I finished 10 books in July. I was on vacation for two weeks and packed 4 books with me. It felt like a major book nerd accomplishment not to overpack books on vacation and actually read everything I brought.
The first book I read in July was a fiction book to mentally transport me to Italy a few days before traveling, One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle. If you have been in any bookstore over the summer, you probably saw this book on a display table. It has a beautiful cover and has been getting a lot of buzz over the summer. This slim novel is only 272 pages which allowed me to easily read it in one day, while recovering from COVID. I struggled to form strong connections with any of the characters and I didn’t think the writing about Italy was very captivating.
My next book read in July was one that many Americans read while in high school, A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I had never read this book before and I selected it due to its setting in New Hampshire. Knowles is an excellent writer, he creates engaging characters and the plot moves at a good pace. First published in 1959, the novel shows its age with some content that might slightly ruffle modern readers’ feathers.
I started and stopped The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd several times before I finally finished it in July. It has a very slow start and took a while to get hooked on the story. The premise for those unfamiliar, Sue Monk Kidd imagines that Jesus had a wife and her name is Ana. I enjoyed reading the author’s imaginings. Sue Monk Kidd is a reliable author whose writing I usually enjoy.
The first book I packed for my Italy vacation was Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. I started reading the book on the plane and read more than half of the book before landing. I finished the rest of the book on the train from Rome to Cinque Terre. Doerr writes about a year spent in Rome through a writing fellowship with his wife and 6 month old twin boys. The book is partly reflections on his experience in the city and partly new parent reflections. Very enjoyable book. I recommend this book to anyone who has visited Rome or is planning to visit.
My next vacation read was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Another book that begins with a slow burn. Miller is a great writer who paints a beautiful picture with her words. The reader can imagine the scenes very vividly. Again, most of my reading was on the train while on vacation. The Song of Achilles was published in 2011 and has excellent reviews on Goodreads. I also have a copy of Circe, Miller’s most recent novel, published in 2018. I will likely read Circe sometime in the next year.
The final book I finished while on vacation was Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall. This book was one that my mom had loaned me several years ago. The book is a memoir and I thought the author had sort of a strange relationship to herself, she was very self-critical. I wouldn’t really recommend this book, unless you love reading about gardening.
When I returned from vacation I finished reading The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel. The author worked for The Motley Fool and I enjoyed reading the brief chapters on psychology and money. The chapters stand alone and the author is a good storyteller. While this book is not a traditional pool or beach read, it was in my pool bag for a good portion of the summer!
One of my favorite books in July was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. First published in 1961, I listened to the 2019 audiobook recording read by Rainn Wilson. Wilson does an excellent job conveying emotion while reading. I didn’t know much about the plot before beginning to read this book and I was pleasantly surprised by how captivating the story was. Listening to The Phantom Tollbooth was joyful and I highly recommend reading or re-reading this book.
Earlier in the summer, I read Emily Nagoski’s first book and I was very interested in following up with her most recent book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, co-written with her sister, Amelia Nagoski. The book is based on both qualitative and quantitative research. Both authors do a good job breaking down complicated scientific explanations. And I enjoyed the composite stories that also weave throughout the book.
The final book I finished reading in July was An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo. Harjo is one of my favorite poets and I enjoyed this collection of poems, first published in 2019. Similar to Amanda Gorman’s collection, there is a variety of styles of poetry in this collection. Harjo’s poetry is thought provoking and educational. I learned a lot about the Mvskoke people and their homeland through Harjo’s poems.
I finished 8 books in June, including 1 children’s book.
The best book that I finished in June was Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman. I read this poetry collection on and off for about ten weeks. Amanda Gorman is truly an amazing poet. She is incredibly creative, I was amazed by the variety of poem formats in the collection. If you enjoyed her spoken word poem at the Inauguration in 2021 and are interested in reading more poetry, I highly recommend this collection. Not only are the poems captivating, but the book itself is also high quality. It would be an excellent graduation gift or gift for a special occasion.
A book that surprised me
My Losing Season by Pat Conroy
My Losing Season was our book club pick for this month. I was apprehensive going into this book because it is all about sports and basketball. This was my first time reading any of Pat Conroy’s writing and I was amazed by his skills and craft as a writer. Even though I wasn’t invested in how Conroy’s basketball team performed, I was engaged with his story and enjoyed the book overall. Thank you Mark M. for your book club pick!
A book with a simple formula
The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships with Small Gatherings by Nick Gray
Published in June 2022, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book, courtesy of the author, Nick Gray. I connected with Nick several years ago through Museum Hack, a tour company he founded in New York City. Nick is a prolific networker and has perfected a formula for a 2-hour cocktail party. This was a quick, easy read and the formula seems easy to follow. I thought a lot about this book over the summer. While reading the book, I was convinced that I should give his formula a try, however after more thought, I realized that I prefer smaller dinner party style gatherings. When I was living in Washington DC I was a big fan of networking events. But when I think about evenings that had a more significant impact, dinner parties are my personal preference. If someone is curious about hosting friends, I think this book is a good intro to help build confidence.
