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My Top 5 Books from the Past 8 Years

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For me, December means Christmas, time with family, copious amounts of hot chocolate, and lots and lots of book lists. I like seeing what books people have read and enjoyed in a year, so “best of” lists are always exciting. As I read through the lists that interested me, I thought it would be fun to go back through my Goodreads log and see what my favorite books have been in the past, so today I’m sharing my top five books from the last eight years. An asterisk denotes a lifetime favorite. 

Book covers for Stoner by John Williams*
My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer*
Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical edited by Hannah Faith Notess
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

2010:
Stoner by John Williams*
My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer*
Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical
edited by Hannah Faith Notess
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Book covers for Cathedral by Raymond Carver
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
The Poetry of Rilke by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. by Edward Snow)*

2011:
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor*
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
The Poetry of Rilke by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. by Edward Snow)*

Book covers for The Secret History by Donna Tartt*
Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor*
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Glaciers by Alexis Smith*

2012:
The Secret History by Donna Tartt*
Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor*
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Glaciers by Alexis Smith*

Book covers for Night Film by Marisha Pessl*
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

2013:
Night Film by Marisha Pessl*
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

Book covers for The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt*
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

2014: 
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt*
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Book covers for The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett 
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson*

2015:
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett 
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson*

Book covers for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara*
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs 
by Johann Hari
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush 
by Jon Meacham 
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

2016:
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara*
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
by Johann Hari
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
by Jon Meacham 
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Book covers for The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

2017:
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


Are any of these books on your favorites list? What books have stood out to you over the past few years? I’d love to hear about them. 


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Stack of books with the text Unlikable Characters and Why I Don't Mind Them

Unlikable Characters and Why I Don’t Mind Them

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One of my favorite podcasts is What Should I Read Next? with Anne Bogel. As a longtime listener of the show, something I’ve repeatedly noticed is how often guests say they dislike a book because it doesn’t have any likable characters. The reader is unable to relate to or root for the characters which prevent them from enjoying the book. I’ve noticed this in some book reviews, as well. 

Whenever I hear such a thing, I always pause and wonder why liking or relating to a character is vital for some readers. When I read, my priorities are good writing and a strong story with excellent characterization. Characters can be truly despicable people as long as they’re written compellingly and with dimension. 

Book cover for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

One of my favorite mysteries is Gone Girl, and the two protagonists are both unlikable and untrustworthy. Gillian Flynn crafted such a well-written, suspenseful story that such a thing didn’t matter to me; in fact, it made the novel even more exciting. 

But there’s also been a case where unlikable characters have backfired. Earlier this year, I read Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. Here’s the review I posted on Goodreads: 

I’ve had the hardest time deciding what I think about this book. One of the reasons I was drawn to it was because I’d seen it compared to Donna Tartt and Gillian Flynn, two writers whose work I love. While I understand why one would make those comparisons, Tartt and Flynn offer a subtly and complexity that I just didn’t see in this novel. I was interested enough in the story to finish reading it, but I can’t say I truly enjoyed the process due to the outlandish nature of certain characters and their rather gross behavior. One thing I did really like, though, was how this book used social media to explore how addictive likes and comments can be when you’re desperate to be seen and loved.

Social Creature didn’t work for me for a number of reasons, and one of them was because of the characters. They were unlikable for sure, but my problem with the characterization went deeper than that because their badness seemed more clichéd than real and organic to the story. 

The unlikable characters in Gone Girl (whose behavior was also outlandish) seemed ideally suited to the world Flynn created for them, whereas the unlikable characters in Social Creature seemed contrived. It was as if Flynn wrote her novel because she thought of these interesting people and wanted to explore their story and Burton wrote hers because she thought of an exciting plot. 

There’s nothing wrong or right about either method. Social Creature got some rave reviews, and I know people who despised Gone Girl. Literary likes and dislikes are subjective, and every reader has the right to read whatever she wants without judgment. 

To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much point to this post, but I just wanted to get out some of the ideas I’ve been stewing on. I always like getting feedback from readers, but I’d love it even more for this post. 

Do you like or dislike books based on unlikable characters? What are some examples of books that did or didn’t work for you? What’s the most important quality when you’re looking for a good book? Let me know in the comments below.


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Author Spotlight | Flannery O’Connor

Author photo from Gale Biography in Context

WHO: Mary Flannery O’Connor

WHAT: A Southern writer known for her short stories, novels, essays, and literary criticism. She was a devout Catholic who suffered from lupus.

WHEN: Born March 25, 1925; died of lupus on August 3, 1964

WHERE: Born in Savannah, Georgia; died in Milledgeville, Georgia

WHY SHE MATTERS: O’Connor has a fiction style that’s all her own. She blends the spiritual and the grotesque, the comic and the tragic, moments of grace and moments of violence. Her work still provokes passionate conversations and shocks with its surprising twists. Her nonfiction writing is full of humor, vulnerability, and spiritual insights. 

MY FAVORITE O’CONNOR BOOKS:

The Complete Stories, Mystery and Manners, The Habit of Being

WORDS TO REMEMBER: 

Flannery O'Connor quote that reads: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul."
Flannery O'Connor quote that reads: “Faith is what someone knows to 
be true, whether they believe it or not.”
Flannery O'Connor quote that reads: “I can, with one eye squinted, 
take it all as a blessing.”

LEARN MORE:

A stack of classic books with a blank notebook next to them

5 Contemporary Books I’d Add to the Literary Canon

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Back in October, I wrote a post about classic books I didn’t finish. In today’s post, I want to talk about books I did finish, books I think are so good they should be considered classics someday.

First, it might be helpful to identify what I mean by a classic. I like the famous definition from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I think of a classic book as being a title that’s widely read and discussed decades after its publication. It’s a book that has endured because of a specific reason, whether that’s a timeless story, a profound message, the exploration of universal truth, an in-depth look at culture, or clever writing. The books I’m sharing today have that something special that will allow them to endure. Keep reading to see if you agree. 

Book cover for Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn ward. Living with his grandparents and sister on a Gulf Coast farm, Jojo navigates the challenges of his mother's addictions and his grandmother's cancer before the release of his father from prison prompts a road trip of danger and hope.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published: 2017

I remember finishing this book and being stunned by it. I read it all in one day was tempted to start all over again after I read the last words. This novel explores a lot of different things, but what stands out to me is how Ward addresses addiction and sibling love. Jojo shows such tenderness and kindness toward his little sister, and it’s those moments that shine so brightly in a dark story. Leoni, Jojo’s mother, cannot provide what her daughter needs due to her addiction, so Jojo picks up the slack. I appreciate how Ward shows the different roles family members can take on when necessary and how addiction affects everyone in the addict’s orbit. 

Book cover for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Published: 2015

I can’t think of another novel that affected me quite as profoundly as A Little Life. Before I started this book, I kept seeing the word “heartbreaking” in just about every review. That’s for a good reason: it is indeed heartbreaking, and it’s not a story for everyone. If you’re a sensitive reader, this is probably not the book for you. But if you’re looking for a story about friendship and surviving trauma, there is much to appreciate here. Jude’s story is bleak and full of tragedy, yet Yanagihara shows how sometimes the smallest things can keep a person going. It took me a few days after finishing this book to get over it. Once you meet Jude, you won’t forget him. 

Book cover for Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published: 2003

It’s easy to see why this book won a Pulitzer prize. It’s epic in scope, beautifully written, and wholly original. I haven’t read anything else quite like Middlesex. Cal’s story and that of her family are fascinating from beginning to end. This book is over 500 pages, yet I finished it in less than a week. Not only is it a masterful story, but it’s highly readable and engaging.

Book cover for Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In 1956, toward the end of Rev. John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. This is also the tale of wisdom forged during his solitary life and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Published: 2004

When I read fiction, I don’t tend to underline passages very often. Open my copy of Gilead, though, and you’ll see page after page bearing my uneven scrawl. I mentioned this novel in my post about Christian faith in mainstream fiction, and if you read that, you’ll know part of the reason why I appreciate this book so much is because Robinson handles Ames’s faith with honesty and nuance. Readers can learn a lot from this novel, yet it’s never preachy. Rev. Ames is a character who has stayed with me, and I bet he’ll stay with you, too. 

Book cover for Columbine by Dave Cullen. What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we "know" is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world's leading forensic psychologists, and the killers' own words and drawings. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.

Columbine by Dave Cullen
Published: 2009

I was in middle school when the Columbine tragedy occurred, and was equally horrified and fascinated. School shootings had happened before, but never at that scope. It’s easy for us to watch the news and think we know precisely why these shootings occurred, but in this book, Dave Cullen challenges every assumption and presents facts that can’t be denied. It’s hard to read, yet is an essential book if we’re hoping to understand more about what turns a kid into a killer. 


So what do you think? Do you agree with any of my additions to the canon? What books do you think should be added? 


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Reading Recap | November 2018

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

Cozy Minimalist Home by Myquillyn Smith
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Smith walks her readers through a concept she calls cozy minimalism. She wanted a life with less stuff but didn’t want the stereotypical home of a minimalist with white walls, gray furniture, and few possessions. The answer to Smith’s problem is cozy minimalism which allows for a warm, welcoming home made up of well-curated and thoughtful belongings.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

Smith’s approach makes a lot of sense to someone like me who’s intrigued by minimalism, but concerned about losing character and uniqueness at home. I appreciate how Smith shows before and after images from her own house, letting readers see what cozy minimalism actually looks like. 

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Anyone who feels burdened by their stuff, but still appreciates a cute throw pillow will like this one.

Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More
by Erin Boyle

Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Boyle tells readers about her own journey toward a simple life and encourages them in their efforts to declutter, spend wiser, and create a home with beauty and sustainability. 

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

This book is a pleasure to read. There’s a lot of white space on each page which lets the beautiful images of Boyle’s home really stand out. I also like that Boyle addresses making better environmental choices while making purchases. That’s something I don’t think about often enough.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Fans of Boyle’s blog, Reading My Tea Leaves, will love this one. People looking for inspiration about embracing a more mindful life and minimal home will appreciate this too. 

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Nine people embark on a visit to a health resort called Tranquillum House. Some are there to lose weight, others to help heal their marriage, and some to deal with grief. Though the story is told through the eyes of all nine main characters, the primary character is Frances, a romance writer whose career seems dead.

At first, Frances embraces the healthy smoothies and midnight activities, but things start to get weird quickly, thanks to the resort’s mysterious leader. Soon, all nine guests are brought together in a way they never expected. 

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

The thing that makes me enjoy Liane Moriarty’s books so much is her characterization. There are few things I like more in fiction than a well-rounded character. Characters don’t have to be likable, relatable, or sympathetic, but I do want them to seem real. 

Frances’s disappointment and frustration seem real. Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe’s grieving seem real. Ben and Jessica’s marriage struggles seem real. A lot is happening in this story, but Moriarty always makes it about her characters and their growth. 

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Moriarty’s fans will probably like this one, though I can see it being more divisive than her previous work. Readers who enjoy a well-paced story with dynamic characters will enjoy their trip to Tranquillum House too.

THE LIES WE TOLD BY CAMILLA WAY
RATING: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Clara is living a happy life with her boyfriend Luke. One night Luke doesn’t come home, and Clara starts to worry. She has a feeling something’s wrong, so she contacts Luke’s best friend Mac and Luke’s parents to help her find him. 

As the search for Luke continues, secrets from the past are finally revealed, and the repercussions of those secrets will haunt Luke and his family forever.  

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

This book is everything I want a thriller to be. It’s fast-paced, has surprises all throughout, and goes much darker than I expected, which I loved. I’d heard nothing but praise about this book before I picked it up, and I can say that it’s deserving. 

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Thriller and mystery fans will be fully engrossed in this story. 

One Day in December by Josie Silver
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Laurie is riding the bus and looks out the window. She locks eyes with a man sitting on a bench outside. She feels an instant connection and he does too. The man, Jack, gets up and starts walking toward the bus but it drives away.

After a year spent thinking about and longing for this man she met but not really, Laurie’s best friend Sarah introduces her new boyfriend who just so happens to be Jack. 

One Day in December follows Laurie, Jack, and Sarah over several years of their lives as they intersect in interesting ways. 

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

This book easily could have been a cheesy, predictable story about a love triangle, but it’s not. For one thing, Josie Silver is funny, and I love finding funny fiction writing. Another thing I liked about this book is that the characters are flawed, but they see this in themselves and are working to become better people. I never ever read romance, so I was surprised by how much I loved this book.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Romance readers will enjoy this one, but I think non-romance readers might too. If you want a lighthearted, sweet, and seasonal read, One Day in December is a great option. 

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Priestdaddy is a memoir about Patricia Lockwood’s life with a zany Catholic priest for a father. She and her husband are forced to move back home with her parents for a while, so she explores her family as an adult and reflects on her childhood and her relationship toward Catholicism. 

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

Lockwood made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I’m reading.  She’s a poet, so her writing is lovely whether she’s talking about something funny or serious. 

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

People who are interested in religion and don’t mind poking fun at it’s weirder aspects will probably enjoy this most. And if you’re like me and are continually searching for well-written and funny books, make sure to give this a chance. 


Have you read any of these books? What books did you finish in November? 


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8 Books for Reluctant Adult Readers

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

I love a good book list, and as someone who works with teens, one of my favorites is the Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). Looking over this list made me wonder what books would be good for reluctant adult readers. If I was to present a non-reader with a book, which one would I choose for the best chance to ensure their enjoyment? Today I’m sharing 8 titles for different types of people. I’d love to hear your recommendations too.

FOR THE PERSON WHO LIKES A LOT OF DRAMA: 
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies is perfect for the person who claims they hate drama, but not-so-secretly loves it. There’s a large cast of characters, gossip, intrigue galore, and a suspicious death. Plus, fans can binge the excellent HBO series if they haven’t already. 

FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES TO LAUGH:
Calypso by David Sedaris

While you can’t go wrong with any Sedaris books, I think Calypso might be my favorite. In this collection of essays, Sedaris tells readers all about his new beach house called the Sea Section. I laughed out loud several times while reading about his family’s adventures there. Sedaris is indeed at his best and funniest in this book. 

FOR THE PERSON WHO IS ALWAYS IMPROVING:
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg

If you know someone who’s always looking for ways to better themselves, hand them this book. Duhigg explores habits and how people have used them to stop gambling, lose weight, win football games, and more. I was fascinated by the stories in this book and have tried to put Duhigg’s advice to work in my own life.

FOR THE MUSIC-LOVER:
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

When I read this book, I knew of Carrie Brownstein because I’d seen a few episodes of Portlandia, the TV show she starred in alongside Fred Armisen. I’d never listened to her band Sleater-Kinney, yet I was captivated by her story from start to finish. Brownstein is a great writer, so I think music fans will relish the stories of her musical journey, the riot-grrrl era, and the Pacific Northwest music scene in the early ’90s whether or not they’re a fan of her music.

FOR THE PERSON WHO CAN’T RESIST THOSE BUZZFEED QUIZZES: 
Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything by Anne Bogel

Anne Bogel is known for her bookish blog and excellent podcast about the reading life, but in this book, she tackles a new topic: personality types. This book is less than 250 pages, and in it, Bogel presents brief overviews of personality categorization tools such as the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, and more.  This is a great starting point for a person wanting to know more about what exactly it is that makes us who we are. 

FOR THE PERSON WHO ENJOYS FASCINATING TRUE STORIES:
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

by Lawrence Wright

Before reading Going Clear, I knew virtually nothing about Scientology. I was familiar with it because of stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but the inner workings and belief systems were unknown to me. In this book, Lawrence Wright does a deep dive into the church and what he uncovers is absolutely fascinating. This is the perfect read for those who like digging into truth that’s stranger than fiction.

FOR THE PERSON WHO’S ALWAYS ASKING FOR ADVICE: 
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life by Dear Sugar

by Cheryl Strayed

If you know someone who can’t quite make up her mind, throw this book into a gift bag and hand it to her. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of advice Cheryl Strayed offered to readers of the Rumpus when she wrote their Dear Sugar column. This isn’t a traditional self-help book with steps laid out or specific action plans; instead, Strayed offers gentle words of encouragement and wisdom to those needing someone to listen. 

FOR THE PERSON WHO CARES ABOUT FEMINISM AND POP CULTURE: 
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a brilliant writer and cultural critic, and her work in this book is no exception. Gay tends to write about serious topics, yet her essays in Bad Feminist can be quite funny. I was even entertained and mesmerized by her essay about a Scrabble tournament. Short pieces like essays are a great way to hook reluctant readers, I think, especially when the essays are as excellent as the ones in this collection. 


What books would you recommend to reluctant readers? Was there a particular book that turned you into a book lover? 


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A Look at Christian Faith in Mainstream Fiction

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I’ve been a Christian almost as long as I’ve been alive. My dad was a pastor for many years, so I grew up in the church and have chosen to remain there. Despite my faith, I have little interest in consuming most contemporary Christian art. I’ve seen my share of Christian movies over the years, and I cringe at the memories. My Christian CDs have been put away for a long time now. I have little interest in reading Christian fiction. That’s not to say all Christian art is bad; it’s not. But sometimes it feels more didactic than beautiful. Even when I agree with the message, I don’t want to watch a movie or read a book that’s preaching to me. 

Thinking about these things made me want to reflect on the books I’ve read that deal with Christian faith, specifically novels. Some of my most beloved, 5-star books focus on faith. Instead of featuring protagonists that are just a cliche of what culture thinks when they hear the word “Christian,” these books have characters that feel the tension of the holy vs. the ordinary. Faith has shaped their lives, whether they wanted it to or not. There are no tidy endings. Today I want to talk about some of those books that handled faith so well and realistically. I’ll start with my favorite.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 

Gilead is written in the form of a letter by the Reverend John Ames. Ames is nearing the end of his life and has chosen to write to his young son, telling him about his past and family. This book talks about slavery, death, loss, and parenthood in ways that are profound and moving. Reverend Ames offers his son wisdom about God and life that I find deeply meaningful. Robinson (a person of faith herself) depicts Ames’s faith in a way that feels so very real.  Whether you’re a believer or not, I think this book is a must-read. It’s simply gorgeous and one I cherish.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

This book is set on the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes. He lives in Harlem with his family and desperately yearns for the love of his father, Gabriel, a preacher. John feels pulled in two different directions: one toward God, and one toward the world. He’s also trying to figure out what it means to be black in a mostly white world. The tension John feels will be relatable to any believer, no matter your faith tradition. His longings and questions are universal and palpable thanks to Baldwin’s talent as a writer. This is the first book I read by him, and I knew immediately that I’d found a new favorite author. Baldwin is supremely gifted and his work here shines. 

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir

Essie is a teen girl who’s pregnant. Her father is a pastor who preaches a fire and brimstone faith. To complicate matters even more, her family stars in a hit reality show that definitely didn’t script a pregnancy. Essie’s mother and the producers of the show scramble to figure out what to do. They decide to fabricate a love story between Essie and a local boy Essie chooses. As the novel progresses, we learn some secrets about Essie’s family and learn her new love interest has a secret of his own. This novel reveals how much damage people can do when they only care about what their faith looks like to an audience. Essie’s story got a lot darker than I thought it would, so this book isn’t for the faint of heart, but it does a good job of revealing the darker side of celebrity and religion.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett 

This novel is another one that involves a pregnancy. This time it’s 17-year-old Nadia who’s pregnant. The father is Luke, the pastor’s son. Nadia is grieving the suicide of her mother and Luke isn’t ready to be a dad. Bennett tells the story of what choices they make and how those choices haunt them and their families for years to come. The title refers to the church mothers, who help narrate the story. Bennett excels at showing how deeply entwined people can become in their church and how sometimes boundaries are erased due to a sense of belonging to a higher, heavenly family. 

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

Maggie is a loving wife, mother, and poet. She meets a fellow poet named James at a conference and they enter into a friendship that slowly morphs into something else. Maggie is a religious person who struggles with the moral choices in front of her. Quatro writes absolutely gorgeous prose that expertly captures the yearning and guilt Maggie feels. I read this book in one sitting because I was so captivated by not just Maggie’s story, but the way Quatro wrote it. While this book deals with the temptation of infidelity, any believer will be able to relate to Maggie as she’s drawn to something she knows will only end badly.


Other than Christian faith, the one thing that connects each of these novels is a sense of authenticity. One of the problems I often have with Christian art is that it seems superficial, as if God can’t handle hearing our doubts, longings, and questions. These books present a view of faith that is genuine and messy, and I appreciate that frankness.


What similar books should I read next? What are some of your favorite books about faith? 


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