The Year in Books 2009

Wow, my reading stats took a huge hit in 2009. After reviewing my Week in Books posts, I found that I read 83 books last year. That’s not too shabby, unless you consider that I read 131 books in 2008 and 116 books in 2007. Fortunately for me there were no wagers involved so I have not forfeited any cash, prizes, trophies or all-expenses-paid vacations.

At any rate, here are my top five books from 2009, in no particular order:

The Help by Katherynn Stockett: The Help is a remarkably well-written and insightful novel about the South at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and it’s valuable for illuminating a particular historical moment in a way much more powerful than you would ever get from a history text, but I think it’s also wonderful for its exploration of complicated relationships, how people construe their identity, and how societies change. The book is also noteworthy for its excellent dialect – I have rarely read accents so well done. (Week in Books No. 42)

Culture Making by Andy Crouch: All of us are engaged in creating, critiquing, cultivating, copying and consuming culture every day, and thus we would do well to understand it, a point made in Andy Crouch’s excellent and eloquent book. Culture Making goes beyond other books that deal with the same subject, and his perspective and conclusions are unique. This book gave me a lot to think about and challenged my point of view in a number of areas. (Week in Books No. 50)

Calm My Anxious Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Contentment by Linda Dillow: This book delves deeply into topics such as God’s sovereignty, how to be content in difficult circumstances, and how anxiety affects our lives. This book is challenging and insightful, and I can’t imagine a woman who would not be strongly impacted by studying it. (Week in Books No. 18)

True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer: This is my favorite Schaeffer book by far. Dense but lively and readable, this book is challenging and inspiring and will give you lots of food for thought. (Week in Books No. 32)

Trusting God by Jerry Bridges: I took reams of notes on this tremendously convicting and encouraging book. Bridges’ theology is deep and solid, buttressed with Scripture and the work of other theologians, and yet Trusting God is written in an engaging and accessible style. (Week in Books No. 29)

You can read all of my book reviews for 2009 here.

And, if you really have some catching up to do:
Top Books of 2008
Top Books of 2007

Finally, thank you to everyone who has purchased something through one of my Amazon affiliate links this year. I appreciate it! Most of all thank you for taking the time to read my reviews and for the thoughtful comments and emails you’ve sent my way!

The Week in Books 2009, No. 51

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by NYC pastor Tim Keller is a short but fantastic book. I was deeply struck by Keller’s exposition of the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son, and I think any Christian who reads this book could not fail to be convicted on several points. Keller points out that the original audience of the parable was made up of “sinners” (the “younger brother” type of the parable) and Pharisees (the “older brother” type), and that with the parable Jesus actually upends their cultural self-conceptions, redefining sin not as “bad stuff” you do, but as bad stuff OR good stuff you do to try to wrest control away from God in order to be your own savior. Jesus pointed out that BOTH brothers were equally lost, and their father loved them BOTH prodigally (with reckless extravagance).

The book goes on to discuss how most people tend toward either the younger brother or the older brother mode and what it means for the institutional church that most younger brother types view the church with suspicion because it seems full of older brother types. There was some interesting food for thought there, especially in light of Keller’s particularly illuminating point that the underlying point of the parable is that Jesus is our perfect “older brother” – who gave up his rightful inheritance that we could be welcomed by the Father as the younger son was. Keller emphasizes that the older brothers that fill the churches need to be convicted of their need for Christ and to be driven to be more like Him for His sake, not out of some moralistic need to do all the right things, and that such a change would help people outside the established church to see Christ more clearly.

As I mentioned, The Prodigal God is a short book, but it is packed full of great insights. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

Parenting Is Your Highest Calling: And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt is an honest and mostly on point reminder that in our zeal to defend the family and our choices about our families we ought to remember that parenting is a noble calling but it is not our HIGHEST calling – our highest calling is to relationship with God and bringing glory to Him. Fields rightly points out the dangers of making parenting our highest calling, from looking to our kids to give us validation and bring us happiness, to becoming slaves to one parenting method or another, to getting completely wound up over our responsibility for how our kids turn out (as Fields points out, a key lesson in parenting is that YOU ARE NOT JESUS; you can’t BE Jesus to your kids, you can only NEED Jesus and try to point them to Him.)

