It’s time for my annual Year in Review (of books), which is not technically over yet – there are a few books I hope to finish before January 1st rolls in. You can often infer a lot about how a year went based on some of my favorite titles, which means I must start with the year’s favorite memoir.
Grace for Amateurs by Lily Burana was one of those books I didn’t know how to shelve when finished: general memoirs? Theology that gives me hope that non-toxic religion (and non-toxic religious people) really do exist? Or the Kindred Spirit shelf? Some of the most quotable, tweetable, meme-worthy lines relating to doubt, depression, and struggling with suicide were found in this book. It was hard to pick a favorite, but here’s one I stopped to reread multiple times:
With just one paragraph, we became best friends. Hopefully Burana isn’t too creeped out.
Next on the list of “best memoirs” is Something Beautiful Happened by Yvette Manessis Corporon: the story of a woman whose ancestors on a Greek island worked together to hide Jews from Nazis during World War II. Corporon sets out to find the descendants of the women who were hidden (and survived), only to have her uncle and young nephew murdered by a neo Nazi who wanted to know what it “felt like” to kill Jews.
This may seem like an odd choice to read when the United States is seeing a resurgence of Nazi rhetoric. It especially seemed like an odd choice to take home with me to Ohio for Thanksgiving, but my choice of “airplane reads” probably differs a lot from the average person’s. Corporon’s story is dark, but it’s also, first and foremost, about the ways we find family in unlikely places – it’s not always about blood connection. It’s also, incredibly, a story of hope and community, and has an urgency in the pacing that makes it feel like a novel. It’s a thick book I expected to last the entire eight days of travel, but I finished within three, which is more of a testament to Corporon’s writing skills than my ability to speed-read.
Narrowing down the theology list is harder. This is the genre I read most (admittedly, the difference between memoir and theology can get a little blurred), and the only way to really do it justice is to become my friend on Goodreads so you can peruse that list yourself. But after careful consideration, I have narrowed my choices down to two: Unbelievable? By Justin Brierly and Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde.
Brierly’s book is a compilation of essays based on his years as a radio host for a show that brings atheists and Christians together to discuss pertinent theological issues. In it, he discusses why, despite the thoughtful arguments of atheist colleagues he’s hosted on his show, he still believes in God. I’m kind of a sucker for these books, even if I’ve heard the arguments before, because I still believe that personal experience is the most powerful testimony out there, no matter what the topic of debate is about.
But I didn’t read this book for the arguments alone. This book was recommended by a Christian friend whose viewpoints I deeply respect, and after a few chapters I can see why she recommended it so highly: Brierly’s treatment of people who believe differently than he does is such a breath of fresh air in a climate as hostile as ours has been. It’s quite refreshing to see someone who is stable and confident in his beliefs go out of his way to try and understand “the other side,” let alone give them a platform on a popular radio show with which to do it. There’s no one thing that can fix the pervasive intolerance of the US, but having more Brierlys around is a good way to start.
Confessions of a Funeral Director was an unexpected delight, despite being about, well, death – particularly religious platitudes about death, and the cultural differences between the ways our ancestors understood death, and the way we respond to it today. Maybe my interests are just strange, but I was fascinated by the insights in this book. Wilde argues that our ancestors responded better, psychologically, to death when it was all around them: infant mortality was high, as was the rate of death in childbirth; people killed their own livestock for food, as opposed to buying it hygienically wrapped in plastic at the supermarket, and death by diseases we are now able to prevent with vaccines was relatively common. I have to wonder how much healthier we are as a society for sectioning off death as something that mostly happens onscreen, in hospitals, hospice care facilities, and slaughter houses. In a way, the effect is one of false invincibility (although the tragic increase of death by corrupt police officers may be changing that).
Certainly, the way many religious institutions respond to death is problematic, and much of Wilde’s book talks about that.
I have some moral concerns about the funeral industry as a whole (which is another blog post), but Wilde’s perspective is worth reading. He also sheds some light on how the prospect of eternal conscious torment is psychologically damaging to surviving family members, which I greatly appreciated.
