time I was reading. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

The War in Our Hearts by Eva Seyler – So much about this book was completely unexpected (which, if you know the author, is not unexpected! LOL.) It’s such a unique blend of gentle emotion and the brutality of war. I wouldn’t have picked it up if not for our personal connection, but I’m glad I read it.

A Serial Killer’s Daughter by Kerri Rawson – Exactly as the subtitle suggests, this is one woman’s journey of faith, love, and overcoming as she attempts to reconcile what she understands about the father who raised her with the man he actually was behind the mask. My heart truly goes out to Kerri.

Christian Mission: A Concise, Global History by Ed Smither – In this slim volume, Smither lays out a no-frills overview, perfect for gaining big-picture perspective.

Prophesy Hope! An Advent Reflection on Hope, Peace, Love, and Freedom by Danté Stewart – I actually got my hands on this early and read it in the days leading up to Advent. Danté draws heavily on the Black American church tradition for this rich Advent offering.

Off-Script & Over-Caffeinated by Kaley Rhea and Rhonda Rhea – This isn’t a genre I read very often, but I stumbled upon Turtles in the Road (the first book from this writing duo) last year and happily queued up for an early-release copy of their second offering. The same wit, charm, and warmth are all here in good measure. If you’re in the mood for a fun set-up, relatable characters, and great dialogue, this might be your next read.


On the lookout for your next good read?

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Join us for 2020: A Year of Books!

Each month during the next year, I’ll be sending a recommended set of titles for you to consider. No forced discussions, no homework, or anything like that. Just fresh reading recommendations casually delivered to your inbox on the first day of every month: fiction, non-fiction, classics and new releases, accessible Christian theology, well-known authors and debut writers, you name it.

Come join us!

Let’s make 2020 our best reading year ever.


Happy New Year, everyone!

May your 2020 be filled with satisfying work, enjoyable recreation, and tons of great books.

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