I found a lot of this to be really refreshing, especially because Fields goes to great lengths to draw her conclusions from the whole counsel of Scripture, rather than just cherry picking verses from here and there and extrapolating all sorts of hard and fast rules from them. I think it’s often hard as a mom of young kids to figure out which of the myriad conflicting parenting styles and rules you’re supposed to be using, and when you don’t get stellar results right away it’s easy to get discouraged. At that point, it can be MOST discouraging to hit the mommy blogs and read about all these chipper Super Moms who seem totally serene even though they have twice as many kids as you have and they haven’t gotten two hours of consecutive sleep in twelve years and their second grader is in med school already and so on and so on.

That sort of thing can be really inspiring most of the time, but sometimes it helps to be reminded that parenting is difficult, even for Christians, and it’s ok to be overwhelmed and admit that you’re inadequate for this job because that reminds you that you need Christ and that God is sovereign in your family. I loved this quote from a passage in which Fields examines the messed up families we read about in the Bible: “Here is what I learn from this: I am not sovereign over my children – God is. And God will use every aspect of my human parenting, even my sins and failures, to shape my children into who He desires them to be, for the sake of His kingdom.”

My one reservation about this otherwise good book was that in a few spots the author expresses a disagreement with a commonly held parenting belief and doesn’t back up her opposing view with any particular reason or Biblical point. I found that sort of odd given how thoroughly she examines Scriptures in the rest of the book – to just sort of toss off a point of view as wrong without considering it in light of God’s word seemed discordant, as though she should have just left that opinion out if she wasn’t prepared to deal with it at length in the book. That only happened once or twice though, and overall I thought this was a helpful and encouraging book.

I’m sure everyone has a few authors that they look forward to reading, and Anne Tyler is one of mine (Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood are two others, just off the top of my head). My aunt actually gave me A Patchwork Planet last Christmas, but I kept putting it aside the way you set aside a piece of special chocolate you know you’re going to enjoy for such a time as you really need it. Christmas Day during the kids’ naptime I felt I really needed a rest to just relax and enjoy something well written and engaging, so I finally picked up this book and was not disappointed.

Tyler writes exceptionally interesting characters, particularly notable for their ordinariness. I love how she shows the ways that even random boring people can actually be fascinating. I also love that she always seems to deal with two of my favorite literary themes: identity and the search for where you belong. In this particular book Tyler focuses on the black sheep of an upstanding family (now that I think about it, the character is a good representation of the younger brother type from the prodigal parable I talked about in the first review this week) and how he goes about defining himself, being defined by others, and working out who he is going to be and where he fits in. The book also deals with different concepts of aging and various ways people deal with getting old and with old people in general, which I thought was well done and quite thought-provoking.

I would say this is not my favorite Anne Tyler book, but it was good and satisfying and I’d recommend it.

Disclaimer: If you purchase items from Amazon.com through the links in this post, I will receive a small affiliate payment, generally between 0 and 4% of the sale price, at no additional cost to you. I appreciate your support of this site, and am publishing this disclaimer in accordance with FTC guidelines for affiliate programs released 12/1/2009.

The Week in Books 2009, No. 50

In case you only have time to read one sentence about Andy Crouch’s excellent book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, I’ll say it up front: YOU REALLY NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.

Crouch begins by defining culture as that which shapes the horizons of the possible (not merely ideas, but primarily tangible goods). By this definition we are all engaged in creating, cultivating, critiquing and consuming culture. Your greatest cultural influence is probably your family, and from there your workplace, place of worship, neighborhood, city, and so forth in ever widening circles. Crouch does an exceptional job discussing a very broad topic in an accessible fashion that is nonetheless thoughtful and challenging.

The book also offers and in depth and unique study of God’s role in building or creating culture – from Creation to Revelation. If you’ve never considered God in light of cultural goods this will be illuminating for you.

Crouch calls Christians out for having assumed a posture of critique and/or copying culture. He points out that sometimes it’s right and proper to critique or copy cultural artifacts, but that when you find yourself always in that posture, you have a problem. The problem with copying culture, Crouch notes, is that “we breed a generation that prefers facsimile to reality, simplicity to complexity…and familiarity to novelty. Not only is this a generation incapable of genuine creative participation in the ongoing drama of human culture making, it is dangerously detached from a God who is anything but predictable and safe.” That said, Crouch also confronts Christians who are too cool or too intellectual for CCM and other cultural copying (my dad used to call it “Junk For Jesus”) but who fall into the traps of either being better critics than creators or of blindly consuming mainstream culture rather than taking risks to create within it. Crouch stops short of suggesting that the Christian subculture is not part of God’s creative mandate, but does challenge Christians to consider the cultural contexts where their creativity will bear the most fruit.

Other topics in the book include pitfalls people fall into when they set out to change the culture, how to identify where your cultural calling lies, and inspiration for keeping a proper perspective in your cultural endeavors, whether in the smallest circle of your family or the world at large.

I fear that my review scarcely does this book justice. It is certainly going to be one of my top picks for the year and I highly recommend it to you, whether you are in a profession commonly associated with culture (art, music, etc) or whether your focus right now is creating the culture of your immediate family. Read this book, and then be sure to let me know what you think!

Disclaimer: If you purchase items from Amazon.com through the links in this post, I will receive a small affiliate payment, generally between 0 and 4% of the sale price, at no additional cost to you. I appreciate your support of this site, and am publishing this disclaimer in accordance with FTC guidelines for affiliate programs released 12/1/2009.

The Week in Books 2009, No. 49

I’m so grateful to The Cooks Next Door (excellent cookery blog, by the way, check it out!) for their recommendation of Roast Figs Sugar Snow: Winter Food to Warm the Soul. This beautiful cookbook is full of warm and comforting recipes inspired by seasonal foods and the author’s travels around Europe and America.

I most enjoyed the author’s essays at the beginning of each section. Her ode to cheese is outstanding. The book also boasts wonderful food photography and a sprinkling of quotes from literature about winter food.

Sadly the library demanded I return this book before I was able to make any of the recipes, but I made note of eight that I want to try and put another hold on the book so I can get it back. I am particularly looking forward to trying Farro with Red Chickory and Pomegranates and Danish Gilded Stars.

If you enjoy eating seasonal foods and trying new combinations of flavors, or even if you just like to read pretty cookbooks, I would highly recommend Roast Figs Sugar Snow.

Disclaimer: If you purchase items from Amazon.com through the links in this post, I will receive a small affiliate payment, generally between 0 and 4% of the sale price, at no additional cost to you. I appreciate your support of this site, and am publishing this disclaimer in accordance with FTC guidelines for affiliate programs released 12/1/2009.

The Week in Books 2009, No. 48

Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road is a riveting and intense novel about what might happen if sudden catastrophe hit our society. I thought the premise was well executed, in that McCarthy imagines a very real threat (if you’ve never considered how quickly our society could fall apart, think about how much we rely on gasoline transported goods, electricity, city water, and so on. It would not take much to disrupt our grid. Sorry if that freaks you out.) The level of tension McCarthy maintains throughout the story is admirable, especially since he uses language that effectively portrays the spare bleakness of an unplugged world.

Without being heavy-handed, McCarthy gives different characters a variety of viewpoints and philosophies for dealing with the staggering deprivation and tragedy of the situation. Faith, fatalism, pure pragmatism, and the like are explored as the main character, who is only named as The Man or Papa, and his son press on to try to reach a place of safety. The Man says at the beginning of the book that his son is his proof that God exists, and he perseveres because of the hope his son gives him and to protect his son’s meager chance for a future. I wish I could go more into the relationships in The Man’s family without giving away too much information.

It was fascinating to consider how people would respond to a cataclysmic disaster in our era. In the face of so much deprivation, how would you respond? What lengths would you go to survive? In one scene the man realizes the disaster has happened and he fills up the bathtub with water. It was poignant to think of his pitiful attempt to prepare considering the reader knows he and his family have been surviving for years afterward and that bathtub of water can’t have lasted them very long.

I’m supposed to suggest a book for book club in February and I’m tempted to make this the one, because I think there is so much to talk about, but I fear the group might find it a little too heavy. As I said, this is a very intense book, but I would highly recommend it.

As a final note, I saw that they have made a movie of The Road (starring Viggo Mortensen) and I’m skeptical – so much of the story happens internally and on the level of ideas and motivation, not in what you would actually see on screen, so I fear much would be lost in a movie adaptation. That said, I haven’t seen the movie, so maybe it’s awesome. If anyone sees it, let me know what you think.

The Week in Books 2009, No. 47

As a mother of three young children I often find it difficult to strike a balance between being plugged in with other people and getting too busy. The struggle exists because there is no one right answer on how many activities and outings your family needs or can sustain – different people have different needs and tolerance levels for busyness. I find that with a family of little kids, there is so much busyness in our everyday life that adding too much more on top of it quickly becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and we pay for too much activity with challenging behavior, tears and tantrums (mostly the kids have the tantrums, but I am not immune!). Because I think a lot about the balance between hurrying up and slowing down, I appreciated Ann Kroeker’s thoughtful new book Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families I wouldn’t say that our family is frenzied, but I can see how you could easily become frenzied and spend most of your day in your car shuttling people hither and yon but never really enjoying one another. In her book, Kroeker offers thought-provoking suggestions for ways to evaluate your family’s level of busyness and how that is working (or not working) for your family. Even if you’re currently satisfied with your activities I think you would get something out of the exercise of thinking through your commitments and being deliberate about putting your family ahead of other people’s expectations.

The Week in Books 2009, No. 46

This week I had the singular experience of reading a book written by a friend of mine. Dina Nayeri (a good friend from Princeton and a bridesmaid in my wedding) and her brother Daniel cowrote Another Faust, which is a modern Young Adult twist on the original legend of Faust. The idea of a Faustian bargain, as you will doubtless recall, involves selling your soul to the devil in exchange for what you want. Another Faust follows five children who make that deal to get things teens might want, like beauty, brains, athletic ability, etc and examines questions of evil, power, corruption, and the lengths to which people will go to get what they most desire.

Those are heavy subjects, but not out of reach for mature and thoughtful teens. However, here I must enter the caveat that I don’t care for the Young Adult genre. I think teens who are thoughtful enough to ponder deep issues and themes should be mature enough to read a book that doesn’t have YA elements (by which I mean the Sweet Valley High type formula of cheesy slang, superficial secondary characters, and an “easy to read” feel). I felt like the YA thing was really at war with the meat of Another Faust, and the book would have been better without trying to be YA. I haven’t discussed this with Dina, and don’t mean any disrespect to her by it, it’s just my opinion about YA clashing with my admiration for the more literary aspects of the novel.

Oddly the book is in the subgenre of “horror.” Personally I would have put it in the subgenre of “fantasy” because I think of horror as involving things like lots of blood and guts and gore and knife-wielding zombies and sadistic clowns and whatnot, whereas Another Faust is full of things I think of as being more fantasy elements requiring a strong sense of imagination and ability to suspend disbelief. Then again, I’m not in publishing, what do I know.

I found the book a little hard to get in to, but I kept reading because I kept seeing little bits of things and thinking “Aha! Dina put that part in!” I’m not sure how you’d fare if you don’t know Dina, but if you like YA or don’t mind it, you should keep reading because the second half of the book really picks up speed and more literary elements are woven in, and those elements are where I think the real strength of the book lies. I thought some of the twists at the end were quite original, and I thought the authors did a nice job of keeping the story from being predictable, given that it was based on an existing concept.

Overall I would recommend this book to you if you enjoy YA. I have not read popular YA like Twilight so I can’t say for sure, but I would venture to guess that Another Faust has far better writing. If you are not a fan of YA but enjoy reading books based on older concepts but updated to modern times, you might also enjoy the book. I’m not sure what age range the book was targeting, since it seems like lots of adults are into YA (which I totally don’t understand, but ok) and the themes are quite a bit heavier than most young teens could absorb. They might still like the book, but I think some of it would go over their heads. I think the Nayeris intent to engage young people enough to spark an interest in literature is admirable, and I hope it works!

Most of all my conclusion is that Dina should throw off the YA shackles and write literary fiction. That is just my selfish opinion. 🙂

I finally made it to Heather‘s Knit Night/Book Club this month and enjoyed the discussion on Henry James’ Washington Square. I read the book a long time ago (can’t remember when – college? high school?) and I remember liking the ending better the first time, perhaps because I was more idealistic and less acquainted with real life. (Insert smile here) In any case I think Washington Square is a much better book than either The Turn of the Screw or Daisy Miller, neither of which grabbed me particularly. The writing in this book is better, but I think what I find off-putting about Henry James is the fact that he seems distant from his subjects and characters, as if he is observing them as social commentary rather than feeling with them and really understanding their foibles. That said, I did like the book and think it’s literature worth reading.

