Year in Books 2010

When I went back through my week in books posts from 2010 I found that I read 85 books (not including books for children, read to children, or the Bible).  That was a bit less than I expected, but I reminded myself that in 2010 I also wrote the first draft of a book and writing a 90,000 word manuscript did take away from some reading time.  At any rate, I am satisfied with the 85 books I read and the knowledge and understanding I gained as a result.  Of the 85, here are the top ten in chronological order (the first link is to Amazon, the second link is to my longer review).

From Clutter to Clarity: Simplifying Life from the Inside Out goes deeper than how to sort out your piles of stuff and tackles how to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual clutter that “complicates your life and prevents you from living in peace as you live out your purpose.”  This book will encourage you to get to the root cause of clutter in various aspects of your life and would be excellent reading for this time of year.  (Week in Books #10)

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day will, without a shadow of a doubt, revolutionize the way you bake bread.  What?  You don’t bake your own bread?  You have no excuse now because this book will show you how to use your very own kitchen to make the kind of bread you’d normally pay out the nose for in a bakery.  And really, it does just take a few minutes.  It’s shockingly easy, and shockingly delicious.  You must own this book, or, at the very least, check it out from the library.  (Week in Books #14)

A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World is one of the most challenging, convicting, and encouraging books I have ever read.  Although the book primarily deals with prayer, it also includes excellent discussions of hope, anxiety, humility, relationships, and covenant.  I loved how the author balanced deep and thoughtful theology and theory with personal and humble practical examples.  (Week in Books #20)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a rollicking, well-written, clever mystery story told from the perspective of a precocious British eleven year old.  Even if you don’t normally read mysteries, I think you’d enjoy this book because it’s so tremendously fun.  Moreover, it’s entirely clean and you could actually (gasp) feel okay about letting a kid read it.  Except it’s not really written on a kid level, apart from having a child protagonist.  At any rate, it’s a great story and you should read it.  (Week in Books #27a)

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is a really fantastic retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.  C.S. Lewis weaves in layers of allegorical references to various theologies and philosophies in the midst of his excellent story-telling, which will delight you if you’re familiar with those subjects but won’t leave you confused if you aren’t.  This book will leave you with fresh ways of thinking about interesting themes like Truth, man’s relationship to God, the nature of reality, and the search for a true home.  Lewis is, I think, the best reference of how a Christian can write excellent fiction that is not “Christian fiction” – expressing Christian themes and points of view in such a way that anyone could still enjoy the book and be challenged in their thinking.  (Week in Books #27b)

The Namesake is an incredible, gorgeously written novel about family and identity.  I’ve read several of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books now and I still think this one is the best.  This author has an amazing way of rendering details and using words exquisitely.  (Week in Books #27c)

What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage gets to the roots of how problems get started and grown in even good marriages, and offers deep and practical guidance on how to strengthen your marriage no matter what state it is in currently.  This is probably the best book I’ve ever read on marriage, and I’ve read quite a few.  (Week in Books #41)

Parrot and Olivier in America is a phenomenally well-written and incredibly interesting novel about two Frenchmen who travel to America in the early 1800s and how they are changed by the experience.  Apart from being a great story, the book is full of great detail about the history of the time period.  (Week in Books #44a)

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun had a tremendous impact on how I think about myself and my life.  In researching and writing about happiness, Gretchen Rubin touched on nearly every aspect of life and then resolved to take action on what she found.  Books in the “spend a year doing thus and such” genre can tend toward the fluffy and absurd, but Rubin found depth and insight that I think would be truly helpful to most people.  I also enjoy her Happiness Project blog.  (Week in Books #47)

Girl in Translation made me cry, which is unusual for a book, and thus it wins a spot in the top ten.  I loved this author’s story about a young immigrant girl struggling to find her identity in a new country and being torn between two worlds even in her new life.  The ending has a well-executed twist that is thoughtful and complex.  (Week in Books #50)

Right now my book stack includes fiction (YA and adult) and non-fiction on topics like education, business, parenting, history, writing, sustainable farming, cooking, and neuroscience.  So stay tuned for the week in books 2011 posts coming up!

If you need to catch up on book reviews, you can read all of my week in books 2010 posts, or my top posts for 2009, 2008, and 2007.

Thanks so much for reading with me!

Disclosure: As with all of my book review posts, this post contains affiliate links.  Feel free to read my disclosure policy linked in the sidebar if you’d like more information about what that means.

