The greatest gift I gave to myself this year was permission to read for at least 30 minutes a day. No matter how many dirty dishes were in the sink, no matter how high the laundry pile grew, no matter the pull of a thousand other responsibilities. Thanks to two helpful tools (I plan to write more about how this combination of resources is helpful to me!), warming up my reading muscles became a priority which eventually developed into a habit. As my reading habit grew stronger, I became confident that stretching my mind was a good thing – for myself and for my husband, children, and friends.
It was also just plain fun!
Out of the fifty-two books I read this year, some were surprising, some were challenging, and some will occupy a permanent spot on my to-be-loved-forever list. Here are the titles that made a particular impact on my heart and mind. I’ll include the What of the book (a brief synopsis thanks to Amazon.com!) and the Why behind my decision.
Best Fiction – Adult
I’ll Be Your Blue Sky: A Novel
On the weekend of her wedding, Clare Hobbes meets an elderly woman named Edith Herron. During the course of a single conversation, Edith gives Clare the courage to do what she should have done months earlier: break off her engagement to her charming—yet overly possessive—fiancé. Three weeks later, Clare learns that Edith has died—and has given her another gift. Nestled in crepe myrtle and hydrangea and perched at the marshy edge of a bay in a small seaside town in Delaware, Blue Sky House now belongs to Clare. As she peels back the layers of Edith’s life, Clare discovers a story of dark secrets, passionate love, heartbreaking sacrifice, and incredible courage. She also makes startling discoveries about herself: where she’s come from, where she’s going, and what—and who—she loves.
I was blown away by the unexpected depth of storytelling and character development as the story alternates between Edith’s life in the 1950s, and Claire’s in the present day. The contrast between genuine love – based on friendship and trust – and the damaging effects of an abusive relationship provides a poignant backdrop for this page-turner that kept me hooked until the end. This easily became my most recommended fiction read of the year.
Best Fiction – Young Adult
In this companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, Doug struggles to be more than the “skinny thug” that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam.
Schmidt succeeded in giving me (a thirty-something woman in 2018 Midwest) great compassion for an eighth-grade boy living in 1960s upstate New York. I appreciated the importance of inter-generational relationships, the value placed on creativity (I will never look at Audubon’s Life of Birds in the same way), and the emphasis on relationships moving toward ultimate redemption.
Best Non-Fiction – Christian Living
Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer
Composed as a collection of fictitious dispatches to his friend, Malcolm, C.S. Lewis examines prayer in its form, content, and regularity, and the ways it both reflects our faith and shapes how we believe.
While I was reading Lewis on the Christian Life , I found that most of my heavily underlined sections were direct quotes from Letters to Malcolm. The primary source did not disappoint with its brief, yet punchy chapters and Lewis’ unique gift for giving equal weight to physical and spiritual realities. His ability to acknowledge human experience without detracting from the glory of God is unparalleled and a great blessing to my soul. I think of his description of a liturgy being like “understanding the steps to a dance” every time we go to church.
Home Education (The Home Education Series) (Volume 1)
The first book in Charlotte Mason’s “Home Education Series,” Home Education is a collection of six lectures detailing Mason’s philosophy of education, particularly as it applies to the education of children under the age of nine.
I grew up seeing my mom’s copies of the Home Education series (such pretty pink copies!), and it felt like a rite of passage to be able to read them for myself. Reading Mason’s own words gave invaluable context, particularly to the topic of Habit Training and the basic “instruments of education” which I’m trying to implement in our home. Out of all of the helpful non-fiction books I’ve read this year, Home Education claims the prize for being the most whole-life changing (and challenging!).
The Scarlet Letter (Bantam Classics)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter reaches to our nation’s historical and moral roots for the material of great tragedy. Set in an early New England colony, the novel shows the terrible impact a single, passionate act has on the lives of three members of the community: the defiant Hester Prynne; the fiery, tortured Reverend Dimmesdale; and the obsessed, vengeful Chillingworth.
The first surprise was that somehow I had neglected to read this American classic until this year, despite my affection for 19th-century literature. The second surprise was how much I enjoyed this book. I was struck by the character development of the main characters, both for good and for evil, as well as the driving pace of the narrative. Hawthorne’s discussion of repentance and absolution of sin is worth considering. The reality that women must carry the consequences of a socially unacceptable (however mutual) sexual encounter is a timeless issue.
Best of 2018
Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Theologians on the Christian Life)
Rigney explores the center of Lewis’s vision for the Christian life—the personal encounter between the human self and the living God. In prayer, in the church, in the imagination, in our natural loves, in our pleasures and our sorrows, God brings us into his presence so that we can become fully human: alive, free, and whole, transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
The introduction of the book speaks of a book club being the best way to encounter Lewis’ writings. Rigney does a masterful job of creating that experience through a thoughtful, yet also whimsical, discussion of the main theological themes of Lewis. I greatly appreciated the careful handling of some of the sticky issues of Lewis’ theology. If you’ve never read Lewis, read this book. If you’re looking forward to hanging out with Lewis forever and consider him to be one of your best friends, read this book. the pages of my copy are heavily underlined and I know it will be a regular re-read. I’m not ashamed to say that the chapter on eternity made me bawl. The very best. Please read this.
Bonus – Other Notable Titles
These are the books that made it to the final Best of List, but just couldn’t quite make the cut.
Code Name Verity – My fear of emotionally intense wartime novels was trumped by the twisty plot and the overarching themes of heroism and friendship.
Stardust – A jolly little page-turner which proves that adults need new fairytales, too.
As You Wish – A contender for the Most Surprising category, I loved this account of the making of The Princess Bride (I suddenly had lots of interesting movie facts to share with my film-fact-collecting husband).
As Always, Julia – A curated collection of letters between Julia Child and her friend, Avis de Voto, this book combined three of my favorite things: letter collections, friendships which develop through correspondence, and cooking.
Dorothy Sayers: Her Life and Soul – Dorothy Sayers has my undying devotion, and this excellent biography helped me understand how her spirited personality produced some of the most incredible novels and thoughtful essays of the 20th century.
Cheers to a year of reading! And may 2019 be filled with the best books.
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