Books

Top Reads of 2016: The Shortlist

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I’m a bit late to this game, but in case you’re looking for a few good books to add to your docket, I put together a shortlist of some favorites from 2016. These weren’t necessarily written last year; that’s just when I read them. In no particular order, here are my top 3 in non-fiction and fiction. Tolle lege!

NONFICTION

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book is making waves, and it deserves its acclaim. Kalanithi was as skilled with words as with a surgeon’s knife. He writes of his ambition and incredible academic and career success without pomp or arrogance, and of his terminal cancer days with unflinching honesty. As his patients benefitted from his medical expertise, we too have benefitted from his personal story and reflections. Read it, and walk with him through the euphoric highs and bitter lows of his too-short life, and think hard about how we are living ours.

  1. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

Pain turned into words. This is not the mind of the apologist, but the heart of the broken. I can’t agree with all of his theology, but I love his honesty and humanity. Yes, he questions if God is there, and if his faith is real at all. I don’t think Christians should balk so much at that: Lewis may have been a great Christian thinker, but he was also human, and writing in the face of heartbreak and loss. Our own faith shouldn’t rest on the strength of his faith or personal experience. I respect that he was not afraid to write hard and clear about what scares many of us.

  1. The Reason for God by Tim Keller

He’s called the modern day C.S. Lewis by some, and after reading this, I would actually choose The Reason for God over Mere Christianity as the book to give to my skeptical friends or seekers. Keller isn’t saying anything new, per se. Apologetics has been around for ages. But the way he addresses common objections—especially the most relevant ones of our times—and clearly presents the reasons for faith is top notch. He writes with sound logic, intellect, accessibility, and graciousness, all while standing firm on the Gospel truth.

FICTION

  1. Tales of Goldstone Wood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

This might be cheating, because this is a series with seven full novels and a couple novellas. Chances are, you haven’t heard of it, because it’s not mainstream. I know, unknown Christian fantasy series… really? I actually can’t stand much of the Christian fiction genre—poor writing, heavy-handed, etc. And as a fantasy aficionado, I’ve progressively read less in the genre because it seems filled with copycats or gratuitous violence and sex. BUT this series was a delightful surprise. The world-building and characters are rich. There are definite Christian overtones, but it’s not preachy or forced, and Stengl isn’t afraid to get dark. There’s a fairy tale-like quality to the books, but its never shallow, and don’t expect the stories to wrap up with a bow and happily-ever-after.

Note: Personally, I think the first book is the weakest, but don’t let that turn you away. It gets better and better. Starflower (book 4) is probably my favorite. I would read them in order if you can, though!

  1. Winter by Marissa Meyer

For all the terrible finales to popular YA books we’ve seen (not naming any names), Marissa Meyer does her series a solid with this conclusion. Fairy tale retellings are not new; in fact, they’re kind of the rage now. The Lunar Chronicles takes it to the next level—fairy tales, space, dystopia, politics, etc. Meyer had quite a task tying up all the storylines she created, and she did not disappoint. It was epic and sweeping, with clever parallels to the original fairy tales. Imagine Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White (with upgraded IQs) falling in love with their respective men (who actually have some flaws) and fighting the evil queen of the moon. I mean, she did something right, cause I was sold.

  1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

You have spies and suspense, but the heart of this story is sisterhood. The plot was clever, the emotions raw and genuine, and Wein plumbs the depth of a spectacular friendship between two girls, put to the ultimate test. So many props to her for writing a beautiful, intelligent, and historical YA drama. I’m not a feminist, but there is some legit girl power going here—I’m tired of both the whimpering, helpless damsel in distress and the unrealistic assassin lady who can take out armies singlehandedly. Wein’s characters are brave but broken, fierce but flawed. She proves that friendship is just as, if not more, potent than romance in storytelling.

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Books, Literary Musings

The Bibliophile’s Crime

I was 15% of the way through this book (I’m reading on a Kindle, hence the % instead of the page number), and for a 1,000 page tome, that meant over 100 pages. If I shelved it for now, I’d forget the plot and be forced to start from the beginning. Or I could trudge on and keep reading and hope that I’d fall in love in the next, oh, 900 pages. I hopped onto Goodreads and read raving reviews for encouragement.

