Of the many books I read in 2018 — reading is my favorite thing — some of them were nonfiction, this year more than any other since I’ve been keeping track. It doesn’t mean they were published in 2018, just that I discovered them this year. And the list is in no particular order. Finally — I have Hilary Clinton’s book “What Happened?” But I haven’t been ready to read it. I keep eyeballing Michelle Obama’s book but I haven’t read that either. There are zillions of amazing and powerful nonfiction books that I haven’t read. My niche is a bit narrow really. Let’s find out what it is!
On Living by Kerry Egan (2016)
This memoir is a story about Kerry’s work as a hospital chaplain, which turns out to be the work of living fully into life, into the hard and broken places, into the memories and joys, into the peace of possibility. And it is also Kerry’s story, about her physical suffering after the birth of her first child. Kerry is inspiring in how to be compassionate and empathetic and real and honest. Most of all this is a testament to the power of listening. Those who are dying (and who among us is not dying, I ask) often want to forgive, to be forgiven, to share their love. We want to tell our stories. We want to be invited in and play a part in other people’s stories. Healing can be this simple — and this profoundly hard.
Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I loved) by Kate Bowler (2018)
Funny and open and full of deep sorrow, Kate is dying. She has stage 4 colon cancer and this came right in the middle of profound joy: her job as a professor of divinity at Duke, her loving husband, her little newborn son. Kate is so honest about how “the answers” don’t work so well when you are the one suffering. Living and dying and suffering are messy and hard and unfair and there’s no getting around that. Her particular field of research was on “the prosperity gospel” which is a very American take on Christianity that says something along the lines of if life’s blessings are showering down on you, then you are in right relationship with God. And you have the power to get everything you want just by being in right relationship with God. Not so hard to understand wanting — desperately — to have control over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And perhaps it is more true, more helpful, to counter that with something like no matter what you go through, God is there with you. Perhaps, as Kate would might say, there really are no answers. Life is beautiful. Life is hard.
Pastrix by Nadia Boltz-Weber (2013)
Boltz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who is “different” — tattoos, a recovering alcoholic, “loud-mouthed” woman who can create community, create a church, for all sinners and saints in Denver. She is funny and utterly sincere in her faith, and in her writing she embraces mystery. There’s no pat answers here, but so much joy and acceptance. And like the books above, the writing is wonderful. You just find yourself turning the pages desperate to find out what happens next. Her 2015 book “Accidental Saints” is just as good.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower by Brittney Cooper (2018)
Brilliant. In Dr. Cooper’s words “I am fat, Black, and Southern. But this is not a sassy Black girl’s tale.” Dr. Cooper owns her anger and tells the truth — “America needs a homegirl intervention in the worst way,” she writes. A professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, as well as writer, teacher and public speaker, Dr. Cooper is articulate, truthful, poignant, searingly honest and open. How faith shaped her and is shaping her Black feminism was deeply inspiring, although the book covers many topics. She has a Ted talk, for heaven’s sake. Go read this book already. Now in full disclosure, this is not a comfortable read. There is serious writing here, and there is serious work to be done about racism and I have another lens to see the world, and (I desperately hope) a more honest sense of my own deep and profound failings.
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)
Imagine growing up in an end-of-world survivalist fringe cult in deep isolation in Idaho? Tara was home-schooled in the sense that she learned to read and then was put to work in the various family businesses. To be completely honest there are parts of this memoir, about the abuse by her father and one of her brothers, that I could hardly bear to read and I would skim forward. For all her right to be deeply — eloquently — anger she is so much more forgiving and understanding than I could ever be. With nearly nothing, she was able to get into college and discover stuff that she had never heard of before, for example “the holocaust”. Tara’s quest to be educated took her ultimately to Harvard and Cambridge. But this is not a anyone-can-do-anything book. It is a memoir that shows first of all, we are all “educated” almost accidentally by how we are raised, what we see and read and hear and do. Every parent, every teacher, every auntie plays a profound role. And second, it shows that while a transformation like Tara’s is possible, it is extremely unlikely and the price can be high. This makes The Glass Castle look like a happy book, which just makes me want to weep. Tara now has a Ph.D. in history and I rather suspect when you grow up simply not knowing any history and what history you do know turns out to be a lie or at best incomplete, you wonder about questions like “what is history? who gets to tell it? what is truth?”
The 10th Island: Finding Joy, Beauty, and Unexpected Love in the Azores by Diana Marcum (2018)
I had never even heard of the Azores! A delightful read with love at the end. Not a history book, a book of her exploration of a culture and a place that became the place of her heart. Enjoy!
Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans (2018)
A wonderful imaginative bible study, I can hardly express how not dry and dull this book is. Evans says “The stories we tell with our lives, then, aren’t meaningless absurdities, tragic in their brevity, but rather subplots of a grander narrative, every moment charged with significance, as we contribute our own riffs, soliloquies, and plot twists to the larger epic, the Holy Spirit coaxing us along with an ever-ebullient, And then?” How can we relate or see ourselves in scripture? How can we fully feel into the stories of the characters? This is the book I would have written, only Held writes better than me and does research. And I bow to her imagination.
transforming: The Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians by Austen Hartke (2018)
Beautiful, wonderful book — a clear guide for those of us completely at a loss on how to be welcoming to transgender Christians. There are the basics about words and why and when to use them and to not feel like a fool if you make an honest mistake; there is some history and some biology. But at the richest possible level there is a deep rich biblical study. Reading about Genesis 1 in a non-binary way was eye-opening. Reading about Acts 8 and the hope it brings to those who are also outside the norms, and how inclusive God’s message is and how inclusive baptism is was revelatory. Reading about stories — it’s always stories — from transgender Christians themselves and their faith in God’s love — was a powerful witness. This is not God-loves-you despite or because, you see, but God loves You. And transforming could work the other way — we in church together are enriched and blessed when all voices are brought to the table. How abundant is God’s love? More than we can possibly envision.