Yesterday, I turned the first page of what will likely be the last book I’ll read in 2016. I chose a rather slender volume in hopes that I might get to count it among my list of books read for the year. Yep. Inspired by my writer friend Nina Badzin, I count ‘em. You can read her list (longer than mine) of books read in 2016 here.
But as I peruse my list and attempt to select my favorite titles of 2016 to share with you, I am struck. Nina says I like serious books. She’s probably right even though I do enjoy the occasional memoir penned by a comedienne. And I loved the self-deprecating wit, charm and punch to the gut reality shared by Nora McInerny-Purmort in It’s Okay to Laugh. Crying is Cool Too. Nora’s book made me giggle and guffaw, but it is, at its heart, still a serious book about relationships, family life, grief and discovering our purpose.
Therein lies the undeniable and reverberating theme of what I’ve loved most about my favorite books (and the Star Wars Rogue One movie) of the past year. So here goes…
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I enjoy sports, especially baseball. But I’ve never pictured myself as someone who would enjoy reading a sports novel. Not sure why since I love most sports movies with all of their emotionally manipulative themes of against all odds triumph in the face of adversity. Think Rocky, Rudy, Miracle and The Blind Side.
The Art of Fielding isn’t really about baseball even though the game scenes don’t disappoint as they induce as much heart pounding and breath holding as any real life competition with high stakes. But there is so much more at stake than winning games in the lives of these characters who happen to be brought together by the inexplicable randomness of the universe–if the universe were a lot like baseball–as I’m sure many would argue it is. But I digress…
I loved that this book veered from the tried and true path of most sports stories–those stories about a talented athlete from lesser means who is propelled to stardom through sheer grit and unwavering encouragement from a haggard old coach or mentor. You think it’s going to be that. But then it winds through a forest of tragedy, despair, questionable decisions, strained friendships, mental health issues, loss and restoration. This book, like life, doesn’t turn out as we expect or even believe it should. But these very human characters, prone to error and subject to uncontrollable events (and emotions), learn to navigate the human condition and are forced to determine what is most important in life.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This brilliantly written book about the life of a Vietnamese communist at the end and just after the Vietnam War is likely one of the best books I’ve ever read. The opportunity to glimpse inside the mind of someone who doesn’t share the same life experiences or worldview as a typical American provides a rare gift of insight and perspective. But this book is so much more than an acerbic (and often comical) critique of western culture and politics. It’s about friendship and family and allegiance to a cause larger than one’s self. It questions how far people are willing to go to serve a cause they believe to be right–how the oppressed can all too easily become the oppressor–and how evil can creep in and gather strength by encouraging people to be convinced of their “rightness.” I actually read the final chapter out loud (alone in my home of course) with tears streaming down my face. It is that powerful.
I won’t take time here to also delve into the author’s brilliant style and craftsmanship. But I still rave about that to those who’ll listen and will likely re-read sections in order to hopefully learn a thing or two about writing well.
Note: I recommended this book to a writer friend who twice tried to enjoy it and didn’t seem to like it nearly as much as I did. So there’s that.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I picked up this gem at Milkweed Books in Minneapolis. Let’s just say I’m a huge Milkweed fan. Several books published by Milkweed Editions rank among my all time favorites and the selection of titles displayed front and center at their new(ish) bookstore is right up my literary alley–this among them.
It’s another well-written, historical and insightful book that provides an aura of awareness that history repeats itself and that the oppressed are too often tempted to become oppressor. But that’s all in the milieu of a wonderful story of an exiled Russian aristocrat who must reorient himself to an unaccustomed life and determine what is worth living and fighting for. I loved it and said so on Twitter while incidentally saying how much the book was making me crave dinner at Moscow on the Hill. Mr. Towles tweeted back his appreciation and desire to dine at the terrific Russian restaurant in St. Paul someday. I give extra credit to an accomplished author willing to communicate with readers. But despite my fan-girl moment on Twitter, this book actually does fit perfectly with the themes that drew me in this year. Integrity, self-sacrifice and a desire to look beyond this moment in time toward how our lives and decisions play out and contribute to a larger narrative of restoration.
This leads me to my unexpected love of the movie Rogue One. I’m married to a man and am the mother of teen boys. This means most family movies involve super heroes, hand to hand combat, car chases and explosions. I’m mostly up for it. But I didn’t expect that another installment in a mostly worn out and recycled 30-year-old franchise would be my favorite since The Empire Strikes Back. Then it dawned on me.
Rogue One encompasses all of the elements I’ve been appreciating in literature this year. The characters display an appropriate level of horror at wartime atrocities. There is a willingness to take risks for a cause larger than personal comfort. There is a reality of what those risks (especially in wartime) actually cost in human terms. There is an acknowledgment that some endeavors take a long time, often many years, and that our efforts during an entire lifetime may only be a small piece of a larger and more significant storyline playing out across the cosmos. Some say this movie (and many of my favorite books) is too dark. I disagree. The world is dark. I’m drawn to art that shows us how to be a light in that darkness.
That said, the inclusion of a blind, martial arts master and mystic was exactly what this franchise needed! Chirrut Imwe is hands down my favorite Star Wars character ever. Just sayin’.
These books and this movie ask its characters to choose. What I especially love and was likely drawn to in the volatile year of 2016 is how these books and movie seem to also ask us as readers and viewers to also choose. Will we participate in making the universe a better place for future generations? Will we live with integrity even when it’s risky? Do we seek freedom from bondage only to enslave others with whom we disagree? Will we live sacrificially in a culture that encourages selfishness and self-indulgence?
My goals for 2017 are to continue reflecting on these questions and to hopefully, by God’s grace, choose a life of gratitude, integrity, humility and self sacrifice.
Below is the full list of books I’ve read in 2016 starred 1-4 by how much I was moved, challenged, entertained, engrossed or amazed by them. Please share your favorite reads of 2016 in the comments.
For the Love by Jen Hatmaker ***
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom ***
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett ****
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas *
700 Sundays by Billy Crystal *
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates **
Socrates in the City by Eric Metaxas ****
My Brilliant Friend by Elana Ferrante *
Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber ****
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant ***
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal ****
It’s Okay to Laugh Crying is Cool Too by Nora McInerny-Purmort ****
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbaugh ****
The High Divide by Lin Enger *
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers ***
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks **
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen ****
Zeros by Chuck Wendig **
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood *
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein **
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue ***
Good Faith by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons **
Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes **
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson **
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles ****
Unashamed by Lecrae **
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt ***