Favorite reads of 2017

Resurrecting the blog to post my contribution to my favorite among all the year end lists: favorite reads of the past year. I can’t help myself; I will click on every link to every such list. I love knowing what titles were most liked among what was read, as well as adding new books to my ever growing “want to read” list!

According to my Goodreads list, I read something like 50 books in 2017. Here’s my list of those I enjoyed the most, in no particular order, fiction and non fiction both. I’ve included the publisher’s description and a brief word about my impressions of the book:

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren.

Hands down my favorite non-fiction / spiritual life title. Tish is a fantastic writer and her examination of ordinary life in light of extraordinary grace was beautiful and thoughtful. I loved it.

In the overlooked moments and routines of our day, we can become aware of God’s presence in surprising ways. How do we embrace the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred?

Framed around one ordinary day, this book explores daily life through the lens of liturgy, small practices, and habits that form us. Each chapter looks at something―making the bed, brushing her teeth, losing her keys―that the author does every day. Drawing from the diversity of her life as a campus minister, Anglican priest, friend, wife, and mother, Tish Harrison Warren opens up a practical theology of the everyday. Each activity is related to a spiritual practice as well as an aspect of our Sunday worship.

Come and discover the holiness of your every day.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

How much did I love this book? More than I can express to you. So, so good. If you’ve read it and you didn’t like it, by all means don’t tell me. My favorite fiction read of 2017.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together by Jared Wilson

Grace for the imperfect? Hello, Jared’s telling my story and singing my song. Very encouraging read!

Too many discipleship books are written for clean, perfect people who know all the right Sunday school answers. The Imperfect Disciple is for the rest of us–people who screw up, people who are weary, people who are wondering if it’s safe to say what they’re really thinking.

For the believer who is tired of quasi-spiritual lifehacks being passed off as true, down-and-dirty discipleship, here is a discipleship book that isn’t afraid to be honest about the mess we call real life. With incisive wit, warm humor, and moving stories, Jared Wilson shows readers how the gospel works in them and in their lives when

– they can’t get their act together
– they think God is giving them the silent treatment
– they think church would be better without all the people
– they’re not happy with the person in the mirror
– and much more

Wilson frees readers from the self-doubt and even the misplaced self-confidence they may feel as they walk with Jesus down the often difficult road of life. The result is a faith that weathers storms, lifts burdens, and goes forth to make more imperfect disciples.

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry

Berry is always, always a favorite. Hannah Coulter is one of my all time favorites and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about her husband Nathan. Beautifully written with a simplicity and honesty that is a joy to read. I loved it.

When young Nathan loses his grandfather, Berry guides readers through the process of Nathan’s grief, endearing the reader to the simple humanity through which Nathan views the world. Echoing Berry’s own strongly held beliefs, Nathan tells us that his grandfather’s life “couldn’t be divided from the days he’d spent at work in his fields.” Berry has long been compared to Faulkner for his ability to erect entire communities in his fiction, and his heart and soul have always lived in Port William, Kentucky. In this eloquent novel about duty, community, and a sweeping love of the land, Berry gives readers a classic book that takes them to that storied place.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Horrifying and compelling, this memoir is definitely a book I won’t forget. Plus, Walls can write.

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie

My friend Melissa Kruger recommended this to me after I gushed on twitter about my great affection for A Gentleman in Moscow. Her recommendation was spot-on; I loved reading about this era in history that I knew nothing about. Fascinating and sad, this book spurred me to begin reading other Russian literature (meaning I started but have to yet to finish War and Peace, just keepin’ it real).

The story of the love that ended an empire

In this commanding book, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robert K. Massie sweeps readers back to the extraordinary world of Imperial Russia to tell the story of the Romanovs’ lives: Nicholas’s political naïveté, Alexandra’s obsession with the corrupt mystic Rasputin, and little Alexis’s brave struggle with hemophilia. Against a lavish backdrop of luxury and intrigue, Massie unfolds a powerful drama of passion and history—the story of a doomed empire and the death-marked royals who watched it crumble.

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke

We read this book for our summer book club and I don’t think I’m overstating when I say this book should be read by anyone with a smart phone or a social media account or access to the internet. Read it and be sobered.

Do You Control Your Phone—Or Does Your Phone Control You?

