Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011: The Year in Nonfiction

The start of a new year means it's time for my annual reading roundup! I'm so glad Danielle got me started doing this a couple of years ago. I wish I'd always kept track of what I read!

I absolutely devoured books this year, more than I have since I was in grade school and blowing through the Baby-sitters Club or Sweet Valley books :) Reading is my nursing activity--a baby who loves to nurse plus one laidback older child meant lots of time to sit and soak up books of all kinds this past year. I am in no hurry to wean Jude, for many reasons, but one of them is that I will desperately miss my reading time!

My rating system follows the one on Amazon:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't like it
* Hated it

My two favorite nonfiction books this year were:

Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand*****
This book is all of those obnoxious, cliched phrases book reviewers use: a spellbinding story told in sparkling prose...riveting...soaring...gripping...could not put it down...etc, etc. Truly, it is that good. One of those books that I absolutely devoured, yet toward the end, did not want to finish because then it would be over and I wouldn't get to read it anymore!

Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl – N.D. Wilson*****
Brilliant. Just brilliant and delightful. This is a wildly weird and wonderful book—the subtitle “wide-eyed wonder at God’s spoken world” captures it well. Funny and poignant and true and beautiful. I’ve never read anything quite like it—part philosophy and apologetics, part science, part poetry, part memoir—all Jesus-magnifying. This is going on my all-time favorites list.

I also read...
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game – Michael Lewis**** (audio version)
I've wanted to read this book ever since I read the New York Times excerpt a few years ago. I was dismayed to discover that the audio version I got at the library was abridged, but I did still love the story. I also enjoyed the details about football interwoven with Michael Oher's story.

As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda – Catherine Claire Larson****
This book helped validate why I have had such an interest, for more than four years now, in Rwanda and the 1994 genocide: “With the gift of listening comes the gift of healing, because listening to your brothers or sisters until they have said the last words in their hearts is healing and consoling. Someone has said that is is possible 'to listen a person's soul into existence.' I like that.” --Catherine de Hueck Doherty / “listening is the greatest form of loving. ...In a place where everyone has a story of horror to tell, people become so accustomed to it that few stop to ask or listen to the pain of someone else.” For me, reading about Africa is a way to listen--and listening matters. Powerful stories not just of the horrors, but of the beauty that God has wrought from the tragedy.

I Will Carry You – Angie Smith****
The word that comes to mind here is “fierce.” Angie loves her daughter fiercely...she clings fiercely to Jesus...and she is fiercely passionate that others see and trust Him through the heartbreaking story of baby Audrey. Beauty from ashes in this book.

Adopted for Life – Russell Moore****
An inspiring treatise on adoption, both the earthly reality and the heavenly doctrine. Moore masterfully weaved the two together, making a strong case for the way our adoption as sons of God is inextricably linked to the call to care for orphans. This book definitely fueled my interest in and passion for adoption.

Anonymous: Jesus' Hidden Years...and Yours – Alicia Britt Chole***/****
A quick read—the structure was sort of odd and choppy, but I enjoyed it. I was convicted and encouraged by her exhortations to be faithful and diligent in the small, hidden seasons of life, but also found it lacking in gospel. It tended to emphasize works an awful lot as the author stressed the importance of using anonymous seasons well. Still, the exploration of “Jesus' hidden years” (the first 30 years of His life, before His public ministry) was fresh, thoughtful and compelling.

The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Fasting and Feasting Toward God  – Leslie Leyland Fields****
Like any compilation, this one had delightful essays and others that left me nonplussed. It also had the unique feature of recipes at the end of every essay—some I'm dying to try and others at which I didn't look twice. This anthology's thoughtful lines and lovely stories provided a helpful balance to the “sinful eating issues” books I've read, helping present a positive picture of how eating and drinking can point to and glorify God.