Speaking of which (odd transition, I know), if you’re up for some theological weight-lifting, I recommend Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda. The writing style is easy to read, but this woman’s level of research of hermeneutics and translations is definitely worth savoring for a while. Agree or disagree with her findings, you can’t dismiss her process as intellectually lazy, or driven by agenda, especially when the last third of the book is one of the most detailed and diverse bibliographies I’ve ever read in my life – and that’s after seminary!
As for fiction, I’ve been slacking in this department ever since starting a master’s degree in creative nonfiction, but this year I read at least two that I highly recommend. Again, my interests run a little dark, but what can I say – this is the climate we’re living in now. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is about a black obstetrics nurse who is told to stay away from the infant of a white supremacist couple. When the child goes into cardiac arrest, that nurse is the only one close enough to intervene with life-saving measures, which then prompts a lawsuit (what’s a JP novel without a riveting court drama?). Picoult’s newer fiction has been slacking, and falling into formulaic tropes (in my humble opinion), but she really made a comeback with this one.
I had the privilege of listening to Picoult speak at a book signing, and I love – love! – how she admits that this is not a book for black people, who certainly don’t need their experiences explained for them by a white woman like herself. Rather, this is a book for white people who are still a bit lost on the concept of racial privilege; who define racism as evil personified by a white hood and a burning cross, but not with platitudes like “I’m colorblind; I don’t see color!” and “All Lives Matter.” If that’s you, I highly recommend this book. It’s not often that you lose yourself in a good story that also has the power to reshape your worldview, and you may not even realize that’s what happened until after you finish it.
My next favorite novel of the year is Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, a young adult novel I wish existed when I was seventeen, and allergic to the word “feminist.” This is the kind of low-key introduction to feminism that every teenage girl should read, complete with a funny, relatable protagonist and powerful storyline about standing up to every authority figure who’s told a female student to change her clothes so she wouldn’t “distract” her male peers, and dismissed harassment as “boys being boys.” In the era of #MeToo, this is one book I’ll be passing on to my daughter, if I ever have one. No matter how much society changes, some things remain tragically stagnant: rape culture is one of them.
I was hoping to get to John Green’s latest, Turtles All the Way Down, but I’ve been on a waiting list for it at the library for almost six months now. I might be lucky to get to it before spring. Tell me it’s worth the wait?
Honorable mentions (which doesn’t mean these books are less great than the ones above, only that I’m lazy and don’t have time to rehash what I loved about them all) go to:
Still Christian by David Gushee
Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker
A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz
Unafraid by Benjamin Corey
Also worth mentioning, in the world of online TV, is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (streaming on Amazon Prime). I don’t watch a lot of TV, and am usually the last to hear about anything current, but good TV shows are a form of good story-writing so I have to include it here.
Note to self: clear my weekend to binge-watch anything and everything produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino. That woman is a goddess among mortals in the world of entertainment.
I’m actually surprised by how popular this show is, because it centers around a Jewish woman and her family, and therefore it’s steeped heavily in Yiddishisms and Jewish cultural references I’m surprised the average gentile viewer would understand. I forget, all too easily, how common certain expressions and references are, and what’s only obvious to me because Midge’s family is basically my family on steroids (which means the stereotypes run a bit heavy, but what can I say: it’s different when it’s about your tribe of origin, and stereotypes do exist for a reason).
I had some trouble getting into it at first, because I wasn’t sure how I felt about Midge – she was a bit too perky and extroverted for my taste – but I stuck with it, and I am so glad I did, you have no idea. It deserves every accolade it’s nominated for. Stop reading this post and start watching it, is all I have to say.
Actually, I have one more thing to say about it: I hope this show inspires a revival in the fashion world. I need to time-travel back to the 1950s, if only for the fashion. Women had less rights back then, but gosh darn it, did they look incredible.
What books and shows have you watched/read this year that you recommend? Give me some recommendations to start 2018!