Favorite Books in 2020

The written word kept me afloat in 2020–both reading and pursuing my own writing.

I’ve read some wonderful books, and have had more time to review them throughout the year—making this exercise a bit easier as the final day of 2020 rapidly comes to conclusion! Going back through my book journal is like remembering old friends—reminiscing on enjoyable experiences, lessons learned, and wise words taken to heart.

2018 Favorite Books

2019 Favorite Books

My fiction reading varied widely from classics, Pulitzer winners, Austen-fan fiction, action dramas, psychological thrillers, and modern mysteries.

As for non-fiction, I gravitated towards theology, spiritual formation, psychology, with a bit of history thrown in. I also read several titles on cultural engagement and bioethics for my master’s degree.

I hope these notes are helpful! Several below have longer reviews that are linked. And feel free to leave comments on suggestions for 2021!

A favorite pandemic reading spot.

Fiction:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

• This likely wins the prize as my favorite book of 2020. Doerr’s writing style is captivating and the reader can’t help but come to know and love the characters he has crafted. The vulnerable and sweet Marie-Laure. The eccentric, PTSD-suffering great-uncle Etienne. The maternal, precocious Jutta. And her brother, Werner, a sensitive, thoughtful boy, a dreamer, who “sees what other people don’t,” whose “soul glowed with some fundamental kindness,” caught up in a war he wants nothing to do with. —> Full review.


The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

• I listened to this on Audible which was quite enjoyable. There are so many timeless themes in this classic that traces the character development of Edmund Dantes, who was imprisoned unjustly for years and makes a daring escape, fueled by his thirst for vengeance but ultimately relenting to forgiveness and acceptance. A favorite quote from the end—“All human wisdom is summed up in these three words: wait and hope.”- Edmund Dantes


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

• A delightful tale filled with friendship that also depicts the soul-crushing effects of communism.


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

• Reverend Ames’ letters reflect on the intricacies of the human soul, the purpose of life, and his wrestling with deep theological questions. One thing shines through: he loved and served his family, his wife, his son, his parishioners, and his town, well. —> Full review.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

• This book spoke to me in so many ways, bringing me to tears many times. I resonated with the main character, Kya Clark, known as the “Marsh Girl,” and was cheering her on as she rose above her harsh upbringing, educating herself, and opening herself to love and belonging.


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

• I waited way too long to read this Austen classic, the last one of hers I hadn’t read. It lived up to its expectations, with complex characters and a sweet friendship between sisters that withstands many trials. The wit and insight into human character of Austen is unmatched, in my opinion!


Hannah Coulter Wendell Berry

• This was a sweet tale that provides great insight into the changes that come to family and place over time.


The Goldfinch Donna Tartt

• This Pulitzer Prize-winning tome is an interesting coming-of-age story with excellent character development and descriptive narrative. The consequences of actions that compound over time is felt.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

• This ended up being a very timely book to read during the pandemic and quarantine, as we have all been suffering from social isolation. It illustrated how checking in on people we care about can quite literally be life-saving. This time has also revealed the plague of loneliness and the dreadful effects of trauma and lack of social connections. —> Full review.



Nonfiction:


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott


The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

• I came away from The Splendid and the Vile with a profound sense of admiration for Churchill and his leadership and courage during a dark time in Europe, and yet with a healthy sense of his humanity, such as his irritableness, penchant for fine cigars, and his quirk of wandering 10 Downing Street in just a dressing robe (or less, as told in a humorous anecdote of an encounter with President Roosevelt later in 1941!). —> Full review.


You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith

• This book was convicting, but also beautiful and freeing. The habit-forming gifts of the church are a special grace from the Lord to mold and shape our hearts, so that we can truly become the creatures with a purpose we were meant to be. —> Full review.


Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

• This was a well-researched and worthwhile read. Cain provides a wealth of research and social commentary, critiquing the way our society – particularly American culture – overvalues the “extrovert ideal” and how much of our educational and workplace settings are organized around extroversion; when 1/3 to 1/2 of the population are introverts. —> Full review.


Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy Mark Vroegop


Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren

• “What if days passed in ways that feel small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us?”

This is the fundamental question posed by Tish Harrison Warren in her thought-provoking book, Liturgy of the Ordinary. She relates our every day practices, such as making the bed, losing our keys, answering email, drinking tea, and sleeping to the life-giving liturgical practices of the church. She challenges the reader to allow God to work in and redeem every moment, especially the ordinary ones. —> Full review.


In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Europe by Erik Larson

Inheritance Dani Shapiro


Surrender to Love David Benner

• Benner writes beautifully about the steadfast and love-changing love of God. He asks some very provocative questions and points that brought me to tears as I dismantle false views of myself and iron to the acceptance of God’s deep and abiding love.


Suffering is Never for Nothing Elisabeth Elliott


Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode by Aundi Kolber

• I highly recommend this book if you are interested in a more compassionate approach to life and our human bodies, rooted in Scripture and brain science. It is a gentle reminder that the way God created the human person and intended for us to be in relationships with one another, is a beautiful thing. —> Full review.


Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling Andy Crouch


Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

• I found Atomic Habits to be extremely practical and helpful with ideas and strategies for becoming a creature of good habits. Clear’s thesis is that tiny, consistent—“atomic-size”—habits aggregate to big life changes. His four laws of behavior change are a helpful framework to form healthy habits: make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying (these can be inverted for breaking bad habits). —> Full review.


Happy reading in 2021!!


The Babe, the Son of Mary

Christmas is coming soon as night falls on the fourth Sunday of Advent.

The anticipation has felt a little more near this year with a snow fall and a cold snap that has kept the snow and ice from melting. When I look out the window and see my landscape bathed in white, I feel the closeness of Christmas a bit more acutely.

The snow as a harbinger of Christmas has been a kind blessing, especially as so much else this season has not been the same. I flipped through photos from this day a year ago, and was reminded of memories and celebrations traipsing through a decorated D.C. with colleagues and friends and a holiday dinner date with my sister, in 2019.

Who knew what was coming in 2020, then? No one. I certainly did not. If we knew the suffering that is soon to ensue we would not choose it. I would not. And yet, my year of pain, has brought much gain to my soul. While the weight of struggle still feels heavy, the freeness of release and the reliance on trust beyond myself has changed me in ways that I know are good.

2020 has been a year of life, interrupted.

But Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, who came to this earth in human form in the humblest of ways, is still Lord.

That is the crux of Christmas—that God came to dwell with humankind. The incarnation and the Trinity are great mysteries of the Christian faith. We cannot fully understand but we can fully know it is true. The life of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, is real. His death and resurrection are historical events. Christmas is not just a feel-good time of fairytales and lights, it is a time when every person must reckon with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and choose to make him Lord of their life.

He is not a distant king or an unfeeling god. He is our Creator, who came to earth, in human form to rescue us from the sin and shame which separates us from him.

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

He arrived as a baby, to live and know the life we live in our bodies. He knows our pain.

He was born to give us second birth. By his physical wounds on the cross we have been healed.

He came to save all those who believe. His resurrection promises resurrection for our redeemed bodies, too.

Jesus is Lord. That is good news!

My Advent reflections may have rambled a bit these past weeks, but I have taken the risk this year to write from the heart, in hope that others might know. And even so, I don’t write for the “clicks” but rather to witness to beauty and the truth of God, no matter the audience. Well, my affinity for alliteration has wound its way into this series too, but they are words that God has written on my heart as this hard year, for you and for me, comes to a close:

God is—

Light of life.

Living waters.

Love, divine.

And, Lord of all.

I often write of the peace and comfort that my relationship with God brings me. And yet true Christianity is not a therapeutic religion. God will change your heart and his consolations are many. But it does not mean a carefree life. Oh no, my friend. Trials and tribulations still come. This Christmas season I pray that you, dear reader, know Jesus as Lord, the King who came to save us. Our trials may not leave, but He alone, will never forsake us. He is with us in the waiting.