Within a few years of its unveiling, the smartphone had become part of us, fully integrated into the daily patterns of our lives. Never offline, always within reach, we now wield in our hands a magic wand of technological power we have only begun to grasp. But it raises new enigmas, too. Never more connected, we seem to be growing more distant. Never more efficient, we have never been more distracted.

Drawing from the insights of numerous thinkers, published studies, and his own research, writer Tony Reinke identifies twelve potent ways our smartphones have changed us—for good and bad. Reinke calls us to cultivate wise thinking and healthy habits in the digital age, encouraging us to maximize the many blessings, to avoid the various pitfalls, and to wisely wield the most powerful gadget of human connection ever unleashed.

It was a good year of reading! Other books I read last year that I also liked very much:

  • Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep by Christine Hoover
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (a re-read or it definitely would have made the above list of favorites! As I said, Berry is always, always a favorite!)
  • Experiencing the Trinity: The Grace of God for the People of God by Joe Thorn
  • Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture by Wendy Alsup
  • We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
  • Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul by Hannah Anderson
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

What about your favorites of 2017? What did you read that you loved and you would recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Note: This post contains affiliate links

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On friendship and complicated awkwardness

Reading Recommendation: Messy Beautiful Friendship by Christine Hoover

I think I was in eighth grade. I don’t remember the specific contributing factors but I do remember that it was at church on a Sunday morning just before Sunday school. I remember thinking my heart would break over a friend’s betrayal. I remember sobbing unconsolably while one of the Sunday school teachers attempted to comfort me, no doubt assuring me that the sun would come up tomorrow, that the world had not, actually, ended.

Here was our problem: there were three of us middle school girls attempting a BFF trifecta, which, as anyone who has been around preteen girls knows, is an utter impossibility. Someone is always left out or hurt or betrayed. That Sunday it was me and I was utterly heartbroken.

It was my first taste of the complications inherent in friendships between women.

Though I no longer find myself weeping on the Sunday school teacher’s shoulder–one reason being I am the Sunday school teacher after all–I continue to find friendship awkward and complicated, still, all these many years later. I understand that the common denominator has been me and I freely confess:when it comes to finding and being a friend I am awkward and I am complicated.

When I was a young woman–be it college student, newlywed, or young(er) mom–friendship was fairly easy and free and abundant and without all the drama of middle and high school (yes and amen). My friendships then were born of proximity and commonality. Whether it was in the dorm or over playdates at McDonald’s, we were doing life together and not as a catch phrase but for real. It was life, real life, spent together, hours chatting on the phone, hanging out, taking trips even. True, we were an homogenous group but our common experience and circumstance provided a rich foundation for friendship.

As my kids grew older, friendship became more difficult, no doubt due to the general busyness inherent therein. On top of this, not one but two sets of our dearest friends moved away. Left to my own devices I began to realize how bad I was (am) at forming deep friendships. I discovered I had no idea how to make friends, true friends, apart from the ease that comes with proximity and commonality, not to mention the always surprising grace of someone seeking to be my friend first. Hello, awkward and complicated, with a little diva on the side.

I have lots of “reasons” for my complicated awkwardness. I mean, being friends with women can mean comparison and jealousy and cattiness as well as work and vulnerability and time. Not only that but I’m an introvert. I’m a homebody. I’m independent. I think too much. I crave solitude. In other words, I’m not exactly the stuff your dream BFF is made of.

So when a friend suggested we read Messy Beautiful Friendship for our first summer book club title, I knew I needed it. But I was also wary and maybe even a little frightened of what the book might expose in me.

Christine Hoover’s book is a treatise on the importance, nay the necessity, of Biblical, gospel friendships. We need each other, not in the idealized sense of The One True Bestest Friend Over All Others Forever and Ever Yes and Amen, but in the fellowship and accountability as prescribed by the Word of God. She writes,

[T]he goal of friendship is to secure ourselves to the sure, steadfast anchor of Christ and, while holding to that anchor, give and receive the gift of friendship as we have opportunity. The goal is to enjoy God together with others and, as we move through life, to sharpen and allow ourselves to be sharpened by friends. We imitate Jesus with one another, willing to face the stark realities and consequences of sin, all the while persevering in our efforts to offer love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, comfort, and care to one another. In doing so, we display to one another the world how God loves and, through this, bring him glory.