The Innocent Man – John Grisham****
A completely maddening true story about a man sent to death row for a crime he did not commit. This book had me praising God that in the end, justice will reign and truth will prevail—and in the meantime, feeling furious at the injustice committed by humans. Though after finishing, I discovered a website run by the prosecutor of the case and was reminded that there is more than one side to every story and that even the “villains” we love to hate are human, perhaps more like us than we'd care to admit.

Choosing to SEE – Mary Beth Chapman****
Mary Beth is raw and real; her faith in the sovereignty and goodness of God after the tragic death of her daughter is a faith that has wrestled and doubted, not a sugar-coated Sunday-school-answer faith. This portrait of a woman who frankly doesn't like all that God does, but plows through her pain to trust and praise Him anyway, was compelling and beautiful.

The Gadarene – John Piper/Drew Blom
I vastly prefer Piper's original poem to this graphic novel version—but if graphic novels are your thing, this is really well done, I think. Great illustrations, I just prefer the words.

 Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) – Gavin De Becker*****
An expert on predicting criminal behavior dismantles the familiar safety rules like “Never talk to strangers” and offers instead a host of practical, proven advice for protecting your kids. Disturbing (I don't recommend reading it alone in a house after ten p.m.!) but also very empowering. I'll be revisiting this as my boys grow older.

Craving Grace – Lisa Velthouse****
See my full review as well as parts one and two of my interview with the author.

The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood – Meagan Francis**
See my full review.

One Thousand Gifts – Ann Voskamp*****
What can I say? I adore Ann, I expected to love this, and I absolutely did.

Real Food for Mother and Baby – Nina Planck****
Maybe if I'd read this during pregnancy, I would have acted on what I know deep down and actually eaten better! This was kind of guilt-inducing, but also informative and helpful. I'm a big fan of the laid-back, no-rice-cereal, eat-what-the-rest-of-us-eat approach to introducing solids, so I liked what she had to say about that.

A Praying Life – Paul Miller*****
Inspiring without being condemning or burdensome. A great mix of practical helps and down-to-earth theology and real-life examples from the author's own experience. Not just “you should pray more, and here's why and how,” but a deeper, “this is how prayer has changed me. This is how it can transform you.”

King's Cross – Tim Keller****
Classic Keller, full of the gospel where you've never seen it before. I actually went through this twice--once just reading it cover to cover, then again later as a commentary while reading through the book of Mark. As usual, Keller is excellent.

From Fear to Freedom: Living as Sons and Daughters of God – Rose Marie Miller***
This memoir didn't really grab me, but I have a feeling that may be as much about where I am in life as it is about the quality of the book. I could see it having a huge impact on someone who's just at a different point in their spiritual journey than me. For whatever reason, where I am right now, it just didn't particularly connect with me.

Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches – Rachel Jankovic****
I was eager to pick this up after discovering Rachel Jankovic's online writing and loving it. Her book wasn't as gospel-centered as I expected or would have liked--and to be honest, Jankovic's tone rubs me the wrong way sometimes--but it was still full of poignant, encouraging, and challenging words for moms. It was a short, quick read, so I imagine I'll revisit it.

Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters – Joshua Harris****
An engaging “first taste of theology”/argument for the study of theology. I liked the unique way Harris mixed personal anecdotes in with the more technical explanations, not just talking about but actually making connections between theology and life.

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men – Leonard Sax*****
This is a really, really important book for parents of boys. It's a startling examination of our culture's male “failure to launch” phenomenon and some of the underlying factors, from video games and changes in schooling to ADHD and endocrine disruptors in plastics. It was disheartening and overwhelming, to think of the challenges my little sons face, but I'm glad I have this information.

Playful Parenting – Lawrence Cohen****
I definitely had to read this with a filter, as it does not espouse a biblical worldview—but I found so much wise and even indirectly biblical advice here. Fascinating and very helpful thoughts on connecting with and nurturing your kids, and on gaining their cooperation and compliance.

Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions – Greg Koukl*****
I had to pick this one up since Steve read it last year and is constantly going all Greg Koukl on me :) It’s a really insightful treatise on the HOW of apologetics and arguments—not just being able to defend your own position, but shifting the burden of proof to the person making the claim, listening well and asking good questions, spotting and exposing weaknesses in other worldviews. I’ll need to revisit this for sure.

God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology – Michael Horton**
This was BRUTALLY unreadable. It’s packaged as a layperson’s introduction, but written like a stiff, dry, overly formal and complex academic textbook. I mean, I’m not a stupid girl, but I found it difficult to press through and comprehend. Still, it had good information, and the second half especially provided some fresh perspectives and food for thought, especially pertaining to communion and baptism. I’m at least intrigued to learn more about covenant theology.

Give Them Grace – Elyse Fitzpatrick & Jessica Thompson****
Elyse characteristically soaks the reader in the wonders of the gospel, and her take on how the gospel profoundly changes our parenting was (unfortunately) unique (why do most "Christian parenting" books seem to totally miss the gospel?) and refreshing. Very encouraging, and very successful in pointing me to Christ, urging me to depend on Him and to point my children to Him constantly. Wonderful and definitely recommended, though not *quite* the book I hoped for. TulipGirl's review pretty well sums up my thoughts.

Firehouse – David Halberstam***
Nothing spectacular here, but I appreciated this quick read—a collection of portraits from an NYC fire station which lost a dozen men in the 9/11 attacks. I borrowed it from my brother, whose career as a firefighter makes me especially drawn to learn about the lives of heroic men who pursue this calling.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies – Jared Diamond***/****
Diamond seeks to answer a question I have often asked: WHY did European societies conquer African and American ones, rather than vice versa? Why have certain civilizations dominated/colonized/enslaved others? It was fascinating to learn about the big picture of world history, combining all kinds of disciplines (anthropology, biology, geography, climatology, history) to understand how different societies and people groups advanced.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin – Erik Larson***
Nothing spectacular here, but it held my attention. Chilling to read about the developments of 1930s Germany with the privilege of hindsight. I really enjoy this genre/style of history written like a novel. Amazon reviews indicate that this book is actually much less enjoyable than Larson’s Devil in the White City, so I hope to pick that one up next year.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot****
This is my new favorite genre: a wonderful mix of history, biography, and various other subjects—in this case ethics, biology, medicine, race, poverty, etc. Fascinating exploration of the first line of immortal human cells (HeLa) and the woman and family behind them.

Baptism: Three Views – David Wright (ed.)****
This was definitely an example of that proverb about “the last to speak seems right, until another opens his mouth.” I’d be reading and think, “oh, hmm, that’s a great point, I have to agree.” And then I’d read the rebuttal and go, “oh. I guess that first argument wasn’t so unimpeachable.” I never knew there was a third view for baptism, but Anthony Lane makes an intriguing case for the idea that we need *both* believer’s baptism and infant baptism in the church to provide balance, each side bringing helpful correctives to the other. I still don’t feel completely settled or certain of my views here, but I’m glad I read the book.

The Meaning of Marriage - Tim & Kathy Keller*****
If you haven't noticed, we're big Keller fans around here, so picking up his newest was a no-brainer. Surprisingly, this book made me want to read more from his wife :) Her chapter is the most compelling, persuasive, and inspiring take on gender roles I've ever read. I also loved the big-picture view of marriage, the grand and glorious vision Keller casts. A marriage book I would wholeheartedly recommend to people in all seasons of life.

The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan****
If In Defense of Food addresses how our eating choices affect our health, The Omnivore's Dilemma looks at the bigger picture: the environmental, cultural and ethical implications of our food choices. Constant references to evolution were annoying, but otherwise Pollan makes a very persuasive case for rethinking not just what we eat (whole food vs. processed junk) but how our food is produced (factory farming and the monoculture vs. more traditional and humane methods). His journalism is eye-opening and needs to be widely read and considered.