Merry Christmas!

After many attempts and pieces of popcorn, this was the best I could do as our digital Christmas card! But it’s 2020 so I’m just grateful and glad I am still laughing and smiling!


Joy of Every Longing Heart

A deep blanket of fog lay thick all morning Saturday. The afternoon sun burned it off, with the December day becoming mild and bright.

Morning fog lays low,
Lifts, allowing sunshine on
Streams of liquid light

Despite the beautiful weather, my weekend was battered with burdens. The sunshine could not keep me afloat. Nor a brisk hike. They were good for me, but not all I need.

I need the light of life.

Living waters of renewal.

And—love. Love, divine.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Our sanitized Nativity scenes during Advent sometimes obscure some of the facts about the birth of Christ. Or rather, the weight of the incarnation gets lost.

This long expected Savior is God—come to this earth as human, as flesh and blood. Divine love came to save us, to save you and me. For love. To set us free from our sins and shame and fears and failures. It could only come from love, beyond our understanding; the divine love that is working out redemption through history.

This love flows from the Creator who loves me and cares for me, knows my every thought, my every burden. This divine Love sent his son to be born and die, that I might have life. That I would be filled with his love, steadfast, sure, and secure.

This love divine is a free gift to those who believe. It’s the season of wonder. Believe and be free, let love divine transform your heart. And if you do believe, lean into this love. I need to remember this, in every moment. His love is the hope and the joy that my longing heart needs.


Pour Over Me Your Holiness

It’s beginning to feel a lot like winter!

As I wandered the woods this weekend, the wind whipped, and the chill cut to my bone. But beams of sunshine and a brisk pace brought warmth to my face and core.

With the trees completely bare, except for a few pines and holly plants, and the leaves crushed along the trail, I was aware of the death all around me. Gone is the vibrancy of summer; it has broken down into this necessary phase of the seasons, the rhythm of renewal for the flourishing of the forest. For new life in spring time, death and detritus must come first.

The woods in winter, is a place of death. Like the world, without Jesus.

As I walked, the Christmas song that danced through my head was one of my modern favorites, Breath of Heaven, by Amy Grant.

Breath of heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of heaven
Breath of heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness
For you are holy

I came upon one of my favorite spots and was struck by the contrast—a little pool created by a mini cascade of fresh water before it forms a creek on its way to the bay.

Watching this little waterfall, was a perfect moment of serenity. Of peace (an answered prayer from last week). The sound of the constant flowing of streaming waters felt true and holy and life-giving.

It was a reminder of gratitude for the living water that is the gift of God.

The spirit of God, the breath of God, is like a well-spring deep within the hearts of those whose believe.

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.””
‭‭John‬ ‭4:13-14‬ ‭NIV‬‬

There is too much death and destruction in this world to live without this living water. Even the good things won’t ultimately satisfy; they won’t quench the soul’s thirst for God.

This living spring, signed with a seal at baptism when water is poured on the body, is a renewing source. A well of rest and regeneration, supplying the soul with a source for sanctification, each and every day.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭4:16-18 NIV‬‬

In the wasting-away woods, the wilderness, and in this world of woes, one needs Jesus.

This Advent season, if you are looking for rest and renewal, strength and serenity, hope and holiness, draw on the living waters of Christ. It is a well that will never run dry.

Savoring every second at this spot of serenity (except for a quick selfie!)

Delight of the sycamore leaf

Simple delights show up on the way
Like a large leaf in winter to brighten my day

The gifts of creation can be seen all around
One first must be looking for them to be found

Life’s one long lesson to grow our attention
To the ways God is working to point us to heaven

It’s been a beautiful fall on the East Coast. I’m sad to see it go but know the winter is necessary. Stay safe, friends as we head towards the winter solstice. Spring will come again. ~ Bethany