2011 was a great year in books, with a few exceptions. Here are my top 11 favorites:
Still Alice (Genova) - This was the first book I read this past year and my favorite novel. It was a page-turner and very thought-provoking. The novel is about a woman who gets early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The interesting thing about the book is that it is written in the first person. So, as the disease progresses, you are trying to piece together exactly what is happening using the words and gestures of others. As you read, you get a little muddled and disoriented, right along with Alice, but without being confused about the plot. It was expertly written and had wonderful themes. I insisted that Kevin read it so I could discuss it with him and he enjoyed it as well.
Pure Pleasure (Thomas) – This book gave me more to think about that pretty much any other Christian “sermon type” book I have ever read. In fact, while reading a lot of other books this year, I have thought back to Pure Pleasure in order to help me balance out some truths I have been wrestling with. The premise of this book is that Christians often lump sin/pleasure in one category and duty/holiness in another category. This is wrongful thinking. God is the author of pleasure and He delights to bless His children and give them good gifts from His hand. Maybe it’s just a matter of perspective, but this book made me more worshipful and more grateful.
Choosing to SEE (Chapman) – This book made my top list because it really struck a chord with me. I really appreciate people who are transparent and sincere. Chapman falls squarely into that category as she bares her heart and shares how God used tragedy in her life to shape and mold her to be more like Him.
When Helping Hurts (Corbett) – This is a book about alleviating poverty, both at home and abroad. This book was excellent and gave me a new perspective. It changed the way I think about trying to help people and get to the root of the problems faced by different cultures. The book differentiates between relief, rehabilitation, and development ministries and provides insight into when certain types of aid are more needed than others. 90% of American efforts are focused on relief ministry because it’s easy and quick and we can pat ourselves on the back and instantly feeling good about ourselves (and it’s easy to measure when giving a report to donors), when that is probably only 10% of the need here in the United States. There was also a very interesting chapter on short term mission trips.
Lone Survivor (Luttrell) – This is the mesmerizing true story of a member of Navy Seal Team 10 who was the lone survivor after a surprise attack by insurgents in Afghanistan. Luttrell has an incredible story, starting with his Seal training, his friendships with his fellow troops, the attack, and his subsequent fight for survival, and rescue by U.S. forces. This memoir is gripping and made me very proud of our men fighting overseas, and very proud to be an American.
The Glass Castle (Walls) – This was one of the most interesting memoirs I have ever read. Walls is a masterful storyteller. And to top it off, she has a fascinating story to share. The book had a wonderful hook at the beginning. Walls starts off describing herself as riding in a NYC taxicab, going to a party, and wondering if she is over-dressed for the occasion. Then, through the cab window, she sees a homeless woman digging in a trash can. Suddenly she realizes it’s her mom! This book stirred conflicted feelings within me. You have heard of the phrase “white trash,” but Walls was raised in that kind of family. At times, I felt that her parents really did love their children and they were doing the best they could. At other times, I felt like they were outright neglectful or worse. This book is fascinating and I loved it. Walls is a remarkable young woman.
Sacred Marriage (Thomas) –This is the best book on marriage I have ever read. It focuses more on marriage making you holy, as opposed to marriage making you fulfilled and happy. This book is uncompromisingly biblical and very insightful. Words are not minced. I was convicted by reading this book and also encouraged. Thomas has become one of my favorite Christian authors. This is a book I will read again.
The Case for Christ (Strobel) –I can’t believe I have had this book on my shelf for ten years and finally just read it this year. (This is why I am glad I have an accountability partner for reading these types of books!) I am really glad I finally gave this book a chance. Lobel was a hard-nosed Chicago reporter, who covered high-profile criminal trials for the Chicago Tribune. One day his wife came home and announced she had become a Christian. His world went spinning and he resented her decision. Then he decided he would at least look into Christianity, investigating it as he would any case. The book chronicles his journey from being a skeptic to becoming a believer himself. It forced me to delve into alleged controversies surrounding the Gospels and grapple with the underlying issues of my faith. In the end, my faith was greatly encouraged and strengthened. I appreciated how Lobel listed numerous books for further study after each chapter.
Oliver Twist (Dickens) –This is such beautiful and moving literature. Of all the classics I read this year, this was one of my favorites. Dickens does such a great job describing evil and filth but then contrasting it with descriptions of love and innocence.
Jane Eyre (Bronte) – Jane Eyre just might be my favorite book ever. I was completely moved by this story. This was the second time I have read it and it was way better the second time around. I think there is no better description of true love than in the final passages of this book.
