book reviews, comics, faith, history, humor, literature, nature, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s hard to narrow down a year’s worth of reading to a manageable list of the cream of the crop, but I’ll try.  From the books I read in 2016, here are the fifteen books I would most recommend.  First are the top three essential books that I would most enthusiastically recommend to anyone.  The other twelve were also great, and I recommend them heartily, too.  If you want to check out last year’s list, click here.  Like last year, I’m putting them in the order that I read them.  Unlike last year, I’m including longer excerpts from my reviews to give a fuller recommendation.  But if you’d like even more, click on the title of the book for the complete review.  Now to the books!

The Top Three

Evicted (Matthew Desmond)

“an essential book.  Please, please, read it.  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  […]  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.”

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

“a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  […]  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.”

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

“an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  […]  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.”

And all the other great ones

Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

“It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  […]  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.”

Our List of Solutions (Carrie Oeding)

“a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.”

Sula (Toni Morrison)

“a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  […]  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.”

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

“There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.”

This One Summer (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki)

“a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  […]  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.”

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)

“I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  […]  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.”

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

“a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.”

Does Jesus Really Love Me? (Jeff Chu)

“a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  […]  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.”

Thunder & Lightning (Lauren Redniss)

“an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)

“a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book.”

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

“a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  […]  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.”

Julio’s Day (Gilbert Hernandez)

“a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.”

I mentioned in my last set of reviews for 2016 that I don’t plan on doing my monthly roundup of mini book reviews anymore. However, I’ll still do a best books of the year feature of the books I liked and would most recommend. I’m already working on that list. I hope I find as many good ones as this year.

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book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature

Book Reviews, March 2016

The book reviews for this month are another varied bunch–a historical mystery, some short stories about a party, a coming of age graphic novel, and a book about the Bible.  The last one goes longer than usual since I had a lot to say about it as it relates to my recent wrestling with modern scholarship on the Bible.

  • The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) is an intriguing mystery from British history.  The Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg and bored out of his mind.  Friends visit him and bring him books to read, but it isn’t until he becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III that he engages his deductive skills.  He wonders what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, Richard’s two nephews who most everyone believes that Richard himself had killed in order to secure the throne.  Grant has trouble reconciling the awful crime with the face of the man in the portrait, so he sets out to figure out the mystery of what happened to the two boys once and for all.  It’s a fascinating historical whodunit (and often funny), tracing various historical sources with a detective’s eye for evidence and motive.  I especially liked how it emphasized mythmaking in the historical record and how those myths can come about.  I was able to follow the historical characters and events, but I have some familiarity because of the many British literature courses I’ve taken.  I now wish I had paid even more attention to the history bits in those classes.  My only complaint is that the front cover of the book had the blurb: “One of the best mysteries of all time,” which raised my expectations too high.  I enjoyed it plenty, but it probably never could have lived up to that statement.
  • Mrs. Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf is a collection of stories that serve as a good companion to her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway.  From the introduction to the book we learn that the stories were written at the same time as or just after the writing of the novel, the latter of which was especially unusual for Woolf.  She usually moved on to something different when she completed a novel.  But she was interested in what she called in her writing diary “party consciousness,” that something about the gathering together of so many people under one roof that was both more artificial and more real than everyday life.  In the course of seven stories we encounter a guest whose speech would fill a book and others who stand on the fringes hardly able to utter a syllable.  There are misunderstandings and miscommunications as social opposites are introduced to one another.  One woman worries the entire night about having worn the wrong dress that is not the current fashion.  She had thought to wear something unique, but instead ruminated on the decision the entire party.  Another man thought that he was so above the other party goers and their frivolity that he could barely deign to converse with anyone, and when he did it was with only the utmost condescension.  I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book, but I have to say that it works best as a companion to the novel.

this one summer

  • This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, is a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  Rose and Windy are like most kids: they want to grow up.  They talk about their soon to be developing breasts.  They go to the tiny convenience store to buy candy and rent classic horror movies, which they watch to feel older.  The 18 year old guys who clerk at the store don’t care that they aren’t old enough to be renting R-rated movies.  Those guys are fascinating to the girls, but the girls can hardly put into words how they make them feel.  The guys have their own drama with the young women their own age in town, which Rose and Windy watch as well, trying to figure out what is going on.  And in her own cabin, Rose’s parents are having conflicts that she thinks she gets, but like most everything else, she misunderstands what’s really going on.  It’s a beautiful story.  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.  I would definitely recommend this book.
  • Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns is an essential book.  I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  In three main sections, Enns looks at supposed problems in the Old Testament that his incarnational analogy help resolve.  The first is the matter of the close parallels of material from the Old Testament with Ancient Near Eastern literature.  For example, the epic of Gilgamesh has a flood story that possibly predates the account in Genesis.  The law code of Hammurabi of Babylon has laws that are similarly worded to laws in Exodus.  Enns points out that the Bible is part of the cultural context in which it was given, meaning that the law codes should be similar and it should have similar myths concerning origins (myth here meaning a story to explain who we are and where we come from, not that it is made up).  The second section deals with the diversity of the Old Testament.  By diversity, he means that there are multiple voices speaking, sometimes in tension.  For instance, in Proverbs sometimes the wisdom that is expressed in one verse contradicts what one finds in another verse (e.g. Proverbs 26:4,5 “Do not answer a fool..” vs. “Answer a fool…”).  It turns out that the wisdom of Proverbs is situational.  Another example that is even more forceful is the difference of the historical account in Chronicles with the similar accounts in Samuel and Kings.  The account in Samuel and Kings emphasizes the centrality of worship, and the kings are evaluated on their ability to centralize worship in the temple (i.e. get rid of the high places and Baal and Asherah worship).  The texts were likely written during the exile in order to explain why they were in exile.  It was because they didn’t follow God and get rid of idol worship that they were handed over to foreign powers.  But in Chronicles, which in the Jewish Bible is placed at the very end after all of the prophets and not directly after Kings, the point is to explain how they can be God’s people after the exile.  It is from the point of view of those who returned back to the land and began again with Ezra and Nehemiah.  Chronicles emphasizes the unity of the people and elevates the stature of figures like David and Solomon making them into heroes (much like American history often elevates the Founding Fathers, glossing over their failures).  I first encountered this multi-voiced history of Kings and Chronicles in Josh Way’s excellent podcast on the Bible (click here to listen or read the transcript).  Enns points out that diversity in Scripture is to be expected because God is speaking to different situations throughout Israel’s history, accommodating himself to wherever they find themselves at that point.  The third section concerns the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.  The gospel writers and Paul use the Old Testament verses in ways that we wouldn’t normally consider proper if we heard them used in the pulpit on a Sunday.  They seem to wrench things out of context at times in order to make their own point.  One example includes Matthew’s insistence that Jesus going to Egypt with his parents to avoid Herod is a fulfillment of prophecy in Hosea.  But the context of the passage in Hosea is looking backwards to Israel being delivered from Egypt, not a forward looking prophecy about the future messiah.  Matthew appears to be quoting out of context.  But he is merely using similar methods that were used at that time, the Second Temple period.  The writers in the New Testament are showing how passages in the Old Testament point towards Jesus, even if they are not direct prophecies.  Enns introduces the word christotelic, in that the history of Israel in the Old Testament is leading towards and is fulfilled in Christ.  My version of the book (the second edition) had a helpful postscript that reiterated his points and dealt with some of the reactions and arguments that his book elicited when it was first published ten years ago.  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.
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