Category: Grown-Ups (page 3 of 6)

The Best Books I Read in 2020

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.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020 | Little Book, Big Story

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.

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger

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.


A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles | Little Book, Big Story

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.


How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster | Little Book, Big Story

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.


Dialogues of Fenelon, Vol. II

Dialogues of Fenelon, Vol. II | Little Book, Big Story

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.


Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens | Little Book, Big Story

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.


Real Love for Real Life, by Andi Ashworth

Real Love for Real Life, by Andi Ashworth | Little Book, Big Story

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.


Morning by Morning, by Charles Spurgeon

Spurgeon's Morning by Morning | Little Book, Big Story

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!


Weeknight Baking, by Michelle Lopez

Weeknight Baking, by Michelle Lopez | Little Book, Big Story

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, by Katherine Paterson

A Sense of Wonder, by Katherine Paterson | Little Book, Big Story

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.


Jack, by Marilynne Robinson

Jack, by Marilynne Robinson | Little Book, Big Story

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.


What about you? What did you read this year?

Hinds’ Feet on High Places

You could read a nonfiction book, expertly written, about the faithfulness of God. Or you could read about his faithfulness in a story, and you would feel like you’d lived it, like you’d followed a character as they encountered God’s faithfulness again and again, over the span of a journey.

Which is to say, you could read a nonfiction book, expertly written, about the faithfulness of God, or you could read Hinds’ Feet on High Places.

Hind's Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard | Little Book, Big Story

An allegory written in the style of Pilgrim’s Progress, this book follows Much-Afraid, as she leaves her home valley to climb, with the Shepherd, to the high places. This is a slow and wandering book, filled with beautiful imagery and powerful scenes.

This edition, too, is filled with lovely watercolor and mixed-media illustrations. It also includes an essay by the author on the writing of the story, as well as a biographical sketch of author and missionary Hannah Hurnard. My eleven-year-old and I both loved this book, and it’s one I plan to re-read (lingeringly) every few years.

Hind's Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard | Little Book, Big Story

Hinds’ Feet on High Places is a helpful reminder that, though we are in one particular part of our own journey and cannot see far ahead or behind us, we are in the care of One who knows the whole thing start to finish. He has given us what we need for now.


Hinds’ Feet on High Places
Hannah Hurnard; Jill De Haan, Rachel McNaughton (1955)


Free Gifts from Wildflowers Magazine

Wildflowers magazine is full of fun projects for kids currently house-bound, and they are currently offering a free printables to their newsletter subscribers! These include coloring pages, DIY projects, and more (even one of the short stories featuring my illustrations). They have also marked down all their past issues to $8 apiece! Learn more about the giveaways here, or go here to order an issue of Wildflowers.

The Best Books I Read in 2019

So. Where did I go, exactly? I wish I could give you a flashy explanation for my sudden, unexplained absence—perhaps one involving time travel? Or the rescue of small, furry animals? But the truth is simpler and somewhat less impressive.

I was procrastinating on this post.

I love writing these posts—looking back on the past year, collecting my favorite titles, taking an opportunity to share books with you I wouldn’t usually cover on this blog. But some (don’t get me wrong, wonderful) changes hampered my usual stream-lined approach: we built a new window seat right where I usually photograph books (yay!), but that altered the lighting in that spot, which meant I had to recalibrate my photography set-up. My brother—who gets lots of props in this post—gave me a laptop (yay!), which meant I had to find my way around a new computer. Also, we all got sick.

Oddly, the form my procrastination took involved re-designing my entire website (no small feat, given the age and girth of this blog). That project was long overdue. (And I am still working out a few kinks on the mobile version!)

But I am sorry for keeping you waiting without explanation. That was, in the words of Captain Jas. Hook, “bad form.” I apologize. I do hope the blog’s newer, prettier look makes up for that somewhat.

There is one last thing I love about writing these annual book lists, though. Can you guess what it is? It’s you! Some of you share your favorite books of the year, either in the comments or by email, and I love hearing which books you loved. I make note of them. I often read them myself. They sometimes wind up on some future edition of “Best Books of My Year” (see the first book on this list).

So, thank you for your patience and for having excellent taste. I hope 2019 treated you well. May 2020 treat you better still.


The Heaven Tree Trilogy, by Edith Pargeter

The Heaven Tree Trilogy, by Edith Pargeter | Little Book, Big Story

Years ago, Christina—a reader in whose debt I shall forever remain—recommended this book to me. I picked it up mid-summer, when I was in the throes of planning for the homeschool-year-that-was-not-to-be and realized with a jolt that I’d gone months without reading anything I didn’t plan to teach. This book is now one of my very favorites.


A Little Book on the Christian Life, by John Calvin

A Little Book on the Christian Life, by John Calvin | Little Book, Big Story

This tiny book is actually a chapter from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. There is much to meditate on in here, much to apply, and oh-so-much to underline.


The Great British Bake Off: Get Baking for Friends and Family

The Great British Bake Off: Get Baking for Friends & Family | Little Book, Big Story

One fateful day, I checked the mail and found this book waiting mysteriously on the porch. My brother had sent it, with the brilliant idea that we indulge our love of The Great British Bake Off and bake our way through the book together. Thus began a winter memorable for nights when our family ate tuna sandwiches for dinner and ornate three-layer cakes for dessert. (No one was sad about that.)