Yes, Christine discusses awkward and complicated and repeatedly encourages us (me) to vulnerability. She is honest about the reality of disappointment and hurt and that friendship is risky and, as the title suggests, messy. She warns against comparison and harboring an idealized BFF wish-dream. She addresses conflict and confrontation and how to do both well in the spirit of love and gentleness. She advocates for wisdom, especially in our social media pursuits, one of my favorite chapters in the book. She reminds us that our friendships point to the greater and true Friend who laid down His life and who will one day, one glorious Day, answer all our longings with Himself.

I am continually surprised that there are those who genuinely want to be my friend and I am grateful for the women who come alongside me in companionship and fellowship. However, I want to be a better friend. Thank you, Christine, for your guidance and wisdom to that end. I needed this book and I daresay I’m not alone.

Favorite reads of 2016

One of my favorite things about this time of year is the “best of” reading lists. I voraciously and carefully read each one I come across, often comparing my favorites (and my non-favorites) and always, always adding to the ever growing list of books I want to read. Someday, one day, maybe.

I read fifty some-odd books so far this year; a few I loved, some I hated, some were surprisingly good, some surprisingly disappointing. Apparently there were many I was just ambivalent about. For those of you who may be curious about my “best of” list, I offer the following favorites among the books I read this year, in no particular order…

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. I can’t stop talking about this one. If you’ve had any sort of extended conversation with me about politics or culture or anything really, I’ve probably mentioned this book. It will open your eyes, break your heart, and make you think. Related: I also appreciated Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates, a look at the black experience in this country, equally eye opening and heartbreaking.

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy by Tim Keller. I think the title says it all. You can read this little book in one sitting and be convicted for a long time after.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood. Loved it. My favorite novel I read last year, and one I keep recommending, is A Man Called Ove. This story evokes a similar sense of hope amid grief. It is not as sad as the description may make it sound!

Look and Live: Behold the Soul-Thrilling, Sin-Killing Glory of Christ by Matt Papa. I need to have this one on re-read yearly, monthly, weekly maybe. So, so good.

Honorable mentions:

I read a lot of fiction this year; no newsflash there as I read a lot of fiction every year. I don’t know if my standards are getting stricter or if I just had an off year, but only the one novel stands out as a favorite. In fact, I track my reading at Goodreads (otherwise I could never remember if I read any given book much less how many and which I might have liked); only a handful of the fiction titles I read I deemed a four star or higher. Interesting.

What about you? What did you read this year that stands out as a favorite? Have you posted a year end favorites list? Let me know in the comments so I can check it out!

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Vulnerability and self-worth

I am (finally) reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. I say “finally” because astute readers of the blog will know that it has appeared on my “to read” list many times over the past year or two and I am only now getting around to it. It’s not my typical reading material but it has been suggested to me by readers and thinkers I respect so here I am. Finally.

I’m only a third of the way in and, frankly, I’m not sure what I think about it. Maybe because it’s not my typical reading fare but I have a hard time figuring out what the author means. Or maybe I’m just dense. It occurs to me maybe that’s why it’s not my typical reading fare: I’m not astute enough to figure out what the heck the author is talking about.

Anyway, while this post is not a review nor an endorsement (nor a critique), I’d like to share a point or two from the book about vulnerability that keep echoing in my mind. Actually, it’s more like an extended quote using creativity as an example but I think the application can obviously be extended…

You’ve designed a product or written an article or created a piece of art that you want to share with a group of friends. Sharing something that you’ve created is a vulnerable but essential part of [engaged] living. It’s the epitome of daring greatly. But because of how you were raised or how you approach the world, you’ve knowingly or unknowingly attached to your self-worth to how your product or art is received. In simple terms, if they love it, you’re worthy; if they don’t, you’re worthless.

One of two things happens at this point in the process:

1. Once you realize that your self-worth is hitched to what you’ve produced or created, it’s unlikely that you’ll share it, or if you do, you’ll strip away a layer or two of the juiciest creativity and innovation to make the revealing less risky. There’s too much on the line to just put your wildest creations out there.

2. If you do share it in its most creative form and the reception doesn’t meet your expectations, you’re crushed. Your offering is no good and you’re no good. The chances of soliciting feedback, reengaging, and going back to the drawing board are slim. You shut down. Shame tells you that you shouldn’t have even tried. Shame tells you that you’re not good enough and you should have known better.

…Everything shame needs to hijack and control your life is in place. You’ve handed over your self-worth to what people think…You’re officially a prisoner of “pleasing, performing, and perfecting.”

I understand this process. It’s happened to me a million times. Blogging is an obvious example but there are countless others. From teaching to the most mundane of conversations, I well know the thread that ties my self-worth to my sense of vulnerability and shame.

Brown will also make the rather astute observation that we consider vulnerability courageous in others but an embarrassing weakness in ourselves.

Interesting stuff. You might think there would be some of the self-help rah rah of “if you believe it you can do it”–and there may yet be–as I said, I’m only a third of the way in. But instead of asserting that failure will not be option, Brown does nearly the opposite. Failure comes, shame will descend; what then? Are you shame resilient? She will, I think, give her conclusions about combating shame as well as make the case for embracing the vulnerability to dare greatly. She asks early in the book: what is worth the risk of doing even in failure?

Have any of you read it? What are your thoughts?

Favorite reads of the summer

I, like all true bookworms, make reading a priority all year long, sometimes all day long if it’s an especially good day! However, there are those times of year that seem naturally suited to reading. The week between Christmas and New Year, for example, is a stretch of days where I tend to do not much more than lounge on the sofa with a book or two or five.

Summertime is another season that seems all the better for the happy enjoyment of a good book. Since we are now in September and at the close of another one of those perfectly suited reading spells, I thought I’d offer to you a list of some of the best of the best of the books I read this summer and I read some really good ones!

Read my list of summertime favorites at Out of the Ordinary.

What’s on my nightstand

Once a month 5 Minutes for Books hosts a What’s On My Nightstand carnival where participants share books they are currently reading. It’s been my goal to do a little more reading this summer than the school year afforded me and despite our travel and other general busyness I’ve been able to do just that! I have high hopes for July to have even more time to devote to reading some really great books. So here’s my list of titles I’ve read recently, what I’m currently reading, and what I’m thinking of reading next…

RECENTLY COMPLETED

Found: A Story of Questions, Grace & Everyday Prayer by Micha Boyett. This is a beautifully written, thought provoking memoir that I enjoyed very much. I think Micha and I might disagree on a couple of things but what’s the fun of only reading authors you completely agree with? And do we really all of us agree all of the time on every thing? But, I digress. I may share more about this book in a later post but Micha’s journey surprised me by how much it resonated with my own despite she being a young mom in San Francisco and me being, well, not a young mom in a small town in Alabama.

Me Before You: A Novel by JoJo Moyes. Loved it and hated it. My friend named it one of her most favorite and least favorite novels she read last year and I totally see what she means. It’s a compelling story, well told, but, well… (And, by the way, some readers will want to know there is some language and adult situations).

Someday, Someday, Maybe: A Novel by Lauren Graham. A fun, light, enjoyable read about a wanna-be actress trying to make it in New York City. Though it was somewhat predictable, I thought the funnest part to be all the 90’s pop culture references.

CURRENTLY READING

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s ability to evoke a sense of place through the beauty (and sometimes the sparseness) of his prose is masterful.

Gospel Amnesia: Forgetting the Goodness of the News by Luma Sims. Though we only know each other through our blogs and social media, I count Luma a friend and am ashamed I am only just now getting to her book. So far I have been greatly encouraged by her call to forsake gospel amnesia and to cling to Christ as our only hope.

READING NEXT (maybe)

What about you? What are you reading? Do you have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments! And be sure to visit 5 Minutes for Books and check out other Nightstand posts.

Repeated reading

Do you re-read books? I do, but it depends on the book…

I wonder sometimes what makes a novel re-readable. Not all are, you know. But there are those, like Pride and Prejudice, for which the experience is all the more pleasurable upon the second…and third…and fourth reading. And beyond.

It’s an exclusive club, those books I can’t stop re-reading. Dear Jane’s novels, but of course. Jane Eyre. Anne of Green Gables. Harry Potter.

Read the rest of my post at Out of the Ordinary as we continue our monthlong emphasis on reading.

What’s On My Nightstand

I just updated the reading list here on the blog. I am fairly diligent about maintaing my list over at Goodreads but for some reason I neglect to also update here! You can check out the full list of what I’ve read so far this year by clicking the “Reading” tab above. For the more obsessive bibliophiles among us my previous years’ lists are also posted under the same tab.

Since I have books and reading on my mind, I thought I’d offer a “What’s on my nightstand” post. I’m a little late to the party since the 5 Minutes for Books nightstand carnival runs on Tuesdays and today is, as you know, Friday. Late or no, here’s a quick look at what I’m reading, what I’ve read recently, and what I hope to read soon…

Recently completed:

Fools Rush in Where Monkeys Fear to Tread: Taking Aim at Everyone by Carl Trueman. I laughed. I winced. I pondered. I laughed some more. This collection of Trueman’s essays on culture, celebrity and Christianity is equally sharp in its wit and in its analysis. Trueman is a master. I highly recommend it.

Call the Midwife. I’ve read the first two books in the trilogy and liked them very much. I’m a fan of the show and if you haven’t watched you really must! Life on London’s East Side in the 50’s was not an easy existence which makes for a memoir that is at times difficult to read. Though I was shocked by much of what Jenny and her fellow midwives experience I was equally impressed with the care and compassion not only of the midwives but of the nuns of Nonnatus House.

Jane Eyre. This was a re-read and I loved it all over again.

Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. I’ve mentioned this book several times here on the blog. It’s great.

Currently reading:

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior. Another memoir, this of literature and faith. I already love it and I’m only halfway through.

Call the Midwife: Farewell to the East End. The third in the trilogy.

The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. One chapter read and I am already greatly encouraged. Grace that is greater than all my sin! Yes and amen.

Joy!: A Bible Study on Philippians for Women by Keri Folmar. Another book I’ve mentioned here on the blog. I’m working through this study on my own this summer. It’s been really good. Keri knows how to ask good questions.

Hoping to read soon (subject to the whim and discretion of the reader, of course):

  • The Atonement by Leon Morris
  • A Generous Justice by Tim Keller
  • Think by John Piper
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bonhoeffer by Eric Mextas
  • The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
  • The King by Steven James

I am still on the hunt for that elusive really, really, really good novel so if you’ve got any suggestions, please, pass them on!

Check out what others are reading at 5 Minutes for Books!

Comments are closed but the conversation isn’t! Let me know what you think by emailing me at lisa {at} lisaspence {dot} com. You may also find me on Twitter and Facebook.

Ode to the public library

After yesterday’s post lamenting the loss of old school blogging, I now offer a post that I may have previously hesitated to publish because, well, its subject seems a little silly but, then again, I’m free, right? So in the interest of blog fun I give you my ode to the library which I’ve chosen to subtitle…

Wherein I reveal that I really am the biggest nerd ever

Some of my happiest memories of growing up–and I have many–include our trips to the local library. I can still recall the smell, the hushed quiet, the wide staircase, the eager anticipation that greeted me upon entering the glass doors. I can see Buffy the bookworm performing at the summer reading program and I can feel the weight of my library card in my hand, my name proudly printed on the front in my stilted first grade script.

With this card I was allowed the privilege of checking out a maximum of six books. Thus, six titles at a time, I made my way through the many adventures of Nancy Drew and Sue Barton, as well as Cherry Ames and Encyclopedia Brown and Penny and Tippy Parrish and all of Beverly Cleary’s protagonists from Ramona to Henry to Ellen Tebbits.

I loved wandering the aisles, perusing the book jackets, flipping through pages. A happy memory, as I said, not an exuberant happy but  a kind of slow, peaceful, luxuriant happy. The words, the stories, the books that awaited my discovery, these and the anticipation thereof were a source of delight to me, bibliophile that I was (am).

As I grew older our library trips grew less frequent. I have no library related memories of high school or even college (other than those late night pre-exam cram sessions during which I would often sequester myself in a corner cubicle of the library until closing time). My slow meander through the library aisles wouldn’t resume until I was a young adult.

Once married, I couldn’t wait to get my new driver’s license.  Correct identification with a new name is cool and all that but I was the more eager to have that correct identification in order to get my library card. I became once again a regular patron, this time of the small branch library near our first apartment. At each subsequent move my first priorities always included obtaining a library card.

As the children came along, one right after the other, I would navigate the stroller among the bookcases, then a stroller and a toddler alongside, then a preschooler and toddler and stroller, then…

A funny story we like to tell on my youngest: when he, my baby, was a toddler, I would have to make a circutious route for our errand running in order to avoid driving past the library unless, of course, we planned on stopping. If he saw the building and we did not pull in he would cry and cry and cry, a library induced tantrum as it were.