Decoded

I realize that probably 99.9% of people who read this blog don’t care for hip-hop.  That’s OK.  But I hope you will still read this review because I think Jay-Z’s memoir/analysis Decoded raises some important questions and themes that are worth your time to think about.

In the book Jay-Z, an incredibly successful rapper and businessman, sets out to explain the literary form of rap (and there is a poetic formula to rap, the same way there is a poetic formula to epic and sonnets and free verse and opera and country music), to describe the history and milieu of his generation in the inner city, and to show how hip-hop uses those specific types of experience to describe things we all go through.  Although at times I felt like he over-explained or glossed over issues, overall I think Jay-Z made his case persuasively.

Lots of people dismiss rap without listening to it because they think it idealizes violence and drugs and sexism and a sort of reverse racism.  There are valid concerns behind those points.  In one sense I think it’s a mistake to see rap as being a straight biographical narrative – as in any form of expression hip-hop uses literary devices and examples that are hyperbolic because characters and emotions writ large are more descriptive than mundane details.  On the other hand, the ramifications of some of the conventions of rap are extreme and I have a hard time with songs that don’t at least wrestle with the contradictions and bigger questions represented by the life they describe.  I like hip-hop, but there are lots of songs that I just don’t listen to because I can’t stomach the way the lyrics talk about women or seem to glorify horrific violence and so forth.

But I will also say that I greatly appreciate music that takes a realistic stance to how those realities (and they are realities in many cities and neighborhoods, even if they aren’t in yours) are a catch-22: the very things people grasp at as a way out of their situation can turn into a trap, the means to escape can be at the expense of others’ well-being, and there is a lot of collateral damage.  In that sense I think hip-hop is a hyperbolic example of what all of us do when we’re backed into a corner or trying to fill a need with something other than God, or living without hope.  Really, the only difference between you and me and the hustler selling crack on the street corner is the culture we were born in – apart from Christ we are all just the same.

As I read this book, I kept thinking about how Jesus did not spend his time on earth giving gold stars to Pharisees, he hung out with tax collectors and sinners.  He didn’t say that their choices and lifestyles were OK, but he didn’t see them as reprobates, he loved them where they were.  I think those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers could stand to take pause and think about our knee-jerk reaction to people who are caught up in and trapped by the grinding poverty and dismal prospects and hustling and violence hip-hop describes.  There are real people really living with the tension of that life.  Jesus did not go to the outcasts of society and say “hey, what y’all need is to dress and talk and act more like the Pharisees.”  He showed them real love, compassion, and hope and valued them as worthwhile people no matter where they were when He found them.

Jay-Z makes some powerful points in his book about why kids get caught up in this lifestyle – as he says, no kid wakes up and says hey, I want to risk my life hustling drugs on a street corner for $100 a week – and I spent a lot of time thinking about what other options there are for desperate people.  It’s easy to say “just get a job” but harder when there aren’t many jobs or the jobs available are for minimum wage when you’re trying to provide for a family and you have no education.  It’s hard to get an education when you might get shot in school and everyone around you is dropping out and the teachers don’t care.  I don’t think it’s enough to say “here’s your welfare check, good luck with all that.”  I also don’t think it’s fair to say “stop complaining and get a job.”  Obviously people spend a lot of time thinking about solutions to inner city problems and smart people disagree on the answers, but regardless of our stances on policies and the role of government and all that, what is our heart for people who are different than we are?

Although I disagree with some of Jay-Z’s positions and conclusions, I respect his willingness to take ownership of his choices and really wrestle with big questions in his writing and his life.  He willingly admits the contradictions and tension in his past and his lyrics.  At least he is honest, which is more than a lot of people can muster.

Decoded is a book about hip-hop.  If you don’t like hip-hop, you probably won’t like the book.  If you do like rap, you would probably find the book incredibly interesting.  It contains a lot of lyrics to rap songs and a lot of profanity and, frankly, not a lot of redemption.  Jay-Z seems to really struggle with how to take his music to the next level, how to keep the genre moving forward, and how to be a transformative voice in his community.  I think what he’s missing is redemption and deep, heart-level hope and Truth.  I hope he finds it.

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Books to Help You Find Your Strengths

In many areas of life, from marriage and parenting to serving others to exercising other vocations, I find it immensely helpful to find different ways to understand myself and others around me.  At different times in my life I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to work against the personality and giftings that God gave me in order to try to be just like someone else who is differently called and equipped.  That really doesn’t make sense, and it’s a recipe for burnout and disaster and not really glorifying to God.