A book to consider
Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR by Lisa Napoli
This book was included with my Audible membership and I probably would have been frustrated if I had used a credit to listen/read it. I certainly learned a lot about the women in the title: Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie. I went into this book with very limited knowledge of each woman and not a lot of awareness around NPR’s founding. I enjoyed the history aspect. My critique is it felt like the author kept her topic at arm’s length distance, the writing lacked passion and was missing a strong narrative thread to weave together the different profiles. If you are a big NPR nerd, you may enjoy this book.
A book for those who like a series
Anna K.: Away by Jenny Lee
Every so often I enjoy a good Young Adult (YA) book! The first book in the Anna K. series was published March 3, 2020 and I think it was my Book of the Month selection in March 2020. I quickly devoured the book in the early days of the pandemic and it provided a great distraction. I was excited in 2021 when the second book in the series was released. The series is Gossip Girl meets Crazy Rich Asians. I enjoyed reading about the glitz and glam of the ultra rich characters. I think it is necessary to read the first book in order to appreciate Anna K. Away. Since it had been over 2 years since I read the first book, I was a little confused trying to remember the characters. I had to look up recaps for book 1 so I could remember what had happened. If you enjoy YA, start with Anna K. and then follow up with Anna K. Away!
A book that disappointed
The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman
Goodreads doesn’t usually steer me wrong, but this book did not live up to my expectations. It currently has a Goodreads rating of 4.22 stars (out of 5). But it was barely a 2 star read for me! The main character, Emilia, annoyed me from the beginning and she was intended to be fairly likable. The author gave her a scar and kept writing about her rubbing her scar, it felt silly. The title was a little misleading too because I thought that the story was going to be sort of mystical/fantasy. Instead, most of the characters were whiny and boring.
Some books are better than others
Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir by Joan Chittister
Overall, I am a big fan of Sister Joan Chittister. She is an inspiring social activist. Her 2019 book, The Time is Now, was one of my favorite reads of 2020. But as I said in the heading for this book “some books are better than others.” Called to Question was a compilation of journal entries with expanded reflections. Chittister expresses a lot of frustration about the role of women in the Catholic church. As an ordained female pastor in the UCC, it was difficult to read about her struggles. I had a hard time connecting with her writing in Called to Question, but I’m still a big fan of her work and look forward to reading some of her other books (she has published over a dozen books of spiritual writing).
May was a busy month for me at work and a lighter reading month. I finished 7 books, including one children’s book. Most of the books I read this month were in audio format. I enjoy listening to audiobooks while I drive, when I’m walking around my neighborhood, or doing chores at home. I also find that once I’m captivated by a book, I’ll come home and keep listening to the audiobook on the couch.
Normally, I have been organizing these reading recaps chronologically. I’m mixing things up a little bit this time and instead re-arranging. I’ll start this post with three books I enjoyed reading in May and would recommend. The second half of the post will be three books that didn’t work for me.
A highlight of my May reading was Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, published in 1987. This was my book club pick for May. It was my first time reading anything written by Wallace Stegner. Pacing and character development were excellent in this book. A lot of the action in the book takes place in Vermont; I felt like I was transported to the lake while reading. I have a used paperback copy of Angle of Repose on my shelves and will read more Stegner soon.
Another book I enjoyed in May was Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe by Dawn Tripp. Georgia O’Keeffe is one of my favorite artists. I realized while reading this book that I didn’t know much about her personal life. This book is historical fiction, focused primarily on her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe’s artwork is very influenced by nature and I thought the author did an excellent job describing the nature that inspired the painter.
The final book I enjoyed reading in May was Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski. While the book has some provocative cover art, the content in the book is expertly researched and well organized. The author does an excellent job blending scientific analysis with storytelling. Part of my interest in picking up this book was sparked by signing up for OWL training, Our Whole Lives, for the fall. OWL is a sexuality education program created by the UCC and UUA. When I was growing up there was very minimal sex education in schools. I think it is important to be informed as an adult and I found Nagoski’s book a great way to help me unpack old lessons I learned.
Those were the three books I really enjoyed reading in May, now to recap a few that missed the mark for me.
I have read a few books by Parker Palmer and I normally enjoy his reflections. However, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life was not my favorite. The audio version was available for free with my Audible subscription. I’m glad I didn’t use a credit on this book. The title didn’t match with the content of the book. The book was primarily an explanation of circles of trust, why the reader should attempt one, and what benefits Palmer has experienced from them. My frustration was that the book was not what I expected and didn’t feel as impactful as Palmer’s other books.