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus - Nancy Guthrie (ed.)***
Some of the readings in this Advent devotional were more beneficial than others. Still, a nice collection to help focus my heart during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Parting the Waters: Finding Beauty in Brokenness - Jeanne Damoff***
I totally hate to give a negative review of someone's personal story. The Damoffs' teenage son nearly drowned in 1996, and this book chronicles his accident and recovery and their family's inspiring journey of learning to trust God no matter what. I appreciate her deep desire to magnify the Lord, and the way their family has navigated this trial certainly points to His goodness, sovereignty and grace. But the writing was hackneyed; the story dragged; I did not really enjoy reading it.

What about you? What was the best nonfiction you read in 2011? 


Danielle said...

You DID read a lot! :)

From your list the ones I'm most interested in reading myself this year are: Unbroken, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, The Spirit of Food, Loving the Little Years, Boys Adirft, Give them Grace, and all the Keller books! :) Definitely want to read more than 1 Keller book this year.

Still working through Pollan's book. I don't know what my deal with it is. Great writing, interesting subject, but when I put it down I just have a hard time picking it up again!

Brenna Kate Simonds, Living Unveiled said...

Interesting "Anonymous" review. I viewed it so completely differently than you, but that may be due to 2 things: 1) I'm very familiar with Alicia and have even had lunch with her husband and 2) I'm not reading it, using the study guide.

Amy said...

now you've got me curious, BK - what was your review of it? it's been so long since I read it (last Jan/Feb) that I don't remember it super well, but I'd love to hear your take on it.

Brenna Kate Simonds, Living Unveiled said...

Well, in a book that is 99% about a period of Jesus' life that we have little info on, I guess it's not surprising to hear you say it's "lacking in gospel", though almost every chapter includes Scripture. What do you mean by that? I also haven't seen the works emphasis. I feel this statement on pg. 13 sort of sums up the book's focus: "God's unanticipated move of hiding Jesus granted Him protected, undisturbed room to be and become. From God's perspective, anonymous seasons are sacred spaces."

Amy said...

Thanks for elaborating--glad for the chance to dialogue about it :)

Your quote is a beautiful one, and the sense of it is what made me say I did find the book encouraging, compelling, etc.

Unfortunately I do not have the book anymore, so I can't give any specifics, and as I said, it's been almost a year since I read it. But when I say it's lacking in gospel, I mean that the prevailing impression I came away with through much of the book was less "What a glorious and beautiful Savior we have!" and more "You better not screw this up. God can use you in powerful ways down the road if and only if you are faithful and diligent to make all the right choices in this anonymous season, like Jesus did."

I don't care what time period or specific topic a book is about, from my theological POV, every [Christian living] book should be grounded in and saturated with the gospel--not simply assume the gospel. Jesus as merely Example will kill us. We can never live up. Jesus as Savior is our only hope and our only lasting, effective motivation for anything, including using anonymous seasons well.

Does that help clarify or further muddy the waters?

Brenna Kate Simonds, Living Unveiled said...

You did clarify. I think we just read the book through completely different filters. I read it through the filter of knowing her story, knowing her to be a woman of grace and character. I did not hear any of the negativity that you heard at all. At all at all :) I have walked away, deeply encouraged, from every chapter.

We also may just have very different standards for our reading material. And I'm not reformed ;)

Amy said...

I certainly hope nothing I said in my comments implied that the author isn't a woman of grace and character! I don't know if I would describe what I heard as "negativity" as much as just a focus on me and my efforts rather than a focus on Christ and His finished work.

I don't know that being Reformed has anything to with it - but you're probably right about the different filters and different standards :)

Bethany said...

Girl you were a reading machine. YOu remind me of my older sister. So many titles to jot down. Love that you all are doing this....it helps me filter.

TulipGirl said...

I love, love your book synopses -- so many are going on my wish list. (One perk of reading with a kindle is the "free sample" chapter for most books -- then I can figure out if I'm really going to finish it!)

I'm hoping to get more reading time myself, with a nursling this year!