Recently I read a book called Do What You Are that walks you through different personality types (the Myers-Briggs types) and helps you understand how your particular type functions and what sorts of work and service you might be most useful and happy doing.  As I read I noted the information about my own type, ENTJ, as well as Josh’s type, ISTJ and we had a great conversation about it.  I thought it was interesting to find ideas for how I could avoid situations that cause me stress and keep me from being productive, and also interesting to note that in many cases the things that drive me bananas are situations where people like Josh totally thrive.  It was helpful for me to see that there is nothing wrong with me for preferring certain types of work over others, and also to see that certain types of work and service are not better or worse, just suited to different types of people.  Another helpful aspect of the book is how the authors discuss ways to strengthen areas where you are weak and how to use the personality type idea to grow into a more well-rounded person, rather than pigeon-holing yourself with it.  If you enjoy delving into personality type and are interested to see how that applies to work and serving others, I’d recommend Do What You Are.

My father-in-law has often recommended that we read What Color Is Your Parachute? but I only recently picked it up.  Now I understand why he likes it so much.  The book is billed as a practical handbook for job-hunters, and it is that, but it’s also a great framework for figuring out how your God-given gifts and passions can translate into specific or targeted callings.  The author is a minister and does not pull punches about how he feels about mission, calling, and vocation but he maintains a respectful and practical tone that makes the book widely applicable.  I found the sections on developing your vision and goals and honing your callings most helpful.  For example, the author suggests listing your various roles in life (woman, wife, mother, Christian, writer, reader, committee member…etc etc) and then thinking about what it is you like about that role, and then finding the common denominators in that list.  I found it really interesting to list out what I actually like and dislike about various roles, and then to see recurring themes between them.  I also thought it was helpful to rank my different skills and abilities and preferences.

I loved the author’s conclusion that every person is called to glorify God and enjoy Him, and to make the world more reflective of God and His truth, but that the way we follow those callings is based on the unique gifts and heart God gave us.  There is so much freedom in knowing that we do not all have to serve God the same way.  We do not all have to parent the same way, or educate our kids the same way, or earn money the same way.  Even if you are not job hunting and you feel like you have a pretty good idea what you’re doing in life, I think the exercises in What Color Is Your Parachute? would be helpful and illuminating.

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Books to Beat Your Dinner Doldrums

Do you ever start to feel like you make the same handful of dinner options week after week?  There is nothing wrong with putting favorites into heavy rotation, but every now and then I find it helpful to break out of my menu planning rut and try a bunch of new recipes.  This time of year I find it especially necessary to come up with healthy and satisfying meals that don’t cost too much or take forever to prepare.  If you’re like me in that regard, these books are for you!

If you have $6.80 lying around, I can’t think of many things you could better spend it on than Poor Girl Gourmet: Eat in Style on a Bare-Bones Budget.  I love the concept of this book – the author set out to find ways to eat well and healthfully on a budget and came up with some really helpful suggestions and great recipes.  I was especially interested to see how she managed to shop on a budget at Whole Foods, which is a grocery store I love but that I tend to think of as too expensive.  If you are into natural/organic/healthy eating and on a budget I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  Some of the recipes that I’m putting into our rotation from this book include Ribollita, Honey Balsamic Chicken, and Sweet Italian Sausage with Apple and Fennel.

When I’m searching out new recipes I look for things that are healthy and quick, but I also look for foods that sound flavorful, interesting, and like they could also work for entertaining.  One of my resolutions for 2011 is to have people over for dinner more often, and so Perfect One-Dish Dinners: All You Need for Easy Get-Togethers really appealed to me.  What I love about this book is how the author grouped recipes together for entertaining – an hors d’euvres, main dish, and dessert that all go together and can be fixed quickly and presented nicely.  I am so excited about this cookbook, especially recipes like Salsa Verde Chicken with Herbed Cornmeal Dumplings, Coq au Vin Blanc, Pork Stew with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes, and Indian Six Layer Dip (which is not actually Indian, but loosely based on Indian flavors).

If you change your menus this time of year, what sort of dishes do you add or subtract from your usual fare?

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Catching Fire

I bet when you read the title of this post you thought I was going to write about a candlelight Christmas Eve service gone horribly awry, or about that one time when I set my hair on fire with a flame-throwing hairdryer.

Sorry.  It’s another book review.  You’ll live.

Remember how I loved The Hunger Games even though I normally become nauseated at the very thought of YA?  Right, so I read the second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire.

