I always feel awkward when I review a book I’m pretty sure you’ve already read. Each time I do it I wonder: why spend time reviewing The Chronicles of Narnia or Anne of Green Gables when you likely read both as a child? This is when my goal for this blog and the work needed to carry it out seem to be at odds with each other. Because my hope is that this blog will be a wealth of book resources—one you can rummage through at your leisure and in which you will find piles of books full of grace and truth. And what pile of grace-and-truth-filled books would be complete without A Wrinkle in Time, for example, or A Christmas Carol?
This tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s thawing heart is a classic of classics, the granddaddy of Christmas literature. It doesn’t tell the Christmas story—as I recall, it doesn’t mention Jesus at all—but A Christmas Carol illustrates beautifully the effect of grace and goodness on a hard heart. But of course you already know that, because this story is such a part of our Christmas culture that the word “scrooge” has gathered its own meaning over the years. So what I’m here to do today, I suppose, is encourage you to read the full story (just in case you haven’t yet) and to read, specifically, this lavishly illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol.
This edition is part of Tyndale House’s “Engaging Visual Journey” series. I have already read, adored, and reviewed their edition of Hannah Hurnard’s allegory, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, which was enriched not only with gorgeous illustrations but also by the addition a biographical essay that invites readers to know Hurnard in her own, first-person words. A Christmas Carol: An Engaging Visual Journey benefits from a similar treatment. Rich with illustrations by three very different illustrators, this edition also features illustrations from earlier printings of the story, Victorian Christmas recipes for dishes like “Chestnut Sauce—for Fowl or Turkey,” a biography of Dickens, and a short anthology of other classic Christmas stories like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”
I have seen books like this go wrong by trying to make a classic feel more “relatable” or “modern,” but this one does the opposite: every addition serves to place readers in Dickens’s time period rather than trying to translate his story into ours. And by including these beautifully layered illustrations and large-format pages, this edition simultaneously opens A Christmas Carol up to younger readers without abridging or modifying the text. And it invites those of us already familiar with the story to sit down with it one more time and meet Ebenezer Scrooge anew.
I recently read our local bookstore’s monthly magazine, and the reviews were littered with phrases like this. This seems to be the highest praise we can give a book now: it was so good it made you forget you were reading!
But I want to take a moment and consider the books that are so good we have to put them down. I don’t mean books we put down and lose interest in. No. I mean books so beautiful we must linger over them, savor them, pause from time to time to reflect on a beautiful passage or perhaps write it down somewhere. These are the books we read more and more slowly toward the end, because we do not want to finish the last page and be left outside the world of the story. We do not want these books to end.
These “putdownable” books do not end each chapter with a cliffhanger or punch you in the face with a plot twist; they draw you firmly in, because the author trusts you to keep reading without his hand at the back of your neck, insisting that you turn the page.
Great Expectations is one of these books.
I am—let’s say this first—a huge fan of Dickens. I could go on at length (and have, in many odd contexts) about how much I love every book I’ve ever read by Charles Dickens, especially some of his less popular books like Bleak House and Little Dorrit. In reviewing only one book here, I am practicing great deal of self-restraint.
But Great Expectations is a great place for those new to Dickens to begin (it is where my eldest daughter began), not least because it is well under the 1,000-page threshold. And the Radio Read Along version—with its full reading of the book and the discussions sprinkled throughout—is a fabulous way to read Great Expectations for the first time.
The story is gripping, the characters unforgettable—and I am not wielding cliche here. If you remember one thing, decades later, about this book, it’ll be Miss Havisham. Pip is (like so many Dickensian protagonists) an orphan, raised by his ungentle sister and her gentle and wonderful husband, Joe. When he is presented with a strange opportunity to “come play” at the mansion of the reclusive, mysterious Miss Havisham, his fortunes turn irrevocably from the path that once led to a future spent working as Joe’s apprentice blacksmith. But is that turn a good thing? Or, what’s so great about Pip’s great expectations?
And so I offer this praise of Dickens’s classic work: you will be able to put it down. You’ll want to. You’ll want to read that description of Joe scuttling Pip behind the door to the person nearest you, whether you know them or not. You’ll want to read back over that scene between Mr. Wemmick and Miss Skiffins because it’s too delightful to read just once. You’ll want to soak in that first description of Miss Havisham’s place with equal parts horror and wonder. And when you encounter moments of abundant, undeserved grace in this story, you’ll need days to mull them over.
This, friends, is a thoroughly put-downable book. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Also worth noting: James Witmer, author of A Year in the Big, Old Garden, just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a companion book about the big, old garden! You can learn more about his campaign here.
Ah, 2020. I suspect that if we included my online reading in this year’s discussion of what I read and how I liked it, we’d find that I spent far more time reading the news than I’d comfortably admit.
And so, well, we won’t.
Let us consider, instead, one of the many ways in which books surpass digital media: you’ll find no clickbait in a physical book, nowhere for you to go that doesn’t require some effort on your part; no third party is compensated for every page you turn. It’s just you and the book and (one hopes) a blanket, cat, and cup of tea.