Half Broke Horses (Walls) – Again, Walls did not disappoint. After reading about her childhood story, I wanted to read more! This book was about her grandmother, who broke horses on a ranch in Arizona, moved east, became a teacher, became a pilot, and lived a life full of grit, determination, and adventure. I loved this book.
Here are the rest!
When the Cradle is Empty (van Regenmorter) – This book is about coping with (or helping a friend cope with) the emotional affects of infertility. A MOPS speaker visited our group and spoke on this topic. I read it because I was moved by her story and know a lot of people who have experienced infertility and second infertility.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Maguire) – I read this for another book club, that I shortly thereafter quit. You can only do so many book clubs, you know! It had some interesting themes but I didn’t feel drawn toward any of the characters in particular.
The Hobbit (Tolkein) – Sorry, Tolkein fans. I have to confess that I was disappointed with this one. After about the fifth adventure I kept thinking, when is this book going to move on?
The Art of Conversation (Blyth) – This book was very British. The writing was very flowery. But, I confess, I do enjoy conversation for conversation’s sake, so this book was kind of fun.
One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (Kesey) – Suddenly I realized I didn’t have any audio books lined up so I downloaded this one. I can see why it’s a classic. It was very interesting, as far as getting into the minds of a bunch of guys in an insane asylum can possibly be. Which is … not very. But there were some passages that were moving and I appreciated the themes of desiring freedom and individuality and fighting against a system that denies you those basic rights.
The Four-Hour Body (Ferriss) – Oh my word. This crazy book just goes to show you how peer pressure can get you to read anything. Some very passionate people used this diet and workout regimen (which I’m sure has been really great for a lot of people) and now many of the people in my circles, particularly my neighborhood, have attempted it. Here are a few things you need to know: 1) I hope you like to microwave eggs. 2) I hope you like cold showers. 3) The book chases some really odd rabbit trails. 4) The author is so full of himself, I could barely stand to read this book. Again … peer pressure is amazing.
The Well-Trained Mind (Bauer) – I re-read this book and really appreciate how practical it is. Also, there are so many people jumping onto the classical education bandwagon, it is good for me to keep reading to make sure I believe it is something that is helpful and right for my family and my kids. This is one of the best books on classical education, I think.
The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education (Bortins) – I thought this book also did a really great job of summarizing the rationale and goals of classical education, as well as giving a lot of practical helps. It’s a much shorter and less intimidating read than The Well-Trained Mind and is a good place to start for people who think they might be interested in classical education.
House of Sand and Fog (Dubus) – Wow, this book was good at times but depressing. This was another one I loaded onto the iPod when I was faced with the choice of doing dishes in silence or having my mind engaged and lost in a story. Actually, I think I listened to this one while I painted our living room.
Committed (Gilbert) – I read the very popular Eat, Pray, Love when it came out a few years ago and so I was interested to read this book on marriage by the same author. Wow. If you want to gain insight into the post-modern mind, this would be an excellent book to read. The author is truly likeable and conversational. While reading this book, I took a lot of notes. The author feels like women have had to give up too much, and bear too much of the load, and she blames marriage. She cites her grandmother as one example of someone who gave up too much for marriage. Despite her resistance to marriage, in the end, she comes to peace with marriage. But you still get the sense that she is only coming to terms with marriage because she “has to.” (Her significant other is a foreign citizen and is exported. He will only be allowed back into the country if she marries him.) I have a different perspective than the author but I thought this was an interesting read!
The Mission of Motherhood (Clarkson) – Contrasted with Gilbert (the author of Committed, above), Clarkson is someone who has lived out the biblical calling of motherhood, living a life of self-sacrifice, and she has reaped countless blessings as a result. This book was highly encouraging, especially since, because of the ages my kids are, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel sometimes. I have subscribed to Clarkson’s blog as a result of reading this book. I recommend it.
Cleaving (Powell) – Here is a confession. I almost don’t want to admit that I read this horrible book. If only I hadn’t been on a long road trip to Texas, and that was the only book left to read, I would have put it down. Just go to Amazon.com and read some of the reviews, if you don’t believe me. Powell is the author of the Julie and Julia memoir, that details her endeavor to cook through Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking in one year. I thought I would give this subsequent memoir a try. Julie Powell ends up having an affair and then going to work in a butcher shop in upstate New York (but that is where the “cleaving” analogy ends). Before I read this book, I had never realized just how self-absorbed a person could be. I have never disliked an author or a book more than I have disliked this author and this book. I cannot believe how intentionally cruel she was to her husband. She expected him to tolerate anything and everything and wanted two men to simultaneously adore her. She is clearly the center of her world and her own happiness is her highest goal. At the end of the book she was completely unrepentant, lost both men, and was consumed with misery and aimlessness. Basically, folks, she needs Christ. When you make yourself the center of your life, and not Christ, this is a study of what can happen to anyone.