I enjoyed the book because I think Suzanne Collins did such a fantastic job creating the setting for the trilogy and I liked getting to read about the politics and culture of it a little bit more.  And I still think she handles the teenage protagonist well and realistically (ie, like a normal teenager would be, rather than like a normal 26 year old billed as a teenager).  However, I started to be a little perplexed at how the main character hasn’t changed or become different after all the crazy things she has been through.  I felt like I wanted to read more character development.  But maybe that is not a YA thing, and maybe it’s wrong to impose the conventions of a literary novel on a YA novel.

I’m hoping that the final book in the trilogy will include some forward movement in the main character and some good resolution to the ongoing tensions and questions in the first two books.  I had high hopes for finishing the trilogy in 2010, but the young adults and whoever else is ahead of me in the hold line at the library apparently read at an AGONIZINGLY slow pace so I’m still waiting for it.  Seriously, it takes about two hours tops to read these books, so I don’t know why people are hanging on to them for so long.

But I digress.  If you haven’t read The Hunger Games trilogy and you have two hours at your disposal, I’d still recommend it in spite of my reservations about the character development.

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Bloodroot Review

I picked up Amy Greene’s novel Bloodroot because it is set in the Appalachian Mountains as is the book I’m working on writing.  I was curious to see if my mountains were anything like hers.  As it turns out, aside from being set in the same mountains, my story is nothing like Greene’s but reading her take on the mountains was helpful to me in getting a different perspective on setting and I enjoyed the writing and story development as well.

Greene’s novel traces a family of who live on Bloodroot Mountain and have a unique and fascinating culture and world that is completely different from my own.  I was drawn in by the plot and characters, but what I found most interesting about the novel was the complex culture and way of life Greene expertly draws out.  The extreme poverty and hard living the characters go through really color the way the physical setting emerges – in a life with very little beauty and margin, the beauty of the woods and streams and mountains enriches and animates some characters and makes others feel angry and trapped.  In a sense, the physical setting acted like a character in itself.

The book does contain a lot of cruelty, some violence, and depictions of extreme hardship that might be difficult for extremely sensitive or young readers, but I think these issues are handled well and important to the story and world the book depicts.   I enjoyed Bloodroot and would recommend it.

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Teaching the Trivium and Two Books I Liked Better

I think it’s interesting to read about how other families approach things, especially when it comes to education.  In that sense, I thought Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style was worth my time even though I found myself disagreeing fundamentally with the authors on several key points. 

The authors of the book write about classical education in the sense of following the trivium model (very basically, that young children should learn lots of facts, the middle years can be used to begin putting things together, and high school is the time to analyze the information), but not in the sense of really reading the classics or following a classical curriculum as it has been used through the ages.  The book discusses some classics, but the authors believe that books that don’t conform to Biblical standards and worldview are not important to study.

I disagree with the authors profoundly on this point.  I think that all truth is God’s truth, and that the classics inform all of literature.  We can’t interact with and transform our culture if we don’t understand it and aren’t able to analyze it and present a counterpoint.  The authors argue that it’s unimportant to understand some of the very basic pieces of the Western canon of literature, and they are right that most people don’t these days, but that doesn’t mean those people are well educated.  I think it’s possible to read and appreciate classical sources without conforming to the worldviews contained therein, and really it comes down to how that literature is taught and presented and dealt with in the classroom or homeschool. 

Aside from the curriculum limitations, I thought the authors did a good job of explaining the rationale behind different ways to teach language, why one might want to teach Latin in the formative years, and how the study of foreign languages aids the understanding of English grammar.  Personally I will probably not wind up teaching my children Hebrew, although I appreciate the authors reasons for adding Hebrew to Latin and Greek.  I’d like to do Greek, but we might not get there, realistically. 

Another interesting topic the book touches on is the reasoning and background for delaying formal math instruction until age 10 (and by formal they mean textbook/workbook style, not keeping math knowledge from kids – the informal math would be using manipulatives, counting, basic math functions and fractions and ideas found in everyday life and concrete situations).  I’m not sure how I will handle that with my kids, but I have read several other studies and articles recently about how children who don’t do math drills and textbooks until the 9-10 age range can learn the equivalent of 6 years of early elementary math in a matter of weeks and don’t wind up hating math like many kids do who start too early.  It is more efficient to teach concepts when children are really ready to understand and interact with them.  However, I do think there are ways to teach math that keep kids from burning out too early or missing something, such as methods that incorporate a lot of visuals, manipulatives, games, and so forth.  We’re probably going to use Math-U-See with Hannah next year for kindergarten, and I think it’s a gentle yet logical and rigorous approach. 