So, apart from the news, what did I read in 2020? Comfortable books. Beautiful books. Books that gave me pause, that made me laugh, that reminded me that people have lived through difficult things before, and that there always comes, at some point, a denouement—a wrapping up of things left undone, an answering of the last few questions.
I reread several favorites this year, from Sherlock Holmes to P. G. Wodehouse, and refreshed myself with L. M. Montgomery’s short stories and the mysteries of Agatha Christie. A friend of mine called this kind of reading “escape reading,” which is apt, but it felt to me less like leaving than like settling in—like the literary equivalent of tea, hearty stew, and crusty bread. And so I call it comfort reading.
But 2020 wasn’t all rereading: I also discovered several new novels so lovely that I know they’ll become my comfort reading of the future. Of course, beautiful novels can’t erase the grief and bewilderment of this year, but they did much to remind me that the sun is still up there above the seething clouds and that God is still good, whatever the case count.
I closed last year’s “Best Books” post with the words “I hope 2019 treated you well. May 2020 treat you better still,” but I don’t think I’ll send you forth with those words again. Maybe a better greeting to the new year would be the words our pastor says each Sunday after the Scripture reading:
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:8)
Let’s carry that truth with us into 2021: The word of our God will stand forever.
I read Virgil Wander twice in a row and couldn’t bring myself to put in back on the shelf for weeks after I finished. Virgil is a delightful narrator, and Leif Enger’s use of language dazzles—it is hard to look away from certain words, they’re just so perfectly placed.
I heard this book mentioned last spring on BiblioFiles as the perfect book for quarantine. I promptly bought it and, by the time I’d reached end of the first page, I heartily agreed: A Gentleman in Moscow is the story of a young Russian gentlemen sentenced to lifetime house arrest during the Bolshevik Revolution. But he lives in a high-end hotel, so this hotel and its inhabitants become his whole world. This book is quiet, beautiful, and utterly charming.
It occurs to me now that these first three books were all BiblioFiles recommendations—but there you have it. The Center for Lit folks haven’t steered me wrong yet. This book is pretty self-explanatory: Foster, a professor, teaches the rest of us the good habits of a thorough reader. I hate to sound dramatic, but I am not exaggerating a bit when I tell you that this book completely changed the way I read.
A friend recommended this magical little book, and it got me through many a dark day this year. Written by Francois Fenelon over four hundred years ago, these readings are short and to the point—perfect for grabbing off the shelf at 5:00 on a day gone wrong and reminding oneself what’s what.
Had I read this before? Absolutely. Did I enjoy it even more the second time through? I sure did. I happened to be mid-Bleak House when our school and church shut down in March, and in a moment like that, I was so grateful for Dickens. This book may showcase some of his less popular qualities, but for all that, I think it might be my favorite: it includes one of the first murder mysteries of English literature, one of the most intriguing characters in the Dickensian canon (Lady Dedlock), and, of course, spontaneous combustion. It also begins with the best opening paragraph I think I have ever read.
This slender book is all about caregiving, in its various forms during our different seasons of life. Andi Ashworth writes from her own experience as a mother and caregiver to aging parents and to the many guests that pass through her family’s home, but she writes about it in ways that feel practical and applicable to a variety of situations. There is a bit of Edith Schaeffer in this book, if you know what I mean. I am so glad I got to read this book this year, when caring for my family felt like caring for their suddenly huge needs through small, tender ways—listening when they needed me to. Keeping them supplied with pie. And so on.
Despite the title, I keep this little volume by my bed and read from it most evenings before I go to sleep. Spurgeon’s warmth and tenderness, his candor and his sense of humor all make this a beautiful book to read in installments—it is one I never want to finish!
I wouldn’t fairly represent my reading life in 2020 if I didn’t include Weeknight Baking, because it’s the cookbook I baked almost all the way through between May and December. I read it cover to cover and baked every single cake mentioned in here, plus most of the cookies (some of them several times); this pie crust is my new standard recipe. Michelle Lopez tackles classic recipes and breaks them down into steps so you can make them over the course of multiple nights after work—an approach that works excellently for those us without demanding jobs but with a house full of kids.
A Sense of Wonder is out of print (alas!), but it is a beautiful collection of essays that I savored slowly this year. I have only read a few of Paterson’s novels, but I love her perspective on writing for children, how seriously she takes it and how much she respects her readers. I’ll return to this one, for sure.
This book just barely made the cut, as I finished it on December 30. But say what you like about 2020—and we all have a lot to say about it—at least it brought us a new novel from Marilynne Robinson. This one is just as lovely as the others, so if you haven’t read any of them, take this away from today’s post: go forth and read Gilead, the first in this series. It is probably my favorite novel, and perhaps the only other one, besides Virgil Wander, that I’ve read twice in a row.
For a while there, our house felt like my favorite bookstore. The shelves lining our living room and small hallway were full; the tops of the shelves were full; the floor to either side of them were full of books. I like that atmosphere in a used bookstore, but in a home I’m tasked with keeping clean, it’s less charming: stacks of books on the floor turn into trails of paperbacks throughout the house, ending wherever the two-year-old was seen last.