But I decided to drop it. Goodbye, The Way of Kings.

Yes, this is The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, the epic opening to a ten-book fantasy series. (I’m ready – throw your tomatoes with abandon.) Maybe my expectations were too high. Everyone says this book keeps them up at night. It had rather the opposite effect on me. Maybe I’m not a real, true-blooded fantasy fan. Or at least, one who has “gotten with the times,” and moved on from the black and white, good vs. evil fantasy archetypes of Tolkien and Lewis’ day. To boil it down, I simply didn’t love it. Nothing about the book—prose, plot, characters, setting—sunk its talons in and really shook my world or stirred my soul. And I didn’t want to read 900 more pages to see if anything would.

But it got me thinking about The Bibliophile’s Crime (self-created term; apologies for the melodrama). Dropping a book midway through. Should you? Shouldn’t you? We all have a method for making the decision, whether it’s based on haphazard feelings, a stubbornness to finish any and every book opened, or some unspoken criteria. I tried to formalize mine, and though it is by no means definitive or comprehensive, perhaps it will provide some ideas to chew on.

First of all, not every book should be read. Some are plainly a waste of time, some are terrible literature, and some are worse – downright disturbing or twisted for the sake of glorifying darkness. The tough part comes when a book seems to boast some value, but you’re having trouble getting into it. I’ve stuck through a number of novels like that. Some, like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird, grew into my all-time favorites. Others, I disliked even more by the end. So, to keep reading or not, that is the question … and I have 4 of them that I use informally to evaluate.

  1. Why are you reading it? We read for different purposes. Sometimes, it’s purely for enjoyment, and sometimes, it’s educational. I’m much more willing to drop a book I’m reading for fun on the sole basis of entertainment value. I mean, if the value I’m looking for most isn’t there, then why keep going? But if I’m reading to learn, I’m much more reluctant to give up. And educational isn’t just for school, and it’s not learning sapped of all enjoyment. I read theology to learn more of God, or classics to learn more of enduring stories, or certain authors to study their prose. If I’m getting something out of it, I’ll keep going.
  2. What do others say about it? This is always subjective, and you’ll hear things from every end of the spectrum. It takes time and scrutiny to cut through the noise. I dig through reviews looking mainly for a common thread of what the real, redeeming value of the book is. What is the work most known and praised for? (e.g., “the vivid portrait of human nature” or “omg the guy is way hawt”) If I also find it a worthy characteristic, I’ll give it a few more chances. On the flip side, I look at what it’s criticized for, and weigh that in my consideration too.
  3. Is it bearable? If I really can’t stand it, I quit. Reading should not be torture.
  4. How long is it? This may seem superficial, but time is a precious commodity. If I can breeze through it in the same amount of time that it’d take to evaluate whether or not to read it, I may as well just read it. But if it’s going to take weeks on end (not to mention endless sequels, which are all the rage now), I’d consider more carefully. Every book is an investment of time, a use of stewardship, so make sure it’s worth it.

[pc]

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Literary Musings

Where’s the Silver Bullet?

I think we are all secretly in search of the silver bullet. The cure-all, magical solution that makes us masters of our field, victors over our habitual struggles, at the snap of our fingers. We laugh at the idea publicly, but we still can’t resist those articles – “Do this 1 thing and transform…” or “The foolproof 3 step process to…” Oh, how those deceptively small numbers win us over. Unfortunately, nothing truly rewarding has a quick and easy fix, just hiding in a corner we haven’t searched yet. The same goes for writing. Hard work, sweat, and discipline lie at the core of the craft. Unpopular traits for lazy humans.

I considered the things that helped me grow most as a writer, and the two standouts are both lifelong disciplines. Sure, you can run a thorough grammar and spellcheck on your work, or attend a class or conference, or listen to a talk by a successful author. All of these can help. But the two unparalleled “teachers” I find the most value in and draw the most inspiration from are:

  • Life experiences. I don’t go out into the world in search of thrills, but living in a God-made world, loving and clashing with other beautifully complicated people, adventure inevitably knocks on the door. We see more of the world and more of our own human nature the longer we live and the more we experience triumphs and trials. Five years ago, I read enough books and heard enough stories that I could write heartbreak convincingly enough. (“Oh, your heart literally hurts and food has no taste and you are certain you will wither and die.”) Today, I can write it better. I haven’t compared the technicalities and descriptions from a previous and current work, but life experiences arm us with an arsenal of literary weaponry to come out firing. Five years ago, I could bluff onto the page. Now, I can bleed onto the page.
  • Books. Reading inspired me to write, and books teach me how. Read widely, and see what separates the bad from the good, and the good from the great. Just as we live more nobly when we surround ourselves with good company, we write more splendidly when we soak our minds in good books. In school, we all complain that we don’t truly understand the abstract material until someone walks us through a concrete example. Learning the rules of writing and classroom technicalities alone will never accomplish what the simple act of picking up a book can.

Speaking of examples, I think of Khaled Hosseini as one case study. He wrote The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed. He’s a doctor, not an English major, but he published three stellar novels. I love his work, and I think he’s a talented writer for a few simple reasons – he has a natural killer prose, his life experiences give him the ammunition for rich cultural tales, and he loves stories.

So don’t chase the silver bullet. Just live and read, then go and write.

[photo cred]

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Books, Life Reflections, Literary Musings

Resolved to Read

I don’t go about New Year resolutions in any orthodox way, and I write them more to inspire than to formulate a checklist. I ignore all the advice to make resolutions that are “achievable” and “measurable”. Psh. But to each his own, and there’s certainly wisdom in being realistic. I may be neither wise nor realistic – which would explain a lot.

For the first time in (I think) ever, I put together a reading list for 2015 as an addendum to one of my resolutions. Every reader says their book list is far too long to finish in a lifetime. I concur, though I’ve never actually had any sort of list. I picked up books to read haphazardly, often on impulse, and occasionally on recommendation, since everyone’s taste is so distinct. In December, I started thinking of ways I could live more intentionally in the coming year, and since books are a significant part of my life, it struck me that I could read more intentionally too.

So I wrote down a rather rough and vague resolution.

Read widely. Read all the works of one author. Read classics. Read Christian books that deepen my understanding of God and help me live for His glory. Read for the thrill of it.

And I put together a list of books to go along with this. Looking at it holistically, it’s actually a very random mix. Oh well. Variety is the spice of life.

 

C.S. Lewis

The Four Loves
The Abolition of Man
A Grief Observed
The Great Divorce
Surprised by Joy

* Yes, I’m trying to read all his (major) books. He’s written bucket loads, so the plus is that I’ve already read a good number. But I also picked him because the blend of his life journey, profession, faith and storytelling make for a fascinating thinker. I’ve already seen bits and pieces of how his theology and worldview weave in and out of his fiction and nonfiction alike, and how the trajectory of his perspective morphs over his lifetime.

 

Classics

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky)
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)

 

Christian

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Burroughs)
Assurance of Our Salvation (Lloyd-Jones)
The Promises of God (R.C. Sproul)
Jesus the Evangelist (Richard Phillips)
Surprised by Suffering (R.C. Sproul)
Orthodoxy (Chesterton)
One Perfect Life (MacArthur)
Alone with God (MacArthur)

* Confession: I snagged a lot of these from free Kindle book deals and they’ve been collecting digital dust. In case you were wondering how I decided on this list.

 

Fiction Fun

The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson)
Dune (Herbert)
Scarlet / Cress; Lunar Chronicles (Meyer)
The Sign of the Beaver (Speare)
Calico Captive (Speare)
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Konigsburg)
Flipped (Draanen)
I Am the Messenger (Zusak)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)

As many new year resolutions go, they begin petering out towards the end of January. I admit, I’m slogging through Dostoyevsky right now. At my current rate, I may not get to a single other book in 2015. But now that I’ve posted this … I hope the public accountability kicks me into powering through. After all, murder and the meaning of life and all that good stuff – shouldn’t this be the sort of book that keeps you up at night?

(I know, who am I kidding?)

[photo cred]

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Books, Literary Musings

Stories for Our Souls

stories, paris, france, inspiration

We live in a world of extreme sensory overload and nonstop schedules. Did you scroll through this post and decide it was too long of a read? I hope not, because it isn’t that long. Or maybe you just read the bolded, numbered items. Thanks for making my point – I hope you stay and read this now.

