On almost hitting my reading goals, favorite books of 2017, and more

What a turbulent, change-filled, and exhausting year 2017 has been.

Besides the craziness happening in the world at large, this has been one of the most difficult years of my life. When I started this blog back in January of last year (here’s my first review!), I had no clue how much things would change in my personal life, and how little blog writing I would actually get done this year.

My husband and I moved across the country. I spent a stressful summer looking for a job while working from home (torture for an extrovert). I started graduate school. We moved again. I started a new job. My husband started his own business. I’m tired just writing all of that.

Basically, life has been bananas (and I mean B-A-N-A-N-A-S) for months.

And here, on the fresh cusp of a new year, I finally feel like the dust may slowly be starting to settle. The stress about the business is still there. The endless pile of to-do’s are still there. The dirty dishes are ALWAYS there.

But it’s difficult for me to feel too pessimistic at the start of a new year. Something about a new year feels like a fresh start…a new chance to be a better version of myself, to grow and improve, and to reflect on what did and didn’t work last year.

What didn’t work: Moving twice within six months. Never again.

What did work: Reading more books, finding a library job I love, and taking the plunge into grad school in a field that excites me.

Still in progress: Forming community and finding new friends in a new place.

Today, I hope you have a chance to reflect on 2017 and what obstacles you have overcome in your own life this year. Last January, I never would have imagine how much upheaval we would experience this year. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to even begin.

But here I am, still alive somehow, on the other end of 2017. You can do it too. I hope you have a truly marvelous 2018!

2017

So close…

On to book matters:

For 2017, I had a goal of reading 40 books. Maybe something about not having friends or lots of free time this summer helped me go past my goal goal until it was a week before January 1, and I was at 48 books. I wanted sooooo badly to hit 50 (I’ve never read 50!), but having family in town (among other excuses), meant that I was finishing my last book of the year, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder last night at 11:30 p.m.

I only read 49.

The anal part of me is dying inside.

I know I should be glad that I could read nine books over my initial goal, but of course all I can think about is that one measly little book I somehow couldn’t manage to finish. Sigh.

Next year.

Best of the best of 2017

I read so many good books this year. So many. Here are some highlights:

  • I discovered Louise Penny’s wonderful Chief Inspector Gamache series.
  • I chipped 4 (almost 5!) more Agatha Christie books off my lifetime list.
  • I only read two Jane Austen adaptations instead of the usual five.
  • I read 20 nonfiction books—a new record for this fiction lover!
  • I even read one short story collection—The Mistletoe Murder by P.D. James—and discovered I don’t hate short stories!

Since choosing one favorite book is obviously impossible, these were my favorite books by genre. Apparently I only read three genres:

Fiction

186074

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Not since The Lord of the Rings have I found a fantasy that so captured my imagination like this one. I love the format of the story too—as Kvothe tells the story in flashbacks, it keeps you itching to know more. Part hero epic, part action adventure, part love story, Rothfuss’ world feels as real as Middle Earth. It’s a huge book, but it reads fast.

 

Honorable mentions:

19486412

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. I honestly thought it was going to be something like desperate housewives with petty, shallow characters crying in their Mercedes convertibles and fighting over popularity. I was so wrong. I loved how this book highlights the secret burdens and pains we all face. The twist at the end was great too! Don’t go in expecting a full-fledged mystery or thriller. It’s a little of both but not fully either.

33590214

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

I’ve already talked about what I love about this book over here, but if you haven’t picked this one up yet, you should. The audio version is also fantastic. I laughed out loud and also was forced to think about my own assumptions following scandal.

 

Nonfiction

liturgy of the ordinary tish harrison warren nonfiction picks

Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren

This was such a readable and thought-provoking work. I won’t rehash everything I’ve already said about this one, but I really recommend you pick this up if you’re searching for significance in the everyday, ordinary parts of your life. This book is a reminder that we can be worshipful even in the most seemingly insignificant moments.

Bonus: It’s Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year!

 

Honorable mentions:

41tMNxsg+WL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

Booked by Karen Swallow Prior

I actually had Dr. Prior for a class in college, and I remember this (her first book) coming out. But it was only this year that I picked it up for myself, and I am so glad that I did! Dr. Prior reflects on different points in her life and the books that shaped those times. I loved the combination of memoir + love letter to reading. She also has some seriously important insights on how reading is one of the greatest way we can grow and mature. (I was even inspired to finally give Great Expectations a try!)

the road back to you ian morgan cron enneagram

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile

I loved learning about the Enneagram from this book. I’ve reflected a lot this year on my type and what role fear (the Type 6’s great struggle) plays in my life. Before reading this book, I didn’t realize how much fear impacted my choices. Read this book if you want to know yourself better! (And read here for a more detailed review.)

9780147526793

Evicted by Mathew Desmond

I couldn’t have said it any better than Roxanne Gay when she reviewed this book: “The brutal truth of poverty in America is far more devastating than any fiction ever could be.” This book was eye-opening, tragic, and amazing. There is so much I didn’t know or understand about eviction until I read this book. I was angry and enlightened. This is an incredibly important read.