The Week in Books 2009, No. 45

A friend of mine who is an actual photographer recommended I read Understanding Exposure to learn how to better use my camera. I thought the book was excellent and informative, but I have to admit that most of it went right over my head. I finished the book and took notes, but then decided to read Nikon D60 for Dummies (I know, I know) first, then once I’m minimally competent I will come back to Understanding Exposure. If you’re pretty good at photography and have a basic grasp of shooting in manual modes, this book would probably help you tremendously and I recommend it for advanced beginners and up!

I was talking on the phone with my friend Kim F. and she told me some yummy sounding things she was cooking from $3 Slow-Cooked Meals. I promptly forgot the names of the recipes she mentioned, but the one I tried from the book was all right. I didn’t slow cook it though, because to me the real work of cooking is the chopping (I’m the world’s slowest chopper) and sauteeing and browning the meat etc so tossing it all in the crock pot to cook is no easier for me than tossing it all in a pot on the stove. If you are gone all day and don’t want to risk having your oven on while you’re out, slow cooking probably makes more sense. The nice thing about this cookbook is that the author gives instructions for slow cooking OR conventionally cooking each recipe.

Book Update: A while ago I reviewed Family Feasts for $75 a Week and since then I have tried many of the recipes it contains. All of them were GREAT. The recipes are surprisingly good, nutritious, and don’t taste too bland/salty/creamy like a lot of “budget” recipes do. I like that she uses mostly whole food ingredients rather than a lot of boxed or canned stuff. If you haven’t checked this book out yet, I doubly recommend it now!

The Week in Books 2009, No. 44

The Fire in Fiction is a helpful book on writing by a literary agent, so it’s full of what-not-to-do tips from someone who has seen a lot of bad writing. I made a lot of notes. I found his section on building tension particularly good.

I did find it rather odd that there were so very many typos in this book. Then again, the author is an agent, not an editor, so I’ll let it slide.

If you’re interested in writing, you might like this book. You might also be interested in this article from the Wall Street Journal wherein authors describe their writing processes.

I don’t consider myself a “Messie” per se, but I do verge on it, and I think a lot of my usual coping mechanisms for mess and organization have broken down over the past year as our family size and obligations have changed. I learned some good things from The Messies Manual and I’d recommend it to you if you feel like you need to get some aspects of your homemaking under control so you don’t have to spend all day on it.

Fertility, Cycles & Nutrition contains a lot of good information on how diet and nutrition play a role in women’s health, and I’d recommend it to you for that reason. There are also sections on how to boost fertility through better nutrition, if you’re in a position of needing that sort of help. The book is written by a Catholic author, so that perspective does come through at times, but I think the book would be helpful to a wider audience.

The Week in Books 2009, No. 43

Say Yes To No is a thought provoking book about how to make time for things that are truly important in your life, rather than filling up all of your time and spending all of your energy on things that are fine but not great. The author advocates saying “no” to free up space so you can say “yes” to better things.

The author is a pastor who also happens to be widely read, and he does a masterful job of using all sorts of historical and philosophical references to stimulate your thinking and flesh out his arguments, while at the same time relying on the foundation of faith. He’s also a good writer, which helped. I found myself challenged to think about some areas of my life where I might need to alter my focus, and areas where I might be sacrificing the best in favor of the good.

I’d recommend this book if you like to think about goals and priorities, or if you ever feel overwhelmed or like you’re not sure what you’re accomplishing.

Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives disappointed me somewhat because I felt like the author, while clearly knowledgeable and passionate about his topic, needed to tighten up the text. I felt like he said the same thing over and over again, and then tried to cover really complex subtopics with too little information.

One good point I took away from this book is that we have a tendency to let other people tell us what we can handle and guilt us into doing too much. That is definitely true of me – I feel so horrible saying no to things especially when I see other mothers doing tons more than I do and seeming to pull it off with great aplomb. I think I’m getting better and seeing that we all have the same amount of time, but it’s ok for us to have different goals and priorities.

Overall I would say you’d be better off reading “Say Yes to No” than “Margin.”