With social media, video games and TV shows on top of our life responsibilities, I think many of us lose sight of the value of good, old-fashioned reading. Remember books? Those things with paper and ink and grand stories? I encounter a lot of people who say, “I don’t have time to read.” But yes, you do! How much time do you spend on Facebook, or playing computer games? I’m not saying that those are bad things, or that you should assume a monkish lifestyle in a cave with only a library for company (as much as I love books, I’d die too). But there is time. If you make it a priority.

I have 4 simple reasons why I think we need to dust off our bookshelves and reclaim the art of reading. These aren’t coming from a highbrow literary scholar or a cynic scoffing at a generation of digital junkies. Yours truly is just an ordinary reader who finds a spark of magic beneath well-told tales and wants to share.

  1. It gets us inside other people’s heads

Well, that sounds creepy. But I mean it. Reading is one of the best mediums for getting inside people’s heads. Even when the story and characters are fictional, the thoughts and emotions reflect a piece of the author’s own mind. Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” A good author pours himself into his writing.

There is something thrilling and challenging in gaining access to such a full spectrum of intimate thought. It broadens our perspective. Growing up, my worldview was largely shaped by my family, friends and teachers – the people around me who spoke into my life. And it was shaped by books. We are not God, and we do not create ex nihilo, or out of nothing, in matter or in ideas. We are taught, molded by others, and even geniuses stand on the shoulders of giants. Books opened up my eyes to a richer and wider range of thoughts from people of vastly different cultures, eras and lifestyles. It challenges us too. What is in the mind of an adulterer? A murderer? A man single-mindedly bent on vengeance? As a Christian, I want to read with discernment and avoid garbage. But I don’t think we should shy away from the gritty realities of our fallen world. If nothing else, you will understand more deeply the depravity of man, and you may be forced to examine yourself as well, because we all have the capacity to fall far and hard, if not for the grace of God.

  1. It cultivates compassion

I was as selfish a child as they come and I had little tolerance for the shortcomings of others (I’m still working on this). Literature taught me to love flawed people, because all good characters are flawed. Of course, I don’t give all the credit to books – there was the selfless example of my parents, good friends and mentors I was blessed with, and above all, the grace of God. But I will say books taught me a great deal about loving the unlovable. Partly because I got into their heads and saw they weren’t all that unlovable once you understood them (few people are villains just for villainy’s sake) and partly because they held up a mirror to my own heart.

  1. It inspires us

Do you remember how Sam carried Frodo up Mount Doom when he just couldn’t make it himself? When we close a great book, we are awed that the world is still going on the way it was before when everything has changed. Simply because we have this new story living inside of us. Stories inspire us – not just to nod, assent that it was good, and move on – but they inspire us to action. We won’t all get to save our friend’s life behind enemy lines and run a blade through the monsters, but there are little things that make a difference. Be faithful where you are. Reach out a hand when you see a need. And you never know, greatness may be thrust upon you one day.

Sam was just a gardener before he was a hero.

  1. It teaches us about the Gospel

All good stories, though fictional, are echoes and dim reflections of the one Great Story. They are imperfect, because they are written by imperfect people, but they echo the themes of sacrificial love, the brokenness of sin, redemption, the ultimate triumph of good. I love reading quality fantasy. The worlds and people may not exist, but fantasy often echoes the truest themes loudest of all. It magnifies the things of the human heart that our daily lives minimize – the battle to do what is right, the value of loyalty and friendship – to an epic and grand scale. Like C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, it shows us a clearer picture of who humans really are: eternal souls that will either be glorified or damned.

Stories make me shun existentialist philosophies. They show me there is more to live for than man-made ideals and that our hearts are pressed with purpose and a desire for nobler things. We are stamped with the image of divinity, created for eternity, drawn to redemption, made for glory.

So tolle lege! Take up and read.