Bonus: It won the Pulitzer Prize and was named a Top 10 Best Book by the New York Times Book Review in 2016.

 

Mystery

516wvvl6WLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

I have read so many great mystery books this year, but this one stands out as the one that surprised me the most. I can’t wait to read more Agatha Christie in 2018! Read more here about how I changed my mind about Miss Marple.

 

Honorable  mentions:

1-lrg-still-life

Still Life by Louise Penny

I have Anne Bogel over at Modern Mrs Darcy and What Should I Read Next? to thank for convincing me to try Louise Penny. I love this series! Especially now that we live in a small mountain town, I feel right at home in Three Pines as Chief Inspector Gamache solves mysteries and reflects on the simple pleasures of life. I also appreciate how Penny wrestles with human nature and analyzes her character’s fears, joys, and struggles throughout the series. I’m on book four now and I can’t wait to read book five!

Death-Comes-to-Pemberley-Book-Cover

Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James

This was my first P.D. James book. I watched the mini-series on Netflix and enjoyed it, so I decided to pick up the book. I’ve never read a Jane Austen retelling that is also a mystery, so this was an interesting departure. It’s a light, fun read if you enjoy imagining the world of Pride and Prejudice after the Darcy wedding.

Old book, new review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Copy of The circle review (1)

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? Yes. For more conservative readers, there will definitely be some sections to skip over (sex, rape, violence etc.). However, despite these flaws, Follett’s world is so captivating and the drama of the cathedral’s construction is so captivating, that if you love being sucked into a new world, you’ll find much to enjoy.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This September, Ken Follett will be releasing a new book — the first since he completed the Century Trilogy (which I’m currently reading). Out in September, A Column of Fire is the third book in his Kingsbridge series.

I decided to revisit book one in the series, The Pillars of the Earth, in a new review of the 1989 epic.

First, this book is no joke. At a whopping 1,000+ pages, it’s no quick read. This is not a Harry Potter-1,000 pages that vanish all too quickly. It’s a sizable commitment. But that shouldn’t scare you away, and here’s why:

 

The weird and ugly

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. But there’s definitely some disturbing content. If you’re particularly sensitive to these topics, you might want to skip on Pillars.

Graphic sex and rape: There is a lot of sex throughout, and most scenes are pretty descriptive. I found it easy to skip over them (no major plot points lost), but the amount of detail felt unnecessary. I didn’t pick up a romance novel. Be warned: One rape scene is particularly disturbing and graphic.

Plot devices: As another reviewer pointed out, sometimes the plot felt a bit methodical: Things are going well, HUGE PROBLEM, solution is discovered at the last second, repeat. It’s no surprise that Follett started out writing thrillers.

I eventually came to expect that if things were going well, it was only a matter of time until things got crappy again. Nothing is sacred. No one is invincible. Even though I knew exactly what Follett was doing, I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Corruption and violence: Medieval England is about what you would expect — violent, cruel, every man for himself. There are accusations of witchcraft, misogyny in its worst forms, and evil, oppressive leaders. The injustice was so despicable at some points that it took my breath away.

Despite the ugliness depicted throughout Pillars, the stories rang true. Even today, evil exists and abounds. Nothing irks me more than a story that untruthfully depicts human nature.

Now, some of the characters were almost a little too evil, and much of the sex was highly dramatized. But overall, Follett does a good job of presenting flawed, believable characters who develop throughout the story.

 

The beautiful and good

Religion and the Church: For Christian readers, one important thing to keep in mind is that Follett does not believe in God. This is part of what drew me to the book in the first place. It’s totally fascinating to me that someone who doesn’t practice Christianity would write a book about the construction of a cathedral.

Yet somehow Follett creates multi-layered, three-dimensional characters who struggle with their beliefs and wrestle with discerning how God would have them live — something Christians experience daily.

For the most part, Follett was respectful of the church (even though he doesn’t subscribe to faith himself) and Prior Philip is still one of my favorite Christian characters.

World building: This is Follett’s true triumph. The world that he weaves is beautifully intricate and surprisingly real. The layered, rich world-building alone made it worth skipping over all the negative parts.

I’m amazed at how Follett has the ability to capture life in a different time and place, so that you really start to believe you’re immersed in medieval England. I was completely sucked into a different time and place.

Every time I read a Follett, I learn something new about history and people. I know everyone doesn’t love learning (so tragic), but when you read Follett, it doesn’t feel like learning. That’s the beauty of it.

I do wish the book had included a diagram of a cathedral. I’m not familiar with cathedral architecture and terms, and I ended up searching cathedrals online so I could visualize the descriptions of the construction.

 

Why I’m not interested in World Without End

This brings me to why I haven’t read the sequel, World Without End, and why I probably won’t be reading A Column of Fire.

It’s important to note that World Without End was written 20 years after Pillars. Several friends who have read both books (and many Goodreads reviews) point out that much of Follett’s political and personal philosophy seems to have shifted in the years since Pillars was published.

Whereas in Pillars we had Prior Philip — a believer in God, but also a strong, courageous, and flawed character — World Without End seems to be exclusively populated with religious figures who are evil and corrupt.