And so my husband and a good friend built a set of bookshelves to house our wayward paperbacks. They hang above the couch and give our house a different sort of feel, a well-organized library vs. used bookstore sort of feel, and I love it. It’s a treat to look at one shelf and see (almost) all of our books cozied up together. (And it’s a treat, only picking picture books up off the floor at the end of the day.)
This year was a year for savoring books. Compared to my list of favorite finds from last year, these books are longer, deeper, and called for more underlining. I read more during nap time, less while nursing, and took the time to read (or reread) a few of those books I’d been meaning to tackle for a while. I read fiction, yes, and nonfiction, too. I read books that called for deep thoughts and others that kept me laughing. With the exception of the books that have been appearing on this blog all year long, here are my ten favorites from 2015:
I was deeply smitten with this book the first time I read it. And when I combed our shelves for a book to take with us on an overnight trip (without kids!), I found myself wanting to read it again, this time with the ending in mind. Undset’s masterpiece of historical fiction is beautifully written, rich with details about life in medieval Norway and characters that still make my heart ache when I remember them, but when people ask me what it’s about, I find that a single word comes to mind: sin.
Kristin’s story would be a hugely popular love story if it ended with her wedding (young girl defies parents and society’s expectations and marries her lover! The end), but Undset follows Kristin for the rest of her life, chronicling the effects her sin on her marriage, her children, her years as an old woman. That may sound depressing, but it isn’t: this is a gorgeous and redemptive book, worth reading and rereading despite its length.
Note: Not all translations of this book are created equal! If you’re not completely submerged in the story and deeply in love with Undset’s language, then you’re probably not reading Tiina Nunnally’s translation (pictured). You should fix that. Hers is the best.
You’ve heard about this one already. But it has joined the ranks of my very favorite books, so a list of the best books I read this year just wouldn’t be complete without a tip of the hat to The Wingfeather Saga.
I tried reading this book years ago but lost steam in the first chapters. When I picked it up this time, it was like sitting down to a feast: Piper packs so much material into each page that I cannot read it without a pen handy for underlining, and every chapter gives me much to consider. This wasn’t a case of me not liking the book, as I originally thought, but of my reading it at the wrong time. This was the right time in my life for Desiring God. I’m savoring it slowly, still reading it paragraph by paragraph.
I reviewed David and Uhrenholdt’s first book, The Family Dinner, for the blog this year, and when researching that post discovered that they had a new book out, which I promptly purchased. David is even more fiercely opinionated about food in this book, it’s true, but I love the recipes in The Family Cooks. Their strength is in their simplicity: through them, I’ve finally come to appreciate salad, have reincorporated vegetables into our diet (they had slipped out of it somehow), and have learned at last how to roast a simple, flavorful chicken breast. My daughters love helping me cook from this book, too, so it’s taken up semi-permanent residence on my cookbook stand.
Rosaria Butterfield is a timely writer: before coming to Christ, she was a lesbian and queer theory professor, and her perspective on some of the most controversial topics facing Christians today is not divisive, but saturated with grace. Though this books tackles issues like homosexuality and sexual identity, I found that the most compelling chapters covered struggles faced by all Christians, regardless of the particular shape of our temptations: How should we confront sin? How do we accept grace? How can we truly love our neighbors?
Butterfield writes like a woman who knows how to read a text and how to articulate her thoughts (like an excellent professor, I suppose). This is one that I’ll return to over the years, I’m sure, and it’s one that I bullied a few friends into buying because it is just that good. In fact, my copy is currently loaned out, so I wasn’t able to photograph it for this post.
This book is a beautiful blend of fiction and theology, recommended to me by many friends who said, “You like Gilead and Hannah Coulter? [I most certainly do.] Then you’ll love Peace Like a River.” They were right, my friends. So right.
I loved everything about this book. I loved Rigney’s examination of how we can glorify God through enjoying his gifts, and I loved his writing style. I found myself wishing that more authors wrote about theology with the obvious joy and delight of Joe Rigney and was sorry to see this book end.
Sarah Clarkson looks at childhood as a story, with an exposition, rising action, crisis, falling action and denouement. This is a skinny book, but it gave me much to think about—and many books to buy. Each chapter closes with a list of books suited to that particular stage of childhood, so I can thank Clarkson for introducing me to some lovely new books, and to renewing my interest in Hannah Coulter and The Wind in the Willows.
I knew nothing about this book when I picked it up, only that it was by Dickens and I was in the mood for Dickens. But oh, my goodness! The twists in this plot, the subtle shades of the characters, the way Dickens gives us only the details we need when we need them—the man was such a master that even his lesser known books are incredible feats of storytelling. I won’t tell you more: I don’t want to rob you of the pleasure of discovering the story for yourself. But I will warn you not to watch the mini-series or even glance at its summary until you have finished Our Mutual Friend. There are some aspects of the plot that cannot be translated onto the screen.
I re-read Walking on Water every few years. L’Engle’s “Reflections on Faith and Art” are lovely—loosely organized and sure to reignite certain fires in me that need periodic feeding. Her words on children’s literature and on her life as a writer have shaped the way I view the call and craft of writing. This is a beautiful book, and because I read it when I was young, I sit here now, writing passionately for you about children’s books.
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
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