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Books, Literary Musings

Books Worth Reading: Axes for Our Frozen Seas

Books, Book Recommendations, Library

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The “10 Books” Challenge has been making its rounds on social media, and I recently took part. But for someone who loves to read, pasting a list of (just) 10 books with no explanation is decidedly unsatisfying. So I created this, partly to indulge myself, partly to benefit you. I don’t know about you, but I find myself wanting to read extremely different genres depending on my strange and colorful spectrum of moods. If you’re looking for a good read of a specific nature, maybe something here will suit your fancy. Or you can tuck this away for future reference. Or you can skim my list, scoff, and move on with your life. But don’t tell me if you go with option 3.

The categories are relatively loose, and I defined them mostly after choosing the books. So don’t take the structure too seriously. There is a wide, wide range here. I can almost guarantee you won’t like every book – because you aren’t me. But I found something worthwhile in every single one, whether it was life changing, magnificently written, or simply a very good time. (My private, and secondary, ambition was that everyone would find at least one book on the list that they: have never heard of, are also totally enamored with, are severely opposed to, would add to their to-read list. Did I succeed?)

This isn’t a list of books you “must read before you die.” I don’t feel qualified to make one of those. But I will stand behind this as a list of worthy reads.

Tell me what you think. And what’s on your list?

  

For Your Soul

Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis: Lewis holds up bravely in the face of existential and post-modern philosophies.

The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur: Cut the sugarcoating. MacArthur will bring you face to face with the Jesus who said, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.

Heaven, Randy Alcorn: If you’re skeptical about this, so was I. But Alcorn is biblical, thoughtful, informative and enthusiastic about eternity in a contagious way.

The Truth of the Cross, R.C. Sproul: Sproul brings home the fullness, significance and depth of the cross. Appreciate grace all over again.

Saved in Eternity, Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Lloyd-Jones is an unparalleled expositor of Scripture – watch him tackle John 17, the High Priestly Prayer.

Outta This World

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: If you can’t make it through the entire series – I get it. But if you do, I hope you understand why Peter Beagle calls Tolkien the colonizer of dreams. 

The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis: Don’t be like Eustace; read the right sort of books. Like these.

The Giver, Lois Lowry: What makes us human? Lowry paints a world that is almost seductive yet terrifying.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover: You would never guess that this brilliant, sweeping tragedy rose out of the ashes of that less-than-mediocre movie. I’d venture to say: not just for diehard fans (but I sort of was one, so take it with a grain of salt).

Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis: It’s weird, but profound. It’s haunting and Lewis touches something deep in us.

Rollicking, Good Adventures

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas: This is a crazy thrilling ride. It’s not lacking in depth either.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy: It’s like Batman during the French Revolution, sans Christopher Nolan’s dark makeover.

Mark of the Lion, Francine Rivers: Its historical Christian fiction and it comes with some common flaws of the genre. But on the whole, it’s a grand story that’ll take you back to the heyday of Rome and, I daresay, inspire you with its conviction and courage.

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones: Characters with quirk, wit, and warmth. The story is also tons of fun.

Watership Down, Richard Adams: Yes, it’s about rabbits, but it’s a better adventure story than many about humans.

Drama & Real Life

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: It’s a timeless ode to childhood and growing up wrapped in something noble.

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini: He brings characters, in all their brokenness and feeble aspirations, to life. And I seriously envy his prose.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: She understood a woman’s heart even better than the way Taylor Swift understands girls today. Lest you think it’s just the predecessor to empty-headed rom coms, Austen has plenty of social insights, satire, and highbrow humor.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak: It’s a simple story, but it will wrench your heart out.

The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom: True story, and a good one at that, about courage, faith and compassion.

Throwbacks

Nancy Drew, Carolyn Keene: When I refer to my detective novels phase back in the day, this is all I really mean.

Doctor Doolittle, Hugh Lofting: I definitely preferred talking animals to talking humans.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien: I have fond memories of this book. Writers have really done some magic with mice – Mrs. Frisby, Reepicheep, Hermux, Redwall… Yes, I wanted a pet one.

Cedar River Daydreams, Judy Baer: Warm and cozy books with an ensemble of lovable characters. Just remember to suspend your disbelief, because they’re not much like real high school kids.

The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander: Classic fantasy tropes based on Welsh mythology. The princess is named Eilonwy and there’s a magical pig. You should be sold.

 

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” – Franz Kafka

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