As a person of faith, I just can’t bring myself to read it. I’m not trying to be naive — I know that throughout history (and today) many religious institutions have been controlled by the corrupt. (Spotlight is one of my favorite movies!)

But why devote the time to reading a 1,000-page book that will likely just make me frustrated?

Life’s just too short and there are too many other good books to read.

 

Have you read The Pillars of the Earth? What did you think? Have you read the sequel?

Old book, new review: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Copy of Copy of YOU ARE SIMPLY THE

Title: Blue Like Jazz
Author: Donald Miller
My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Is it worth reading? Yes. I didn’t find the writing style sophisticated or completely enjoyable, but the perspective and ideas presented make this one worth the read. Expect to be challenged and prepare to ask yourself questions about your own version of faith.

 

You get a strange mix of feelings when you arrive late to the party — over ten years late, to be exact — on a book like Blue Like Jazz.

On the whole, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this one.

When Blue Like Jazz first came out, I was barely a teenager. Miller was writing to a generation just a little bit ahead of mine, who were tired with a fading 1950’s cultural Christianity and eager to reconcile their beliefs with a postmodern world.

On this point, I think Miller was incredibly successful. He writes about the real struggles a Christian has with living in our present age while juggling the American cultural baggage many grew up with.

In so many ways, Blue Like Jazz is permission to lean in to doubts and questions and permission to push back against “the way it’s always been.” In that sense, even ten years later, Blue Like Jazz a breath of fresh air.

All that being said, I waffled back and forth about whether this was a 3-star or 4-star book for me. Here’s why:

NOT A FAN: WRITING STYLE

While Donald Miller had some truly insightful and convicting points, the writing style totally bogged me down. In fact, that’s my main beef with the book and the reason I only gave it three stars.

And to make matters worse, many of Miller’s memories and experiences just weren’t that interesting to me. So not only did I not like the way it was written, I found the content largely boring.

Maybe this is a sign of the times. Maybe our culture is addicted to larger-than-life, over-the-top amazing life experiences to justify reading a memoir about them (ahem, celebrity memoirs).

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I think it’s more just personal taste.

I also found his conversational, we’re-just-getting-coffee style of writing was a bit annoying at times. I appreciated his humility throughout the book, but at other times I just wanted him to stop being wishy-washy and make an argument without so many qualifiers.

The editor in me wanted to tighten up sentences, cut down on the unfocused musings and filler text, and totally scrap the pop culture references.

When I read a book, I don’t want to feel like I’m reading a blog post or rambling thoughts. But I know many people who absolutely love Miller’s writing and find his style incredibly approachable. That’s great — just not for me.

I can applaud Miller for talking openly and authentically about his struggles of reconciling Christian faith with secular culture. But I couldn’t decide if his “shock you out of your comfort zone for the purpose of making you think” strategy was totally effective or not.

On the whole, I was disappointed that the writing was (in my opinion) so unfocused for a book that had such great insights.

HIPSTER MOMENTS … BEFORE THEY WERE COOL

Reading Blue Like Jazz 14 years after publication was like suddenly discovering the roots of Christian hipsterism. Before it was mainstream, of course.

Case in point: “I read through the Koran before it was even popular.” (Blue Like Jazz, 87)

THE REALLY GOOD STUFF

Don’t let my critique fool you — there is some great stuff in Blue Like Jazz. Like really great.

This is my favorite quote from the book:

“When I am talking to somebody there are always two conversations going on. The first is on the surface; it is about politics or music or whatever it is our mouths are saying. The other is beneath beneath the surface, on the level of the heart, and my heart is either communicating that I like the person I am talking to or I don’t. God wants both conversations to be true. That is, we are supposed to speak truth in love. If both conversations are not true, God is not involved in the exchange, we are on our own, and on our own, we will lead people astray.” (Blue Like Jazz, 222)

This shook me.

I used to think my problem in high school was that I couldn’t stop judging people. But these few sentences made me realize that while I was focused on speaking the truth, I wasn’t communicating love at all. Deep down I didn’t like many people I interacted with (much less love them) because I was too focused on how they weren’t living up to my own made-up definition of what “living for Christ” looked like.

What a wake-up call.

Another great point Miller makes is that all the terrible things in the world — evil, suffering, racism, violence — come back to the problem of our own hearts.

Miller asks, if we’re not willing to fix the problems within us, how can we even begin to fight for justice in the world?

FINAL THOUGHTS

Part of me finds it hard to recommend Blue Like Jazz because I just didn’t enjoy reading it that much.

But at the same time, I learned some really powerful things about myself and my own expression of Christianity precisely because I went along for the ride and saw this thing through. Especially if you’re not sure about this whole Christianity thing, Blue Like Jazz is a great place to start.

Overall, I’m not disappointed I read it, and I’d probably even recommend it (with a grain of salt).

But I’m glad I highlighted all the good parts so I don’t have to read it again.

What did you think about Blue Like Jazz? Love it or hate it?

Quote source:
Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (p. 87). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.