Catching Fire (Collins) – This is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. I was surprised with how much I liked the first book and the subsequent two books were equally good. The author sets up these impossible scenarios and you wonder how anything is going to resolve itself. The characters are developed so nicely.
The Mocking Jay (Collins) – See above. The ending was entirely satisfactory. You can never have a perfectly happy ending with a plot like this one, but I thought it was a good and fitting one. I enjoyed this trilogy.
Don Quixote (Cervantes) – One of my most proud accomplishments this year was that I made it through Don Quixote. As a friend who read it with me said, “Anyone who survives reading Don Quixote with me, is a friend for life.” Some parts were really funny, though. I did laugh out loud a few times.
The Well-Educated Mind (Bauer) – This is a reading guide for the classics. It breaks books into specific genres and lists them chronologically. I am using it, with two girlfriends, to read through the classics. We figure it will take about three years, if we read one book a month, just to get through the novels genre!! Patience will pay off.
Her Daughter’s Dream (Rivers) – After complaining about this book, some friends told me that I need to give Rivers another try. The plot was unbelievable and the romantic scenes were really cheesy. Maybe I will give her another try … in 2037.
Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life (O’Kelly) – This is the memoir of a powerful CEO who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A lot of this book was very inspiring. During the last months of his life, he tried to capitalize on “perfect moments” and write notes of gratefulness and live purposefully. He talks about focusing on what matters but I was seriously troubled that he spent so much time writing notes to old college roommates, etc. that he ended up running out of time to spend more quality time with his daughter. For example, he never was able to take the “dream trip” that he and his daughter had planned because he got too sick. Why was his daughter last on the list?
Pilgrim’s Progress (Bunyan) – I cannot believe I had never read this book and had only seen the cartoon. Shameful! This book was great and got better as the story progressed. I was completely moved by the scene where Christian arrives at the lake at the end and how God’s grace was sufficient for all of his life, his sorrows, and even his death. It was a powerful scene in literature.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood) – This book was very interesting and also very disturbing, futuristic political science fiction, where women are forced to become breeders.
Gulliver’s Travels (Swift) – This was my least-favorite classic this year. I felt like it would probably appeal to third-grade boys pretty well. (Just in case you are reading this and you are a third-grade boy, no offense!) And the plot was extremely disjointed. But this book has been influential in culture and so I’m glad I read it, for that reason alone.
Sophie’s World (Gaarder) – I’m really glad I read this book because I learned a lot about philosophy (and I probably have forgotten a lot of it by now). It was interesting how the author wove in a fictional tale, and I thought the ending was very creative and thought-provoking.
Pride and Prejudice (Austen) – This book is always delightful. I love the dialogue in this book. It is a favorite and a candidate for “top books” as well.
The Elegant Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis (Adler) –After visiting Dallas, I wanted to read more about the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. Well, this was as far as I got. It wasn’t really about the conspiracy but it was fun to read about Jackie.
Never Let Me Go (Ishaguro) –This book was well-written and intriguing but completely, absolutely depressing. I kept waiting for something good to happen but it never did. I realize that this book was making a point about creating life to destroy it for our own scientific purposes, and I agree with the point. But, it was very disturbing.
A Good Year (Mayle) –This book was delightful, light, and fun. I read A Year in Provence a few years ago and enjoyed it. It was enjoyable to be transported to Southern France and be immersed in descriptions of vineyards, good food, wine, and interesting characters.
The Secret Life of Bees (Kidd) –This book was a good one to iron shirts to, which is what I did. But it wasn’t a favorite. I was slightly bothered by all the idolatry and Mary worship. It is about a young girl who comes to terms with the fact that she was unloved as a child. There are a lot of bees in this book, by the way.
Chapter books I read to the kids:
This semester we read most of the American Girl “Meet [Insert Character’s Name]” and “Welcome to [Insert Character’s Name] World” books, because we are working our way through American history and Meredith and Clara are majorly into the American Girl craze right now.
We also read …
Farmer Boy (Wilder)
The Boxcar Children (Warner)
Five True Dog Stories (Davidson)
Charlotte’s Web (White)
The Lion Storytellter Bedtime Book (Hartman)
Stuart Little (White)
The Trumpet of the Swan (White)
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (MacDonald)
James and the Giant Peach (Dahl)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Dahl)
The kids’ favorites were The Boxcar Children (Meredith’s) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (Clara’s). My favorite was The Trumpet of the Swan!