ESV Study Bible

ESV Study Bible | Little Book, Big Story

When I was neck-deep in research for that Christmas article, I rediscovered this study Bible. I had primarily used it for the footnotes before, but this time I dug into the additional articles at the front, back, and middle of the Bible, and wow. This is like Bible Infographics for Kids for adults.


A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter | Little Book, Big Story

I finally encountered Gene Stratton Porter, and I’m not sorry it happened. A Girl of the Limberlost has been on my radar for years, and though I realized too late that it’s the second book in a pair, I loved it profusely. (Freckles, the first book in the pair, is lovely, too.)


Pie School, by Kate Lebo

Pie School, by Kate Lebo | Little Book, Big Story

I fell for the show Pushing Daisies years and years ago, and ever since I have wanted to bake pies. That is, I have wanted to confidently bake pies, with crusts that don’t crack or turn soggy beneath the filling. I’ve wanted to be so pie savvy I could find as much comfort in whipping up a double-crust pie as I do in eating pie warm from the oven.

Kate Lebo’s book is granting me this superpower. Her recipes are consistently delicious, and she knows just which details an aspiring pie-maker needs to demystify the process. Pie School taught me that ginger + apple = revelation, and that pie crusts are best made by hand and with lard. The next pie on my “to bake” list? Pear and gruyere, a la Charlotte Charles.


The Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle

The Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle | Little Book, Big Story

I first heard this book mentioned on Aslan’s Library, but it wasn’t until James K. A. Smith referenced it in You Are What You Love that I finally ordered a copy. This book is a collection of prayers (drawn from Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, the works of Augustine, and more) meant to be prayed as “the daily offices” (more about that here). This volume has been an excellent companion through the chillier months of both last year and this year.


Of Other Worlds, by C. S. Lewis

Of Other Worlds, by C. S. Lewis | Little Book, Big Story

If you want to know Lewis’s thoughts on science fiction, you’ll find them in here. Or if you’re interested in his approach to writing for children, that’s in here, too. This was a lovely collection of essays to read throughout the summer, on front porches and such.


Suffering is Never for Nothing, by Elisabeth Elliot

Suffering is Never for Nothing, by Elisabeth Elliot | Little Book, Big Story

This book is the edited transcription of a series of talks Elisabeth Elliot gave on suffering, and reading it is like listening to her talk to you, personally, about some of the hardest things any of us will face. Her tone is tender and direct; her message is beautiful.


What I Love About My Mom

What I Love About Mom | Little Book, Big Story

A few Christmases ago, my brother (still being awesome) gave Lydia and Sarah these books. I found them scattered around their room at various points after that but had no idea that Sarah was patiently, quietly, filling this one up for me until she surprised me with it. She must have known it would make me happy, but she couldn’t have known what a gift it was to me to get to see myself from her nine-year-old perspective for fifty short pages.

You can’t buy one of these filled out by your own kid, I know. But I had to include it on this list, because it most certainly was one of the best books I read this year.


Bonus!

These two have already appeared or will appear on the blog, but I wanted to include them again here because they were so beautifully significant to me. Is it too dramatic to call them “life-changing”? I kind of want to call them that.


Tales of the Kingdom Trilogy, by David & Karen Mains

Tales of the Kingdom, by David & Karen Mains | Little Book, Big Story

Part fairy tale, part fantasy, and with a sprinkling of allegory throughout, Tales of the Kingdom makes our world look different—better, brighter. (Read the full review.)


Hind’s Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard

Hind's Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard | Little Book, Big Story

Hannah Hurnard tells the story of young Much-Afraid and the Shepherd who calls her to climb to the High Places (think Pilgrim’s Progress, but gentler somehow). Oh, it’s beautiful, and this edition—with its gorgeous illustrations and back-of-the-book essays—does the story justice.

Every Moment Holy

I came of age as a Christian in a church plant “for people who don’t like church.” We were reinterpreting church, making it new for those who had grown up in stodgy, liturgical places and hungered for something heartfelt and sincere. We were a composite of black sheep: some of us had never gone to any church at all; others had drifted in from mega-churches, in search of a tighter, more authentic community. Most of us owned skateboards. We were all under thirty.

Mitch and I were married in that church when I was nineteen, but within the year, we gradually stopped attending—I don’t remember why. For a few years, we didn’t attend anywhere. But eventually we found ourselves at another small church plant, this one full of people who were not running from the church, but to it: some of them, like us, refugees from churches that had jettisoned doctrine in a dive toward “relevance.”

We heard a call to worship and prayed the Lord’s Prayer every week. We took communion not at special believers’ services, but every Sunday, together. We looked into one another’s eyes as we broke the bread.

Every Moment Holy, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey | Little Book, Big Story

It was through this church that I began to appreciate liturgical worship. I didn’t notice it happening—at first, I read clumsily through the bold print in the bulletin, not sure what I was supposed to feeling as I read.

Years later, a decade in perhaps, I began to understand that I didn’t have to adjust my feelings before reading the liturgy, but that God can use a good liturgy to shape my feelings and affections. No matter what I am grappling with when the service starts, by the time I’ve recited and responded and prayed and sung “The Doxology” and received the benediction, the Spirit has unstuck my heart from my worries and oriented it once more toward God.

It is a quiet work I cannot control. And it is one we participate in together, every Sunday.

Every Moment Holy, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey | Little Book, Big Story

Every Moment Holy invites liturgies into the home, around the table, outside under the stars—it is a collection of liturgies written by Douglas Kaine McKelvey (a writer I very much admire) and illustrated by Ned Bustard (an illustrator I also very much admire). These liturgies are prayers, meant to be read alone or together; in unison or in a call-and-response exchange. They are intended, as Andrew Peterson writes in the book’s introduction, to “edify you, reshape your thinking, recalibrate your compass, ignite your imagination, and pique your longing for the world to come.”

And they do: the words themselves set my thoughts running along new lines, and they draw my eyes upward in moments that may not normally elicit prayer. “Upon An Unexpected Sighting of Wildlife,” for instance. “Upon Feeling the Pleasance of a Warm Shower.”

Every Moment Holy, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey | Little Book, Big Story

These liturgies are not only for Sunday mornings, but for the week-in, week-out trials and celebrations that we often hurry through. Pausing to read “A Liturgy for the Preparation of a Meal” or “Liturgy for a Moment of Frustration at a Child” reorients our thoughts toward the One who gives us hands and herbs and aromatics and children who challenge our sense of order.

Every Moment Holy, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey | Little Book, Big Story

Though I had begun to appreciate liturgies at our last church, it wasn’t until that church dissolved and we started attending our new church that I truly began to love liturgies. We closed that final service with “The Doxology,” and the next week stepped into our first service at our new church knowing that we didn’t have to muster up certain feelings during worship but that we could rest in the familiar rhythm of the liturgy.

Every Moment Holy, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey | Little Book, Big Story

Participating in the liturgy of a new church was like hearing a beloved piece played by a different musician: we heard variations, but the melody still came through, beautiful and clear. At the end of the service we could sing with our new church family, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow,” and by then we really meant it.


If you’re new to the idea of liturgy, or would just like to read more about it (besides reading Every Moment Holy, which is an excellent place to start), I highly recommend You Are What You Love, by James K. A. Smith. That book more than any other has helped shape my understanding of liturgy.


Every Moment Holy
Douglas Kaine McKelvey; Ned Bustard (2017)

Anne of Green Gables (Series)

L. M. Montgomery’s books make me want to befriend some patch of land and explore it thoroughly until I know and have named every tree, every brook, every starry-eyed flower in its thickets. I want to wear clothes made from fabric with names that sound edible—chiffon, taffeta, voile—in colors like “dove gray,” “dusky rose” and “pale green.”

Oh, to eat preserves from quilted jelly jars and don hats festooned with silk flowers and curling ostrich feathers! (I also want to clean, because I harbor a strong suspicion that Marilla Cuthbert and Mrs. Rachel Lynde would not approve of my standards of housekeeping.)

Anne of Green Gables (series), by L. M. Montgomery | Little Book, Big Story

Montgomery’s writing transports me so completely to the Prince Edward Island of yesteryear that it is with a jolt that I come to at the close of the chapter to find myself camped out on the couch with a sleeping baby on my chest and a mean crick in my neck (a scene no less lovely, by the way—just slightly less romantic).

You have read Anne of Green Gables, of course. I had—twice—and had also acted in the play (some of you may recall that I married Gilbert Blythe), so I was more than familiar with Anne’s story. But in these early days of new motherhood, I decided to read on in the series and, in doing so, discovered a story of rare beauty.

Anne of Green Gables (series), by L. M. Montgomery | Little Book, Big Story
Anne of Green Gables (series), by L. M. Montgomery | Little Book, Big Story
(Sometimes, when it is windy, I need a small assistant)

Anne is an endlessly endearing, perfectly imperfect heroine, settled into a story of lush scenery and unforgettable characters. To walk with a character through childhood and into adulthood, to watch her friendships and marriage grow and change, is a delight. Montgomery’s ability to present Anne in the various stages of life without slackening the pace or vibrancy of the story, allowing the reader to watch Anne grow in wisdom as she becomes a mother, confronts loss, and watches her own children mature, shows just how masterful an author she is.

Anne of Green Gables (series), by L. M. Montgomery | Little Book, Big Story

There is something singular about seeing a life spun out in story like that. I can’t help but hope that, in heaven, we’ll see our own lives in a similar way: we’ll step back from it a bit so we can see God’s delicate foreshadowing in our own stories and, knowing the end of things, we’ll see, in those moments when life seemed “a vale of tears,” the first glint of the glorious light up ahead.


Today’s summer re-run originally appeared way back in February 2014, in the early days of this blog. But it is about one of my favorite series in all of literature, so it’s worth sharing again. (Also, these books are perfect for reading beneath a favorite tree. Just in case you were looking for books perfect for reading beneath a favorite tree . . . )


Anne of Green Gables
L. M. Montgomery (1908)