Although I don’t regret reading Teaching the Trivium and it may be quite helpful to others, I wouldn’t recommend it as highly as some other books on classical education.  I mean no disrespect to the authors, but I disagreed with too many points in this book to recommend it highly.  Unless you really want to read a lot of books about homeschooling in general and classical schooling in particular I think you would be better off reading The Well-Trained Mind or  The Case for Classical Christian Education to get a feel for what a classical education can look like within a private, Christian, and/or homeschool framework. 

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The Radical Disciple

In his final book, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling, theologian and pastor John Stott addresses what he sees as eight aspects of our calling as Christians that we often neglect.  The eight aspects include:

1) Nonconformity Stott points out that both escapism and conformism are forbidden to the Christian, and identifies the challenge of pluralism, of materialism, of ethical relativism, and of narcissism as being some of the key difficulties to Christians today in the attempt to be in the world but not of the world.

2) Christlikeness Stott rightly says that the purpose of God for the people of God is to grow in Christlikeness, but that so often we focus more on putting off sin to the exclusion of putting ON Christlikeness.  I found this section particularly convicting, especially Stott’s observation that one reason our evangelism is unsuccessful is that we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim.

3) Maturity Stott observes that superficiality is epidemic in Christian faith in our time, and challenges readers to develop maturity by cultivating a clearer, fresh, and true vision of Jesus Christ.  All Christians are called to maturity – there is no Christian elitism.

4) Creation Care This section begins with the premise that the earth is the Lord’s and that God delegated His creation to us so we should be good stewards of it.  Stott discusses the Christian perspective on nature – that we respect it and take care of it, but we do not either deify it or exploit it.  Toward the end of this section Stott goes into some discussion of overpopulation and global warming which I disagreed with – moreover I had trouble figuring out where he was going with his logic, especially on the subject of overpopulation, because it was unclear how he feels that Christians should proceed in the event that they agree that overpopulation and/or global warming are problems.  I think Stott probably should have left that bit out because it weakened his overall point.  However, the section concludes with a good reminder that Christians should own the topic of creation care as one of stewardship of the earth God entrusted to us.

5) Simplicity This section addressed the problem of materialism and included a challenging question of how should our lives be distinguished from those who make no profession of Christ?

6) Balance Stott had some good thoughts on how to balance the spiritual and the temporal parts of our lives, including building community, remembering that our citizenship is first in Heaven, then on earth, and that we are called to be servants and good citizens.

7) Dependence Here Stott considers the relationship between humiliation and humility, chasing after status, and how to reconcile independence and dependence.

8) Death Finally, Stott closes with his thoughts on death, including the metaphorical dying to self and actual physical death.

To sum up, I think The Radical Disciple is good and thought provoking, and worth reading if you enjoy John Stott’s work, are interested in theology, or like to think about how theological topics apply to daily life.

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Girl in Translation

Just so you know, I don’t cry easily at books.  But any book that makes me cry pretty much automatically wins a spot in my top books of the year and so Girl in Translation will make that list.  I was deeply drawn in by the main character, a little girl from Hong Kong trying to figure out life in a New York City garment industry sweatshop and an American school.  I think the author, Jean Kwok, did an excellent job balancing descriptions of squalid living conditions and seemingly insurmountable obstacles with the fierce hope of a better life.

I love books that deal with issues like being an outsider, forging identity between two competing worlds, and overcoming adversity.  I started to care so deeply about the character that at one point when something bad happened that I thought might keep her from her goal, I burst into tears.  I was incredibly relieved when the ending contained a few surprising (and well done) twists that resolved my fear for the character, but I also respect the author’s ability to portray how major life choices are never cut and dried – choosing one thing always means losing another.

Because the book is so well written, the characters so sympathetic and well drawn, and the themes so vivid and thoughtful, I highly recommend it, and am certainly adding Girl in Translation to my Year in Books 2010 post, which should be upcoming in the next few weeks!

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Interpreter of Maladies

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, and her book of short stories Interpreter of Maladies is another example of her amazing talent.  This book is gorgeously written.  It’s simply lovely.  The stories themselves are haunting and sad and full of characters who are searching and longing in a way that resonates even if you don’t identify with the specific cultural and relational themes in the book.

I still think that The Namesake is my favorite of Lahiri’s books so far, but if you enjoy short stories or are looking for a book you can read in short spurts, you may prefer Interpreter of Maladies.  In any case, Lahiri is one of my new favorite authors and I’d highly recommend her work.