We had our habit: upstairs first to the children’s books. Each boy would have a totebag to fill with his chosen books. Once everyone had browsed and chosen to his heart’s content, we would go downstairs. There they would sit, looking at their books on the sofa in the adult fiction section while I browsed and chose to my heart’s content. That image of them, my four boys, my babies, eagerly “reading” their books, patiently waiting on their mother, this is another happy memory among many happy memories.

Well, as these things generally go, the boys grew and we got busy and now we rarely go to the library, and not at all as a family. A couple of my guys are still voracious readers and nearly always have a book on hand, usually from their school’s library. I continue to be a loyal patron, but, for whatever reason, my visits are not nearly as frequent as in years past. Thanks to the wonder of technology, nowadays I can browse and search for books on my laptop and know exactly which titles are ready and available for check out before I even darken the doors. This streamlines the process, saves me time, and helps me choose books I am confident I will enjoy.

But sometimes I still, occasionally, go to the library without a list, with no agenda but to walk the aisles, browse the titles, peruse the book jackets, and flip through pages. All these words, these stories, these books ready and waiting to be discovered–this makes me happy. Still.

Good stories well told

I love to read. While I am an avid reader of books that teach me something, I also enjoy the pleasure of a good story well told. In other words, I like fiction, really good fiction. I feel as if I must draw that distinction because, let’s be honest, there is some really bad fiction out there and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I haven’t the time or the patience for it.

Because I am a fan of (good) fiction, I found this post by Russell Moore on “Why Christians Should Read Fiction” to be encouraging (and, yeah, a little bit validating). I know I linked to it last week but it’s worth revisiting. I particularly liked his statement “Fiction helps the Christian to learn to speak in ways that can navigate between the boring abstract and the irrelevant mundane. It also enables you to learn insights about human nature.” He goes on to say

[G]ood fiction isn’t a “waste of time” for the same reason good music and good art aren’t wastes of time. They are rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by human beings who create. Culture isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of what God commanded us to do in the beginning, and that he declares to be good. When you enjoy truth and beauty, when you are blessed by gifts God has given to a human being, you are enjoying a universe that, though fallen, God delights in as “very good.”

Dr. Moore’s enthusiasm for good fiction reminds me of Tony Reinke’s summary of the benefits of fictional literature in his book Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books. He lists four ways Christians can profit from good fiction:

Fictional literature can help us explore abstract human experiences.
Fictional literature can deepen our appreciation for concrete human experience.
Fictional literature expands our range of experiences.
Fictional literature provides beauty and creativity to be enjoyed.

All that and beautiful prose and you have the recipe for the best kind of story. While there is admittedly some element of personal opinion in any list of preferences, I, like many others with great affection for good fiction, have my favorite stories from among the good stories. From time to time friends will ask me for recommendations. Though not an exhaustive list (you don’t have all day and neither do I) here are some of the titles I am quick to suggest.

The Book Thief: The story of a foster girl in World War II Poland, this book is narrated by Death who is at turns grim and darkly humorous.

Peace Like a River: A boy’s search for his brother who has been charged with murder evokes not only the legends of the Old West but does so with the sort of lyrical prose that leaves the reader breathless.

Home: A Novel: I loved Gilead as well, the companion novel to Home, and also recommend it, but I think I like this book even better, this the story of prodigals and home and homecomings and family and grace all wrought together with beautiful language.

Hannah Coulter: I cried at the end of this novel. And, if that isn’t recommendation enough, consider this from the opening pages: “This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed…. This is my story, my giving of thanks.”

Of course I could go on and on and on and surely once I publish this post I will think of a dozen more titles I could have included, novels like I Capture the Castle, a charming novel about sisters and an old crumbling castle, or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which is also charming and very British. Or The Road which is not charming but most definitely unforgettable. I might include a classic or two, Bleak House or Rebecca or Jane Eyre, all favorites I enjoy and love.

I also love mysteries, very much so, so much so that I can’t think of just one to add to my recommended list. British detective stories are a perennial favorite, P.D. James’ Adam Dagliesh novels in particular.

And last but certainly not least, my favorite fiction of all time: dear Jane’s Pride and Prejudice. All Austen novels surely qualify for most favored status but Pride and Prejudice surpasses them all, followed by Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion as my next Austen favorites.

Do you enjoy fiction? Would you agree with Moore’s and Reinke’s lists of benefits above? What are some of your fiction recommendations?