As with my previous lists, these are not books published in 2019, just books I happened to read in 2019. And there were so many! But ultimately these are the ones I recommend.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown Publishing Group, 2018). This is one of the best books ever. I could not put it down. It is about Michelle’s childhood and family and the hard work and grit that took her to Princeton and Harvard. It is about meeting Barak Obama and true love. It is about politics and life from the point of view of the President’s wife. Michelle’s life in some ways was and is deeply “ordinary” and in other ways, she left “ordinary” behind long before she met Barak. She’s always been and always will be “extraordinary”! It is intimate and caring and just beautifully written. Read this book. She shares her life and thoughts in such beautiful conversational writing that at times it seemed that she was just talking to me, we were just hanging out together. I will read any other book she cares to write!
Promise Me Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden (Flatiron Books, 2017). I was beautifully surprised by this book and by Joe Biden. He writes so intimately and honestly of the terrible year of his son Beau’s cancer and family and interweaves the world events of Vice Presidency. It was like a thriller at times, like when Mr. Biden is dealing with Mr. Putin and the Ukraine and Russia — and yes I have a far better understanding of recent events than before, much better. This is a level of real life, of statesmanship, of geopolitics that I have never thought about. My respect for Mr. Biden is tremendously high. I could barely function at work when a parent was sick and my job does not have stakes like this! Mr. Biden has high standards for his personal honor and integrity, and the respect and love he shows his family is a rare and beautiful treasure. And the sorrow of losing a son, and the detailed portrait of a family that loves and cares for each other and knits together in times of crisis — I was in tears several times. Yes, read this book.
(And by reading both Michelle’s book and Biden’s book I’m sort of “triangulating” Barak Obama. A great man indeed. I am very eager to read his upcoming book.)
Genesis for Normal People by Peter Enns and Jared Byas (1st ed. 2012, updated 2nd ed. 2019). A witty, wise, clear guide to the book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Most people are familiar with Genesis in a jumbled way: God creating the world, the Garden, the snake, the flood, the tower, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Issac, Jacob, Joseph of the multi-colored coat. Bits and pieces and shocking violence and lots of death — what does this have to do with God? Enns and Byas are not trying to cover everything or to dig deep into everything, but they succeed beautifully in giving a precise, wise, and fun overview that while simple is not the least bit simplistic. This is a complex and important and foundational text, they treat it with respect and love. And they are funny and there are maps and family trees. The story must be looked at with ancient eyes, they write, and they open our eyes about how to do that. It isn’t about conflicting with science. It isn’t about blaming Eve. Genesis is a rich complex start to a story of a family that struggles with God, and God’s faithfulness to them. This book by Enns and Byas can be a rich start to falling in love with scripture.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Broadway Books, 2013). The history and definition of the term and concept of “introverted” are fascinating; the deep and personal stories of people that are highlighted are compelling. Like fish don’t know water (or so we think), the ideal people in our world are those tireless people of gab and sparkle. But the world is richer for introverts and not just in a “sure we’ve all got gifts” way, but in true and actual historical ways. Then there is the science behind extrovert/introvert (or lack of science). There is a fascinating dive into cultural differences. I learned a tremendous amount, and I enjoyed this well-written and compelling book.
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Grove Press, 2018). I wish I’d taken more detailed notes after I finished reading this, but I remember liking this book very much — “beautiful poetic writing” I wrote “and heart-rending” and being very surprised. Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the oldest daughter of Steve Jobs, writes with exquisite honesty and clarity about the realness of her flawed parents and her confusing childhood. In fact, I think it is deeply un-appreciated how important fathers are, in a fundamental way, the love of a father, and being able to trust a father. That trust will ground you. Or make the earth tremble for the lack. We all have stories and not one of God’s children has a simple story. And rich or poor, what you truly need is love. Brennan-Jobs is a wonderful writer. This was also a reminder of reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Educated by Tara Westover. In vastly different horrible childhoods, each of these women ultimately carved and created themselves and their lives.
Oddly two books that I read this year and highly recommend involve the Vietnam war to some extent. And oddly both books end up in America with vastly different survivor/immigrant stories. I was a small child during the Vietnam war and have never, it turns out, actually studied it or really understood it. I still likely don’t. But both of the books are rivetting and informative and completely heart-rending.
The first is “Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s story” by Michelle Layer Rahal (2018, Xulon Press). Rahal met Minh at church in Vienna, Virginia, and over time learned her story and insisted it needed to be written and shared. Eventually, the spirit moved Towner to work with Rahal and this book came out of their work. Rahal writes Minh’s story in the first person, from her viewpoint, with her approval; a choice I am still not quite sure about. But the story is heart-rending and harrowing and frustrating and a page-turner. From a well-off family in Saigon, even before the war bought horrors, Minh attempted suicide at age seven, following abuse from a servant and unable to deal with her mother’s constant icy harshness. When the war came to Saigon, things got worse: more abuse and death and escapes and jail and torture. In a long and winding path, eventually Minh and one of her brothers were “boat people” (a harrowing story all on its own) and found refuge — after a while — in France with more dour and impoverished relatives. Minh’s path eventually landed her in Australia and in nurse’s training. There are many more twists and turns before she ended up in the U.S., and seminary school! The horror of war and of corrupt officials and what you have to do to survive is brought vividly to life. Yet, Rahal also tells Minh’s story through the lens of spiritual growth. At times she felt God protecting her; at other times she felt far away from God. And you may well feel, as I did, very frustrated with some of Minh’s choices (however limited) or reactions. But suffering from PTSD and depression/trauma of such severity and having known very little love and even less safety — what does survival look like? Minh has a painful witness to share in her story of loss and hope.
“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures,” by Anne Fadiman (1997, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award is also about the Vietnam war and immigrants and culture shock and trauma. Epilepsy in the Hmong culture is a spiritual illness and the American doctors sadly and profoundly could not communicate to the parents of Lia Lee how and when and how much medicine to give her. The author, Anne Fadiman, gains the trust and friendship of everyone and describes the tragedy with profound understanding. I had no idea where Laos is or who the Hmong are or the role they played in the Vietnam war. Really books like this are rare and beautiful: it is so readable and interweaves background and history while focusing on people’s stories and bringing them all to life. There are no simple stories of people — and there are no villains here. The devotion with which Lia Lee’s family took care of her — ultimately they cared for her in a vegetative state — is profound in its tireless love.