Another book that I was disappointed in was Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener. First published in early 2020, it had been on my radar since it was added to the NYTimes best books of the year at the end of 2020. I’ll quote from my Goodreads review to highlight my thoughts on this book: “Usually when reading a memoir, the reader becomes invested in the life of the memoirist. That’s often the purpose of reading about someone’s life. A look behind the curtain, cheer them on. From start to finish, I never cared what was going to happen in the life of the author, never developed an emotional connection. So why keep reading? Well it was a short enough book that once I was 30 minutes in, listening at 2x speed, I figured, ah I might as well just finish…”
Finally, one other book that I read this month was The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. This book was historical fiction around the story of Achilles, the Battle of Troy, and the women in the camps. I had this book on my radar for a while, along with The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Of the two recent retellings of the story of Achilles, The Song of Achilles was much better. Barker’s characters were not as captivating and the plot moved a little too slowly.
In May, I read historical fiction, nonfiction, literary fiction, and a memoir. What is your favorite genre to read?
Note: It is the end of July and I’ve finally finished up this reading recap, three months later!
I finished 13 books in April. I will recap 11 of them here. I read two children’s books and I’ll include them in a separate post.
I don’t do a lot of re-reading, but my first finished book in April 2022 was actually one I was reading for the 3rd time. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is an incredible book, first published in 2014. I was rereading this book in preparation for leading a workshop on the book during a Stephen Ministry retreat. Even on my third read, I was drawing new insights and helpful reminders from the book.
Usually I enjoy Anne Lamott’s writing, but I wasn’t a huge fan of Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. I was listening to the book on audio and the sound quality was terrible. It certainly detracted from the listening experience. I recently had the realization that Anne Lamott and Jerry Seinfeld actually have a lot in common. They both share noticings, small everyday reflections, which are best considered in small doses. Otherwise, they become somewhat whiny and annoying.
In my March recap, I mentioned a cover confusion when I read Grit by Angela Duckworth. So in April I listened to the audiobook, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. I liked Drive much more than Grit. I also had a paperback copy at home and I skimmed it after finishing the audiobook. I was very impressed with the physical layout of Drive. The chapters were well organized and there were pictures mixed in. Either audio or print would be a good option for this book.
As we approached Easter, I finished reading the Lenten study book we were using at the church. Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week by Amy-Jill Levine was a wonderful Lenten study. The book was paired with weekly videos and there was also a printed leader’s guide. Amy-Jill Levine is a brilliant scholar and I enjoyed her reflections on the events of Holy Week and the final days of the life of Jesus. I hope to read more of her writing in the future.
I’m a big fan of @blackliturgies on Instagram so when I saw the creator, Cole Arthur Riley, had a book coming out, I preordered it right away. The chapter that will stick with me for a long time is chapter 8 on Lament. This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us by Cole Arthur Riley was a good book that I could see myself returning to for sermon illustrations.
During Holy Week, I had the opportunity to do a study retreat at Mercy by the Sea in Madison, CT. While I was doing a lot of work and planning on retreat, I used this book to guide some of my personal devotion time, Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus by Fr. James Martin. I love Fr. James Martin’s storytelling. This slim volume, only 144 pages, is perfect for someone who wants to scratch the surface on Good Friday.
How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith was a five star read for me. Smith does an amazing job reporting on historic sites and presenting their historical connections to the slave trade. The subject matter is challenging, it can be difficult to wrap your mind around the cruelty and horror. Smith doesn’t shy away from the tough parts. He expertly weaves a narrative thread through this nonfiction book. The two chapters I found most powerful were on Monticello and Angola Prison. Please read this important book!
My next read was a fun audiobook, The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher. Published in 2022, The Paris Bookseller is historical fiction focused on the famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. I didn’t know much about Sylvia Beach or James Joyce, the two main characters in the book. It was an enjoyable read, but not very memorable.
It seems like I end up reading one book per month inspired by my 50 states goal. For April, my selection was Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson. This comic book from 2014 is set in New Jersey. I really enjoyed exploring the Ms. Marvel world, even though I’m not usually a big superhero fan.
Some books I plan out when I’m going to read them and others I decide at the spur of the moment. While I first marked this book “Want to Read” in 2016, I finally listened to Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance on audio at the end of April. Elon Musk was in the headlines for his proposed acquisition of Twitter. I am glad I listened to this 2015 book about his life. It was interesting to learn some of his backstory and how he made his fortune.
I lost track of exactly when I started reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. I think I started listening to the audiobook back in February. I had listened to about 10% of the book and then took a long pause. Then in April I decided I would finally finish listening to this 23 hour audiobook. For some reason, The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass have always been connected in my mind. I think this is likely because they both have plants on the cover and are both long books. However, while Braiding Sweetgrass will likely be in my top ten books of the year, The Overstory missed the mark for me. I thought it was way too long and slow paced and never really connected with the characters.
April was a great month for reading! What have you been reading lately?
I’ve found it hard to give up reading time in order to write up these recaps. And I read a LOT of books in March and April so it felt a little overwhelming to go back over the details. I’m going to separate children’s books into their own recap for these two months.
The first book I finished in March was Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It was a book club selection. I am in a wonderful Zoom book club that has been meeting for almost 3 years. Thank you Conor for this selection. I don’t read a lot of science fiction. I enjoyed reading this book, but I don’t think I will continue with the series.
My second finished book this month was another book club selection, but for a different book group. I read Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding, along with my mom and Great Aunt Betty. We joined a quarterly book subscription from Riverstone Books in McCandless, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, this book was a miss for me – I found it way too depressing. If I hadn’t planned to discuss it with my family, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading Bright Burning Things.
I felt inspired to shift the mood and picked up two comedy selections in quick succession. I thoroughly enjoyed Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke. I don’t remember what put this book on my radar and I started reading with almost no expectations. All I knew was the premise that the entire book is written in Slack chat formatting. I laughed out loud many times while reading and really enjoyed the creativity in the author’s writing style. I don’t think this book is necessarily for everyone, but if the premise catches your attention, then I would recommend it.
After one comedy book, I decided to dive right into another, Hey Ladies!: The Story of 8 Best Friends, 1 Year, and Way, Way Too Many Emails by Michelle Markowitz. This book was written in email form. However, the characters felt cliched and reading it sometimes felt like the drudgery of trying to clean out your email inbox.
A book that had been on my want to read list for way too long was Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I decided 2022 was finally going to be the year I read this book which had been recommended by many different friends. The writing was beautiful and thought provoking. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about indigenous teachings and spirituality. As a Christian, I enjoyed reading her reflections and considered them through the lens of my own faith. The book is a collection of short stories, essays, and reflections and her writing is like poetry. Highly recommended for nature lovers.
I mentioned in my January recap that I have a long-term goal of reading a book set in every state in the US. When I was researching books for that challenge, I found Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin. I listened to this book on audio and was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed Sandlin’s storytelling and the various narrative threads he wove together in his nonfiction account. I learned a lot about a specific part of American history. As is the case with many history topics, it made me want to continue to learn more.
Some books I finished this month I read in one day. And others I was slowly reading over several months. I started reading Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison by Ted Kooser in December 2021. The poems are all dated and I usually read a few poems each week. I read the final poem in the book on the first day of spring. Similar to Braiding Sweetgrass, this book of poems changed the way that I look at the world around me. Kooser has a keen eye and I loved the imaginative way he considered birds and trees.
I’m a mood reader. Which sometimes means if you give me a book recommendation, it might be a LONG time until I act upon that recommendation. And sometimes, I pick up a recommended book right away. I’m very glad I decided to read Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau on sort of a whim. This slim novel was recommended first to my parents by Mary Beth Harper. They both loved reading it and encouraged me to read it too. This book would be a great book club selection. My JCU book club will be discussing it in July!
I closed out the month of March with several audiobooks. I listened to Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren on a day off of church work, working on a jigsaw puzzle and cleaning around the house. This book first caught my eye when I was a full time student working part-time in the Yale Divinity School Library. I linked this book with Sara Miles’ Take this Bread, simply because both books have sandwiches on the cover. In reality, the two books don’t have a lot in common, aside from being faith based. In the years since Liturgy of the Ordinary was published in 2016, Tish Harrison Warren has gained a larger following as a New York Times Opinion writer. I knew that I didn’t align with her theologically, but I was still interested in reading her book. Overall, the spiritual practices she identified were good, but her commentary and storytelling was not very impactful.
Another case of the book cover confusion with my next audiobook, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. I thought I had this book on my shelf at home, but realized after finishing listening to the audio, that I actually had Drive by Daniel Pink. In April, I decided to follow Grit by listening to Drive. While I enjoyed listening to Grit, in the end, I didn’t agree with the author’s premise. She was focused on perseverance and not giving up, but I think there are also important lessons to learn from knowing when to call it quits. It can be equally challenging for students and adults to continue to fight and persevere in a difficult situation. Sometimes the best way to respond to a challenge is by pausing and reassessing instead of redoubling efforts.
The final book I finished in March was Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. This book had been on my radar for about six months. Thank you to Deirdre Byrne who reviewed this book back in September 2021 and influenced me to add it to my Goodreads Want to Read list. Ford is a powerful writer. Her memoir tells a heartbreaking story of a young woman’s relationship to her complicated family. Somebody’s Daughter is Ford’s debut as a memoirist and I will certainly read more of her writing in the future.
I still can’t believe how many books I read in March… and then followed it in April with another 11+ books! I’m definitely ahead of schedule for my 2022 reading goal.
I finished 4 books in February! A long vacation in California led to many fun adventures outdoors and not as many days with my nose in a book.
I finished my first book of the month while I was on the plane to California, The Hermits of Big Sur by Paula Huston. I purchased this book at the end of 2021 in preparation for my visit to the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. I didn’t know much about the book before starting it and I was pleasantly surprised by the captivating nonfiction writing. Huston covers a long period of history both local to the Big Sur region and also including relevant world events that influenced the founding of the hermitage. This was definitely a 5 star read for me, even though it might not be interesting for everyone. Reading this book helped me gain a deeper appreciation for my stay at the hermitage, truly one of the most beautiful places in the world!
When I was getting ready to pack for my vacation, I was looking through various bookshelves at my home and office. I put together a few stacks of books that I might want to read and a few days before the trip I finalized my selections. I had a copy of Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles on my shelf for a few years. I suddenly realized upon re-examining the book that my friend I would be visiting worked at the church where Miles had her “radical conversion” and where Miles began a food pantry ministry in San Francisco. Obviously, I knew I had to read this book during my California trip! Sara Miles’ storytelling reminded me a little bit of Nadia Bolz-Weber and Bolz-Weber’s early book, Pastrix. Take this Bread was published in 2007 and there were some sections that showed their age in the slightly insensitive way people in need were discussed. I can’t say I would recommend this book to everyone, but I am glad that I read it.
At the end of 2021, I listened to the audiobook of Willie James Jennings first book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. While I struggled a little bit with the audio format for the dense theological arguments he presented in that book, overall I really enjoyed the book and appreciated Jennings’ groundbreaking theological reflections. I was determined to read/listen to The Christian Imagination before reading/listening to Jennings’ newest book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. The Christian Imagination is a dense 384 page book, contrasted with a slim 175 pages in After Whiteness. Both books serve a different purpose, but I am glad that I read them only a few months apart from each other. After Whiteness is heavy on personal storytelling from Jennings and focused primarily on the future of theological education. He is a brilliant scholar and I recommend his books for professional clergy or other faith leaders who want to dig into the history and future of race and the church.
My fourth and final read for February was a book that served as a companion during my retreat time at the hermitage. I started reading The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris while I was at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. The chapters were short and perfect for devotional moments. I was introduced to Norris’ writing a few years ago when I read her 1993 book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. I love her poetic writing style and especially enjoyed her reflections on Benedictine spirituality. I highly recommend both The Cloister Walk and Dakota for anyone looking for spiritual writing to inspire their own faith reflections.
I am still on track for my reading goal of finishing 100 books in 2022. Happy reading!
It doesn’t really need to be said again… but wowza! 2020 was a YEAR. Even with all of the emotional ups and downs of the pandemic year (plus finishing graduate school remotely, virtual graduation, moving to a new town, and starting a new job), I still managed to read some great books.
In fact, I read more books this year than ever before! According to my Goodreads Annual Reading Challenge, I have finished 81 books.
This was the year of audiobooks for me – I read/listened to about 35 audiobooks. Thanks to the Libby app and library cards, I borrowed many audiobooks each month. I tend to listen to audiobooks when I am driving (anything more than 10 minutes), cleaning, cooking, or doing dishes. In the fall, I listened to many while walking around my new neighborhood.
About half of the books I read this year were physical copy and, unlike other years, I read fewer than 10 books on my Kindle. I didn’t actually finish many Kindle books, as I tended to use my Kindle for a lot of reading for school. I like the highlighting and note taking feature on Kindle books and it helped when writing papers for graduate school. Most of my school reading isn’t counted in my books read tally because I didn’t usually read a book cover to cover (no cheating for me!).
Here are my favorite books I read in 2020, organized by date read.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett Dates read: January 22-29, 2020 Originally published September 2019, The Dutch House was all over Bookstagram (Instagram accounts dedicated to reading) at the close of 2019. Prior to The Dutch House, I had only read one other book by Ann Patchett, Commonwealth. Patchett is a wonderful storyteller. The Dutch House became one of my most recommended books of the year, anytime someone wanted to read or listen to a fiction book. The audiobook is read by Tom Hanks, and it is lovely.
The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittister Dates read: March 17-19, 2020 I wanted to read this book after it was mentioned on my syllabus for the introductory preaching course I took in the fall of 2019 at Yale Divinity School with Prof. Carolyn Sharp. I read The Time is Now in the early days of the pandemic. The chapters are very short and easy to read, almost like blog posts. It was my first introduction to Sister Joan Chittister’s writing, and I have since added several of her books to my to-read list. Sr. Joan writes in an easy to read style; this book would be great for a small group book study and discussion.
