2021 Book Recommendations

At the close of the year I like to pay tribute to those books that have moved me, molded me, transported me, and made me laugh.  After all, books usher me into sleep each night and ground me each morning; they are my abiding, faithful companions.  Isn’t it amazing that we can sink into another person’s interior this way?!

If I could, I would include in this list many of the manuscripts-in-process I’ve read in 2021 alongside these published favorites. You all are writing some remarkable stories!  Know I’m sending you and your creative endeavors much enthusiasm.

As always, I welcome your recommendations in return. A truly good book can be hard to find. If you’d like to follow my reviews – and make suggestions – throughout the year, please join me on Goodreads

Here’s wishing you love and light at the turning of the year.

Best Memoir

And Then There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran

I read – and enjoy – a lot of spiritual memoir, but truth be told it’s a rare spiritual memoir that both grips and stretches my heart. I trusted AND THERE WAS LIGHT to do both after the opening paragraph:  “When you said to me: ‘Tell me the story of your life,’ I was not eager to begin. But when you added, ‘What I care most about is learning your reasons for loving life,’ then I became eager, for that was a real subject.”

Never before have I encountered a personal narrative so infused with love. Lusseyran’s blindness; his struggles in the French resistance during the Nazi occupation; his long stay at Buchenwald, the concentration camp; even the illness that almost killed him there, are framed within an abiding trust in life’s goodness. “On May 8, I left the hospital on my two feet. I was nothing but skin and bones, but I had recovered. The fact was I was so happy that now Buchenwald seemed to me a place which if not welcome was at least possible. If they didn’t give me any bread to eat, I would feed on hope.” In an era when factions sour over every mistreatment, Lusseyran is a magnificent model for working tirelessly against injustice while disallowing bitterness from entering our hearts.

The central exploration of this memoir isn’t blindness or the resistance movement or the atrocities of the war; it’s friendship and how the bonds between us sustain us. Lusseyran’s friends were his eyes, and they were perceptive, brilliant, and wide open. I relished every page of this memoir, and I will return to it because I want to love life this fiercely.

Best Fiction

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis

“Why did life put so much inside a woman and then keep her confined to smallness?”

Cantoras is a grand romp through the last fifty years of queer women’s history in Uruguay–a novel wide in scope, intimate in character, packed with tragedy, luscious sensuality, respect for the grave consequences of oppression, reverence for community, and, above all, a celebration of women. I’m so grateful for novels like this that transcend the usual identity politics that dominate so much American feminist literature these days in favor of moral nuance, human frailty, and relational complexity. The writing here is exquisite, especially in the first half. For me to love a novel, I must love its characters; the women here will be with me for a long time.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

II wonder sometimes how much the publishing industry’s prejudice against all things religious is entangled with institutional racism. So often the lives of POCs are steeped in spiritual traditions that our secular culture, and especially academia, scorns. So when a book comes down the pike that unabashedly grapples with faith, especially Christianity, and it’s not just published but publicly celebrated, I’m interested.

Transcendent Kingdom is a refreshingly frank story that grapples with a second-generation immigrant’s tragic loss of a brother to drug overdose in light of her fundamentalist faith and passion for science. Rather than write off the faith of her upbringing, as so much contemporary literature is wont to do, Yaa Gyasi’s character is unwilling to dismiss her mystical experiences and life-long yearning for God even as she succeeds wildly as a research scientist. Some of the passages in here (52, 92, 174) are among the most complex portrayals of faith I’ve read in recent fiction. I’m glad to see Yaa Gyasi lifted up as a rising star.

Best Kids’ Lit

Blades of Freedom by Nathan Hale

Our household reads and rereads all of Nathan Hale’s HAZARDOUS TALES. They’re consistently gripping, brilliant, educational, and visually engaging. This latest, however, is a tour de force. In the story of the Louisiana Purchase, we have a mosquito as a main character (so clever!) and Napoleon signing papers in the bathtub (cute bum!) to balance out graphic representations of the horrific conditions on Haiti’s sugar plantations and the consequent slave rebellion. Hale knows how to weave the complex, international factors leading to a significant moment in our country’s history together in a comprehensive, elegant narrative. I come away from it with a huge appreciation for Haiti’s critical role in the formation of our country. Even if you don’t have a preteen in your house, read this book!

Best Spiritual Reading

Crisis Contemplation by Barbara Holmes

The word “contemplative” often conjures the image of (white, male) Christian monks cloistered in silent prayer. Any author who explodes our traditional assumptions about contemplation, as Barbara Holmes does steadily and with great authority, is worth celebrating.  JOY UNSPEAKABLE reframed common practices in Black churches like gospel singing and collective moaning as essentially contemplative in nature.  RACE AND THE COSMOS builds a new paradigm for equity work on contemplative roots by using what we now know about quantum physics and the vastness of the universe. 

Crisis Contemplation puts another crowbar into contemplative stereotypes by exploring how contemplative “thin places” can arise during the most intense aspects of a crisis.  Don’t we need this good news NOW, in the midst of a pandemic, a threatened democracy, and climate disruption?  “When crisis breaks us open, we plummet into a contemplative space that does not rely on our effort, but strengthens our collective desire to grow toward God together.”  (Insert the word “love” for “God” if that’s a sticky point.)  She embraces collective trauma as the place of collective healing and connection to our Source.  “It is through the wormhole of those wounds that we travel to arrive at the peace that surpasses all understanding.”  In the end, Holmes invites us into “a deep dive into unknowing, a trusting, and a liminal float in spiritual depths that sustain our collective wellbeing.”  I consider her a prophet of our times.

Radical Optimism by Beatrice Bruteau

Beatrice Bruteau posits that optimism is the “first and ineluctable step” toward demonstrating what is held by the belief within that optimism. “Filling your mind, your imagination, your emotions, with the belief that you can do the good you intend is the most powerful help you can bring to bear on actual accomplishment.”  I’m blown away by Bruteau’s courage. A territory most academics would shun as wishful thinking she delves into, delineating how, exactly, belief functions in our lives. Even the simplest among us know that people with positive attitudes are more fun to be around, that students rise to high expectations and that negative self-talk can be deadly. Yet we pussy-foot around faith because it’s delusional, a systematized form of wishful thinking.

Bruteau is too astute to equate “wishing” with “willing.”

“Our interior disposition should be a firm will that justice be done and that the situation be changed as soon as possible–and we should take all the actual concrete steps to do this–but at the same time, we need not indulge in wishing that things were, at any given moment, other than as they are. … Wishing acknowledges the expected continuation of the undesired situation. It admits that we believe we cannot change it. … Willing, on the other hand, is the first step in actually changing the situation.”

To will an unjust situation otherwise, we have to believe it can be otherwise. Bruteau’s optimism is radical; it’s grounded in “the root of our being, securely held in the Absolute Being.” It is pragmatic because the belief then creates our reality.

I need–I believe we all need–this book.  Only one caveat: Bruteau is not for the faint of heart.