The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen Dates read: March 20 – May 23, 2020 Another early pandemic read, I savored The Genesee Diary, reading a few pages each day. From my mid-year write up: “It was a wonderful book to savor. It really is a diary of Nouwen’s seven-month sabbatical at Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. Nouwen is self-reflective, without being too self-conscious, and examines the busyness of his normal daily life as an academic.” I do recommend this book, but not for those who haven’t read anything else by Henri Nouwen. I think this book would be best appreciated after some familiarity of his other writings. Life of the Beloved or The Wounded Healer are two of his more popular books.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger First read in 2006 Dates re-read: June 9-12, 2020 I don’t know what it was… early in 2020 I started thinking about The Catcher in the Rye, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Holden Caulfield. I don’t think I had ever re-read a book before and now I am curious what else I should re-read. I hardly remembered any of the book from my initial reading while in high school. In re-reading, I was surprised at the prevalence of mental health issues apparent in Holden’s behavior and those he interacts with. I think when I first read The Catcher in the Rye as a young teenager I probably skimmed over the death of Holden’s brother and the suicide of his classmate. Re-reading The Catcher in the Rye gave me a lot to think about.
Franny & Zooey by J. D. Salinger Dates read: October 9-10, 2020 As soon I read The Catcher in the Rye, I knew I would soon follow it with Franny & Zooey. I received a lovely used copy of this book a few years ago. I felt like it was just waiting on my shelf for this year. Franny & Zooey was a wonderful follow-up to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye over the summer. Franny is a short story and Zooey is a novella. I think that both were originally published in The New Yorker, in 1955 and 1957, respectively.
From my Goodreads review: “I love the way Salinger writes dialogue. As a reader you are drawn into monologues and quips and so many other verbal spars. The Glass family is easy to imagine. If you liked Catcher in the Rye, I think you will like this. Religion plays an interesting role in the essays. Poor Franny. All the men in her life are constantly mansplaining her. Just let the poor girl have a quarter life crisis. And don’t even get me started on the relationship between Bessie and her children. So strange.”
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris Dates read: July 18-25, 2020 I saw a friend post about this book in 2019, and it had been on my radar ever since. Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful ode to the prairie lands of America. Her words paint brushstrokes of the natural environment and human isolation. I felt like the week I spent reading this book was actually a full year soaking in the seasons of the Plains. She does an incredible job detailing the weather and landscapes. This was my first time reading a book by Kathleen Norris, but I’ve already added another book of hers to my to-read list. In a year of limited travel due to the pandemic, I felt like I was transported to the Dakotas thanks to Kathleen Norris’ writing.
Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett Dates read: October 27-30, 2020 I am not a regular podcast listener, but I do enjoy occasionally listening to episodes of On Being, a public radio conversation and podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett. Many of the people she interviews on the podcast and the topics she discusses are both of personal and professional interest. I was very glad to be able to borrow this audiobook through Libby. I enjoyed the audiobook because it was read by the author and included snippets from the podcast. However, one bookish friend of mine commented that it was too much to take in and hard to listen to. Whichever way you read this book, I do recommend Becoming Wise. There is so much wisdom and life experience shared by those she interviews. Those who are already fans of Krista Tippett may also appreciate the personal life stories she shares scattered throughout.
Barack Obama Book Club In November, I did a deep dive into the world of Barack Obama. I knew that his newest memoir was being released in November, 2020. I decided spur of the moment to read/listen to his two previous memoirs before reading A Promised Land. All three books were favorites for the year.
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance Dates read: November 11-13, 2020 Originally published in 1995 and re-released in 2004, this book had been on my radar for a while. Barack Obama is a great storyteller, and he doesn’t linger in one place too long when describing things for the reader. I thought Dreams from My Father had a great flow and enjoyed listening to it. Obviously, listening in 2020 was interesting because Obama’s commentary on race is actually very mild. Don’t expect to hear the phrase Black Lives Matter. Context is also important. This book was written “pre-politics” and he doesn’t write about his graduate studies at Harvard or anything beyond that time.
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream Date read: November 17, 2020 Again publication date is important when reading Barack Obama’s work. The Audacity of Hope was first published in fall 2006. I continued to be impressed by Obama’s concise storytelling. He doesn’t repeat much between any three of these books.
From my review on Goodreads: “This is not Barack Obama running for President, or at least that’s not exactly what he thinks. At the time he wrote this book as a way to “finance” his campaign for US Senate. I put finance in quotes because he already won the campaign. He says that it was just part of his pitch to Michelle for how he could help their family financially after running a big campaign. Before he realized that the BIGGEST campaign lay ahead. The Audacity of Hope is idealistic first term Senator Obama. He writes about his respect for President George W. Bush. Obama the optimist writes a lot about values. The values of the Founding Fathers, shared values, values that were instilled in him by his mother, etc. All sorts of values. The optimistic Obama sees the government as the place where people can work together for good. He also talks about how President Bush and the people around him were just everyday people trying to make the best decisions they knew how.”
A Promised Land Dates read: November 17-27, 2020 After so many hours of listening to Barack Obama read his work, I never grew tired of his voice and his storytelling. My own political coming of age coincided with Barack Obama’s presidency. I was aware of many of the events that he talked about, but obviously learned a lot from the level of detail he provided with his reflections. I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book where Obama explains just how improbable his quick ascension to running for the highest office in our country was. I was captivated and very interested through the election and his first days in office. I’m not a policy wonk though so the intricate details on Affordable Healthcare and some of the energy policy were not as interesting. His choice to split this memoir into two parts was smart. He keeps a good balance of storytelling, nothing too long and doesn’t try to cover too much ground.
I hope that my reading recap inspires you and your reading life in the year ahead! Do we share any favorites? Please let me know.
On the afternoon of July 8th I deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter apps from my phone and then I logged out of all accounts on my computer. I was determined to stay off of social media for the next 30 days. This social media detox was inspired from reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Even before reading Newport’s book, I had been thinking about my social media consumption. I had begun falling victim to sitting down to look up one thing on my phone and the next thing I knew I had been scrolling for over an hour!
Digital Minimalism was a quick read (I read most of it poolside the week of 4th of July). One part of the book that resonated with me the most was the contrast of high quality leisure time versus low quality leisure time. Personally, spending a large amount of time on social media felt like time was wasting away. Newport suggests the 30 day detox as a time of intentionality. He advises spending time during the detox considering how to you want to spend your free time and what habits or relationships you want with social media if you return at the end of the break.
I began the detox with a goal of spending more time reading books for fun. I had already done a good amount during my summer break. I read 10 books from May 19 to July 5. I also had a few small projects around my apartment that I hoped to carve out time to work on.
The first few days of the detox I felt a physical urge to scroll on my phone, searching for the feeling and the validation of social media. Newport talks about this in Digital Minimalism so I felt prepared for this unpleasant feeling. He explains how social media sites want you to spend more time looking at them. The algorithms are formulated to keep you engaged by randomly showing you content they believe you will like/comment/share. Our natural instinct responds to this random feedback by continuing to scroll and hoping for that next endorphin boost when we see something we like or when we get a notification.
My biggest insight during the detox came during the final week. I realized that my month had been spent much more internally focused than my past few months had been. I felt like I was internally focused in a healthy reflective way, not a self-centered way. When I was not on social media, I was not constantly thinking about what other people were doing, what recipes they were sharing, or what articles they were recommending. My time was spent reflecting my own day and who I wanted to connect with or reach out to.
Overall, I was very happy with how my social media detox went. I reconnected with my love for reading. I finished 13 books in 30 days! I hosted my 1st game night at my apartment, having several friends over to my apartment for the first time in nearly two years. I completed several of the small projects I had around my apartment, even starting and finishing a small Ikea project, pictured here! Throughout the month, I cooked healthier meals, exercised more often, and slept better. I felt much less distracted at work and at home. Often when I returned to my apartment after work, I was amazed at how many hours there were in an evening when I wasn’t sucked into looking at my phone and wasn’t entering into the endless loop of social media.
Newport doesn’t talk very much about this in his book, but one of my biggest takeaways was reflecting on the natural size of a social network – the REAL physical social network. Is there a limit to how many people we can actually keep in touch with and keep strong connections with? I would suggest that yes there is a limit to how many people you can physically keep in touch with. Digital social networks want us to believe that we can keep in touch with everyone, every former classmate, every person you’ve ever met, every former colleague you’ve ever had. They can all be your friends! Newport showcases that many people have come to accept a large number of surface level relationships and possibly sacrifice higher quality relationships in the process. I don’t have an immediate answer, but it is something I will continue to think about.
It would be misleading to make it seem like this was the perfect month and I crossed everything off my to-do list. That was not the case! I had many ideas for things that I wanted to do and still didn’t carve out time for. But the social media detox helped me to realize what was most important to me. And I realized that what is most important to me is not found on social media.
Have you ever done a social media detox? What were your thoughts?
July was a fun month of reading! I read 7 books this month. Some of the books pictured in this stack represent others because I already returned them to the library.
It had been a while since my last graphic novel. So July started with The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. It was a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about the author’s family and immigrating from Vietnam. I knew next to nothing about Vietnam before or after the war. Bui does a great job of drawing connections between her childhood, her aspirations as a new mother, and the life her mother and father lived before she was born. The Best We Could Do has a contemplative quality to it and many of the illustrations encourage you to linger and consider their impact.
My next two July reads were the second and third books of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. I thought the middle book (China Rich Girlfriend) in the trilogy was better than the conclusion (Rich People Problems). But overall an interesting story that I enjoyed reading! I am looking forward to seeing the movie coming out soon. If you are looking for a late summer pool read, I recommend starting with Crazy Rich Asians, the first book in the trilogy.
After finishing the trilogy I took a little bit of time to decide what my next read would be. At the beginning of the summer I had made a list for myself of books that I wanted to read this summer. I considered a few from the list, but I ended up ordering A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It was all over bookstagram last summer and it has a very memorable man crying on the cover. I had been thinking about reading it for over a year! It was just the kind of epic 800+ page novel that I needed to dive into. A Little Life is a book that will linger in my mind for a very long time. I fell in love with the four friends (Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude) and their journey, struggles and celebrations, through adulthood. Earlier in the summer I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and the characters in A Little Life reminded me a lot of Cyril Avery in different ways.
Maybe my next two reads were dissapointments because the shadow left by A Little Life was so big… I really wanted to like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Books about books are usually my favorite. I didn’t feel strong connections to Montag or any of the main characters in Fahrenheit 451. I wanted to see more from Clarisse and some of the other minor characters. I followed Bradbury with a new book that has been getting a lot of publicity, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. Educated fell flat for me. Similar to Fahrenheit 451, I struggled to connect with any of the individuals. The abuse that Westover faced by her family was terrible, but I was concerned by the lack of analysis she gave to the actions of others. I would have liked to have seen a conclusion that looked back and more clearly articulated the abuses she suffered, rather than leaving it implied, especially related to the risky situations her father put her and her siblings in while working in the junk yard.
Finally, I was happy to end the month with a book that surpassed my expectations. I had my eye on The Power by Naomi Alderman since it was a Book of the Month club pick in October 2017. I purchased a used copy at the Book Barn in Niantic in May. It probably would have sat on myself unread for a while if it wasn’t for Kate McGuire. She told me that her book club in DC was going to read it. I decided to make it my next read in so that we could discuss it when I visited DC. As I said before, The Power pleasantly surprised me! I knew a little bit of the premise before reading, but the execution of the plot was incredible. I loved the themes that Alderman tackled and the way she handled them: patriarchy, human nature, religion, etc. If you like Sci-fi or dystopian fiction, I highly recommend The Power, especially if you like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu TV show.
I have one more month of summer “break” before the fall semester starts. Hopefully I can squeeze in a few more fun reads before it’s back to theology, exegesis, etc!
In 2017 I participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge and finished 53 books.
I had never done a reading challenge before. I started actively using Goodreads in the second half of 2016. I had seen others post about their progress on 2016 challenges and thought it would be a fun way to push myself to see how much I could read.
At the time that I started the challenge I was still working full time in Alexandria, VA and commuting from Petworth in Washington, DC. I took the metro to work, which gave me at least an hour and a half of uninterrupted reading time each day. Some days, thanks to metro delays, I had up to 3 hours of reading time!
I read 38 books before the beginning of July when I left my full time job and took a month long summer vacation. I started grad school full time in August and my reading for fun slowed immensely. Luckily I managed to finish 3 books during Thanksgiving break and 3 during Christmas break!
My best reading month was January when I finished 13 books. According to my reading challenge, my worst reading months were September and October when I didn’t finish any books. In reality, I was constantly reading for grad school, but I didn’t read the full text of any book.
My first suggestion to anyone who wants to read more: always carry a book with you. I tend to prefer physical books, but I always have at least one book downloaded on the Kindle app on my phone. I only read two books electronically in 2017. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout I read on my Kindle and Only Child by Rhiannon Navin was an electronic advance reader copy I received through Book of the Month that I read on my laptop.
I listened to one full audiobook in 2017, Hillbilly Elegy. When my parents helped me move from DC to New Haven, CT, we listened to it in the car. I have downloaded some other audio books from the library, but the jury is still undecided on whether audiobooks are my cup of tea.
I read 6 graphic novels and 1 book of poetry. I discovered a passion for graphic novels thanks to this reading challenge. Shout out to DC Public Library for their impressive collection of graphic novels. I hope to continue reading the Paper Girls series and would also like to finish the March series.
My second suggestion to anyone who wants to read more is to read what you enjoy. If I am 100 pages into a book, don’t like the characters and am not invested in the plot, I have no problems with putting it down. I know that I enjoy primarily fiction, 35 books I read this year were fiction. I enjoy family dramas, historical fiction, and science fiction.
I recognize that part of my ability to finish so many books in 2017 is that I am a fast reader. But I also actively chose to spend time reading. This meant I didn’t spend much time listening to podcasts or NPR. I also didn’t go to the movies more than 5 or 6 times all year. I enjoy reading and decided to prioritize it for this year.
My reading challenge for 2018 will be very different than 2017. In 2018, my challenge will be 12 books. I enjoyed seeing the quantity of books that I could finish in 2017, but I’d like to step outside my comfort zone in 2018. I want to work through some classics and I also want to read more of the Bible. Maybe I’ll even catch up on a few episodes of This American Life?